HM - Oct. 2013 - Egerton

The History File

Reconstruction:  America's First Progressive Era
by Douglas Egerton
Le Moyne College

            Americans are today united when it comes to remembering the Civil War. Far and away, polls of scholars and the public alike unite in identifying Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president. But then came peace and reunion and the attempts on the part of Congress and several presidents to reconstruct the republic, and Americans grow unsure. Whereas virtually all biographers of the martyred sixteenth president praise his leadership and vision, scholars remain divided on the Tennessee Democrat who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination. As recently as 2010, legal historian Annette Gordon-Reed condemned Andrew Johnson as a racist and argued that America descended from its greatest president to its worst in 1865. Biographer David Stewart, also a legal historian, crafted a book the following year designed to prove that Johnson was a misunderstood politician whose impeachment was partisan and mean-spirited.

            Popular culture continues to complicate our understanding of the years after Appomattox. From Gone With the Wind to television and theatrical films such as Song of the South, Gettysburg, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, and The Conspirator, movies tend to uphold the view—so common among white historians during the first half of the twentieth century—that Congressional Reconstruction was designed to “punish” the South and was driven by vindictive Republicans in Washington. Inspired by the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called “Second Reconstruction,” scholars took a fresh look at the postwar years and have increasingly concluded that the period constituted our first progressive era. Rarely, in fact, has such a disconnect between what historians believe to be the facts and what much of the public believes to be true existed when it comes to the American past.

Image Courtesy of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture

Image Courtesy of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture

            By shifting the focus outside of Washington, and by examining the activities and successes of black activists and their progressive white allies, a different image of the era emerges. And by taking into account the impact the Indian wars in the West had on the process of reconstructing the South, the traditional ending of the period in 1877 makes less sense. Although black voting rights vanished in much of the South midway through Ulysses Grant’s second term, the election of Rutherford Hayes did not mark a clear ending to American democratization. African Americans continued to hold statewide and national office after that date, and in some demographically black districts in the South, local office holding actually rose after 1877. Nor can we say that Reconstruction ever ended in all portions of the country. Reconstruction was a national crusade. Black activists in Philadelphia and San Francisco won battles to integrate streetcars, although some of those activists, such as young Octavius Catto, paid for their victories with their lives. Moreover, most northern states either excluded African American men from the voting booth, or as in the case of William Seward’s New York, imposed a property qualification on blacks that it did not inflict on whites. Several times during the 1860s, conservative New York voters and assemblymen beat back efforts to erase the old 1821 property qualification. In the end, black Americans in New York, Lincoln’s Illinois, Thad Stevens’ Pennsylvania, and Salmon Chase’s Ohio gained equal voting rights only with the 1870 ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, a change to the Constitution, ironically, designed to ensure that black southerners did not lose the right to vote. Even then, the amendment was written so badly, in an effort not to enfranchise women, that the alteration would be easy to circumvent in the 1890s. Yet the last black congressman, North Carolina’s George Henry White, would not leave office until 1901, by which time Theodore Roosevelt was president and the country began a second era of reform.

            Rarely, in fact, has any nation changed so quickly. By 1870, just five years after the Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled American-born blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Rainey became the first African American U.S. senator and congressman, respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even the most optimistic abolitionist had thought that such milestones would occur in their lifetimes. Before the era was over, more than fifteen hundred black men—many of them veterans of the U.S. army—held state and local office across the South, while hundreds more lobbied and protested for voting rights, integrated trains and streetcars, and decent schools across the North and as far West as California.

Image Courtesy of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture
Image Courtesy of the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture

            Tragically, the reforms of the period were ended by entrenched white resistance, and with the assistance of President Johnson, who quickly retreated from Lincoln’s slow but steady march toward racial progress. White reformers and black activists were sometimes met with riotous mobs, such as in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1866, or in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday of 1873. More commonly, however, black Republicans—North and South—were the victims of targeted removals and assassinations, murders less likely to make the national news or attract the ire of President Grant. John Carraway, a former North Carolina slave who served in the famous Massachusetts 54th Regiment and became the first black to practice law in Alabama, was murdered by the Klan in 1871. Benjamin Randolph, a Kentucky-born freeman who was educated at Oberlin College, was shot down in broad daylight in 1868 while campaigning for the Republicans in South Carolina. Others, such as John R. Lynch, who served as Mississippi’s first black speaker of the House, lived until 1939. In his old age, Lynch published The Facts of Reconstruction, a spirited defense of the era’s reforms as well as a response to those white historians who emphasized Reconstruction’s alleged failures. Perhaps no era, in short, remains such contested terrain.

Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress 

Suggested Readings:

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010). Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this nuanced and balanced discussion of the sixteenth president’s slow transition from antislavery free soiler to progressive reformer is dense and detailed, but elegantly written. Those who confuse Lincoln with a saint will dislike Foner’s analysis, as will modern neo-Confederate writers such as Thomas DiLorenzo. Forty-three years ago, Foner published his first book on the ideology of the Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Men, Free Labor (1970), and taken together, they remind us why Foner is the preeminent scholar of the Civil War era.

Louis Masur, Lincoln’s Hundred Days: The Emancipation Proclamation and the War for the Union (2012). Although Masur’s nicely-written study primarily focuses on the events between September 22, 1862, when Lincoln issued the Preliminary document, and January 1, 1863, when he signed the final (and much different) version of the Proclamation, this account also includes material on the run-up to that turbulent period and a brief discussion of what came after. Still worth reading also is the late John Hope Franklin’s classic The Emancipation Proclamation (1963), written by the dean of black scholars for the document’s centennial.


Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (1977). Now thirty-five years old, this thick study remains, for me, the best biography of the complicated, private Lincoln. Oates collection of essays, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myth (1984), is fun and insightful and terrific for students.

Philip Dray, Capitol Men (2008). A number of black politicians of the Reconstruction era have earned separate biographies, but this lively account pulls them all together in a single volume that examines the sixteen black southerners who won seats in the national House of Representatives and Senate. Some of these men were born free, others slaves, and their careers serve as a reminder of just how far the country came in a few short years—and then how quickly that brief moment of progress collapsed.

Lawrence Graham, The Senator and the Socialite (2006). A family history of America’s “first black dynasty,” the volume traces the Bruce family. Born a slave in 1841—his master was also his father—Blanche K. Bruce rose to be the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Befriended by Grant and Douglass, the senator married Josephine Willson, the daughter of a wealthy black Philadelphia doctor. Their son, Roscoe Bruce, would become a protégé of Booker T. Washington, while their grandson worked with W.E.B. Du Bois and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (2014). Immodestly added to the list, the book carries the story of Reconstruction beyond the walls of Congress and explores state and local politics by tracing the struggles of some fifteen hundred African American officeholders, both North and South. Tragically, their movement was met by ruthless violence—not just riotous mobs, but also targeted assassinations, until Reconstruction, often cast as a failure or a doomed experiment, was rolled back by murderous force.