At 612 dense pages, this updated edition of Eric Foner’s classic Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, can’t be read in an afternoon at the beach. Packed with details big and small, I can see why Foner put out an abridged version in 2015 that comes in at half the size. But reading the full length account will repay the reader with both a sense of accomplishment and a rich understanding of a crucial but misunderstood era in American history.
Long ignored by historians in favor of the Civil War and Gilded Age periods that bookend it, Reconstruction turns out to be perhaps more significant for today’s America. Initially, historians who did study Reconstruction like those of the Dunning School sought to portray it as a dark time of Yankee vengefulness on a defeated South, of greedy carpetbaggers and treacherous scalawags sucking the last wealth out of the dying carcass of Dixie and of illiterate blacks, only recently released from slavery in the cotton fields, presiding clownishly over the worst state and local governments ever to plague any republic in history.
Foner does more than bust the myth that Reconstruction was one big mistake. He also goes on to show how the era gave birth to the relationship between Black and white people that America has experienced for the last 150 years.
It’s true that Southern planters were dethroned as the owners of the solid South during Reconstruction, and that new kinds of people, both white and Black, had a chance to run things for a few years. But as Foner shows, that was generally a good thing, and probably the only way to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of men who died in the Civil War would have given their lives not just to preserve the Union pretty much as it was before with slavery — or some version of slavery under a different name — intact. Only Reconstruction prevented southern planters from immediately putting black Americans back into bondage and squishing poor white people right back down to their traditional place in the southern hierarchy, near the bottom, just above the slave.
Once disposing of the old Lost Cause myth of Reconstruction, Foner then goes on to deal with the view from the other end of the political spectrum, namely, that if the goal of the era was to enshrine racial equality in American society, that era ended in failure. As “Redeemers” took back one southern state after another for the white planter class starting only a couple years after the end of the war and ending in the 1870s (or even as late as the 1880s), the hopes of Black people and poor whites were crushed, not to be reborn until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This is the tragedy of Reconstruction, and it made me a bit depressed to read about it. The story of Reconstruction is just another example of how hard it’s always been to make progress on racial justice and equality, even when many well intentioned people were fighting so hard to make America live up to its promises to all its citizens.
But that’s not the end of the story. Reading Foner’s book is an exercise in understanding history in its own context, and not falling prey to presentism, to judge Reconstruction not merely by how much it fell short of norms of racial equality taken for granted today or even the ideals that Reconstruction’s leaders had set for themselves in the 1860s.
In many ways, it’s a miracle that Reconstruction was even attempted in the first place. No post-emancipation society had ever attempted to build on the ruins of slavery the new edifice of a multi-racial democracy. What an unprecedented coalition of Racial Republicans in Congress, sympathetic officers in the Union Army, leaders of the black community from Texas to Virginia, and allies among poor white people in the southern upcountry (and even some low-country planters) tried to invent and, for a time, succeeded in maintaining, was nothing short of miraculous.
The legacy of Reconstruction was not all crushed dreams and broken promises. Four million Black people in the South were no longer slaves. That meant they could build the institutions that made and continue to make their communities strong — the family, the church, and school. A talented tenth consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, and ministers would arise to show Americans black and white that race was no bar to achieving excellence. And the three constitutional amendments passed during Reconstruction, the 13th ending slavery, the 14th extending citizenship, and the 15th for universal manhood suffrage, served as the basis for the legal challenges of the civil rights movement eight decades later.
There’s a lot of hope in this tragic story. Along the way, Foner introduces us to fascinating characters both Black and white, idealists and grifters, robber barons and labor leaders, unreconstructed Confederates and rising Black politicians both able and overwhelmed.
Reconstruction is a story that all Americans should know more about, one that’s more important than most Civil War battles and certainly as important as the civil rights movement.