- Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War by Justin Behrend
This is an ambitious book. For the last generation, historians like Philip Dray, Michael Fitzgerald, Eric Foner, Steven Hahn, and Thomas Holt have studied African American politics during the Civil War and its aftermath, often focusing on grassroots political mobilization. Thus, it is a bit surprising that Justin Behrend contends historians have largely ignored African [End Page 464] American politics in this era and that “we still know comparatively little about how African Americans participated in the primary arena of public contestations—party and electoral politics” (3). He insists that “not only have political historians avoided one of the most significant political struggles in American history but they have also left unasked seminal questions about how citizens develop a political consciousness and how and why ordinary people practiced politics” (4). Historians have indeed asked such questions, though Behrend can argue that the questions have not been fully answered, and most would agree that there needs to be more investigation of African American politics during this era. Behrend clearly wants to look at politics from a new angle. “This book is not a typical political history,” he explains, for “while voting and elections play a central role, they form a backdrop to the perceptions, experiences, and debates that ordinary freed-people engaged in” (4–5). Behrend’s goal is a study of freedpeople’s political culture, focusing particularly on ordinary African Americans.
The Natchez District was a good choice for a case study of freedpeople’s political culture, for its large concentration of African Americans helped lead to complex interracial political alliances. Behrend starts with analyzing how local African American communities and networks during the Civil War laid the foundation for later political mobilization. Central to his argument, however, is not just that ordinary African Americans were politically active, but that they had a distinct vision of democracy. Instead of placing faith primarily in political leaders or parties, Behrend contends ordinary African Americans trusted themselves and grassroots power. The democracy they created during the first years of Reconstruction, according to Behrend, was “based on a few fundamental principles: educational opportunity, black suffrage, equal access to public spaces, and shared governance” (116). In many ways African Americas succeeded too well in creating a biracial democracy that accomplished many of its goals, for Behrend suggests that the lack of two-party competition led to factionalism. He sees factionalism, primarily centered on disagreement over whether officeholders should represent the broader community or be the most qualified, as evidence that grassroots democracy was working. The only thing that could destroy grassroots democracy in the Natchez District was ironically the same thing that had enabled its creation in the first place, an outside military force. This time, however, it was not the Union army ending slavery that destroyed it, but Democratic rifle clubs from outside the district reimplementing white supremacy and oligarchic rule.
The book is a good traditional political history of African American politics during the Civil War era in the Natchez District. Behrend is a fine [End Page 465] writer, engages many important historical debates, and uses a wealth of primary sources. Unfortunately, taking the book on its own terms means that there are some serious problems with it. Cultural history, particularly focusing on a group Behrend identifies as “subaltern,” requires the use of theory and a rigorous methodology, neither of which is mentioned in the book (202). Behrend often pushes evidence too far in his efforts to find the perceptions and ideas of ordinary freedpeople. For instance, he acknowledges in a note about his use of the Southern Claims Commission records that “since witnesses gave testimony at least ten years after the events they describe during the Civil War, the claims should not be read uncritically” (263n7). Yet there is no explanation of how he critically analyzes them. It would also seem extremely difficult to understand how people perceived events at the time based on...