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Historiography of the Reconstruction Era Essay

At a time when America was trying to piece itself back together, the Reconstruction Era is one of the most important chapters in history. It is also, however, one of the most debated. After the Civil War, the South was devastated and thousands of freed slaves needed to be integrated into society. When Andrew Johnson took office, he was moderate in his views as to what should happen to restore order to the United States. However, some Republicans had other plans in mind. They wanted to impose harsher terms and used Congress to do so, justly giving them the name Radical Republicans. Opinions about this time period have swung back and forth between America’s most prominent of historians. Through the years, the different theories suggested about Reconstruction have been entirely conflicting, with one side calling it a failure while another calls it a success. Perhaps this chapter in history is so hotly contested because of the dramatic changes that have occurred in black society over the years.

As society changes and new information rolls in, writers see former events through a new lens. The first view, brought up by William Dunning in 1907, categorized Reconstruction as a disaster because of the corruption of Radical Republicans. 30 years later, revisionists such as Vann C. Woodward challenged that notion, claiming that Reconstruction failed because of economic reasons, not because of corruption. During the 1960s, neoabolitionists such as John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp suggested that Reconstruction was not a failure at all; rather, it left a legacy that eventually brought on the Civil Rights Movement. The most current view, held by historians such as Heather C. Richardson, claims that Reconstruction affected the entire nation, not just the South, and that most of the change has been positive.

The first view to emerge, spearheaded by William Archibald Dunning, labeled the Reconstruction as a failure because of the corruption of Radical Republicans and corruption in the government. In his book Reconstruction, Political and Economic, published in 1907, Dunning painted a dreadful picture of Radical Republicans, claiming that they only wanted to punish the Southern rebels and that they cared about nothing except keeping their party in power. To do so, the Radical Republicans pushed President Johnson aside and “gained a firm control of all branches of state governments.” To assure their power, they pushed for black suffrage. Since the South was under military rule, the “military authorities assumed the duty of promoting in every way participation [in voting] by the blacks.” Dunning believed that voting power was put into the hands of people who were illiterate, ignorant, and “unfit for the task,” an idea that was “unconceivable to the southerners.”

He concluded, “Hence…a craving for political power was assumed to be the only explanation for an otherwise unintelligible proceeding.” Dunning and his students resolved that the only reason why the 15th Amendment was ratified was because the Radical Republicans needed the black vote to keep their power. In the end, Dunning states why the Reconstruction was a failure, “The party, then, which triumphed in the making of constitutions…consisted chiefly of freedmen, led by the detested ‘carpet-baggers’…and the even more detested ‘scalawags.’” The people in control of the government were corrupt and cared only for their own needs. After analyzing William Dunning, it is somewhat understandable as to why he held such a grim view of Radical Republicans. He lived during a time (1857-1922) when corruption in Republican government was a recurrent problem, which is why he held an unpleasant view of them. Also, the students that created the “Dunning school” and helped him formulate his theories were all from South, so there was much bias in the help he received.

Unbeknownst to him, his opinion about the Reconstruction would shape people’s views for generations to come. In schools, Reconstruction was taught as a failure well into the 20th century. Dunning’s work popularized derogatory terms such as “carpetbagger” and “scalawag.” Soon, his academic view of Reconstruction became the widespread view held by everyone around the country as movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind became popular. These movies portrayed Reconstruction as an era of tragic exploitation of the South by the North. They depicted blacks as being ignorant and pathetic savages, upholding the picture that Dunning first painted. In short, Dunning’s theory had a massive impact on the way the average citizen viewed black people and offered an excuse to continue to deny them their rights for years to come. It wasn’t until the 1930s when some historians, such as Vann C. Woodward, began to significantly challenge Dunning’s traditional view of Reconstruction. During 1910, there an attempt by W.E.B. Du Bois to counter his opinion but the attempt did not hold.

In Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois argues that the corruption spoken about was highly exaggerated and that Dunning overlooked many of Reconstruction’s achievements. Historians disregarded what Du Bois had to say because his use of the Marxist theory and because he was seen as a radical at the time. It was not until 20 years later when other historians, known as revisionists, began to echo Du Bois’ arguments. While these revisionists still saw Reconstruction as a failure, they disagreed with Dunning on the causes. Woodward argued that Reconstruction failed because the Radical Republicans failed to provide a secure economic base for the freed slaves, and not because they were vindictively power hungry. Revisionists also began to reexamine some of the ‘failures’ as successes. They pointed out that the Radical Republicans did achieve some positive developments such as creating new constitutions (many of which survived) and introducing social reforms such as public education in the South.

Another point that revisionists challenged was the ideology that one of the reasons Reconstruction failed was because illiterate blacks could vote. Woodward brought up the point that not all blacks were illiterate and inexperienced. Furthermore, blacks only gained lower positions of power in state governments so there was not much they could do to affect legislation. Woodward’s opinions on Reconstruction were affected by his education. The director of his dissertation was Howard K. Beale, one of the leading advocates for the economic theory as to why Reconstruction failed. Other historians of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s changed their views because they were informed by World War I and World War II. Seeing black soldiers fight in these wars made historians reexamine a critical time in black history and alter their opinions on Reconstruction. Only positive feedback came out of this. While they still viewed Reconstruction as a failure, revisionists’ work became grounds for changing popular opinion about blacks and it laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

During the 1960s, a momentously new outlook of Reconstruction emerged, led by neoabolitionists such as John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and Eric Foner. These historians were the first to suggest that maybe the Reconstruction Era was not a failure after all. These historians agreed with the revisionists on many issues such as how “Negroes were not in control of the state government at any time anywhere in the South.” While the visions of these two groups of historians aligned on many issues, one major point they disagreed on was what they considered a failure and what they considered a success. Stampp explains how it was a success economically because “it consolidate[ed] the position of American industrial capitalism.” Politically, he further explains, Reconstruction “was also a success. It produc[ed] the most democratic governments in the South [and] promot[ed] the promise of equal rights.” In fact, all neoabolitionists agree that Reconstruction was a success in all areas except one: the real failure, they say, lies in the fact that “in spite of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the Negroes were denied equal civil and political rights.”

In his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Foner argued that Reconstruction was never truly completed, and that a “second Reconstruction” was needed in 1960s to complete the goal of full equality for blacks. It is obvious as to why neoabolitionists held such a bold view of Reconstruction: they lived to see the Civil Rights Movement. Even John Hope Franklin served on the NAACP, working on their legal defense team. Seeing blacks fight and win for their rights made historians everywhere reconsider the Reconstruction. Neoabolitionists’ opinions had a positive effect on society. Renouncing the idea that Reconstruction failed because of ignorant and helpless blacks changed the popular opinion of blacks and made it easier for people to sympathize and accept the changes caused by the Civil Rights Movement. The most recent scholarship, works written by historians such as Heather Cox Richardson and David Blight has only added to the neoabolitionists’ altered view of Reconstruction’s failures and successes.

In The Death of Reconstruction, Richardson explains how the entire nation was changed by the Reconstruction with “most of [the changes] tak[ing] place in the North,” not the South. While Dunning saw the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments as things that negatively affected the nation, current historians consider them the era’s most successful of achievements. Since the 1960s, the issue of civil rights has grown to a very large degree, explaining why current historians hold such a drastically different view from historians during the 1900s. The effect of their views has been that popular opinion has only looked more positively toward the issue of equal rights to all. Scholarship on the Reconstruction Era has changed radically over the years, however, its historiography has left much unsaid. Most of the major works concerning this issue revolved around the same subjects. They all spoke of Radical Republicans, black men, and white men. With so many new lenses to look through, historians should consider how other factors may have affected Reconstruction.

How were the youth involved in the Reconstruction? Did non-US citizens affect any of the state governments? How did men of other race react during Reconstruction? It is too simplistic to say that Radical Republicans, black men, and white men were the only factors to contribute to what occurred during this great chapter of American history. Writers should reconsider what other factors were present and further complicate the nature of this time period. Perhaps after analyzing women’s right, historians will conclude that Reconstruction also failed women as well as blacks. Another area that has not been thoroughly address is how has Reconstruction affected other sectors in today’s society? How has Reconstruction shaped popular opinion on the issue of today’s immigration? How has it effected the feminist movement?

Perhaps if blacks gained their full rights during Reconstruction, women would have gained their rights much sooner than they did. While this short time period in history has been discussed extensively, it has not been discussed extensively enough and leaves many questions to be answered. Opinions about the Reconstruction Era have varied greatly over the years, ranging from labeling it as a failure to labeling it as a success. The first view, offered by William Dunning, characterized Reconstruction as unsuccessful because of the corruption of Radical Republicans. During the 1930s, historians such as Vann C. Woodward claimed the reasons behind its failure lay in the fact that Radical Republicans did not provide a secure economic base for the freed slaves, not because they were power hungry as Dunning first suggested.

During the 1960s, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement, neoabolitionists such as John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and Eric Foner introduced the idea that the only failure of Reconstruction was not granting blacks their full rights until the 1960s. Analyzing the historiography of the Reconstruction is important because many of the policies put in place back then still affect us today. For example, with an influx of immigrants coming into the United States, the topics of civil rights and citizenship have been brought up time and time again. By looking at Reconstruction, legislators can learn from the mistakes of those before them and make the right decisions for today’s society.

Dunning, William Archibald. Reconstruction: Political and Economic. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1907. Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961. Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001 Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

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