Thursday, June 17, 2010

1870s: Reconstruction

I almost skipped over the one topic that is probably the most glossed over in school history classes--Reconstruction--but I knew I really need to understand more of what happened, and why, to former slaves specifically, and the country as a whole coming out of the Civil War. I started this reading project with a primary interest in economic history but it is easy to get wrapped up in just the basic political history. But this time period was one of the most crucial turning points for the country's economy, government, and social institutions that would determine the course of the United States in the future.

And this is to not diminish the profound impact for an entire race of people.

Prior readings of the issues leading up the founding of the Republican Party soon before the War and its cast of characters from different backgrounds, regions, and priorities gave great context for how the party would not be in position to govern and manage such a massive transition. While Lincoln presumably would have been a more effective and visionary leader than the disastrous Andrew Johnson, there is no evidence that a cohesive and forward-looking plan could have been politically or practically implemented. The moderates and radicals and even Democrats each had opportunities to run things, but none were able to provide a stable new equilibrium for former slaves labor, investing in the Southern economies, reintroducing the former Confederacy into the Union, or establishing civil rights.

From the perspective of the 21st Century I still cannot fully grasp the mindset of 1870 Americans. Only a few years prior slavery was accepted practice. Even the most radical anti-slavery factions would probably be considered bigots today. The average moderate thinking was somewhere in between. Even if they were able to have the vision for integrating the former slaves into a fully equal civil society by today's standards, would they have been able to create a path to move in that direction while achieving the immediate goals of rebuilding the Southern economy and politically reintroducing former confederates? I would love to hope so, but it is doubtful.

This book by Eric Foner was much more of an investment to read than I expected, but well worth it. While it is not a fast flowing narrative, I will give it 4/5 stars due to the comprehensive coverage of an important, underrated subject matter. He is very detailed in the blow by blow accounts of what happened and didn't happen in the years 1863-1877, showing how the different constituencies of each region in the South and North had competing goals and incentives throughout the period and the worked together when it suited their own needs, and competed when it didn't. This meant that the make up of the political parties, especially the Republicans, could change from state to state, geographic region to geographical region, and over time. For the former slaves, this meant they were at the mercy of political alignments focused on various economic issues. And unfortunately for them, there were few groups in the country that saw personal economic benefits of a newly freed class of workers. A few saw benefits of a new voting bloc, and very few saw altruistic motives for helping them.

Foner's analysis of regional politics shows the vast differences of issues and action in places such as Louisiana with a large former free black society and sugar economy, versus the upcountry Carolinas with smaller farms and a large poor white population, versus the cotton belt counties that were plantation dominated. He also did a great service tracking the progress of specific issues such as the development of education in the south where it is easy to see how the institutions of the 20th Century were established. Many times I thought while reading, "so these are the events that will lead to a landmark Supreme Court decision 80 years in the future." We're now how many generations out of Reconstruction? And we're still untangling the mess, even if it was inevitable.

(Read June 2010)