Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

Summary: There is few parts of American history that are less understood but have more importance to modern political problems.

Over the past year, I have realized how large my historical blind spots have been from the end of the Civil War until roughly the Civil Rights era. That 100-year era was almost completely absent from my education, and I didn’t realize how much that absence mattered until I kept running up against that missing historical era when reading about modern racial issues.

When I asked around, multiple people suggested that I start with Eric Foner. He has several books that are roughly around this era, including a shorter edition of this book that is on sale right now. There are two editions of this book, and I picked the older edition because it was the one that was available on Audible as an audiobook. (The audiobook is poorly done, with lots of editing problems, mispronounced words, and sound issues.)

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution was originally published in 1988, nearly 30 years ago, with the conscious purpose of countering the myths of reconstruction that had grown up as part of the Lost Cause movement and the later Jim Crow and segregation eras. Much of the early history of Reconstruction was written in the 1920-50s from the perspective of Southern historians. Foner was the first major historian of the late 20th century to counter that myth (and I am using myth in the academic method as a founding story, not just as a false narrative.) Foner does note that WEB Dubois’s book, Black Reconstruction in America, had many similar themes but was largely ignored by academic historians who had adopted the common narrative for the failure of Reconstruction.

The short version of the book is that the failure of Reconstruction was a mix of economic problems, government corruption (this was present in both parties, but the Republicans as the majority party, and the party of former slave officeholders in the South was blamed more strongly) and fatigue of the problems of Reconstruction, not freed Black office holders, carpet baggers, and scalawags.

There were several major periods of Reconstruction. Foner starts in 1963, when the Union Army occupied large areas of the South and, under the Emancipation Proclamation, operated an Army-run Reconstruction until the war’s end. During this period and the next period, Foner suggests that there was far more self-directed movement among newly freed slaves to lift themselves up and build institutions and community than is generally assumed.

The second major period was Presidential Reconstruction from the end of the war until Congress was convened in December 1865, but essentially, there was little pushback against President Johnson’s actions until roughly the first quarter of 1866. Congressional Reconstruction ran from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 until its failure in 1877.

There is far too much history here to summarize. So I want to comment on a couple of the book’s themes. First, there was really not a widespread cultural shift at the end of the war,ite Northerners or plantation Southerners; both either among Wh were still predominately (not exclusively, but predominately) operating under a concept of White Supremacy. It ranged from a soft paternalism that attempted to educate and train former slaves to a hard version that viewed former slaves as little more than animals. That cultural attitude was not widely addressed, and the above reasons for the end of Reconstruction make it easy to see how Reconstruction failed.

The myth of reconstruction is that slaves right after slavery were lost and in need of help. There was poverty and economic devastation in the wake of the Civil War, but many slaves actually did fairly well; they established churches and schools and subsistence farming very quickly. But soon, the African-American schools were absorbed into government school systems or Northern charity schools, and the African-American teachers were pushed out. That happened less with Black churches, but Black-controlled institutions that grew up in the years soon after the end of the Civil War were either overtly terrorized by armed violence or were quietly absorbed into White institutions, and Black leadership was pushed out.

Corruption was a huge governmental problem in the post-Civil War. Part of what led me to pick up this book was reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt largely made his name and reputation fighting government corruption. That same corruption that he fought was part of the reality of Reconstruction. Some Reconstruction funds were misused. But a bigger problem with government investment in railroads and other infrastructure projects. Much of the investments were designed more to make legislators and businesses rich than to improve local states’ overall economy or infrastructure.

This was made worse by historic inequities in southern tax systems. Large plantations often paid little or no taxes, while independent small businesses or low-income individuals paid a significant percentage of their income in taxes. In the wake of the devastation after the Civil War, there was no cash to pay taxes. The previous bias against taxes (with government backing of railroad bonds, which later failed) left many states near bankruptcy. The lack of funds then cut into legitimate projects like local schools.

It is amazing to read how much many White Planters and businesses expected to be able to treat former slaves as if nothing had changed. One of the first movements of freed slaves was to form legal families. The breakup of informal families before the Civil War (mostly through slave sales but also through other owner restrictions) was a great indignity that former slaves wanted to prevent. Many women dropped out of the labor force, and many children were enrolled in schools. Under slavery, group arrangements for food, clothing, and housing were more economically efficient but were a vestige of slavery. Families wanted to cook independently and have their own homes and garden plots. Employers wanted women and children to work in the fields. Employment contracts attempted to control marriage, what employees did off their work time, to require all adults (and sometimes children) in employees’ homes to work during harvest, etc. In short, return to a virtual slavery.

Former slaves wanted to focus on subsistence farms, buy land if possible, and in many cases, stay away from labor situations that had overseers (and the desire to keep women out of the field was in part to protect them from the sexual abuse and rape that was common by White overseers). It is hard for me to think that the Northern business assumption was that free labor would be more efficient than slave labor. Slave labor was controlled, beaten, and literally owned. Freed labor was trying to establish institutions and lives outside of cotton. The myth of the “˜lazy negro’ was really a result of former slaves not desiring to spend 18-20 hours a day working in the field under whips and threats of death. But White Supremacy as a cultural idea meant that both Southern Whites and Northern business people presumed that former slaves should not be allowed to enter into their own labor contracts, and even when allowed to enter freely into labor contracts, the lower yields in crops were used as an example, not of the problems of the cotton system or slavery, but of lazy workers that needed government intervention.

Some of the labor laws (the Black Codes) that were passed after Reconstruction were frankly incredible. These included:

  • Opposition to labor unions.
  • Government or private ability to remove children and bind children or teens to unpaid labor for training.
  • Disrespect of authority became a crime that could require a year of forced labor apprenticeships (Some required apprenticeships were of non-minors).
  • Labor contract sometimes included rights of boss to require approval of purchases.
  • Some labor contracts required all adults in household to work when called (compelling women to work against their will and weakening marriage boundaries).
  • Required job contract for a full year, and making civil contract of labor a criminal liability. Not having a labor contract was a crime, violating a labor contract was a crime, competing for a contract or negotiating a contract was a crime.
  • Petty theft was made a significant crime. Part of the issue here is that some theft was made up. Some was “˜theft’ where the freeman was stealing the equivalent of wages that were withheld for trumped up reasons. But again, the focus was on keeping blacks as laborers and not owners
  • Licensing requirements that only allowed Blacks to work as farm labor. Any skilled black workers were blocked out of the economy through licensing requirements that were unevenly applied only against non-Whites. This particularly hurt communities Blacks that were free before the war and those that were more likely to be educated (i.e. those that were more likely to have ability to protest, write, and become community leaders.)
  • Pastors were required to be licensed and approved, this was sometimes a continuation of pre-war policy, but for the same basic reasons.
  • Hunting was restricted (as was collecting of berries and other wild foods) in order to prevent substance work outside of regular labor contracts. In Georgia, hunting was banned on Sundays, which was the only day off for most field laborers. Gun ownership was banned and the use of dogs for hunting was restricted.

Already in 1867, there was a movement away from public education so that Black children would not be educated, or at least not at public expense. In another case, Blacks were taxed separately for Black schools while White schools were paid for out of general tax funds, which included taxes by paid by Blacks. In the only state with a wide spread public education system it was disbanded and private systems that was still tax supported but in a way that kept Black children out also eliminated the education of poor White students.

One interesting issue is that there was discussion about whether newly freed slaves would be better served by breaking apart large plantations and giving each former slave land or whether they would be better off in the long term with the right to vote, many of the radical Republicans believed that suffrage (the right to vote) was more important. It was thought that both was impossible, because breaking up land required federal government confiscation of land, which would make it politically impossible to bring the former Confederate states back into the government. Universal (male) suffrage was acceptable to the South, only if there was weak Federal government control of the process of return of the states.

What is ironic is that in the method, former slave both did not get land and only a few years later, the right to vote was significantly restricted, in part because of lack of economic opportunities available. And the end of political Reconstruction was largely based on Northern resistance to Federal enforcement of voting rights. Black voters were intimidated, threatened and killed and in some cases winning officials were simply ignored and losing officials forced their way into office through violence. After several years of voting intimidation and violence of the KKK and other groups, the Reconstruction era was over and the rise of Jim Crow and legal segregation arose. It took approximately 80 years after the fall of Reconstruction until the rise of the modern Civil Rights movement to reassert Black voting rights, which eventually required federal oversight, something that was not politically possible in 1877.

As I said above, the audio quality of the audiobook was poor. And because this book focused on many states that were often moving in similar, but not exactly the same direction, it felt a bit repetitive at times. I wish I would have read the second edition (I really wish that the second edition had a good audiobook) to see if some of the writing had been cleaned up.

But there was more than enough here to help me see holes in my understanding and to feed into areas where I need to read more.

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook


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