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  • The Unfinished Task of Grounding Reconstruction’s Promise
  • Brook Thomas (bio)

Reconstruction’s promise certainly exceeded its accomplishments. Yet so long as Reconstruction survived, so did the possibility of change. … Its legacy deserves to survive as an inspiration to those Americans, black and white alike, who insist that the nation live up to the professed ideals of its political culture.

—Eric Foner, 1982

In his introduction to a 2006 collection of essays reviewing recent scholarship on Reconstruction, Thomas J. Brown begins: “Once likened to a dark and bloody ground, scholarship on Reconstruction now thrives less as a form of combat than as a collective building on a solid foundation.”1 Brown alludes to Bernard A. Weisberger’s award-winning 1959 essay regretting that, despite calls about twenty years earlier to change the course of Reconstruction study, “the indicated tide of revision has not fully set in.”2 Weisberger brings special attention to the failure of textbooks to incorporate new research and the lack of a synthesis to replace that of Claude Bowers’s popular 1929 The Tragic Era.3 In fact, the most recent synthesis was E. Merton Coulter’s 1947 old-fashioned The South during Reconstruction: 1865–1877.4 The conflict between new research and the portrayal of Reconstruction in textbooks and synthesizing accounts created what Harold M. Hyman still in 1967 called the “dim and gory terrain of Reconstruction studies.”5 Fifty years after Weisberger, Brown could reassuringly assert that Reconstruction scholarship has found a firm footing, because textbooks no longer perpetuate images of corrupt carpetbaggers and childlike African Americans imposing vindictive rule on the South and because in 1988 Eric Foner produced his masterful synthesis: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877.

Foner’s strength is his ability to link the institutional, economic, and racial forces that preoccupied previous scholars with those leading to westward expansion and urbanization. In the ten years since Brown wrote, however, there have been signs that the foundation Foner provided for a generation is starting to exhibit a few cracks. In the first part of this essay, I claim that much of the power of Foner’s book is generated by productive paradoxes contained in his title. But I also claim that those paradoxes expose potential contradictions that his synthesis cannot completely [End Page 16] contain. The next two parts look at the relationship between his synthesis and past historiography. Six years before his book, Foner laid its groundwork by reviewing past scholarship.6 His account remains the standard one in the field. Nonetheless, in the second part I argue that a close look at that account can also shake the foundation of his synthesis. The major reason Reconstruction was a dark and bloody ground of study was partisan political debates about the proper course of action in the past. There may, however, be deeper reasons why it is so hard to put its scholarship on a solid footing. A synthesis depends on the ability to bring competing forces together in a coherent narrative. But perhaps Reconstruction involved forces that remain in contradiction. If the second part reevaluates some of the partisan debates of the past, the third speculates on how to write a history of the period, with all its contradictions, by revisiting a less well known, but significant, debate about how to relate the era’s facts and forces.

I should note from the start that my training is not in history. I am a literary scholar. It might seem pretentious for someone from literature to make claims about Reconstruction historiography. But, as Steven Hahn notes, “historians generally become invested—subtly and not so subtly—in ways of thinking about the past that discourage us from taking full measure of new episodes, new evidence, and new historiographical challenges. Through our training in graduate school and our reading of historical literature, we come to accept certain periodizations, vectors of conflict and change, political cartographies, and ideas about legitimate participants, even if new findings raise doubts about some or all of these.”7 With different training, I hope to offer a somewhat novel perspective.

We can start by revisiting a challenge posed shortly after Weisberger’s essay. In “Explicit Data and Implicit...


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