Understanding Reconstruction - A Historiography

America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

As the United States entered the 20th century, Reconstruction slowly receded into popular memory. Historians began to debate its results. William Dunning and John W. Burgess led the first group to offer a coherent and structured argument. Along with their students at Columbia University, Dunning, Burgess, and their retinue created a historical school of thought known as the Dunning School. This interpretation of Reconstruction placed it firmly in the category of historical blunder.

Why did the Dunning School blame Radical Republicans and Freedmen for Reconstruction's failure?

According to the Dunning School, the defeated South accepted its fate and wished to rejoin the national culture. Thus, white Southerners sincerely hoped to offer the emancipated freedmen rights and protection along with equal opportunity. However, the bullying efforts of the Radical Republicans in Congress (inspired by their inherent disgust for the South) forced black suffrage, corruption, and economic dependence on the South. Carpetbaggers, scalawags, and uneducated freedmen plunged the South into depression and confusion until the white South banded together to reclaim southern culture and heritage.

While the Radical Republicans were the apparent villains, Dunning and his followers ascribed blame to President Johnson as well, saddling him with responsibility for Reconstruction’s failure. Freedmen were portrayed as animalistic or easily manipulated, therefore, lacking the kind of agency they indeed exhibited. While certainly influenced by the day's racial bias, the Dunning School at least formulated a coherent argument (although an incredibly inaccurate and distasteful one) that refused to fragment. This model of unity did prove somewhat valuable to historians following Dunning, even if their historical research opposed the Dunning School’s argument, “For all their faults, it is ironic that the best Dunning studies did, at least, attempt to synthesize the social, political, and economic aspects of the period.” In contrast, the Progressive historians that followed the Dunning School disagreed with some of its interpretations. President Johnson was not to blame, but rather, the Northern Radical Republicans were at fault. They cynically used freedmen's civil rights as a means to force capitalism and economic dependence on the South.

Why was W.E.B. Du Bois's reassessment of Reconstruction so important?

W.E.B. Du Bois - 1917

However, one work stands out from this period as a harbinger of what was to come. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. Du Bois chastised historians for ignoring the central figures of Reconstruction, the freedmen. Moreover, Du Bois pointedly remarked on the prevailing racial bias of the historical inquiry up to that moment, “One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers toward Reconstruction; they cannot conceive of Negroes as men.” Du Bois’s indictment served as a precursor for the explosion of revisionist history of the 1960s, which would latch onto the argument of Du Bois and refocus the debate concerning Reconstruction to include the central figures of the freedmen.

The revisionists of the 1960s viewed Reconstruction's heroes to be the Southern freedmen and the Radical Republicans. Instead of going too far, Reconstruction failed to be radical enough. According to revisionists, Reconstruction was tragic not because it went too far and handcuffed white southerners; it was tragic because it was unable to securely secure the rights of freedmen and failed to restructure Southern society through land reform and similar measures. Following on the heels of the Revisionist School were the Post-Revisionists who viewed Reconstruction as overly conservative. This conservatism failed to achieve any lasting influence; thus, once Reconstruction ended, the South returned to its old social and economic structures.

What is the Modern Interpretation of Reconstruction?

So, where has that left historians today? How do more recent historians interpret Reconstruction? Several leading historians (James McPherson, Eric Foner, Emory Thomas) have labeled either the Civil War or Reconstruction as a second American revolution. Eric Foner’s work Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution openly claims Reconstruction to be a break from traditional systems (social, political, economic) prevailing in the South.

In contrast, Emory Thomas’s The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience argues the South first underwent a “conservative revolution” in breaking away from the Union since it broke from the North not to redefine itself but to maintain the status quo of the South. Ironically, according to Thomas, this first “external” revolution was subsumed by a more radical “internal” revolution during the Civil War as the South attempted to urbanize, industrialize and modernize to compete with the North. Thus, whether consciously or not, the Confederacy's leaders looked to recreate the South in a way that mirrored the North in several ways. However, this brief example illustrates the differences among historians and the current scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Perhaps, the best place to start might be with conditions between the North and South before the outbreak of war in 1861.

James McPherson provides a convincing account of the growing differences between the North and South on the eve of the war. McPherson, author of Battle Cry for Freedom (considered in some circles as the preeminent account of the Civil War), is frequently acknowledged as a leading if not the leading historian in Civil War studies today. In an essay for Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction entitled, “The Differences between the Antebellum North and South,” McPherson argues that the South had not changed, but the North had. According to McPherson, the Southern states had remained loyal to the Jeffersonian interpretation of republicanism. Instead of investing in manufacturing and industry, they reinvested in agrarian pursuits. Southern culture emphasized traditional values, patronage, and ties of kinship.

Moreover, low Southern literacy rates and its labor-intensive economy were not unique. Thus, the “folk culture” of the South valued tradition and stability. Education was available to only the upper classes, who often sent children to elite schools. Simultaneously, political dissent was not popular since the political system rested on the foundation of patronage. In contrast, the North modernized through industrialization. Manufacturing and industry overtook the agrarian pursuits of Northern farmers. Education, unlike in the South, occupied a high position in society. Many Northerners saw education as a means of social mobility. More importantly, the North reinterpreted its ideas concerning republicanism. Accordingly, Northerners increasingly claimed to identify with egalitarian, free-market capitalism, which could only be maintained through a strong central government.

Northern republicanism was opposed to the Southern belief in republicanism emphasizing limited government and property rights, not to mention Southern anti-manufacturing sensibilities. Additionally, the more capital intensive economy of the North relied on wage labor and immigration. Two economic and social variables absent from the South. The rise of wage labor placed wager earners in the North in opposition to the system of slavery in the South, and the rising population of the North (from immigration) increased tensions between the two regions. Along with these differences, the West of America was growing rapidly in the image of the North. Resulting from the influence and growth of railroads, trade relations were no longer centered on the North/South relationship but East to West.

Emory Thomas’s work, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, supports much of McPherson’s argument. Like McPherson, Thomas acknowledges the South’s political structure resting on the ideology of states’ rights, agrarianism, and slavery. Politically, the south valued stability over reform. Thus, dissent was not a valuable political commodity.

Moreover, the political system held a foundation based on the patronage of the planter class. According to Thomas, the South’s initial break from the Union was inspired by the hope that the South might preserve its traditions and institutions. Led by radical “fire-eaters,” Southern politicians incited animosity between the North and South, “They made a ‘conservative revolution’ to preserve the antebellum status quo, but they made a revolution just the same. The ‘fire-eaters’ employed classic revolutionary tactics in their agitation for secession. And the Confederates were no fewer rebels than their grandfathers had been in 1776”.

However, this initial ‘conservative revolution’ inspired by radicals was overtaken by the moderates of the political south who recognized the need for change. If the Confederacy were to survive economically, politically, and socially, they would mount their internal revolution. Peter Kolchin’s work American Slavery 1619-1877upholds much of McPherson’s and Thomas’ arguments concerning the South’s increasingly entrenched society. Kolchin’s work attempts to synthesize the prevailing studies of the day concerning slavery in America. Divided into three sections (colonial America and the American Revolution, antebellum South, and Civil War and Reconstruction)

Kolchin weaves historians' arguments past and present into a coherent work that examines several aspects of slavery. Concerning politics and reform, Kolchin notes, “The ‘perfectionist spirit’ that undergirded so much of the Northern reform effort in antebellum years, the drive continues to improve both social organization and the very human character itself, was largely absent in the South."

Moreover, politically, Kolchin remarks on the non-democratic nature of the South, “antebellum Southern sociopolitical thought harbored profoundly anti-democratic currents … More common than outright attacks on democracy were denunciations of fanatical reformism and appealed to conservatism, order, and tradition.” Also, the access to education among Southerners was limited at best, “Advocates of public education, for example, made little headway in their drive to persuade Southern state legislatures to emulate their northern counterparts and establish statewide public schooling … it was only after the Civil War that public education became widely available in the South.”

How did the Civil War Change the South's Social Structure?

In general, Thomas points out three areas of change political, economic, and social. The economic reform was extreme. As the Civil War commenced, the south had neither a large industrial complex nor many large urban areas (New Orleans stands as the lone exception). Jefferson Davis and others saw the need for increased industry and urbanization, “A nation of farmers knew the frustration of going hungry, but Southern industry made great strides. And Southern cities swelled in size and importance. Cotton, once king, became a pawn in the Confederate South. The emphasis on manufacturing and urbanization came too little, too late. But compared to the antebellum South, the Confederate South underwent nothing short of an economic revolution.”

Charles Dew’s work, Bond of Iron supports this viewpoint. Dew’s work documents both slave and master's experience at an industrial metalworking forge in Virginia known as Buffalo Forge. Repeatedly, throughout the work, the southern industry is portrayed as anemic at best. When the Civil War unfolds, Buffalo Forge becomes a few industrial sources of iron within the South. To obtain maximum profit, William Weaver, the forges’ owner, used this scarcity to increase the iron prices. Ironically though, Dew’s work points out the difficulties in industrializing through slave labor. Slavery failed to encourage innovation. Rather stability was seen as the optimum end.

Thus, once Weaver had assembled some 70 slaves, he no longer looked to improve industrial efficiency or examine technological advancements. “After he acquired and trained a group of skilled slave artisans in the 1820s and 1830s and had his ironworks functioning successfully, Weaver displayed little interest in trying to improve the technology of ironmaking at Buffalo Forge … The emphasis was on stability, not innovation. Slavery, in short, seems to have exerted a profoundly conservative influence on the manufacturing process at Buffalo Forge, and one suspects that similar circumstances prevailed at industrial establishments throughout the slave South.” Thus, Dew’s assertion would render the Confederacy’s attempt to industrialize increasingly tricky since the Southern labor system was not conducive to optimum industrial efficiency. Additionally, the Confederacy’s attempt to industrialize, urbanize, and in general, command the Southern economy contrasts sharply with its belief in states’ rights federal authority. Through such management of the economy, the Confederate leaders were contradicting themselves, yet the war called for such measures.

According to Thomas, such reorganization did not limit itself to the economic field. Southern women were no longer confined to the home, “Southern women climbed down from their pedestals and became refugees, went to work in factories, or assumed the responsibility for managing farms.” This hardly seems to be a radical premise since this cycle repeats itself nationally during both World Wars of the 20th century.

Besides, class consciousness began to form in the minds of the “proletariat” “Under the strain of wartime some “un Southern” rents appeared in the fabric of Southern society. The very process of renting what had been harmonious—mass meetings, riots, resistance to Confederate law and order—was the most visible manifestation of the social unsettlement within the Confederate South. Whether caused by heightened class awareness, disaffection with the “cause,” or frustration with physical privation, domestic tumults bore witness to the social ferment which replaced antebellum stability.” Of course, Thomas is careful to couch this class consciousness with limits, “This is not to imply that the Confederate south seethed with labor unrest; it is rather to say that working men in the Confederacy asserted themselves to a degree unknown in the antebellum period.”

Regarding social mobility, the South was forced to embrace meritocracy, at least in the area of military matters. No doubt, at the war’s beginning, the planter class dominated the military. However, as Thomas points out, “Before the war entered its second year, martial merit had challenged planter pedigree in the Confederate command structure. And combat provided ample opportunity for Southerners of all backgrounds to earn, confirm, or forfeit their spurs.” Again, Thomas limits his language, noting that martial merit “challenged” the aristocratic system rather than replacing it. The planter class still held a powerful position, “Still, the Confederate army was at the same time an agency of both democracy and aristocracy. Members of the planter class often won the elections to company commands.” Thus, the reader is left wondering what is meant by revolution since Thomas seems to be saying that the South revolutionizes during the war but then retreats from its revolution once the war comes to its conclusion.

Therefore, would this not serve more aptly as an example of wartime necessities undertaken for war but not intended for permanence? One might respond that such cases begin the process of change since historically, once people are granted rights or freedoms, it proves to be quite difficult to reclaim such rights, mobility, or freedoms. However, one last point concerning social mobility must be made. Considering the conditions of trade for the South during the war, new ways of the trade needed to be located. Such avenues to wealth did provide many southerners previously excluded from the planter class to ascend the ladder of social mobility once new avenues or means to profit were established, “Those who were able to take advantage of new opportunities in trade and industry became wealthy and powerful men … Not only did exemplary men rise from commonplace to prominence in the Confederate period; statistical evidence tends to confirm that the Confederate leadership as a whole came from non-planters.”

However, Thomas’s argument that the Civil War’s demands changed the nature of slavery in the South fails to convince. Thomas argues that increased responsibilities and rights given to slaves because of the War’s demands on the white population proved that the Confederacy was even willing to sacrifice slavery for independence, “White Southerners depended upon black Southerners to do more than till the fields and tend the campfires … As the war wore on the trend toward black labor became more pronounced. Every black man employed meant one more available white soldier .” While the nature of slavery was altered, it did so temporarily. The physical lack of people in rural and even urban areas was granted slaves increased autonomy. The war also demanded laborers, so the Confederacy was forced to pay slaves or hire them as workers (in case of labor shortage or some cases, strikes). Still, this did not change their legal status as property. Once the war ended, providing the South won, slavery would have gone back to its previous form. Thomas remarks on the effects of Reconstruction on his ‘southern revolution.’

However, while Thomas’s overall argument has strength, it has a weakness in that all the change he describes as revolutionary occurred strictly as a result of the Civil War. The United States’ experiences in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War illustrate the rubber band-like quality of wartime societal shifts. Shifts occur, but once the war ends, the shape returns with some alterations which might lead to true change but nothing revolutionary or sudden.

Similarly, Thomas argues that the suspension of civil liberties in the South was a radical departure from Southern culture. Suspension of civil liberties is a common wartime tactic (WWI, WWII). Lincoln did the same in the North. Thomas cannot use this as truly viable evidence of revolutionary change.

Was Reconstruction a Revolution?

Eric Foner in 2009

Eric Foner regards Reconstruction as a truly revolutionary period. Foner’s work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 focuses on four main themes concerning the evolution of the Reconstruction Period. Reconstruction aimed to provide a coherent synthesis combining recent scholarship and Foner’s conclusions to produce a comprehensive contemporary interpretation of the Reconstruction period.

However, within the work, several other central themes emerge. The “remodeling” of the South serves as a central theme in the work as Foner attempts to trace the efforts to restructure the South, “The second purpose of this study is to trace how southern society as a whole was remodeled, and to do so without neglecting the local variations in different parts of the South.” The emergence of new complex race and class relations throughout the South provides Foner another historical pillar to investigate. With the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and the changing nature of the South, racial and class attitudes set upon a difficult task of redefining race and race relations, a process that continues today. The influx of class and its twisted relationship to race into this volatile social mixture complicates Foner’s investigation, “The evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations, and the complex interconnection of race and class in the postwar South, form a third [pillar] of this book.”

However, further complicating this portion of Foner’s argument is the non-linear nature of race relations in the South. Rather as Foner illustrates throughout the book, race relations were subject to local variables that greatly influenced interactions. Moreover, advances did not proceed linearly. Instead, through complex social, political, and economic interactions between races, race relations gradually evolved at times progressing, while in other moments, regressing. African American freedmen fought for their freedoms and liberties even when white resistance turned violent and exclusionary. Its this constant push and pull effect that produces the racial structure of the postwar South.

Foner’s final two themes rest on a more national portrait of the postwar United States. The United States government emerged more with increased authority over the states. Thus, Foner attempts to explain the new role of the federal government and its increasing interest in its citizens' rights. Therefore, the activist nature of the Populists and Progressives finds its birthplace in the activist nature of the postwar United States government and, to some extent, Reconstruction itself.

The Reconstruction's final theme revolves around the influence of the North’s political and economic structure on the South. Foner’s spends less time on this theme than the others. However, as he notes, it does not lack importance, “finally, this study examines how changes in the North’s economy and class structure affected Reconstruction. Many of the processes and issues central to Southern Reconstruction – the consolidation of a new class structure, changes in the position of blacks, conflicts over access to the region’s economic resources were also present, in different forms, in the North … Reconstruction cannot be fully understood without attention to its distinctively Northern and national dimensions.”

Foner’s work's major strength lies in its attempt to sketch for the reader a process that Foner argues begins in 1863 with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In reality, Lincoln’s command held minimal legitimacy since it did not free slaves in the border states. Thus, Lincoln’s lack of authority over the South left his abolition of slavery a mere symbol in the Southern states. Despite this fact, Foner argues that “emancipation meant more than the end of a labor system, more even than the uncompensated liquidation of the nation’s largest concentration of private property … The demise of slavery inevitably threw open the most basic questions of the polity, economy, and society. Begun to preserve the Union, the war now portended a far-reaching transformation in Southern life and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American society and of the very meaning of freedom in the American republic.”

Thus, the Emancipation Proclamation catalyzed the eventual Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. Peter Kolchin interprets the effect of the Proclamation similarly, “the Emancipation Proclamation did not -immediately end slavery: the proclamation applied only to rebel territory – where the federal government could not enforce the law – and left untouched slaves held in loyal states. Nevertheless, the decree had enormous symbolic significance, transforming a conservative war to restore the Union into a revolutionary war to reconstruct it.” In a manner, Foner uses the Emancipation Proclamation to unite two possibly “revolutionary” periods into one: the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Since the Emancipation Proclamation occurs as a result of the Civil War, it serves as the bridge from the revolutionary experience of the Civil War to the revolutionary consequences of Reconstruction. In this way, the Civil War and Reconstruction can be viewed as similar to the French Revolution stages. Each with its own unique experience and results, yet both contributing to an overall movement or revolution. For freedmen, Reconstruction’s beginnings were auspicious. African American political grassroots activism exploded with increased political autonomy. In an essay for Major Problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction entitled “Black Reconstruction Leaders at the Grass Roots,” Foner reiterates much of his arguments concerning racial re-division relationships and the interaction between races. According to Foner, blacks joined associations like the Union League, attended conventions, participated in rallies, each of which contributed to the freedmen’s political knowledge and awareness. Among African Americans, this political mobilization was unprecedented and without rival. Most freed blacks looked to the federal government to protect and acknowledge equal rights since southern localities provided little protection or adopted hostile stances toward freedmen and freedwomen.

Reconstruction argues similarly, “But in 1867, politics emerged as the principal focus of black aspirations. The meteoric rise of the Union League reflected and channeled this political mobilization. By the end of 1867, it seemed, virtually every black voter in the South had enrolled in the Union League. The league’s main function, however, was political education” However, this political awareness did not mean that all Southerners appreciated it, nor did it necessarily lead to a better understanding between white and black Southerners, “Now as freedmen poured into the league, ‘the negro question’ disrupted some upcountry branches, leading many white members to withdraw altogether or retreat into segregated branches.” Such political activism redrew racial relationships and reorganized institutions. For example, the Union League’s acceptance of freedmen resulted in white flight or segregation among other branches, despite the small white farmer and the freedmen's obvious class similarities. Still, the political activism by freedmen and freedwomen signifies a great change in Southern society.

During Reconstruction, the most visible change in the South revolved both around race relations and labor. In Reconstruction, Foner argues that African Americans cared about more than just receiving just wages for their labor. Instead, freedmen wanted autonomy and land, “For blacks, the abolition of slavery meant not an escape from all labor, but an end to unrequited toil … To white predictions that they would not work, blacks responded that if any class could be characterized as ‘lazy,’ it was the planters … Yet, freedom meant more than simply receiving wages. Freedmen wished to take control of the conditions under which they labored, free themselves from the subordination of white authority, and carve out the greatest measure of economic autonomy” Foner’s argument finds support from several scholars. Jacqueline Jones's work Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow reiterates Foner’s claims. Although focusing on freedwomen's labor, Jones's work notes the differences in the meaning of freedom for black women compared to its meaning for African American men. According to Jones, black women found themselves obligated to familial concerns.

Thus they retreated from wage labor. However, despite the differing focus, Jones notes the desire for autonomy among African Americans. Freedmen wished to avoid the chain gang-like labor conditions of slavery. Therefore labor was reorganized by black laborers into “non-bureaucratic, self-regulatory, self-selecting peer groups.” Such demands by freedmen eventually would lead to the system of sharecropping. Unlike whites, black husbands and fathers viewed familial issues as another political issue of the day, such as land reform. Whites failed to share this vision and saw the “ethos of mutuality” as a threat to free labor and self-determination.

Harold D. Woodman also notes similar manifestations. However, it must be noted; Woodman refuses to use the term “revolutionary” for the Civil War and Reconstruction period. According to Woodman, historians must assess the quality of this change, not the amount. Woodman notes the need for reform in the former slave society. However, the reform needed was never produced. Bourgeoisie free labor was the basis of the new southern economy since the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War had destroyed the previous one. New roles for both slave and the planter arose, along with the need for new lines of authority.

As Foner attests, these new relations and lines of authority could only be created through constant give and take (strikes, work slowdown). Planters became businessmen and merchants, creating a new class of “capitalistic landlords.” Laborers developed new roles; wage labor became shared wages, which evolved into tenancy and then sharecropping. Woodman notes the change and its effects, which he argues were new business elites preventing opportunity, thus retarding the economy. In comparison, freedmen sharecropping failed to offer economic responsibility or entrepreneurship.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Reconstruction lay in white hopes for freedmen. Jones notes such in her work Soldiers of Light and Love, as many black communities chose African American teachers over white missionaries. Freedman wanted independence, privacy. Whites wanted freedmen to become like wage laborers in the North, adopting middle-class values. Freedmen focused more on land and the right to own their labor, to produce for themselves. In this way, sharecropping can be viewed as a compromise fought for by African Americans. While it failed to provide them with the economic independence they desired, it did grant them land and some autonomy. Thus, while this was a great change from the slave system, it failed to change African Americans' lives for the better significantly, nor did it advance the southern economy. Woodman refuses to acknowledge this as revolutionary, “Instead of chronicling quantity we must rather assess quality: the problem is not how much change but what kind of change.”

Why was Reconstruction was a Failure?

So, how successful was Reconstruction? Foner argues that Reconstruction proved revolutionary for a period but ultimately failed. “Here, however, we enter the realm of the purely speculative. What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed and that for blacks, its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure. For the nation as a whole, the collapse of Reconstruction was a tragedy that deeply affected the course of its future development.” Thomas views the final results of Reconstruction similarly but through a slightly different historical lens. According to Thomas, Reconstruction undid the revolutionary advances of the Confederacy, “Ironically, the internal revolution went to completion at the very time that the external revolution collapsed … The program of the radical Republicans may have failed to restructure Southern society. It may, in the end, have “sold out” the freedmen in the South. Reconstruction did succeed in frustrating the positive elements of the revolutionary Southern experience.”

Both historians view Reconstruction as a failure in two respects: the inability to guarantee freedmen their rights and the retardation of the Southern economy. However, while the political violence in the South (KKK) along with the legislation of black codes and Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of freedmen, lasting constitutional adjustments did lay the groundwork for future battles. The Reconstruction amendments did allow for African Americans to claim freedoms that were rightfully theirs with the gradual successes of the Civil Rights movement. The failure of Reconstruction resulted from several factors besides the two already mentioned. Foner points to the North’s new fascination with industrialization and labor conflict. The economics of which would shift the country’s attention away from the Reconstruction experience.

For all its failures, even Foner acknowledges the importance of Reconstruction in establishing the possibility for a more just America, “the institutions created or consolidated after the Civil War – the black family, school, and church – provided the base from which the modern civil rights revolution sprang. And for its legal strategy, the movement returned to the laws and amendments of Reconstruction.” Like Foner, Kolchin points out similar features of Post-Reconstruction America, “Even as blacks became the objects of intensified racial oppression, they struggled to remake their lives as free men and women and succeeded to a remarkable degree in their efforts to secure greater independence for themselves … In assessing these developments, the question of perspective remains critical: the South of 1910 was hardly the South they would have chosen … but it was far removed from the South of 1860.”


Thus, Reconstruction allowed African Americans to more fully express agency while still oppressed. It gave blacks the chance to counter such oppression more freely. Networks, communities, and relationships were all redefined and recreated. Again, just as Foner maintained, Kolchin remarks, “And in the years after World War II, again with the help of white allies, they spearheaded a “second Reconstruction” – grounded on the legal foundation provided by the first — to create an interracial society that would finally overcome the persistent legacy of slavery.”

Subsequent counterrevolutions have consumed many revolutions throughout history. The French Revolution ended with France in much the same state as when it began the revolution with the monarchy's reinstatement. However, France was forever changed. Retrenchment occurred, yet reform had started. Similarly, Reconstruction failed to achieve its original aim, yet, it altered the South and North forever. However, one cannot separate Reconstruction from the Civil War. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation connected the two events and united them in their revolutionary purpose.

Both Thomas and Foner are correct when they view both events as revolutionary. The legislation passed during Reconstruction stands as the tangible result that allowed for the Civil Rights movement's legalistic protests. Thus, the Civil War allowed for the passage of such legislation, with Reconstruction providing the historical moment to ratify such measures. While Harold Woodman correctly asserts that the quality of change should be the measuring stick by which Reconstruction is judged, his denial of its gradual influence misses the point. When the FDR sent Works Progress Administration agents into the “black belt” during the Great Depression, former slaves (in interviews) repeatedly recalled both the disappointments of Reconstruction but also its accomplishments. Reconstruction and the Civil War provided the light at the end of the tunnel for African Americans. While the tunnel has been long, difficult, and arduous, and the light has still to be reached, its intensity has grown so that America and its people are no longer in total darkness.

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

Updated December 8, 2020