Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson; drawing by David Levine

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.”

Northern opinion, initially supporting President Johnson, turned against him when the South’s violence against the freedmen and the infamy of the black codes became known. While racial bias was strong in the North, strong enough to defeat black suffrage repeatedly in several states, and to support laws excluding blacks from others, resentment mounted against southern policies that made a mockery of the sons the Union sacrificed to win the Civil War. Rebel outrages and defiance of law would not be tolerated. Opinion turned to support of the Radical Republicans. A few extremists of this faction were for bloody vengeance, a liquidation of the planter class, and some, led by Thaddeus Stevens, demanded confiscation and distribution of their lands to the freedmen. But Professor Foner holds that “the driving force of Radical ideology” was not vengeance but a “utopian vision,” the vision of extending “equality of civil and political rights” to all citizens. With whatever mixture of motives (and a political party bereft of the normal instincts of self-aggrandizement is hard to imagine) the Radicals in Congress impeached the President, passed the Civil Rights Act, wrote the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and added black suffrage, “the most radical element” required of the South. To Eric Foner the program was “indeed a radical departure, a stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy” and in view of the freedmen’s inexperience, “an astonishing leap of faith.”

There follows an account of Radical Reconstruction that acknowledges its maddening intermixture of idealism and cynicism, wild hopes and sordid motives, but insists on its redeeming features. The freedmen, for all their ignorance, “demonstrate political shrewdness and independence and the ability to use the ballot”; the carpetbaggers, despite their stereotype as Yankee scum, “tended to be well educated and middle class in origin,” and, with unfortunate exceptions, no more corrupt than the run of politicians in their time. The scalawags, the southern Republicans who supported Reconstruction, though castigated in the South as traitors and “white negroes,” included men of prominence and members of some of the South’s wealthiest families. Of the 113 white Republican congressmen from the South, carpetbaggers furnished 60, scalawags 53. Together with their black allies, the Radicals rewrote the state constitutions, swept away such relics of the past as the whipping post, established the South’s first state-funded public schools, assumed public responsibility for the care of dependents once assumed on the plantation, and laid foundations for civil and political equality and equal justice before the law.

Along with all this, however, Republicans revealed the internal divisions and factional wars that plagued them from the start. Radical blacks demanded that white-owned land be confiscated but engaged in infighting with other blacks. White Republicans divided into carpetbag and scalawag factions and engaged in byzantine struggles that mainly concerned patronage and office. On these political sources many propertyless Republicans were entirely dependent for a living. One faction preached a “gospel of prosperity” that invited in northern capital and opened endless opportunities for bribery and plunder. The collapse of the states’ credit seriously hampered their governments’ ability to finance the ambitious programs they had undertaken. And even worse, “widespread corruption undermined the effort to establish their political legitimacy.”

The claim on legitimacy of the Reconstruction state governments in the eyes of white southerners was weak enough in any case, for they were regarded from the start by the majority as alien interlopers imposed on them by their conquerors in betrayal of peace terms and supported by an illicit constituency of ex-slaves. Corruption merely handed the white South a potent issue that appealed to northern conservatives as well. Many southerners were as ready to resort to force and terror to overthrow Reconstruction governments as they had been to force freedmen back to the cotton fields. The Ku Klux Klan was one of several such terrorist organizations that were entrenched in nearly every southern state by 1870. Contrary to myth, the Klan membership crossed class lines, was not limited to white trash, and had upper-class members and leaders. They did not stop with threats and demonstrations but went on to whip and beat with extreme brutality, to rape and lynch, and to murder in cold blood. Of the 263 black members of state constitutional conventions at least one tenth became victims of violence, seven of them murdered. Albion W. Tourgée, the carpetbagger judge in North Carolina, counted seven hundred beatings and twelve murders in his judicial district. Trial and conviction of the criminals were all but nonexistent. The public would not cooperate with the police, and Klansmen perjured themselves to provide alibis for one another.

What then of retaliation by freedmen, some of whom had military training? Unburdened by heroic myths of an older generation, Professor Foner is quite aware that slavery “did not produce a broad tradition of violent retaliation against abuse,” and that “freedmen proved far less prone than whites to commit violent acts.” White Republicans were not so heroic themselves and often resorted to a policy of submission or conciliation. Weakened by factionalism and corruption, Republican control unraveled early in some states without the pressure of terror, and in others the Klan set about smashing the party’s organizations. Their only hope of salvation lay in Washington and in northern support. But in a North that had imposed black suffrage on all southern states there were only eight states that allowed the tiny number of blacks in their own population to vote as late as 1868. By then apathy and reaction toward the great southern experiment prevailed. Congress eventually responded with enforcement laws and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, and the force of federal law and troops was brought to bear. Only a few hundred of the guilty thousands were convicted and punished, but that was enough to hold down the Klan.

The future of southern Radicals nevertheless looked bleak during Grant’s second administration. In a mood of “sectional reconciliation”—that is, convergence of upper-class views of the North and South—northern interest in the freedman’s plight declined and so did patience with tragicomic episodes of factional wars in the Republican party and calls for more intervention on the freedman’s behalf. Grant moved to avoid more intervention, and the Supreme Court fell in line with decisions absolving the federal government from the obligation to protect many rights granted freedmen. The liberal press joined conservatives in pronouncing black suffrage a mistake and Radical Reconstruction a failure. In that frame of mind the northern part of the Republican party abandoned the more idealistic aims by which it had justified a civil war; it left hapless black and white Republicans of the South to shift for themselves, and stood aside while the conservative whites overthrew the remaining Republican state governments and “redeemed” the South. The party of Lincoln then nominated for President Rutherford B. Hayes, a candidate thoroughly in tune with the times; it elected him with a minority of popular votes and a probable minority of electoral votes (hotly contested and competitively bought), and, with a moral bankruptcy too convoluted to unfold here, inaugurated him. Which brought Reconstruction to an irrevocable and inglorious end.

Eric Foner has put together this terrible story with greater cogency and power, I believe, than has been brought to the subject heretofore. He avoids ideological skids, freeloading hindsight, and mirages of certitude. He uses and fully acknowledges the voluminous work of his predecessors, and anyone familiar with the manuscript sources can see that he has also cut a maze of tunnels through the vast archives of the period. This shows in his book. It is an achievement that should be spared reductive slurs and hints of bias. To propose approaches and sources and new perspectives that might have been used is to risk unintended appearance of the very reductiveness I wish to avoid. But what is known as “progress” in historiography usually takes off from perceived oversights of the “old school.” As I suggested earlier, Foner’s book brings to distinguished fruition one great cycle of Reconstruction historiography. For the Reconstruction period (or, indeed, for the period immediately following it), the time would thus seem ripe to consider what course the next cycle, that of the fin de siècle perhaps, might take. This will also serve to place the assumptions and methods of the completed cycle in a new light.

All of the old schools examined the postemancipation crisis of American slavery in national isolation. That was a convention of the historians’ guild rather than a deliberate shirking of duty. Whether intended or not, this often left the implication that the failure and betrayal and moral outrage were peculiar to the United States and attributable to the weakness of national institutions or to the wickedness of particular American classes, regions, or parties. It is true that the American experience was unique in many ways, most notably for following hard upon a bitter civil war. But there have been as many reconstructions of some kind as there have been emancipations, and there have been dozens of emancipations in modern history. Surely something might be learned from comparison of our experience with that of numerous other slave societies.

A pioneer in the neglected field of comparative emancipations is a Dutch scholar, Wilhelmina Kloosterboer, who has ranged over all continents, including the two Americas and the West Indies. Her conclusion is that all over the world some system of involuntary or forced labor has replaced slavery after abolition:

Where slavery had been widespread, emancipation was followed by the imposition of drastic measures to retain a labour force. Apart from other stipulations there was almost in all cases a decree against “vagrancy” (Jamaica, Mauritius, South Africa, the United States, the Portuguese colonies, etc.) which in effect always amounted to compulsory labour when strictly applied.2

The equivalent of the South’s black codes appeared everywhere. The purpose in all cases was to compel the freedmen to return to the fields, mines, factories they had worked as slaves. The rule was not limited to oppression of one race by another. Blacks of Haiti abolished slavery by revolution, but their black leaders drove them back to the fields under armed black guards. Peonage and debt bondage were common forms of coercion, and in the Congo Free State sheer terror was the sole resort.

The universality of postslavery oppression certainly does not excuse it anywhere, and we continue to live with a widely held expectation of something better to come out of America. Reconstruction left an undeniable blot on the American conscience and national history, and continues to feed smoldering fires of moral recrimination. At least the comparative view places recrimination in a broader setting and removes the stigma of uniqueness. Unless, of course, we cling to the myth of American exceptionalism, plead immunity from forces controlling destiny of the common lot of mankind, and seek within our own borders all determinant forces in our history.

Another foreign scholar, this one an Englishman, has come forth with such an internal explanation for the failure of American Reconstruction. William Brock finds the key in our antiquated Constitution and its anachronistic checks and balances and loopholes of states’ rights. A proper British-style constitution, he suggests, would have permitted “a drastic solution imposed by a simple majority unhampered by checks and balances.”3 Again comparison sheds needed light. In fact one has only to think of Great Britain’s own experience in Jamaica, where emancipation was followed by a harsh system of forced labor called apprenticeship that differed little from slavery. 4 That was followed by an oppressive regime of whites in the name of home rule that was sometimes as defiant of a proper British constitution as any states-rights Mississippians were of Washington and the Fourteenth Amendment. Constitutional styles do not seem to be a very helpful explanation of failure.

Radicals then and later have argued that the real explanation was a failure of revolutionary nerve, that the drastic changes sought were essentially revolutionary in character, but that the Radical Republicans were not radical enough, that they lacked the courage of their convictions and failed to follow through with revolutionary acts and deeds. The subtitle of the present volume, “America’s Unfinished Revolution,” suggests that line of thought. It also suggests a hypothesis that the next cycle of historians might test: Would outright revolutionary methods have converted Reconstruction’s failure into success?

A favorite measure of the revolutionary sort long held to be the key to successful Reconstruction was the confiscation and redistribution of rebel estates. Thaddeus Stevens’s bill to that end called for taking over 394 million of the 465 million acres in the rebel states, using about one tenth of that to provide each adult male freedman 40 acres, selling the remaining nine tenths to the highest bidders, and using the proceeds for pensions to Union veterans and discharging three quarters of the national debt. The bill was defeated but has had champions ever since who have held its defeat responsible for the failure of Reconstruction and its passing the only real hope of success.

For a test of this hypothesis we turn again to comparison, this time with contemporaneous events within our own borders. The same federal administration, with the same Congress under the same party that administered Reconstruction and would have administered the Stevens land bill had it passed, actually did adopt and administer a much larger public land distribution, more than half the total area of the nation, the Homestead Act, a noble dream of free land for free labor. The history of its administration would not seem to bode well for freedmen in the Stevens bill. The homesteaders in the West, in fact, got short shrift. The railroads got four times as much land as the homesteaders in the first forty years; the speculators usually took their pick of the rest, and homesteaders got the poor leavings, if any. It is conceivable that would-be black homesteaders of the South would have received better treatment at the hands of the same government agents and land speculators; but since nine tenths of the southern land was reserved for speculation, the probability is that they would have fared much worse than the western homesteaders. Even when Congress did pass a Southern Homestead Act opening public land in five states to freedmen excluding ex-Confederates, only a relative handful of blacks were able to get lands before Congress reversed itself and opened the door to unrestricted speculation. So the revolutionary Stevens bill may not have been either the key to success nor may its defeat have been the reason for the failure of Reconstruction.

There remains one more revolutionary hypothesis to test. Stevens hinted at it with his promise to “drive her nobility into exile” and to do in “the proud, bloated, and defiant rebels.” In any real revolution, even in the American Revolution, that has been normal procedure. Whether it was another failure of nerve or not, Radicals dropped the idea. No heads rolled, and the defiant rebels ultimately triumphed. Might not history have been reversed had the enemy class been liquidated in proper revolutionary fashion? Avoiding messier alternatives, suppose the whole lot of them, defiant planters, Klansmen, and all, had been exiled to the American Siberia providentially provided in 1867 by the Alaska Purchase from Russia. And for good measure suppose that all Copperheads and racists of the North were rounded up in temporary concentration camps—out West somewhere. Freed of all such opposition and substituting true Yankee believers for the exiled traitors to administer their policies, Radicals in the South would surely have at last been crowned with the success of their efforts.

To test this hypothesis we make one final resort to comparison—this one to another effort of white reformers to bring justice and fairness to people of color, only in this instance the theater was in the West instead of the South and the skins of the colored beneficiaries were red instead of black. The western experiment was conducted simultaneously with the southern in the 1860s and 1870s and the personnel employed, army and civilian, were interchangeable. Many saw service in both West and South. A major difference was that the western effort was not plagued by nightriders and die-hard reactionaries and terrorists who had recently owned the redskins as property.

Was our armchair liquidation of this class in the South justified by experience in the West? As it turned out, the redskins received much the same treatment as the blackskins. They were promised land (theirs to start with), and the land was taken away; they were promised equality and denied it; they were promised integration and were segregated more rigidly than the blacks. White supremacy was as rigidly enforced in the West as in the South, and the Indians were humiliated as much as the blacks. When they offered armed resistance they were ruthlessly cut down by superior force. Perhaps liquidation of the ex-Confederates was ill-advised after all. Revolutionists have made mistakes before.

None of these speculations has found why Reconstruction failed. The implications have been rather negative concerning its prospects, but together they have probably raised more questions than they have answered. They are certainly not meant to suggest that Reconstruction was inevitably doomed to failure, or that our ancestors might not have done better than they did. Nor do they imply that historians have failed in their duty. Only that the next cycle of historians coming on have some unanswered questions on their hands.

This Issue

May 12, 1988