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  • The Revolution that Failed: Reconstruction in Natchitoches by Adam Fairclough
  • Justin Behrend (bio)
The Revolution that Failed: Reconstruction in Natchitoches.
By Adam Fairclough. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018.
Pp. 400. Cloth, $29.95.)

The Revolution that Failed offers a sweeping interpretation of the Reconstruction era that is at once conventional and not altogether convincing. The claim that Reconstruction failed dates back to the first scholarly interpretations produced by William A. Dunning and W. E. B. DuBois, who offered, of course, starkly different accounts. What makes Adam [End Page 138] Fairclough's argument different is that he attributes Reconstruction's failure to black suffrage, and he does so through a close analysis of politics in Natchitoches Parish, instead of an overall assessment of the era.

In the first chapter, Fairclough argues that Reconstruction failed because congressional Republicans extended voting rights to black men. The entire Reconstruction project, by which he means African American citizenship and voting, "proved to be an error" because Republican idealism prevented them from recognizing that "most whites were violently hostile" (15). As a result, Fairclough asserts, black suffrage "prolonged the chaos of the postwar years" (20).

There are a number of problems with this interpretation. The argument hinges on the intentions of Republican congressmen, yet Fairclough does not examine the debates, speeches, or correspondence of these leaders. Instead, he uses abstractions, such as "Congressional Reconstruction assumed" and "Congressional Republicans knew" to impute motivation and agreement to a group of politicians who were famously divided between radical and moderate factions (19). Additionally, he implies that white violence against black people followed black male enfranchisement, yet numerous studies have shown how violence increased dramatically before black male enfranchisement between 1865 and 1867. Moreover, while Fairclough castigates Republican leaders for not doing enough, he is often silent about southern whites' racist actions, assuming that they were predisposed to violence against black people. More troubling, his argument about Reconstruction's failure rests on the recklessness of white Republican congressmen, but he ignores the demands of ordinary freedpeople for the vote. If Republican leaders deserve blame for Reconstruction's failure because they implemented black suffrage, should not black people also share the blame?

In the subsequent chapters, The Revolution that Failed shifts to a tighter focus on Natchitoches Parish. We learn much about the variations and nuances of this community as it adjusted to rapid and substantive change. Fairclough is at his best when he shows the interconnections between local issues and statewide politics, particularly in how patronage appointments and factionalism sowed seeds of mistrust and illegitimacy in communities, such as Natchitoches, where little corruption existed.

But for all of the attention to local political leaders and the particularities of the Natchitoches story, Fairclough's history does not shed much light on the black majority, whose votes propelled Republicans into office in Louisiana. While we learn about notable black leaders, such as Alfred Raford Blunt and John Gideon Lewis, the aspirations and actions of ordinary freedpeople remain hidden. Black women are rarely referenced, and [End Page 139] black political mobilization is assumed rather than analyzed. Fairclough is more interested in white Republican leaders, devoting a whole chapter to this small group. He mentions the few but "silent Unionists" during the Civil War—a reference to a handful of white people—but this phrase ignores the fact that nearly every black person in the parish would fit this label (28).

Natchitoches, Fairclough asserts, was an anomaly in the midst of the notoriously violent Red River valley, known for the Colfax and Coushatta massacres. The parish was a place of "relative tranquility" where planters were "less exploitative … less cruel, [and] less inclined to employ violence" (40, 45). This peace and orderliness is nearly always attributed to "the white elite," but curiously, black people's role in creating a more egalitarian culture is not considered (116). Fairclough also deemphasizes the role of U.S. troops in mitigating white violence and maintaining social stability. Over a thousand troops were stationed in the parish in the summer of 1865, followed by a company during the 1867 and 1868 election season as well as during the turbulent era from November 1874 to December 1876. Indeed...


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