restricted access 5. Reconstruction: National Politics, 1865–1877
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edward o. frantz 112 Chapter Five Reconstruction National Politics, 1865–1877 Edward O. Frantz It was once easy to disparage national politics during the Reconstruction Era. Whether one was a southerner or a northerner, a liberal or a conservative, many a historian looked at the political era spanning from 1865 to 1877 with disdain. Corruption, scandal , terror, and pettiness supposedly characterized the era, and the politicians of the day reportedly were unable to solve the major problems of the time. The occupants of the executive mansion were so maladroit that a mere forty years after Rutherford B. Hayes’s death, the novelist Thomas Wolfe wondered, “Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and Hayes. . . . Which had the whiskers, which the burnsides: which was which?”1 As historians in general and biographers in particular focused on national politics of the Civil War and Progressive Eras, the politics of Reconstruction seemed like a distant, awkward cousin who was, at best, tolerated but frequently better to ignore. Despite this overarching trend, careful, quality scholarship on national politics during this period always was available to those who sought it out. For those adventuresome enough to dig, the national politics of the Reconstruction Era provided not only sensational headlines, but also key debates about the evolution of the modern American state. This essay focuses largely on works written since 1982, with special attention to the most influential interpretations that helped to 112 National Politics, 1865–1877 113 usher in subsequent research. Although historians of national politics during the Reconstruction years have produced high quality scholarship, much of that work nevertheless has remained more obscure than it should be. As late-twentieth-century historiographical trends toward social and cultural history have enriched our approach to the past, and as new generations of historians coming of age after the idealism of the 1960s entered the profession, fewer scholars found studying traditional political history generally, and of the nineteenth century in particular, attractive. That said, scholars have entered into an era of renewed, vibrant interest in politics during the age of Reconstruction. Eric Foner’s monumental Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988) is the most authoritative interpretation of Reconstruction . Many may find Foner’s historical synthesis daunting, but the scope of his original research proved even more impressive . Aware of Reconstruction’s complexity, Foner raised questions as to whether one could even consider Reconstruction as a single entity. In some states, he explained, politics proved to be so divided that one might struggle even to talk definitively about a common experience. Generalizing on a national level, therefore, seemed even riskier. Nevertheless, Foner’s approach, intent, and argument influenced generations of students and remain dominant today. By placing the black experience at the center of Reconstruction , Foner touched on so many different fields (including race, class, labor, economics, ideology, and politics) that his book became the definitive Reconstruction text of the era. Looking to W. E. B. Du Bois’s analysis in Black Reconstruction (1935) for inspiration , Foner created the kind of magnum opus to which many historians aspire but few will ever reach. How is Foner most useful for understanding national politics during the age of Reconstruction? First, even though Foner placed African Americans at the center of his Reconstruction story, he never lost sight of the national political scene. Even if, as former Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill asserted, all politics are local, national politics were vitally important to African Americans. It was the federal government that edward o. frantz 114 provided a framework for the expanded African Americans rights advanced in the form of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. It was the federal government that experimented with the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it was the federal court system, intimately tied to the political system, that helped to minimize the most far-reaching goals of liberal reformers over the course of Reconstruction. As with many studies written after the civil rights movement, race occupies a central place in Foner’s argument. It is here that Foner’s ability to analyze state and national levels pays particular dividends. White southern Democrats were not alone in using racial appeals to rally their constituents. Indeed, northern Democrats were equally adept at playing the race card. In Foner’s telling, the 1868 election—the first presidential election held since the end of the Civil War—“centered on white supremacy.”2 The Democratic nominee for president, New York governor Horatio Seymour, was not a racial demagogue. His running mate...


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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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