This was not an easy book to get through. Complicated, dense and full of tiny print, I felt my eyes glazing over at least once every chapter. And let’s be clear-I like hard books. I like history. I like nonfiction. I’m used to people coming over to me while I’m reading my book and asking me what college class it’s for (as a side note, WHY ARE YOU INTERRUPTING ME WHILE I’M READING?!). But Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 was really tough to finish. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book to people. Which is too bad, because this book is a stunning account about an ignored and ugly part of this nation’s history.
With the capture of Richmond and Lee’s surrender, the Confederacy was no more. Reconstruction was the beginning of a new era, one which white progressives and African Americans hoped would result in a more racially egalitarian society. Spurred by hope, slaves during the war fled to the North (I will never get tired of the white landowners’ shock at their defection. After all, they were so nice to their slaves). Once they were freed, they refused to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, insisted on being called Mr. or Mrs. instead of boy or girl, and started building churches and schools to educate their children.
Of course, white Southerners had a problem with this. After generations of them were taught that black people were ignorant, that black men were rapists, that their slaves weren’t actually people, they must have fumed to watch them turn out in droves to vote. It’s no surprise that the KKK started popping up.
There’s a maliciously misleading historical perspective that the rise of the KKK and Jim Crowe laws were the result of Northern aggression during Reconstruction. The thinking is the North wanted to punish the South for seceding, so they punished them economically, and forced them to interact with their ignorant former slaves, too stupid to be free. Another White Man’s Burden.
It was a time marred by political missteps. Freed slaves insisted they didn’t want to work on plantations anymore. They wanted land of their own. They were more self-sufficient than these paternalistic white politicians gave them credit for. Instead, the Freedmen’s Bureau ordered them to sign labor contacts with their former masters or with new landowners, who obviously didn’t have their best interests at heart. African Americans organized strikes, which resulted in landowners finding new ways to force workers in the fields. And the North’s concept of “letting black people be free” involved a hands off approach that caused a lot of deaths. So basically, Reconstruction was successful enough to piss off racists, but not enough to protect freed slaves from them.
This is a great work of history. I can’t think of another perspective of Reconstruction that even comes close. I wish that Foner were a little more readable but the book still blew my mind. If you’re willing to truly commit to a book, Reconstruction is well worth the effort.