A Review on “A Short History of Reconstruction” by Eric Foner

Eric Foner was born in New York City, New York. He was born on February 7, 1943. His mother’s name is Lisa. His father Jack D. Foner was a historian who dedicated himself to the Trade Union Movement campaign for the civil rights of African Americans. Foner says that his dad was his first, great teacher. Now, Foner is a professor who has won a variety of awards. Such as: Bancrof, Pulitzer prize, Avery O Craven Award, The Great Teacher Award of Columbia University, President Award for Outstanding Teaching, Scholar of the Year, and the Kidger Award for Excellence in Teaching award to name a few. He is the President of three major professional organizations, American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. His students have published a book in his favor. The book named Contested Democracy: Freedom, Race and Power in American History, is a collection of essays published in 2007. Foner has published Nineteen books.

Chapter One- “The World the War Made”, is about Abraham Lincoln and what he did during his presidency. It also explains the issues that led up to the war briefly. One major memory attached to Lincoln was the Emancipation Proclamation. This is exactly what Eric Foner talks about. Foner illustrated what the Emancipation Proclamation is and what it did. Lincoln did not want to make the war about the abolition of slavery. He instead wanted to preserve the Union. However, the war ended up being about slavery. “excluding from its purview were the 450,000 slaves in the loyal border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, 275,000 in Union- occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in portions of Louisiana and Virginia under the control of federal armies.” Foner states. The south was reliant on black labor and would collapse when it was not at their dispense. The north was industrialized and for the most part, without slavery. Blacks gained civil rights after the Civil War but they were being ignored. Blacks remained irrelevant until the south realized their votes decided who was next in office. “We have a terrible state of affairs here negroes refusing to work… they must drive their master … off the plantation hang their master and then they will be free wrote a northern reporter. Lincoln fully appreciated as he would somehow observe in his second inaugural address, that slavery was “somehow” the cause of war. Some southerners refused to believe blacks were free and not under slavery. In some cases, it seemed southerners were in denial that blacks were free now. “I believe that these people were content, happy and attached to their masters”, Taveau said, “But if that’s the case, why did the slaves desert their masters?” Foner argues. The south wandered for self-rule. This wandering was referred to as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”. Deep structural, social, and political adjustments were taking place after the civil war.

Chapter Two – “Rehearsals for Reconstruction” is where Foner discusses where the country shall go after the Civil War. “On what terms should the defeated Confederacy be reunited with the Union? Should Congress or the President establish these terms? What system of labor should replace plantation slavery? What should be the place of blacks in political and social life of the South and the nation?” these were all questions the country, congress and the citizens were faced with after the war. Foner describes that while these questions do not have a black and white answer there is an answer to at least one question. Is slavery still existent in the South? No. The Ten Percent Plan also reflected where the President and the country was with regaining a normal pre-civil war, pre-slavery atmosphere or society. For the first time in United States history, blacks and confederates were encouraged to cooperate and participate with one another. Of course, not everyone was accepting. Blacks did not want to work with the people who had them as slaves. Southern whites did not want to work with blacks because they still viewed them as inferior. Foner talks about what split Radicals from moderates. “the plan exacerbated an emerging split between the Radicals and moderate sin the Free state movement one what rights, if any, blacks would enjoy” Foner states. Frederick Douglass “slavery is not over until the black man has the ballot”.

Chapter Three – “The Meaning of Freedom”, were the comments Foner had on blacks and their battle into a slavery free society. This chapter summarizes the freedom blacks experience after the Civil War. Blacks experienced things they never had before. Such as voting and containing citizenship. The Freedman’s Bureau was created to support blacks with their free life. Especially, assisting freedman with finding a respectable place in society. Once the fourteenth amendment was created, the Freedman’s Bureau was vetoed because blacks were now considered citizens. All citizens must have equal protection. Once they were free blacks aim for more. More as in the rights that whites had. “David McRae was surprised to hear a former slave complain of past mistreatment, while acknowledging that he had never been whipped. “How are you cruelly mistreated then? asked McRae. “I was cruelly mistreated because I was kept in slavery” a former slave replied. The problem for blacks and whites who priority own slaves was work. Black had to work to feed their families like everyone else and whites were now considered to pay them like anyone else. Also, briefly mentioned in this chapter was blacks home life. The black women even adjusted to the freedom within the way they dressed or carry themselves. This aggravated a lot of whites, especially women.

Chapter Four – “Ambiguities of Free Labor”. In this chapter Foner describes the south and their adjustment from the Civil War. Foner focuses on explaining the failure of the south economy. The currency and bonds of the confederate became worthless. Agriculture went together with slavery and because there were no slaves to work land, agriculture had slipped through the cracks. The south was left unstable financially. There was a plantation left without work and crops because there were no slaves to work it. Blacks now demanded the wages other workers were receiving. They also aimed to control their own working hours. Black women stayed home and children too. During slavery, children and women were required to work out on the field with the black men. “Nearly 260,000 men die for the confederacy over one-fifth of the south adult white male population” Foner states. This goes to show how serious the south was about keeping slavery. The Civil War brought forth many casualties over the issue of slavery. The south was unwilling to let go. They still did not want to except the fee. Not only did the south must regroup ruined plantations but they also had to regain social order. Blacks focused on getting rid of autonomy and working with their new freedom. In black belt Alabama, Henry Watson, Jr., survived the conditions of his neighbors at the beginning of 1867.  “14 plantations, only one had turned a profit”, Foner states in this chapter.

Chapter Five – “The Failure of Presidential Reconstruction”. In this chapter Foner explains President Johnson’s policies. Each policy affected the south in the countries reconstruction. Johnson was not for the rebelling states. “He stated publicly his opinion that traders to the country ought to be severely punished” Foner includes. Johnson believes the south should not have been included in the re-formation of their own government. “Treason must be made odious, and traders must be punished in impoverished”, says Johnson. It is safe to say he was a constitutionalist. Some southerners were against the idea of rebelling to begin with. However, that did not stop then towards the approach of the Civil War. The belief is still present that blacks were not equal although they were free. The policies that Johnson brought forth were unexpected by southerners.

Chapter Six – “The Making of Radical Reconstruction”. “The thirty-ninth Congress, elected in 1864 in the midst of the war, assembled in December 1865 to confront the crucial issues of reconstruction: who would control the south? Who will rule the nation? What was to be the status of the emancipated slaves? Foner writes. He effectively describes the issues the next president would encounter upon arrival in office. The Civil War brought forth new powers and possibilities for every party, and now blacks.

Chapter Seven – “Blueprints for a Republican”. This chapter is about the political influence blacks had. This is when blacks became politically involved. Not only involved, but had a major impact on politics. Reason being that, all slaves who were unable to vote all, at once obtained that exact right. They could vote and hold office. In most states, there were more blacks than whites. “southern politicians, recognized that they now relied on black votes, tried to gain their support” Foner wrote in this chapter.  Northerners were moving south to take political positions. These northerners were also known as carpetbaggers. Southerners politicians try to get black votes all the sudden. Most blacks by 1867 registered in a political organization. The black belt had ministers, professors, and others who could contribute to the black communities.

Chapter Eight – “Political and Economic”. This chapter talks about Republicans and their power with reshaping of the south during Reconstruction. Also, it explains how and why this power was significant. Republicans were not as strict on laws for bringing back in Confederates. Blacks were not in higher positions of office, but they aimed for that to change. Segregation became now that blacks were free amongst a predominately white society. “white parents strongly resisted having their children sit alongside blacks in the classroom” Foner says. Segregated schools were the coming of new social order. The government started to support equal rights and started to fine and issue jail time for businesses who did not comply. Reconstruction was not completely successful because it did not get blacks equal treatment. Although, blacks were out of slavery, there was still much to be done.

Chapter Nine – “The Challenge of Enforcement”. This chapter states that part of the Democratic Party hoped blacks would have the right to vote but not to take interest in it. Some Democrats desired to take back civil rights, especially, voting rights. Democrats did what they could in their power to slow or stop blacks from using your voting rights. This happened after the fifteenth amendment, which states no man can be denied the right to vote because of race. Democrats used poll taxes and other tools to stop blacks from voting. “Education amounts to nothing, good behavior counts for nothing, even money cannot buy a colored man or woman decent treatment in the comfort that white people claim and can obtain” John Brown states. Although, blacks were now a large part of society they were being excluded. Railroads had appointed them to lower decks called “smoking cars” with poor whites, not because of money, behavior, or education, but because they were black.

Chapter Ten – “The Reconstruction of North”. This chapter talks about the transformation the north encountered during Reconstruction. Railroad booms were a major occurrence in Reconstruction. They were necessary for products and trade across the country. Railroad tracks were throughout the north and west for the country before and during the Civil War. That changed, and more tracks were laid connecting to various states within the country, because of their importance. “Eastern and Western Railroad were connected for the first time to create a transcontinental network of railroad” Foner states. Foner also spent a bit of time magnifying the election of 1872. He then speaks on the gilded age and President Grant’s focus on it. President Grant’s term also happens to be during a depression. One of the largest railroads caused a big crash in the banking industry. Numerous amounts of businesses failed. The Grange, however did the opposite. Now, The Grange and other similar parties found success because they were not as reliant as the big industries, monopolies, or railroads on the banking industry.

Chapter Eleven and Twelve, Foner describes northerners campaigning in the south and how the north became infuriated by dealing with them. He also talks about the financial problems of the North leading up to the Panic. The south was also annoyed and political tension rose. The south responded with violence when the north campaigning. “South Carolina, Georgia and other southern states begin to speak in terms of the “redemption” of their states by a return to white supremacy” (bookrags).

My analysis of the book is that it is a great book. Foner’s illustration of the significance of Reconstruction was present. I thought Foner made some valid points and arguments. He did them effectively. Reconstruction was a very important time for America and he highlighted why it was significant. I saw from a different perspective because of the way he explained and used quotes from others, such as, reporters, and former slaves. I appreciate that he included pictures of important politicians. It always helps to put a name with a face when reading factual books like this. I enjoy when authors put a bit of color in their books. I believe that’s exactly what the visuals and quotes did. I did think the book was worth reading and overall, it did contribute to the understanding of U.S. History.

Photo courtesy of American Historical Association