- Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo
As the title of this book suggests, Allen C. Guelzo has written a very concise history of Reconstruction. More than a hundred pages shorter than the updated edition of Eric Foner's A Short History of Reconstruction (2015), Guelzo's volume is also very readable. As someone who regularly teaches undergraduate classes on the Civil War and Reconstruction, what struck me immediately was how effectively this book could be used in the classroom as a complement to Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh's The American War: A History of the Civil War Era (2015). Guelzo's book, however, is more than a resource for students. Despite its short length, he provides interpretations—of constitutional authority, free labor ideology, and Reconstruction's successes and failures—that will provoke plenty of debate among historians more familiar with the period.
Central to Guelzo's study is a clear explanation of the constitutional conundrum created by secession, war, and Reconstruction. The federal government was in truly uncharted territory, with no clear idea of how to treat the states that had seceded nor any idea as to which branch of [End Page 331] the federal government should control the rebuilding process. Viewed through this lens, Andrew Johnson appears slightly less villainous as he and Radical Republicans sparred over who should hold the reins. Yet the threat of unbalanced federal powers was real, Guelzo points out, with Johnson threatening to use the executive privileges granted him through the Reconstruction Acts to place Washington, D.C., under military control. Guelzo paints a picture of a federal government in crisis as an American public watched in horror. Ultimately, he argues, it was the Supreme Court that attempted to solve the constitutional crisis created by secession and war. The Chase and Waite courts were preoccupied with rebalancing federal powers in a way that preserved the role of the states. While from Guelzo's perspective they were not hell-bent on undercutting black citizenship (especially not Chase), their conservative interpretations failed to protect African Americans.
In addition to its focus on the difficulties Reconstruction posed for the federal government, the other central component of this volume is Guelzo's framing of Reconstruction as a failed bourgeois revolution. Here, he takes issue with W. E. B. DuBois, James S. Allen, and myriad subsequent scholars who—using a Marxist framework—have argued that Reconstruction failed because the bourgeoisie united with the planter aristocracy to undercut black and white workers. Instead, Guelzo asserts that Reconstruction was simply an attempt at a free labor revolution that failed—not because the bourgeoisie sided with the planters, but because the planters crushed it. Radical Republicans, Southern Unionists, and carpetbaggers all wanted a southern society based on free labor. African Americans as well, he argues, were fundamentally interested in gaining property rights and access to education so that they might participate in a free labor society. Guelzo finds little evidence of a working-class consciousness. Rather, he sees all proponents of free labor being ruthlessly defeated by a plantation-based aristocracy perpetuating white-supremacist nationalism. Northern Democrats, Guelzo points out, were eager to assist the planters. Democrats, he argues, had always opposed the free labor society championed by Whigs and Republicans.
As Guelzo notes, looking at Reconstruction through the lens of free labor ideology enables historians to connect the federal government's projects in the southern states to the Homestead Acts, the Indian wars, and railroads. Perhaps most fascinating are the questions his interpretation raises. As Guelzo acknowledges in his introduction, a book so short cannot cover all important topics, such as gender, family, veterans, philosophy, and literature. Nevertheless, considering Reconstruction from [End Page 332] a free labor angle poses many questions about the extent to which black southerners embraced bourgeois dreams. While Guelzo's view that many black men adopted free labor ideology is persuasive, he also points out that black southerners were anything but monolithic in their opinions about Reconstruction. Other historians have explored the ways in which black southerners' embrace of...