A sterling account of Reconstruction, that misunderstood period of revolution and reaction following the Civil War.
Half the length and without the footnotes of Foner’s Bancroft Prize–winning Reconstruction (1988), this account introduces new scholarship and features evocative period art, including posters, cartoons and photographs. For nearly a century, historians characterized Reconstruction as a “tragic era” of GOP misrule and corruption by ignorant freedmen, Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. Foner (History/Columbia Univ.) sees these as myths perpetrated by Southern merchants, planters and entrepreneurs out to disenfranchise former slaves. (If the North had been as vindictive after the Civil War as was claimed, Foner points out, then Confederate leaders would have been put on trial, with planters exiled en masse.) With Abraham Lincoln assassinated and the Radical Republicans’ program of land redistribution derailed, hopes for economic progress for freedmen were dealt crushing blows. Nevertheless, Foner shows, at the height of Reconstruction in the early 1870s, an unprecedented experiment—biracial democracy—had produced for the first time in the South tax-supported school systems and laws that protected laborers and outlawed discrimination. But labor unrest made Northerners more sympathetic to white Southerners’ objections to Reconstruction, and the Republicans grew increasingly reluctant to use federal troops to protect African-Americans from what Foner calls “domestic terrorism” perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and other groups. Six trenchant “visual essays” by Joshua Brown discuss how visual imagery often negatively influenced white attitudes toward African-Americans.
A succinct, discerning study of the nation’s first aborted attempt at racial equality.