Reconstruction: Voices From America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

This book from the “Library of America” is a must-have for serious students of Reconstruction history. Professor Simpson has selected an outstanding collection of primary sources to illuminate what was happening during this tumultuous period. In addition, he provides clear, concise, and cogent commentary. As an example, in the Introduction he tells us, “Framed and proposed to the states by Congress in 1866 and ratified two years later, the Fourteenth Amendment fundamentally transformed the American republic, establishing national citizenship and guaranteeing due process and equal protection of the law to all persons. Yet it was uncertain what the impact of the amendment would be. Although its text gave Congress the power to enforce its provisions through appropriate legislation, it was unclear how enforcement would work in a nation historically averse to centralized power. And to the bitter frustration of the suffragist movement, neither Congress, the courts, nor the public at large would consider the status of women to have been changed by the amendment’s adoption. Southern resistance to ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment helped push Congress to adopt the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, making male black voters in the South part of the political process.” [p. xxvi] He also tells us, “In the South the forces of white supremacy waged a skillful campaign to retake control of the region, displaying a commitment that had been lacking in the Confederacy’s quest for independence. Whether Republicans conducted a retreat from Reconstruction or waged a fighting withdrawal, by the time of the nation’s celebration of its centennial in 1876 it was clear that the few Republican state governments that remained in the South were in a precarious position that required federal support to persist, and such support would come to an end no matter who won the presidential contest that year. Once Republicans realized that they could maintain control of the presidency and the Senate without southern voters, they decided that the party’s southern wing was a disastrous political liability. The resolution of the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential contest through the series of agreements styled the Compromise of 1877 marked the end of an era in Reconstruction policy, while the restoration of home rule to white southerners paved the way for the era of disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and widespread lynching.” [pp. xxviii-xxix]

In his introduction to the Presidential Reconstruction section, Professor Simpson tells us, “The decisions by freed people to reunite families, seek schooling, and control their own labor were cited by many whites as evidence that without coercion, blacks would not work.” [p. 2] In the first reading, though, Frederick Douglass, in 1865, answered the doubts of those whites: “What is freedom? It is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means any thing; and when any individual or combination of individuals, undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work, at what he shall work, and for what he shall work, he or they practically reduce him to slavery. [Applause.] He is a slave. That I understand Gen. Banks to do–to determine for the so-called freedman, when, and where, and at what, and for how much he shall work, when he shall be punished, and by whom punished. It is absolute slavery. It defeats the beneficent intentions of the Government, if it has beneficent intentions, in regard to the freedom of our people.” [pp. 5-6] He said, “The charge of inferiority is an old dodge. It has been made available for oppression on many occasions. It is only about six centuries since the blue-eyed and fair-haired Anglo-Saxons were considered inferior by the haughty Normans, who once trampled upon them. If you read the history of the Norman Conquest, you will find that this proud Anglo-Saxon was once looked upon as of coarser clay than his Norman master, and might be found in the highways and byways of old England laboring with a brass collar on his neck, and the name of his master marked upon it. … The story of our inferiority is an old dodge, as I have said; for wherever men oppress their fellows, wherever they enslave them, they will endeavor to find the needed apology for such enslavement and oppression in the character of the people oppressed and enslaved.” [pp. 9-10] Douglass also has an answer for those racist folks who like to excoriate Lincoln because they claim he simply freed slaves without doing anything to “prepare them for freedom.” “What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. [Applause.] The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. Gen. Banks was distressed with solicitude as to what he should do with the negro. Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner-table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot-box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! [Applause.] If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,–your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks’s ‘preparation’ is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone! If the negro cannot live by the line of eternal justice, so beautifully pictured to you in the illustration used by Mr. Phillips, the fault will not be yours, it will be his who made the negro, and established that line for his government. [Applause.] Let him live or die by that. If you will only untie his hands, and give him a chance, I think he will live. He will work as readily for himself as the white man. A great many delusions have been swept away by this war. One was, that the negro would not work; he has proved his ability to work. Another was, that the negro would not fight; that he possessed only the most sheepish attributes of humanity; was a perfect lamb, or an ‘Uncle Tom;’ disposed to take off his coat whenever required, fold his hands, and be whipped by anybody who wanted to whip him. But the war has proved that there is a great deal of human nature in the negro, and that ‘he will fight,’ as Mr. Quincy, our President, said, in earlier days than these, ‘when there is a reasonable probability of his whipping anybody.’ [Laughter and applause.] [pp. 12-13]

The book also includes a Reconstruction chronology at the end, along with short biographical notes on the men and women included in the book, as well as notes on the texts. This is an outstanding book. If you want to be a serious student of Reconstruction, you must have this book on your shelf.

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2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    This is the only book that I have ever written an “official” review of:

    Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality shines as a labour of love for the team who compiled it, as there could be nothing less than devotion to the topic for Dr. Simpson and his collaborators to produce a fine volume such at this. It breathes life, passion, angst, & despair into a topic that is so often cast aside and dismissed as boring and dry. For me, each and every document contained in this book elegantly drives home what it is that we as Civil War history enthusiasts should really be angry about, rather than mincing over who is a patriot, and whether secession was legal.

    If folks are looking for another storybook narrative, this is not your cup of tea. If you are looking to experience Reconstruction from the inside out, take a seat. I believe that the invention of the letter-reading documentary (used by Burns and others), has trained folks to be far more comfortable with compilations such as this, so that the voices become a medley, rather than a cacophony.

    Those of you who are voracious Hoover Deluxe style readers will enjoy a front to back approach, however, since I am but merely a Dust Buster, I have not finished the volume, yet. The beauty of the format, is that it allows for short reading sessions and protracted intermissions between both documents and chapters. Due to the intensity of the subject matter, I have found that I do need to take frequent breaks, as the melancholy of the topic matter begins to take up residence in my psyche.

    I read another of Dr. Simpson’s books Let Us Have Peace, in which he writes:

    If the Civil War was politics by other means, then Reconstruction was in some sense a continuation of the struggle to achieve through political means the aims for which the war was fought. Brooks D Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, (p XV)

    I thought a lot about these words as I was reading Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality and grasping the life and death battle to maintain the fruits of Northern victory.

    1. Thanks, Shoshana. This is an excellent review.

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