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. He was deeply racist and became an obstructionist, unwilling to see any rights extended to former slaves. Congress tried to remove him from office, and he became completely isolated from Northern public opinion.”
Starting in about 1870, “a violent terrorist uprising against progress in the South was led by the Ku Klux Klan and others, and a retreat from progress began in the North,” after political leaders there began to realize that “it would take more federal power and more commitment than was evident at first to fully implement Reconstruction,” Foner said.
“Even though the 14th and 15th amendments were on the books, they began to be ignored or violated in the South, with the acquiescence of the North. The Southern states began to take voting rights away from black men, and Jim Crow laws were passed. The Supreme Court played a major role in upholding the actions of the Jim Crow South. The whole country, for a time, retreated.”
That said, “We wouldn’t have the country we live in today without Reconstruction,” Foner said. “It laid the groundwork for the civil rights revolution.”
Foner’s writing has focused on the intersections of political, intellectual and social history, and the history of America’s race relations. His best-known books include “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1867,” and “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” which received the Pulitzer Prize for history. His latest book, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad,” was published earlier this year.
Foner has taught at Oxford University, Cambridge University and Moscow State University and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs, including “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “Bill Moyers’ Journal,” “Fresh Air” and “All Things Considered.”
His lecture in Charleston, titled “Civil War to Civil Rights: The Politics of History,” will start at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium. Afterward, Foner will sign copies of his books, which will be available for purchase.
The event, which is free and open to the public, also serves as a lead-in to the West Virginia Book Festival on Friday and Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.