Four Essential Questions to Consider When Studying the Reconstruction Era

Whenever I study a particular time period in history, I find it very helpful to think about the sorts of questions people at the time would have been mulling over as they looked towards the future. It is easy to look at past events in hindsight and assume that everyone knew what would come next. Even trained historians can be guilty of minimizing the significance of a social, cultural, political, or economic change as “inevitable” when in reality it was anything but. I often wonder if assigning students papers in which they have to make a “thesis statement” is as effective as perhaps asking them to first think about one or more “guiding questions” to provide structure to their inquiry before formulating any sort of answer or argument when explaining a historical event.

In any case, the Reconstruction Era (generally defined as between 1863 to 1877) presents itself as one of the most misunderstood and ignored periods in American history, and the political complexities of the era do not lend themselves to easy explanation. Even after studying the period for a number of years I still find myself sometimes struggling to explain the significance of the era to visitors and students in a cogent manner. What follows are four questions that have helped me make sense of Reconstruction’s complexities:

  1. How would the United States restore and maintain a stronger union in the wake of a major secession crisis and the nation’s deadliest conflict?
  2. How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
  3. What economic labor system would replace slavery in the South, and to what extent would national, state, and local governments involve themselves in economic affairs?
  4. What would be the future status of African American freedpeople, former Confederate secessionists, and American Indian tribes? How would the government protect and expand the rights of African Americans, encourage former Confederates to become law-abiding citizens again, AND promote peace with American Indian tribes at the same time they promoted westward expansion?

(4a. What would be the correct size and scope of government to regulate society in a time of vast social, political, and economic changes?)

While the black freedom struggle has become a centerpiece of recent Reconstruction studies, we should always remember that for most whites in the North, the central question for them was how to restore the Union quickly and peacefully. African Americans served loyally in the Civil War and many believed they were entitled to protection, citizenship, and voting rights. Once white Northerners felt that the country had stabilized and that enough legislation had been passed to protect African Americans (most notably the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), it did not take long for them to abandon Reconstruction and essentially state that blacks were on their own to face the future even though rampant racism, discrimination, and violence continued to exist.

What do you think? What essential questions do we need to consider when studying Reconstruction?



4 thoughts on “Four Essential Questions to Consider When Studying the Reconstruction Era

  1. Nick, I think the most fundamental question to consider is what is the goal of Reconstruction?

    Is it simply to put the United States back together?
    Is it to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed in the war?
    Is it to provide equal rights for African Americans?
    Is it to change the way people were governed in the South?
    Is it some other goal?

    Or is it a combination of two or more of the above?

    We often think of Reconstruction as a failure, but it depends on the goals as to whether or not it was a failure. If the goal was simply to put the United States back together, then it succeeded. If it was to rebuild the infrastructure, then it succeeded. If there were other goals, then perhaps it did fail. Certainly it was a failure if the goal was to make sure African Americans enjoyed equal rights in society, and not just on paper. So I think that question needs to be considered as an overall question.

    1. Excellent thoughts, Al. I agree that the goals of Reconstruction were multi-faceted and, depending on what particular goal, variously a success and failure. An additional point to yours is that if Reconstruction, broadly speaking, was a failure, who is to blame? The traditional consensus was that it was the radical Republicans and their supporters, but recent historiography clearly shows that it was white supremacists and political violence that derailed Reconstruction.

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