Short History of Reconstruction: 1863-1877
Prices for book: Short History of Reconstruction: 1863-1877
Book ISBN: 9780060964313
Author(s): Eric Foner
Document type: Trade Paper
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Shorter version of the standard history of Reconstruction
This is a condensed version of Foner's longer on Reconstruction, the period which followed the Civil War, during which America and the South struggled to to re-define their world with slavery ended. The story is pretty simple. When Lincoln freed the slaves, he did so as a war measure intended to help the North win the war. He had not given much thought to how to deal with black freedom, and he was killed before he had much chance to think about it. He was followed by Andrew Johnson, as President, who was a Unionist Southern Democrat who hated blacks more than he hated rich Southerners. His approach to Reconstruction was to rapidly let the Southern states back into the country, and to let them deal with blacks as they liked, which basically meant to re-enslave them in all but name. The Radical Republicans in Congress then seized control of policy from him, and made a somewhat confused but nevertheless sincere effort to make the South like the rest of the country, by insisting that blacks be treated as free wage-workers rather than quasi-slaves. Congress never really thought this policy through. It made no effort to give land to the ex-slaves, for example, although that was obviously necessary. After a few years of trying to make this work, the North basically said the hell with it, washed its hand of blacks and let the South do as it wished. As a result, real black civil rights had to wait until the 1960s.
This is the basic story, and Foner's account, at this point, is the standard one. It is hard to remember this, but, before this book was written, the dominant view of the period was pro-Southern and anti-black. Foner certainly helped to perform a great service by erasing that twisted mis-interpretation of our past.
As I read the book, I felt that, while it is a good, solid account, it fails to put the issues into larger context. The Civil War started, in 1860, because Lincoln was elected President. Lincoln did not run on a platform of abolishing slavery. On the contrary, his promise was to prevent slavery from spreading any further and to put it on the path to ultimate extinction. If you look at the end result of Reconstruction, it is pretty much what Lincoln promised. Slavery was not really abolished. It was, however, limited to the South, its legitimatcy was destroyed and it was put on the path where it would, ultimately, be ended. That is what Lincoln promised. Lincoln believed that the nation was not ready to go further than that. It looks like he was right.
Richard Gibson (Amazon.com)
Dense and slightly rushed, but satisfying, account of Reconstruction, 1865-1877
A truly fascinating time in American history, the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) is not something that enough of us are familiar enough with. Foner presents a clean account of the period leading from the closing years of the war through 1877 and the Compromise that settled the Election of 1876 that many historians regard as the end of Reconstruction, and a mark of its failure. Foner seems to make this argument, although other historians contend that Reconstruction ended in 1873 with the Colfax Massacre or with the US v. Cruikshank case.
Regardless, Foner's book is quite dense (although not nearly as bad as some other history books!) and it seems a little rushed, but the latter characteristic makes it a quick read. If you want a general idea about the era, it's a good one, but for the more serious scholar I would recommend his longer work on Reconstruction to avoid missing any key concepts that may be overlooked in this piece.
I especially commend Foner for his accurate portrayal of Johnson and the Radical Republicans. He makes neither out as saintly and rounds them out fully as historical figures with many dimensions--good and bad. He presents a clear and seemingly objective characterization of the two, as well as of other major players of the time. Although it may be criticized for its pace, one thing it cannot be criticized about is its objectivism, yet reading it slowly, one can make out Foner's clear and cogent arguments which gives the work a great amount of depth.
Taryn Gulliver (Amazon.com)
A Communist Republican?
This is probably the most scurrilous work of history I've ever read. First, the north did want revenge on the South, and boy did they ever get it. The average Southerner, both white and black, had a lower life expectancy, and poverty levels were higher, at the eve of WWII than they were in 1861. The master class of the antebellum South comprised some of the most literate people to be found anywhere; classical education in Latin and Greek was the norm. Despite a substantially smaller population, many of the most important books of the time sold better in the South than in the north. The genius of our Constitution and government were largely based on the ideas of slave-holding Virginians. The Radical Republicans succeeded in turning the South into the most backward, ignorant part of the nation; the daily battle for survival left precious little time for life's more sublime pursuits. The north absolutely destroyed the South during the war, and radical Republicans like General Sherman and the reconstruction congress were responsible.
This notion that Radical Republicans, as opposed to proto-leftist radical abolitionists, were racial egalitarians is mistaken at best. The Southern term for Republicans was "money grubbers," as making as much money as possible was all that really mattered to them; think of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. The greed-is-good Radical Republicans would exploit anybody, white or black, in their quest for fabulous riches. Please note that Mr. Foner doesn't discuss the treatment of blacks in Radical Republican strongholds in the north, and with good reason; it would give the lie to his entire thesis. Blacks were used during reconstruction as pawns to humiliate Southerners. These efforts on the part of Radical Republicans have poisoned race relations in the South to this day. Those who would destroy must first divide, and divide they did.
The real pattern after the almost-total destruction of the South in 1865 was that northern scalawags and carpetbaggers came south and bought the plantations from destitute Southern owners for little more than taxes in most cases. Most blacks, and more than a few whites, then worked as sharecroppers for northern masters. There is not one scintilla of evidence that the Yankee masters were any more humane than their Southern predecessors, and plenty of evidence that they were worse. They kept the South in the bondage of poverty until WWII. And reconstruction is where it all began.
Mr. Foner is a self-admitted communist, as opposed to being a Marxist historian--one of the last of a dying breed. And considering communists killed in excess of one hundred million people in the last century, he has zero moral or intellectual authority to sit in judgment on the real or alleged misdeeds of others. Granted, his communism doesn't make him wrong, but his misuse of the historical record does. One has to wonder what's going on when a sworn communist supports the plutocratic Radical Republicans and their laissez faire capitalism. Then again, one has to wonder why a historian would perversely persist in being a communist when their atrocities are on display for all the world to see.
I have nothing against the Marxist approach in history per se; it can provide fascinating perspectives, as in the case of Eugene Genovese. The Marxist historian Eugene Genovese became interested in Southern history because the antebellum South was unique in that it was a modern, non-bourgeois (read non-capitalist) society that has much to teach modern Americans about possible alternatives to the global capitalism that is causing so much controversy.
Historians are right to take a dim view of those who denigrate and mistreat other human beings. It's a shame Mr. Foner has taken the same liberties he condemns Southerners for taking. Apparently, hypocrisy is part and parcel of the bourgeois morality that communists are so fond of scorning. Like every other period in history, the history of the South has much to teach us, not only about how things shouldn't be done, but how they could possibly be done better. And the South is unique in both respects.
Readers looking for a blanket indictment of the South don't need this book; they can make stuff up to suit their fancies as Mr. Foner has. Readers who are looking for some objectivity, I can highly recommend Eugene Genovese.
Mathew McConnell (Amazon.com)
One of the most influential books in American History!
Eric Foner's "Short History" of Reconstruction has radically changed how the period is taught at the high school and university levels. Before Foner, the majority of texts treated the Reconstruction as a period of corruption and revenge against the south. (See for instance, the early editions of Thomas Bailey's "The American Pageant" for such a treatment.)
Foner successfully showed how Reconstruction was America's great revolution, and opened up debate on whether it was successful. Some reviewers here have mentioned lapses in Foner's version, including a lack of in-depth discussion of Black legislators. Foner's analysis is so important that very few (including DuBois) even made such questions before this book.
Today's historians of Reconstruction stand on Foner's shoulders to see farther than he did.
(The current editions of "The American Pageant" have been rewritten to consider Foner's contributions.)
D. Avery (Amazon.com)
Solid Historical Work
If you want to know about the country and politics after the Civil War, read Foner's book. This book opened my eyes to the ins and outs of the South after the Civil War, and all the good and bad that happened. It was another example of how government has trouble living up to its promises. JVD
Joseph Valentine Dworak (Amazon.com)
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