Birth of a Nation

Retreat From Reconstruction, 1869-1879

by William Gillette
Louisiana State University Press, 436 pp., $29.50

Reconstruction and Redemption in the South

edited by Otto H. Olsen
Louisiana State University Press, 250 pp., $17.50

Consider, for example, the number and variety of theories that the friends and acquaintances of one alienated couple can generate to explain why two people failed to patch up their quarrels and reunite in peace. To multiply that by the numbers involved in the failure of reconciliation between North and South is to suggest some idea of the multiplicity and complexity of theories explaining what happened to reconstruction. Except that in the latter instance the explainers are professionals who call themselves historians, and some of them have devoted whole careers and no end of ingenuity to their theories of explanation.

The theories have come in waves that tend to crest in thirty-year cycles and conform in each cycle to a dominant model. In the 1900s the model was that of a betrayed South (in the female role) shamefully humiliated and brutally ravaged in helpless defeat by vindictive zealots and radical fanatics of the North who used ignorant black freedmen to stage “a carnival of corruption.” In the 1930s the South retained the part of the hapless female, but the melodrama took a conspiratorial turn that deprived the northern radicals of their initiative as male aggressors. They were transformed into tools and puppets, and their reforms were pictured as a propaganda front for economic and political forces that were using reconstruction to convert an agrarian order of the past into an industrial discipline of the future.

Then the 1960s arrived in a fury, tore up the 1930s script, and reversed the roles completely. Radicals were assigned benevolent, philanthropic parts. They were seen as missionaries of civilization ennobled by humanitarian purpose, and innocent of political or economic guile. Their achievements were loaded with praise. The South, on the other hand, was now the aggressor and villainous marplot. The new script had hardly got on the road, however, before the thirty-year cycle was foreshortened by an abortive revision that cast the radicals themselves as marplots. As recast, the radicals were really conservatives in disguise, paralyzed by timidity, committed to compromise, fearful of using force, and not nearly radical enough. Their failures rather than their successes were emphasized. The white South was still villain, but the freedman was both victim and hero of another lost cause. That, however, is not the end of the story of revision.

The term “reconstruction” has saddled us from the start with a misnomer. Perhaps even more of a misnomer than “civil war,” the term “reconstruction” originated before, not after, the war. It then referred to the Union rather than to the South and was entirely consistent with the aims of its originators. Their purposes were to patch over the sectional quarrel with compromises, “reconstruct” the Union with concessions acceptable to both sides, and thus avoid war or stop it in an early stage. To use the same term, suggesting restoration and continuity, to describe what was required or what happened after an all-out total war that took on revolutionary aims on the Union side in the fighting, was…

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