K. Stephen Prince: Thinking about Reconstruction at 150 Years

Stories of the SouthToday we welcome a guest blog post from K. Stephen Prince, author of Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the North assumed significant power to redefine the South, imagining a region rebuilt and modeled on northern society. The white South actively resisted these efforts, battling the legal strictures of Reconstruction on the ground. Meanwhile, white southern storytellers worked to recast the South’s image, romanticizing the Lost Cause and heralding the birth of a New South. Prince argues that this cultural production was as important as political competition and economic striving in turning the South and the nation away from the egalitarian promises of Reconstruction and toward Jim Crow.

In today’s guest blog post, Prince discusses the legacy of the Reconstruction and the difficulty of understanding this era in history.

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With the sesquicentennial of the U.S. Civil War nearly three-quarters gone, it may be time to think about the way we remember Reconstruction. It seems unlikely that the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction will receive the sort of attention that has been lavished on the war itself. This is unfortunate. If the April 2015 sesquicentenary of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox is treated as an endpoint, rather than a transition, an important opportunity will have been lost. Reconstruction is not the stuff of which easy commemoration is made. It is for precisely this reason, however, that we should pay attention to its memory.

Reconstruction remains one of the most widely misunderstood eras in United States history. Though historians have largely discredited the white supremacist interpretations of William A. Dunning and his students, the Dunning School lives on in the public at large. Otherwise informed and well-meaning individuals unthinkingly parrot early-twentieth-century critiques of Reconstruction, casually dismissing it as an era of federal overreach, northern cruelty, and cynical corruption. My own experience bears out this observation: a friend who claims that Reconstruction failed because it was “too harsh,” or a student who labels the period a “tragedy” without being able to provide a single reason for this characterization. I expect other scholars of the period have had similar experiences. It seems that on an instinctive, knee-jerk level, many Americans respond negatively to Reconstruction, though most could not explain why. The 150th anniversary of Reconstruction offers a perfect opportunity to set the record straight, or at least to give the public a fair accounting of the period’s challenges, its successes, and its failures.

My call to engage with the memory of Reconstruction is also rooted in the sense that the period remains extraordinarily resonant in our current historical moment. Many of the major problems of Reconstruction are still with us. Race continues to divide the nation. In spite of the hopeful – if naïve – claims that the election of an African American President signaled the rise of a colorblind United States, racial inequality remains as brutal and stubborn as ever. With the Supreme Court striking down key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and states lining up to limit the franchise, it is both jarring and extraordinarily valuable to revisit Reconstruction-era debates over African American suffrage. So too, the power of the federal government remains a central concern in the age of Obamacare and the Tea Party. In the midst of the 2013 government shutdown, commentators wondered whether American governance had ever been so divided and contentious. A brief glance at Reconstruction would have provided an answer.

I would also offer a slightly more abstract rationale for remembering the struggles of the post-Civil War era. Simply put, it is difficult to think through Reconstruction. The period defies convenient narratives and happy resolution. There is much that is unsavory and problematic. It can be hard to find heroes and easy to place blame. The battles of Reconstruction were waged in a thousand locales every day. Reconstruction took shape in Congress, but also in contract negotiations on southern plantations, in local political meetings, and in day-to-day interactions on city streets. The period, in other words, is complicated. And what else would we expect?

When we consider the staggering questions that Americans faced in the aftermath of the Civil War – the reintegration of the former Confederacy into the nation’s political life, the re-establishment of the South’s economic order on a free labor basis, the transition of four million African American slaves to freedom – is it any wonder that the period was so violently contested? The ground of Reconstruction was “dark and bloody” precisely because there was so much at stake. It is for this reason that its memory may prove especially instructive.

In thinking through Reconstruction, therefore, we think about more than Reconstruction. We also learn to think about the past. Reconstruction invites a type of historical thinking and imaginative empathy that can be extraordinarily valuable. Consider what Reconstruction meant for a formerly enslaved African American woman in Louisiana. Then consider what it meant to her former master. Or to a Union veteran. Or to a former abolitionist and Republican officeholder. Or to a Confederate widow. What was at stake for each of these figures? How did they attempt to build a future (and give shape to the nation’s future) during Reconstruction? The act of recognizing these varying perspectives – and trying to understand the value of positions with which we disagree – seems a worthwhile pursuit in any era, particularly one marked by über-partisanship and the mutual incomprehensibility of the left and the right.

My point here is not to offer specific prescriptions for the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction. It remains to be seen how, or whether, the period will be commemorated. The tendency, I expect, will be to celebrate the good (like the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment) while ignoring the bad (like the bloody Colfax massacre of 1873). To take such an approach, however, is to ignore the true value of remembering Reconstruction. The period has much to teach us, if only we choose to listen. The maddening complexity of Reconstruction – its stubborn refusal to abide feel-good narratives and simplistic historical morality tales – promises to tell us something significant about the nation’s past, and, by extension, about ourselves.

K. Stephen Prince is assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida. His book Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865-1915is available now.

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One Comment

  1. Indeed! My current work considers the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction through the expansion of citizenship, including struggles for ex-slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants. We have an edited volume and an exhibition at the Autry in April 2015 focused on these Civil War and Reconstruction transitions in the West.

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