Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era

By Herman Belz | Go to book overview

7
The New Orthodoxy in Reconstruction Historiography

IN THE 1960s a survey of Reconstruction historiography concluded that while the interpretation of the Dunning school had been pretty well refuted, no new synthesis had emerged to take its place.* Clearly, this is no longer the case. In recent years studies have begun to appear which signify the crystallization of a view of Reconstruction that will probably remain standard for some time to come. Three new books by Thomas H. O'Connor, Robert Cruden, and Allen W. Trelease give evidence of this synthesis.1 Directed toward the student and general reader, they confirm that the battle in which the revisionists engaged so long is over. They also suggest, however, that a new orthodoxy is forming which itself is open to question. This new orthodoxy does not go so far as to say, as a new Civil War revisionism would have it, that the new birth of freedom of which Lincoln spoke never occurred, that the Civil War dead died in vain. No one who studies Reconstruction can quite come to that conclusion. Nevertheless, there is a tendency in recent revisionism to conclude not only that Reconstruction failed, but that it was fatally flawed from the very outset because it did not revolutionize land- holding in the South. As the conservative southern view no longer finds serious expression, a new line of conflict appears to be emerging between a liberal political interpretation which argues that substantial though short-lived gains were made by blacks during Reconstruction, and a more radical economic interpretation which holds that very little of significance was accomplished, or at least very little relative to what was possible.

____________________
*
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Reviews in American History ( March 1973), 106-13.
1
Thomas H. O'Connor, The Disunited States: The Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction ( New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction ( Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969); Allen W. Trelease, Reconstruction: The Great Experiment ( New York: Harper & Row, 1971).

-162-

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