Pulitzer-Winning Historian to Discuss Reconstruction Period

By Steelhammer, Rick | Charleston Gazette Mail, October 17, 2015 | Go to article overview

Pulitzer-Winning Historian to Discuss Reconstruction Period


Steelhammer, Rick, Charleston Gazette Mail


Reconstruction, the 12-year period that followed the end of the Civil War, remains a largely misunderstood piece of American history 150 years later. "The Reconstruction period raised fundamental questions about the American conscience that we're still debating," said Eric Foner, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. "Questions about race, American citizenship, states' rights and the appropriate response to terrorism were debated then and are still being debated."

Foner, who will deliver the West Virginia Humanities Council's annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities on Thursday, views Reconstruction as a "remarkable move toward equality, particularly during its early years."

Scholars now generally view the era in a much more positive light than their counterparts did at the start of the 20th century. Then, Reconstruction was seen by many as a failed social engineering experiment in which leaders from Lincoln's Republican Party passed laws aimed at punishing defeated Confederates, and sent northern political operatives known as carpetbaggers south to act in concert with freed African Americans and "scalawags" - like-minded southern whites - to form inept and corrupt state and county governments in the former Confederacy.

In the first few years after the Civil War, "there was a consensus in the North that the rights of freed slaves had to be protected, Foner said in a telephone interview. Besides the 14th Amendment (which gave citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves) and the 15th Amendment (which gave black men the right to vote), elected officials in both the North and South "overturned dozens of discrimination laws that were on the books and tried to commit to creating a genuine democracy during the opening years of Reconstruction, he said.

Large numbers of black citizens voted for the first time and held public offices at every level of government. With their white Republican allies, they formed the first public school systems in the South and overturned laws barring black Americans from public transportation or accommodations.

But Lincoln's successor in the White House, Andrew Johnson, "completely lacked the elements of greatness Lincoln had, Foner said. "During a crisis, he couldn't quite live up to the occasion. …

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