- Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo
"There is … something in Reconstruction for nearly every American to regret," Allen C. Guelzo notes (p. 1). Drawing on recent scholarship, he details the missed opportunities and the "improvisation, uncertainty, and experiment" of the era in Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 9). While scholarly readers may find the rise-and-fall, failures-and-successes narrative to be familiar, Guelzo provides depth and a useful timeline appropriate for introductory readers. At only 130 pages of text, this readable survey would be ideal for undergraduate classroom use. Guelzo has crafted a political, legal, and economic history of the period, with less focus on the daily actions of citizens striving to rebuild their lives. Guelzo sets out "to fashion a basic scaffolding for understanding Reconstruction," and he does so well (p. 14). [End Page 711]
The book's useful periodization explores the processes of reconstructing a government and an economy and helps explain how moments of hope could quickly turn to frustration or despair. Guelzo frames Reconstruction as a "bourgeois revolution" that did not fail but was overthrown (p. 11). Freed-people were frustrated by their exclusion from material accumulation and democratic practices. Guelzo argues that too much happened too fast and that a lack of strong leadership and the underfunded military opened the door to insurgent violence that undermined black citizenship rights. The Reconstruction revolution lacked the "time and force" to carry through meaningful change (p. 121).
Guelzo brings two strong arguments to his concise work. First, he analyzes the strengths and limitations of the U.S. Army as an occupying force to carry out Reconstruction measures. Drawing on the work of Gregory P. Downs (After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War [Cambridge, Mass., 2015]) and others, Guelzo details paranoia about "'military rule'" and the question of using federal troops to monitor fair elections and paramilitary insurgents (p. 126). By the end of the Reconstruction years, the federal military was too small and underfunded to enforce legal protections.
Another strength is Guelzo's analysis of the judicial branch, in what is often assessed as a struggle between federal and state authority or as clashes between executive and legislative branches. The U.S. Supreme Court expanded the authority of federal courts over state courts but limited the use of military power to protect civil rights. The Court ruled that the U.S. Constitution only protected federal rights of citizenship, which undermined legal constraints that protected freedpeople from the acts of individuals and of the states. African Americans hoped that the federal judiciary would enhance their citizenship rights, but Reconstruction-era cases set up future courts to forsake such rights entirely.
This work demonstrates that there was not just one party or one region to blame for the end of Reconstruction. A student cannot come away from the book thinking that political fumbling and white southern racism were the only barriers to lasting change. Guelzo demonstrates that the end of Reconstruction was not just about race but also about power across regions. Racist beliefs persisted long past the end of the era but so did some means of challenging those beliefs. This book is a fine introduction to the complexity of the issues and motives that sustained federal intervention for a time and that contributed to the eventual abandonment of Reconstruction.