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Unfinished Business

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877

by Eric Foner
Harper and Row, 690 pp., $29.95

The way we think, write about, explain, and interpret Reconstruction comes in thirty-year cycles. The first cycle, beginning in the 1870s, was too much an aspect of Reconstruction itself to qualify as an interpretation of its history. Rather it was part of that history. The second cycle, starting around 1900, served as a rationalization for the abandonment of Reconstruction in the North and its overthrow in the South. The estranged two regions reconciled their differences at the expense of the freedmen’s rights and the reputation of the Radicals, such as Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin Wade, and Edwin M. Stanton, who sought to guarantee for blacks the rights won by the war.

The next cycle, beginning in the 1930s, further damaged the cause and reputation of the Radicals by attacks from quite a different angle. Taking a “progressive” line, historians of this school pictured Reconstruction as a mask for an economic program to advance the interest of industrial capitalists and a cynical scheme for the aggrandizement of the Republican party by means of black suffrage. Along with this slur upon the motives of the Radicals went a new defense of their opponents, most prominently of President Andrew Johnson. Book after book pictured him as a crypto-Populist or proto-Progressive, champion of the common man, sworn foe of the moneybags. Injustice was something inflicted by one class on another, not one race on another. The woes of the freedman were sad but probably irremediable, and there was sympathy to spare for impoverished, long-suffering southern whites.

The big change came with the cycle of the 1960s that turned the derogatory revisions of the 1900s and 1930s upside down and played havoc with the established demonology of Reconstruction. Radicals were not villains but heroes, and the “tragedy” of Reconstruction was not the program they imposed on the South but its failure. The new revisionists had good words to say for the stereotyped scoundrels of the drama, the carpetbaggers and the scalawags, and pointed out inspiring examples of fortitude and integrity among black leaders. Graft and corruption in Reconstruction governments were compared with thievery up North and with outrages that followed Reconstruction in the South.1 And finally the traditional roles assigned black freedmen and white southerners, respectively, as villain and victim, were completely reversed, as the villainy of white terrorists chillingly demonstrated. A curt summary does not adequately acknowledge the contribution the revisionary cycle of the 1960s made in the correction of error and the exposure of distortions that racial and political bias have imposed on our vision of the past.

Where then does this leave us, and how does Eric Foner’s book fit into this pattern of development in Reconstruction historiography? It would seem a bit early to expect the onset of a cycle of the 1990s, and I think it is too much to regard Foner’s work as a harbinger. On the other hand it is not fair to call it only a synthesis or summary of the old school. He makes full and intelligent use of the enormous number of scholars who have written on the subject since the 1960s, faithfully reflects their findings and sympathies, and in no major way departs from their broad interpretations. But more than that, he contributes enough in the way of original insight and understanding to lift his work above the level of summarizing. What’s more, he undertakes an account of the whole subject and with a degree of thoroughness not previously attempted.

The main theater of action in the Reconstruction period was the defeated South, but there were as many theaters as there were states—eleven in fact. They might be thought of as so many Latin American republics simultaneously in the throes of revolution, with the Colossus of the North hovering over them, one of its proconsuls and its military guard in each, and each state with its own ties to the current equivalent of International Fruit or Standard Oil. Harnessing their histories into a unified narrative is a formidable undertaking. For that purpose previous attempts have relied chiefly on Washington and the debates, decisions, and politics of Congress and the White House to supply whatever unity was forthcoming. Foner attempts more, and by pursuing themes common to all states undergoing the ordeal tries to tie events in all of them together.

His is essentially a work of traditional narrative history. There is not a single graph, table, or equation in its six hundred pages and no more than relatively unsophisticated qualification. I do not use the word “traditional” in a pejorative sense and find in this book much to justify renewed respect for the term. The author does make a bow to the “new” social history, but in the manner of all good traditional history his writing integrates social with political, analytical with narrative, components.

With this subject the historian confronts a storm of moral recrimination rarely matched in any other era or latitude for fierceness and complexity. The storm raged between victor and vanquished, between master and slave, between races, classes, regions, parties, and political factions thereof. Whose was the fault and the guilt for betraying all those noble plans, promises, hopes, and enormous expectations? What went so terribly wrong? Why the staggering failure? And who was to blame? Eric Foner has his problems with these questions, as have had all his predecessors who addressed them. Here it is enough to acknowledge that he displays a generous disposition to assume that proponents of all views, however offensive, honestly believe what they say. This often helps in coping with moral recrimination.

One departure from precedent the book makes is to assume “the centrality of the black experience” and to “pay special attention” to what proved to be “the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.” The starting point is not 1865 but the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which “produced an abrupt shift from the pessimism of the 1850s to a renewed spirit of patriotism” among American blacks. The new spirit was cruelly tested in New York City six months later by the murderous draft riot that “degenerated into a virtual racial pogrom,” in which the Times reported “the African race in this city were literally hunted down like wild beasts.”

Among the southern freedmen hopes for a better life survived the war and toward the end of 1865 soared to “a millennial expectation of impending change” to be brought about by government expropriation and distribution of planters’ lands. The dashing of that dream later, and the gradual discovery that any government intervention in the labor market to regulate wages or enforce contracts was likely to provide a cover for exploitation led the freedman toward laissez-faire ideas. “Let him alone!” urged Frederick Douglass. The adjustment to change from slavery, with its right to subsistence and old-age dependency, to the logic of the market economy proved difficult to some freedmen. But before long they “learned to use and influence the market for their own ends,” to bargain for contract terms, and take “full advantage of competition between planters and nonagricultural employers.”

In the first flush of freedom great things seemed possible and pent-up energies found release. They flowed into the creation of a thriving institutional structure for the black community: black churches first of all, but also thousands of fraternal, benevolent, and mutual-aid societies, clubs, lodges, associations. In a few years Memphis had over two hundred such organizations and Richmond over four hundred. A seemingly unquenchable and often pathetic eagerness for education accounted for the founding of numberless schools of various kinds and degrees of improvisation. Meetings and conventions of blacks pledged conciliation with whites and identification with the national history, destiny, and political system. “We are Americans,” resolved a meeting in Virginia, “we know no other country, we love the land of our birth.” Another in the same state declared that this was “now our country—made emphatically so by the blood of our brethren.” No separatism or black nationalism was visible at this juncture. Freedom remained to be defined, however, and three definitions competed for dominance: those of the black freedmen, of the white southerners, and of the federal government.

For whites of the South freedom did not preclude racial supremacy or traditional discipline or the use of violence to maintain the system. And the white resort to violence did not await the coming of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867: it came immediately, pervasively, with whip, club, and gun, at the end of the war. A few paragraphs are spared for the plight of the defeated whites, the picture long foremost in traditional accounts. More than one fifth of adult white males dead, many more than that maimed, “a desolated land,” vistas of “absolute destitution,” the familiar charred columns, blackened chimneys, and crumbling walls—“a melancholy sight,” indeed.

Bad as it was, the plight of the planter class has been romanticized and no doubt deserves reduced emphasis, but the non-slaveowning whites might have claimed more attention than they receive. They made up three fourths of the whites and in some states a majority of the total population. Indeed Foner mentions that there were probably as many houseless, homeless, poor, idle white men as there were black men, and that those whites who did have farms bore far more than their share of taxes under the new system. But no whites were subject to the oppression and terror inflicted on blacks, and for that all whites were more or less responsible. It is for the injustice they inflicted rather than the injuries they suffered that southern whites figure most prominently in these pages.

For the all-white state legislatures of 1865 the foremost problem, overriding all others, was the control of black labor. They passed severe black codes requiring all blacks to have written evidence of employment, forcing them to sign labor contracts calling for work from sunup to sundown, making any freedman skipping contract subject to arrest by any white citizen, banning blacks from leaving plantations, and some prohibiting them from renting or owning land. Nearly all the southern states enacted sweeping vagrancy laws and laws making vaguely defined offenses such as “insulting gestures” or “malicious mischief” punishable by compulsory plantation labor. They also expanded the convict lease system to supply state prisoners as cheap labor to employers. The purpose of it all was to get the former slaves back to work on much the same terms as before. In effect, the coercion that the planters were prohibited from using to control labor was now provided by the state. “If you call this Freedom,” wrote a black army veteran, “what did you call Slavery?”

Under conservative, or presidential, Reconstruction southern whites were guaranteed a virtual free hand in control of their affairs and the coercion of black labor. They found new limits to President Johnson’s tolerance in such matters. Under his administration the US Army and the Freedmens Bureau often proved instruments of coercion. While some bureau agents supported the freedmen’s demand for confiscation and distribution of land to the landless as the only hope for real freedom, the bureau was compelled not only to renounce such plans but to return to the original owners many grants of land already made to freedmen. Obsessed with the aim of keeping blacks in order, President Johnson abandoned his earlier idea of humbling the political and economic power of the planter aristocrats and instead virtually turned things over to them. “In the end,” as Foner writes, “their policies envisioned less a New South than an improved version of the old.”

  1. 1

    A newly published example is Richard N. Current, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers (Oxford University Press, 1988).

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