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:
- 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?
- How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
- 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?
- 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?
The historiography of the Reconstruction era has and continues to be overwhelmingly focused on questions of race, citizenship, and equal protection under the law in the years after the American Civil War. For an era of remarkable constitutional change and the dramatic transition of four million formerly enslaved people into citizens (and, for some, into voters and elected leaders), this focus is understandable. Reconstruction-era scholars almost unanimously agree today that Reconstruction was a noble but “unfinished revolution” undone by an end to military rule in the South in 1877 and an apathetic white North no longer interested in protecting black rights, which in turn allowed unrepentant, racist white Southern Democrats to overtake their state governments and impose Jim Crow laws that ushered in a long era of white political supremacy throughout the region.
The “unfinished revolution” thesis is undoubtedly true, but there is more to the story of Reconstruction than the question of Black Civil Rights (although the importance of that story cannot be overstated). The country’s finances were in shambles and questions emerged about the best way to pay down the federal deficit and establish sound credit; women fought for the right to vote but were denied this right when the 15th amendment limited suffrage to men only; Indian tribes throughout the west faced the prospect of rapid white westward expansion and a federal government that simultaneously preached peace with the tribes but also did little to stop white encroachment of their lands; and immigrants from mostly Southern and Eastern Europe began to settle in the United States, causing a great deal of consternation among political leaders about how to best assimilate these people into American culture.
Regarding the latter issue, historian Ward McAfee’s 1998 publication Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s is a masterful treatment of the role of public education during the Reconstruction era. I just finished reading the book and I learned a ton from it.
McAfee’s thesis is essentially three-pronged. The first argument is that increasing numbers of immigrants to the U.S. during Reconstruction raised a great deal of concern within the Republican Party, especially those who had flirted with Know-Nothingism in the 1850s and held anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudices. Republicans feared that these immigrants held their allegiance to the Pope above their allegiance to the U.S. and that the Catholic church kept their parishioners illiterate, superstitious, and ignorant of the larger world. These immigrants would attempt to subvert the country’s republican institutions and make America a bulwark of the Vatican. The emergence of public education during Reconstruction, therefore, was not just an effort to educate the formerly enslaved but also an effort to promote (Protestant) morals, good citizenship, and obedience to republican institutions among immigrant children ostensibly being raised on Catholic principles.
The second argument relates to the division of taxpayer funds for public schools during Reconstruction. These emerging public schools during the era often incorporated Bible readings in class without much complaint. Republicans argued that Bible readings would teach good morals to students and that these teachings were appropriate as long as they took a “nonsectarian” approach that didn’t cater to any particular denomination. Most of these readings were done out of King James Bibles originally translated by the Church of England, however, and Catholics accused public school teachers of engaging in pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic teachings. To remedy this issue, Catholics established their own private, parochial schools and called upon the federal government to ensure that state tax funds for education be equally distributed between public “Protestant” schools and private Catholic schools. Republicans led the charge against splitting these funds and undertook an effort to ban public funding for “sectarian” schools. Towards the end of Reconstruction the Republicans made this issue a centerpiece of their party platform, and in 1875 Congressman James Blaine led an unsuccessful effort to pass an amendment banning public funding for sectarian schools (although “nonsectarian” religious instruction and Bible readings could still hypothetically take place in the public school classroom). While this amendment failed, 38 of 50 states today still have their own state “Blaine amendments” banning the funding of sectarian schools.
The third and arguably most provocative argument from McAfee is his contention that Reconstruction failed largely because of an initiative by the radical wing of the Republican party to mandate racially integrated “mixed-race” schooling in 1874. Most Republicans were skeptical if not outright hostile to racially integrated public schools (in stark contrast to their desire to have children from Protestant, Catholic, and other religious backgrounds intermingled together in public schools). Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, however, was a dedicated proponent of racial integration in the schools and refused to compromise on the issue. When Congress began debating the merits of a new Civil Rights bill in 1874 that would mandate equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and jury service, Sumner insisted on including a clause on racially integrated public schools. When news of Sumner’s demands became public, Democrats and conservative Republicans in both the North and South responded with outrage. Conservative Republicans in particular stated that while equal treatment in public facilities was acceptable, mandating mixed schools was a bridge too far. Republicans lost control of Congress after the 1874 midterm elections, and, according to McAfee, the cause of this loss was the insistence of Radical Republicans to mandate racial integration in schools.
Prior to reading McAfee I was of the belief that the devastating Panic of 1873 was the primary reason why Republicans lost the 1874 midterms, but McAfee presents convincing evidence that the mixed-schools initiative also contributed to those losses in a significant way. With Democratic control of Congress now assured, Reconstruction’s future was doomed. A Civil Rights Act was passed in 1875–largely in tribute to Sumner after he died in 1874–that mandated equal treatment in public facilities and jury service, but the clause mandating racial integration of public schools was removed. In any case, the Supreme Court in 1883 determined in Civil Rights Cases that parts of the Civil Rights of Act of 1875 were unconstitutional because, according to the court, the 14th amendment requiring equal protection of the laws only applied to the actions of the state and not the actions of private individuals and organizations.
Religion, Race, and Reconstruction is a fine piece of intellectual history that brings life to a long-forgotten element of Reconstruction history, and I highly recommend the book to readers of this blog.
Over the past year we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site worked on an ambitious living history program that aimed to highlight the political issues of the 1872 Presidential campaign and re-create the atmosphere of a nineteenth century election. The program “Grant or Greeley – Which? The Election of 1872 Living History Program” happened this past weekend from Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11 and I think it was a great success. We had professional actors, staff, and volunteers portraying a range of figures including Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, and Victoria Woodhull. I portrayed Senator John A. Logan. We also designed a voting window where visitors had the chance to vote for their own preferred 1872 candidate (Grant won but Victoria Woodhull took second place ahead of Greeley), nineteenth century children’s games, an arts and crafts table, a band playing 1872 election tunes, and open-house tours of President Grant’s White Haven estate. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved.
I have previously voiced some skepticism about living history programs on this website, but I really think we put together a solid program. It was unique in that we moved away from the Civil War battlefield and focused on political issues and topics during the Reconstruction Era, something I don’t think you’d see too much of at other related sites. The program was probably the biggest one ULSG has ever had. Anyone who thinks a public history program centered around the Reconstruction Era won’t work with a lay audience should have listened to the questions and comments of interested visitors. We ended up having somewhere around 750 or 800 visitors who came to the park at some point during the weekend, which is pretty good. Some video footage of various speakers has been posted to the park’s Facebook page if you’d like to check it out. While we haven’t figured out what we’re doing from here, I hope this program is a sign of good things to come with our special event programming at ULSG.
I am breathing a sigh of relief for the moment, but it’s back in the saddle very soon as we start planning next year’s program.
Ulysses S. Grant has received much attention from historians and biographers over the past thirty years. So much attention, in fact, that an argument can be made that we might actually have an over-saturation of Grant studies on the market right now. During the first half of the twentieth century the most notable Grant biographers–William Hesseltine, William E. Woodward, Louis Coolidge, and Allan Nevins (whose study of Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is in many ways a study of Grant and his presidency)–offered largely negative portrayals of Grant. The mid-1900s saw a dearth of Grant studies save for Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton’s biographical trilogy that went through General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William McFeeley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography brought renewed interest to Grant, but a combination of factors in the 1990s brought about a Grant renaissance that continues today, including a reevaluation of Grant’s generalship and presidency (and the Civil War era more broadly) within historical scholarship and at public history sites (Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary may have possibly influenced interest in Grant as well). Two years ago I wrote an essay on this website outlining my favorite and least-favorite Grant biographies that you can check out here.
With this post I aim to briefly analyze Grant biographies published since 2012 and update readers on what I know about upcoming biographies to be published in the future. I haven’t read all of these books yet but will provide additional commentary for the ones I have read. Off we go:
H.W. Brands – The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace (2013): In recent years Dr. Brands has devoted his scholarly endeavors to telling the story of American history through biography, which includes works on Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ben Franklin, and Ronald Reagan. With this Grant biography Brands looked to portray the Civil War era and nineteenth century history more broadly through the eyes of Grant. The Man Who Saved the Union, however, lacks analytical depth and doesn’t really tell us anything new about Grant. The source material is heavily skewed towards secondary sources and repackaging what prior biographers have said about the man. Overall the book is very similar in style to Jean Edward Smith’s 2002 biography of Grant but not as well researched. Readers who are new to Ulysses S. Grant could benefit from starting with The Man Who Saved the Union, but others won’t find anything new here.
Geoffrey C. Ward – A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States (2012): This book is actually a biography of Ferdinand Ward, the “Napoleon of Finance” of Gilded Age Wall Street and Grant’s business partner in the investment banking firm Grant & Ward. But the book is so well-written and engaging that I have to include it on this list. Geoffrey Ward–a partner with Ken Burns on their famous television documentaries and the Great-Grandson of Ferdinand Ward–includes a good analysis of the rise and fall of Grant & Ward and the Grant family’s response to the loss of their fortune. The book was a joy to read and I highly recommend it.
Chris Mackowski – Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): This little book is a real joy to read. Mackowski analyzes Grant’s fight against throat cancer and the race to finish his personal memoirs before his death in 1885. The overall argument is that Grant’s Memoirs aimed to cement his legacy and “secure the meaning of the Civil War.” Highly recommended.
William C. Davis – Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged (2015): Davis is a well-renowned Civil War historian who has written a legendary number of books and articles about the war. In this well-researched dual biography of Grant and Lee, Davis relies mostly on primary sources and does a nice job interpreting both men’s lives. The most ambitious aspect of the book is the “peace they forged” part, which focuses on the relationship between the two men during Reconstruction and their reaction to political events during that time. Davis argues that Grant and Lee were, for the most part, on the same page when it came to creating a political blueprint for bringing former Confederate states back into the Union. My friend and colleague Bob Pollock wrote a blog post last year suggesting that the two did not see eye-to-eye as much as Davis suggests, but he nevertheless recommends reading Crucible of Command. I also recommend it.
G.L. Corum – Ulysses Underground: The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad (2015): This book is well-researched but with an interpretation that is badly flawed. In the book description we are told that Grant held “a fierce commitment to slavery’s demise” bordering on abolitionism before the war that was born of his upbringing in the strongly abolitionist enclave of Southern Ohio, a central point on the Underground Railroad. The evidence for this claim, however, is supported not by anything in Grant’s own writings (he never stated anything against slavery in writing before the war) but by the contention that Grant’s surroundings in Ohio profoundly shaped his views towards slavery. The lack of reliable evidence to verify this claim undermines its validity. In fact, Grant’s moving to St. Louis in the 1850s to live on his in-laws slave plantation, his ownership of William Jones while in St. Louis, and an 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War all suggest something quite different. In that letter Grant stated that he “was never an abolitionest, [n]ot even what you would call anti slavery” before the Civil War, but that the contingencies of the war had changed his perspective. These inconvenient facts are glossed over in Ulysses Underground. Furthermore, her contention that previous Grant biographers have neglected to analyze Grant’s early childhood is undercut by the numerous biographies–most notably Lloyd Lewis’s Captain Sam Grant–that do just that. To be sure, Corum does a wonderful job of illuminating the history of Southern Ohio, and on that front she does an excellent job. But her efforts to incorporate an abolitionist-minded Grant into this narrative are in vain.
Edwina Campbell – Citizen of a Wider Commonwealth: Ulysses S. Grant’s Postpresidential Diplomacy (2016): Campbell, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, provides readers one of the first scholarly analyses of Grant’s two-and-a-half year world tour. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet but I’m very much looking forward to this one.
John F. Marszalek – The Best Writings of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): Marszalek, the current Executive Director of the U.S. Grant Association’s Presidential Library and an editor of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, compiles a sort of “greatest hits” of Grant’s letters throughout his lifetime. I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet but I anticipate that it’s a good, handy primer for those wanting to read Grant’s letters.
Frank Varney – General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (2013): I haven’t read this book yet, but the title offers some obvious clues about the interpretive focus of the book. Varney argues that Grant–both intentionally and unintentionally–includes a number of mistakes about the Civil War in his Personal Memoirs that unfairly inflate his own accomplishments and downplay General Rosecrans’s role in the war. This review by Jason Frawley in The Civil War Monitor offers a mixed assessment.
Ronald C. White – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Brooks Simpson‘s much-anticipated second volume of his Grant biography exploring Grant’s life from 1865-1885 is, I believe, on the path towards eventual publication, but at this point I’m not sure when that will actually happen.
Ron Chernow, yes, that Ron Chernow that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the hit Broadway show Hamilton, has intentions of writing a Grant biography.
Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University is working on a book about Grant’s presidency.
James Ramage of Northern Kentucky University is also working on a Grant biography. Ramage’s biography of Confederate guerilla John Singleton Mosby and the subsequent friendship of Mosby and Grant inspired Ramage to write a book on Grant and, according to a friend of his that I recently met, he hopes to analyze how Grant has been remembered by Americans since his death in 1885.
If I’ve missed any books along the way, please let me know.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
When I look at the Reconstruction Era–particularly the period from 1865 to 1870–I see a time of deep reflection about how and why the U.S. Constitution needed to be significantly changed in the wake of the Civil War. As historian David Blight argues, the Reconstruction Era was a “twelve-year referendum on the meaning of the Civil War,” a time in which remarkable changes in basic ideas of citizenship, political equality, freedom, and the very definition of what it means to successfully achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness transformed the United States. I also subscribe to Blight’s thesis that the Constitution before the Civil War was America’s “Old Testament” and that the Constitution since the war is our “New Testament.” Indeed, we today don’t live under the Constitution as it was written before the war, with legal protections for slavery, no clear definition of U.S. citizenship, and voting rights determined by the states largely on the basis of class, property, and skin color (and, of course, gender).
The 14th amendment (1868) is particularly noteworthy for its sweeping changes to America’s legal boundaries. The amendment defines citizenship as a birthright or through a naturalization process, puts a check of the power of states to deny the right of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and demands that all citizens be given the equal protection of the laws (no more laws like Missouri’s 1847 law banning blacks from learning how to read or write, whether they were free or enslaved). It also broadens the power of Congress by giving them the power to pass legislation to enforce this amendment. The equal protection clause continues to be a point of contention in legal practice, with the Library of Congress stating that the 14th amendment “is cited in more litigation than any other amendment,” from legislation regulating religious practices in schools to gay marriage and much else. Regardless, the 14th amendment more explicitly and specifically explains that achieving political equality among U.S. citizens is a goal of the federal government.
Without diving too much into contemporary politics, I sometimes wonder if the ideals of political equality stated in the 14th amendment are either taken for granted or openly scorned by some Americans today. For example, former Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 platforms were based partly on the idea of abolishing the 14th amendment, and columnist George Will, citing an inaccurate law review article, argued in 2010 that birthright citizenship can and should be abolished from the constitution. And what about all of the recent flighty rhetoric about “getting back to our constitutional roots,” “Make America Great Again,” or the popular impulse (at least on social media) to proclaim oneself a “constitutionalist?” Is this rhetoric calling for a return of American governance and liberty based on the pre-Civil War, “Old Testament” constitution? I would venture to guess that the answer differs based on who you’re talking to. But I can’t help but question what, exactly, this rhetoric purports to reclaim from American history. What are we trying to get back to?
Addendum: To be sure, the 14th amendment has its shortcomings and has sometimes been defined by the Supreme Court in a very narrow fashion. In Civil Rights Cases (1883) seven of the eight justices argued that the 14th amendment only applied to state actions and not the actions of individuals and private groups. In other words, it prevented racial discrimination by the state, but not racial discrimination by private individuals, business owners, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Additionally, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which argued that racial segregation in public facilities was legal, was justified on the basis of the 14th amendment, claiming that such segregation was legal provided that the facilities were “equal.” Moreover, the amendment did not ensure voting rights to blacks because there were fears among the Republican Party that Northern whites would reject the amendment (numerous Northern states had already rejected state referendums on the question after the Civil War), and it did not provide citizenship to Native American Indians throughout the country. It was also the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, much to the anger of Suffragists who promoted women’s rights and suffrage qualifications. Check out the National Constitution Center’s resources on the 14th amendment to learn more.
I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.
On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”
General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.
Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.
The National Park Service recently announced that it would be publishing an official handbook on the history of the Reconstruction era to be sold at Civil War and nineteenth century historic site gift shops within the agency. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book that I just finished reading, and yesterday I sat in on a one-hour webinar the agency hosted about the book and the NPS’s ongoing theme study to help designate a historic site dedicated to Reconstruction. No such sites currently exist within the agency.
I applaud all of these developments. It has been far past time for the Park Service to take Reconstruction history more seriously, and there are a number of crucial events that would make for an appropriate historic site worth preserving and interpreting. The recently-commemorated Memphis Massacre of 1866, for example, would be one such event worth commemorating in some way with an NPS site. Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur are in charge of the NPS Reconstruction Theme Study, and I have all the confidence in the world of their ability to lay out a blueprint for future NPS efforts. (I’d also add that there are plenty of Civil War-related sites that could be doing more right now to interpret Reconstruction in their educational programming, and this is something the entire agency should also be working on).
During the webinar, however, there was one element of the theme study that I found mildly concerning. For the time being the search for a potential site and the broader interpretive focus of the NPS’s educational programming on Reconstruction will be centered geographically on the former Confederate states and Washington, D.C. On the one hand I can understand this focus. The question of how to forge a political reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the country was paramount to establishing a stronger, consolidated United States in the future, and historians have traditionally emphasized the ways the South acted and was acted upon through the politics of the era. The political changes that occurred during Reconstruction include the establishment of three new Constitutional amendments, the expansion of federal power through government agencies like the Freedman’s Bureau and the Department of Justice (which was formed in response to growing Ku Klux Klan violence throughout the South), the expansion and protection of newly established civil rights for African Americans, and the process of transitioning white former Confederate soldiers and supporters into law-abiding U.S. citizens. To expand the NPS’s interpretive focus beyond the former Confederate states is probably too much at this point, and I understand that.
On the other hand, any holistic understanding of Reconstruction requires historians and the NPS to view the era as one of remarkable political, cultural, and economic transformation for the entire country, not just the South. The question of black voting rights was hotly contested and frequently rejected in statewide referendums throughout the North before the passage of the 15th amendment. Western settlement increased dramatically after the Civil War thanks the expansion of the country’s railroad infrastructure and the passage of the Homestead Act, which offered settlers publicly-held Western lands on the cheap. This westward expansion, however, directly led to some of the most violent clashes in American history between the U.S. Army and Indian Tribes all the way from the Dakotas to the Pacific Ocean as settlers encroached upon lands once thought to be protected for the Tribes through treaty agreements. The restructuring of citizenship and voting rights in the North and the push to impose a Northern “free labor” political vision for the West represent two additional goals of Reconstruction that furthered the effort to establish a stronger political Union within the entire country. We might also look to border Union states like Missouri and Kentucky–where the federal government’s Reconstruction policies did not apply but where some of the most vehement complaints against policy initiatives and government overreach emerged–as places where a stronger historical analysis of the period are sorely needed. Reconstruction history is not just about the South.
Again, I understand the approach of the NPS theme study and the organizers’ caution to make the study too geographically broad. I do hope, however, that future academic and public historians will use the 150th anniversary of the Reconstruction Era and beyond to expand our historical inquiries to include events that occurred in the North, West, and Midwest. Let’s get to work!