Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Mission Impossible: Reconstruction Policy Reconsidered

Academic journal article The Journal of the Civil War Era

Mission Impossible: Reconstruction Policy Reconsidered

Article excerpt

A central theme of Reconstruction historiography is the consideration of Reconstruction policy as debated, adopted, and implemented at the federal level. Inherent in that exercise is the contemplation of whether policymakers, working within the limits of what was possible politically, could have pursued a different course that would have met the twin objectives of sectional reconciliation and the promotion of a new birth of freedom and opportunity for African Americans liberated during the course of the American Civil War. To do that, scholars have to wrestle with counterfactual scenarios, an exercise with which not all of them are comfortable. Yet historians are also ill at ease with the alternative conclusion that, given the circumstances, the end result was not only likely but also inevitable. Thus speculation about alternatives goes hand-in-hand with a critique of what happened, for how can one offer criticism of what was done unless one outlines an alternative that would have improved upon the historical result?

A simple glance at Reconstruction historiography reveals that historians have always evaluated Reconstruction policy and policymakers according to what was possible, what was preferable, and what actually happened--at least according to the scholar in question. By now that tale has been told so often that one risks boring the reader in the retelling of the familiar trinity of Dunningites, revisionists, and post-revisionists, an exercise that blurs differences within each grouping to sharpen the contrast between them. To practitioners of the Dunning school, who prized sectional reconciliation, policies founded on the federal protection of black rights were doomed because they were built upon the shaky foundation of black capability and equality. Reconstruction was a misguided experiment that imperiled sectional reconciliation among American whites by engaging in irresponsible social engineering to elevate incapable former slaves to an ill-fated equal inclusion in the body politic. Republican efforts in the 1860s to create state regimes where blacks voted and held office were exercises in futility and never should have been undertaken.

Revisionists, who embraced the goal of black equality and opportunity, passionately disagreed. They deplored the failure of Reconstruction policy to achieve those laudable ends: they were far less concerned about sectional reconciliation. While few revisionist scholars questioned the objective of restoring civil governments, some believed it would have been far better for Congress to have confiscated planter land and redistributed it among the freedpeople to provide them with the economic foundations of freedom and opportunity. To such scholars, Reconstruction was an opportunity lost. And then there are the post-revisionists, a term very much associated with understandings of Reconstruction politics and policy. Post-revisionists tend to stress the inherent conservative tendencies in policymakers and political institutions and express skepticism that the goals of Reconstruction embraced by the revisionists were likely to be achieved under the circumstances. Nevertheless, as their name implies, post-revisionists are rarely understood apart from the revisionists they evaluate, who in turn continue to war against the pernicious impact of the Dunning school on public understandings of Reconstruction.

Such a thumbnail description risks distorting the various ways scholars have addressed Reconstruction policy both as it was and as it might have been, rendering the whole exercise problematic. After all, one of the unfortunate consequences of any exercise in historiography is that it leads some scholars to forego reading the works of the people under discussion in favor of a brief characterization of their work. This is especially true when it comes to Reconstruction, for any exploration of Reconstruction history almost inevitably includes a treatment of Reconstruction historiography and memory, with various scholars announcing their intention to overturn long-held assumptions about the period that have shown an amazing durability in the minds of many Americans. …

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