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. 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 …

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Letters

Comparative History June 2, 1988