Accueil Revues Revue Numéro Article

Études anglaises

2009/4 (Vol. 62)

  • Pages : 128
  • ISBN : 9782252036969
  • Éditeur : Klincksieck

ALERTES EMAIL - REVUE Études anglaises

Votre alerte a bien été prise en compte.

Vous recevrez un email à chaque nouvelle parution d'un numéro de cette revue.


Article précédent Pages 440 - 454 Article suivant

Like the history of the Civil War and slavery itself, the history of Reconstruction (1865-1877), [1][1] I am adopting here the periodization used by most of... that brief period when “ the country experimented with genuine interracial democracy ” (Foner Forever Free xx), proved a contested terrain from the first. The mainstream narrative which gradually emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries held that Reconstruction had been a time of chaos and corruption, when ignorant newly-freed men, supported by the bayonets of the federal government, had been allowed to rule over the South. Redemption restored society to its presumed natural order and put an end to the unholy alliance of freed slaves, adventurers from the North ( “ carpetbaggers ”) and Southern white traitors ( “ scalawags ”). The elaboration and continuation of the overarching narrative of Reconstruction served to justify, among a host of other acts, the removal of the recently-won rights of African Americans. This totalizing discourse —and the treatment of blacks in the South —did not go unchallenged. Dissenting voices remained largely unheard, however, before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This article aims to retrace and contextualize “ The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography ” (Weisberger) until the beginning of what C. Vann Woodward called the “ Second Reconstruction ” (Woodward 8).


The fight over the writing of Reconstruction arguably began during Reconstruction itself, and the contentious debates over the various laws and amendments which turned freedmen into full citizens and allowed them to play an active role in the political life of the South. Contemporary periodicals, which both echoed and tried to influence those debates, provide today’s reader with the seeds of two very different interpretations of the Reconstruction then underway. Thus Harper’s Weekly staunchly defended radical Reconstruction and the enfranchisement of freedmen as the only means to protect them from their former masters. The New York-based weekly provided its readers with positive pictures of African Americans taking on their new responsibilities as citizens, lawmakers and the like. It also exposed, in word and image, the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups, in order to emphasize the continued need for the federal government —and the Republican Party —to keep close watch on events in the South. On the other hand, Southern magazines such as DeBow’s Review warned that the South was falling victim to “ negro domination, ” a contention supported by some accounts of conditions in the South by Northerners, perhaps most notably James S. Pike. Pike, a journalist, was dispatched to South Carolina by the New York Tribune in 1873 and charged with assessing the results of Reconstruction. [2][2] While the New York Tribune had long defended black... The series of articles that he produced was published in book format the following year, and the title of the work, The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government (1874), left little doubt as to his interpretation of events. The Prostrate State posits blacks as an “ inferior race ” (69) and tells the tragic story of a Southern aristocracy ruined by war and trampled upon by its former servants. Pike denounced the “ Africanization ” of South Carolina (4), the “ spectacle of a society suddenly turned bottom-side up, ” (12) in which corruption ruled (the headings of at least 8 of the 34 chapters include the word “ fraud ”). In respect to the State government, he declared, “ It is barbarism overwhelming civilization by physical force. It is the slave rioting in the halls of his master, and putting that master under his feet ” (12).

Pike’s reading of Reconstruction was far from unique. By the early 1870s, a certain lassitude on the part of Northerners could be detected in even the most vigorous proponents of radical Reconstruction, and Harper’s Weekly provides a case in point. The famed political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who supported radical Reconstruction, produced as early as 1874 a critical portrait of Reconstruction governments: entitled “ Colored Rule in a Reconstructed (?) State, ” and printed on the front page, it depicted coarse, thick-lipped black legislators engaged in a boisterous quarrel, suggesting that at least some African Americans were unfit to occupy political positions (Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1874: 229). Even before the end of the 1860s, a few articles in the same weekly had voiced doubts respecting the ability of former slaves to take their fate into their own hands. Slavery, it was sometimes argued, left a permanent imprint on the former slave, in the form of laziness, improvidence, or a love of subordination. After the 1876 compromise and the end of Reconstruction, Harper’s, which approved of the compromise, began expressing sympathy for the plight of Southerners under Reconstruction, described as an “ apparent reversal of a rational order of society ” ( “ A Southern Duty, ” September 21, 1878: 747). [3][3] The shift in the weekly’s slant cannot be accounted...

Post-Reconstruction Accounts


Not all contemporaries viewed Reconstruction in such unfavorable light, and this was especially true of those who had played a role in it. Thus in his three-volume History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America (1877), Vice President Henry Wilson singled out the abolition of slavery and the enfranchisement of freedmen as the most memorable achievements of Reconstruction. He was less sanguine over the current situation, however, contending that the defeated South still defended the “ lost cause ” and was determined to exclude freedmen from Southern governments, by violence and fraud if necessary (Wilson 736). Albion Tourgée, a “ carpetbagger ” who fought for the Union before settling in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as a state superior court judge, produced a sobering account of the end of Reconstruction in his 1879 A Fool’s Errand, a novel based on his personal experiences in North Carolina. Reconstruction, he argued, had failed because it had secured the rights of freedmen on paper only. African Americans were now reduced to unofficial serfdom (Tourgée 337-44).


Former slaves Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, two of the most famous anti-slavery speakers before the Civil War, sought both to vindicate the achievements of Reconstruction and denounce the violence exerted against the now unprotected freedmen. In the early 1880s, Douglass noted that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments had represented considerable achievements, but that they had been made a “ mockery ” of inasmuch as the old master class triumphed while the economic exploitation of freedmen reduced them to a state hardly better than slavery (Douglass 511-13). In My Southern Home (1880), Brown called upon readers to marvel at millions of slaves who, “ set at liberty in a single day... reconstructed the State Governments that their masters had destroyed; became Legislators, held State offices, and with all their blunders, surpassed the whites that had preceded them ” (W. W. Brown 245). While Brown acknowledged that Reconstruction governments had been corrupt, he attributed that corruption to the freedmen’s want of education owing to slavery and to the “ white adventurers ” from the North (W. W. Brown 244).


African American amateur historian George Washington Williams took Brown’s mildly apologetic tone a step further in his monumental History of the Negro Race in America, 1619-1880 (1883). For Williams, Reconstruction had failed (he singled out education as the exception to the rule), a failure largely due to the federal government having delivered power into hands too feeble to hold it: “ The Government gave him [the freedman] the statute-book when he ought to have had the spelling-book; placed him in the Legislature when he ought to have been in the school-house ” (Williams vol. 2 527). According to Williams, this made the removal of “ Negro governments ” inevitable. That Williams used the phrase “ Negro governments ” — whereas African Americans in fact controlled none of the Reconstruction governments [4][4] McPherson notes that blacks held no more than 15 or... —amply demonstrates that he too subscribed to the hostile vision of Reconstruction that was beginning to gain ground in the nation as a whole. In addition, Williams seemed to give in to the pervasive racism of his time when he noted that “ An ignorant majority without competent leaders, could not rule an intelligent Caucasian minority ” (Franklin 1998, 112).

This was precisely the point that Southerners wanted to make. Two years after Williams’s book was issued, Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and a wholehearted proponent of the New South, published a lengthy essay entitled “ In Plain Black and White ” (The Century Magazine, April 1885), in which he described Reconstruction as chaos, and Redemption as “ the reassertion of the moral power that overthrew the scandalous reconstruction governments, even though, to the shame of the republic be it said, they were supported by the bayonets of the General Government. ” By opposition, Grady painted an ideal picture of the contemporaneous racial harmony in a segregated South, where each race knew its place and was satisfied with it, and he asserted the right of the South to “ home rule ” based on white supremacy.

That the nation was gradually moving toward a Southern interpretation of the recent past is evidenced in widely circulated periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly. The magazine occasionally rued the sad plight of black Americans in the South, and underlined the latter’s anger and sense of injustice at economic exploitation and racial violence. [5][5] See, for instance, the series of articles entitled... Yet, like Grady, the weekly’s commentators advised the government to let the South “ work out her own salvation. ” Rather than call upon federal action to eradicate the race problem —after all, it had already proved ineffective in this regard — the paper relied on the “ healing influence of time ” and advised African Americans to be patient (Parfait 2003).



As Grady’s 1885 essay makes clear, advancing a horrific picture of Reconstruction as a time of chaos and misrule enabled many white Southerners to claim that freedmen could not be entrusted with political responsibilities. Such a position was then used to justify the gradual disfranchisement of freedmen. The interpretation of the role of the federal government during Reconstruction as having constituted an abuse of power enforced by military rule, was supported by a series of Supreme Court decisions that removed federal control over the status of freedmen. The 1883 invalidation of the 1875 Civil Rights Act which prohibited racial discrimination in public places is just one of many such examples. Similar rulings by the High Court also paved the way for Jim Crow laws and systematic segregation in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).


The trend toward national reconciliation was one reason why the Southern interpretation of Reconstruction gained ground. As David Blight and others have demonstrated, the Gilded Age witnessed a wave of nostalgia for the Antebellum days. The feeling was partly due to the momentous changes the nation was undergoing, especially the fast pace of industrialization and urbanization, as well as the massive waves of immigrants that began to arrive in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This nostalgic trend could already be seen in the early 1870s in the nation’s periodicals, highlighting the affection that linked slaves to their masters —in a reminder of old pro-slavery arguments —, thereby hinting that the system could not have been utterly bad. The trend accelerated as the war grew more remote, and found its ultimate expression in the works of Joel Chandler Harris and the plantation stories of Thomas Nelson Page. This “ literature of reunion ” which celebrated the old plantation South, had pride of place in the nation’s magazines, many of them published in the North (Blight 216-17).


The Spanish-American War of 1898 found former Union and Confederate officers fighting side by side, helping to cement a reconciliation that was largely achieved at the expense of African Americans. The growing consensus was that slavery indeed had to disappear, but that the Civil War —with heroes on both sides —had not been about slavery itself, but rather the right to secede. Reconstruction had been a mistake. [6][6] Reconciliation was a narrative more than a fact, and...

Early twentieth-century historians played a central role in the negotiation over a consensual “ usable past ” for the nation, a negotiation made possible by “ the pervasive racism which —across regions, classes, and political persuasions —dominated the thought of the period ” (Novick 74). Indeed, at a time when much if not most of the nation subscribed to social Darwinism and “ scientific ” racism, the degraded status of African Americans —both real and symbolic —was evidenced in the systematic use of stereotypes, textual and iconographic, in the nation’s periodicals, many of them published in the North. In this literature, blacks were consistently portrayed as buffoons who loved watermelon, and evinced a marked propensity for stealing chickens and fighting with razors, a people whose skewered grammar was but one sign of inferiority (Logan 242-75).

Early Twentieth Century: Popular and Scholarly Accounts of Reconstruction


The interpretation of Reconstruction as a tragic period for white Southerners received a wide audience thanks to the success of works such as The Clansman (1905), by Thomas Dixon Jr. The note “ To the Reader ” which opened the novel was an unabashed celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization understood to have “ saved ” the South from the “ the bold attempt of Thaddeus Stevens to Africanise ten great states of the American Union. ” The Clansman, which was to serve as the basis for David W. Griffith’s enormously popular movie Birth of a Nation (1915), became a massive bestseller, while a very different novelistic depiction of Reconstruction by African American writer Charles W. Chesnutt, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), hardly created a ripple on the American publishing scene.


Like Chesnutt, black scholar W. E. B. Du Bois offered his own interpretation of Reconstruction while also denouncing the plight of African Americans in the South. In the second essay of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), entitled “ Of the Dawn of Freedom, ” Du Bois argued that the granting of the franchise to the freedmen was indispensable to protect the freedmen themselves; necessary too in order to force the South to accept its defeat. At the same time, however, Du Bois somberly concluded that “ Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud ” (Du Bois 1903, 76). For Du Bois, Reconstruction represented a tragedy whose main protagonists were an embittered South and a bewildered freedman. It was doomed to fail — though there were successes, especially in education —, and that failure was evidenced by the situation of African Americans in the South at the turn of the century: “... despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free ” (Du Bois 1903, 77). The scholar/activist provided a short list of the problems that beset Southern African Americans: economic exploitation in the form of peonage, segregation, absence of political power, and racial violence (Du Bois 1903, 78). The number of lynchings had in fact peaked in the 1890s, a trend which the contemporary press ascribed to an increase in black criminality.

Thus, depending on its author, the narrative of Reconstruction read as a tragedy for whites or for blacks. In 1907, Booker T. Washington noted that African Americans had been “ less the instigators than the victims of the mistakes of Reconstruction ” (Washington 387). The Southern take on Reconstruction, however, unambiguously ascribed victimhood to Southern whites, and essentially blamed the federal government and carpetbaggers for what was seen as the tragedy of Reconstruction. Inasmuch as freedmen were considered totally ignorant, they were regarded as less culpable in the tragedy, serving merely as unwitting instruments of Northern whites. This version of history, already pervasive in the press and popular literature of the time, received scholarly legitimacy in a series of works published in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The Dunning School


Although history was becoming increasing “ professional ” at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the most influential works on Reconstruction was drafted by an amateur historian, James Ford Rhodes, a businessman from Ohio who had retired at an early age to devote his time to the study of American history. The two volumes (6 and 7) of his History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896 which dealt with Reconstruction were issued in 1906. Rhodes firmly believed that blacks were inferior and that giving them the franchise had been a grievous mistake (Taylor 18-20).


A similar reading of Reconstruction was propounded by John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning, whose works were to exert a lasting influence on Reconstruction historiography, giving birth to the “ Dunning school. ” An anecdote related by Peter Novick reveals the ideological subtext of these writings of history. John W. Burgess, a Tennessean who taught political science at Columbia University, was approached by a publisher who thought the time had come for a complete reconciliation between the two sections opposed in the Civil War. Such a reconciliation could be achieved through a better understanding of the points of view of North and South on the war and its aftermath. Burgess undertook to write a history of the period, a task which he saw as a “ sacred duty ” to his country (Novick 74). In the preface to his 1902 Reconstruction and the Constitution, Burgess made clear that secession had been a mistake, but that it was time for the North finally to acknowledge that the means taken to achieve Reconstruction had been a failure as well. For Burgess, Reconstruction constituted a “ blunder-crime against civilization ” (Burgess 252), in which the federal government vastly exceeded its constitutional powers, and Congress placed freedmen — “ ignorant barbarians ” —in control of the South (Burgess 252). Burgess also argued that the experience of the recent Spanish-American War and of the “ imperial enterprises ” undertaken by the country under the leadership of the Republican party, had brought the North to a closer understanding of the Southern attitude toward African Americans: “... the North is learning every day by valuable experiences that there are vast differences in political capacity between the races, and that it is the white man’s mission, his duty and his right, to hold the reins of political power in his own hands for the civilization of the world and the welfare of mankind ” (Burgess viii-ix).


In 1907, another Columbia University professor, historian William Archibald Dunning, a Northerner who had studied under Burgess, published Reconstruction, Political and Economic, which formed volume 22 of the series The American Nation: A History. In his introduction to the volume, Albert Bushnell Hart, Professor of history at Harvard University and editor of the series, summarized Dunning’s thesis: “ The purpose of this volume is to show that Reconstruction, with all its hardships and inequities, was not deliberately planned as a punishment and humiliation for those formerly in rebellion, though the spirit of retribution had its part. It was an effort, clumsy and partisan, yet in the main honestly meant to make provision for the inevitable consequences of the Civil War; though it failed it left a state of things out of which has slowly grown the consciousness of a national harmony far stronger and more lasting than that before the war ” (xiv). In his preface, Dunning explained that his account of the period focused on the nation at large, rather than merely “ the struggle through which the southern whites, subjugated by adversaries of their own race, thwarted the scheme which threatened permanent subjection to another race ” (xv). According to Dunning, radical Republicans deliberately misconstrued the black codes passed by Southern provisional governments in the winter of 1865-1866 as an attempt to re-establish slavery, whereas they in truth represented “ in the main a conscientious and straightforward attempt to bring some sort of order out of the social and economic chaos which a full acceptance of the results of war and emancipation involved ” (58). The black codes allowed the radicals to push for their plan for Reconstruction, leading to new Southern governments headed by freedmen, carpetbaggers and scalawags, governments stained by rampant corruption. Dunning emphasized the despair of white Southerners under these governments, while maintaining that propaganda in respect to alleged racial violence exerted by former rebels on blacks and on white Republicans ensured the North’s continued acquiescence to radical Reconstruction.

The Dunning school was all the more influential as its findings were based on meticulous and thorough research work, even if its interpretation was biased by racism (T. Brown 3-4). Furthermore, the audience of Dunning and his students was not confined to the small readership of scholarly monographs. In 1929, Claude Bowers, a journalist and amateur historian, whose ideas of Reconstruction were largely derived from the Dunning school (Tyrrell 56), published The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln. This bestselling work was, according to John Hope Franklin, the most widely read book on Reconstruction for more than a generation (Race and History 22). The Tragic Era described the white Southerners’ “ dramatic struggle for the preservation of Southern civilization and the redemption of their people ” (Bowers vi). According to Bowers, freedmen, children really, had fallen under the influence of demagogues —soldiers, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and carpetbaggers —, although “ Left to themselves, ” Bowers contended, “ the negroes would have turned for leadership to the native whites, who understood them best ” (Bowers 198). Bower’s narrative pits good and sensible men, like Andrew Johnson, against an array of vengeful and uncompromising villains, with Thaddeus Stevens at their head. Bowers’s depiction of the black members of the South Carolina legislature could have been lifted straight from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation[7][7] Franklin considered the 1915 film the single greatest...: “... the members’ feet upon their desks, their faces hidden behind their soles. Chuckles, guffaws, the noisy cracking of peanuts, and raucous voices disturb the parliamentary dignity of the scene ” (Bowers 353). The “ tragic era ” ended on the 1876 election, which struck the hour of “ the South’s redemption from military despotism ” (Bowers 538).

Dissenting Voices


In the 1940s, historian E. Merton Coulter explained that the South “ had lost on the fields of carnage, but she was determined to win in the Battle of the Records ” (Coulter 181). Indeed, in the struggle over the history and memory of Reconstruction, the Dunning school emerged as the clear victor and its interpretation held sway for several decades, thus providing the justification for the continued second-class citizenship of African Americans. There were, however, dissenting voices. Most issued from trained historians, but with a few notable exceptions. One of these was John R. Lynch. Lynch had been born under slavery and held political office in Mississippi during Reconstruction before his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1913, his The Facts of Reconstruction attempted to revise the mainstream history of the period, defend the enfranchisement of freedmen, and correct the perception of Reconstruction governments as ineffective and corrupt.


In the following decades, several African American scholars also set out to revise the accepted wisdom on Reconstruction. In A Social History of the American Negro, Benjamin Brawley rejected the commonly held idea that “ the Negro was primarily to blame for the corruption of the day ” (Brawley 271). Corruption, Brawley contended, had little or nothing to do with race or region; it was widespread in both North and South, as exemplified by the Tweed Ring and Crédit Mobilier scandals. In addition, Brawley defended the legacy of Reconstruction governments, and the many “ excellent models ” of constitutions framed by such governments (Brawley 271). Carter G. Woodson, who had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, dismissed the Dunning school interpretation as “ biased and inadequate ” in The Negro in Our History (Woodson 239, n. 1).


The voices of dissent were predominantly black but some white historians also produced more balanced views of Reconstruction, for instance Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody, whose South Carolina During Reconstruction was issued in 1933. In a review for The American Historical Review, Howard K. Beale noted how, “ [w]ith refreshing freedom from prejudice and special pleading, the authors picture honest, unselfish carpetbaggers, respectable, well-meaning scalawags, and Negroes with intelligence and political ability ” (Beale 1933, 345).


The most important revisionist account of the 1930s was W. E. B. Du Bois’s monumental Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935). Du Bois contended that, far from serving simply as ignorant puppets of manipulative whites, freedmen had risen to the challenge of Reconstruction. They had, Du Bois insisted, in effect restored democracy to the South and, among other achievements, had given the South its first public school system. Black Reconstruction concluded with a bibliographical essay aptly entitled “ The Propaganda of History, ” in which Du Bois vigorously denounced biased writings of history that laid the blame on freedmen for the failure of Reconstruction. This seminal work was widely reviewed in the contemporary press and often positively, even if its Marxist slant was criticized. And yet, like the Simkins and Woody study, Du Bois’s interpretation exerted little immediate influence on subsequent writings of Reconstruction, partly it seemed because neither the majority of historians nor the nation at large were quite ready for such new readings (Parfait 2009). After all, and in spite of the Harlem Renaissance, the plantation myth still flourished in the 1930s, as evidenced by the success of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936).

The Uphill Battle of Revisionist Historians


Beginning in the 1930s and continuing for several decades, a number of historians rued the slow progress of revisionist Reconstruction historians. In a 1938 essay, Alrutheus A. Taylor, himself a historian of Reconstruction, lamented that partisan historians dominated the field of Reconstruction historiography while the works of African American scholars were usually ignored (Taylor 32). The following year, Francis Simkins also railed against the continued misinterpretation of the period (Simkins 51). Because traditional histories of Reconstruction posited the inferiority of African Americans, Simkins called on historians to acknowledge the findings of modern anthropology, which cast “ grave doubts on the innate inferiority of the blacks ” (Simkins 58). He established, moreover, a clear link between Reconstruction historiography and contemporary American society. Historians, he argued, had a civic duty to discharge, inasmuch as a better understanding of Reconstruction could help solve “ the South’s great race problem ” (Simkins 61). For Howard K. Beale, assessing Reconstruction historiography in 1940, the unquestioning use of the words “ carpetbaggers ” and “ scalawags, ” for example, demonstrated that historians as a whole had accepted the biased writing of Reconstruction history embodied by the Dunning school, and that the new revisionists had not yet become “ classics ” in the way their predecessors had. [8][8] Beale considered the Dunning school historians as the... For his part, Beale drew a blueprint for the new generation of historians: “ Is it not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of ‘white supremacy’? ” ( “ On Rewriting Reconstruction History ” 808). Beale recommended a more complex reading of Reconstruction, one that would look at the period from economic, political, social and cultural angles, and argued for an examination of Southern history not in isolation but as part and parcel of the nation’s larger history.


Beale’s assessment of Reconstruction historiography came out in 1940. After World War II, the continuation of second-class citizenship and segregation based on race became a moral and political liability for a nation that had fought Nazi racism. Yet, in a 1946 article entitled “ An Analysis of Some Reconstruction Attitudes, ” T. Harry Williams, while acknowledging the welcome changes revisionists had made to traditional Reconstruction history, still advanced the old view that in many Southern States, “ Negro rule ” had been a reality (Williams 479). And the following year, volume 8 of A History of the South, entitled The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877, offered an interpretation that did not essentially differ from that of the Dunning school. Its author, E. Merton Coulter, summarily dismissed the findings of revisionists: “ The author of this work feels that there can be no sensible departure from the well-known facts of the Reconstruction program as it was applied to the South. No amount of revision can write away the grievous mistakes made in this abnormal period of American history ” (xi). The Southern bias of the University of Georgia professor was unambiguously set forth from the first lines of his work: “ The Civil War was not worth its cost. It freed the slaves, upset a social and economic order, strengthened the powers of the national government, and riveted tighter upon the South a colonial status under which it had long suffered. What good the war produced would have come with time in an orderly way; the bad would not have come at all ” (1). Coulter’s book was glaringly racist, and described freedmen as improvident, lazy, spendthrift and gullible, with “ no keen conception of right and wrong ” (49). Reconstruction had not been entirely negative, however, since it had given birth to the Solid South: “ Reconstruction created as great a revolution in politics as in social and economic life. It forced the South into one party and made it solid politically —to maintain white supremacy and home rule ” (377). In a devastating review, African American historian John Hope Franklin suggested that, although Coulter’s work garnered praise in both mainstream and scholarly periodicals, it was marred by, among other things, a biased selection of sources and sweeping generalizations, which resulted in a one-sided interpretation. This, Franklin held, could be ascribed to plain racism (Franklin “ Whither Reconstruction Historiography? ”).


Over a decade later, appraising “ The Dark and Bloody Ground of Historiography ” in The Journal of Southern History, Bernard Weisberger noted that the tide of revision had “ not fully set in ” yet (428-29), and that, as late as 1959, Reconstruction remained “ a challenge not met by academic historians ” (Weisberger 447). On the other hand, as he admitted, the works of C. Vann Woodward and other scholars had deeply altered the reading of Reconstruction. Thus most historians now accepted that Reconstruction governments had achieved a number of substantial reforms and that Radicals were not the unified group of conspirators they had long been made to appear. Although the picture was now more balanced as well as more complex, a good general history of the period had yet to be written, and many textbooks continued to proffer the “ ‘Carpetbag-bayonet rule-Negro domination’ legend ” (436). Weisberger pointed out that part of the problem was that the sources used were almost exclusively white. Another problem, one that Du Bois had already identified in Black Reconstruction, was the general dislike of American historians for the ideas of failure or conflict, neither of which accommodated itself to the national narrative of unity and progress (Du Bois 438-39).

Although the publication in 1961 of John Hope Franklin’s Reconstruction: After the Civil War was interpreted by some as a sign that the “ Dunning dragon ” had finally been slain (Gray 84), Kenneth Stampp was in 1965 to reaffirm the need for a more general acceptance of the findings of revisionists. In The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, Stampp warned that the “ Tragic legend of Reconstruction ” still lived on —it had in fact recently been used by leaders of the resistance to civil rights legislation to support their cause (vii). [9][9] This clearly speaks to the link between Reconstruction... Stampp’s final assessment of Reconstruction is all the more significant when compared to an assessment of the period by one who lived through it. In 1879, Tourgée concluded that Reconstruction had failed African Americans because the rights they had gained were on paper only. For Stampp, writing during the “ Second Reconstruction, ” radical Reconstruction did fail African Americans in the short run, since they had become second-class citizens. Yet, it had written the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments into the Constitution, thus giving blacks “ the ultimate promise of equal civil and political rights ” (Stampp 214-15).

The advent of the civil rights movement promoted fresh readings of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, revisions that were soon to take pride of place in American historiography. The “ legend ” of Reconstruction was finally debunked, and its failures and successes were more objectively and forthrightly reassessed. Over a century after the end of Reconstruction, Eric Foner, whose Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 garnered a series of awards, could rightly claim, “ American history has been remade ” (Foner 1990, vii). [10][10] For postrevisionist scholarship, and new trends in...


  • Beale, Howard K. “ South Carolina during Reconstruction. By Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody. ” The American Historical Review 38/2 (Jan. 1933): 345-47.
  • —. “ On Rewriting Reconstruction History. ” The American Historical Review 45/4 (July 1940): 807-27.
  • Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2001.
  • Bowers, Claude G. The Tragic Era: The Revolution after Lincoln. Cambridge, MA: The Houghton Mifflin, 1929.
  • Brawley, Benjamin. A Social History of the American Negro. New York: Macmillan, 1921.
  • Brown, Thomas J., ed. Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.
  • Brown, William Wells. My Southern Home. [1880]. In From Fugitive Slave to Free Man: The Autobiographies of William Wells Brown. [1993]. Ed. William L. Andrews. Columbia, MO: U of Missouri P, 2003.
  • Burgess, John W. Reconstruction and the Constitution. 1866-1876. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902.
  • Coulter, E. Merton, The South During Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1947.
  • Dixon, Thomas Jr. The Clansman, an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday, 1905.
  • Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing, 1881.
  • Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. [1903]. New York: Signet, 1995.
  • —. Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.
  • Dunning, William Archibald. Reconstruction, Political and Economic. 1865-1877. New York: Harper, 1907.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction. America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row, Perennial Library, 1988, 1989.
  • —. The New American History. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.
  • —. “ Foreword. ” David A. Lincove. Reconstruction in the United States. An Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2000.
  • —. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
  • Franklin, John Hope. George Washington Williams: A Biography. [1985]. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998.
  • —. Race and History: Selected Essays 1938-1988. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State UP, 1989.
  • —. “ Whither Reconstruction Historiography? ” The Journal of Negro Education 17/4 (Fall 1948). Rpt in Franklin, Race and History: 24-42.
  • Gray, Daniel Savage. “ Bibliographical Essay: Black Views on Reconstruction. ” The Journal of Negro History 58/1 (Jan. 1973): 73-85.
  • Logan, Rayford W. The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. Originally published in 1954 as The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901. New, enlarged ed. New York: Collier Books, 1965.
  • Lynch, John R. The Facts of Reconstruction. New York: Neale P Company, 1913.
  • McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. [1982]. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
  • Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “ Objectivity Question ” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1988.
  • Parfait, Claire. “ From Heroic to Comic Death: Representations of African Americans in Harper’s Weekly from the Civil War to the Early Twentieth Century. ” Racial, Ethnic and Homophobic Violence: Killing in the Name of Otherness. Eds. Michel Prum, Bénédicte Deschamps and Marie-Claude Barbier. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007: 43-55.
  • —. “ Rewriting History: The Publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Book History 12 (2009): 266-94.
  • Simkins, Francis B. “ New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction. ” The Journal of Southern History 5 (Feb-Nov. 1939): 49-61.
  • Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
  • Taylor, A. A. “ Historians of the Reconstruction. ” The Journal of Negro History 23/1 (Jan. 1938): 16-34.
  • Tourgée, Albion W. A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools. New York: Fords, Howard and Hulbert, 1879.
  • Tyrrell, Ian R. Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.
  • Washington, Booker T. “ Early Problems of Freedom, ” from Frederick Douglass [1907]. Rpt in Negro Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920. Ed. Howard Brotz. New York: Basic Books, 1966: 382-96.
  • Weisberger, Bernard A. “ The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography. ” The Journal of Southern History 25/4 (Nov. 1959): 427-47.
  • Williams, George W. History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1883.
  • Williams, T. Harry. “ An Analysis of Some Reconstruction Attitudes. ” The Journal of Southern History 12/4 (Nov. 1946): 469-86.
  • Wilson, Henry, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 3. Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1877.
  • Woodson, Carter G. The Negro in Our History. Washington, D.C.: Associated P, 1922.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. [1955]. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.



I am adopting here the periodization used by most of the historians of Reconstruction. However, Foner sees Reconstruction as having begun in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation (Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877), while Du Bois includes the Civil War and the years immediately following the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South in his Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Today, many historians tend to enlarge the periodization to include at least part of the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century, sometimes extending as far as World War I. (See Thomas J. Brown 7.)


While the New York Tribune had long defended black rights, it had since the early 1870s become increasingly critical of Reconstruction governments (Foner 1988, 503).


The shift in the weekly’s slant cannot be accounted for by a change in editors, since George William Curtis continued in that role until 1892.


McPherson notes that blacks held no more than 15 or 20% of the offices during Reconstruction (McPherson 599) ; for Foner, “ by and large, the most important political decisions in every state were made by whites ” (Foner 1988, 354).


See, for instance, the series of articles entitled “ Inside Southern Cabins, ” published in November and December 1880.


Reconciliation was a narrative more than a fact, and it was always challenged by competing narratives. Yet the “ reconciliationist ” narrative achieved dominance over the “ emancipationist ” one. For a discussion of the recent historiography on reconciliation, see Thomas J. Brown, “ Civil War Remembrance as Reconstruction, ” in his Reconstructions, 206-36.


Franklin considered the 1915 film the single greatest force in shaping the view of Reconstruction as a tragedy for white Southerners (Franklin 1989, 23).


Beale considered the Dunning school historians as the first revisionists; until then, he argued, the history of Reconstruction had been written from a sectional point of view, by men who were essentially concerned with justifying their own positions. The Dunning school, on the other hand, did meticulous research work. Its interpretation was, however, carried too far in Bowers’s Tragic Era, thus launching a new revision of the period ( “ On Rewriting ” 807-808). Today, the word “ revisionist, ” however, usually refers to the historians who over several generations challenged the Dunning school, reaching a climax with Foner’s 1988 Reconstruction (T. Brown 4).


This clearly speaks to the link between Reconstruction historiography and the status of African Americans.


For postrevisionist scholarship, and new trends in Reconstruction historiography, see among others, Thomas Brown’s Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States.



The withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South in 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction. Redemption, namely the return of Democrats to power in Southern States, was already well under way by then. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, economic exploitation, segregation, and racial violence, reduced many African Americans to near slavery while gradual disfranchisement made them second-class citizens. The North had lost interest in the plight of former slaves and acquiesced in this policy for the sake of national reconciliation. The history of Reconstruction was rewritten from a Southern point of view as a tragic episode in which whites had been the victims of incompetent blacks and their corrupt white allies. In spite of a few dissenting voices, this interpretation, which justified the inferior status of African Americans, was to prevail until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the “ Second Reconstruction. ”


La période de la Reconstruction, qui suivit la guerre de Sécession, s’acheva en 1877, lorsque les dernières troupes fédérales quittèrent le Sud. Ce que les Sudistes appelèrent la « Rédemption » avait déjà commencé avec le retour au pouvoir du parti Démocrate dans la majorité des États du Sud. Elle se poursuivit avec une politique de ségrégation, où la violence raciale, l’exploitation économique et la perte de pouvoir politique renvoyèrent les nouveaux citoyens à un statut proche de l ‘esclavage. Le Nord s’était largement désintéressé de la situation des anciens esclaves, et la réconciliation Nord-Sud de la fin du XIXe siècle passa par une écriture de la Reconstruction qui adoptait le point de vue du Sud. Dans cette interprétation, la Reconstruction avait représenté une période tragique pour les blancs du Sud, soumis à la domination de noirs ignorants alliés à des blancs corrompus. Malgré quelques voix dissonantes, cette écriture de la Reconstruction, qui permettait de justifier le traitement des Africains Américains, allait perdurer jusqu’à ce que l’on a appelé la « seconde Reconstruction », le mouvement pour les droits civiques des années 1950 et 1960.

Plan de l'article

  1. Post-Reconstruction Accounts
  2. Reconciliation
  3. Early Twentieth Century: Popular and Scholarly Accounts of Reconstruction
  4. The Dunning School
  5. Dissenting Voices
  6. The Uphill Battle of Revisionist Historians

Pour citer cet article

Parfait Claire, « Reconstruction Reconsidered: A Historiography of Reconstruction, From the Late Nineteenth Century to the 1960s. », Études anglaises, 4/2009 (Vol. 62), p. 440-454.


Article précédent Pages 440 - 454 Article suivant
© 2010-2014
back to top