A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner – A Review

A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner is an important addition to documented American history.  The American Civil War  and its aftermath is a critical period in the nation’s history and one that profoundly influenced subsequent socio-political developments.  The Civil War would have its most important effect on the lives of millions of African American slaves, as a large proportion of them would be decreed ‘free’ toward the end of the war.  Having achieved this concession from their white masters, African Americans would rejoice their newly won liberties and rights in the years following the war – also referred by historians as the period of Reconstruction.  Eric Foner’s book offers an in-depth analysis and commentary on this crucial period in American history.  Since there are already numerous books dealing with the Reconstruction era, the necessity for yet another authorial perspective and interpretation is to be questioned.  But Foner answers such questions satisfactorily in the book, making it a valuable (if not the definitive) resources on the subject for students of history, culture and political science.

Throughout the book Foner maintains an unequivocal stance on the failure of the Reconstruction project.  The acceding of eleven defeated Southern states into the Union was going to be a highly challenging process, given the cultural and political dissimilarities between the two formerly warring factions.  Indeed, the inviability of this proposition had what ultimately led to the abandonment of Reconstruction efforts; and much of the bipartisanship seen in American politics today is a testament to this deep fissure in the country’s socio-political fabric.  Author Eric Foner understands well the importance of connecting the past to the present and throughout the book the reader is able to see the contemporary relevance of events of a bygone era. Immediately after the Civil War an atmosphere of euphoria prevailed, when the intellectuals and common people alike dreamt of a radically new American society.  But as the initial excitement of the Reconstruction era faded out, people came to the realization that old, entrenched institutions would not dismantle readily.  In many ways the Civil Rights movement that occurred a century later was precipitated by the failure of the Reconstruction project.  And Foner implies that the progress of American society had been held back for a hundred years, during which many of the injustices prevalent prior to the Civil War had continued unabated, albeit in less oppressive forms.

Where Foner also succeeds is in capturing the intricate political and economic complexities of the Reconstruction era.  There is a tendency among contemporary scholars to give simplistic explanations for the overall failure of the project.  But Foner does not fall into this mode as he gives detailed explanations (including making references to the dominant economic policy paradigms of the time).  That the emancipation of black Americans was a bottom-up process rather than vice-versa is emphasized by the author.  While often the key role played by white political leaders and a few black radical thinkers are mentioned, the cumulative political force of ordinary and obscure black slaves is usually discounted.  But Foner gives emphasis to the latter and documents at length the small but vital contributions made by thousands of blacks during the Civil War.  In essence, Foner succeeds in illustrating how the thrust toward emancipation was a grass-roots movement.  At places like this, Foner’s style and tone of argument is similar to that of Howard Zinn – another great contemporary historian.  But Foner doesn’t employ subaltern narrative perspectives to the extent Zinn does.  The perusal of anecdotal first-hand accounts of those who participated and survived the war is another attractive aspect of the book, but conservative historians wouldn’t approve of this technique.  But in the book in question, it works very well and infuses an element of authenticity to historical accounts.

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