The Significance of Reconstruction in American History

The Reconstruction Era was a heavily debated topic amongst many historians. After the civil war, not only was the South devastated, but there were thousands of now free slaves that needed to be integrated into society. At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s presidency, he was somewhat fair with his plans for reconstructing America. However, the Radical Republicans had other plans, such as using congress to impose harsher terms against the now freed slaves. The many theories suggested about the reconstruction era have been contested, with one side calling it a failure while the other called it a success, but never considered both simultaneously.

In my opinion, The Reconstruction Era was both a success and a failure due to the gains and losses of the challenges that were at hand during this era. As times change and new information is discovered, historians see former events or certain eras differently.

As for William Dunning, he categorized the reconstruction era as a failure because of the corruption of the Radical Republicans and believed that the war could have been avoided.

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Contradicting the Dunning school’s view, historian Eric Foner categorized the reconstruction era as a success but an “unfinished revolution.” Deepening Foner’s thoughts, Du Bois, in the Black Reconstruction of America argues that “the corruption was overstressed and that Dunning overlooked many achievements of Reconstruction.”(Du Bois, 1935) William Dunning believed that the war could have been avoided at all costs and viewed reconstruction as a political measure. Many students from the south flocked to Dunning and his views, thus the “Dunning School” was born.

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These historians have a strong view of how the Reconstruction Era was a failure. Dunning’s portrayal of the south during this era was “hostile.” He supported the idea that the south was ruined by reconstruction. Dunning argued that freedmen proved incapable of self-government, therefore, making segregation necessary. Dunning believed that allowing African Americans to vote and hold office was a “serious error.”

According to Dunning’s portrayal, blacks were depicted to be unequipped of meaningful political participation, while terrorist organizations, like the Ku Klux Klan, were almost rewarded for the efforts to “restore” the south’s natural order. To further prove his points, Dunning shows that the failure of reconstruction governments often came when white violence erupted, as the violence was in response to the Republicans. “Between 1868 and 1870, when the cessation of the national military authority left the new state governments to stand by their own strength, there developed that widespread series of disorders with which the name of the Ku Klux Klan is associated. While these were at their height the Republican Party was ousted from control in four of the old rebel states, namely, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia”(Dunning School, 1901). Contradicting the Dunnings Schools’ views Eric Foner believed the Reconstruction era was a success. Foner acknowledged that it was an “unfinished revolution,” but also acknowledged the accomplishments, and steps in the right direction. He saw the possibility for more than just America, “the institutions created or consolidated after the Civil war- the black family, school, and church – provided the base from which the modern civil rights revolution sprang. And for its legal strategy, the movement returned to the laws and amendments of reconstruction”(Foner, chapter 15)

According to Foner, the Dunnings interpretation of Reconstruction was a part of the belief of the Jim Crow Laws, which was an explanation and justification for taking the 15th amendment away from the black men during the reconstruction. Almost like it was a justification for the white South resisting efforts to change the race relations because of the worry of having another reconstruction. Foner claims reconstruction to be a break from traditional systems prevailing in the south(Foner Chapter 15). While Dunning saw the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as things that negatively impacted the nation, historians such as Foner, consider them as some of the reconstruction eras’ most successful achievements. Supporting Founder’s thoughts and beliefs, Du Bois was in agreement with Foner, stating that Dunning overlooked many successes during the Reconstruction era. Du Bois termed the Reconstruction era a “splendid failure” because it didn’t fail for the reasons that whites thought or expected it would (DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America).

Dunning’s interpretation of reconstruction differs from Foner’s interpretation by the Dunning school believing reconstruction was always going to fail and felt that taking the right to vote or hold office away from the whites in the south was a violation of republicanism. Dunning also differs from “The South’s traditional leaders-planters, merchants, and Democratic politicians-bitterly opposed the new governments” (Foner, chapter 15). Another major reason Dunning’s interpretation differs from Founders is that white supremacist behavior was almost applauded. The idea was to make the South back into what it was before the civil war. Foner’s interpretation differs drastically from Dunnings, by acknowledging that many African Americans were now in office. “The fact that some 2,000 African Americans occupied public offices during Reconstruction represented a fundamental shift of power in the South and a radical departure in American government” (Foner, chapter 15). Foner believed that “corruption did exist during Reconstruction, but it was confirmed to no race, region, or party.”

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The Significance of Reconstruction in American History. (2020, Sep 06). Retrieved from

The Significance of Reconstruction in American History
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