Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The New American Nation Series

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877

Rate this book
This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States.

690 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1988

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Eric Foner

172 books580 followers
Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the period. His latest book published in 2010 is The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

In 2006 Foner received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
2,704 (48%)
4 stars
1,695 (30%)
3 stars
813 (14%)
2 stars
239 (4%)
1 star
121 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 369 reviews
Profile Image for Kiekiat.
69 reviews127 followers
November 21, 2019
Review to come. I need time to recover from this book! It may be a five-star book, but I don't possess a five-star mind.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, and then it got even worse. This sort of sums up Eric Foner's sad tale of the optimism generated at the start of America's Reconstruction after the Civil War and emancipation of all slaves. At the start, a "Freedman's Bureau" was set up to assist newly-freed blacks in areas such as gaining literacy and a general education, the acquisition of property, familiarity and participation with the country's political system and helping freed blacks assert their legal rights in a country riven by a long, painful war. President Lincoln had set up this bureau before his death. Reconstruction was happening in the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination and it had all of the problems and growing pains one would expect after a country has fought a protracted Civil War and a group of millions of enslaved people were freed, with many lacking resources or the education and knowledge to adequately use this newfound freedom. This was complicated further because millions of defeated white Southerners were living in chaos, deprived of their land and their forced labor to work it and shocked at the effrontery of the freed blacks who were no longer under their control.

A group of "Radical Republican" politicians were strong advocates for black male enfranchisement (right to vote) and making sure that the Freedmen, as they were called, reaped the benefits of their newfound liberty.

But things are never simple, and the first opposition to the Freedman's Bureau agenda came from President Andrew Johnson, whom Foner describes as "incompetent." Johnson was a pale shadow compared to Abe Lincoln and was opposed to the 14th Amendment (giving all male US citizens over age 21 the right to vote, among other things). Johnson wanted to keep the Presidency and felt that he needed the support of Southern democrats to do this. As a result, he worked against many of the changes the Freedman's Bureau was making. Johnson did not feel blacks had a place in Southern Reconstruction and he pardoned many Confederate leaders in his efforts to appease potential voters. Johnson ended up very nearly impeached by congress in what was probably an unjust action. Johnson was a poor politician and was not the type who had the greatness within him to rise to the high office he had achieved by accident.

The blacks under the Freedman's Bureau, and with US military protection, made great strides and over 800 were elected to public office between 1871-1876. This is especially impressive since millions of white Southerners still viewed them as inferior beings and conducted lynchings and rapes and went on various killing sprees. This was around the time of the first rising of the Ku Klux Klan, who functioned as a sort of organized hate group to keep the blacks down.

During any time of chaos in a country, various people will be drawn to the fray hoping for some financial gain or in support of one side or the other. The South had the scallywags--white Southerners who championed the black cause and collaborated with the Northern Radical Republicans. Many Northern entrepreneurs, called "carpetbaggers, came South hoping to profit from Reconstruction's sea changes.

Foner sees Reconstruction as an absolute failure, but not without redeeming qualities. President Grant, who succeeded Johnson, was a supporter of Reconstruction and used US Federal troops to enforce it. Many forces seemed to bring Reconstruction to a halt. In 1873 a major economic depression hit the US and more political attention was given to it. Groups like the Ku Klux and disaffected whites in the South also played their part by continually fighting the changes in their society instead of embracing them. By 1876, the country's mood had changed and most of the Radical Republicans had died out. More emphasis was placed on the Freedmen being responsible for their own uplifting. This was a major error since it was not always possible and there were parts of the South where even the Freedman's Bureau had been powerless to make real changes. If Federal Troops had been left on the ground in the US South, along with an agenda of continued change, progress might have continued. The hateful prejudices and scheming of Southern Whites, along with Northern political apathy spelled the doom of formal Reconstruction efforts. Progress had been made, especially with the ratification of the 15th Amendment (to the US Constitution) in 1870, giving all black male citizens age 21 or over the right to vote. Sadly, much of this progress was vitiated or destroyed over the next 90 years at the local and judicial levels.

If you wish a more detailed and organized account of Foner's book, you cannot do better on Goodreads than the review by Hana, one of the many persons I follow whose breadth of knowledge must be about a thousand times greater than mine. Hana describes Foner's book as a "bitter read" and I think this is the most apt description I've read of it after reading dozens of reviews. It describes a shameful time in American history whose repercussions continue to this very day!

Be advised that Reconstruction is a dense book chock-full of vignettes and information. If you are a half-assed lazy slob such as I am, it is NOT the book for you. As Hana suggested, you'd be better off reading or listening to Foner's short version of reconstruction, which fills up a mere 12 hours and 33 minutes of listening time on Audible or 352 pages of text (a little over half the size of the book being reviewed). Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1871 is Foner's magnum opus on the topic and seems to be written either for those of high intellect or professional historians, not that these groups are mutually exclusive. It is packed with information and if it has any weaknesses I would say that it could have been organized better and more time could have been spent discussing Andrew Johnson and his role in sabotaging Reconstruction efforts. It is a book for the serious student of the topic and there are many more accessible resources of this time of hopeful change that ended in inglorious ignominy.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,549 reviews1,825 followers
September 5, 2019
I was reading Battle Cry of Freedom and noticed that Frederick Douglass was cited saying "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S.; let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship" (p564) and I wondered if the greatest enemy that black people and perhaps other groups also excluded from full citizenship in the USA and other countries is optimism, since one might recall that black people had fought on the side of the rebels in 1776 and in the war of 1812 but that their service was rewarded with monumental indifference. There are tides in the affairs of men, and in this book we see both a high tide of civil rights and equality and then see it ebb away in a flood of weariness and exhaustion from White supporters in the face of White violence, voter intimidation, and terrorism, in the Southern states of the USA, which ended in the 'redemption ' of those states, Democratic political control, Jim Crow and the situation that continued down to the era of the 50s and 60s when the tide finally began to turn. This book provides a fascinating run through of the reconstruction and redemption eras starting from the beginnings of reconstruction during the civil war. Ultimately a bitter read, but for the time pressed there is also a short history of Reconstruction
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews293 followers
December 25, 2018

How to do justice to this extraordinary scholarly work? The erudition, the level of detailed evidence that Eric Foner marshals, the clear, inescapable logic of his narrative left me in awe. With nearly every page I felt another layer of preconception peeling away. And with nearly every page I found myself understanding more about the society that the war and its aftermath shaped. I’m now convinced that when people talk of the legacy of slavery in the U.S., they are really talking (without realizing it) of the emotional legacy of the ill-named era of ‘Reconstruction’ because there are few things more painful than having hopes raised and then destroyed seemingly forever. But the era of Reconstruction should also be recalled as a time of major progress and overall societal change that shaped America's collective and individual choices and beliefs for decades to come.

Reconstruction was a time in American history that was so formative, so complex--and yet so understudied--that it fully deserves the level of detail that Foner brings to the story. Still, for those daunted by Foner’s 600-plus pages of dense history, I’m hereby humbly attempting a summary of some of his key points.

The Reconstruction was not a single period, but rather occurred in fairly distinct phases—each in part a reaction to what had gone before, but also to external developments such as industrialization and the railroad boom.

Phase I: Lincoln and the World the War Made (Chapters 1-3)

At the Civil War’s start, Lincoln made the defense of the Union the stated goal of the war, but others in the South saw things differently. As the Civil War started, sharp divisions began to arise between plantation owners, who could dodge the draft by sending slaves, and up-country subsistence farmers who were forced to go to war themselves and leave the farming to their women and children. One Alabama small farmer had no illusions about the planter-dominated Confederacy: “All tha want is to git you to…fight for their infurnal negroes and after you do their fightin’ you may kiss their hine part for o tha care.”

For the slaves themselves, hope was an irrepressible urge: well before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of slaves had deserted plantations and headed for the safety of Northern lines and by the end of the war over 200,000 African Americans would serve as Union soldiers. Nor were fight and flight the only responses: throughout the South blacks began actively organizing classes, teaching each other how to read and figure; others took to the roads in the thousands trying to reunite with relatives sold away to other masters; still more sought land that they could farm on their own behalf.

The Quest for Land and Learning

With Emancipation came an extraordinary collective drive for self-improvement on the part of freedmen, most notable perhaps was their seemingly unquenchable thirst for education. For many adults, "a craving to read the word of God" provided the immediate spur to learning, but so too was a longing for a more secular freedom. One member of a North Carolina education society said in 1866 "a school-house would be the first proof of independence." In many communities, collective funds to pay teachers and build schoolrooms and churches helped make these dreams a reality, at least for a while.

The freedmen also longed for their own land. Wrote one Northerner: "The sole ambition of the freedman at the present time appears to become the owner of a little piece of land, there to erect a humble home, and to dwell in peace and security at his own free will...without anyone to dictate to him hours or system of labor."

In 1861 when the US Navy occupied the rice growing Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, white plantation owners fled and 10,000 slaves took control hoping to gain land to start their own independent subsistence farms. The host of Northern whites arriving over the next years had other (and varied) ideas altogether and most hoped to see blacks working the plantations for wages.

The story of Davis Bend, an island plantation in the Mississippi south of Vicksburg, is one of the few bright spots: Initially known as “General Grant’s Negro paradise,” after the Union general, the fertile fields of Davis Bend were, for a time, set aside and successfully farmed by slave refugees.

Phase II: Reversals during the Johnson Era (Chapter 4-5)

Resistance to Land Re-Distribution

As the war drew to a close, what was left of the planter class faced massive challenges trying to rebuild—and without low-cost labor the task was nearly impossible. Viewed through the lens of plantation agriculture, other cases of emancipation, for example in the West Indies, taught an unmistakable lesson. Freedom had come to Haiti in the 1790s and to the British Caribbean in 1830s and in both settings former slaves had abandoned the sugar plantations in large numbers to establish themselves as subsistence-oriented small farmers. After emancipation sugar production plummeted in Haiti and only survived in the British Caribbean through the massive importation of indentured 'coolies' from India and China. Only on smaller islands like Barbados where whites owned all of the land had plantation agriculture continued to thrive.

Indeed, the early changes in black social structure underscored plantation owners’ fears: "The freedmen," a Georgia newspaper reported in 1869, "have almost universally withdrawn their women and children from the fields, putting the first at housework and the latter at school." In particular, blacks resented the sexual exploitation that had been a regular feature of slave life and shared the determination that women no longer labor under the direct supervision of white men.

In 1865 the Freedmen's Bureau controlled 850,000 acres of abandoned land, not enough to accommodate all of the freed slaves but enough make a start towards creating a black yeomanry. Commissioner Howard, following General Sherman's example, began granting 40 acre tracts to freed slaves. Then in July, President Johnson rescinded these orders returning most of the land to pardoned Confederates owners.

Historical experience and modern scholarship suggest that small landholdings would not have solved the plight of black families, but the reversal of Civil War-era promises left a devastating sense of betrayal and distrust.

Johnson’s Role

To win election Johnson had to craft a Southern coalition. But with whom? One interview cites Johnson's view that enfranchised blacks would vote with their late masters for Democrats, rather than with the reform-minded Republicans, who at least in theory were Lincoln's political heirs. Frederick Douglas proposed to Johnson a different political scenario uniting non-slaveholding poor upland white yeomen and black freedmen in a grand new Republican coalition, but the President was uninterested.

Instead, Johnson reversed sensible decisions that would have allowed the freed slaves to find an autonomous place in a new economy; aiming to appease Southern Democrats he reversed punishments for the plantation-owner leaders of the rebellion and propped up the plantation system with a result that forced former slaves into working conditions that were even worse than the slavery that they thought they had escaped; and he left the white subsistence farmers in the South's upland regions just as destitute as they'd been before the war.

The chapter on the failure of presidential reconstruction is so rich in insights that I want to quote every other page. The way the state became co-opted to enforce labor laws, the restrictions on freedmen's mobility, the dubious viability of plantation agriculture, alternative economic visions of the new South—all led inexorably to the break between Johnson and his own party.

Johnson’s recalcitrance empowered Republican radical leaders to take the job of Reconstruction into Congressional hands and that in turn led to a substantial expansion of Federal powers, as well as a significant legislative and Constitutional legacy.

Phase III: Radical Republicanism, Black Suffrage and the Constitutional Legacy (Chapters 6-8)

Thanks in no small measure to black suffrage the Republicans gained ascendancy in the South and blacks threw themselves into politics with enthusiasm. Sixteen were seated in Congress; Louisiana elected a mixed race governor; free born blacks served as state Lt. governors, treasurers, superintendents of education; some 600 blacks, including some former slaves, served in Southern state legislatures.

The social and political revolution of black suffrage was short-lived, but one of the most lasting triumphs of Radical Reconstruction was to enshrine in the Constitution a legal framework for equality.

The slaves were—at least in theory—set free with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Then, as relations with the President moved toward a rupture, Republicans grappled with the task of fixing in the Constitution--beyond the reach of Presidential vetoes and shifting political majorities--their understanding of the fruits of the Civil War.

The 14th Amendment, passed in 1866 and ratified in 1869, took a great deal of political wrangling to reach approval, but in the end it endowed "with constitutional authority the principle for which Radicals had fought a long and lonely battle: equality before the law, overseen by the national government." The amendment declared all persons born or naturalized in the U.S to be citizens and prohibited states from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens, depriving them of life, liberty or property without due process of law, while assuring them of ‘equal protection of the laws'.

February 3, 1870 marked the day the Fifteen Amendment was ratified promising that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The compromises needed to pass these amendments made for some ugly political bargains and less than clear legislative language.

For decades these ideals would seem to have died an early death, but the seed was there, waiting for the right moment in time to sprout and take root. And as Foner notes, even the attempt was revolutionary: “Alone among the nations that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century, the United States, within a few years of emancipation, clothed its former slaves with citizenship rights equal to those of whites."

Phase IV: Industrialism in the North and Southern White Resistance (Chapters 9-10)

The staggering social and labor changes ushered in under Radical Reconstruction threatened what was left of plantation agriculture. The program of state-sponsored economic development that had promised to bring railroads, factories and prosperity to the devastated South fell well short of its potential for a host of reasons including widespread but hardly unusual corruption, but also because more attractive opportunities beckoned capital and immigrants to the North and to the newly opened Western regions.

The kind of distortions typical of planned economies devastated upcountry small farmers who turned from growing food crops to cotton for shipment on the new rail lines at the expense of their long-cherished economic independence.

Radical Reconstruction did manage to enhance black’s bargaining power on the plantation and create alternative systems such as share-cropping—and more importantly, the freedman’s conception of himself was altered irrevocably.

But between 1868 and 1871, a wave of counterrevolutionary terror began to sweep the South. Despite sporadic Federal efforts at suppression, the Ku Klux Klan and kindred organizations like the Knights of the White Camellia and the White Brotherhood became entrenched in many parts of the South and were ultimately successful in restricting local black enfranchisement and upward economic mobility.

Phase V: The Depression, Labor Unrest and the End of Reconstruction (Chapters 11-12)

The North, for its part, was increasingly distracted by its own concerns: rising labor unrest as well as the ascendance of an elite class of industrialists undermined the free labor ideology that inspired early Radical Reconstructionists and led to new alliances between plantation and factory owners.

I really struggled with these last few chapters. Endless discussions of shifting electoral trends, party infighting, Congressional committees creating sausage legislation made for very dull reading. I found myself longing for a CNN-style map showing electoral district returns and lo and behold I found this brilliant presentation showing election results from 1868-1900 that clearly demonstrates both the effect of the powerful surge of black enfranchisement and its ultimate suppression.

By 1877 concerns over the economy, which had barely weathered a major depression, labor strife especially rail shut-downs, and troubles with Indians and imported Chinese labor in the West had completely shifted the focus of national attention away from the South and the issues that animated the Civil War and Reconstruction. The South was largely left to its own devices to resurrect a new version of its old feudal class and racial system.

But the lockdown was never again as total as it had been under slavery; thousands of blacks would head west for new opportunities and later migrate en masse to the North to find new jobs in the industrial heartland. Black churches, in particular the Southern Baptist and AME Zion Protestant denominations, would provide both solace and political leadership. Black colleges and collective organizations such as the United Negro College Fund would educate a new elite. And in many black families the memories would be preserved of a time when grandfathers and uncles fought in the Union Army or served in high government office.

As Peter Randolph, a former slave and Baptist minister would write in a sentence that Foner uses at the close of his book: “The river has its bend, and the longest road must terminate.” For all its flaws and failures, the years of Reconstruction made the first bend in a great, broad river of change.

I read a lot of history and non-fiction, but there were times when I struggled under the sheer weight of information. I would encourage non-historians to check the abridged version, A Short History of Reconstruction
Profile Image for Brett C(urrently overseas again).
784 reviews167 followers
February 25, 2023
Overall this was a heavy and scholarly narrative about the history of blacks from the Emancipation Proclamation up thought 1877. Eric Foner wrote this from the angle of post-war freedmen and their struggle in social, political, economic and labor, religious, and Constitutional challenges. The narrative was loaded in detail but provided information on challenges and changes in both the Deep South and the North. I felt Foner wrote this in the US's reactions and actively open discrimination against blacks: polls tax, racism, the KKK, etc.

I wish he wrote more about the country as a whole during the Reconstruction Era: the effects and dismantling of plantations, labor changes (slaves to sharecroppers), the effects on poor white southerners, urban growth, etc. I gave this three stars because overall I liked it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Reconstruction Era American politics and economics. Thanks!
Profile Image for Raymond.
338 reviews247 followers
February 6, 2022
For the past two years I've been reading more and more about Reconstruction. I started with Gates' Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, which led to Du Bois' Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. After reading Du Bois, I thought I was pretty much done and decided that I would avoid reading Foner's take on Reconstruction because it was just as long as Du Bois's book. That's until Honorée Jeffers created The Nerdy Circle book club and picked Foner's Reconstruction as the first book.

Foner published his work 53 years after Du Bois's Reconstruction text. It took Foner 10+ years to research and write the book and ironically his research was funded by the Dunning fund and he did his research at the Burgess Library, named after two scholars of the Dunning school who wrote the racist history of Reconstruction in the early 20th Century, and who Du Bois is responding to in his own work.

Foner begins his study in 1863, with Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which didn't actually free all enslaved people, just those in the Union occupied South. It ends with the election of 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes won after the Compromise of 1876 which ushered in the end of Reconstruction. When Hayes entered office, he began to order the removal of troops in some of the Southern states.

Reconstruction was a time of failed promises, such as the promise of 40 acres of land to some enslaved people, and the understaffed and under resourced Freedmen’s Bureau. As you read Reconstruction, it is hard not to make comparisons to today. The Reconstruction fight between Radical and Moderate Republicans of yesteryear reminded me of the disagreements between Progressives and Moderates of the modern Democratic Party. You also see familiar themes from Andrew Johnson’s opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau, because he did not want Blacks dependent on government, are similar to conservative views today on social programs and underserved communities. Reconstruction was also a time of triumph, where thousands of Black men some, mere years out of slavery, became public officials on the federal, state, and local levels of government. New public institutions were created in the South. What a euphoric and triumphant time that must have been? But just as quickly as power was given to these pioneers of democracy and state sponsored opportunities were expanded to more people, violent backlash ensued. White supremacist groups arose, attacked, killed, and intimidated Black voters from voting. The federal government responds to this violence militarily, but over time the public will for Reconstruction gradually wanes, for a number of reasons including economic depression, until it ends in 1877.

Ultimately, what I learned is that the Reconstruction I was taught in school was very minuscule compared to what actually happened, according to Foner. Foner said Reconstruction was a failure but not because of the racist reasons given by the Dunning School, it was a failure because it wasn’t long lasting and because of the backlash ushered in by the period of Redemption. The Redemption period was a horrible time for Blacks, and is addressed at length in Logan’s book The Betrayal of the Negro: From Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. However, Foner states that the institutions (church, school, families) created during Reconstruction are still with us today and were instrumental to the activists of the 1950s/1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Profile Image for Sherm Davis.
Author 4 books14 followers
July 27, 2013
The further I get into this book, the more I realize that we have virtually no understanding as a culture of one of the most important periods in American history. Typically, we learn that Lincoln freed the slaves, United the Union once again, and we all lived happily ever after. This book fills in those gaps, beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and traces not only the difficulties of freedmen in their quest for any sort of political of civil equality, but also the prevailing social climate in the South, where the old masters did whatever possible to hang on to the plantation labor system, even after disenfranchisement and the end of the Civil War. Andrew Johnson's leniency toward the South and alienation from his political base is discussed in depth, as is the rise of Radical Republicanism and the crusade to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment as a condition for readmission into the Union. Halfway through this surprisingly clear and meticulously researched book, a window is opening into my understanding of how the character of the United States changed during Reconstruction from a republic focused on States' Rights to the centralized juggernaut which controls the majority of political affairs to this day.
Eric Foner is a first-rate historian, and I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about 19th-century American politics.
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
636 reviews102 followers
September 16, 2022
Students of the American Civil War are ubiquitous. Every battle, every general, seemingly every aspect of the war is covered by multiple volumes. Students of Reconstruction, the period of monumental social, economic, and political change that followed as a direct result of that war, are far harder to find. Reconstruction, the most volatile and transformative periods of our history, a period of both idealistic hopes and savage violence, with repercussions still affecting us today, is too often ignored. If you want to rectify that, this book is an excellent place to start.

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution is an impressive tome. It is dense with information, covering the social, economic, and political aspects of Reconstruction, not just in the Southern states that were directly affected, but also covering the simultaneous, related changes that transformed the whole country forever. While this comprehensive treatment is one of the books great virtues, it by necessity can make for slow reading in some spots, as the shear volume of information covered make some sections of the book a slog to get through. For those who may find this full treatment daunting, Foner has also published an abridged treatment, A Short History Of Reconstruction.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
December 14, 2016
This book is dense and long, but so important. If we don't know the tragic history of Reconstruction, we cannot understand this country and we are bound to keep making mistakes.
Profile Image for CoachJim.
163 reviews90 followers
December 22, 2020
The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves but not the Negro.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution

My God this was a depressing book. Sometimes it feels like reading history is just reading about the Nazi’s atrocities of the Jews, the U.S. Cavalry’s massacre of Native Americans, and the brutality of White Americans towards Black Americans (“I can’t breathe”). No wonder so many people read the books of Nicholas Sparks.

Another Reader has called this the bible of the Reconstruction Period. I would agree with that. This is a very dense, in depth history of the period. The author does point out that

The past generation has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of historical study, as an older preoccupation with institutions, politics, and ideas has given way to a host of new “social” concerns. One result of the new attention to the experience of blacks, women, and labor … [has been] … to enrich immeasurably our understanding of the nation’s history.

This may be the author’s way of explaining the depressing nature of this book.

Even before the end of the Civil War two issues were deemed most important by the former slaves: Black Suffrage and a distribution of land. After being freed from the plantations without having land of their own to work many whites thought the blacks would pursue wage labor. The plantation owners still needed hands to work the fields, and although many thought the free-market economy would provide both a living wage for the blacks and labor for the plantation owners, the principles of a free-market economy don’t apply when the system is poisoned by racism.

The period of Andrew Johnson’s presidency is titled the Presidential Reconstruction. Although initially viewed as a friend of the Radicals and of the Negro, it quickly became apparent that Johnson favored “a white man’s government”. This was the period that saw the Black Codes come into effect. The centerpiece of these codes was that the economic options of the black work force were limited to plantation work. In the words of one Southerner “Their whole thought and time will be given to plans for getting things back as near to slavery as possible.” Johnson’s vision of this period was of “self-reconstruction”.

The largest portion of the book covers a period titled the Radical Reconstruction. Here the Radical Republicans embraced the wartime expansion of federal authority with the conviction that federalism and states rights should not prevent the rights of all citizens. Black suffrage was one of these rights. Given this right blacks were able to use the ballot to affect the conditions of their freedom. But the failure to achieve economic freedom allowed traditional white prerogatives to maintain strong control of their social structure. It was during this period that fatigue set in for the strictly race issues. Economic issues began to become important. Here is where the war-torn South weighed heavy on Reconstruction. The need for rebuilding and modernizing the infrastructure along with the war debts owed by many of the southern states limited the ability of Republicans to further many of their Reconstruction goals.

The re-election of Grant in 1972 kept the hopes for Reconstruction alive. Although Blacks still lived in dire poverty and the old ruling class still survived as long as Reconstruction was still an option so too was the hope for improved conditions.

With the Grant election came the realization to Southern Democrats that denying the results of the war were fruitless. In an era termed the New Departure they began to support Republican candidates who might restore voting rights to former Confederates. Also they began to campaign on economic issues instead of racial ones, complaining of high taxes and poor credit. This segued into a violent reaction to the changes brought about by Reconstruction. There is a very disgusting subchapter on the Ku Klux Klan which, although I did read it, I do not intend to describe.

Among Republicans it was thought that with the Constitutional Amendments granting black suffrage the “Negro question” had been removed from national politics.

The author frequently will be describing some feature of the period and give state by state examples. This created a “can’t see the Forest for the Trees” problem. Here is where the book bogged down. It was unfortunate because as this book began to become quite a slog I started the chapter on Reconstruction in the North, a chapter that contained history of more interest to me. Here the Radicals started embracing a more classical liberalism which stressed economic freedom. Thus began a movement away from the Civil Rights of people towards a more free market philosophy. Here we start to see the more reform politics that included suffrage for woman and interest in improving the lot of the working class.

The victory by the North brought with it a transformation to a “period of unprecedented economic expansion presided over by a triumphant industrial bourgeoisie”. This led to the new politics of the Gilded Age and growing prominence of an American intelligentsia.

However, the economic expansion of the Age of Capital came to a halt with the depression of 1873. Now came an elitist hostility to reform. They viewed the insistence on labor rights and universal suffrage as an assault on private property (business). Here voting rights were viewed as cheapening the ballot by putting political power into the hands of ignorant voters. Some saw this as linking the Southern freedman and the Northern poor together as part of a dangerous new “proletariat” as different “from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.” It is pointed out that this is a dilemma which “Madison had wrestled with a century earlier — how to reconcile private property with political democracy.”

At this time there was also a movement towards blaming the failure of Reconstruction on the blacks inability to exercise political responsibility and a failure to lift themselves out of poverty. Again the idea of economic success in the face of “humiliating discrimination” is ignored.

There is an eerie resemblance (with the parties reversed) to the current “constitutional crisis” with the election of 1976. Again states are blamed for invalidating some returns and rivals challenging the results.

With Tilden holding an insurmountable lead in the popular vote, many Democrats vowed to see him inaugurated, if necessary by force. “Tilden or War” proclaimed more than one newspaper, and letters descended on the Democratic standard-bearer announcing that thousands of “well-armed men” stood ready to march on Washington.

Eventually Hayes is inaugurated but within months begins withdrawing troops form the South.

Among other things, 1877 marked a decisive retreat from the idea, born during the Civil War, of a powerful national state protecting the fundamental rights of American citizens. Yet the federal government was not rendered impotent in all matters—only those concerning blacks.

Then, with the labor strikes now happening in the North causing suffering to the Capital class, militia and police are being used to quell labor problems. In Europe, enjoying a vacation after his presidency, Grant noted that during his administration Democrats and many Republicans were horrified at the idea of using federal troops to protect the lives of negroes.

“Now, however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens.”

The book describes the failure of Reconstruction as the result of the country’s lack of means and wherewithal to enforce the Constitution and the laws. It also failed to create and nurture a civil, multiracial society that might have been able to counter and stand against the white supremacy and racism. That failure led to consigning the blacks to a life of poverty and neglect which helped perpetuate the view that blacks were incapable of full participation in the life and government. It also led to the birth of a southern reactionary democratic party that fought any social progress for much of the next century. Yet Reconstruction did consolidate black churches and schools which gave birth to the modern Civil Rights movement and many of its leaders.

Another reader reviewing a different book on this period asks a most appropriate question:

Where would we be today on the issues of race and civil rights if we got it right the first time?

For the review mentioned above and an excellent review of another book on this period see Raymond’s review Here
Profile Image for Simon Wood.
215 reviews127 followers
September 20, 2014

Foners excellent book is a masterfull historical synthesis of the period known as Reconstruction after the American Civil War (1861-65).

The book is extremely readable, comprehensive and full of intelligent analysis of the social, cultural, racial and economic forces of the era amply illustrated with pertinent quotes from all those involved. The situation after the end of the civil war when the defeated south was occupied by the Union Army is one that I knew little about before reading this book, but that proved to be no obstacle to engaging with Foners well written book.

He pictures the position of the freed Slaves, the Confederate south and the Union North with great skill; not simplifying or glossing over nuances but presenting a full picture of all the forces, pressures and ideologies that clashed within that era. The plight of the freed blacks, and their frustrations in attempting to claim a full political, social and economic role within the post civil war United States is particularly harrowing and frustrating for anyone with a sense of fairness. The level of white violence which goes beyond the Ku Klux Klan to a fair proportion of the southern Democratic party is sickening, I had no idea at how pervasive and murderous it was.

It is definitely worth getting holding of, and if you can't stomach the 600 pages of the unabridged edition (or have a weak wrist) then there is a shorter version available too - "A Short History of Reconstruction". I look forward to getting my hands on other works by Eric Foner.
Profile Image for Erik.
331 reviews216 followers
May 8, 2020
To use words like "masterful" or "thorough" to describe Eric Foner's "Reconstruction" is to give too little credit to what is truly an earth shattering contribution to American historical thought.

"Reconstruction" is a landmark historical account of one of the most misunderstood and maligned periods in American history. Using in depth archival study, Foner reconstructs Reconstruction showing how the newly formed Republican party became weighed down by its own corruption and silenced the radicals who called for equality before the law of all people. From the midst of the Civil War to the reclaiming of the South by white redemptionists, Foner gives voice to a period of time in which black Americans were freed, elected, and then violently silenced. Most remarkable among the tales is this: the violence against black Americans, especially in the South, didn't end with Reconstruction, it only took on a new form. And similarly it continues to reform itself even into 2020; Redemption of the South, rebuttal of Reconstruction; racism by another name.

Foner's book is dense, intense, and thorough and will take a while to read and process, but no work of history will have an impact quite like this.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,488 reviews1 follower
December 9, 2017
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 is an uninformative slog which paradoxically is still deserving of the all the many prizes it received when it was published in 1988. It won awards because of its brilliant description of the political process of the reconstruction. It is uninformative because it addresses none of the social, industrial, economic, cultural and agricultural issues involved in the Reconstruction that would interest a member of the general public.
Foner deals with the political failure of the Reconstruction. In Foner's view the two goals of the Reconstruction were: (1) to create a society in the former Confederate States where Afro-Americans would enjoy full political and civic rights; and (2) to create a strong Southern Republican party that would be able to hold office once the Northern armies would withdraw from the South. Neither was achieved. When the second term of Ulysses S. Grant was finished, his successor Rutherford Hayes withdrew the Northern Army leaving the Black population of the South at the mercy of the white majority and relegating the Republican part to the fringes of Southern politics for almost a century.
The basic challenge for the Radical Republicans who favoured full rights for Afro-Americans was that there was near unanimous opposition from Southern Whites while Northern Whites were profoundly divided. Only five of the Northern (Union) States had accorded voting rights to Afro-Americans prior to the civil war. Four of the states that stayed loyal to the Union also had slavery.
The Radical Republicans might not have achieved their goals if Andrew Johnson who became president following Lincoln's assassination had not conceded too much to the South thus provoking lukewarm Northerners into supporting the Radical Republicans. The US Congress then kept the Union Army in the South and imposed Black emancipation on the South.
The South however was tenacious. Groups like the KKK came into being. Acts of violence against Blacks and pro-Black White Republicans multiplied. Resolve in the North weakened in the face of the determined Southern opposition. At the same time, the Radicals who had promoted Black Rights wanted to move on to other progressive causes such as Women's Rights, Child Labour, Worker's Rights and Public Health. When the results of the 1876 election to select Grant's successor were contested, the Republicans agreed to pull the US army out of the South in exchange for the Southern agreement that the Republican Hayes become president.
For me the major disappointment in Foner's book which indeed tells the history of the politics of Reconstruction very well is that it ignores every other aspect. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Southern per capita wealth was one third that of the North. Illiteracy was rampant both among southern Blacks and Whites. The South trailed far behind the North in terms of industrialization. Southern agriculture was overly committed to cotton which because of declining prices created massive rural poverty. Foner simply does not discuss whether or not the actions of the Reconstruction governments were in any way responsible for the problems that later followed. Arguably these issues are outside of the scope of Foner's work but as a reader from the general public rather than an undergraduate researching an essay on the political aspect of the Reconstruction I found the gaps in Foner's book to be extremely irritating.
Profile Image for Individualfrog.
162 reviews35 followers
November 7, 2020
I hate to go against the consensus here, but I was truly shocked how poorly written this was, given Foner's reputation and role as popular historian writing magazine columns. Its style is exemplified by the fact that there is a footnote following every single paragraph, and that footnote is always a paragraph long itself, and always only citations, not comments or asides. It is essentially nothing but a collection of facts, presented as an undifferentiated cascade, with no feeling of argument, direction, or even much structure. Repetitive, constantly self-contradictory, formless and unselective.

Of course it is an achievement in scholarship, but it is only sort of a book. More of a massive collection of snippets from primary sources, like Abelard's Sic et Non, or something. It's strange that I read another book (Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull) about roughly the same time period which also felt like something of a firehose of information, throwing in too many details of research, but still was nothing like as shapeless as this, it felt like something someone wrote, instead of a giant pile of notes for a book that was not in fact written.

Did I learn about Reconstruction? To challenge my preconcieved narrative? Well, I mean, sure, in the introduction. Not much else is going to stick because of the formlessness; it's like trying to remember a certain entry in a massive spreadsheet. But I certainly got the idea, just like I got from the New Deal book I read, that even at this time when some people who were trying to make America better had a lot of power to do it with, they only tried half-assedly, and the sheer quantity of evil and stupidity in the country was a pile of shit far too massive to be clambered over. It is, as all these reviews say, a bitter and depressing read, and perhaps the more so because I was inclined to see Reconstruction governments as good, not as villains as we were still taught even when I was in school. But they were only vaguely good, with a few exceptions -- the flamboyant Benjamin Butler (who I also knew from the Victoria Woodhull book) was one of those "a bastard, but our bastard" types, and Wendell Phillips, though only a very minor presence here, remains one of the very few 19th Century white men to be on the right side of almost every question. But people like Ulysses Grant look terrible here, despite the fact that they were slightly better than the hideously disgusting Southern racists, like Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who were not only not hung, exiled, or imprisoned after the war, but returned immediately to the possession of power.

Anyway. Read the short version, maybe that's more like a book.
Profile Image for Joseph.
108 reviews
August 17, 2015
I found this an excellent book on an important time in American history that still impacts race equality and relations to this day. It is a book designed to appeal to real history buffs though. It is incredibly comprehensive with almost half of the total pages of the book devoted to will researched footnotes. More like a text book or encyclopedia entry on the subject than a casual read. I became aware not long after leaving a public high school in Texas when my family moved to the San Francisco area where I complete high school that much of what I had been taught in Texas (this was in the late 1960s) about the Civil War and Reconstruction was distorted or outright false. However, this book in detail completes my education in learning that what I was taught then was Southern/Confederate revisionist BS history.
Profile Image for Jeremy Perron.
158 reviews23 followers
August 8, 2012
The Reconstruction Period in American history is the era that is probably the most misunderstood. The view of this historical event has taken such a complete and utter transformation as historians have been interpreting and reinterpreting it over the years that truth is often hard to separate from the myth. Half way through the Civil War the U.S. government needs to come up with a way to bring back the rebel states into the Union on the government's terms. The people for whom this would have the most impact would be the newly freed slaves. Reconstruction would see the dream of the slaves become, for a moment, a reality only to have it cruelly stanched away again. It would take almost a hundred years to correct what went wrong and to re-start the movement towards equality. In my march through the ages of American history this chapter is one of the more interesting and most painful.

With the capture of Richmond and Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the Civil War had ended and the Confederacy was no more. The mood--for the North--was cheerful and although the South was upset for having lost, most of the Southern white population were also glad for the war's end. For those whose life had been spent in bondage what had happened was truly a miracle. The whole world had changed and apparently it had changed for the better, not only were the people who had been slaves liberated but members of their own race had played a critical part in the victory and they looked to play a part in the peace.

"The presence of black troops among the occupying Union army reinforced the freedmen's assertiveness and inspired constant complaint on the part of whites. Black soldiers acted, in words of the New York World, as 'apostles of black equality,' spreading among former slaves ideas of land ownership and civil and political equality. They intervened in plantation disputes and sometimes arrested whites. ('It is very hard,' wrote a Confederate veteran, 'to see a white man taken under guard by one of those black scoundrels.') Black troops helped construct schools, churches, and orphanages, organized debating societies, and held political gatherings where 'freedom songs' were sung and soldiers delivered 'speeches of the most inflammatory kind.' In Southern cities they demanded the right to travel on segregated streetcars, taunted white passersby with remarks like 'We's all equal now,' and advised freedmen in cities like Memphis that they need not obey military orders to return to the plantations." p.80

Lincoln's assassination brought his incompetent successor, Andrew Johnson, to power. Johnson was inflexible where his predecessor was flexible, and although he was following Lincoln's own plan initially, he forgot that the key to Lincoln's success was his ability to listen and adapt when necessary to achieve his goal. Johnson would become the main obstacle to reform. The Radicals in Congress managed to fight the new President by overriding his vetoes*. The Radicals did over reach by attacking the presidency itself, not just the President, when they passed the Tender in Office Act and tried to impeach Johnson when he did not comply. Johnson's impeachment divided their ranks and spent unnecessary energy. Johnson was acquitted but not elected nor nominated in his own right. Grant would win the election of 1868and Reconstruction would continue.

One of the best things Grant did was send Federal troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan who had been terrorizing newly freed and enfranchised African-Americans. Foner describes these villains in some detail. Monsters and cowards who dressed in costumes and went out to harass and kill people who were just trying to live.

"But the most 'offensive' blacks of all seemed to be those who achieved a modicum of economic success, for, as a white Mississippi farmer commented, the Klan 'do not like to see the negro go ahead.' Night riders in Florence, South Carolina, killed a freedman on one plantation 'because it is rented by colored men, and their desire is that such a thing ought not to be.'" p.429

Unfortunately, as time went on and success was slow, the Northern focus waned. Other issues came up and diverted the Federal government's attention. The most devastating was the Depression that would hit in 1873. It would cause labor unrest and would serve as one of the death blows in the struggle for freedom in the nineteenth century South.

"The depression had a profound impact on the labor movement, shifting its focus from the issues of the 1860s--greenbackism, cooperation, and the eight-hour day--to demands for pubic relief, the desperate struggle to maintain predepression wage levels, and, for a few workers, socialism. In the winter of 1873-74, cities from Boston to Chicago witnessed massive demonstrations demanding that authorities ease the economic crisis by inaugurating such projects as street and parking improvements and new rapid transit systems--a remarkable expansion of labor's conception of governments roles and responsibilities. The movement for 'Work or Bread' reached its climax in New York, where on January 13, 1874, the city police violently dispersed a crowd of 7,000 demonstrators who had assembled at Tompkins Square, arrested scores of workers, and inaugurated a period of 'extreme repression' against subsequent labor gatherings." p.514

These events, in addition to corruption, damaged the Republican Party to the point where they lost the House of Representatives in the 1874 mid-term elections. The major blow to Reconstruction would be the presidential election of 1876. The controversy of the election between Governors Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden would result in an outcome that would be known as the `Great Betrayal' in the black community for decades to come. Hayes would win the presidency but at the cost of Reconstruction. Reconstruction would end and the white South would begin the vileness Jim Crow Era in which a people who had been enslaved--but were set free, could vote, and hold office as citizens in the Republic--were disenfranchised, segregated, and improvised.

Eric Foner covers an experiment that was only bad because it had failed not because it was attempted. Reconstruction was an attempt to do justice where only injustice had been done and help move us forward as a nation. As a consequence one geographical section of the nation went backward in race relations, internal improvements, and educational establishments, while the rest of the country moved forward. Eric Foner's work is a masterpiece it covers not only what I have discussed here but it also discusses the break between the old abolitionists and the suffragists. Neglecting the cause of (white) women's important need for the vote, the early feminists felt betrayed by the abolitionists and their coalition crumble. Another area that Foner covers in this book is the rise of the giant corporation and how they would form a hold on government. With this book Eric Foner separates myth from fact and paints an accurate picture of the United States during Reconstruction.

*No president who had served prior to Andrew Johnson had ever had their vetoes overridden.
Profile Image for David Bates.
181 reviews10 followers
May 23, 2013
The capstone of the revisionist interpretation of Reconstruction was Eric Foner’s 1989 work Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, fittingly replacing Dunning’s 1907 Reconstruction: Political and Economic in the updated round of works in the New American Nation series. Foner coupled the synthesis of a generation of scholarship with copious original research in Southern archives inaccessible to Du Bois. Nevertheless Foner echoed many of Du Bois’ themes, a harmonizing born not just of overlapping evidence and regard for the agency of the freedmen, but also of a readiness to frame Reconstruction at least partially within a larger vision of class conflict between labor and capital. To that end Foner is attentive to the divisions within the South which divided the small farmers of the high country from the planters of the bottom lands, and the fragile interracial alliance within the Republican Party which temporarily, desperately, buoyed the hopes of the Freedpeople. Despite intimidation and lack of resources former slaves anchored the new political order ushered in by Radical Reconstruction. “In defiance of fatigue, hardship, hunger and threats of employers” the new citizens were driven on by a hunger for equality and opportunity, and an exultant sense of the possible. “Rarely,” Foner notes, “has a community invested so many hopes in politics as did blacks during Radical Reconstruction.”

It was an aspiration tragically undone, in Foner’s analysis, by the interplay of racism and class conflict, and by the naiveté with which Northern supporters, who were crucial to the Reconstruction experiment, met both. Informed by the Free Labor ideology which had entered the northern identity in part as a critique of slave society, many supporters of Reconstruction were attempting to dissolve the colossal tensions within Southern society by fostering, as general Beadle put it to a joint Congressional Committee, an understanding of “the mutual dependence of labor and capital.” Far from coming to appreciate the natural harmony of freed labor however, Southerners were locked in racial struggle arising “not from a misunderstanding, but from the irreconcilable interests of former masters and former slaves as each sought to define the meaning of emancipation.” It was a struggle in which the federal government seldom intervened with the necessary fixity of purpose. Ultimately the clock ran out when the class conflict of northern society amid the upheavals of industrialization led to waning Republican commitment to the interests of black laborers. The consequences outlined by Foner parallel those delineated by Du Bois – a solid South founded on reactionary oppression which “helped define the contours of American politics and weaken the prospects not simply of change in racial matters but of progressive legislation in many other realms
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 8 books200 followers
September 23, 2019
Lord knows why the goddamn Civil War still carries the fresh-faced resonance that it does. You'll meet all sorts of wackos spouting nonsense about it. Shit, I live in the Pacific Northwest and see morons with Confederate flag stickers on their giant, superfluously-sized exhaust piped trucks even though Washington State is about as far from the south as you can get.
People, I guess, will never cease to be stupid. One of my favorite ironies of the Civil War is when people say it wasn't about slavery at all, but about states' rights and the secession was against monolithic federal power. Really? Why then did the Confederate Constitution enshrine slavery as protected by a federal power? What about states' rights?!
Anyway, it's easy to talk about how idiotic all that is. Better to talk about how this book of Foner's is, especially because if Reconstruction doesn't make it clear what the Civil War was actually about, then you should go soak your head in some goddamn common sense.
Foner's work is as monstrous as some people's tenderly hidden racism. Magisterial in every sense, he takes you through it all, in sometimes menacing, overwhelming detail, but you'll come out of the reading with a greater understanding of just how complicated all this was.
There were pockets of Unionists all over the South?! Not everyone wanted to secede?! Some southern politicians wanted black suffrage?! What?! This was a big issue, you might not know, since part of the whole Radical Republicans (who back then were the opposite of what they are now) versus Johnson (apparently a troubled, inveterate racist who comes across as our worst president) thing was all about resecuring loyalty and trying to get loyalists into power so black people could get to vote and live free lives after being freed. Reconstruction was as much economic as political and social, and Foner goes into this deep, showing how freedfolk mobilized instantly, trying to gain a hold in America's franchise of liberty. We all know how it ended, it largely failed because of political nonsense and extreme white supremacist violence by assholes who base their vituperation on how other people reflect sunlight.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews34 followers
January 13, 2018
This is the definitive memorandum of the Reconstruction Era. It is incredibly researched and documented. This book was very objective and precise. He does shade the truth. It is very detailed and trying to read it like a textbook was slow going. There are too many people, factions and issues in play to keep it all straight without a lot of back and forth and re-reading sections. Mr. Foner dug deep to follow the actions and motivations of the major players, particularly those in presidential politics during the era. It was fascinating, illuminating and presented in a logical, interesting sequence.

The book's focus on the intricacies of the competing and affected economics was phenomenal. Much of the American History I have read does much less with economics as a force for history. Of course racism plays a major role in this era and Foner did not hold any punches nor excessively vilify. The racism was nationwide and not limited to just the democrats. Let's be honest, we still have pervasive and institutionalized racism.

Governments define the rules of economics. The author's explanation of the role of the constitution and laws, Federal, State and Local, was very well done. He is a very astute historian. I wish I could monitor one of his classes as I sure it would by a joy for anyone obsessed with American History. We need many more historians who work as hard, think as thoroughly and explain as clearly.

The book reveals a sad story of America and human characteristics. That is history. It is agonizing to see these same patterns constantly controlling. I wish we could learn and adjust our behavior based upon known history.
Profile Image for Alan Johnson.
Author 6 books204 followers
January 9, 2016
I gradually read Eric Foner's comprehensive Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, updated ed. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014) on Kindle over a period of several months. The first edition was published in 1988. It is not possible to capture adequately in this review the breadth of Foner's research and analysis. Suffice it to say that he covers probably every important political, social, and economic development, both in the North and the South, during the years 1863 through 1877. The present review focuses on some but not all of his themes.

I was impressed by Foner's meticulous documentation of the factual developments he discusses. For the most part, Foner lets the facts speak for themselves. Although he has an analytical framework, his interpretation is informed more by historical facticity than by a preconceived ideological orientation. His extensive knowledge of the facts on the ground is remarkable. This work clearly represents a lifetime of study of these decades of American history.

One thread that runs through this work is the influence of classical liberalism and its intellectual precursors on Reconstruction and beyond. I recently read C. B. Macpherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, a book written by a Canadian professor that did not address American history. I reviewed Macpherson's book (first published in 1962) here. Macpherson focused on the seventeenth-century English philosophers and thinkers who formed, as it were, the intellectual basis of the later laissez-faire theories of Adam Smith and his contemporaries in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Macpherson demonstrated that these seventeenth-century thinkers (Thomas Hobbes, the Levellers, James Harrington, and John Locke) considered those who earned wages—as distinguished from self-employed artisans, business people, independent farmers, and great landholders—as almost subhuman creatures not entitled to participate in the electoral franchise. I might add that a residue of this way of thinking is the fact that the employer-employee relationship is still called the "master-servant" relationship in the employment law of many American states. This may also have something to do with Thomas Jefferson's famous preference for independent rural "yeomen" over denizens of cities.

Fast-forward to the mid-nineteenth century. The Republican Party, of which Abraham Lincoln was the first president, originally opposed slavery and later supported civil and even political (electoral) rights for African Americans. The Republicans of that time brought us not only the elimination of legal slavery (the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution) but also citizenship, due process, and equal protection of the law (Fourteenth Amendment) for African Americans and other residents of the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment recognized that African American males could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of their race. But these developments were largely motivated, and limited, by classical liberal concepts. Thus, although most "Radical Republicans" of the Reconstruction era favored equal legal rights for African Americans, their willingness to use the federal government to help African Americans was mostly restricted to formal legal equality. In the face of the post-Civil War reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan and its successors, Republican politicians came to tire of extraordinary federal governmental intervention to protect blacks and ensure that they would be treated equally before the law.

In another iteration of classical liberalism, many former slaves wanted the federal government to break up the large plantations and redistribute the land among the freedmen. They thought, on the basis of both practical considerations and the dominant classical liberal thinking, that they could not really be free until they were liberated not only from slaveholders but also from employers (often, their former masters). The Republican Party as a whole was not willing to go this far. Instead, the party, under the titular leadership of President Ulysses Grant, descended into a complicated morass of political corruption. Some of the former Radical Republicans came to believe that such corruption was a result of the overinvolvement of the federal government in Reconstruction as well as crony capitalism in the form of governmental subsidization of railroads and other "capitalistic" enterprises, not to mention protective tariffs. Leading political, economic, and social figures even advocated a return to property qualifications for the franchise. They saw the extension of the vote to nonpropertied classes—including but not limited to the freedmen—as having led to the pervasive corruption that characterized the late 1860s and 1870s. They also felt that the political leadership of the "best men" (in their view, the large plantation owners in the South and the industrialists in the North) would be impossible as long as the franchise was not restricted to voters with substantial assets.

Then came the Panic of 1873 and ensuring depression—the worst economic downturn that the nation experienced before the 1929 crash. By this time, thanks in part to governmental favors, large corporate enterprises were beginning to dominate entire industries, and a permanent wage-earning class was established, often peopled by immigrants. These developments inaugurated an extended period in which laborers demanded certain legal protections (the eight-hour day, abolition of child labor, the right to unionize, and so forth) that the dominant industrialists considered communistic. The first of many "Red Scares" occurred at this time, motivated in part by news of the Marxian Paris Commune of 1871.

Accordingly, industrialization during and after the Civil War—caused not only by natural economic forces but also by deliberate Republican policies of special governmental favors to railroads and industry—became for the first time a permanent fixture in the American political economy. Along with industrialization came the political conflicts that characterized later decades of American political history.

The present review can only touch on a few of the many themes that Eric Foner elaborates in his groundbreaking book on Reconstruction. The work is breathtaking in its scope and in its dexterous handling of a multitude of factual developments during the Reconstruction era. Every serious student of American history should read it.
188 reviews36 followers
April 19, 2009
Considering the Reconstruction was one of the most important time periods of American history, it is amazing that the average person knows almost nothing about it (including me before reading this book). This book contains an exhaustive, inclusive, and thorough examination of the Reconstruction including the policies, the reactions of the North and the South, and the plight of the freedmen from the freedmen’s perspective. This will be the only book you’ll ever need to read on the Reconstruction, though unless you are writing your thesis on it, it’s not clear why you’d really want to (and if you are writing your thesis on it, just stop, this book already includes whatever you are writing).

While the Reconstruction was ultimately a terrible failure, the author is able to highlight what could have been and the opportunities the freedmen started to enjoy until states decided to ignore the 14th and 15th amendments, the federal government became more concerned with the economy in the North, and the cyclical shift in politics came back around. What is amazing is that in a 13 year period, blacks went from slaves, to free, essentially back to slaves again with end of Reconstruction, the growth of the Klan, and the depression which caused equal rights to take a back step to just getting the country back to what it was.

Things you would learn if you read this book include what a horrible President and person Andrew Johnson was (and next time anyone says the VP does not matter, just bring up Johnson or Tyler), how the election of 1876 was more contested than the election of 2000 (and probably even more contested than the corrupt bargain of 1824), the amount of violence and number of deaths inflicted by the Klan and white southerners trying to suppress black voting, education, and business after the Civil War and without the intervention of state or federal government (in fact usually with the support of local/state governments), and the changing attitudes and missed opportunities of politicians during this era which could have made a prolonged difference (perhaps things would have turned out differently had radical reconstruction been instituted right away) .

The one issue with the book is that it is 612 pages long and about 250 of those pages are exceptionally dry, though it’s not quite clear how one would spice up the Reconstruction (maybe more pictures, or perhaps turn it into a pop up book). In short, the failure of the US Government to adequately protect and promote the progress of the freedmen is ultimately an embarrassment for the US that one could argue was never fixed and not truly addressed until 90 years later with the Civil Rights movement. This book really should be required reading in schools, at least excerpts from it as people often overlook and fail to take advantage of the freedoms they enjoy today.
462 reviews4 followers
July 9, 2011
This is a subject that is of great importance, and unfortunately often neglected for the sexiness of the Civil War. This work of Foner's is the place to go, if one wishes to read a comprehensive survey of Reconstruction. In this lengthy volume, Foner dives into political, economic, military, social and legal history which leaves the reader with a great foundation for further study or discussion. In my view, it is essential to have a very good grasp of the Civil War prior to reading this, for it further pushes the reader's understanding of the war, with especially in its undertones of freedom and equality.

In a word, this is a great work of history. As with all history books of this richness it pushed the reader beyond its own subject matter. It serves the reader in better understanding the Civil War, the 20th Century and its social movements, as well as current times, particular in how power is (ab)used, and various failings of 'democracy' in the United States.

Anyone who understands the United States through the lens of "American Exceptionalism will have his/her beliefs challenged by the exceptional horrors visited upon blacks in the latter part of Reconstruction.

--five stars--
Profile Image for Ostap Bender.
935 reviews12 followers
May 18, 2022
Short summary:
Scholarly, essential reading for the period of 1863-1877 in America, a time of extraordinary liberal progress, but which was met with inevitable backlash and thus an “unfinished revolution,” as author Eric Foner puts it. The shameful Jim Crow period which followed lasted for nearly a century, until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, and there are many elements of the struggle described here around racism and voter suppression that are still highly relevant in 2022. Particularly insidious were southern revisionist historians rewriting history as part of the mythology of the “lost cause,” a rare instance when the losers of a war wrote the history, and describing the period of Reconstruction as a disaster because African-Americans were voted into office and incompetent, when the reality was opposite. The value of this book being published in 1988 can’t be underestimated as it began setting the record straight, and it did so in a factual, balanced way.

It was thrilling to read of the brilliant string of progressivism after the war: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments (dealing with slavery, due process, and male suffrage), the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Reconstruction Act of 1867, and the Enforcement Acts of 1870-71. The advances during this period (much of which was taken away) is astonishing – blacks dominating the legislature in South Carolina, black chiefs of police in Tallahassee and Little Rock, the intermingling of the races in New Orleans, and Texas barring railroads from segregating passengers. I found that heroes in Charles Sumner (Senator, Mass.), Thaddeus Stevens (Congressman, Penn.), and Lyman Trumbull (Senator, Ill.) for pushing ideas that were considered radical in their day. I also found heroes in black elected representatives like Benjamin S. Turner (Congressman, Alabama), Robert Smalls (Congressman, South Carolina, and Civil War hero), and Robert Elliott (Congressman, South Carolina). Foner did a great job of describing the struggle and politicking between parties and within each party to get progressive legislation passed. He wrote:

“Biracial democratic government, a thing unknown in American history, was functioning effectively in many parts of the South. Men only recently released from bondage cast ballots and sat on juries, and, in the Deep South, enjoyed an increasing share of authority at the State level, while the conservative oligarchy that had dominated Southern government from colonial times to 1867 found itself largely excluded from power. Public facilities had been rebuilt and expanded, school systems established, and tax codes modernized. … Reconstruction had nipped in the bud the attempt to substitute a legalized system of labor discipline for the coercion of slavery, and enhanced blacks’ bargaining power on the plantations.”

He notes the dramatic expansion of the federal government in this period, and in a great insight “that freedom stood in greater danger of abridgement from local than national authority (a startling reversal of the founding fathers’ belief, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that centralized power posed the major threat to individual liberties.” And yet, the founders did not consider the rights of non-white men. Still, it’s hard to fathom the shift, from a time when most functions of the government were handled at a state or local level, and the federal government was “in a state of impotence.”

It was of course equally disheartening to read in great detail the backlash to this progress and the ugly racism that accompanied it. The level of violence and terrorism from white people was incredible. Excerpts could be extracted by the dozen, but to Foner’s credit, he refrained from making these events the sole focus of his book or sensationalizing them. Just a couple of examples:

“Texas courts indicted some 500 white men for the murder of blacks in 1865 and 1866, but not one was convicted. ‘No white man in that state has been punished for murder since it revolted from Mexico,’ commented a Northern visitor. ‘Murder is considered one of their inalienable state rights.’”

“The basic problem, concluded Col. Samuel Thomas, who directed the [Freedmen’s] Bureau in Mississippi in 1865, was that white public opinion could not “conceive of the negro having any rights at all”: “Men, who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors, will cheat a negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor; to kill a negro they do not deem murder; to debauch a negro woman they do not think fornication; to take property away from a negro they do not deem robbery… They still have the ingrained feeling that the black people at large belong to the white people.”

In the antithesis of the American Revolution and the principle of democracy, North Carolina Governor Worth said that “Universal suffrage – government by mere numbers – I regard as undermining civilization,” and all political mattes were trivial compared to the overriding question: “Shall this country be ruled by the whites or the niggers?”

The section on the Ku Klux Klan, who spread a “wave of counterrevolutionary terror” that “lacked a counterpart either in the American experience or in that of the other Western Hemisphere societies that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century” is particularly strong. “To blacks, indeed, the violence seemed an irrefutable denial of the white South’s much-trumpeted claims to superior morality and higher civilization. ‘Pray tell me,’ asked Robert B. Elliott, ‘who is the barbarian here?’”

Foner also makes this insightful comment, based on the data:
"Contemporary Democrats [at that time], echoed by subsequent scholars, often attributed the Klan’s sadistic campaign of terror to the fears and prejudices of poorer whites. … The evidence, however, will not sustain such an interpretation. … Usually, the Klan crossed class lines. If ordinary farmers and laborers constituted the bulk of the membership, and energetic ‘young bloods’ were more likely to conduct midnight raids than middle-aged planters and lawyers, ‘respectable citizens’ chose the targets and often participated in the brutality.”

This included extraordinary levels of violence at the polls, necessary in some places to ensure Democratic victory, and which plunged black voting levels from their post-war highs of 90+%, causing one writer to comment that “a revolution has taken place – by force of arms – and a race are disenfranchised – they are to be returned to condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.”

Such a read is invaluable not only because it bears witness and fleshes out details, but also because it gives us the nuances in views throughout the country, both North and South. Only five states, all in New England, allowed blacks to vote on the same terms as whites prior to the 13th Amendment, and “the majority of Republicans were not Radicals but moderates and conservatives who resented the ‘element that seem to have the negro on the brain all the time.’” It threatened to divide the party. Meanwhile, residents of the mountainous country of the south, wrote one Unionist, were not “afraid of negro equality,” if “rebel superiority” was the alternative.

Rather than laud the role African-Americans had played in building the wealth of the country, and give them land plots as a form of retribution (out of 850,000 acres of abandoned land the Freedman’s Bureau had its disposal, or Thaddeus Stevens’ call to seize 400,000,000 acres belonging to the wealthiest 10% of Southerners and distribute it), most complained of their indolence and “Few Northerners involved in black education could rise above the conviction that slavery had produced a “degraded” people, in dire need of instruction in frugality, temperance, honesty, and the dignity of labor. Rare indeed was ‘The Freedman’s Book,’ a primer written by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, that sought to develop a sense of racial pride through brief biographies of black figures from Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass to Toussaint L’Ouverture.”

The North is certainly not presented in a rosy light here, and Foner devotes time to explaining how big business and its “Indian policy” was essentially to “surrender most of their land and cease to be Indians,” the Dominican Republican was annexed in a very unsavory manner, and massive corruption reigned, along with the bane of democracy – lobbyists. “The Supreme Court repeatedly prevented municipalities from repudiating railroad-aid bonds even when evidence came to light that bribery accounted for their being issued,” Foner writes, and “Blacks could not help noting the contrast between such largesse [100 million acres of land and millions of dollars of aid to support railroad construction] and failure to provide freedmen with land.”

There was great debate over stronger and weaker versions of the 15th Amendment, with the result being one that it did not prohibit literacy tests, and did not break with the idea that voting was a privilege. In the South, Democrats were ascending and violently pushing back on Reconstruction, while in the North, politicians wanted to retain their own local qualifications, and in the West, Chinese-Americans could not vote – to say nothing of women, who were denied entirely. How regrettable was it to read that feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton voiced racist and elitist bile while arguing for women’s suffrage during this period!

Meanwhile, in Foner’s view, President Johnson also made the “most blatantly racist pronouncement ever to appear in an official state paper of an American President,” when in his December, 1867 annual message to Congress, he insisted that black people possessed less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

The Supreme Court was retrograde in this period as well – and viewed today much as how the current one will be viewed by history. One example is the 1876 decision in U.S. v Cruikshank, which arose from the Colfax massacre, which “rendered national prosecution of crimes against blacks virtually impossible, and gave a green light to acts of terror where local officials either could not or would not enforce the law.” As a small criticism, it seemed like Foner could have devoted more time to explaining how this 3rd branch of American power had come to be assembled, as he does with the Congressional and Presidential elections.

Some parallels to today:
Keep in mind for all of them that the parties have swapped relative to progressivism; the Democrats in this period are the Republicans of today, and vice-versa:

- On presidential behavior: the polar opposite of Lincoln in personality, Andrew Johnson made decisions in isolation and had little sensitivity to the views of others. Ala Donald Trump, when a heckler yelled “hang Jeff Davis” at a political rally, Johnson replied, “Why not hang Thad Stevens and Wendell Phillips?” He also “indulged his unique blend of self-aggrandizement and self-pity. On one occasion, he intimated that Providence had removed Lincoln to elevate Johnson himself to the White House. At St. Louis, he blamed Congress for instigating the New Orleans riot and unleashed a ‘muddled tirade’ against his opponents: “I have been traduced, I have been slandered, I have been maligned….” If that doesn’t sound like President #45, I don’t know what does.

- On fake news, ala Fox: “Southern newspapers consistently misinformed their readers about Northern politics, overestimating the strength of the National Union movement, portraying Johnson’s opponents as a band of Radical fanatics who lacked broad popular support, and predicting Congress could not possibly do the things it then proceeded to do.”

- On a bitterly divided political climate: “Democracy, it has been said, functions best when politics does not directly mirror deep social divisions, and each side can accept the victory of the other because both share many values and defeat does not imply ‘a fatal surrender of…vital interests.’ This was the situation in the North, where an Alabama Republican observed, ‘it matters not who is elected.’ But too much was at stake in Reconstruction for ‘normal politics’ to prevail.” And sadly, while a former Confederate officer shrewdly observed, it was precisely the Klan’s objective “to defy the reconstructed State Governments, to treat them with contempt, and show that they have no real existence,” acting as if conducting a revolution, “Republicans typically sought stability through conciliation,” which was a mistake morally as well as politically.

- On the rich avoiding taxes, and income disparity: There were heavy poll taxes on freedmen, and extremely low taxes on property owners in the south. Meanwhile, in the north, “Despite widespread prosperity, the unprecedented fortunes accumulated by the nation’s captains of commerce and industry helped create one of the highest levels of income inequality in all of American history.” … “Even Rochester railroad president Isaac Butts identified the concentration of wealth ‘in fewer and fewer hands’ as the nations’ most serious problem.” … something the periodical The Nation called “the great curse of the Old World – the division of society into classes.” Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar.

- On public education and charter schools: “…the governor [of North Carolina] feared that if white children were educated at public expense, ‘we will be required to educate the negroes in like manner.’ To avoid having to expend public monies on black education, Worth and his legislature authorized localities to establish tax-supported private academies, risking, as one ally warned, ‘the entire alienation of the poorer class’ of whites, and destroying the South’s only extensive system of public education.” The connection to the charter schools of today is uncanny. Schooling became a “major casualty” of Democratic rule, with Virginia being an exception.

- On blacks being taken for granted by their party: “Already, blacks confronted a political dilemma that would plague them throughout Reconstruction – their very unanimity as Republicans meant their ballots could be taken for granted by party leaders seeking the white vote.” – which is still true today.

- On controlling the vote: gerrymandering “ensured Democratic control, reduced the number of polling places in black precincts, empowered the legislature to appoint local governments, and barred from voting all those who had failed to pay a poll tax or been convicted of petty larceny,” precisely the same techniques we see to this day.

- On originalism and fear mongering: the Democratic party was “a party of negations,” with a “potent cry of white supremacy,” and called to originalism even though it implied a system of apartheid in the country, despite the good in the revolutionary documents. “The Union as It Is – the Constitution as It Was,” was the Democratic slogan. Fear mongering over black men raping white women and miscegenation, replacing “pure blood” and changing the racial dynamic of the country abounded, similar to a country whose conservatives now fear the inevitable day when its white populace will be in the minority. One of the best responses to this incessant fear of racial mingling was from a black delegate in Georgia, who pointing out that the “purity of blood” lauded by their opponents had “already been somewhat interfered with” by planters assaulting or cohabitating with female slaves.”

- On reaction to economic crisis: The original “Great Depression” was a downturn that started with the Panic of 1873 and lasted nearly to the end of the century (and the 65 months of contraction before it hit bottom in 1878 remains the longest uninterrupted such period in American history). The results were predictable, and mirror other such periods (such as our own), with the progressive side calling for socialistic reform, and business interests (often controlling newspapers) calling for union busting and even having the gall to view the Depression as “not an unmixed evil, since it promised to lower wages, discipline labor, and curb the power of unions.” Meanwhile, voters reacted to hard times by turning against the party in power.

- On the wrong kind of reparations: the insane idea that slaveholders should be compensated for the liberation of the people they had kept as property, an idea that persists in far-right circles to this day, to which radical Henry Winter Davis of Maryland said “Their compensation is the cleared lands of all Southern Maryland, where everything that smiles and blossoms is the work of the Negro that they tore from Africa.”

- On “good people on both sides”: Foner points out that aside from direct participation in the Ku Klux Klan from all classes in the south, it had tacit approval from those who remained silent and spoke of the “good” the organization accomplished despite its “excesses,” strongly opposing Federal intervention, which reminded me of the position Trump took in response to Charlottesville.

Wrapping up:
In addition to the thorough research and his devotion to the unbiased truth, a part of what makes Foner such a great historian is that he takes the broader view of these events. He makes observations like “liberal reformers were increasingly obsessed by the same dilemma with which men like Madison had wrestled a century earlier – how to reconcile private property with political democracy.” There is wisdom in his analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation, that it was Lincoln’s attempt to find a middle ground and not alienate Southern Unionists, but at the same time, initiate the emancipation process in a way that was “legally unassailable,” which may answer modern criticisms of Lincoln’s morality. He says quite simply and factually that the Democratic Party was devoted to two things: white supremacy and labor control, and it’s a history that must be confronted.

As a criticism, sometimes it seems the nuggets of gold and key takeaways are buried within the text, instead of being highlighted by Foner. This is quite a tome at 600+ pages and extremely detailed, which may be intimidating for those who want to learn about this time period outside of a college history course.

A good companion reader would be James Lowen’s “The Confederate Reader,” which contains documents in the form of speeches, articles, and laws in this period, or the W.E.B DuBois' fictional work, "The Quest for the Silver Fleece."
Profile Image for Brian Willis.
579 reviews32 followers
January 9, 2021
The single greatest book on this period of history, an overlooked one still to this day, because it doesn't have the visceral impact of the Civil War or the decadence of the Gilded Age. Nonetheless, the Reconstruction Era, and its ultimate failure, informs all of our understandings about race relations through the present day with the 2020 BLM protests (Foner does not make that connection here).

When studying the Civil War, most accounts end with Appomattox and Lincoln's assassination. It makes sense. The cessation of hostilities and the death of the protagonist who represented the Union are natural places to rest with an elegiac tone. However, history doesn't recognize such end stops and Reconstruction was about "winning the peace". The first half of this complete and authoritative look at the rehabilitation of the South focuses on the whirlwind changes in 1866-1867. Imagine being a enfranchised slave in 1865. Now what? No money, no job, no individual and domestic life.

Much of the energy and focus of the federal government occurred at this time. The Freedman's Bureau was established to oversee the transition. Southerners resented it. The Ku Klux Klan is established nearly immediately, justified by white Southerners as an attempt to police the freed slaves (who in their view were "petulant", "lazy for finding jobs", and "insubordinate"). We now know the racism behind those perceptions, but it is still shocking to see that racism reimposed so swiftly after the end of the Civil War. Indeed, it is hard not to escape the conclusion that the South was entirely unrepentant after the Civil War, and blocked any attempts to impose Constitutionally protected rights for blacks. By the end of this long decade, poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright Jim Crow impositions have been established, de facto segregation firmly entrenched, and the 100 years of hostility prepared for the revolt of the Civil Rights movement.

This is THE book on the topic. While it does cover the national political aspects of the Johnson and Grant administrations, its primary focus is the social, economic, and cultural impacts of post-war devastation, as well as the attempted reconciliation of the two regions, with a tight focus on the impact on African Americans. Superb, award winning stuff.
Profile Image for Adam Shields.
1,658 reviews88 followers
December 13, 2017
Short Review: This is an era that I just didn't have much historical background on. This was the book that several people recommended to me as the best starting place. I picked up the audiobook because that is what is most likely to get done quickly. The audiobook is the first edition. I would have preferred a later edition because I would like to think some of the repetition and was cleaned up. But I don't know.

The audiobook was poorly done. Lots of mispronounced words, bad editing and uneven sound quality. I got through it and it wasn't the worst audiobook I have listened to, but I certainly can't highly recommend it.

The main book was very helpful. The common perception is that Reconstruction was a failed experiment. But Foner suggests that it was cut short because of an inability for many Whites to put away their understanding of White Supremacy. Whether Whites supported slavery or not, many Whites assumed that former slaves were little better than animals and could not be fully equal.

In addition there was serious economic problems in the country as a result of the war, high government and personal debt, rampant economic speculation and government graft. The graft is largely assumed to be only on the Republican side, but it was on all sides. The Republicans were punished for it because they were in power, as they should have been. But the Democrats were not really interested in putting an end to graft but getting into power.

And there was reluctance to enforce Black voting right, especially after the rise of the KKK. So while many Northern Whites said they were for Black voting rights, there was not any interest in federal enforcement of Black voting rights so effectively, political violence was the final nail in the coffin of Reconstruction.

There is far more here than I can easily summarize. But this was very helpful and gave me a number of areas to explore further.

My 2000 word review is on my blog at http://bookwi.se/reconstruction/
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,083 reviews26 followers
January 16, 2021
The most tragic stories are those where you already know the ending.

Tell me if you've heard this -- close election, numerous allegations of voter fraud, states/parties sending different slates of electors to Washington, questions about what the Vice President's role is in certifying electors under the 12th Amendment, and parties threatening to send thousands of marchers to the Capitol to ensure their side's votes are counted. Sound familiar? Yeah, that was 1876.

Foner's 1988 history of Reconstruction is a wonderfully researched and dense history of the tumultuous period from the Emancipation Proclamation (Foner's jumping off point) to the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes following the Hayes/Tilden Compromise that returned "home rule" to the former Confederate states in exchange for Hayes getting the presidency following the election of 1876.

Foner unequivocally calls Reconstruction a failure and he's not wrong. Insofar as the goal of Reconstruction was viewed by some as the complete overhaul of Southern slave society placing newly freed blacks on equal legal (and social) footing as whites, Reconstruction (both the more lenient Presidential Reconstruction and the more radical Congressional Reconstruction) failed.

It might even be said that it was destined to fail as the "revolutionary" goals of the more radical Republicans simply could not supplant such entrenched social views. An additional factor was that before too long, you simply had too many competing interesting in what a "Reconstructed" South was to look like: from carpetbaggers (both black and white) coming from the North to make a buck (sometimes with honorable intent, sometimes not), to scalawags (Southern Unionists) who usually came from the non-plantation classes and saw an opportunity to improve their own political and economic standing, to Republicans of all strips who simply wanted to retain their power. Arrayed against them were groups trying to "redeem" the South by retaining what they understood to be the "proper" social order. Not rebels per se, but a landed plantation class that now had to deal with a labor force that it could not control.

These groups and others were willing to make compromises as necessary to retain/advance their own positions. Sometimes that would benefit the freedmen, many times it would not. Foner's history excels when it explores the effects of these battles on the newly freedmen. In every area from asserting their newly won legal rights, including suffrage, to the oppressive black codes that placed nearly identical controls on freed black's ability to sell their own labor as did slavery, Foner's survey of the black experience during Reconstruction marks a wonderfully detailed, if ultimately and tragic story.

Ultimately, Foner's conclusion that Reconstruction failed is accurate. But his extensive history of all the forces at play, it's doubtful that it ever could have truly succeeded.
Profile Image for Stephanie Griffin.
877 reviews111 followers
January 26, 2021
Eric Foner’s RECONSTRUCTION: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, is an extraordinarily close look at what Reconstruction was in the United States and why it failed.
Foner has taught at Columbia University with a focus on the Civil War, Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. Here he explains at length the problems that barred Blacks from achieving true equality during the years after the Civil War,
It seems like every time Blacks got a little bit forward, they fell two steps back out of no fault of their own. When the government gave wide swaths of land to railroads, they were denying the same to the newly freed Blacks who had nothing. When Black men got the right to vote, White men started demanding poll taxes.
I have often wondered about what Reconstruction was exactly. Why didn’t they teach it to me in school? Now I know - it was a plan that White men, for the most part, didn’t want to see succeed, especially in the South. They were greedy and didn’t want to share their land or their crops. Teachers would have had consequences if they had taught that back when I attended school.
The only downgrade is regarding the audiobook and the quality of the recording. It is obvious that the audio has been pieced together because the volume and tone of voice often changes dramatically. Therefore I’d recommend getting a copy of the print version.
I’ve been wanting to read this book for 20 years. I’m glad I finally got to it. This impressive book gives a clear look into the time just after the Civil War. The details are substantial and presented fairly. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Leigh.
208 reviews9 followers
February 10, 2019
A lengthy look at the era of Reconstruction after the American Civil War. As a history nerd I enjoyed it, especially the look at the transformation of the party of Abraham Lincoln, defenders of equality and the need to intervene in social affairs, to a pro-business and conservative party favouring as little government as possible. It truly is an unfinished revolution.
Profile Image for Greg.
38 reviews1 follower
September 23, 2018
Vitally important account of a largely-forgotten and/or misunderstood period of American history, as important as the Civil War itself.
Profile Image for Fallon.
56 reviews2 followers
July 6, 2020
So incredibly dense and well researched. I bought myself a butt pillow as a present for completing this book. I now feel like I know a little bit less than nothing about this time in our country's history, but in other ways I am just gleaning the surface.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 369 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.