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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

The Field A Changin’

William Archibald Dunning’s Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction and Related Topics (1897, 2nd ed., 1904) provided one of the most influential overviews of American Reconstruction.  As one of the founders of the American Historical Association (he was president in 1913), Dunning’s systematic and comprehensive work on the Reconstruction period made such an impact on the historiographical field that it is customarily referred to as a school of interpretation (the Dunning School).  From 1900 to 1950, the Dunning School argued that Reconstruction was a “tragedy,” because it went too far in changing southern society.  They argued that southern whites were crushed by greedy northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and blacks who were unfit for self-rule.  Put in a different light, Dunning scholars (such as Claude Bowers, Walter Fleming, J.W. Garner, Ellis Merton Coulter, etc.) characterized American Reconstruction as an era of sordid corruption, misrule, and disorder.  Southern whites, therefore, valiantly banned together and restored “home rule” and white supremacy (called “Redemption”).

This line of thinking ultimately led W.E.B Du Bois to write Black Reconstruction (1935). He challenged the Dunning School’s interpretation by arguing that Reconstruction was an idealistic attempt at interracial democracy, which highlighted a prolonged struggle between capitalism and labor (a Marxian analysis if you will).  He accused the Dunning School for ignoring African Americans’ crucial role in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  Du Bois viewed this era as a “splendid failure” because it offered African Americans a window into how “free society” should look, but it ultimately failed because of white racism (which trumped class unification between whites and blacks).  Unfortunately, scholars ignored Du Bois’ work for almost thirty years.  In the late 1950s, however, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction resurfaced as Revisionists historians began criticizing the Dunning School’s assessment.

The Revisionist approach to Reconstruction (late 1950s to 1970s) rejected the Dunning School and argued: the “Negro Rule” was a myth (southern whites still held the majority in state legislatures, Alexander Stephens was back into the House of Representatives by 1873); Reconstruction provided an educational system throughout the South; it provided blacks with full participation in politics (which marked one of the many accomplishments of Reconstruction); and it helped the South transition from slave labor to wage labor.  Needless to say, Black Reconstruction deeply influenced Revisionist studies by Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, and other luminaries.  Du Bois, like Revisionist scholars, also paid greater attention to African American’s collective efforts to achieve autonomy and unity.  Although aware on the conflicts within black communities during Reconstruction, these historians overlooked such divisions in order to demonstrate the “agency” and power of freedpeople.  In other words, Revisionists attempted to prove that blacks had agency in both emancipation and Reconstruction.

In the late 1970s, post-Revisionist historians arose to provide a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of the black community during Reconstruction.  Granted Revisionist scholars did not lack sophistication nor did they present a monolithic “black community,” but post-Revisionists were able to assume black agency existed (because Revisionists proved it), and therefore, focused more on the differences, divisions, and conflicts amongst freedpeople in the postemancipation South. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1980) and Dylan Penningroth’s Claims of Kinfolk (2003) are two works that focus on the internal dynamics of the black community.  They highlight both the cooperation and conflicts between various segments in black society.  Litwack and Penningroth, along with several other scholars, argue that the lack of land distribution, limited black political power (which was tenuous at best), and restricted access to resources prevented freedpeople from achieving true autonomy.  The “tragedy” of Reconstruction for post-Revisionists, therefore, was that Reconstruction did not go far enough for freedpeople and was more conservative and non-revolutionary than Revisionists believed.

Although Revisionist and post-Revisionist historians vehemently attacked the Dunning School’s interpretation of Reconstruction, these historians struggled to provide a synthesis of American Reconstruction.  This changed with Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988).  Foner’s work is important for two reasons.  First, he provides a wide-ranging political and social synthesis of Reconstruction, which replaced the Dunning School’s synthesis.  Second, he does a wonderful job of mediating between Revisionist and post-Revisionist interpretations (in other words, he provides a nice middle-ground).  Like Du Bois, Foner identifies the major theme in his work as “the centrality of the black experience” (xxiv).

Like most scholars of Reconstruction, Foner views Reconstruction as a “tragedy.”  He writes, “It remains a tragedy that the lofty goals of civil and political equality were not permanently achieved” (279).  This directly relates to the subtitle of his book (America’s Unfinished Revolution).  Foner characterizes the heroes and villain of Reconstruction like Revisionists: freedmen and their allies were the protagonists, while white planters and their constituencies were the antagonists (unlike Revisionist, post-Revisionists were more critical of Radical Republicans, because they did not go far enough for African Americans).  Thematically, Foner explores everything from Reconstruction in the North to the influences of freedom on emancipated slaves.  Despite the broad thematic scope, Foner illuminates subtle regional nuances of the social, political, and economic changes created by the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

For this blog, I want to mention a few sections in Reconstruction that are important for my final project.  Foner grapples with the historiographic debates over change versus continuity in Reconstruction.  Du Bois and other Revisionist scholars viewed Reconstruction as a “revolutionary period” for both black people and the United States.  Post-Revisionists such as Leon Litwack, however, questioned the true revolutionary nature of Reconstruction.  They characterized Reconstruction as more conservative than revolutionary, because of the persistent racism throughout the period (which negated the revolutionary changes between the Old and New South).  In the last chapter of Been in the Storm so Long (which ends with the Presidential Election of 1868), for example, Litwack writes, “Except for a few sporadic skirmishes, Election Day in most of the South passed quietly—and with it, some mistakenly thought, the old political and social order” (556).  Foner disagrees with Litwack, and takes a neo-Du Boisian approach by arguing that “Reconstruction transformed [freedmen’] lives and aspirations in ways unmeasurable by statistics and in realms far beyond the reaches of law” (11).

In recent years, historians (what might be called post-post Revisionist) such as Steven Hahn have made similar arguments about the “revolutionary nature” of Reconstruction (see Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet).  Hahn declares in the introduction to his massive study, “African Americans in the rural South contributed to the making of a new political nation while they made themselves into a new people” (9).  Although Foner would question Hahn’s argument that black people made themselves into a “new people,” he would agree that this era was revolutionary.

Like Du Bois, Foner argues for the centrality of freedpeople in the Reconstruction narrative.  Blacks were neither dupes nor victims, but instead they pushed for emancipation, equality, and autonomy. Foner judiciously addresses the question of who freed the slaves.  Historians have answered this question in a number of ways: James McPherson argues that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves (Drawn with the Sword, 207); James Oakes asserts that Republicans freed the slaves (“Freedom National: The Origins of Emancipation”); Steven Hahn and Ira Berlin insist that slaves freed themselves (Hahn, 88; Berlin Slaves No More, 4). Foner finds that a culmination of actors and events led to slaves achieving freedom.  Foner writes, “The Emancipation Proclamation and the presence of black troops ensured that, in the last two years of the war, Union soldiers acted as an army of liberation…By 1865, no matter who won the Civil War, slavery was doomed” (110). Foner, in essence, suggests that free blacks, slaves, the Union army, Radical Republicans, and Abraham Lincoln all played fundamental roles in abolishing slavery.

Foner most clearly demonstrates black agency in the chapters “The Meaning of Freedom” and “Ambiguities of Free Labor.”  In these sections, Foner focuses on the freedmen’s role in building communal institutions, developing political awareness and initiatives, and struggling to find a niche in the postslavery labor system (Foner, 88-110,153-160).  Moreover, Foner spends significant time in Chapter Seven, “Blueprints for a Republican South,” discussing the freedmen’s fundamental role in the new emerging Republican Party (post-1867).  Unlike Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, Foner focuses on the freedmen’s actions throughout the entire Reconstruction period, from emancipation to the Compromise of 1877.

Although Foner identifies the different experiences of freedmen throughout various regions of the South, his work does not fully come to grips with the internal divisions among the black communities in the postemancipation era.  He briefly touches upon how free blacks (who were free before the Civil War) resented the blurred distinctions between themselves and freedmen (slaves who were freed after the Civil War).  Foner writes, “Free blacks also discovered that ‘vagrancy’ and curfew regulations issued in conjunction with the Banks labor system did not respect the distinction between themselves and the freedmen” (62).  Outside of this section, Foner does not deal with the divisions among blacks, especially with the creation of the post-Civil War family.  In Claims of Kinfolk, published almost a decade after Reconstruction, Penningroth comes to terms with this issue.  He argues that thousands of displaced freedmen sought new beginnings, and “their arrival sometimes caused friction, partly from competition over scarce resources” (Penningroth 177).  Penningroth eloquently challenges historians such as Foner and Hahn who have ignored the internal divisions and conflicts among blacks in the postbellum period.

One of Foner’s more innovative arguments in Reconstruction deals with the transformation of the “free labor ideology” and its connections to the altering identity of the Republican Party.  After being used as the battering ram against slavery in the 1860s, free labor ideology went into decline in the 1870s, and was eventually replaced with a more conservative approach (a view that society was stratified and disharmonious).  This change in free labor ideology went hand in hand with the transitioning identity of the Republican Party during the 1870s, which abandoned its commitment to equal rights and turned its attention towards the “labor question” (512-527).  Moreover, the changes in attitudes towards free labor ideology, the Republicans abandonment of freedmen, and the Depression of 1873 all played significant roles in opening the door for “Redemption” by white southern Democrats (535-552).

Foner does an impressive job of working into his study the economic changes incurred from emancipation, the rise of contract and wage labor, and the contradiction between freedmen’s struggle for economic independence and white planters need for a disciplined labor force (54-58, 166-77, 400).  During his examination of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Foner demonstrates that Bureau held an important influence over defining the southern economy and labor force.  Like Du Bois, Foner shows that the Freedmen’s Bureau was full of ambiguities.  Part of these ambiguities, according to Foner, was the “Bureau’s attempt to put freedmen back to work on the plantation (which aligned with planters’ interests), while at the same time trying to promote black independence and non-coercive labor discipline” (144).  The need for a stable workforce and protection of freedmen’s rights placed the Freedmen’s Bureau in a tough situation.  Eventually, under President Johnson’s orders, the Freedmen’s Bureau moved away from the idea of granting land to blacks and moved towards persuading them to enter into annual labor contracts with planters.

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, in short, has served as the cornerstone of Reconstruction studies for more than twenty years.  Foner not only delivers a compelling synthesis of the Reconstruction period, but he also provides a broad overview of Revisionist and Postrevisionist scholarship.  What makes his work even more exciting is that he finds a harmonious combination between in depth detail and a generalized overview of Reconstruction.  Foner’s work is indeed worthy of its laurels, which include the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.  That being said, this study might benefit from a few updates and revisions.  Foner could follow in the footsteps of C. Vann Woodward and revise his study based on new historiographic scholarship.  Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under our Feet, Leon Litwack’ Been in the Storm so Long and Dylan Penningroth’s The Claims of Kinfolk are three works that might allow Foner to rethink his position on the freedmen in the post-Civil War era.

W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has made a significant impact on Revisionist and post-Revisionist scholarship, especially over identifying the conflicts surrounding the labor question.  One major challenge to Du Bois’ work, however, focuses on the question of unity and autonomy of freedpeople during Reconstruction.  Did African Americans achieve autonomy through unity?  Such questions are critical to my project, which explores the influences of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction on the historiographical field of Reconstruction.

Any comments or suggestions for further reading are welcomed.  Thanks for reading!




2 Responses to “The Field A Changin’”

  1. cr27 says:

    Thanks for writing out the major historiographical debates, Wes. This is helpful information! I am looking forward to the final paper–it seems like the biggest challenge, because of page length constraints, will be to chose which of these elements you’re really going to focus on. The most interesting aspect, to me, is to see what elements of DuBois’ analysis have withstood the test of time.

  2. Serious question, not a leading one—I actually don’t know the answer:

    1. Does Du Bois pay as much attention to the influx of freedpeople into local offices (like justices of the peace) as Hahn does? If not, is his focus on the balance of power in the state legislatures, rather than at the county level, one reason why he leans towards the “splendid failure” conclusion?

    2. On p. 266 Hahn says that Reconstructions historians since the 1960s have not viewed vigilante violence as part of the normal political process in the South, and that his view of paramilitary violence differs from earlier accounts. Do you find that to be true with re: to Foner and Du Bois?