(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

With Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner has written a masterful chronicle of that period in American history which seems to inspire the most passion and to provoke the greatest controversy. Even the date of the beginning of the period is a matter of dispute, with some scholars arguing that the shots at Fort Sumter signaled a restructuring of American social and political life so revolutionary that the very idea of reconstruction is impossible without including the events of the Civil War as part and parcel of the process. Foner takes the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 as his point of departure, with the persuasive reasoning that it “represented a turning point in national policy as well as the character of the war.” Furthermore, he says, it “transformed a war of armies into a conflict of societies, ensuring that Union victory would produce a social revolution within the South.”

From the beginning, then, Foner follows those historians who view Reconstruction as a revolution, but he views as unfinished and incomplete, a movement which would have to wait one hundred years to resume its course toward full equality and freedom for blacks. Along the way, distortions of fact and misreadings of the historical evidence not only hampered its progress but also contributed to, even fostered, a purposeful misunderstanding of the period.

Reconstruction historiography owes much to the pioneering efforts of William A. Dunning, John W. Burgess, and Claude G. Bowers, but these men believed in the innate inferiority of Negroes. Because one of the great accomplishments of the era was black suffrage, they interpreted Reconstruction as the onerous burden perfidious Radicals and unscrupulous outsiders placed on the shoulders of a destitute, prostrate South at a time when its white, “natural” leaders were powerless to object.

Studies of President Andrew Johnson by George F. Milton and Howard K. Beale in 1930 tempered somewhat the racism of the traditional view, but these men, too, saw Reconstruction in a decidedly negative light, as a period when power-hungry Radicals wrested control of the political life of the nation from a president who valiantly attempted to revive rather than reconstruct the South while protecting the federal constitution. In particular, the events of the 1960’s Civil Rights struggle influenced a new school of historians, who lay bare the racist underpinnings of these interpretations and, in their role as revisionists, set about to explain Reconstruction in terms of pressing issues of their own time—the ongoing battle for civil equality. These men and women quickly found precedents in the extraordinary laws passed as part of a program for a democratic New South after the Civil War: public school systems for blacks and whites, suffrage and equal rights for freedmen and freemen alike, and earnest desires to rebuild the South’s economy on more just and equitable bases.

Postrevisionist scholars made some of the same basic assumptions about Reconstruction as had their immediate predecessors, but they essentially saw Republican efforts as futile, superficial, and ultimately cynical exercises. In their interpretation, change was hardly radical; nor, however, was it entirely transitory, for it began a modest but inexorable process which would eventually transform Southern society.

Of all these historians, none speaks with greater authority than W. E. B. Du Bois in his monumental study, Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880, published in 1935. At that time, his work sounded a lonely appeal for a judicious interpretation of Reconstruction as a real attempt to make from the crucible of civil war a truly democratic nation. Du Bois challenged others to put aside race consciousness long enough to see Reconstruction as a response to the questions of who would control the economic resources of the South and who, in turn, would control the labor needed to develop those resources.

Acknowledging his debt to Du Bois, Foner sets himself the task of synthesizing the work of the traditionalists, the revisionists, and the postrevisionists in order to give a factual, yet balanced account of the period. Rejecting the inherent racism of the Dunning School, he retains its “broad interpretive framework.” While accepting the revisionists’ depiction of Reconstruction as revolutionary, he shares the postrevisionists’ view that it was “unfinished,” and a failure, but he finds evidence of genuine, long-term change in its legacy. Foner succeeds in his self-appointed mission through a careful, coherent narrative, one which is admirably and thoroughly researched, dispassionately and engrossingly written.

Using monographic and primary sources—in particular, governors’ letters, a heretofore mostly untapped archive—Foner finds the theme of the black experience central to his story:Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.

Given that consideration, his emphasis on the Emancipation Proclamation as the beginning of an era is well-advised. Blacks’ contributions as soldiers to the Union victory provided overwhelming justification for their...

(The entire section is 2256 words.)