Why Reconstruction Matters

The New York Times

SundayReview | OPINION

MARCH 28, 2015

THE surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, 150 years ago next month, effectively ended the Civil War. Preoccupied with the challenges of our own time, Americans will probably devote little attention to the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, the turbulent era that followed the conflict. This is unfortunate, for if any historical period deserves the label “relevant,” it is Reconstruction.

Issues that agitate American politics today — access to citizenship and voting rights, the relative powers of the national and state governments, the relationship between political and economic democracy, the proper response to terrorism — all of these are Reconstruction questions. But that era has long been misunderstood.

Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy. For decades, these years were widely seen as the nadir in the saga of American democracy. According to this view, Radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights. The heroes of the story were the self-styled Redeemers, who restored white supremacy to the South.

A caricature of President Andrew Johnson’s 1866 veto of a bill to create the Freedmen’s Bureau. CreditCorbis

This portrait, which received scholarly expression in the early-20th-century works of William A. Dunning and his students at Columbia University, was popularized by the 1915 film “Birth of A Nation” and by Claude Bowers’s 1929 best-selling history, “The Tragic Era.” It provided an intellectual foundation for the system of segregation and black disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction. Any effort to restore the rights of Southern blacks, it implied, would lead to a repeat of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction.

HISTORIANS have long since rejected this lurid account, although it retains a stubborn hold on the popular imagination. Today, scholars believe that if the era was “tragic,” it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.

Reconstruction actually began in December 1863, when Abraham Lincoln announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union. Lincoln granted amnesty to most Confederates so long as they accepted the abolition of slavery, but said nothing about rights for freed blacks. Rather than a blueprint for the postwar South, this was a war measure, an effort to detach whites from the Confederacy. On Reconstruction, as on other questions, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. At the end of his life, he called for limited black suffrage in the postwar South, singling out the “very intelligent” (prewar free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy.

Lincoln did not live to preside over Reconstruction. That task fell to his successor, Andrew Johnson. Once lionized as a heroic defender of the Constitution against Radical Republicans, Johnson today is viewed by historians as one of the worst presidents to occupy the White House. He was incorrigibly racist, unwilling to listen to criticism and unable to work with Congress. Johnson set up new Southern governments controlled by ex-Confederates. They quickly enacted the Black Codes, laws that severely limited the freed people’s rights and sought, through vagrancy regulations, to force them back to work on the plantations. But these measures aroused bitter protests among blacks, and convinced Northerners that the white South was trying to restore slavery in all but name.

There followed a momentous political clash, the struggle between Johnson and the Republican majority (not just the Radicals) in Congress. Over Johnson’s veto, Congress enacted one of the most important laws in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, still on the books today. It affirmed the citizenship of everyone born in the United States, regardless of race (except Indians, still considered members of tribal sovereignties). This principle, birthright citizenship, is increasingly rare in today’s world and deeply contested in our own contemporary politics, because it applies to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.

The act went on to mandate that all citizens enjoy basic civil rights in the same manner “enjoyed by white persons.” Johnson’s veto message denounced the law for what today is called reverse discrimination: “The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Indeed, in the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.

Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution “for white men” to one “for mankind.” It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.

In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.

The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the Republican Party to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.

It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.

One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South.

By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court, a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as South Africa and Australia to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America,” saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.

While violated with impunity, however, the 14th and 15th Amendments remained on the books. Decades later they would provide the legal basis for the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.

Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.

Democracy Now with Eric Foner

On March 11th, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewed Eric Foner on Democracy Now.  They had a fascinating conversation about Gateway to Freedom.

Amy opened the interview asking Eric Foner what was the “gateway to freedom”?

ERIC FONER: “Well, that’s sort of a term I use for New York City, because these networks, particularly on the eastern corridor here, of local groups assisting fugitive slaves, New York City was a key point there, because once slaves reached New York City, they were quickly sent up to New England or to upstate New York or Canada. So, really, this was the point from which they would be very close to freedom. I also use that title, although nobody realized it, in a slightly ironic sense, because that’s how we think of New York. You know, as a New Yorker, we think of ourselves—the Statue of Liberty is over here—as a place that people come seeking liberty, seeking better opportunity than they have somewhere else. But, in fact, here, you have the opposite. You have people having to flee New York, having to flee the United States, in order to achieve freedom. So, in a way, it’s a kind of—it’s a different kind of gateway than we normally think about. You have to leave to get freedom, not enter the United States.”

Below is a nine minute excerpt from their dialogue.  (If you do not see the video, click here.)


If you would like to see the entire interview, you can watch it here.  Hope you are enjoying the book, let me know what you are thinking as you read.

Politics for the People Conference Call

with Eric Foner

Sunday, April 19th at 7 pm EST

NY Times Review of Gateway to Freedom


‘Gateway to Freedom,’ by Eric Foner

New Selection: GATEWAY to FREEDOM

I am excited to announce that our next selection will be Eric Foner’s latest book: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.  He is one of this country’s most prominent historians and the author of over 20 books.  He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians, and one of a handful to have won the Bancroft and Pulitzer Prizes in the same year.

In the first chapter, “Introduction: Rethinking the Underground Railroad”, the author describes Gateway to Freedom as follows:

     This book is a study of fugitive slaves and the underground railroad in New York City.  The nation’s major metropolis, New York before the Civil War consisted of Manhattan and the Bronx, with most of the population concentrated below Thirty-Fourth Street.  The city was a crucial way station in the metropolitan corridor through which fugitive slaves made their way from the Upper South through Philadelphia and on to upstate New York, New England, and Canada.  Since the underground railroad, by definition, can only be understood as an intercity, interregional enterprise, I also devote attention to other key sites in this northeastern network.  I discuss as well the national debate and federal legislation relating to fugitive slaves, and how the fugitive issue played a crucial role in precipitating the Civil War.”

I am looking forward to reading the book together!

The Politics for the People Conference Call

with Dr. Foner will be on April 19th at 7 pm.


Jerome Charyn Shares his P4P Experience

I was delighted to take part in the Politics for the People discussion group concerning my novel, I Am Abraham.  I think it is critical that a book club has its own political point of view and also a passion for politics as something that is alive and that continues to grow.  Art and politics are often intertwined; actually, all writing is a political act.  Every single sentence we write has a political slant.  And a novel told in Lincoln’s voice cannot help but breathe politics.

I was quite pleased that my novel was the book club’s first selection of 2015.  All the questions asked were quite impassioned.  Novelists are not extraterrestrials.  Each one of us shares many of the same weaknesses and strengths, and an ear for the music of words—otherwise we could not read.  It’s syncopation that drives a narrative.

Participants in the discussion all seemed very curious how I was able to write the book in Lincoln’s voice.  It wasn’t daring.  It was an act of will.  I had to become  Lincoln, to embody his gawkiness, his poetry, his sexuality, his shrewd sense of politics, and most of all, the music of his voice.

An author taking part in a book club discussion often learns as much as the participants, since he or she has to articulate what was on other people’s minds.  I had prepared no answers.  I was out there in the void with all of you, trying to pull words from the dark.  I hope my music—and Lincoln’s—entered all our ears. And I want to thank Cathy and everyone involved for allowing me to learn more about Lincoln with you.

—Jerome Charyn

Highlights of P4P Conference Call with Jerome Charyn


Jerome Charyn and Cathy Stewart


On Sunday, February 15th, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Jerome Charyn about his book, I Am Abraham.  I am sharing a few excerpts and you can listen to the entire conversation at the end of this post.  (Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Our first audio clip includes my introduction of Jerome and an exploration of how Jerome decided to write the novel and find Lincoln’s voice.  This section ends with a fascinating conversation between Jerome and Dr. Omar Ali about history, facts and fiction.  Give a listen.


Dr. Jessie Fields asked Jerome Charyn how he made the choice to put the assassination of Lincoln in the preface of the book.

In his response, Jerome shared, “I knew that I wanted to end the novel in Richmond because I thought it was the most important day in Lincoln’s life. Here was the conqueror coming to the conquered people, not as a conqueror, but as someone who was a peace maker…”


Jessica Marta asked : “You pay a lot of attention, in the book, to Mary Todd Lincoln’s decent into madness… I was wondering why you made that choice?”

Jerome responded: “Well, what I wanted to do was show that women in the 19th Century had so few choices. For example, she was much better educated than any of the men around her, certainly much better educated than her husband. But she could not enter public life in any fashion at all. And he never would have become president without her. She was his general… But as soon as he inhabited the White House, he sort of thrust her to the side… You take a very intelligent woman with a very political point of view and you give her nothing to do… she begins scheming. What I wanted to do was try to deal with her madness with as much sympathy as I could.”


The conversation explored much about the author’s writing process.  At one point Warren Liebesman asked Jerome to talk about how he developed the deeply evocative and poetic voice in the book.  Jerome talked with us the story of the last line of the book as one example. “You don’t know where it comes from and that’s what’s so perverse. For example, if you look at the very last sentence of the book…”

I piped in: “Is it? … and I held him as close as I could?”

 Jerome continued, “No, exactly. You put an extra ‘as’ in there. Now, I wrote that sentence ‘I held him as close I could.’ Now, the copy editor thought, ‘Who is this damn guy? What is he talking about?’ So he or she put in that second ‘as.’ So I didn’t notice it the first time around… then I said ‘Wait a minute. I would never write that sentence. There’s something much more intimate about the lack of the grammar there than it would be if you put in that second ‘as’.”


Below is the full recording of our P4P conversation

with Jerome Charyn.



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