Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s recent comments on the Reconstruction era have, to say the least, raised the eyebrows of historians who study the time period. Where she argues that the era could have used “a little less rancor,” historians of the period see an American South filled both with a radical democratic promise and a region gripped by reactionary violence. Rancor and political incivility, while part of the history of Reconstruction in the South, were not the center of that story. Clinton’s comments are seen as an extension of the old “Dunning School” of thought on Reconstruction. Named after Columbia historian William Dunning, the “Dunning School” has become synonymous with a viewpoint of the Reconstruction period as a disaster for the South and the nation due to “black rule” in the region by recently freed Black Americans, seemingly unfit for politics and democracy.
What I will do here is assemble a short reading list about Reconstruction. While it is sad that history seems to pop up in the public eye largely during moments of tragedy or political gaffes, historians will never have a better opportunity to talk to the public about what we do—and how we do it. This list, of course, should begin with the Dunning School itself, and the work that best propagated its argument. Claude Bowers The Tragic Era (1929) summarized many of the key arguments made by Dunning and his students. E. Merton Coulter’s The South During Reconstruction (1947) was also a major book in the Dunning tradition.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (1935) was a significant challenge to the Dunning School tradition. Meticulously researched, and offering a Marxist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras in the South, it would be decades before Du Bois’ work was known beyond a small number of scholars. Kenneth Stampp would, of course, go a long way in changing the understanding of Reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s. His The Era of Reconstruction (1965) and his edited collection, with Leon Litwack, titled Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings (1969) reflected a changing consensus on the Reconstruction period. Born out of the then-contemporary experience of the Civil Rights Movement, coupled with the rise of both social history and Black Studies, Reconstruction’s historiography was dramatically re-shaped in the latter half of the twentieth century. (It’s important to note that the anthology Reconstruction includes sections from Black Reconstruction by Du Bois, as well as writings by Joel Williamson, Horace Mann Bond, James M. McPherson, and others.)
To add to the scholarship from the 1950s and 1960s, C. Vann Woodward’s essay “The Political Legacy of the First Reconstruction,” initially published in The Journal of Negro Education (vol. XXVI, p. 231-240, 1957) and later republished in his The Burden of Southern History, is an important short read that shows how one of the most prominent Southern historians in the nation approached Reconstruction with his own unique brand of nuance and tragic irony. In addition, by the late 1960s, Lerone Bennett of Ebony magazine used that publication as a public forum for talking about Reconstruction. As more and more Americans became interested in the events of a century before, Bennett and others took the scholarship of Du Bois, Stampp, and others and used it as the basis for a new, public accounting of the Reconstruction era. The issues of Ebony magazine in the late 1960s are filled with references to Reconstruction—a topic of interest on the blog over a year ago.
Eric Foner’s work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988) has been the standard by which Reconstruction histories have since been measured. Coupled with books such as Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet (2003), narratives about Reconstruction are become more and more complicated. Add to that a new focus on a “Greater Reconstruction” that moves the narrative beyond the South and looks at the age from a national perspective—think about works by Heather C. Richardson (The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North published in 2001 and West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, released in 2007) as a good example of how the field of Reconstruction is becoming diversified by questions that seek to tie together issues that, for Americans living in the late nineteenth century, were not always seen separately: labor, race, gender, the future of the South and the West.
Gregory P. Downs’ After Appomattox conceptualizes the Reconstruction era as a story of failed military occupation. Just as the revisionist histories of Reconstruction in the 1960s were heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, Downs’ book is one born out of concern with America’s occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. With the continued focus on the international dimensions of American political and intellectual history—think of Natalie Ring’s The Problem South as an example of this scholarship—it is only a matter of time before historians begin putting the issues of Reconstruction in conversation with events in the Caribbean, South America, and Europe. Reconstructions: New Perspectives on Postbellum United States (2008) offers a series of essays that show where some of these new directions could go—including in intellectual history, a field that still has much to say about the Reconstruction era but has been well-served by Leslie Butler’s Critical Americans: Victorian Intellectuals and Transatlantic Liberal Reform (2007).
The editors of Civil War History recently published a forum on the Reconstruction era. Featuring Eric Foner, Charles Calhoun, Jane Turner Censer, and Andrew Slap, the forum posed a simple question: where do we go next in Reconstruction studies? As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War fades into memory, and we now “celebrate” 150 years since the start of America’s most radical experiment with democratic rule in its history, thinking about the Reconstruction era becomes all the more important. Hillary Clinton’s gaffe will quickly fade from memory. Let us hope that interest in Reconstruction, spurred by her curious statement, will lead to more reading and thinking about the troubled era.
 “Historians’ Forum: Reconstruction,” Civil War History, Vol. 61, No. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 281-301.