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The Continuing Evolution of Reconstruction History by Eric Foner Essay

In this article, Foner states in his thesis that “since the early 1960s, a profound alteration of the place of blacks within American society, newly uncovered evidence, and changing definitions of history itself, have combined to transform our understanding of race relations, politics, and economic change during Reconstruction.” The article essentially encompasses the meaning of three different views of reconstruction: traditional, revisionist, and post-revisionist. After Foner defines these and explains his thesis, the article becomes somewhat of an advertisement for his own articles on the topic.

Foner defines the traditionalist view as the interpretation that when then civil had finally come to an end, the white population of the south more or less accepted their military defeat and wanted to preserve their supremacy while simultaneously reuniting with the North. The first problem with this view is if the south were to continue on the path of white supremacy and never really grant African Americans any civil rights to enjoy the same freedoms as white people, then reuniting with the north would be pointless. The entire idea of the civil war and reconstruction was to abolish slavery and to also grant the freedmen some, if not most or all, of their civil rights. While discussing the traditional view, Foner also identifies two separate eras of reconstruction.

The first of the two eras was Presidential Reconstruction, in which Johnson attempted to continue Lincoln’s policies. The second would be Congressional or Radical Reconstruction. In this era, the southern white community joined together in the fight against the efforts to overthrow the new governments that promoted reconstruction ideals and also to carry out Home Rule. This would essentially become the enforcement of the Black Codes, which restored the plantation lifestyle that had existed before the civil war and in turn kept the freedmen in the position of slavery.

The description of the traditionalist viewpoint almost seems to be valiant in nature, almost holding the southerners to a sort of esteemed position in keeping with their traditional way of white supremacy. This raises the question, were the traditionalists either mainly southerners or racists who wanted to preserve the idea that the south was betrayed by the north and had the right to enforce the black codes? This question will go unanswered, for the article does not investigate each viewpoint to this degree.

The second viewpoint described by Foner is revisionism. Revisionists consisted of mainly African American and supporters of the freedmen who wanted to refute the ideas of the traditionalist group. This group also applies the idea of some sort of valiant effort being made, but this time by the African Americans of the era. This group defines reconstruction as “an idealistic effort to construct a democratic, interracial political order from the ashes of slavery, as well as a phase in prolonged struggle between capital and labor for control of the South’s economic resources.” In fact the entire explanation of the motives for the revisionist group makes them seem terribly offended. Revisionists believe that most traditionalists cannot view a black man as a man. Simply put, the freedman is still considered a slave.

A statement like this leads to questioning of the relevance of the traditionalist viewpoint. If the south never stopped seeing the freedmen as slaves, and went out of their way to try and preserve the aspects of slavery, then how can traditionalists even support that they have a view on Reconstruction? What exactly was reconstructed? As time had progressed, the revisionist view eventually stamped out traditionalists, it was all inevitable once everyone caught on that African Americans were equal and started to look into the history of slavery and Reconstruction. The revisionists also portrayed Johnson as the racist that he really was and praised the Radicals for being so committed to the rights of the freedmen.

In the most recent view of reconstruction known as post-revision, Reconstruction is seen as a time of radical change. They argued that “persistent racism had negated efforts to extend justice to blacks, and the failure to distribute land prevented the freedmen from achieving true autonomy and made their civil and political rights all but meaningless.” This raises the question of who can there be any radical change during reconstruction if the freedmen were prevented in achieving true autonomy?

And if this wasn’t achieved, then what was achieved as a result of reconstruction? to answer this question, Foner explains that the post-revisionists see reconstruction as not merely a specific time period, but an extended historical process. America was readjusting after the war and it was not a “tragic era”. Schools were established and there was social and political process for freedmen. Overall, this is by far the most optimistic viewpoint.

Foner ends his explanation of post-revision rather abruptly in order to what comes off as marketing his books. He even appears to be a tad arrogant when he more or less describes his collection as the most definitive grouping of historical information and personal opinion of the entire topic. He never actually states which viewpoint he associates himself with, but it can be inferred that he is a combination of revisionist and post-revisionist. The reason for this is that holds that blacks were active agents in the making of reconstruction and reconstruction produced a variety of economic, political, and social change for the freedmen.

Foner does an impeccable job at explaining each view of reconstruction as well as providing the evidence to support his reasoning. He ends on a collective note, pressing to the reader that when viewing Reconstruction, one should keep in mind different points of view and it is best to take and comparative approach to emancipation to broaden one’s perspective and to bring about questions and new conceptual ideas.


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