- Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction by Nicholas Barreyre
Any sort of scholarly discussion of Reconstruction must contend with Eric Foner's definitive Reconstruction: An Unfinished Revolution (1988), now nearly thirty years old. Foner's work masterfully weaves together Republicans' political attempts to assert a new order on the South and the social dynamics at play in a postslavery society. Others have subsequently delved into this narrative always placing race relations at the forefront—and rightly so. That said, some scholars in more recent memory have tried to examine this Reconstruction story by moving into other realms, be it Heather Cox Richardson's excellent West from Appomattox (1998) detailing a more nationalist view of Reconstruction or Gregory Downs's very recent After Appomattox [End Page 422] (2015) examining the larger repercussions of a de facto guerrilla conflict that plagued the South following the Confederate surrender in 1865 until 1871.
Nicholas Barreyre's Gold and Freedom can be said to be another work in this vein. Barreyre takes another look at the crucial period of Reconstruction but does so, as the subtitle implies, through the primacy of political economy. Barreyre repeatedly mentions "the spatial dimension of American politics" as a means through which to understand what the author describes as sectionalism, that is, "the geographical expression of antagonistic regional interests in a national framework" (4). Barreyre's chief objective is to demonstrate how much Reconstruction was a national dynamic. By looking at Reconstruction through a more northern lens and the conflict between the Northeast and West (our modern-day Midwest) as illustrative of the role of economic sectionalism in the larger narrative of Reconstruction, Barreyre contends we can have a firmer grasp of this critical period. Economic issues centered around tariff and monetary policy widened the fissure between the two regions of the North to the point that it dramatically affected larger questions surrounding Reconstruction. Race relations, questions over citizenship, and larger issues over southern reform all came to be part of the larger economic debates. Indeed, the author contends that to more properly understand this vital period in American history, it is necessary to understand Reconstruction politics in conjunction with political economy.
Reconstruction politics and policies from a political economy standpoint revolved around the triumvirate of bonds, currency (greenbacks), and tariffs. Barreyre understandably dedicates most of his work to examining the rise of Civil War bonds and the rise of a national fiat currency in greenbacks. While both measures were implemented during the war as a means for the federal government to fund the Civil War (to the tune of nearly $3 billion just between these two measures), it was the debates over a return to the gold standard and possible resumption of bonds in greenbacks that generated extensive political debate. These proved to be the larger fiscal issues of Reconstruction that subsequently took on sectional implications within the North. As Barreyre rightly contends, "the sectional idea embodied a political significance that transcended its geographical definition" (104). These debates had national repercussions on larger Reconstruction policies, and it is in this examination that Barreyre is at his strongest.
While Barreyre touches on the sectional and national issues of Reconstruction policies on larger notions of political economy, the work could certainly have benefitted from additional voices of the people at large. If this was indeed as divisive a set of issues as Barreyre details, the voices of the greater northern (and indeed southern) populace certainly were commenting in local, regional, and national papers, as well as petitioning members of Congress and writing to individuals at the Department of the Treasury. While the author at times does reference some newspapers commenting on the issue and details extensively the political debates occurring on Capitol Hill, these everyday voices would have further reinforced how these issues affected citizenry throughout the country. Similarly, drawing in the international dimension of these debates—especially as the United States developed an international presence in the Reconstruction era with a Treasury Office in London—would...