Polemics & Exchanges

On Reconstructing Reconstruction

After describing the account of Reconstruction offered in an episode of PBS’s The American Experience (Breaking Glass, July), Philip Jenkins concludes that, “Were we to sit down amicably with the producers of American Experience, or the academic experts they consulted, I am confident we would not encounter a gaggle of hard-faced Stalinists.”  His confidence is touching but, to some degree, misplaced.

The leading text on Reconstruction these days is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.  In that 20-year-old tome, Foner laid out the reigning view of Reconstruction—that its chief shortcomings were that too little land was redistributed, too few white Southerners were disenfranchised for too short a time, too many of the historic rights of Englishmen were restored in the South at its conclusion, and the U.S. Army was removed from the South too soon—at excruciating length.

I well recall my first encounter with Foner’s text.  I was a first-semester graduate student at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1992, and the book was required reading for one of my classes and one of two texts between which students might choose in another.  (The alternative to Foner was James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which...

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