- Historic Sites
The New View Of Reconstruction
Whatever you were taught or thought you knew about the post-Civil War era is probably wrong in the light of recent study
October/november 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 6
By the end of the 1960s, then, the old interpretation had been completely reversed. Southern freedmen were the heroes, the “Redeemers” who overthrew Reconstruction were the villains, and if the era was “tragic,” it was because change did not go far enough. Reconstruction had been a time of real progress and its failure a lost opportunity for the South and the nation. But the legacy of Reconstruction—the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments- endured to inspire future efforts for civil rights. As Kenneth Stampp wrote in The Era of Reconstruction , a superb summary of revisionist findings published in 1965, “If it was worth four years of civil war to save the Union, it was worth a few years of radical reconstruction to give the American Negro the ultimate promise of equal civil and political rights.”
As Stampp’s statement suggests, the réévaluation of the first Reconstruction was inspired in large measure by the impact of the second—the modern civil rights movement. And with the waning of that movement in recent years, writing on Reconstruction has undergone still another transformation. Instead of seeing the Civil War and its aftermath as a second American Revolution (as Charles Beard had), a regression into barbarism (as Bowers argued), or a golden opportunity squandered (as the revisionists saw it), recent writers argue that Radical Reconstruction was not really very radical. Since land was not distributed to the former slaves, they remained economically dependent upon their former owners. The planter class survived both the war and Reconstruction with its property (apart from slaves) and prestige more or less intact.
Not only changing times but also the changing concerns of historians have contributed to this latest reassessment of Reconstruction. The hallmark of the past decade’s historical writing has been an emphasis upon “social history”—the evocation of the past lives of ordinary Americans—and the downplaying of strictly political events. When applied to Reconstruction, this concern with the “social” suggested that black suffrage and officeholding, once seen as the most radical departures of the Reconstruction era, were relatively insignificant.
RECENT HISTORIANS have focused their investigations not upon the politics of Reconstruction but upon the social and economic aspects of the transition from slavery to freedom. Herbert Gutman’s influential study of the black family during and after slavery found little change in family structure or relations between men and women resulting from emancipation. Under slavery most blacks had lived in nuclear family units, although they faced the constant threat of separation from loved ones by sale. Reconstruction provided the opportunity for blacks to solidify their preexisting family ties. Conflicts over whether black women should work in the cotton fields (planters said yes, many black families said no) and over white attempts to “apprentice” black children revealed that the autonomy of family life was a major preoccupation of the f reedmen. Indeed, whether manifested in their withdrawal from churches controlled by whites, in the blossoming of black fraternal, benevolent, and self-improvement organizations, or in the demise of the slave quarters and their replacement by small tenant farms occupied by individual families, the quest for independence from white authority and control over their own day-to-day lives shaped the black response to emancipation.
In the post-Civil War South the surest guarantee of economic autonomy, blacks believed, was land. To the f reedmen the justice of a claim to land based on their years of unrequited labor appeared self-evident. As an Alabama black convention put it, “The property which they [the planters] hold was nearly all earned by the sweat of our brows.” As Leon Litwack showed in Been in the Storm So Long , a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the black response to emancipation, many freedmen in 1865 and 1866 refused to sign labor contracts, expecting the federal government to give them land. In some localities, as one Alabama overseer reported, they “set up claims to the plantation and all on it.”
In the end, of course, the vast majority of Southern blacks remained propertyless and poor. But exactly why the South, and especially its black population, suffered from dire poverty and economic retardation in the decades following the Civil War is a matter of much dispute. In One Kind of Freedom , economists Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch indicted country merchants for monopolizing credit and charging usurious interest rates, forcing black tenants into debt and locking the South into a dependence on cotton production that impoverished the entire region. But Jonathan Wiener, in his study of postwar Alabama, argued that planters used their political power to compel blacks to remain on the plantations. Planters succeeded in stabilizing the plantation system, but only by blocking the growth of alternative enterprises, like factories, that might draw off black laborers, thus locking the region into a pattern of economic backwardness.