January 22

Blog #134 – Reconstruction as relevant as ever

I don’t like to give you just a two-pronged choice, because logically, there are more than two choices to choose from.  So, what I’d like you to do is weigh the evidence that we looked at during our debate, in the Reconstruction stations activity, Dr. Foner’s article on why Reconstruction matters still, your chapter 15 reading, and make your own decisions about Reconstruction’s successes and failures.

In the old school or William Dunning interpretation (or Group A’s position in the debate), Reconstruction was a miserable failure that blundered in giving freedmen their rights (which they weren’t ready for for a variety of reasons, but usually racist theories about intelligence and human nature), but Andrew Johnson and the Klan were portrayed as the heroes of the era because they tried to ease the country back together painlessly (Johnson) and pushed for restoration of home rule (Klan).   Reconstruction governments were filled with scalawags and carpetbaggers who corrupted the states and raised taxes.  The true victims here during this period were Southern whites.  In this old school, we see a major critique of the federal government’s expansion and exercise of federal power over the states.  Behind much of this interpretation is the opinion that was popular at the turn of the 20th Century that white people of Anglo-Saxon (English) or Northern European descent were superior to the rest of the world.  We see a lot of this nonsense in the silent blockbuster from 1915, Birth of a Nation (link here if you wanna check it out), and the epic Gone With the Wind in 1939.  Part of the reason that this Dunning School of Reconstruction had such a lasting impact was that there was a huge push towards reconciliation in the late 19th Century, all the way into the 1950s when younger historians began reexamining the records of the times and came to different conclusions.

The Black Experience During the Reconstruction Era | by Vanessa Holloway | Arc Digital


Black historians like W.E.B. DuBois in the early 20th Century depicted Reconstruction as a tragedy (much like Group B in the debate) because of its failure to secure civil rights for African Americans throughout the country in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction (link to the audio book on YouTube here).  While he stated that there were minor successes like education for Black Americans, he lamented the violence that racist whites inflicted upon Black Americans – lynching had reached peak numbers in the 1890s, and white society attributed this to inherent Black criminality (but we all know the real story). Reconstruction | Definition, Summary, Timeline & Facts | Britannica


Under some of the new interpretations, especially the Progressive and Neo-Progressive / New Left historians in the 20th Century, the Dunning interpretation is flipped on its head.  Andrew Johnson was a racist who stood in the way of the idealist Radical Republicans who wanted to give freedmen their full and equal rights.  The Klan was not the protector of the South but a haphazard terrorist organization that kept blacks from voting and intimated both whites and blacks in the South.  And the Southern state governments, Republican by nature, may or may not have helped out the freedmen.  One thing is certain: the governments, from the local (Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall) and state all the way up to the federal level (see the Grant administration) were corrupt.  Moral standards were low during this time period and many people (as we’ll see in one of our next units) are in it to make a quick million or two.  Here is an extended interview with historian Eric Foner on Reconstruction.

Klan newspaper cartoon

Your task: Discuss your interpretation of Reconstruction on its successes and failures.  Use specific evidence from the notes, articles, and readings that we have used to back up your ideas. 

Due Monday, January 25th by class.  Minimum of 300 words for your total answer.  

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Posted January 22, 2021 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs

52 thoughts on “Blog #134 – Reconstruction as relevant as ever

  1. Theodore Little

    I believe that Reconstruction was not a tragic era because it did have some lasting cultural impact. But we cannot ignore the fact that there were some problems. America just decided not to be ready for civil rights for all people for whatever reason. Reconstruction was seen by early historians as the lowest point of American democracy. It also sparked the beginning of Jim Crow laws. These laws encouraged white supremacy in the US, leading to the support of groups and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Because freedmen were quickly being integrated into white society, racism and hatred for black people led to white people to fight back on the progressiveness of the country. This developed Jim Crow laws, which were basically state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. This greatly slowed the progress of the Reconstruction Era. Laws like literacy tests would also be made to slow down African American voters. Some other problems that occurred were the establishment of a corrupt southern government, southern whites supported new regimes and the freed Black Americans were unfit to exercise democratic rights, even though the amendments said otherwise. Having said this I still believe if i t weren’t for this era then we wouldn’t be as far as we are today. Freedmen were given the right to vote. Black men were able to hold powerful positions. Reconstruction also was the foundation to the civil rights movement. By the mid 20th century, the civil rights movement was underway. Many of the amendments ratified during the Reconstruction era were used to progress the civil rights movement. On top of all that, African Americans were able to get an education with historically black colleges and black churches.

  2. Matt Fayz

    Reconstruction made leaps in education, culture, and the position of black people in society. It was undoubtedly a step up from slavery in nearly every regard and yet, I still view reconstruction as a failure, because at every turn and decision that could have helped black people in the United States, virtually every single one was turned down or done at the expense of black people, their standards of living improved only because of the hellish and inhumane one they had before and attempts to establish a foothold in society from them, not by reconstruction efforts by the federal government which often had limited or peeled back their protection of freedmen from racial terrorism and discrimination in favor of political compromise. Reconstruction was a failure because of what it didn’t do, and the peeling back of protection for black people during that time, which resulted in the terrorism and systems that held black people down in society until many of these institutions were abolished or limited during Civil Rights, but much of racial inequality in wealth today is a remnant or perhaps evidence of still-active systems that stemmed from Jim Crow, which started during reconstruction. People sometimes cite corruption and exploitation of the South from the North as the real tragedy of reconstruction and while to a degree these things existed and hurt the South, the vast majority of harmful actions or lack of action that came from the federal government or supreme court wasn’t due to corruption in any way, and white southerners today are still much wealthier on average then the average black american. The constant state of terror that black communities were afraid of due to white supremacist attacks and massacres left led to the suppression of black people in politics, entrepeneurship, integration, and success in general which stifled black success and social mobility. Reconstruction was a failure as the government passed on or repealed nearly every act that was beneficial to African Americans very often for political compromise, and this failure outweighs the gains that black people got independently for the most part from the federal government. A failure not just because of what it did but what it didn’t do.

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