U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Americans’ View of Reconstruction

As the semester begins to wind down, I am finishing my course in the first half of the U.S. history sequence. At the school where I teach, that course concludes with 1877 rather than 1865, which seems to be an increasingly widespread practice. Though the onward march of time pretty much guarantees that the midpoint of American history will continue to move forward, I do prefer a course that ends with Reconstruction over one that ends with the Civil War, independently of the amount of material to cover that each division would require.

The reason for this is that Reconstruction, to me, seems more like the end of something than the beginning of something. I am, no doubt, influenced in this view by Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, which details events in Mississipi in the early 1870s, and is the only full-length book that I assigned to my students in the course under discussion. Without delving too deeply into that particular work (which I would highly recommend, for teaching or reading), the subtitle alone should reveal Lemann’s line of interpretation: that to the extent that the Civil War was about improving the lot of African Americans (which was certainly not its only, or even its major, function), then it did not end in 1865. Nor, Lemann would add, did it conclude with a Union victory. “Reconstruction, which had wound up producing a lower-intensity continuation of the Civil War, was over. The South had won.”

Sean Wilentz, writing in the New York Times Book Review, took issue with parts of Lemann’s interpretation, arguing that the suggestion of a Confederate victory “diminishes the epochal importance of emancipation and secession’s defeat” and that the book’s unsympathetic treatment of President Grant is unfair. But one need not embrace the book’s more radical conclusions to find useful its frame that finds in the Reconstruction era the continuation of the Civil War by other means.

Lemann himself devotes the end of the book to contesting previous interpretations of Reconstruction in light of the story he has recounted. It would seem that he is particularly interested in overturning the conclusions of the Dunning school, under which Reconstruction failed due primarily to black incompetence and white Republican treachery and corruption. Though Lemann clearly and effectively makes the case that white Democratic violence was the more proximate cause of this failure, I was nonetheless left wondering why this particular understanding carried enough weight to inspire Lemann to write, in 2006, an entire book to refute it. I am no expert on the period, but I have not heard of a single contemporary historian who sees Reconstruction this way; in fact, I don’t think that this idea carries much weight in the popular historical imagination either.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe that the great danger with regard to Reconstruction is not that Americans might be overwhelmed by incorrect ideas of the period, but that they ignore it entirely. This concern motivated my approach to Lemann’s book with my class: I treated it as the most immediate way I could find to access a period of U.S. history whose significance, I suspected, was not in any way apparent to my students. Sure enough, after the unit was over I asked the class if Lemann had any reason to be concerned about these incorrect versions of Reconstruction being carried around in their heads.  Before taking our class, I asked, did any of them think that Reconstruction was the story of carpetbaggers and scalawags taking advantage of poor, misguided Negroes?  That didn’t get any response, so I asked how many had ever heard of Reconstruction before the class had started.  About half of the class raised their hands.

To be fair, I’ve never asked how many have heard of the Progressive Era, and would perhaps have received similar responses. My astoundingly unscientific sample might tell me more about generally poor historical awareness in the United States than a particular lack of understanding with regard to the decade after the Civil War. Nonetheless, Reconstruction is a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, and a complicated one at that. Most of my students had presumably taken U.S. history in high school, and one might think that they had at least heard the word in that setting. Upon further reflection, I couldn’t remember learning anything about Reconstruction in my own high school U.S. history class. Nor have I ever seen a History Channel or PBS documentary on the subject, or a movie set during the period (except, of course, The Birth of a Nation or any number of westerns).

Is there a received notion of Reconstruction? I don’t know. But I suspect that there is not, and I wonder if that might, in some ways, be as great a cause for concern as a distorted one.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I remember very distinctly what I learned about Reconstruction in high school because it was overturned so abruptly in undergrad. I went to a rural AZ school and we definitely learned a softened version of the Dunning School–I remember thinking that the radical Republicans treated Johnson very unfairly and that he had a great plan for the South. I find those thoughts so bizarre now that I study African American history and have the exact opposite view of Reconstruction. Part of my interest in African American history came from this huge disparity between high school and college.

    But I think mine is a unique case. I too once asked my students what they thought about Reconstruction before my class and was met with silence.

  2. I graduated from high school in 1993 and read Foner’s Reconstruction, and listened as my teacher discussed the racist Dunning school. Later, while in grad school in history (about 2002), I listened as a professor told undergraduates that “everything they ever heard about reconstruction was wrong.” I thought this was funny, because I assumed they had been raised on Foner, as I had been.

    BTW, didn’t Kenneth Stampp put Dunning to bed in the 1960s? It’s a sad case indeed if people are still getting watered down Dunning!

  3. When I teach the Reconstruction component of the US Survey course I like to use Gone With the Wind as a foil. Because I teach a night class my students tend to be older than the average student population. Still it seems that with each passing semester fewer students have seen even that.
    Gregory Dehler

  4. My experience as a member of the “dumbest generation” (born 1964, finished high school 1982) was that Reconstruction was slighted in favor of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. I suppose it’s relevant that I was educated in Georgia. My 11th-grade teacher was ahead of his time in promoting slavery into the curriculum, assigning Stampp’s Peculiar Institution. But Foner wasn’t famous yet, and I don’t think our teacher quite knew what to do with Reconstruction. All we got was a void where Dunning used to be.

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