restricted access 2. Presidential Reconstruction
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kevin adams 46 Chapter Two Presidential Reconstruction Kevin Adams Formal studies of Presidential Reconstruction—that is, the period of federal Reconstruction policy that preceded the advent of Congressional or Radical Reconstruction in 1867—have been rare in recent years, a neglect that becomes especially clear when considering the series of impressive studies exploring Reconstruction’s final stages that appeared in the first decade of the twentieth-first century.1 Yet even a cursory glance at the recent literature makes it quite clear that historians have not ignored the crucial timespan between the Emancipation Proclamation and the commencement of Congressional Reconstruction with the seating of the Fortieth Congress’s Republican supermajority in the spring of 1867. Indeed, works almost too numerous to list constitute this past generation’s contribution to historical knowledge concerning the fraught transition from war to peace in the former Confederacy.2 This outpouring of research has done a marvelous job of exploring the nuances of the time span that constituted Presidential Reconstruction , but remarkably few of these studies have attempted to say very much about Presidential Reconstruction itself. In large part, this development reflects the evolution of the historical profession since debates over Presidential Reconstruction animated historians of the United States some fifty years ago. As methodological trends favoring studies devoted to sweeping socio46 Presidential Reconstruction 47 cultural constructs (for example, the free labor ideology), specific places, or particular (often marginalized) social groups became more standard, fewer and fewer historians examined Presidential Reconstruction from the perspective of policy formulation or implementation .3 Not even the resurgence of political history, most evident in the analyses of American state power and institutional development produced by historians, political scientists, and sociologists working in the thriving subfield of American Political Development, has prompted a reconsideration of Reconstruction. Leading works in this field have either dismissed Reconstruction as a “decidedly uncharacteristic period” comprised of “sufficiently peculiar” circumstances to justify passing it by or have portrayed Reconstruction as a moment whose revolutionary potential “was tightly circumscribed” by conservative notions of state power.4 Counterintuitively, perhaps the best way to advance the historical discussion about Presidential Reconstruction is to go backward . Two scholarly moves are particularly crucial in this quest. First, one should place Presidential Reconstruction in the realm of policy history, all the while keeping in mind that the set of policies that comprised Presidential Reconstruction intersected with a wide variety of historical experiences on the ground in the American South. Second, one needs to return the president to the forefront of Presidential Reconstruction, without forgetting that other political actors, not to mention the complicated situation found in the postwar South, also influenced Presidential Reconstruction’s articulation and implementation. To illustrate the potential value of these two approaches along with some of the major trends in the study of Presidential Reconstruction , this essay will revolve around President Andrew Johnson, a central character in the ebb and flow of Presidential Reconstruction ’s historiography. Absolutely central to older interpretations of the period, Johnson’s historiographical star burst in the early 1960s, when the fiery president’s actions and policies were supplanted by interpretations of Reconstruction that increasingly attributed its successes and failures to sociocultural developments in the North. Even though the best of these interpretations, most notably Eric kevin adams 48 Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988), did not dispense with Johnson entirely, the portrait of a Presidential Reconstruction without a president continues to rule the historiographical roost. This development partially results from the powerful insights produced by sociocultural interpretations. At the same time, however, mature consideration of Johnson’s political philosophy and style is required in order to understand Presidential Reconstruction on its own terms, and not as a mere precursor to the main event of Congressional Reconstruction. Significantly, once one shifts the scholarly focus back upon Johnson, the absence of a larger synthetic account of the Democratic Party in the nineteenth century as well as the failure to integrate the study of Reconstruction with other major events in nineteenth-century American history become apparent. The relative lack of attention paid to Johnson today would surprise those historians who wrote in the first few decades of the twentieth century.5 Chief among these early historians was William A. Dunning of Columbia University, who not only wrote extensively on Reconstruction, but who also trained a generation of historians who worked on the Civil War Era.6 A quick glance at Dunning’s synthetic account for the American Nation series, Reconstruction: Political and Economic...


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Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Southern States -- Politics and government -- 1865-1950.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
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