A response to Columbia professor Eric Foner’s 1983 article, “The New View of Reconstruction”, from the American Heritage Magazine (Volume 34, Issue 6).
Historiography is the study of the writing of history. How has the narrative of Reconstruction has changed over time and why? Why does this matter?
In the 1900s, Reconstruction was seen as a somewhat successful readmission of southern states into the US but a cause of major economic, political, and social tensions. People celebrated the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments (in order these amendments: abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, defined citizenship and gave basic rights to all citizens, and granted the right to vote to all men regardless of race). Lincoln became a hero and was recognized for his actions as president during the Civil War. This is a period that’s typically glossed over in US history courses because our classes are more aimed towards the violence and action of war but not the aftermath.
What’s wildly strange to me is that some schools up to 1960 were teaching that Republicans wanted to ‘take over’ the South through ‘black supremacy’, as mentioned by Foner’s article. (Just to be clear, the Republican and Democratic Party switched platforms so when I’m referring to the Republican Party in this article, I’m talking about Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s party and the party, not the modern 21st century Republican Party. And when I refer to the Democrats, I’m talking about Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee’s party.) This idea spun out of racist stereotypes mainly belonging to Democrat white supremacists from the deep South of the 1800s and was popularized by literature and media glorifying controversial events and figures, as well as primary and secondary education within the country.
During the last century, there was a belief that it was these radical Republicans (or just ‘Radicals’), scalawags (white southerners who were in favor of Reconstruction- they were often viewed as traitors), and carpetbaggers (white northerners who migrated south for economic and political opportunities) who ended Reconstruction. In reality, it was a number of factors, many of which started long before the era of Reconstruction. The most immediate cause was the Election of 1876 and Compromise of 1877 which resulted in the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, winning at the expense of pulling the federal troops out of the former Confederate states. Why this ended Reconstruction was because it allowed former Confederates to partake in government, since the military was no longer there to prevent this from happening, leading to increased suppression of black Americans and the failure of Reconstruction.
Today, we look at Reconstruction with a more well-rounded assessment, though it’s far from complete. Historians have reevaluated reconstruction from the black American perspective which has helped diversify America’s once mainly white, male narrative. In addition to that, it helps to look at leadership in the government. President Andrew Johnson is considered a large factor pushing against reconstruction and reconciliation between the former Union and Confederacy. His overuse of the veto, compiled with racist attitudes and stubbornness to revolutionize, hindered growth and mitigation of Civil War scars. The ‘Radicals’ (such as Representative Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner) are no longer considered tyrants who wanted to usurp government power. Rather, they’re celebrated and hailed as martyrs as Lincoln has been for the past 150 years. And today, we hold the actions of hate groups and domestic terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan accountable. Limitive clauses that prevented truly equal black suffrage like the Grandfather Clause and Literacy Test, the Jim Crow Laws and the Black Codes are now almost inconceivable.
Unfortunately, racism hasn’t ended even though we’ve fought wars and lost hundreds of thousands of lives to dismantle this prejudicial, mutating cancer. Time and again, we see repeats of the injustices committed against racial minorities. But the system fails. The system has failed to address many of the issues leftover since the first slave was introduced to the colonies in 1619. Changing perceptions of history is absolutely essential to the present and future of our nation because it allows evaluations and reevaluations of the thoughts and feelings of the time. Despite America’s ugly past, more people are seeing it for what it truly is and areaccepting that acknowledging the past can lead to a better future.
I’m certainly not an expert on American history, nor am I a very good writer but I wanted to share a few thoughts I had. Amidst the increasingly popular movements for civil justice, it's good to sit back and think “where did this all start?” and wander through history, looking for answers.