Title: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Author: Eric Foner
Year: 1988
Categories: Synthesis, Political History, Race, The South
Place: The American South
Time Period: 1863-1877

Argument Synopsis
Eric Foner offers a synthesis of the Reconstruction Era of American history, from the Emancipation Proclamation to Redemption with the Compromise of 1877. Foner works in a lengthy historiographic tradition. Around the turn of the century, the William Dunning school of Traditionalists emphasized the tragedy of Reconstruction that crushed white southerners beneath greedy northerners and blacks that were unfit for self-rule. This interpretation enjoyed a lengthy shelf-life until the Revisionists of the 1940s-1960s recast Reconstruction in a much more positive light, championing the progressive nature of reformers. Finally, Post-Revisionists in the 1970s and 1980s argued that Reconstruction was, in fact, largely limited and conservative in nature and failed to enact real change for black people. Foner dismisses the Dunning school as ludicrous, and takes a middle position between the Revisionists and Post-Revisionists. Although it failed to live up to the ideals that it began with, it did enact real and radical change on Southern society - especially the unprecedented move of enfranchising millions of black men so quickly and establishing parts of the political and social framework (such as education) that they would rely on for decades.

Foner re-centers the narrative of Reconstruction to be told largely from the perspective of black Southerners, arguing that they were the key players during the era and wielded real influence. Additionally, he argues for a non-linear narrative, one that progressed in fits and starts and was quite different in different areas of the South. Reconstruction was not a simple declension story, but one that occurred unevenly. Another central theme is the failure and limitations of free labor ideology, which was championed during the Civil War and even afterwards, but was often either ignored when faced with on-the-ground political action to empower blacks or co-opted by racists to lobby for less federal government intervention. As part of this, he outlines the rise of northern liberal ideology during the early 1870s that argued against preferential government involvement and increasingly saw Reconstruction as a costly distraction from "real" economic issues. On that note, Foner argues that one of the period's hallmarks was the rise of an empowered, activist nation-state dedicated to protecting the rights of its citizens - one that tragically also inspired a fierce counter-movement towards local autonomy and less government involvement. 

Foner points to several key turning points. Radical Reconstruction peaked during 1866-1868, as blacks saw the most gains under new radical Republican majorities (ex. passage of Civil Rights Act, 14th Amendment, impeachment of Andrew Johnson, meteoric ascent of the Union League in the South). 1868-1871 witnessed widespread political terrorism and violence under the Ku Klux Klan (finally tempered by the passage of the Enforcement Acts). The election of 1868 resulted in an overwhelming victory for Ulysses Grant, after which Republican efforts to expand the white vote in the South backfired while Democrats turned away from fusion politics in order to consolidate their white voting base. The Panic of 1873 was a major turning point, as voters overhauled Congress and restored a Democratic majority in 1874. Grant's second administration was marred by court decisions that restricted black rights along with a Democratic consolidation in the South that emphasized white supremacy and lower taxes. Two years later, the 1876 election ended with the Corrupt Bargain of 1877 that gave Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency, but at the cost of withdrawing federal troops from Southern states and effectively ending Reconstruction and "redeeming" the South.

Key Themes and Concepts
- Re-centering narrative to be from the perspective of blacks, arguing that they were the key players with significant influence
- Contradictions and limitations of free labor ideology
- Newly empowered, activist nation-state who prioritized equal rights
- Non-linear reshaping of Southern society (fits and starts)

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U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries by Cameron Blevins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.