Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 Summary

Eric Foner

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877

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Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 Summary

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Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) is a non-fiction book by the American historian Eric Foner. In offering a summary of the Reconstruction Era in America—starting with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and ending with the Compromise of 1877—Foner adopts a moderate Revisionist view, arguing that Reconstruction was neither an unmitigated disaster nor a sufficiently progressive effort to enfranchise and empower black Americans. The book was awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for the year’s best book about American history.

Though Reconstruction wouldn’t begin in earnest until the end of the Civil War in 1865, technically the era is considered to have begun in 1863, the year Lincoln issued the executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. This “freed” all slaves in America by law but only on paper, as the Confederate States at this time were engaged in armed conflict against the federal government and did not follow its laws. Significantly, however, the proclamation did not allow for ambiguity about what would happen to slaves in the South, should the Union win the war.

Foner also highlights important pre-Reconstruction developments that would influence policies in the post-Civil War era. In particular, he discusses the Port Royal Experiment of 1861 and 1862. Viewed as a potential model for broader Reconstruction efforts, the Port Royal Experiment involved Southern land off the coast of South Carolina in the Sea Islands that was liberated by the Union. Abandoned by Confederate planters, the land was given to the 10,000 slaves left behind on these islands. Meanwhile, Union officials in partnership with various Northern charities studied the ex-slaves and their work and life habits in an effort to determine their suitability to cultivating productive crops in the absence of white landowners. The results of the study would provide valuable lessons for future Reconstruction, revealing that while the ex-slaves’ work ethic was unimpeachable, they also stood to benefit greatly from the same formal education provided to white Americans and would be at a distinct disadvantage without it.

In 1864, the Civil War still raged on, but several Southern states had been effectively rid of Confederate army troops and other significant rebellious factions. Therefore, Congress and President Lincoln were forced to debate plans for how to deal with the Confederate states should its leaders surrender. So-called Radical Republicans in Congress argued for a piece of legislation known as the Wade-Davis Bill. Proposed by Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Representative Henry Davis of Maryland, the bill would require a majority of citizens in each Confederate state to agree to an “Ironclad Oath” stating they had never supported the Confederacy in the past. Absent this, a Confederate state would be barred from re-entering the Union. Lincoln passionately opposed the Wade-Davis Bill, arguing instead for the “10 Percent Rule,” which only required 10 percent of a Confederate state to take an oath abiding by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln’s plans for Reconstruction wouldn’t get far, however: the president was assassinated in 1865, and Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee became the new head of state. Johnson was even more hesitant than Lincoln to embrace the policies of the Radical Republicans. However, unlike Lincoln, Johnson appeared to many as someone who refused to take Reconstruction efforts seriously. He believed Reconstruction could be completed by the end of that year. Meanwhile, Foner argues, Radical Republicans better understood the magnitude of rebuilding the South’s economy while also ensuring that freed slaves would have access to various public institutions such as education and voting. This resulted in a dramatic schism in the Republican Party between President Johnson and the Radical Republicans led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. By the election of 1866, Stevens’ wing of the party won a two-thirds majority allowing it to successfully manage Reconstruction while vetoing Johnson’s ill-considered plans. Moreover, while Johnson barely avoided being voted out of office as part of Impeachment hearings, his ability to control Reconstruction efforts was effectively shattered.

It is this period, from 1866 to 1868, that Foner identifies as the most fruitful for ensuring the rights of freed slaves. In addition to impeaching and disempowering President Andrew Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which sought to secure citizenship and equal treatment for all Americans, white or black. The U.S. also ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which enshrined these rights in the Constitution. Unfortunately, Foner points out the various ways in which admirable federal statutes were slow to improve the lives of freedmen in the South. In fact, they faced unprecedented violence and intimidation at the hands of ascendant white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of Congress’ Radical Reconstruction efforts. This violence only intensified during the Panic of 1873, an economic depression that hit the South especially hard. Politically-speaking, the center of gravity began to shift to the Democratic Party, which argued that Radical Republicans’ efforts to successfully rebuild the South had resulted in failure.

The formal end of Reconstruction came in 1877 with the Compromise of 1877, often referred to as “The Corrupt Bargain.” The 1876 Presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden was hotly contested. In order to resolve the disputed election, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives agreed to honor the Electoral Commission’s decision to award Hayes the presidency, but only if Hayes agreed to withdraw federal troops from various Southern states where Republicans were still guiding Reconstruction efforts. Without these troops, the government would be completely disempowered to enforce the new legal protections offered to freedmen. As a result, violence, intimidation, and voter suppression would rain down on black Americans in these states unabated for decades.

By detailing a comprehensive history of the Reconstruction Era and doing so largely from the perspective of ex-slaves in the South, Foner paints a vivid portrait of how well-intentioned efforts by Radical Republicans fell short of their goals in the wake of economic downturns, political jockeying, and intense racism.