Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies

Luke E. Harlow

Historians of Reconstruction are currently at a crossroads. Reconstruction remains one of the most controversial—and least understood—aspects of American history, and that controversy began in the era of the Civil War itself. The genealogy of historiographic debate is familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the field: from the early competing interpretations of participant historians; to the white supremacist and anti-democratic arguments of the Dunning school and the challenge from W. E. B. Du Bois to that view; to the 1960s advent of “revisionism” followed by “post-revisionism”—both of which rejected the Dunning school but were apparently divided on the degree to which they emphasized the hopeful or dour elements of the period’s history. For all their differences of interpretation, the historiography shared many assumptions. Chief among them was that Reconstruction, if national in scope, turned on two binaries: the divide between North and South emerging from the Confederate War of Rebellion and the divide between black and white Americans emerging from the enslaved experience. Furthermore, although there was always some quibbling over the specifics of the chronology, the periodization remained relatively widely understood. Reconstruction began in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or 1865 with the end of the war. It ended in 1877, with the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from the former Confederacy.[1]

The definitive statement punctuating more than a century of historiographic debate on Reconstruction appeared in 1988: Eric Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. It is a truism to say that Foner has dominated the field of post–Civil War studies. Foner’s narrative hinged on his analysis of two key categories: the meaning of freedom and the ideology of free labor. Although some topics remained unexplored, weaving these concepts together into one volume reflected both the key concerns of his historical actors as well as those of all historians who had interpreted Reconstruction to date. Reconstruction’s evidentiary and argumentative force thus gave—and continues to give—it incredible staying power. So effective was Foner’s synthesis of revisionist historiography, so comprehensive his summary of American political history from 1863 to 1877, so complete his demonstration of African American actors as central to the Reconstruction narrative that his interpretive judgments have become normative and default positions in college textbooks and classrooms. Reconstruction furthermore offers a useful—and useable—past to readers: its “unfinished revolution” provides a teleological framework for understanding the civil rights advances that would come a century later and a hopeful way of thinking about the potential of the American state in relation to progressive causes.

Even at the time it appeared in print, historians wondered where the field could move. Anticipating the significant influence Foner’s Reconstruction would come to hold, Michael Perman famously asked in his 1989 review, “What is left to be done?” With such a “finished” statement about the “unfinished revolution,” what else could be said? Historians have come to understand the prescience of Perman’s question. As the essays in this forum show at length, there has been a profusion of Reconstruction scholarship since 1988—and even some substantial challenges to Foner. But no synthetic overview has come to displace Reconstruction.[2]

Nearly thirty years later, this forum provides a number of helpful answers to Perman’s question. Nine leading scholars were asked to assess the state of the field of Reconstruction studies on significant topics—some of them as old as the field itself, some of them having emerged since Foner—African Americans, labor and capitalism, law, religion, politics, the South, the state, the West, and women. As standalone essays, they reflect some of the much-lamented atomization of the profession. But together, they also point toward several common themes that force historians to reconsider a number of common assumptions or think in new ways altogether.

Collectively, these essays call for an expansion of the boundaries of the field of Reconstruction studies and for this expansion in four ways, all of which are growing areas of inquiry in the field: wider geography, broader chronology, deepened interdisciplinarity, and fuller engagement with the general public. The first three are driven by the kinds of questions professional historians ask, and they disrupt any classic notion of the Reconstruction “era.” But the fourth, public engagement, has the potential to push back at the historical community and raises real dilemmas for historians moving to rethink basic aspects of the long-held Reconstruction narrative. Tighter chronologies and restricted geographies offer an immediate interpretive payoff, and one that has been narratively advantageous for synthetic approaches—especially those widespread in college classrooms, and increasingly, as in the journalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie, the general public.[3]

Many new interpretive horizons have appeared since Foner, but how to write a new general synthesis given these approaches remains to be seen. Historians have known for a long time that 1877 was a fictional period divide—because the troops left in the South had little reach, because there was no bargain between northern Republicans and southern Democrats, because the process of southern Democratic redemption was well underway by the mid-1870s, because Democratic hegemony came later as with the defeat of the Readjuster movement in Virginia, or because nothing was really dead with regard to federal civil rights enforcement until the defeat of the Lodge Force Bill in 1890—and several of the essays here underscore that point. It may also be the case that a broader geographical vision—incorporating the western United States—gives the lie to a Reconstruction beginning with the Civil War, because the aggrandizement of the American state and the broad reach of federal power across the continent actually began with the territorial acquisition that came with the Mexican-American War.[4]

But some fictions are useful ones. All historians make choices in defining the limits of their inquiry. Grounding the Reconstruction narrative in a confined regional problem with straightforward chronology centered on questions of politics, race, economics, and law led to a defined center of the field that helped historians explain the period for more than one hundred years. The time is ripe for a new synthesis. The problem is not so much the legacy of Foner nor how to push beyond Foner; the volume of scholarship this forum considers is testament to that fact. Rather, the problem is how to retain a grasp of a series of coherent interpretive questions in a unified narrative. As several contributors to this forum suggest, this reality pushes us into unfamiliar and uncomfortable ground. If what is new changes our view of Reconstruction so much that the term ceases to hold coherent meaning, does the possibility for synthesis exist? Historians will keep writing histories of the Civil War era and the late nineteenth century United States. But it may mean that the future of Reconstruction studies is an end to Reconstruction studies.[5]


[1]For a classic summary, see Eric Foner, “Reconstruction Revisited,”Reviews in American History10 (December 1982): 82–100.
[2]Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Michael Perman, “Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution,” Reviews in American History 17 (March 1989): 78; Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); Mark Wahlgren Summers, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
[3]See especially Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014,; Jamelle Bouie, “The Unlikely Paths of Grant and Lee,” Slate, April 9, 2015,; and the collected journalistic and academic opinion in “How Should Americans Remember Reconstruction?” New York Times, May 26, 2015. See also Kidada Williams’s essay in this forum.
[4]Michael Les Benedict, “Southern Democrats in the Crisis of 1876–1877: A Reconsideration of Reunion and Reaction,” Journal of Southern History 46 (November 1980): 489–524; Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 237–45; Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); and see the essays by W. Fitzhugh Brundage and Elliott West in this forum.
[5]This point has been raised not as a question but as a proposal to abandon the term “Reconstruction,” by Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “Echoes of War: Rethinking Post–Civil War Governance and Politics,” their introduction to The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 1–21.

Essays in the online forum include:

Reconstruction in the South
Fitzhugh Brundage

The Civil War and State-Building: A Reconsideration
Gary Gerstle

Political History
Thomas C. Holt

Birthright Citizenship and Reconstruction’s Unfinished Revolution
Martha S. Jones

Reconstructing Religion
Mark A. Noll

In a Class by Itself: Slavery and the Emergence of Capitalist Social Relations during Reconstruction
Adrienne Petty

Women’s Rights and Reconstruction
Lisa Tetrault

Reconstruction in the West
Elliott West

Maintaining a Radical Vision of African Americans in the Age of Freedom
Kidada E. Williams

Reconstruction in Public History and Memory Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion
Moderator: David M. Prior
Participants: Nancy Bercaw, Beverly Bond, Thomas J. Brown, Eric Foner, Jennifer Taylor, and Salamishah Tillet

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