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Transnational History 171 Chapter Eight Reconstruction Transnational History Andrew Zimmerman Among the most important periods in U.S. history, Reconstruction might appear too narrowly national to reward an international approach .1 But viewed from such a perspective, Reconstruction appears as a particularly influential instance in a number of interrelated worldwide processes of the nineteenth century. These include (1) the shift of much agricultural production away from unfree labor , especially slavery in the Americas and serfdom in Eastern Europe ; (2) the shift of manufacturing from self-employed craft labor to hired industrial labor; (3) a renewed importance of race, racial hierarchies, and white supremacy, even after the end of slavery, in the organization of economic production and political power at the local, national, and supranational levels; and (4) a resumption of colonial expansion, especially in Africa and the Pacific islands. While all four processes resulted in new concentrations of power and wealth, elites did not simply impose them on a passive world: these processes were rather crossproducts of popular struggles for democracy and autonomy with opposing elite struggles for state power and capital accumulation. Taken together, the four processes made up a new phase in the history of global capitalism, not capitalism as imagined in economics textbooks but capitalism as lived in workshops and factories, on farms and plantations. They helped create the world we still live in today, structured by what W. E. B. 171 andrew zimmerman 172 Du Bois identified as “the problem of the color line, the question as to how far differences of race . . . will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to their utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”2 Historians interested in studying phenomena extending beyond the boundaries of the nation-state now have at least three options. The oldest is international history, which looks at contacts among nation-states, especially through diplomacy and war. Somewhat more recent is global history, which seeks to discern processes affecting people in every nation, including environmental change, technological innovations, and even cultural and intellectual transformations . The most recent is transnational history. This looks at processes on many different scales, some confined to nations, some specific only to subnational groups like classes or races, some broadly global, and some narrowly regional. Transnational history does not operate in a predefined geography, as national and global history do, but rather follows its subjects wherever they may go. It is impossible to research any one of these types of history in isolation from the other two. Nonetheless, this essay on Reconstruction will take a more transnational approach. Its losses in geographic and temporal boundedness will be recouped, I hope, by new approaches to U.S. history that it opens. Viewing Reconstruction as a contested set of global political and economic processes dissolves many of the boundaries that commonly define Reconstruction as a twelve-year period in the history of the U.S. South. The final withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederacy in 1877, the moment commonly deemed the end of Reconstruction, marked a major shift, but by no means brought to a halt, the contest over capitalism, democracy, and racial hierarchies in the United States or around the world. We might also trace the search for a post–slavery capitalist world order as far back as the founding of Liberia in 1822 as a place to settle manumitted U.S. slaves. Popular struggles against slavery and other forms of political and economic domination emerged even earlier in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker Transnational History 173 have characterized this broad set of movements as a “many-sided struggle against confinement—on ships, in workshops, in prisons, or even in empires—and the simultaneous search for autonomy.”3 Studying the end of slavery as a component of this broader set of popular struggles challenges conventional approaches to labor history that take free white craft and wage workers as the norm and cast enslaved black workers or indentured Asian workers as challenges to, rather than as participant in their own right in, workingclass politics. At issue in global Reconstruction was not only the existence of slavery but also the meaning of freedom in a world in which a broadly defined democracy stood against dominant plans for economic development. Reconstruction, viewed transnationally, was thus not only an incomplete transition to freedom in the United States, what Eric Foner called “America’s unfinished revolution,” but also a...


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