Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 is a history of the Reconstruction era by W. E. B. Du Bois, first published in 1935. It marked a significant break with the standard academic view of Reconstruction at the time, marked by the Dunning School, which contended that the period was a failure and downplayed the contributions of African Americans. Du Bois argued directly against these accounts, emphasizing the role and agency of blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction and framing it as a period that held promise for a worker-ruled democracy to replace a slavery-based plantation economy. He noted that the southern working class, i.e. black freedmen and poor whites, were divided after the Civil War along the lines of race, and did not unite against the white propertied class, i.e. the former planters. He believed this failure enabled the white Democrats to regain control of state legislatures, pass Jim Crow laws, and disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Du Bois’ extensive use of data and primary source material on the postwar political economy of the former Confederate States is notable, as is the literary style of this 750-page essay. He notes major achievements, such as establishing public education in the South for the first time, the founding of charitable institutions to care for all citizens, the extension of the vote to the landless whites, and investment in public infrastructure.
Context and inception
Du Bois’ first essay on the topic was “Reconstruction and Its Benefits,” delivered to the American Historical Association on 30 December 1909 in New York City. Du Bois was then a professor at Atlanta University. Albert Bushnell Hart, one of his former professors at Harvard University, sent him money to attend the conference. William Archibald Dunning, leader of what was called the Dunning School that developed at Columbia University, heard Du Bois’ presentation and praised his paper. It was published in the July 1910 issue of The American Historical Review, but had little influence at the time.
A view had collected around James Pike’s work, The Prostrate State (1878), written shortly after Reconstruction ended. He contended there were no benefits from Reconstruction. Woodrow Wilson’s Division and Reunion, 1829–1889 (1893), and James Ford Rhodes’ History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1906) denigrated African-American contributions during that period, reflecting attitudes of white supremacy in a period when most blacks and many poor whites had been disfranchised across the South. James Wilford Garner’s Reconstruction in Mississippi (1901), Walter Lynwood Fleming's Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), Thomas Staples’ Reconstruction in Arkansas, 1862–1874 (1923), and Charles William Ramsdell’s Reconstruction in Texas (1910) were works by Dunning followers, most of whom had positions in history at Southern universities. They tended to see only failure in Reconstruction.
After three short chapters profiling the black worker, the white worker, and the planter, Du Bois argues in the fourth chapter that the decision gradually taken by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working during the war was an example of a potential general strike force of four million slaves the Southern elite had not reckoned with. The Institution of slavery simply had to soften: "In a certain sense, after the first few months everybody knew that slavery was done with; that no matter who won, the condition of the slave could never be the same after this disaster of war."
Du Bois’ research shows that the post-emancipation South did not degenerate into economic or political chaos. State by state in subsequent chapters, he notes the efforts of the elite planter class to retain control and recover property (land, in particular) lost during the war. This, in the ever-present context of violence committed by paramilitary groups, often from the former poor-white overseer class, all throughout the South. These groups often used terror to repress black organization and suffrage, frightened by the immense power that 4 million voters would have on the shape of the future.
He documents the creation of public health departments to promote public health and sanitation, and to combat the spread of epidemics during the Reconstruction period. Against the claim that the Radical Republicans had done a poor job at the constitutional conventions and during the first decade of Reconstruction, Du Bois observes that after the Democrats regained power in 1876, they did not change the Reconstruction constitutions for nearly a quarter century. When the Democrats did pass laws to impose racial segregation and Jim Crow, they maintained some support of public education, public health and welfare laws, along with the constitutional principles that benefited the citizens as a whole.
Critical reception and legacy
The work was largely ignored by critics and historians upon publication, when the views of the Dunning School associated with Columbia University prevailed in published histories of Reconstruction. Some critics rejected Du Bois’ critique of other historians writing about the freedmen’s role during Reconstruction. Du Bois lists a number of books and writers that he believed misrepresented the Reconstruction period. He identified those he believed were particularly racist or ill-informed works. Du Bois thought that certain historians were maintaining the “southern white fairytale” instead of accurately chronicling the events and key figures of Reconstruction.
In the 1960s and through the next decades, a new generation of historians began to re-evaluate Du Bois’ work, as well as works of the early 20th century by African-American historians Alrutheus A. Taylor, Francis Butler Simkins, and Robert Woody. They developed new research and came to conclusions that revised the historiography of Reconstruction. This work emphasized black people’s agency in their search for freedom and the era’s radical policy changes that began to provide for general welfare, rather than the interests of the wealthy planter class.
Scholarship in the 1970s and 1980s tempered some of these claims by highlighting continuities in the political goals of white politicians before and during Reconstruction. Du Bois' emphasis on the revolutionary character of Reconstruction was affirmed by Eric Foner’s landmark book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. By the early twenty-first century, Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction was widely perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.”
- ^Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction. Harcourt Brace. p. 59.
- ^Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction. Harcourt Brace. pp. 419, 465, 494, 503, 521, 675–709.
- ^Foner, Eric (2013). "Black Reconstruction: An Introduction". South Atlantic Quarterly. 112 (3): 409–418. doi:10.1215/00382876-2146368. Retrieved 2016-01-18.
- ^Black Reconstruction, p. 715
- ^ abFoner, Eric (1 December 1982). "Reconstruction Revisited". Reviews in American History. 10 (4): 82–100 . doi:10.2307/2701820. ISSN 0048-7511. JSTOR 2701820.
- ^“During the civil rights era, however, it became apparent that Du Bois’ scholarship, despite some limitations, had been ahead of its time.” Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser; Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xx. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6.
- ^Campbell, James M.; Rebecca J. Fraser; Peter C. Mancall (11 October 2008). Reconstruction: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. xix–xxi. ISBN 978-1-59884-021-6.
- ^“W. E. B. Du Bois’ (1935/1998) Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880 is commonly regarded as the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.” Bilbija, Marina (1 September 2011). "Democracy's New Song". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 637 (1): 64–77. doi:10.1177/0002716211407153. ISSN 0002-7162. Retrieved 2012-02-25.
Reconstruction actually began in December 1863, when announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union. Lincoln granted amnesty to most Confederates so long as they accepted the abolition of slavery, but said nothing about rights for freed blacks. Rather than a blueprint for the postwar South, this was a war measure, an effort to detach whites from the Confederacy. On Reconstruction, as on other questions, Lincoln’s ideas evolved. At the end of his life, he called for limited black suffrage in the postwar South, singling out the “very intelligent” (prewar free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy.
Lincoln did not live to preside over Reconstruction. That task fell to his successor, . Once lionized as a heroic defender of the Constitution against Radical Republicans, Johnson today is viewed by historians as one of the worst presidents to occupy the White House. He was incorrigibly racist, unwilling to listen to criticism and unable to work with Congress. Johnson set up new Southern governments controlled by ex-Confederates. They quickly enacted the Black Codes, laws that severely limited the freed people’s rights and sought, through vagrancy regulations, to force them back to work on the plantations. But these measures aroused bitter protests among blacks, and convinced Northerners that the white South was trying to restore slavery in all but name.
There followed a momentous political clash, the struggle between Johnson and the Republican majority (not just the Radicals) in Congress. Over Johnson’s veto, Congress enacted one of the most important laws in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, still on the books today. It affirmed the citizenship of everyone born in the , regardless of race (except Indians, still considered members of tribal sovereignties). This principle, birthright citizenship, is increasingly rare in today’s world and deeply contested in our own contemporary politics, because it applies to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants.
The act went on to mandate that all citizens enjoy basic civil rights in the same manner “enjoyed by white persons.” Johnson’s veto message denounced the law for what today is called reverse discrimination: “The distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” Indeed, in the idea that expanding the rights of nonwhites somehow punishes the white majority, the ghost of Andrew Johnson still haunts our discussions of race.
Soon after, Congress incorporated birthright citizenship and legal equality into the Constitution via the 14th Amendment. In recent decades, the courts have used this amendment to expand the legal rights of numerous groups — most recently, gay men and women. As the Republican editor George William Curtis wrote, the 14th Amendment changed a Constitution “for white men” to one “for mankind.” It also marked a significant change in the federal balance of power, empowering the national government to protect the rights of citizens against violations by the states.
In 1867 Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, again over Johnson’s veto. These set in motion the establishment of new governments in the South, empowered Southern black men to vote and temporarily barred several thousand leading Confederates from the ballot. Soon after, the 15th Amendment extended black male suffrage to the entire nation.
The Reconstruction Acts inaugurated the period of Radical Reconstruction, when a politically mobilized black community, with its white allies, brought the to power throughout the South. For the first time, African-Americans voted in large numbers and held public office at every level of government. It was a remarkable, unprecedented effort to build an interracial democracy on the ashes of slavery.
Most offices remained in the hands of white Republicans. But the advent of African-Americans in positions of political power aroused bitter hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. They spread another myth — that the new officials were propertyless, illiterate and incompetent. As late as 1947, the Southern historian E. Merton Coulter wrote that of the various aspects of Reconstruction, black officeholding was “longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.”
There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President ’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed. In fact, the new governments had a solid record of accomplishment. They established the South’s first state-funded public school systems, sought to strengthen the bargaining power of plantation laborers, made taxation more equitable and outlawed racial discrimination in transportation and public accommodations. They offered aid to railroads and other enterprises in the hope of creating a New South whose economic expansion would benefit black and white alike.
Reconstruction also made possible the consolidation of black families, so often divided by sale during slavery, and the establishment of the independent black church as the core institution of the emerging black community. But the failure to respond to the former slaves’ desire for land left most with no choice but to work for their former owners.
It was not economic dependency, however, but widespread violence, coupled with a Northern retreat from the ideal of equality, that doomed Reconstruction. The and kindred groups began a campaign of murder, assault and arson that can only be described as homegrown American terrorism. Meanwhile, as the Northern Republican Party became more conservative, Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society.
One by one, the Reconstruction governments fell. As a result of a bargain after the disputed presidential election of 1876, the Republican assumed the Oval Office and disavowed further national efforts to enforce the rights of black citizens, while white Democrats controlled the South.
By the turn of the century, with the acquiescence of the , a comprehensive system of racial, political and economic inequality, summarized in the phrase Jim Crow, had come into being across the South. At the same time, the supposed horrors of Reconstruction were invoked as far away as and to demonstrate the necessity of excluding nonwhite peoples from political rights. This is why W.E.B. Du Bois, in his great 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America,” saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe.
While violated with impunity, however, the 14th and 15th Amendments remained on the books. Decades later they would provide the legal basis for the civil rights revolution, sometimes called the Second Reconstruction.
Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.Continue reading the main story