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Brief Reflection on Eric Foners A Short History of Reconstruction Tara Lake TaraLakeBlog@gmail.com ~ www.TaraLake.

com May 22, 2013 Eric Foners A Short History of Reconstruction, an abridged version of the seminal, extensive history Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, offers a somewhat disjointed but nevertheless critical summary of some of the most instrumental of his arguments regarding those themes he identifies as central to the history of the Civil War. In relationship to the broader body of Reconstruction historiography, Foner could easily be considered among the most important of the revisionist historians on the matter, if not the reigning authority within the movement. Considered by some to be the third major movement of Reconstruction historiographical schools, the Revisionist movement, according to the editors of the text Interpretations of American History: Through Reconstruction Patterns and Perspectives, often characteristically centralizes the role of African Americans in responding to and in shaping the changes in southern and American society following the Civil War as paramount to the discussion of Reconstruction. Further, the Revisionist movement draws from the perspectives of Progressive Reconstruction scholars particularly in its examination of the role of economic matters and the emergence of an industrialized economy but complicates the discussion with the following premise: the fundamental problem of Reconstruction was on what terms freed people would participate economically and politically in the nation1. Interpretations of American History defines Foners work as a definitive work of Revisionist Reconstruction history that drew together the themes of previous works in the school. For some, Foners work could be viewed as representative of the radical shift in Revisionist Reconstruction historical approaches, and in Civil War historiography, generally. Several major foundations guide Foners discussion. Foner centralizes the experience of African Americans emerging as active participants and agitators in the Reconstruction era. He defines the emergence of a new labor construct and class system as vital to the discussion of the era. Additionally, the scholar argues that the developments and increasing complexities of race and class dynamics in the post-bellum south demonstrated an environment in which class was directly impacted by race (and vice versa). Finally, Foner explores the expansion of federal powers and the shift in the governing balance between states and the federal government, which represented a significant growth for the federal government. Consistent with Foners view of the experience of African Americans as the most critical to the discussion of the Reconstruction, the author argues that the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is the


1Couvares,

Frances, et.al. Interpretations of American History: Through Reconstruction Patterns and Perspectives (New

Lake, Tara
May 22, 2013

legitimate starting point of the period. Doing so allows the author to emphasize the Proclamations importance in unitinggrass-roots black activity and the newly empowered national state and establishing the period as the onset of the adjustment of American society to the end of slavery2. Foner argues that a number of strains in the American political fabric were further exacerbated by the Civil War, which amplified class strife between yeomen farmers and wealthy plantation owners, emboldened enslaved blacks to challenge or break the bonds of slavery, caused privileged women to question their subordinate status in society, and generally altered perspectives of the order of society, both in the north and in the south. In the midst of this, specific phenomena, especially the presence of African American Civil War veterans and the establishment of the Freedmans Bureau, had particularly strong effects upon the southern consciousness of race and citizenship. Foners discussion suggests that just as the Emancipation Proclamation and pre-emancipation began to alter perceptions of African Americans in American society well before 1865, so too did societal perceptions among and between various white communities begin to shift much earlier during the war itself. As these broader societal shifts occurred, Foner asserts, the impact of the freeing of enslaved blacks, the emergence of a new society influenced by political and economic opportunism and corruption, and the halting attempts of a war torn society led to an array of dramatic changes which altered the American identity and occurred because of, and sometimes in spits of, the progress of Presidential and Radical Reconstruction. African American adjustment to freedom figures heavily into Foners discussion. As the reality of Freedom set in, Foner suggests, freedmen (and women) began to forge new paths. According to Foner newly freed slaves sought to overturn the real and symbolic authority whites had exercised over every aspect of their lives, and so exerted a great deal of energy and removing the societal shackles that continued to hinder their status as free people. By strengthening and establishing the bonds of family, which had been so tenuous during the slavery, African Americans focused on what Foner terms an indispensable element of freedom and laid the foundation for a number of pursuits in community-building, the author argues3. The scholar suggest that religion, economic empowerment, political action, self-defense, and the establishment of labor systems were among the most important pursuits among fledgling African American communities, but urges that these pursuits were greatly hindered by a lack of societal and constitutional protections. Despite this, African Americans sought creative ways to pursue these ends. Foner demonstrates this with the use of archival documents, including testimonies and complaints of African Americans. While blacks pursued a number of objectives using differing approaches, Foner argues that these efforts were united by a broader theme: a desire for independence from white control, for autonomy both as


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Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction (New York: Harper & Row, 1990) p. xvi Ibid., p. 39

Lake, Tara
May 22, 2013

individuals and as members of a community being transformed by emancipation4. Foner acknowledges that blacks had formed and sustained a number of institutions before the war. However, emancipation greatly improved and expanded African American resources in this regard. The author argues that [w]ith freedom, these institutions were consolidated, expanded, and liberated from white supervision, and new onesjoined them as focal points of black life5. Foners discussion concedes, however, he also asserts that these cultural institutions did not free blacks from the hardships that led to failures in Reconstruction. The sharecropping system and a flawed legal response during the period, for example, were reminders that victories were consistently limited and frequently reversed. These failures in Reconstruction, Foner suggests, owed a great deal to President Andrew Johnsons reluctance to carry out the plans for a federal resurrection of the south. Johnson, according to Foner, did not uphold any particular interest in the political empowerment of African Americans. He shared neither the Radicals expansive conception of federal power nor their commitment to political equality for blacks6. Foner affords a significant discussion to the causes of the failure of Presidential Reconstruction, and demonstrates the ways in which Johnsons reconstruction empowered [prominent whites] to shape the transition from slavery to freedom and define blacks civil status7. While he lauds Congressional Reconstruction as a radical departure, a stunning and unprecedented experiment in interracial democracy because of its success in establishing the legislative basis for black citizenship and suffrage, Foner also concedes that the process failed in a number of ways8. Political assaults and racial terrorism undermined the possibilities for more expansive change in the Reconstruction, as the opponents of reconstruction launched a campaign of violence that confronted Republican governments with a challenge to their very physical survival and eventually led to Redemption and Home Rule. Foners A Short History of Reconstruction demonstrates the authors established residence and leadership in the revisionist school. His expansive scholarship shifts the gaze of the historical eye, challenging students and scholars to reconsider the assumptions of seminal Reconstruction works from previous eras those that greatly influenced our understanding of the Reconstruction era during much of the Twentieth Century. In this way, Foners work urges scholars to continue to unearth silenced or overlooked experiences of the one of the most extraordinary periods in American history. Decades after its publication, as America struggles to grapple with the meaning of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Foners text provides a vital framework for a broader, more inclusive perspective of the complicated history of Reconstruction.


Ibid., p. 36 Ibid., p. 36 6 Ibid., p. 83 7 Ibid., p. 89 8 Ibid., p. 122
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