Saturday, May 28, 2011


A review of Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (1988)

Part of the New American Nation Series

(Rating 5 of 5)

The Reconstruction Period in American history is the era that is probably the most misunderstood. The view of this historical event has taken such a complete and utter transformation as historians have been interpreting and reinterpreting it over the years that truth is often hard to separate from the myth. Half way through the Civil War the U.S. government needs to come up with a way to bring back the rebel states into the Union on the government's terms. The people for whom this would have the most impact would be the newly freed slaves. Reconstruction would see the dream of the slaves become, for a moment, a reality only to have it cruelly stanched away again. It would take almost a hundred years to correct what went wrong and to re-start the movement towards equality. In my march through the ages of American history this chapter is one of the more interesting and most painful.

With the capture of Richmond and Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the Civil War had ended and the Confederacy was no more. The mood—for the North—was cheerful and although the South was upset for having lost, most of the Southern white population were also glad for the war’s end. For those whose life had been spent in bondage what had happened was truly a miracle. The whole world had changed and apparently it had changed for the better, not only were the people who had been slaves liberated but members of their own race had played a critical part in the victory and they looked to play a part in the peace.

“The presence of black troops among the occupying Union army reinforced the freedmen's assertiveness and inspired constant complaint on the part of whites. Black soldiers acted, in words of the New York World, as 'apostles of black equality,' spreading among former slaves ideas of land ownership and civil and political equality. They intervened in plantation disputes and sometimes arrested whites. ('It is very hard,' wrote a Confederate veteran, 'to see a white man taken under guard by one of those black scoundrels.') Black troops helped construct schools, churches, and orphanages, organized debating societies, and held political gatherings where 'freedom songs' were sung and soldiers delivered 'speeches of the most inflammatory kind.' In Southern cities they demanded the right to travel on segregated streetcars, taunted white passersby with remarks like 'We's all equal now,' and advised freedmen in cities like Memphis that they need not obey military orders to return to the plantations.” p.80

(American heroes: Africa-American soldiers for the Union)

Lincoln's assassination brought his incompetent successor, Andrew Johnson, to power. Johnson was inflexible where his predecessor was flexible, and although he was following Lincoln's own plan initially, he forgot that the key to Lincoln's success was his ability to listen and adapt when necessary to achieve his goal. Johnson would become the main obstacle to reform. The Radicals in Congress managed to fight the new President by overriding his vetoes*. The Radicals did over reach by attacking the presidency itself, not just the President, when they passed the Tender in Office Act and tried to impeach Johnson when he did not comply. Johnson's impeachment divided their ranks and spent unnecessary energy. Johnson was acquitted but not elected nor nominated in his own right. Grant would win the election of 1868and Reconstruction would continue.

(American tragedy: the assassination of President Lincoln)

(American farce: President Johnson)

One of the best things Grant did was send Federal troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan who had been terrorizing newly freed and enfranchised African-Americans. Foner describes these villains in some detail. Monsters and cowards who dressed in costumes and went out to harass and kill people who were just trying to live.

(Ku Klux Klan)

“But the most 'offensive' blacks of all seemed to be those who achieved a modicum of economic success, for, as a white Mississippi farmer commented, the Klan 'do not like to see the negro go ahead.' Night riders in Florence, South Carolina, killed a freedman on one plantation 'because it is rented by colored men, and their desire is that such a thing ought not to be.'” p.429

Unfortunately, as time went on and success was slow, the Northern focus waned. Other issues came up and diverted the Federal government’s attention. The most devastating was the Depression that would hit in 1873. It would cause labor unrest and would serve as one of the death blows in the struggle for freedom in the nineteenth century South.

“The depression had a profound impact on the labor movement, shifting its focus from the issues of the 1860s—greenbackism, cooperation, and the eight-hour day—to demands for pubic relief, the desperate struggle to maintain predepression wage levels, and, for a few workers, socialism. In the winter of 1873-74, cities from Boston to Chicago witnessed massive demonstrations demanding that authorities ease the economic crisis by inaugurating such projects as street and parking improvements and new rapid transit systems—a remarkable expansion of labor's conception of governments roles and responsibilities. The movement for 'Work or Bread' reached its climax in New York, where on January 13, 1874, the city police violently dispersed a crowd of 7,000 demonstrators who had assembled at Tompkins Square, arrested scores of workers, and inaugurated a period of 'extreme repression' against subsequent labor gatherings.” p.514

These events, in addition to corruption, damaged the Republican Party to the point where they lost the House of Representatives in the 1874 mid-term elections. The major blow to Reconstruction would be the presidential election of 1876. The controversy of the election between Governors Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden would result in an outcome that would be known as the ‘Great Betrayal’ in the black community for decades to come. Hayes would win the presidency but at the cost of Reconstruction. Reconstruction would end and the white South would begin the vileness Jim Crow Era in which a people who had been enslaved—but were set free, could vote, and hold office as citizens in the Republic—were disenfranchised, segregated, and improvised.

(political cartoon of 1876 election)

Eric Foner covers an experiment that was only bad because it had failed not because it was attempted. Reconstruction was an attempt to do justice where only injustice had been done and help move us forward as a nation. As a consequence one geographical section of the nation went backward in race relations, internal improvements, and educational establishments, while the rest of the country moved forward. Eric Foner's work is a masterpiece it covers not only what I have discussed here but it also discusses the break between the old abolitionists and the suffragists. Neglecting the cause of (white) women's important need for the vote, the early feminists felt betrayed by the abolitionists and their coalition crumble. Another area that Foner covers in this book is the rise of the giant corporation and how they would form a hold on government. With this book Eric Foner separates myth from fact and paints an accurate picture of the United States during Reconstruction.

*No president who had served prior to Andrew Johnson had ever had their vetoes overridden.

{Video posted on YouTube by LearnMediaOfAmerica}

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