December 9

Blog #141 – Reconstruction Historiography

You’re probably wondering, what in the world is historiography?  How different is it from history itself?  Well, in essence, it’s the history of the history of a topic or time period.  Historiography analyzes how history has been written in the past and how different interpretations of events.  For instance, historians in the 1850s would look at the events of the American Revolution differently than historians in the 1950s and those in 2020.  Each historian is shaped by their own biases and time period – for instance, if a historian wrote during a time period where there was economic turmoil and depression, those current events might likely shape how that historian views older events.  Also, the study of American history before the 1950s had been predominantly a white male enterprise which only focused primarily on political, economic, and diplomatic topics, but since the 1950s and the Civil Rights Movement, more and more female historians and historians of color entered the field who showed a light on peoples’ stories that hadn’t been told before by white male historians.  They also expanded the field of history to include social, cultural, and women’s histories.  Here is a quote on the importance of historiography:

“Historiography allows us to understand the wide range of historical interpretations and how differing perspectives have shaped the representations of historical fact. It helps us adopt a more critical lens in understanding history as relative, as a subject that has been manipulated by those telling it and reclaimed by those who have participated in it. It encourages to seek out the biases in historical accounts and understand the subjective nature of historical writing.” (citation).

So, the period of Reconstruction is one that had been dominated by a racist view of the leading historians of the time period until the 1950s.  Essentially, it was written from a white Southerner point of view, and Reconstruction was seen as a tragic era where Southern whites were the victims of incompetent Blacks and corrupt white Republicans.  Early Black historians like William Wells Brown and George Washington Williams writing in the 1870s and 1880s saw the period as tragic because the freedmen had been elevated beyond their previous status without proper preparation: “The government gave him [the freedmen] the statute-book when he ought to have had the spelling book; placed him in the Legislature when he ought to have been in the school-house.” (Williams).  They thought that the establishment of public schools in the South was one of the only good things to come out of Reconstruction.Opinion | The Lost Promise of Reconstruction - The New York Times

One fictional work that influenced the upcoming Dunning School of Reconstruction (see video below) was the popular novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon in 1905.  It was an “unabashed celebration of the Ku Klux Klan” that saved the South from Radical Republicans’ attempt to “Africanize” the South.  This novel served as the basis for the hugely popular film, Birth of a Nation, released in 1915 to wide acclaim and massive audiences.

In the old school or William Dunning interpretation, 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 previously mentioned 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, and William Dunning’s book on Reconstruction was full of heavily researched details which set the standard for Reconstruction histories going forward.

In the 20th Century, Black historians like W.E.B. DuBois depicted Reconstruction as a tragedy 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 in Alabama | Encyclopedia of Alabama

Later on in the mid to late 20th Century, 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 intimidated 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 who wrote the most influential book on Reconstruction in the past 40 years (also one of my favorite living historians).


Your job: Discuss the importance of historiography, and think about whether or not Reconstruction was a success of a failure.  Use your notes, readings of primary sources and the textbook, articles and videos (Reconstruction: The Revolution That Failed among others) to back up your thoughts on this topic.

Due Wednesday, December 15 by class.  Your response should be a minimum of 300 words. 

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Posted December 9, 2021 by geoffwickersham in category Blogs

54 thoughts on “Blog #141 – Reconstruction Historiography

  1. Briana Kim

    Histography is a key piece in helping to understand both the ideas and the morals of people in the different periods throughout history. Historiography also studies the way that history was analyzed depending on the political ideals of that specific time period. An example of this is Reconstruction, which was originally depicted with the white supremacist groups being the heroes, whereas this perspective has shifted into a belief that these groups were racist, cruel, and enormously violent to black people.

    I think that although reconstruction made minor progress at the start with the emancipation and different amendments, as evident by the proof of the information tied back using Historiography in the final paragraph explaining the small successes and establishments the freed people were able to create such as the church and more education services. This slowly lost its enthusiasm and progress back-stepped as many of the white southerners were very displeased with these new amendments, this motivated them to create loopholes and many other methods which were made to diminish the power of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Specifically, in the portrait, it’s described how not only were polls rigged, but they were also moved places and times simply to prevent blacks from voting. Furthermore, when the nonviolent methods failed to prove effective they turned to aggressive and hostile groups such as the KKK who were portrayed as protectors according to the Portrait, however, are now seen as a hostile racist and terroristic group. These hostile groups were not the only thing that suppressed blacks, another thing was their lack of rights along with the needed help to support such rights and the government not keeping their end of the bargain of their compromised landand. Although Reconstruction was able to bring the union together, many of the political, economic, and social divides between the whites and the blacks grew and their rights were taken through unjust means making it increasingly more difficult to “reconstruct” our nation.

  2. Ronnie

    Histiography is important because it seeks to remove biases and misinterpretations of the truth and what actually happened in history. This is important because history and information tends to overtime be manipulated because a variety of reasons that include things like wanting to make someone or something being different than it actually was or misinterpreted through human errors.Getting to what actually happened and knowing the truth of history is important so that we may study and form a objective understanding of what happened. This is important for us as historians so we d not make the same mistakes as other historians had and manipulate the truth which in turn causes misunderstandings and problems long term in the future for future historians. These problems could include misdirected thoughts and feelings towards certain people or things in history when really they should be looked at in another way that’s based on facts and the truth and not lies and misinformation. I think reconstruction was not a success. I think reconstruction was not a success because of its long term affects that it has had. During reconstruction blacks only had experienced the good parts of reconstruction for a short time until lax enforcement of black suffrage and the 14th and 15th amendment and the losing interest in the reconstruction idea itself and the rise of white violence and supremacy had taken ahold and had negatively affected reconstruction. Because the North’s attitude towards blacks over time had gotten more t negative because they felt as if they were coddling blacks or spoonfeeding them they had gotten more irritated and had lost interest in helping them. In the south because of the positive things at the beginning that were happening for black people, whites had gotten really upset because they thought blacks would be able to advance possibly even farther than them in life and they had no control over them anymore they had become increasingly hateful and violent toward blacks. Lastly over time because of the energy that was being used towards reconstruction and not producing any satisfactory results the North overtime lost interest in the reconstruction.

  3. Loghan Smith

    1.The knowledge of historiography is important because it helps people understand why historical events have been told in different ways over time. Historiography helps us look into the different details of history and help us determine ourselves the correct recording of historical events. With history being interpreted in different ways by people who were never inches close to actually experiencing it, it’s difficult to get the truthful information about a certain event. This specific method of interpreting history encourages learners to “discover new biases in new historical accounts”. The information changes over time. For example slavery, slavery in textbooks we see a very innocent definition of slavery. It’s described as an act where Africans were taken to America as “workers” and totally dismisses all the horrific challenges slaves had to endure. Writers like historians all rewrite the same historical topics over again with completely separate perspectives.

    2.Historiography has a big effect on perspectives on whether the reconstruction was a success or failure. Reconstruction can be seen as either a success or failure from different sides. Things that feed into that decision consist of slavery, racism, and kkk being the leader of southern states. A southerner’s view on reconstruction was that it was simply a tragic era where white people were victimized by African Americans and corrupted by republicans. Others view reconstruction as the more common view, that it was indeed tragic. But it was tragic because the government and racist white people put African Americans into government positions without any preparations or expertise. Reconstruction was sometimes viewed as a positive or success by using the idea that African Americans were given new opportunities like an education and larger roles in government. An event portrayed in the blog was a similar almost identical historical event with just two different reasons for their observations.

    3.Personally, in my opinion, reconstruction was a failure. As African Americans began to gain more freedom, white people became more enraged and it became a dangerous thing to be able to experience common tasks such as voting. Almost more dangerous than slavery. White people made it their mission to try and keep African Americans from being normal human beings. They put fear into African Americans who now feared of being lynched, beaten, falsely accused, and terrorized causing further more horrendous events.

  4. Gabby Stallings

    Historiography is extremely important. It not only helps historians to understand how/why certain ideas and events were viewed differently over time and what caused certain views to gradually change, but it also gives us better and credible perspectives from former biased information. It helps us determine when information we’ve learned from old sources isn’t a credible source anymore from a biased point of view. It allows us to rewrite history better and make better records for future events that will happen. Bias in textbooks and the way history is told is a huge obstacle in the learning process for us kids in school. We get taught false perspectives and hear about stories through the white man’s eyes. This causes kids to believe certain events in history weren’t as bad as it actually was or we praise white figures that have contributed more negative than positive. A perfect example of this happening is through the story of Christopher Columbus. In the history textbooks we read, we learned to praise him for his amazing discoveries and bravery and we believed he discovered America for us. In reality, he sold 9-10 year old girls into sexual slavery, he murdered, raped, kidnapped, enslaved, mutilated, and tortured innocent people to get that land which was stolen (not “discovered”) from indigenous people that did nothing to him or any of his people. Not to mention the fact that he didn’t even step foot in America. But yet my 10 year old sister comes home from school on “Columbus Day”, saying we’re celerating Christopher Columbus for discovering land for us because that’s what she was taught in her school textbooks.
    I believe that everything negative always has a positive outcome or perspective to it. We often undermine the positive side to things but there’s always a positive and negative to everything. I especially believe that nothing can ever be a failure, including Reconstruction. Yes, the purpose and main goal for reconstruction was not achieved and the end result ended up being very different than it’s first expectations; however, it had lots of positives that did end up helping our country be better. No more slavery and black independence, we gained school systems, better tax legislation, better laws pertaining to discrimination, etc.

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