- Undue Process: Reconstruction Legacies of Violence, Democracy, and Race
Historians of Reconstruction agree that comprehension of this pivotal era is crucial to understanding the history of the United States. These authors are no exception, reminding us how firmly we remain fixed in Reconstruction’s arc. These books address issues that remain germane to the ongoing journey set in motion by the revolution of emancipation. Chief among these legacies are the significance of and connections between violence, democracy, race, and federal power. The influence that African Americans wielded over these questions informs each investigation.
These books intervene in the dominant interpretations of the past half-century. Was Reconstruction a failure? Has emphasis on Reconstruction’s manifold democratic limitations and its portrayal as tragic obscured the accomplishments of freedpeople and their allies? Should Reconstruction instead be regarded as America’s first progressive era, defined by a crusade for democracy? Should we emphasize a “long Reconstruction” in the tradition of the “unfinished revolution” paradigm, rather than a “long civil rights movement”? Periodization is also up for grabs. When and why did Reconstruction end? Were Redemption and Jim Crow radical breaks from Reconstruction [End Page 512] or extensions of it, fed by the earlier era’s wash of violence? How does the wartime constitutional and racial evolution of Abraham Lincoln enhance the history of Reconstruction? What does an examination of the changing nature of citizenship, deeply compromised by violence, reveal about setbacks in the drive for a biracial democracy?
Analyzing the significance of violence is the center of gravity for Stephen Ash, Douglas Egerton, and Carole Emberton; John Rodrigue speculates whether Lincoln might have tempered postwar terror had he lived. Ash’s intention in analyzing the Memphis riot was “to illustrate the nature of the violence that has resulted from race hate in America. . . . The riot can be seen both as a continuation of older forms of racial conflict and as a harbinger of the organized, terroristic violence Southern whites would carry out against blacks in the subsequent hundred years and beyond” (Ash, p. xiv). Emberton agrees that Reconstruction violence was a herald of the future. Redemption and Jim Crow crystallized the prolonged drive to define white manhood and citizenship through the use of violence. Likewise, Reconstruction violence was prologue for Egerton, who “looks forward from the dawn of Reconstruction and situates the roots of its demise in its inception” (Egerton, p. 17). These three authors thus regard the violent counterrevolution against radical democrats in the 1870s as baked in from the outset of Reconstruction. Such terrorism was not impervious to attack, nor did it destroy democratic impulses. But violence nonetheless killed Reconstruction and hobbled the federal government’s willingness to protect its citizens.
The events that unfolded in Memphis in early May 1866 launched the national debate about the federal government’s ability to shield its citizens—chiefly African American ones—from vigilante violence. The riot coincided with the Joint Committee on Reconstruction’s hearings investigating violence in the postwar South. The first historian to give the riot monographic attention despite a wealth of documentation, Ash found that Memphis fueled the congressional impetus to wrest control of Reconstruction from Andrew Johnson and yield to a more democratic direction. Yet the riot simultaneously presaged Reconstruction’s demise by calling into question the national government’s readiness to prevent such outbreaks. Memphis thus provided graphic evidence of how violence against freedpeople undermined federal dominance, a problem that worsened after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, with its...