One way to look at Brooks Simpson’s new volume on Reconstruction in the Library of America series is it is a massive collection of diverse documents from a century and a half ago. Another is seeing it as a systematically organized guide to the thoughts of Americans coping with revolutionary change that was beyond the imaginations of most just a decade earlier. The way you approach this volume will determine what you get out of it. I have read more than fifty books about the Reconstruction Era in just the last few years and this collection had a lot to teach me.
Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality, as the name implies, is not a book about all aspects of the post-war world. There is no mention of economic panics, immigration, or the rise of the labor movement. Much that happened in the decade after the Civil War is nowhere in these pages. What Professor Simpson, the leading scholarly biographer of Ulysses Grant, offers is a trail through America’s racial heart of darkness and the attempt to alter its gloomy path.
To use the book properly you have to understand its organization and aggressively engage all that it offers. If you are the sort of reader who skips the introductions in document collections, Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality will be a frustrating batch of speeches, letters, and newspaper articles. If you take the time to explore the book, you will find that Simpson has provided you with a key for examining the progress and declension of racial equality during Reconstruction.
The book opens with a seven page introduction to the Reconstruction Era. It then offers 660 pages of primary source documents organized into four main sections, each with its own four or five page introduction. The first section is Presidential Reconstruction, the second is Congressional Reconstruction. Next is Reconstruction during President Grant’s first term followed by The End of Reconstruction. There is also a Coda, in which some Reconstruction players reflect with hindsight on the period after its end.
The voices in the book include a few of the usual suspects. Andrew Johnson and Frederick Douglass serve as interlocutors several times in the first part of the book, debating the very future of African Americans in the United States. Johnson, speaking to a regiment of black troops being discharged from the army, told them not to expect laws making blacks the equal of whites. Johnson said “the idea of having a law passed in the morning that will make a white man a black man before night, and a black man a white man before day, is absurd.” This was at a time when even black Union army veterans were barred from voting. Douglass, on the other hand, knew that while laws could not force a racist white society to see blacks as equal but they could protect him if he went to dine in a previously all-white restaurant, or sent his children to school. Laws, Douglass knew, could also give the black man the ultimate weapon of non-violent self-defense, the right to vote.
There are other voices that help us understand the perspective of other actors in the Reconstruction drama. From the summer of 1865, Frank Blair warns Johnson to resist “the policy of grafting the black race on the white race in the administration of the Government founded by the latter for its own behoof, involving in its result that of making it a hybrid Government to suit a motley hybrid race. One has to read Blair’s thoughts on the disastrous impact of racial equality on the body politic to understand the deeply racist mindset of many Americans. Blair writes:
"Negro suffrage shouts out on one side with a political aspect and on the other we have the social aspect to emerge in the shape of amalgamation. What can come of this adulteration of our Anglo-Saxon race and Anglo-Saxon Government by Africanization, but the degradation of the free spirit & lofty aspirations which our race inherited from their ancestry and brought to this continent; and turn that whole portion of it engaged as manual Operatives into that class of mongrels which cannot but spring from the unnatural blending of the blacks & whites in one common class of laborers and giving to both an assimilation through that color, which has unhappily marked servitude during all generations from the days of Ham."
When one recalls that Blair was a Jacksonian Democrat who had supported the Union in the war, the mountain Douglass would have to move becomes clearly visible.
The voices heard in these pages are not just those of the well-known. A group of “Colored Men of North Carolina” wrote to Johnson;
"In many respects we are poor and greatly despised by our fellow men; but we are rich in the possession of the liberty brought us and our wives and our little ones by your noble predecessor, secured to us by the armies of the United States and promised to be permanent by that victorious flag which now flies in triumph in every State of the Union. We accept this great boon of freedom with truly thankful hearts… We want the privilege of voting. It seems to us that men who are willing on the field of danger to carry the muskets of republics, in the days of peace ought to be permitted to carry its ballots; and certainly we cannot understand the justice of denying the elective franchise to men who have been fighting for the country, while it is freely given to men who have just returned from four years fighting against it."
Over the next six hundred pages you will hear from black men and women, Freedmens’ Bureau officials, Democratic and Republican politicians on all aspects of changing racial roles, and the constant pushback that greeted change with violence. The story of a black man murdered for sleeping with a white prostitute is told by a black woman whose home was invaded by the white avengers and her husband tortured to gain information about the target of the armed night riders.
Albion Tourgee was a Northerner who served as a Reconstruction official. He wrote to a friend in 1870:
"It is my mournful duty to inform you that our friend John W. Stephens, State Senator from Caswell, is dead. He was foully murdered by the Ku-Klux in the Grand Jury room of the Court House on Saturday or Saturday night last. murder have not yet fully come to light there. So far as I can learn, I judge these to have been the circumstances: He was one of the Justices of the Peace in that township, and was accustomed to hold court in that room on Saturdays. It is evident that he was set upon by someone while holding this court, or immediately after its close, and disabled by a sudden attack, otherwise there would have been a very sharp resistance, as he was a man, and always went armed to the teeth. He was stabbed five or six times, and then hanged on a hook in the Grand Jury room, where he was found on Sunday morning. Another brave, honest Republican citizen has met his fate at the hands of these fiends."
In the final depressing pages of the book, the knights errant of white supremacy are winning the decisive victories that restored blacks to a pre-Civil Rights regime of subservience and marginalization. The feet of clay of some Northern Republicans melted away as white terror took control of many parts of the South. There is no happy ending here, unless it is written in the court decisions of the 1950s and 1960s that relied on the civil rights laws written in blood a century earlier.
The connections among the documents come through in the copious notes so ably prepared by Doctor Simpson. The back of the book provided endnotes explaining the context of each document and identifying the people referred to in it.
I made a little mistake in ordering this book. Somehow I managed to buy both the Kindle and the hardcover versions of the book. While the hardcover is the usual beautiful Library of America volume, the Kindle makes looking at the endnotes easy and instinctual. Just click on a hyperlink and you get an explanation of the debate over the 15th Amendment. Believe me, you need to use the endnotes to appreciate the documents, whether you click or turn the pages.
Simpson also provides you with a nine page chronology of Reconstruction. There is also a set of capsule biographies of all the major figures in the book. These are concise one-paragraph life stories. Read them.
This book may not be the best first book for someone exploring Reconstruction, but it is a great second book. In my case it was a terrific 51st book on the Reconstruction Era.
- Hardcover: 675 pages
- Publisher: Library of America; 1 edition (15 February 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1598535552
- ISBN-13: 978-1598535556
- Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 3.3 x 20.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 680 g
- Customer Reviews: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 404,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)