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The historian Eric Foner has presented the Reconstruction as a failed opportunity to achieve emancipation and equality for black Americans. Here, Simpson (History/Arizona State Univ., Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, not reviewed) persuasively argues that, given their circumstances, the four Reconstruction presidents generally did as well as they could. The Reconstruction has always been controversial. For decades, scholars believed that the postwar policies of the Republicans were unduly vindictive and punitive. Yet some in recent years have charged that Congress was pusillanimous, half-hearted, and ineffectual in ensuring the equality of the South’s ex-slaves. Such judgments, Simpson observes, fallaciously attribute the perspectives of the present to the past, “as if critics are seeking some sort of validation for their own views on race.” He shows that, despite attitudes afloat that would be considered racist today, the Reconstruction presidents (with the exception of Johnson) were generally sincere in assisting African-Americans in overcoming the legacy of slavery, but were constrained by the 19th-century understanding of the presidency as an office of limited powers. Lincoln’s priorities were winning the Civil War and preserving the Union; though he truly hated slavery, his emancipation policy was intended as a means to another end. Johnson, who shared white Southern antagonism toward African-Americans, sought a return to Jacksonian democracy of the past, but became bogged down in internecine disputes with Congress. Ulysses Grant, the author contends, was a pragmatist who balanced competing goals of restoring harmony to the former Confederate states and realizing black citizenship, yet was driven by circumstances beyond his control. Though sharing the goals of Reconstruction, Rutherford Hayes, in a final bow to political necessity, withdrew federal troops from the South, unwittingly ensuring decades of second-class citizenship for African-Americans. A powerful analysis of a darkly formative period in American history. (History Book Club selection)

Pub Date: July 28th, 1998
ISBN: 0-7006-0896-6
Page count: 296pp
Publisher: Univ. Press of Kansas
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1998


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