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  • Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics by David Prior
  • Amanda Brickell Bellows
Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics. By David Prior. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 258. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8071-6968-1.)

David Prior has written an original new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics, that sheds light on the ideas and debates that characterized the Reconstruction era. He explores the competing worldviews of "Reconstruction's partisans," whom he describes as "writers, lecturers, editors, travelers, moral reformers, racists, abolitionists, politicians, suffragists, soldiers, and diplomats" (pp. 2, 3). By doing so, Prior seeks to identify the distinct ways they perceived the United States' global [End Page 728] position and relationships with other nations during the postwar era. By studying the period 1865–1874, he has found evidence that Reconstruction's partisans displayed "constant and eager interest in a multitude of events, places, and individuals" that transcended national boundaries and that "have been largely and even completely ignored by Reconstruction scholarship" (p. 17).

Prior is an assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico, where he specializes in the history of the nineteenth-century United States in global perspective. His book offers an important new perspective on the history of the Reconstruction era because of his efforts to explore its transnational elements. In recent years, scholars of the Civil War era, including David Armitage, Don H. Doyle, Emily Conroy-Krutz, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Jay Sexton, Mark M. Smith, and Douglas Egerton have increasingly studied the war and its aftermath through a global lens. In his book, Prior describes his particular approach as "call[ing] attention to the constancy with which people concerned with Reconstruction, and the politics of the Civil War era more generally, linked developments from far and wide to those in the key theaters of their own conflicts" (p. 17). Prior argues that the central figures of the book, Reconstruction's partisans, believed "that developments in the United States held their deepest meanings as part of global struggles for freedom and progress" (p. 6). These partisans maintained two central beliefs: first, "that the essential contours of world history were readily identifiable," and second, that "history was about distinctive and coherent populations" (pp. 6, 9). As a result, these individuals paid close attention to conflicts around the world, connecting global events to domestic ones.

Between Freedom and Progress contains five chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. Each chapter is a case study that assesses a distinct event or topic that stimulated interest and debate among Reconstruction's partisans during the Reconstruction era. Prior studies a range of sources, including the unpublished papers of Frederick Douglass and Julia Ward Howe, as well as periodicals, government documents, and published works from the same period. Chapter 1 assesses American responses to an insurrection on the island of Crete between 1866 and 1869, while chapter 2 explores the life of Paul Du Chaillu, an explorer who wrote about his travels in West Africa for American audiences. Chapter 3 similarly takes on the theme of adventuring through its analysis of narratives that proceeded from Republican Party leisure expeditions that took place during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Chapter 4 looks at the creation of an African American network of authors, publishers, and readers who challenged white supremacy, while chapter 5 studies Democratic and Republican perceptions of Mormon society in Utah.

Between Freedom and Progress successfully shows that Reconstruction's partisans were engaged with the world around them. They compared domestic and global events, seeking to make sense of the political, economic, and social changes that defined Reconstruction in the United States. Overall, Prior has made a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature that places Reconstruction in global perspective. [End Page 729]

Amanda Brickell Bellows
The New School
...

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