Thomas C. Holt
Reading the title of this essay, a scholar of nineteenth-century American history might be forgiven the observation that a subject that scarcely registers in present scholarship is unlikely to have much of a “future.” Indeed, a casual perusal of book reviews and articles in the two major American history journals over the past decade shows little evidence that the “politics of U.S. Reconstruction” has been exactly a hot topic recently. I will argue that such a reading depends on a rather conventional, even narrow, definition of “politics,” however, although admittedly even the more expansive notion found in recent Reconstruction historiography has only emerged during the last quarter century or so. For more than a century before that, Reconstruction studies had largely adopted a more conventional, ballot box–oriented approach to the subject. Indeed, the political history of Reconstruction in the latter sense had emerged even before federal troops began their withdrawal from southern barracks as part of the infamous compromise of 1877; a compromise that allowed the white South’s so-called redemption by its erstwhile Confederate elite. The very rationale for that compromise was a “black” legend of the reconstruction process as one riven by political incompetence, corruption, and injustice to white southerners, which would remain dominant deep into the twentieth century. Challenges to that mythology by the first generation of university-trained black historians in the 1920s and ’30s, culminating with W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in 1935, were scarcely audible to white, mainstream historians before the mid–1960s. It was then that Berkeley historian Kenneth Stampp published the first, broadly acknowledged revisionist account. The reason Stampp’s reinterpretation resonated was that it shared the stage with what many have dubbed “the second Reconstruction,” a political awakening of black southerners that confronted the nation with its unfinished business of achieving the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln had declared to be the Civil War’s premise and legacy.
The two decades following Stampp’s intervention witnessed a veritable deluge of deeply researched historical accounts of every facet of what Du Bois had called America’s last best hope of reconstructing American democracy. Many of the earliest scholars of this second wave of revisionism were drawn especially to the roles black freedmen had played in the political developments of that era, motivated by a presumption that both the achievements and failures of their reforms required an honest appraisal of who they were, what they sought to accomplish, and what were the constraints they faced. This second wave of revisionism culminated in 1988 with Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, a well-crafted mix of synthetic and original research, whose subtitle tellingly echoed Du Bois’s of a half-century earlier. Foner’s remains the most recent broadly synthetic treatment of Reconstruction politics focused on its national as well as local levels. In both its chronological framing (from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to the compromise of 1877) and its subject matter (the high politics of legislative maneuvering and voter mobilization), however, the book continued largely within the political paradigm of its predecessors chronologically and topically, even as in other respects it rewrote the script.
At the same time, even in Foner’s telling there were discernible cracks in the conventional political narrative, faintly reflecting yet a third revisionist wave already visible by the early 1980s. The revisionism of the late 1960s and 1970s had emerged in the shadow of the much more popular slavery studies, which by the early 1980s had begun to shape approaches to emancipation studies, as well. By its very nature, the work on slavery focused on the social relations of labor, labor exploitation, and diverse forms of resistance; all of which posed questions for the postemancipation era. Such preoccupations were reinforced by the comparative turn in slavery studies, which stimulated new insights and questions for studies of emancipation, as well. The typical comparative approach, with its one-on-one juxtapositions of labor systems, proved much less amenable to the political history of emancipation, however, given the considerable differences in the state systems involved. This may well explain why, notwithstanding the influence of the newly emergent labor history of emancipation, Foner’s political narrative remained by comparison rather conventional.
The principal stimulus for the emerging labor history orientation of emancipation studies was the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, an initiative inspired by Herbert Gutman and guided for many years by its general editor, Ira Berlin, and subsequently by Leslie Rowland. The Maryland editors have created a massive archive of civilian and military records that give historians of Reconstruction unprecedented access to the details of black life and labor during and after the Civil War. After its inaugural volume in 1982, subsequent Freedom volumes would profoundly shape scholarship on Reconstruction, with their unprecedented insights into slave-master relations, slave family and kinship, and slave labor. Collectively they suggest a very different picture of what the transition to life, labor, and politics after emancipation had entailed. Significantly, the first volume of the Maryland project, The Black Military Experience, and Foner’s book were both dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois, an acknowledgement of his belated influence on Reconstruction studies, especially the role ordinary black people played in shaping its course.
Steven Hahn, who would serve as an editor of one of the Freedmen Project’s later volumes, was among the first to exploit the insights the new archive revealed and in the process explicitly challenge the very nature of the “politics” we now study. Writing some fifteen years after Foner, Hahn mused that historians needed “to think much more deeply about the nature of politics and political practice, about how unfranchised and disfranchised people might conduct politics, and about the relationship between different arenas of political activity.” Defining politics as “the deployment of power and cultural forms,” Hahn argued that historians needed “a broad understanding of politics and the political that is relational and historical.” Given that definition of the political, one could see that African Americans in the rural South developed a distinctive political culture, one enabling them to contribute to “the making of a new political nation [even as] they made themselves into a new people.”
Of course, even before Hahn published his book in 2003, a more expansive definition of political phenomenon was already being discussed. Not only had feminist historians been arguing that case for more than a decade, but Elsa Barkley Brown and Laura F. Edwards had made explicit use of it a decade earlier to frame analyses of how gender roles and ideology shaped Reconstruction politics. The most striking and novel insight of Hahn’s intervention, nonetheless, was his stunning account of how a unique political consciousness emerged from where one least expected to find it, the slave experience itself. Rooted in the gender and generational relations of slave communities, as well as in the negotiations between slaves and masters over the deployment of labor, this was a politics grounded in and organic to the production demands of the plantation and in the aspirations and values of its workers. Thus the slaves’ politics were an inescapable consequence of labor relations in which group ties emerged to counterbalance and mediate the extreme individualism ostensibly promoted by the master’s paternalism. It was quite literally “under their feet, as it were.” Thus did A Nation under Our Feet proceed to tell the tale of “how political relations and aspirations were forged at the grassroots, [and] how they took collective and institutional form.”
Notwithstanding his unnecessarily harsh dismissal of the conventional politics pursued by urban, largely freeborn elites, Hahn makes sense of the otherwise puzzling political revolution freedpeople enabled scarcely three years after Appomattox. The mystery of how the “Sambo” of slaveholders’ and some historians’ lore suddenly emerged as a defiant “political man” is explained by the fact that his politics were anchored in the social relations that had developed to survive slavery—in families, worksites, and the myriad social networks that enabled them to remain human and not reduced to passive tools. Not only were the successes of conventional electoral politics grounded in this preexisting grassroots politics, but the tensions between them shaped Reconstruction events.
The feminist perspective has deepened and further complicated the revisionist interpretation of Reconstruction politics that Hahn elaborates. During Reconstruction, Elsa Barkley Brown argues, black and white southerners “operated within two distinct political systems,” embracing very different “values and assumptions.” Most notably the white folks’ distinction between “a masculine, liberal bourgeois public sphere [and] a female counterpublic” made little sense to recently freed slaves. The latter’s political consciousness emerged from radically different experiences—not only in slavery, as Hahn would later argue, but during the “war and in the weeks following emancipation.” The notion of a boundary between private and public life would appear no less illusory to them after emancipation than before. Contrary to the freedom they were promised, they endured continued surveillance and control of their private lives, as Union officials joined in efforts to regulate their movements and living spaces, while planter-controlled legislatures deployed laws to forcibly employ their children. Perhaps these politically mobilized freedpeople drew on communal structures and processes much like Hahn describes to envision an alternative, oppositional political world. In any event, women became active participants in the political life of black communities—something anathema to northern as well as southern white politicians. Black freedwomen made no bones over how the ballot may have legally belonged only to men but the decision on how to use it did not. More striking still, these procedures of direct democracy took hold well before the Reconstruction Acts gave black men the right to vote. In churches and open fields, they joined in debating and voting on the pressing issues of that revolutionary moment. When such decision-making moved into the more official spaces of convention halls and legislatures, they crowded into the galleries from whence they loudly voiced their views on the transactions below. The revolutionary moment did not last, of course. In time it would disappear even from the sanctuaries of the black church. Nevertheless, one should never again imagine black Reconstruction politics as a privileged male preserve confined to decorous legislative halls and government offices.
From another angle, of course, Barkley Brown’s approach to grassroots politics offers less an abandonment of the conventional political domain of party mobilization, voting, and legislating than a new perspective on it. The same might be said for Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom, which exposes how gender tensions were imbricated in racial violence and how rape was deployed as a political weapon. Southern white mobs and nightriders turned sexual violation—or rather both the violation and its discursive performance—into a bludgeon with which to beat back the claims of black men and women not only to citizenship rights but to treatment as willful human subjects in public spaces. With keen insight, Rosen deconstructs a variety of texts to reveal their deeper meanings for understanding the social construction of race, discourses about race, and racist acts. She details both white and black responses to the prospect of a social order not organized by slavery—in the 1866 Memphis riot, at the Arkansas constitutional convention, and in the scores of incidents of sexual violence found in federal archives. She makes clear how important it is to understand that what was being “reconstructed” were not simply political and economic relations but literal public spheres (public spaces and behaviors) and the gendered identities those spaces entailed. Since slaves could not claim even private spaces—even within their own bodies—that white men were bound to respect, freedmen’s claims to public space amounted to a revolution.
Again, all this transpired before the issue of black male suffrage was scarcely broached in much of the South. For white males long accustomed to grounding their own claims to civil and political rights on their command—or potential command—of homes, families, and wives, the logical response to emancipation was to strip black men and women of those very things. By thus teasing out complex notions of how the political and the social order were imbricated in antebellum society and by detailing just how they were ritually enacted and performed in the postbellum world, Rosen provides us a highly nuanced account not only of white resistance to the postemancipation social order, but what black aspirations to build a more democratic order were up against.
Although the white male violators must perforce take center stage in Rosen’s book, she skillfully shows how blacks, especially women, seized on (while reinterpreting) the connection between the integrity of one’s private spaces—home, family, sexuality—and one’s public claims to be a citizen, to political participation, or to simply be in public as an equal rather than a subordinate. Indeed, one of Rosen’s most striking and important insights is that the discursive rendering of this theme was as important as its enactment. Thus white rapists paused to quite literally narrate their attacks and announce the rationales for them, while black women found solace and vindication when testifying in public forums about those same attacks but inverting them in the course of renarration into defiant claims to their own self-worth. Through a close examination of these literal and figurative “texts” (meaning not only documents but testimonies and ritualized performances) in which struggles for power and sexual violation are explicitly coupled, Rosen’s book powerfully illuminates this heretofore darkened corner of political violence. A politics by other means, indeed. Gendered relations were so deeply implicated in the very foundations of political order that reactions to “a world turned upside down” necessarily sought expression in gendered terms.
Any speculation on the future course of Reconstruction studies should note that most of the recent revisionist work I have discussed clustered within the two decades framing the turn of the twenty-first century, a period of intense popular as well as academic debate about the roles and meanings of gender in public and private life. Much of the scholarship since has so thoroughly absorbed both the grassroots and feminist perspectives on Reconstruction politics that the more conventional and narrower political business of electing and legislating has largely receded as a subject of inquiry. This historiographical pattern is consistent with all the other turning points in the interpretation of Reconstruction politics, however, each of which was responsive to real world developments: the black legend that justified the overthrow of Reconstruction regimes, the first flowering of university-trained African American historians who challenged that legend, the impact of the civil rights movement on social science scholarship on black politics, and, finally, the influence of scholars sensitive to if not conversant in gender theories and preoccupations. In each of these instances, events and developments external to the academy prompted a rethinking of its conventional wisdom. If that pattern holds for future studies of Reconstruction politics, it suggests that we are more likely to see political currents in the wider world shaping its course than an internally driven checklist of “gaps” in our knowledge to be filled.
What might those currents be? It may be that the politics of the early twenty-first century—which has underscored the ultimate necessity of conventional political structures and practices to realizing the goals of social insurgencies sparked by grassroots mobilizations and tensions between public and private spheres—will promote yet another revisionist turn. But twenty-first-century politics has also underscored the necessity of recognizing how broader social and ideological developments shape a people’s political consciousness well before they reach the ballot box. Thus Reconstruction scholars might yet find possible models for synthesizing these apparently disparate political domains in Rosen’s dissection of the impact of competing gender ideologies on discussions of suffrage in the Arkansas constitutional convention, or in how kinship relations shaped paramilitary politics in Hahn’s analysis of Reconstruction Louisiana, or in Susan O’Donovan’s deep excavation of ground-level politics in Georgia.
Alternatively, perhaps our enhanced consciousness of the global dimensions of our politics may yet prompt a renewed turning outward rather than inward. As noted above, earlier efforts at comparative analysis were often confounded by the obvious differences among the state systems of the former slave societies that one might want to compare, for example, free-standing states versus states embedded in imperial systems, parliamentary versus non-parliamentary systems, societies with black majorities versus those with black pluralities, and so forth. Here, too, we now have excellent comparative models emphasizing the interactions among such systems rather than merely the contrasts between them.
Finally, Reconstruction studies have continued a trend manifested in Hahn’s book: its bold recasting of the conventional chronology of the Reconstruction era by beginning with slavery and ending with the Garvey movement in the twentieth century. The new works expose how traditional chronology is ill-suited to account for the fact that not only were black southerners in many key states not completely excluded from voting or office-holding until the late 1890s, but that their aspirations for achieving a democratic reconstruction of the South endured as well. Certainly the many people who lived and fought to make real the promise of “a new birth of freedom” following emancipation survived well into the next century. So did their aspirations and faith, and so perhaps did their influence on the generations that followed them. This would mean that there are yet new stories of that era to tell.
Thomas C. Holt is James Westfall Thompson Distinguished Service Professor of American and African American history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books and articles, including Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (Hill and Wang, 2010). He is co-editor, with Laurie B. Green, of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 24 – Race (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
 A search of JSTOR entries in the American History Review and Journal of American History under the keywords “Reconstruction” and “politics” reinforces the impression of a decline in historical work on the conventional politics of Reconstruction, that is, ones focused exclusively on legislatures and voting.
 See James Shepard Pike, The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government (New York: D. Appleton, 1874) and the subsequent assessment of the era’s last Republican governor, Daniel H. Chamberlain, who is discussed in Thomas Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976), 173–207.
 Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (New York: Vintage, 1965). For the reception of Du Bois’s book, see Thomas C. Holt, “‘A Story of Ordinary Human Beings’: The Sources of Du Bois’s Historical Imagination in Black Reconstruction,” in “Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction: Past and Present,” ed. Thavolia Glymph, special issue, South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2013): 419–35. Prominent among the black revisionist historians contemporaneous with Du Bois were Luther Porter Jackson and Charles H. Wesley.
 See Holt, Black over White and Charles Vincent, Black Legislators in Louisiana during Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976).
 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
 Although Foner drew on new archival materials and several revisionist monographs published during the previous decade, his chapter titles and key “high politics” events organize his discussion and do not differ much from the organizing principle of Stampp’s book written two decades earlier.
 Indeed, this point was central to Foner’s own comparative study in Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisina State University Press, 1983).
 See the multivolume documentary collection: Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, ed. Ira Berlin et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982– ).
 It must be acknowledged, however, that pioneering insights into this phenomenon can be found in Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
 Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 2–5, 9. The Freedmen and Southern Society Project’s influence on Reconstruction scholarship is also evident in the work of others among its former editors: see Julie Saville’s The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave Labor to Wage Labor in South Carolina, 1860–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
 Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: Afro-American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” in Public Culture, 7, no. 1 (1994): 107–46; Laura F. Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
 Hahn, Nation under Our Feet, 1, 9.
 For more on how the everyday life of slavery also shaped the community’s response to emancipation, see Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), esp. chap. 5.
 Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere,” 109, 115, 122.
 Among the works exploring the legal transformations in the boundary between public and private life of white as well as black women is Nancy D. Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003). For a more detailed discussion of the various ways postwar governments exercised surveillance of freedpeoples’ private affairs, see Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 234–68.
 Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere.” For an earlier, much more limited discussion of these phenomena, see Holt, Black over White, 34–35; and Julie Saville, “A Measure of Freedom,” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1986) which was subsequently revised and published as The Work of Reconstruction. Martha S. Jones frames this recasting of the black public sphere and politics from a national perspective in All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), chap. 4.
 Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
 This echoed, in turn, earlier work by Elsa Barkley Brown’s ”Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere” and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow.
 For the prewar background of these developments and an excellent account of southern white political culture, see Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
 See especially chapter 9 of Christine Stansell, The Feminist Promise, 1792 to the Present (New York: Modern Library, 2010), 275–310.
 For examples, see Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Susan O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007).
 For some recent examples of what one might well consider a renewed attention to ballot-box politics, see Masur, Example for All the Land, and Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).
 Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom, 133–75; Hahn, Nation under Our Feet, 182–86; O’Donovan, Becoming Free in the Cotton South, 208–63.
 For example, see Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005).
 Thus, as Glenda Gilmore shows, did the themes and ethos of that earlier Reconstruction shape political conflicts and hopes well after the turn of the century. Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).