Why Reconstruction Matters

Here is an excellent article from Professor Eric Foner giving a great thumbnail sketch of Reconstruction and why it’s important for us to understand it.

Why is Reconstruction history important? “Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.”

Professor Foner tells us about the popular view many people have of this time period: “Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy. For decades, these years were widely seen as the nadir in the saga of American democracy. According to this view, Radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights. The heroes of the story were the self-styled Redeemers, who restored white supremacy to the South.”

In telling the story of Reconstruction and exploding the mythology surrounding it, Professor Foner tells us, “There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed. In fact, the new governments had a solid record of accomplishment. They established the South’s first state-funded public school systems, sought to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in transportation and public accommodations. They offered aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike. Reconstruction also made possible the consolidation of black families, so often divided by sale during slavery, and the establishment of the independent black church as the core institution of the emerging black community. But the failure to respond to the former slaves’ desire for land left most with no choice but to work for their former owners.”

Professor Foner identifies the reason he says Reconstruction failed: white supremacist terrorist violence. “One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South. By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as South Africa and Australia to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work ‘Black Reconstruction in America,’ saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.”

This was a wonderful article that will give casual readers a quick glimpse into Reconstruction and will hopefully spur many on to learning more about this critical era in United States history.

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One comment

  1. bob carey · · Reply

    I agree Al, this is an excellent article, however I think that Prof. Foner is preaching to the choir when it comes to changing any attitudes of the current crop of confederate apologist.
    The article does an excellent job in explaining that the 14th and 15th amendments reconstructed the entire country. It only took a hundred years for another president named Johnson to force Congress to implement them, and many of the issues involving the two amendments are alive and well today.

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