A Discussion on the State and Future of Reconstruction ║ ANCH Book Reviews

This is the first of a new occasional series of discussions aimed at broadcasting the relevance of Book Reviews published in American Nineteenth Century History. Each installment presents brief synopses of selected reviews which, in turn, become starting points for a larger conversation.  

Participants:

  • David Ballantyne, Keele University  
  • Billy Coleman, University of British Columbia (moderator)
  • Rebecca Fraser, University of East Anglia
  • Andrew Heath, University of Sheffield

Books Reviewed

  • Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands (2017)
  • Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker eds. Remembering Reconstruction (2017)

 

REVIEWS

Andrew Heath on Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

The Republic for Which It Stands, the latest volume in the Oxford History of the United States series, moves from the end of the Civil War to the defeat of the Populist-Democratic fusion ticket in the 1896 presidential election. Shaped no doubt by the demands of the series, it fits imperfectly into either a “long Reconstruction” that extends into the early 1900s, or a “long Progressive era” that looks for the deep roots of twentieth-century reform. Yet the impressive survey, which distills some of the best recent scholarship into over 900 pages, reveals both continuity and change in the writing of Reconstruction over the past few decades, and suggests new directions for historians to pursue.

White’s treatment of Reconstruction builds on Eric Foner’s Unfinished Revolution, which at thirty years old, remains the defining history of the era. Like Foner, White traces the career of free labor ideology after emancipation, and shows how a Lincolnian vision of a producer’s republic mutated into a corporate capitalist order. But where Foner left only a few pages for the West, White gives the region at least equal treatment with North and South. The New Western historians, of course, have been framing the era through a wider geographical lens for some time, and White borrows Elliot West’s notion of a “Greater Reconstruction” here to make sense of the project of continental consolidation. But once the growth of federal power in the West is set alongside the more familiar story of its application in the South, Reconstruction’s conventional chronological boundaries–1863 or 1865 to 1877–begin to look inadequate.

While White stretches the chronological and geographical limits of Foner’s Reconstruction, he echoes an earlier historiography that saw Reconstruction as a carnival of corruption. In taking on the racism of the Dunning School, the revisionists of the 1950s to 1970s tended to downplay the venality that earlier generation of historians portrayed. For White, however, Reconstruction really was a free for all. Thus Ulysses S. Grant, whose presidency has enjoyed something of a rehabilitation in recent years, receives little sympathy from White. As in his earlier Railroaded, which painted a picture of a corporate order marked more by selfish scheming than any managerial revolution, White mingles the Union’s rebuilders with the Gilded Age’s crony capitalists. White may sound rather old-fashioned here, but his morality tale has clear contemporary resonance.

Yet, White does diverge from earlier historians who stressed the rampant individualism of the age. “Americans”, he argues in an insightful reading of Thomas Nast’s 1863 illustration celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation, thought more than we might imagine “in terms of collectivities rather than individuals” (p. 77). The social world of the home, for White, becomes the principal battleground in the struggle to reconstruct the republic, and his reading of how home life intersected with the political, economic, and cultural forces of the period demonstrates the range of his thinking. In exploring the remaking of black and white families after slavery, historians of Reconstruction are hardly unfamiliar with the centrality of the household, or for that matter its intersection with questions of political economy. But by building a narrative around homes rather than individual rights, White may point the way towards a new synthesis that connects developments in the postwar South, the industrializing North, and a West in which the family life of Native Americans and Mormon communities challenged Republican ambitions for national homogeneity.     

Click here to read the full review (paywalled)

 

White republic cover.jpg

 

David Ballantyne on Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era edited by Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017.

This insightful, coherently-organized edited volume is a welcome addition to Reconstruction memory scholarship. The book contains ten research essays, split into four main sections. The first section, on white supremacist memory, includes chapters on southern white propagandists’ cultural work in selling Jim Crow to the nation, and on the use of Reconstruction memory to crystallize lay and political opposition to potential threats to the region’s racial customs in the mid-twentieth century. Section two, on black counter-memories, examines how elite and ordinary black southerners created contrasting Reconstruction narratives. For lawyer T. Thomas Fortune, violence was the major theme; former Mississippi Congressman John R. Lynch focused on interracial cooperation; and finally, a black woman’s former slave narrative recollection emphasized “broken and unfulfilled promises” (p. 127). Section three probes the links between Reconstruction’s apparent lessons and American imperialism, first in the work of liberal-minded southerners and northern philanthropists at the early 1890s Mohonk conferences that promoted sectional reconciliation, stressed racial “uplift” for indigenous populations and accepted Reconstruction as a period of misrule, a course that ironically promoted the oppression of non-whites at home and abroad; second, in the ways a coalition of northern philanthropists, southern liberals, and federal officials simultaneously argued that Reconstruction had been a mistake, while advocating a “New Reconstruction” to remedy the South’s social and economic ills in the early twentieth century; and third, in the role of Reconstruction memory in shaping President Woodrow Wilson’s visions for the post-World War One world. The final section addresses the trends–and continuities–of Ku Klux Klan portrayals in school textbooks from the 1880s to the 2010s and the fluctuating salience of competing Reconstruction memories around South Carolina’s 1970 tricentennial celebrations.

 Together, these essays highlight the malleability of Reconstruction memory, alongside the white supremacist interpretation’s persistent influence in popular culture and memory. They also show how even likeminded groups developed a range of Reconstruction memories and lessons to meet present-day needs. The book makes essential reading for Reconstruction and Civil War-era memory scholars, and its chapters would fit final-year undergraduate or graduate courses on Reconstruction and/or memory. 

Click here to read the full review (paywalled)

 

Baker and emberton cover.jpg

 

DISCUSSION

BC: How do these books reshape our perception of Reconstruction and its relevance to the 21st- Century?  

AH: One way into this might be to ask where Eric Foner’s Unfinished Revolution (1988) synthesis stands after 30 years? I can’t think of many landmark works covering the long nineteenth century that have endured for three decades. Woodward’s Origins of the New South (1951) may be the nearest equivalent. But regardless of possible parallels, it strikes me that even with White’s study we’re still working in the historiographical landscape Foner sculpted: a central story remains what happens to free labor when its antithesis, slavery, is destroyed? There has been a huge amount of important work on Reconstruction since 1988 but most of this has built on, rather than refuted, Unfinished Revolution. Reconstruction has stretched both in terms of its geographical framing (we know much more about the West now) and its chronological boundaries (1877 no longer seems quite such a fitting endpoint). Yet, Foner remains hard to get away from.

 I’ve stopped teaching my year-long special subject on Reconstruction partly because I find it harder to find (for undergraduates at least) the historiographical debates to build the class around. White, for me, may offer one alternative perspective, which is to reject the idea of the era as one characterized above all by the ascent of liberal individualism, which narratives built around self-possession and individual rights tend to re-enforce (plenty of scholarship over the past few years has already moved in this direction). But by telling a primarily North American story White may miss other opportunities. Foner hints at the transnational / global dimensions of Reconstruction, but never explores it, and with one or two exceptions (e.g. Philip Katz’s From Paris to Montmartre [1998]), it is only in the past few years that historians have begun to look more closely at the international framing of the story (some UK-based scholars, including Erik Mathisen, Alys Beverton, and David Sim spring to mind here). Still, I wonder what a new synthesis of Reconstruction alone (however that’s dated!) might look like? Does Greg Downs’s work on stabilization and occupation provide a possible framework for instance?     

 

RF: I think Andrew is right that by providing a US-centric narrative, albeit a story that widens its geographic, temporal, and conceptual base, that this could run the risk of neglecting an important turn in American History (or American Studies) more generally in relation to a transatlantic or transpacific understanding of the post-Civil War period of 19th century American history. Although I don’t know enough about work being done to delve deeper here.

 For me, as an historian of the family and gender, it is refreshing to read that White’s work shifts from a focus on individual rights towards a reflection of the private spaces of the family and how both black and white families across the North American continent were reconfigured in the aftermath of the Civil War and throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Of course, scholars such as Laura Edwards and LeeAnn Whites have already started this analysis but Richard White’s work could add something more here through an additional analysis of families in the West (Native Americans, Mormons, and settlers presumably) and by relating the political processes of rebuilding the nation (economic, legal, and domestic policies) through attention to the intimate, emotional and psychic networks of family.

 In terms of Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker eds. Remembering Reconstruction I think this will be a useful addition to scholarship since David Blight. Their collection is particularly important because it provides an explicit focus on race, memory, and Reconstruction–including black counter–and white-supremacist memory. And it relates this to 21st century politics. Seems like we need these types of books more than ever in the current political climate.

 

DB: As the frameworks for understanding Reconstruction keep growing, achieving narrative coherence becomes increasingly difficult. (The Journal of the Civil War Era published a helpful roundtable on this topic in 2017). To help make sense of the era, Brook Thomas has urged writers to abandon attempts at synthesis in favor of stressing Reconstruction’s multiple goals and forces. And in their 2015 The World the Civil War Made edited volume, Gregory Downs and Kate Masur went further by urging historians to abandon “Reconstruction” altogether. In terms of more incremental additions to post-Foner scholarship, some academics (thinking particularly of Adam Fairclough and Brooks Simpson) have pushed against Foner’s implicit optimism towards southern Reconstruction by questioning the feasibility of preserving black political rights while restoring southern states to self-government, and querying the implied connection between Reconstruction struggles and twentieth-century civil rights gains. Scholars have also reviewed how violence and military occupation shaped Reconstruction, alongside contributing a range of more narrowly-focused case studies. Despite the stretched chronological and geographical scope of Reconstruction studies, the stories of African American freedom are still integral. And for these, Unfinished Revolution remains a vital work.  

Though it includes interesting chapters examining how white supremacist Reconstruction accounts evolved, Remembering Reconstruction is particularly helpful for bringing together essays that address Reconstruction memory beyond the already well-known white supremacist mythmaking. Its chapters, especially those on ordinary and elite African American memories, and the connections between Reconstruction memories and the larger American empire-building project, mirror some of the recent trends in more general Reconstruction writing. Still, white supremacist memories remain dominant in popular culture, memory, and even recent teaching materials. The tenacity of these memories points to the role historians can play in public debates about Reconstruction (and the connections between race, violence and democracy more generally in American history). The push to remove or amend pro-Confederate monuments has impacted white supremacist Reconstruction commemoration as well, with the removal of the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place monument in New Orleans, and discussions over the status of other racially inflammatory monuments to Reconstruction violence. This year, after lengthy efforts, the National Park Service dedicated a Reconstruction era national historic park in Beaufort, South Carolina (on the challenges facing such a move, see Jennifer Taylor and Page Miller’s 2017 Journal of the Civil War Era piece on “Reconstructing Memory”). Newer memorials are unlikely to dominate public spaces in the same way as white supremacist markers have done–those noting Memphis’s 1866 massacre, and Wilmington’s in 1898 for that matter, aren’t on major thoroughfares–but academics can and perhaps should become more involved in these public commemoration debates.  

 

RF: I completely agree with David here as regards academic engagement in public commemoration debates. Maybe this is where one aspect of the current historiography will gain ground, with ideas around memorialization explicitly linked into commemoration. This has certainly already been a feature of Reconstruction historiography with Kirk Savage and LeeAnn Whites’ work (among others). Yet, perhaps now, given the current battles being fought over Pro-Confederate symbols (flags come to mind) and monuments, this will take on a new momentum?  

 

AH: I have learned a lot from work on Reconstruction and memory, and have been impressed by the efforts of historians in the U.S. to establish the national historical park. I wonder whether historians writing on the period itself, though, could think about visions of the future as well as commemorations of the past? It is worth remembering just how open-ended the course the US might take seemed at the end of the Civil War. From a return to the antebellum status quo, to a massive program of land redistribution, and a host of schemes in between, Americans put forward vastly different visions of a postwar republic. That sense of possibility seems to mark the early stages of Reconstruction. Those unrealized manifestoes for Reconstruction–blueprints for a United States that might have been–are worth investigating.

 

BC: How might we best go about incorporating recent scholarship into our teaching about Reconstruction?

AH: I welcome any thoughts here. I’m redesigning my 90-hour undergraduate class on the topic, and would be interested to see what works for others, especially given the imperative of decolonizing the curriculum. I would like to bring in a lot more on the West (since it is usually relegated to a single week) and would like do a lot more with W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1835), which is one of those books that is talked about reverentially but rarely read. My frustration with teaching Reconstruction’s historiography probably owes more to my failings than any fault of the scholarship. Students tend to read Foner less as a scholarly intervention and more as an authoritative textbook. And as developments in the field since 1988 have been (I think it would be fair to say) more incremental than revolutionary, it can be hard to find work to assign that challenges him. It becomes easy for students to use the Dunning School as a point of departure, which should not be the case after so many decades of revisionist and post-revisionist scholarship. But if there is going to be a post-Foner turn in scholarship and teaching, perhaps we’re moving away from a story that gives priority to the fate of free labor, and places more emphasis on the persistence–and reconstruction–of white supremacy, as Stephanie McCurry has suggested. 

 

DB: At the risk of repeating your comments, the biggest difficulty I see with teaching Reconstruction is that its boundaries keep growing. White’s book certainly does a good job integrating southern and western Reconstruction stories, and relating household politics to this national framework, but stepping further back can risk losing focus on the dynamics of black freedom and democracy building (and dismantling). Perhaps for a comprehensible comparative approach to Reconstruction, we just need more teaching time! I think works focusing on the varieties of Reconstruction experiences and southern Reconstruction’s wider viability (not necessarily that failure was inevitable, but that not all outcomes were possible) offer helpful additions to Foner’s synthesis. Thanks to scholars like John Rodrigue, Justin Behrend, Susan O’Donovan and others, we see more clearly how emancipation developed in different contexts, and how some locations, like the sugar-producing southern Louisiana parishes or the overwhelmingly black Natchez district, held better opportunities for robust black politics than others (like southwest Georgia). But even in promising Reconstruction locations, the main story for African Americans was tragic. Placing non-white agency and aspirations for radically remaking society within a context that stresses the persistence of white supremacy and the limitations on potential change could provide a decolonized, if sobering, approach. 

 

BC: Is it ironic that White’s interpretive emphasis on the ‘home’ is cast in an expansive sense domestically–bringing the North, South, and West together–but not in a way that speaks to the significance of the wider world or to transnational influences beyond the North American continent? Is this an issue that students will increasingly be encouraged to wrestle with?

AH: White’s book is so wide-ranging that I certainly would not want to take him to task for not adding ‘in the world’ somewhere to the title–over a thousand or so pages he covers plenty, and empire is not omitted. But there is real potential to step back and see Reconstruction (if we assume the term is still useful!) in a wider perspective, whether that be Atlantic, hemispheric, or global. The temptation to do so might be all the greater as a result of working outside the US, and it’s notable that there are a few British-based scholars (I’ve mentioned the likes of Erik Mathisen and Alys Beverton above) considering Reconstruction as more than a purely domestic story. This seems to be one direction the literature has taken post-Foner: I think of Eric Love and Nick Guyatt’s work on attempts to annex San Domingue, and Moon Ho-Jung’s study of coolie labor and sugar production. There is room for more work that picks up on the insights of scholars such as Leslie Butler and Don H. Doyle, who have shown (in quite different ways) how Civil War-era liberalism either fanned outwards or was sustained by transnational networks and movements. I’m surprised, given the vogue over the past two decades for this kind of work, that there has not been more done on, say, the coincidence of the Second Reform Act in Britain, Canadian Confederation, and Military Reconstruction in the United States: three major attempts to redraw the boundaries of political communities that happened almost simultaneously in 1867.

I would probably make a plea here, though, not to keep seeking the roots of 1898, and to abandon those old questions like ‘when did the US become an empire?’ There might be a case instead for viewing the postbellum US in relation to other states rather than on some predetermined course of its own. If we look at the late 1860s around the world, we see a vast range of new states and constitutional orders coming into being through reform (often elite-led) rather than revolution (perhaps for that reason the moment is less studied than 1848 or 1871). And the end point to which they were tending can hardly have been clear at the time. Reconstruction overlapped with the Meiji Restoration in Japan, self-strengthening in post-Taiping Rebellion Qing China, Austro-Hungary’s dual monarchy, the formation of France’s Third Republic, and a host of others: Confederated Canada and Second Reform Act Britain being another two examples. Such events may not always have been connected, and the contexts are vastly different (only Russia had gone through emancipation on a similar scale) but they seem to be part of the emergence of what Charles S. Maier calls Leviathan 2.0: centralized states marshaling new financial and technological means, and mobilizing citizens, in search of consolidation and expansion. Viewing Reconstruction through that comparative lens might be worthwhile, and may shed light on other aspects of late nineteenth-century politics. The Populist revolt against the ‘money power’ in the late Gilded Age, for instance, surely has roots in Reconstruction-era attacks on the ‘bondholders’ who were supposedly growing rich from financing the wartime state.

Perhaps one of the problems with these panoptic global perspectives, though, is that they miss the intimate histories on which so much of our social and cultural understanding of Reconstruction has been built. I run an MA class on the Civil War in global context and the extended bibliography is strikingly male dominated for many of the topics (I hope that’s not because I haven’t looked hard enough; a lot of very good new edited collections on the subject are largely male authors). It is striking, then, that Kristin Hoganson’s study of the export of American domesticity begins in 1865, at a moment in which the northern middle-class ideal seemed on the verge of triumphing nationally. It might be a glib thing to say, but perhaps historians of Reconstruction can find ways to connect global developments and local, grounded histories.

 

      

Works Cited:

Justin Behrend, Reconstructing Democracy: Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Alys Beverton, “We knew no North, no South”: U.S.–Mexican War Veterans and the Construction of Public Memory in the Post-Civil War United States, 1874–1897,’ American Nineteenth Century History 17.1 (2016): 1-22.

William A. Blair, ‘The Use of Military Force to Protect the Gains of Reconstruction’, Civil War History 51.4 (December 2005): 388-402.

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002).

Mark L. Bradley, Bluecoats and Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

Leslie Butler, Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007).

Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015).

Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015).

Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1835/1998).

Laura F. Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Adam Fairclough, ‘Was the Grant of Black Suffrage a Political Error? Reconsidering the Views of John W. Burgess, William A. Dunning, and Eric Foner on Congressional Reconstruction’, Journal of the Historical Society 12.2 (June 2012): 155-88.

———, ‘Congressional Reconstruction: A Catastrophic Failure’, Journal of the Historical Society 12.3 (September 2012): 271-82.

———, The Revolution that Failed: Reconstruction in Natchitoches (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018).

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

Nicholas Guyatt, ‘America’s Conservatory: Race, Reconstruction and the Santo Domingo Controversy’, Journal of American History 95 (March 2009): 974-1000.

Kristin Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2007).

Moon Ho-Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

Philip Katz, From Paris to Montmartre: Americans and the Paris Commune (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Andrew F. Lang, ‘Republicanism, Race, and Reconstruction: The Ethos of Military Occupation in Civil War America’, Journal of the Civil War Era 4.4 (December 2014): 559-89.

———, In the Wake of War: Military Occupation, Emancipation, and Civil War America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

Eric T. L. Love, Race Over Empire: Racism and U.S. Imperialism, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2004).

Charles S. Maier, Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Stephanie McCurry, Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Susan E. O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes, 1862–1882 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001).

Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

David Sim, ‘Following the Money: Fenian Bonds, Diasporic Nationalism, and Distant Revolutions in the Mid-Nineteenth Century United States,’ Past and Present (forthcoming, 2020).

Brooks D. Simpson, ‘Mission Impossible: Reconstruction Policy Reconsidered’, Journal of the Civil War Era 6.1 (March 2016): 85-102.

Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller, ‘Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina, the National Park Service’s First Reconstruction Unit,’ Journal of the Civil War Era 7.1 (March 2017): 39-66.

Brook Thomas, ‘The Unfinished Task of Grounding Reconstruction’s Promise’, Journal of the Civil War Era 7.1 (March 2017): 16-38.

LeeAnn Whites, Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South (New York: Palgrave, 2005).

C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1951).

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