Reconstruction : America's unfinished revolution, 1863-1877

by Eric Foner

Paper Book, 1988

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Harper & Row, c1988.

Description

Historian Eric Foner chronicles the way in which Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. He addresses the quest of emancipated slaves searching for economic autonomy and equal citizenship, and describes the remodeling of Southern society, the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations, and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
The United States has always been a heterogeneous nation, right from the beginning; its politics has always reflected that fact. Nowhere is this more evident than in the period known in US history as Reconstruction, which took place between 1865 and 1877. Though relative short, it was a turbulent time, as everyone--politicians North and South as well as newly freed slaves tried to define what exactly “freedom” meant. At that time, while there was widespread agreement in the North about emancipation, most of the country, the North included, was divided on what “freedom” meant. Foner divides the concept into four areas: economic, civil, political, social. All of these meant something different to the lives of blacks; Foner goes into great detail both what each meant to freedmen (ex-slaves) and freeborn alike.

Possibly the single most important event that shaped Reconstruction happened right at the beginning--the assassination of Lincoln, which elevated Andrew Johnson to the Presidency in 1865. Much of what happened in Reconstruction followed from this single event, and Foner does a brilliant job of recounting the consequences.

There is so much to this book that it’s difficult to put it in a single review. For me, among the most memorable sections were: the violence--not just by the Ku Klux Klan but by other armed gangs of whites-against blacks, massacring blacks to prevent them from voting; the association of the Republican Party, which had been one that represented smallholders and independent merchants, free labor, with corporations, especially railroads, and banks; the violence and overt racism of the Democratic party throughout the country; the suffragette movement; the shift, especially among poor white Southerners, from independent landholding to working for wages; the origin of sharecropping; the increased protests of labor and the violence with which it was put down, North and South; the vast corruption both North and South with both parties; and so much more.

Foner writes extremely well, but the book is so jammed with information that it reads slowly. I found I could not read more than 25 pages a day without going on overload. However, the effort is more than amply repaid with understanding.

Much of what we see today in the US either has its origins or was mirrored in this period. For in-depth understanding of the political and social history of a critical period, this book is a must own and must read.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
It seems like the definitive work on post-Civil War reconstruction. It looks at every aspect, reading with more narrative than specific argument, this is essential for anyone looking at this era or, in my opinion, the Civil Rights movement, which is the legacy of Reconstruction.
LibraryThing member cblaker
Essential book on the Reconstruction. Very well-researched, only drawback is that maybe it has too many details and is a bit long. It's very unfortunate how the hopes of freedmen and women started so high and they were completely let down.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Foner's excellent history is a critical discussion of the time period immediately after the Civil War, which was characterized by intensive and unpunished violence against free blacks, as well as the progressive narrowing of black's political and social options. A stunning rejoinder to anyone who claims blacks didn't want to learn, didn't want to work, didn't want to have family life. And a stunning indictment of the whites who prevented all of that, and tried to make the loss of the Civil War into a victory by enslaving blacks in ignorance and prison chains (and thus enabling the continuance of their free labor). (JAF)… (more)
LibraryThing member dougwood57
Eric Foner's essential work on the post-Civil War American South. I'm not a fan of alternate histories, but this book makes you ponder 'what could have been' if Reconstruction had been more successful. Much like the early days of the English revolution when "for a short time, ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and social superiors than they had ever been before, or were for a long time to be again", so former slaves briefly experienced unprecedented freedom and political power. (See Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down). Ex-slaves had made tremendous strides in political and to a lesser extent economic power, but the white North lost interest and called the troops home. Southern white elites reasserted their power with violence if necesssary. Jim Crow soon followed.… (more)
LibraryThing member elle.wilson
Anything by the great historian Eric Foner is worth reading, but this is my favorite by far. I'd read plenty on Reconstruction prior, but didn't really get a real grasp on the politics of it until I read this.
LibraryThing member billiecat
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member kcshankd
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.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
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.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
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.
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LibraryThing member busterrll
Good book but hard reading Wish I had a better knowledge of reconstruction politics. Spot read after a bit, but full of information. Will save and try to reread after reading more on Pres.Johnson.
LibraryThing member LarrySouders
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.

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