70: Eric Foner’s Reconstruction

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 is a synthetic history of American Reconstruction that combines social, political, and economic aspects of Reconstruction into three overarching themes:

  • the centrality of black experience
  • the larger context of an emergent national state
  • the impact of social, political, economic, and moral developments in the North affected the course of Reconstruction in the South

A synthesis of “revisionist” scholarship on black experiences after slavery, Foner’s book clearly and consistently emphasizes the experiences, worldviews, interpretations, and actions of black Southerners across class lines.  He thus builds on the work of new social historians and continues WEB DuBois’ project in Black Reconstruction, which rewrote the history of the Reconstruction period by reframing black “debauchery” as white racism and a deliberate attempt to retain the power of white elites by discrediting freed blacks.  He also integrates “post-Revisionist” studies into his argument by showing how Reconstruction policies themselves were woefully inadequate, and thus the North, as well as the South, was complicit in the failure of the Reconstruction project.  Even though freed blacks were eager to take control of their working lives and many had millenial expectations of a post-racial society, white Southerners were so afraid of losing their disciplined workforce that they blocked land purchases, denied credit access, built exploitation into a new sharecropping system, and used violence to prevent freed people from exercising their newfound freedom.

Foner is careful to show that Reconstruction failed not because of class warfare, but because of racial conflict; poor whites aligned with white elites to oppress blacks in support of Republican “free labor ideology,” even though this move was against their own class interests.  He thus complements a detailed discussion of black community institutions and efforts to gain education and representation with an analysis of how fear of black assertiveness shaped both the postslavery system and the emergence of a new Republican party.  As Foner suggests, in the complex post-Civil War environment of Reconstruction, ‘perhaps the remarkable thing about Reconstruction was not that it failed, but that it was attempted at all and survived as long as it did.”

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