Our Reconstruction Problem

U.S. History has a Reconstruction problem.

This is true in both the literal (Reconstruction was the most problematic era of US history) and representational (we have problems reckoning with this period of US history) senses. It’s not for lack of scholarly effort, however. The last several decades have seen a flourishing of Reconstruction scholarship; Eric Foner’s magisterial synthesis was just the beginning of a wave of excellent scholarly treatments like those from Heather Cox Richardson, Douglas Egerton, and Mark Wahlgren Summers, to name just a few. But this historiographic renaissance hasn’t translated into the type of public remembrance and conversations as other events in US history have in recent years. We just finished the 150th anniversary commemorationapalooza for the Civil War. There were remastered Ken Burns documentaries, series of learned commentary in the media (the NYT’s Disunion blog was particularly well-done), and constant reminders of the significance of events both large and small a century and a half ago.

But all that stopped last Spring. 150 years after Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination, it’s as if we collectively decided that we’d done enough remembering, thank you very much. We pushed ourselves away from the table, stuffed full of commemoration and carefully-circumscribed encounters with our history, righteously self-assured that things are so much better now than they were in the Dark Times of the “brothers’ war.” In the aftermath of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, our mainstream sociopolitical discourse is the same as it was in the aftermath of the original event–largely concerned with emphasizing points of unity, papering over divisions, and doing our level best to pretend that everything would be happily ever after now that the “late unpleasantness” had passed. There are exceptions, to be sure, just as there were then. But the remarkable thing about Reconstruction is how little enthusiasm it musters among a people otherwise obsessed with “their history” (or at least some version of it).

Part of the dilemma, perhaps, is a the confused origin of the term. What exactly did “reconstruction” mean to Americans in the 1860s? As the “secession winter” of 1860-61 unfolded, “reconstruction” became the term du jour to describe the last-ditch efforts at compromise underway in Congress to prevent the ultimate disintegration of the Union and the war it was sure to bring. The Crittenden Compromise, the proposed constitutional amendments to protect slavery in perpetuity, and other frantically-conceived schemes in these turbulent months were aimed at “reconstructing” the Union before its destruction became permanent. In the early years of the war, “reconstruction” retained this limited scope of meaning; advocates of “limited war” and peace proposals based on the status quo ante bellum used the word to connote a restoration of the Union that would, as much as possible, enable it to appear as if nothing had happened. Almost by default, the term thus established itself in the public discourse as the shorthand descriptor for whatever would happen after the shooting stopped.

“Reconstruction” would not take on a more thoroughgoing, transformative connotation in that discourse until it was used by Abraham Lincoln himself as part of the label for the policies he delivered in his “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” in December, 1863. Conceding the already-prevalent use of the term “reconstruction”–“as it is commonly called,” he said–Lincoln imbued the word with new vigor. Radical Republicans in Congress, however, thought Lincoln’s vigor insufficient, and countered with their own “reconstruction” plan–the 1864 Wade-Davis Bill, which Lincoln would pocket-veto. But the debate over what everyone was now calling “Reconstruction” was joined in earnest. From that point forward, “Reconstruction” achieved capital-letter status as the name of whatever period was to follow the Civil War.

But in becoming the default term to seemingly describe everything, Reconstruction would increasingly come to describe nothing. There was Presidential Reconstruction, and Radical Reconstruction. Congressional and Military Reconstruction. Reactionary white southerners inveighed against Negro Reconstruction (or some variant of that epithet). Visionaries looked to the West for the key to Reconstruction. The withdrawal of the last federal regiments from southern states in 1877 ended (or killed) Reconstruction. Veterans’ commemorations of battlefield anniversaries testified that Reconstruction was a done deal, as Billy Yank and Johnny Reb posed for photos, grinning and clasping hands with a sea of monuments as a poignantly mute backdrop. And so it goes. Now, Reconstruction is the textbook chapter that follows the one about the Civil War, and the topic that we maybe get to at the end of the semester, if there’s time, and if people show up to the last class.


Reconstruction thus floats in a weird limbo in a culture that fetishizes commemoration. There wasn’t a definitive closing event; Reconstruction doesn’t have an Appomattox (never mind that Appomattox itself didn’t end the Civil War, but that’s another conversation). Instead of Lee and Grant shaking hands and aides and orderlies snuffling about what had all of a sudden become the Good Old Days, we have…what? Roscoe Conkling whispering in Rutherford Hayes’s ear? There’s no happy ending. There’s no “maybe-everything-will-be-OK” moment. This isn’t the kind of stuff a sonorous narrator describes with the strains of “Ashokan Farewell” lilting in the background. So the deluge of commemoration, of peak anniversary saturation, just…stops. Once the war was over, we implicitly tell ourselves, there’s nothing worth commemorating.

Why is that? One could make the case that the period we call Reconstruction was, more than anything else, another phase of the war–an insurgent phase marked by a rolling guerrilla campaign against federal occupation and emancipation across the defeated-but-not-subdued South. We like to commemorate wars and battles and stuff, right? Hell, there are four or five cable TV channels dedicated to nothing but war. Yet we’re averse to looking at “Reconstruction” seemingly at all. It is the Era That Shall Not Be Named.

We have a Reconstruction problem.

Convict laborers in Fulton County, Georgia, 1895.
Convict laborers in Fulton County, Georgia, 1895.

We have that problem because Reconstruction was, in the end, a process that remained true to its earliest definition: the Union was “reconstructed” as it was, not as it should have become. In a very real sense, the Peace Democrats of 1861-62, and not the Radical Republicans of 1866-68, were the unknowing architects of what ultimately happened as a result of Reconstruction. Despite the revolutionary aspects of Congressional Reconstruction–civil rights legislation, three sweeping amendments to the Constitution, the Freedmen’s Bureau and its profound social and economic impact–that process ultimately failed. What was ultimately reconstructed, in the literal sense of that term, was the racial caste system that prevailed before the war. Status quo ante bellum. Sure, new laws were on the books and names for things were changed. But laws are not self-enforcing, and constitutional amendments mean nothing without the political will to see them meaningfully implemented. Slavery didn’t end as a result of the Civil War, it was merely focused and transformed. A particular legal regime of slaveholding was abrogated, but the malignant racism that perpetually seeks to keep people of color in as much of a chattel state as possible went nowhere. White supremacy was not only re-established rather quickly in the South (the Klan was only the most notable example), but it was broadcast and amplified across the West as well. Black officeholders became an endangered species almost as quickly as they appeared. The Reconstruction Amendments, so full of promise initially, were dead letters by the middle of the 1870s. The Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude made an exception for people convicted of a crime and who were thus wards of the state. Well, guess where the roots of the African American prison crisis and our current carceral state are? The slave patrol was testimony to the widespread criminalization of blackness before the Civil War. The coffle of convict laborers in the blistering Mississippi sun represented its continuance. The Fourteenth Amendment was supposed to take race out of the law in making citizenship national and the wellspring of basic civil rights. The fact that it was applied more solicitously and lovingly to corporations than it ever was to black people underscores how cruel a joke the idea of civil rights was by century’s end. The Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee of black suffrage functioned as anything but, given the proliferation of state laws (most notorious among them the “literacy test”) that cut it off at the knees. Black suffrage needed white political will to make it a reality; the way white suffragettes expressed their rage about black males getting the vote before white women foreshadowed a lack of that will going forward.

It was no accident that the entire structure of white supremacy–legal, political, economic and cultural; formal and informal–was what was ultimately reconstructed. Throughout the history of the United States, this multifarious and persistent structure has survived its near-death experiences to return ever stronger. The staggering amount of horrific violence, and the wanton disregard for law, morality, and humanity that many whites manifested towards subaltern racial castes in the last 35 years of the nineteenth century are ample proof of the lengths to which white supremacy will go to assert its dominance. The more it’s threatened, the more resilient it is. The closer it comes to dying, the harder and bloodier it strikes back. Look at the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and the tide of white violence that engulfed it. Legislative triumphs have been gutted by a neoconservative judiciary. Soaring examples of noble humanity were cut down in an orgy of violence. Basic rules of human decency did not apply when it came to defending white supremacy.  “Second Reconstruction” indeed. And can we doubt that the election of a black president hasn’t given rise to a similar step in this dialectic? For what is Trumpism if not the violent id of white supremacy made flesh once again?

We have a Reconstruction problem. Not because Reconstruction failed, but because it succeeded in the very sense that many white Americans wanted it to succeed. The “Re-” in “Reconstruction” is what mattered then and matters now. Unless and until enough of us–whites most of all–move to dismantle rather than reinforce the operation of our racial caste system, reconstruction will continue apace whenever white supremacy is threatened.

We have a problem because we get Reconstruction when what we really need is Revolution.

Image Credit: Appalachian History: Stories, Quotes, and Anecdotes http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2013/04/i-did-not-enter-politics-i-was-shot.html


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