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Reconstruction: America's Unfinished…

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (2005)

by Eric Foner

Other authors: Henry Steele Commager (Introduction), Richard B. Morris (Introduction)

Series: The New American Nation (1.13)

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Eric Foner begins with an assessment of the historiography up to 1988. In the first decade of the 1900s, William Dunning and John W. Burgess articulated a history of Reconstruction that condemned Radical Republicans, Northern carpetbaggers, Southern scalawags, and freedmen. W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1935, and Howard Beale, in the 1940s, initiated the revisionist school, which cast Northern policymakers and freedmen in a more positive light. Foner writes of the revisionist school, “Reconstruction revisionism bore the mark of the modern civil rights movement” (Short History of Reconstruction, xiii). Despite their efforts to portray Reconstruction as a revolutionary moment, the social situation of the 1950s and 1960s belied that interpretation and fostered postrevisionist critiques. Foner admits the faults of the Dunning method, but believes it offered the best synthesis of the era. His work “aims to combine the Dunning School’s aspiration to a broad interpretive framework with the findings and concerns of recent scholarship” (xxiv). Summarizing the book’s impact in 2014, Foner wrote, “By the time my book appeared numerous scholars had exposed one or another weakness of the Dunning interpretation. Reconstruction was to drive the final nail into the coffin of the Dunning School and to offer an alternative account of the era” (Updated Edition,xxxi). Foner describes the impact of his work by citing historians who use the “unfinished revolution” framework to examine the disappointments of Reconstruction, including Stephen Kantrowitz’s More Than Freedom (Updated Edition, xl).
Foner presents a four-part argument in Reconstruction. First and foremost, he argues that African Americans “were active agents in the making of Reconstruction” (xxiv). Additionally, he argues that the changes during Reconstruction resulted from “a complex series of interactions among blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners, in which victories were often tentative and outcomes subject to challenge and revision” (xxv). Third, “racism was an intrinsic part of the progress of historical development, which affected and was affected by changes in the social and political order” (xxvi). Finally, the same economic and class changes that occurred in the South were simultaneously occurring in the North.
Elaborating on his first point, Foner writes, “Black soldiers played a crucial role not only in winning the Civil War, but in defining the war’s consequences. Their service helped transform the nation’s treatment of blacks and blacks’ conception of themselves” (8). Foner writes of black Republicans, “The spectacle of former slaves representing the lowcountry rice kingdom or the domain of Natchez cotton nabobs epitomized the political revolution wrought by Reconstruction” (355). When addressing class issues, Foner describes the conflict between elite and common Southerners as “a civil war within the Civil War” (15). Discussing the impact of racism on politics, Foner writes, “Even where blacks enjoyed greater influence within the party, Republican governors initially employed their influence to defeat civil rights bills or vetoed them when passed, fearing that such measures threatened the attempt to establish their administrations’ legitimacy by wooing white support” (370). Elaborating on his Southerners’ reactions to Northern involvement in the South, Foner argues against the traditional narrative of carpetbaggers, writing, “Despite instances of violent hostility or ostracism, most Southern planters recognized that Northern investment, ironically, was raising land prices and rescuing many former slaveholders from debt – in a word, stabilizing their class” (137). Foner describes the economic changes of Reconstruction, writing, “Republican rule subtly altered the balance of power in the rural South” (401), and planters, “once alone at the apex of Southern society, they now saw other groups rising in economic importance” (399). To Foner, the Northern Reconstruction involved increasing industrialization, government activism and public reform, wage-earning dominating jobs, new social opportunities for African Americans, and the rise of Gilded Age politics (460-511).
Foner draws upon various manuscripts and letters in archives throughout the United States, government documents such as Congressional records, newspapers, contemporary publications from the time of Reconstruction, and memoirs written after the fact. He also performs a great deal of synthesis of the various parts of the historiography, working to undo the legacy of the Dunning School’s racism. As Foner wrote in 2014, “Most books in the New American Nation Series summarize, often very ably, the current state of historical scholarship, rather than rely on new research” (Updated Edition, xxix). His contribution blends the two approaches. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 22, 2016 |
I can't remember ever reading a book that made me so mad, over and over. I of course knew what to expect, and yet managed to be repeatedly horrified at our ancestors' failures.

Political change is a grind it out, every day battle. Think Ho Chi Minh. There are no shortcuts. The Redeemers knew they weren't going anywhere, and the North would eventually tire of the war they 'won', and thereby lose the peace. And so it was.

A timely reminder to the Bernie Bros - winning the election is the START of the battle, not the finish. ( )
  kcshankd | Apr 22, 2016 |
Foner's examination of the Reconstruction era is a much-needed tonic in the these neo-Confederate days. But it is a tough and dense read. While the book is self-contained enough that a reader basically unfamiliar with the era can pick it up and follow along, it requires careful attention. These days it is also pretty depressing, Reading the chapters on the "Redemption" period, the advent of Jim Crow and voter suppression, I found myself unable to avoid seeing our modern nation, after Shelby County v. Holder, returning to this shameful past like a dog to its vomit. An important and necessary book. ( )
  billiecat | Feb 17, 2014 |
I’ve been reading Foner’s definitive account of Reconstruction off and on for the past 6 months and definitely had a love/hate relationship with this scholarly and dense book. Though parts were extremely readable and interesting and the whole book is impeccably and fairly researched, I also found large sections, especially those focusing on the corrupt politics of the time, to be terribly dry and hard to comprehend.

Foner’s book focuses on 1863, with the Emancipation Proclamation, to 1877, with the fall of the last Southern Republican governments. It was interesting to me that many of the same arguments still heard today were born and internalized in this era. There were many powerful arguments from all sides that government support of the recently freed slaves would only lead to never-ending dependence, and argument against welfare still heard today. Keep in mind this was after enslaving a whole people, denying them education, family, and any opportunity to learn to live independently. Also, towards the end of Reconstruction, laws were created and enforced only for blacks that effectively incarcerated a large percentage of black men, viewed by blacks as another way to enslave them. I couldn’t help comparing the sentiment to today’s current drug laws as explained in The New Jim Crow, one of the most eye-opening books on social justice I’ve ever read.

Reconstruction was largely a failure as most of us know. At the end of it, any efforts made at the beginning to create public education, enforce the legality of blacks voting, support freed slaves in earning a living, or include blacks in politics were reversed and opportunities were closed off. Racism was not the only factor in it’s failure; a severe economic depression, worker strikes in the north, inept Republican politicans (President Johnson most obviously), and of course the violence of the Ku Klux Klan all contributed to it’s failure. There were a few nominal positives in that in did establish a legal framework in the Constitution for the federal government to later (like, 100 years later!) intervene in the South and support the Civil Rights movement. Also, this was when black families finally got to strengthen after separation through slavery and the church and community developed where the civil rights movement would be born.

If you have any interest in this time period, this is the book to read. It is regarded as the first book to contradict the deplorable books previously written by “historians” who defended the decisions of the Confederate south and perpetuated the idea that the freed slaves and all blacks were not fit to be anything other than slaves or menial labor. It is quite shocking how long that viewpoint was regarded as scholarly truth. ( )
3 vote japaul22 | Jan 4, 2014 |
This writing shows the failure of the reconstruction period. The details of how the former slave owners regained their power in the development of the new South which wasn't much different than the old. ( )
  LarrySouders | Feb 10, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Eric Fonerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Commager, Henry SteeleIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Morris, Richard B.Introductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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On January 1, 1863, after a winter storm swept up the east coast of the United States, the sun rose in a cloudless sky over Washington, D.C.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060937165, Paperback)

This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:32 -0400)

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