The Teaching of Reconstruction and “What if Lincoln Had Lived?”

I know it has been awhile since I’ve posted anything, but I’ve simply been buried in teaching, grading papers, and writing a proposal for another book project. At any rate, I’m back from the Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta, and I thought I’d post a few ruminations on the meeting, the teaching of Reconstruction, and if Lincoln being able to serve out his second term in its entirety would have changed what happened in the South after the war.

One of the more interesting papers (by no means the only one) I heard was from Cynthia Nicoletti at the University of Virginia, on “The Disputed Constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation.” According to Nicoletti (and I am relying exclusively on some hurriedly written notes), Lincoln absolutely did not want the Proclamation litigated, and even went so far as to make people promise that when they took an oath of loyalty to the Union they would not do so. Dr. Nicoletti’s paper was, as many are at the Southern, necessarily short, but intriguing, and I am looking forward to her forthcoming book on secession. For me, her work reminded me of just how precarious the Proclamation’s legality was, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that it would hold up in a court of law; hence then need, later, for the 13th Amendment.

Another panel focused on the New York Times “Disunion” blog (there was an interesting piece yesterday, for instance, on Sherman’s March through Georgia). Kate Masur, of Northwestern University, expressed concern that the blog was shutting down in April, 2015, as by doing so it ignores entirely the extraordinarily important period of Reconstruction that followed formal military hostilities (the violence continued, but in a different form). This got me thinking about how we teach – or fail to teach – Reconstruction in our U.S. History surveys.

Generally speaking, my experience has been that those teaching the first half of the survey tend to tack on a day or two, if that, investigating Reconstruction. Or, in the second half of the survey, professors may begin with a cursory examination of the period (if they touch on it at all) before they move on to the enormous amount of material they have to cover from 1877 onward. Consequently, I think, Reconstruction is not taught as thoroughly as the subject demands, to the great detriment of our students. Thus they know little of the achievements and failures of the era, and are less able to appreciate the great tragedy of the country’s retreat from the egalitarian promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. On this point, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Masur that one cannot teach the Civil War without some critical examination of what followed. For myself, I try, usually with success, to spend an entire week on Reconstruction, attempting to bring the story down to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but especially lately as I’ve been reading Mark Wahlgren Summers’ new book, out with UNC Press, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction. This is an extraordinarily interesting volume, deftly and wittily written, which argues the following:

“If we make the mistake of defining Reconstruction’s exclusive end as remaking the South on the basis of equal rights and democracy in a truer sense of the word than its inhabitants had ever known, then we can’t help calling Reconstruction at best a failure – though that failure seemed less clear, unambiguous, and complete in 1877 than  in retrospect. But if we see Reconstruction’s purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be fulfilled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of a permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to state sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success (page 4).”

I think Summers maintains this thesis pretty well, without ignoring at all the homicidal violence African Americans suffered at the hand of whites, or the corruption of the period (what he called in another book The Era of Good Stealings!). I think that to ignore, or give short shrift, to this era of American history, is to do a grave disservice to our students and their understanding of the past. On this point, for example, Reconstruction displayed an instance – as I put it in Loathing Lincoln – where the federal government broadened rather than diminished freedom (emphasis mine). “Local control” (or “limited government”) is not always a good thing. Rather, it sometimes is oppressive, and I think we would have a better politics if we all understood this basic fact.

But this also points to another question, one that I frequently get when I talk to audiences about my book: what would have happened during Reconstruction had Lincoln lived? I waffle back and forth on this, but my guess is that things would not have been all that different. My friend Frank Wetta and I talked about this over Bloody Mary’s in Atlanta, and we agreed that although Lincoln would never have broken with the Republicans as Andrew Johnson did, we also agreed that he would have been out of office by 1869 and by then Reconstruction in certain crucial respects was more or less over. As Summers puts it, “Reconstruction had succeeded; yet 1868 may also be seen as the critical year in which its eventual failure became clear” (page 152). What would have happened if Lincoln had lived is a fascinating if unanswerable question, and one worth having our students ponder. But we can’t do that if we don’t examine the era in any detail, now can we?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *