A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction

A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction

A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction

A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction


Reconstruction policy after the Civil War, notes Mark Wahlgren Summers, was shaped not simply by politics, principles, and prejudices. Also at work were fears--often unreasonable fears of renewed civil war and a widespread sense that four years of war had thrown the normal constitutional process so dangerously out of kilter that the republic itself remained in peril.

To understand Reconstruction, Summers contends, one must understand that the purpose of the North's war was--first and foremost--to save the Union with its republican institutions intact. During Reconstruction there were always fears in the mix--that the Civil War had settled nothing, that the Union was still in peril, and that its enemies and the enemies of republican government were more resilient and cunning than normal mortals. Many factors shaped the reintegration of the former Confederate states and the North's commitment to Reconstruction, Summers agrees, but the fears of war reigniting, plots against liberty, and a president prepared to father a coup d' tat ranked higher among them than historians have recognized.

Both a dramatic narrative of the events of Reconstruction and a groundbreaking new look at what drove these events, A Dangerous Stir is also a valuable look at the role of fear in the politics of the time--and in politics in general.


The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth
to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth
The form of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or, in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
act 5, scene 1, lines 12–22

Early in the fall of 1866, an alarming event that would have put the republic itself in deadly peril did not happen. On October 11, a Washington reporter for the Philadelphia Public Ledger revealed a series of questions that President Andrew Johnson had posed to his attorney general. In effect, they came down to two: Was a Congress that lacked most of its southern membership legal? And did the president have a duty to seat a Congress that did pass constitutional muster?

The inference, easily drawn, was that the president was readying the legal cover for a coup d’état. Assuming that the Democrats picked up enough seats in the House that November to make a legal majority when combined with the excluded southern lawmakers, they might declare themselves the legal Congress. Republican congressmen would meet separately, claiming themselves as the only legitimate legislative branch. But Johnson would have the last word. Backed by the attorney general’s opinion, he would send in the army to disperse the Republicans. Perhaps he would declare the Democratic Congress the one true body. Or perhaps he would declare that neither Congress had a better claim and that, till a new Congress met on March 4, 1867, with all the states represented, he and he alone was the government. Either way, a year’s worth of Reconstruction legislation would be torn to tatters—and very likely the republic with it. Southerners, many splashed with treason’s taint, would rule or . . .

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