The term historiography has been used in this course to refer to the study of historical writing, or the "history of history".
Historians’ interpretations of past events have changed over time. They have an obligation to approach historical subjects objectively, and without bias. However, historical interpretations of Reconstruction have changed continuously since 1877.
These interpretations have been influenced by the debates and politics related to race and race relations in the United States. To show how views of Reconstruction have changed over time, this tutorial begins by providing an overview of the African-American experience in the southern United States between 1877 and 1900. Next, it examines Reconstruction historiography in three categories:
Most African Americans in the South, as well as many poor whites, were unable to achieve any measure of economic independence following Reconstruction. As a result, sharecropping gradually took root by the end of the 19th century.
Sharecroppers paid their landlords with the crops they raised — sometimes as much as half of their harvest. High interest payments on debts they incurred siphoned additional money from poor farmers. Many sharecroppers were trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt, unable to buy the land they worked, and unable to stop working because of the crops and money they owed to landlords and creditors.
African Americans continued to suffer the effects of racial hatred following the Compromise of 1877. The most alarming trend in this regard — one that occurred with increasing frequency by the late 19th century — was the rise of lynchings.
EXAMPLEAccording to researchers at the Tuskegee Institute, approximately 3,500 lynchings and other murders were committed by whites against blacks in the South between 1865 and 1900.
By the end of the 19th century, many state governments had effectively excluded African Americans from the political process by enacting voter restriction measures, including poll taxes and literacy tests.
A lack of economic independence, public displays of racial violence, and voter restriction contributed to the rise of a segregated society in the United States, one in which blacks and whites were socially and physically separated from each other.
Segregation had an impact on how white historians interpreted Reconstruction in the early 20th century, as did the desire among white Americans to reconcile sectional divisions between North and South.
By the 1900s, commemorative ceremonies at Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields celebrated the sacrifices that white soldiers on both sides made, and asserted that these sacrifices had made the nation stronger. These ceremonies omitted references to the role that slavery played in the Civil War, and ignored the contributions of African-American soldiers to the Union war effort.
EXAMPLEBetween July 1st and 4th in 1913, approximately 50,000 white Civil War veterans (Union and Confederate) gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. No mention of the sacrifices of African-American soldiers was made, nor did the ceremony include any black veterans. African Americans were only found behind the scenes: as laborers, and providing other services to the white veterans.
Efforts toward reconciliation between North and South ignored much of what had occurred during Reconstruction. Many historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries portrayed the South as a victim of federal overreach and misguided racial policies — rather than as a backward, intransigent region that had resisted Congressional efforts to establish racial equality.
A generation of students who studied under John W. Burgess and William A. Dunning contributed to an era in Reconstruction historiography that became known as the “Dunning School”.
In his 1902 book, Reconstruction and the Constitution 1866-1876, Burgess wrote the following regarding Congress’ establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Remember that the Bureau had been established to help former slaves succeed in the transition to freedom. Recall also the motivations behind creation of the Black Codes, which sought to control the lives of former slaves:
Burgess and Dunning inspired an entire generation of historians who viewed Reconstruction similarly. In his 1929 book, The Tragic Era, historian Claude G. Bowers accused the Freedmen’s Bureau, Union Leagues, and other organizations that encouraged black political participation of teaching southern blacks “to hate” southern whites. He claimed that former slaves had no agency when it came to working with such groups: “the simple-minded freedmen were easy victims of their guile”.
Initially, only African-American writers challenged the Dunning School's interpretation of Reconstruction. Among the most notable was W. E. B. Du Bois.
Du Bois rejected white supremacy throughout his career. In 1935, he challenged the Dunning school’s interpretation of Reconstruction by publishing Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880.
Du Bois' book challenges the Dunning School by placing African Americans at the center of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In response to Burgess’s characterization of African Americans as “children”, Du Bois portrayed former slaves, northern free blacks, and their white allies, as key agents in the fight to abolish slavery, restore the Union, and establish democracy based on racial and economic equality. Du Bois emphasized the attempts by Republican-led state governments to secure voting rights and promote land distribution among former slaves in the South. He argued that these efforts were thwarted by white property owners, as well as northern business interests which sought to extract profits and exploit black labor.
While the Dunning School used racism to portray southern whites as victims, and explain the failures of Reconstruction, Du Bois argued that racism and economic interests worked together to limit opportunities for African Americans and poor whites. These factors prevented Reconstruction from succeeding, and left much of the South in poverty:
Despite the significance of Du Bois’ book and his worldwide renown as a scholar and activist, Black Reconstruction went largely unnoticed by American historians when it was published. It would take the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, which challenged and undermined segregation, for a new generation of historians in the field of Social History (based on Du Bois’s work) to discredit the Dunning School entirely.
Historians of the mid- to late 20th century observed the contemporary debate over civil rights in light of Reconstruction, particularly its failure to establish democracy based on racial and economic equality. They viewed this failure as a cause of persistent racial and social injustice in American society. They conducted studies that included groups that were omitted from previous examinations of Reconstruction: southern black politicians, women and families, poor southern whites, etc.
Social historians contributed to the creation of a new narrative for Reconstruction, one that challenged the Dunning School's conclusions, by the end of the 20th century. It took changes in views on race and race relations in the U.S. into account, and incorporated perspectives that scholars had previously overlooked. Although these new histories celebrated Reconstruction's potential to transform southern society, they blamed white southerners — and northerners — for its failures. As a result of their historiography, Reconstruction became, in the words of historian Eric Foner, “America’s Unfinished Revolution.”
In his 1988 book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (a book that many historians continue to use today), Foner presents his understanding of Reconstruction in light of several key themes, including the following:
According to Foner, issues of equality and the role of government in people's lives “were the questions on which Reconstruction persistently turned.” He writes that these questions are “as old as the American republic, and as contemporary as the inequalities that still afflict our society.” In his view, Reconstruction remains “America’s Unfinished Revolution” because it did not solve problems that the United States continues to face today.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: John W. Burgess, Reconstruction and the Constitution, 1866-1876 (1902), pp. 44-45, Internet Archive. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2lfEaIW, Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era (1929), p. 198, Internet Archive . Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2lfveTV, W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), pp. 590-91. Internet Archive. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1QAT5bZ, Foner, E. (2014). Reconstruction: America's unfinished revolution, 1863-1877. NY, NY: Harper Perennial. Openstax tutorials 16.4, 19.2 & 24.3 http://bit.ly/2ov4DTs. Some sections edited.