Debating the Success of Reconstruction: Perspectives on Post-Civil War America

After the Civil War, the United States underwent a period known as the Reconstruction Era. This era involved rebuilding the country, particularly in the South where there was extensive damage. Additionally, integrating newly freed slaves into society posed challenges. President Andrew Johnson pursued a moderate approach to restore order, whereas Radical Republicans in Congress sought stricter measures. Historians have had varying perspectives on the success of this era and its accomplishments and shortcomings have been subject to debate. The controversy surrounding this time can be attributed to significant social transformations experienced by African American society.

As society evolves and new information emerges, writers reevaluate past events. William Dunning's 1907 perspective considered Reconstruction a disaster due to the corruption of Radical Republicans. Revisionists like Vann C. Woodward, however, challenged this belief 30 years later, attributing Reconstruction's failure to economic factors rather than corruption. During the 1960s, neoabolitionists like John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp proposed that Reconstruction was not a failure but rather an influence on the subsequent Civil Rights Movement.

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Presently, historians like Heather C. Richardson argue that Reconstruction impacted the entire nation, not just the South, and that the majority of the changes have been positive.

The first perspective, led by William Archibald Dunning, deemed the Reconstruction as a failure due to corruption within the Radical Republicans and government. In his 1907 book "Reconstruction, Political and Economic," Dunning described the Radical Republicans negatively, accusing them of solely wanting to punish Southern rebels while prioritizing their own party's power. They marginalized President Johnson and gained control of all levels of state government.

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In order to secure their authority, they advocated for black suffrage. As the South was under military rule, the “military authorities assumed the duty of promoting in every way participation [in voting] by the blacks.” Dunning asserted that voting power was placed in the hands of illiterate, ignorant individuals who were deemed "unfit for the task" and this notion was inconceivable to Southerners.

Dunning and his students determined that the sole reason for the ratification of the 15th Amendment was the Radical Republicans' desire to obtain the black vote for their own political preservation. Consequently, Dunning proclaimed that the Reconstruction failed because the ruling party consisted predominantly of despised individuals such as freedmen and disreputable "carpet-baggers" and "scalawags." The governing class was rife with corruption and solely concerned with their personal interests. Given Dunning's historical context and his examination of the era, it becomes somewhat comprehensible why he held such a bleak opinion of Radical Republicans. Living between 1857 and 1922, he witnessed Republicans in power plagued by recurring corruption, which undoubtedly influenced his unfavorable perspective. Additionally, since Dunning's associates who aided in crafting his theories were all Southerners, their assistance inevitably carried bias.

The Reconstruction's impact on people's perceptions for generations was shaped by an unknown perspective. Educational institutions, influenced by Dunning's research, taught the Reconstruction as a failure until the 20th century. Derogatory terms like "carpetbagger" and "scalawag" were popularized by Dunning. Consequently, his academic interpretation of the Reconstruction became widely believed nationwide due to popular films such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. These films reinforced Dunning's narrative, portraying the Reconstruction as a tragic period where the North exploited the South and depicting blacks as ignorant and pitiful savages. In summary, Dunning's theory significantly impacted how black individuals were viewed by the general public and justified denying them their rights for many years. It was not until historians like Vann C. Woodward started questioning Dunning's traditional view in the 1930s that it began to change. W.E.B Du Bois attempted to counter his opinion in 1910 but was unsuccessful.

In his book Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois argues that the alleged corruption during the Reconstruction era was exaggerated and that Dunning overlooked many of its accomplishments. However, historians dismissed Du Bois' arguments at the time due to his use of Marxist theory and his radical classification. It wasn't until twenty years later that other historians, known as revisionists, began echoing Du Bois' perspectives. These revisionists still saw Reconstruction as a disappointment but disagreed with Dunning on its causes. According to Woodward's view, Reconstruction failed because the Radical Republicans couldn't establish a stable economic foundation for freed slaves, rather than being power-hungry out of revenge. Revisionists also reassessed some perceived "failures" as achievements, emphasizing that Radical Republicans did achieve positive advancements such as creating enduring new constitutions and implementing social reforms like public education in the South.

Revisionists contested the belief that illiterate black voters were solely responsible for the downfall of Reconstruction. Woodward argued that not all black individuals lacked education and experience, highlighting their limited access to positions of power in state governments as a hindrance to influencing legislation. His perspective on Reconstruction was influenced by his dissertation advisor, Howard K. Beale, who supported the economic theory explaining the failure of Reconstruction. The impact of World War I and World War II also led other historians during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s to revise their opinions. Witnessing black soldiers fighting in these wars prompted a reevaluation of this significant period in black history and a revision of understanding regarding Reconstruction. This shift had positive consequences as revisionist scholars played an essential role in altering public perception of African Americans and laying the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

Neoabolitionist historians like John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and Eric Foner challenged the prevailing belief that Reconstruction was a failure in the 1960s. They introduced a new perspective on the subject. While they shared some common ground with revisionists, such as acknowledging the lack of African American representation in southern state government, their interpretations of success and failure differed. According to Stampp, Reconstruction achieved economic success by strengthening American industrial capitalism and promoting democratic governments and equal rights politically. However, all neoabolitionists agreed that denying African Americans equal civil and political rights despite the existence of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments was the true failure of Reconstruction.

According to Foner's book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, he advocated for a "second Reconstruction" in the 1960s to achieve full equality for black Americans. He argued that the original Reconstruction was never fully completed. The Civil Rights Movement had a profound effect on neoabolitionists who witnessed it firsthand. Even John Hope Franklin, a member of the NAACP's legal defense team, had his beliefs reshaped by witnessing black Americans fight and succeed in obtaining their rights. These neoabolitionist perspectives challenged the notion that Reconstruction failed because of alleged ignorance and helplessness among black Americans. This shift in public opinion had a positive impact on society, fostering greater understanding and acceptance of the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement. Historians like Heather Cox Richardson and David Blight have further contributed to this revised understanding of both the accomplishments and shortcomings of Reconstruction.

Richardson's book, The Death of Reconstruction, explores the nationwide impact of Reconstruction, highlighting its greater influence in the North compared to the South. While Dunning criticized the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, contemporary historians now acknowledge their significance during that time. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there has been a notable shift in historians' perspectives leading to increased public acceptance of equal rights for all. However, current scholarship on the Reconstruction Era tends to focus primarily on Radical Republicans, black men, and white men while neglecting other important aspects. Thus, it is crucial for historians to consider alternative factors that may have shaped Reconstruction using available analytical frameworks.

The involvement of youth during the Reconstruction period and the impact of non-US citizens on state governments are important aspects to consider when examining this chapter of American history. It is also crucial to acknowledge the reactions of men from different racial backgrounds during this time. To fully understand the events of Reconstruction, it is essential for writers to explore additional contributing factors and complicate the narrative. Women's rights, for instance, may have been negatively affected by Reconstruction, a perspective that warrants further examination. Furthermore, the effects of Reconstruction on other sectors of society and its influence on popular opinion regarding today's immigration and the feminist movement have yet to be thoroughly addressed.

The incomplete grant of rights to blacks during Reconstruction might have resulted in women gaining their rights earlier. Despite extensive discussions about this particular time in history, there is still much to be explored and unanswered questions remain. Opinions on the Reconstruction Era have varied greatly over time, ranging from labeling it as a failure due to the corruption of Radical Republicans, as suggested by William Dunning, to viewing it as a success. However, historians like Vann C. Woodward in the 1930s argued that its failure was attributed to Radical Republicans' failure to establish a stable economic foundation for freed slaves rather than their thirst for power.

During the 1960s, neoabolitionists such as John Hope Franklin, Kenneth Stampp, and Eric Foner proposed that the only flaw of Reconstruction was the delayed granting of full rights to African-Americans until the 1960s. It is important to study the historiography of Reconstruction because its policies continue to have an impact on us today. The topics of civil rights and citizenship have repeatedly emerged with the arrival of immigrants in the United States. By analyzing Reconstruction, policymakers can prevent repeating past mistakes and make well-informed decisions for our current society.

Bibliography Dunning, William Archibald. Reconstruction: Political and Economic. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1907. Franklin, John Hope. Reconstruction: After the Civil War. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961. Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Woodward, C. Vann. Reunion and Reaction: The Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Debating the Success of Reconstruction: Perspectives on Post-Civil War America. (2016, Dec 14). Retrieved from

Debating the Success of Reconstruction: Perspectives on Post-Civil War America essay
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