Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo published by Oxford University Press (2018)

Pat Young

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Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo published by Oxford University Press (2018) 188 pages $18.95 Hardcover $11.49 Kindle
This was not a book that I was intending to read. When Allen Guelzo's short history of Reconstruction came out in April I took a quick look at it and decided it had little that I did not already know between its covers. However, my experience in reviewing several recent books on Reconstruction forced me to give this slim volume a second look.

I have long recommended Eric Foner's Reconstruction to those of you who asked me what one book to read on the subject. Several of you wrote to me telling me that the book is just too long at 752 pages and too academic. In response, this year I read and reviewed three newer surveys of Reconstruction. I still got some messages from folks saying that these 500 page books were too great a time commitment for someone just beginning to explore the subject.

So, I bought Guelzo's new book, if not for me, then for you dear reader.

This review will appear in lots of installments.
 
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Pat Young

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Part 2:

The first point to make is that this book is really concise. It's main text is just 131 pages long. If that is still long for you, please don't send me any notes asking for something even more concise. Its concision makes it easier to follow the basic outlines of Reconstruction history. Guelzo covers most of the main events of Reconstruction in a page or two each, so the risk of getting lost in any individual incident is minimized. Brevity has its strong points.

Unfortunately, Guelzo spends most of his space on the first three years of the post-war period, so by the time you get to the election of Grant in 1868 half of the book is gone. The period from 1869-1877 is really just sketched in, followed by an interesting, but brief, breeze through the years from 1877 to 1900, a period that other historians think was still part of Reconstruction. There is a concise timeline of Reconstruction that some might find useful after the books conclusion.

I have read several of Guelzo's other books and really have not had much trouble with his writing style, but others on this forum have told me that they really dislike it. I know in our Monday night video chats, Guelzo seems to strike a lot of folks here the wrong way. I would say that if you have read another Guezo book and come away unhappy with the style, you are likely to have the same reaction to this one. It is pretty much par for the Guelzo course stylistically.

I think that Guelzo missed the opportunity to combine brevity with accessibility in Reconstruction: A Concise History. Unfortunately this is not Reconstruction for the masses, or at least the masses of educated readers of history.
 

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The book contains an admirable discussion of Reconstruction historiography that provides a high speed description of interpretation from the Dunningites to the modern reinterpretation by Eric Foner and ever younger historians. The conservative Guelzo breaks with most other modern historians of Reconstruction, he writes, over the supposed Marxist framework that they use to interpret the period. Guelzo says that Foner's school is cynical of the process of Reconstruction and of the good intentions of the Republican elites. Guelzo says that interpreting these as elements in a bourgeois industrial revolution misses the fact that all of the regions of the United States were at their heart fundamentally agricultural.

Guelzo writes that:

Both the Civil War and Reconstruction belong to a chapter in American history in which the United States was still an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, and the contest that was waged between 1861 and 1865 was largely an argument (in economic terms) between the free-labor family farm and the slave-labor cotton plantation.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
 

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Guelzo argues that the Reconstruction Republican Party did not sell-out the Blacks of the South. It is more accurate to say, perhaps, that they lost the Post-War war. Guelzo writes:

Nor is there any evidence that the victorious Republicans who attempted to build a bourgeois South among the ruins of the old plantation order ever panicked at the prospect of empowering blacks or poor whites, or betrayed them by establishing a self-protecting alliance with the dethroned aristocrats. And the freedpeople hardly experienced a taste of Marxist alienation; they instead experienced bourgeois frustration at their exclusion from material accumulation and democratic and judicial process, and that was how they articulated it. If Reconstruction was indeed a bourgeois revolution, it was a pure bourgeois revolution—a self-contained revolutionary event outside the boundaries of Marxist theory. And if it failed, it was not because it sold out, but because it was overthrown by the resurgent political power of a bloodied but unbowed aristocracy.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

While I agree with some of what appears in the above paragraph, it also illustrates some problems with the book. First, I am not sure how much further the average reader would continue onward after encountering this on page 11. It seems dense and jargony to me. I don't know why he could not have made his point in a more readable way.

Secondly, with Guelzo apparently the court historian of the Murdoch media empire and the National Review, I wondered how much his holding harmless the GOP for the failures of Reconstruction owed to his contemporary political alignment. I agree with him that Reconstruction was overthrown, but he does not do a convincing job of explaining why that overthrow could not have been prevented by the Republicans.
 

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Okay, now I have that off of my chest.

Guezo examines what he says are the overlooked successes of Reconstruction which he claims have been ignored by most historians writing after Foner. I am going to let Guelzo tell you what the first one is:

•Reconstruction restored a federal Union, for which the North had been fighting from the start, and corrected the centrifugal forces of the American federal Union that had brought on the war in the first place.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (pp. 11-12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

I agree with Guelzo that this was an important achievement, but it is hardly overlooked. In fact it is such a common place that it is typically mentioned early in most histories of Reconstruction and appears in most conclusions.
 

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His second overlooked conclusion is controversial here on CivilWarTalk among those who have never studied civil conflict and revolution in other countries. Guelzo writes:

•Reconstruction followed the route of generosity—it created no conquered provinces, no mass executions for treason. As Walt Whitman wrote, almost in self-congratulation, Reconstruction “has been paralleled nowhere in the world—in any other country on the globe the whole batch of the Confederate leaders would have had their heads cut off.” Ironically, most of the violence that pockmarked Reconstruction was inflicted on the victors, not the vanquished.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Of course, there are still white Americans who complain that Black male suffrage was "forced" on the South, but apart from a temporary diminution in the power of white supremacy in the South there was very little punishment of those who took up arms against the United States and killed tens of thousands of United States soldiers. Was the lack of severity really an accomplishment of Reconstruction though? A more severe approach might have included the forfeiture of the land of large slaveowners and its redistribution to the slaves that had made it grow.
 

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Guelzo's third accomplishment is one I agree with. Black institutions like the Black Church and black colleges were essentially begun during Reconstruction. The small Black Bourgeois was a creation of Reconstruction Era African Americans.

•The freedpeople made only modest economic gains in moving out of the shadow of slavery into freedom and self-ownership. But there were still beachheads for black Southerners all across the South in terms of property ownership and embourgeoisment, which would form the soil out of which the civil rights movement would flourish eighty years later.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

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Part 3:

Guelzo argues that the Reconstruction Republican Party did not sell-out the Blacks of the South. It is more accurate to say, perhaps, that they lost the Post-War war. Guelzo writes:

Nor is there any evidence that the victorious Republicans who attempted to build a bourgeois South among the ruins of the old plantation order ever panicked at the prospect of empowering blacks or poor whites, or betrayed them by establishing a self-protecting alliance with the dethroned aristocrats. And the freedpeople hardly experienced a taste of Marxist alienation; they instead experienced bourgeois frustration at their exclusion from material accumulation and democratic and judicial process, and that was how they articulated it. If Reconstruction was indeed a bourgeois revolution, it was a pure bourgeois revolution—a self-contained revolutionary event outside the boundaries of Marxist theory. And if it failed, it was not because it sold out, but because it was overthrown by the resurgent political power of a bloodied but unbowed aristocracy.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 11). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

While I agree with some of what appears in the above paragraph, it also illustrates some problems with the book. First, I am not sure how much further the average reader would continue onward after encountering this on page 11. It seems dense and jargony to me. I don't know why he could not have made his point in a more readable way.

Secondly, with Guelzo apparently the court historian of the Murdoch media empire and the National Review, I wondered how much his holding harmless the GOP for the failures of Reconstruction owed to his contemporary political alignment. I agree with him that Reconstruction was overthrown, but he does not do a convincing job of explaining why that overthrow could not have been prevented by the Republicans.

It seems that Guelzo is writing for a scholarly audience instead of a general audience, and that can be a bummer for laymen. The above text assumes some familiarity with Marxist theory, and is a hard read for people without that background.

I like the way Professor Douglas Egerton put it in a talk about his book The Wars of Reconstruction. Concerning Reconstruction, he said "it didn't fail. If it ended... it's not because the policies were wrongheaded, it failed because it was killed." His point was that Reconstruction failed because white southerners used violence to prevent Reconstruction from succeeding, which included killing black politicians, for example. This is the point Guelzo is making, albiet, with more, shall we say, sophistication.

- Alan
 
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Pat Young

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The fourth Reconstruction accomplishment I am fully in agreement. Without Reconstruction, even with its failures, the starting of the modern Civil Rights movement might have come much later and with a more limited agenda. The first phase of the movement, from 1954 to 1964 essentially focused on realizing the legal gains of Reconstruction. Guelzo writes:

•The freedpeople made only modest economic gains in moving out of the shadow of slavery into freedom and self-ownership. But there were still beachheads for black Southerners all across the South in terms of property ownership and embourgeoisment, which would form the soil out of which the civil rights movement would flourish eighty years later.
Guelzo, Allen C.. Reconstruction: A Concise History (p. 12). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

I cannot imagine any time after 1877 and before 1947 that the 14th Amendment could have been passed and ratified. A worse Reconstruction would have delayed the advance of civil rights by six decades, at least.
 

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Secondly, with Guelzo apparently the court historian of the Murdoch media empire and the National Review, I wondered how much his holding harmless the GOP for the failures of Reconstruction owed to his contemporary political alignment. I agree with him that Reconstruction was overthrown, but he does not do a convincing job of explaining why that overthrow could not have been prevented by the Republicans.

This strikes me as presentism, Pat. It doesn't take into account the fact that in the 1860s and 1870s the Republicans were the liberal party and the Democrats were the conservative party. If, as suggested, Guelzo is a shill for conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, then he would be indicting the liberal party of the time, the Republicans, not holding them harmless, as you say.
 

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Reconstruction was at the height of its failure at its very beginning. Andrew Johnson surrendered any chance of using the immediate post-war period for the radical reforms needed to insure even the most basic rights of freedpeople. According to Guelzo:

What was more appalling was the realization that Johnson’s governors promised to do little more than return the South, and the freed slaves, to a status only marginally different from what had prevailed before the war. These “quondam rebels,” complained a Louisianan who had suffered real “rebel persecution,” may “talk like union men and have ears like union men but they don’t smell much like union men.” (p. 22)

Instead of pressing the defeated Confederates to accept the new order, Johnson issued proclamations restoring the rights of whites who took up arms against the United States without granting those same rights to blacks. "To recalcitrant Southerners, the proclamations were like a second wind" says the author. (p. 23) Guelzo correctly assesses the situation:

The Johnson proclamations revived Southern hopes for pulling some form of victory back from the abyss of defeat and seemed to the Cincinnati journalist Whitelaw Reid “to have called into active utterance all the hostility to Northerners.” Strategies of resistance now began to take substance, and Confederate veteran Reuban Wilson hoped that “with the aid of the democratic party (which is bound to be very strong) of the north we will be able to check the republican party in their wild scheme.” (p.24)

White voters in the South showed just how unreconstructed they were in elections in 1866 and 1867.
"Republican confidence," Guelzo says, "turned to disbelieving fury, as offices and legislatures filled up with generously pardoned Confederates, who only a few months before had been striving to overturn the government they now expected to rejoin." (pp. 24-25)
 
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Reconstruction was at the height of its failure at its very beginning. Andrew Johnson surrendered any chance of using the immediate post-war period for the radical reforms needed to insure even the most basic rights of freedpeople. According to Guelzo:

What was more appalling was the realization that Johnson’s governors promised to do little more than return the South, and the freed slaves, to a status only marginally different from what had prevailed before the war. These “quondam rebels,” complained a Louisianan who had suffered real “rebel persecution,” may “talk like union men and have ears like union men but they don’t smell much like union men.” (p. 22)

Instead of pressing the defeated Confederates to accept the new order, Johnson issued proclamations restoring the rights of whites who took up arms against the United States without granting those same rights to blacks. "To recalcitrant Southerners, the proclamations were like a second wind" says the author. (p. 23) Guelzo correctly assesses the situation:

The Johnson proclamations revived Southern hopes for pulling some form of victory back from the abyss of defeat and seemed to the Cincinnati journalist Whitelaw Reid “to have called into active utterance all the hostility to Northerners.” Strategies of resistance now began to take substance, and Confederate veteran Reuban Wilson hoped that “with the aid of the democratic party (which is bound to be very strong) of the north we will be able to check the republican party in their wild scheme.” (p.24)

White voters in the South showed just how unreconstructed they were in elections in 1866 and 1867.
"Republican confidence," Guelzo says, "turned to disbelieving fury, as offices and legislatures filled up with generously pardoned Confederates, who only a few months before had been striving to overturn the government they now expected to rejoin." (pp. 24-25)

Prof Douglas Egerton, whom I mentioned earlier, also shares the belief that Andrew Johnson is a major factor in Reconstruction not resulting in social and political progress for African Americans. This is from a review of Egerton's book The Wars of Reconstruction:

Egerton.. argu(es) it was the ascent of Andrew Johnson to the presidency, not the radicals’ eventual empowerment, that doomed Reconstruction. Instead of exploiting the opportunity presented by the South’s defeat and demoralization, as Egerton implies Lincoln would have done, Johnson dismantled as much as he could of the Reconstruction Lincoln already had in place or was planning.

The new president did press states to ratify the 13th Amendment—not yet part of the Constitution at the time of Lincoln’s death—but opposed all the remainder of the 1866 moderate Republican agenda, which Lincoln might well have supported. Johnson vetoed the renewal of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and he opposed the 14th Amendment, managing in the process to alienate more or less every Republican in Congress, including important moderates like Senator Lyman Trumbull (Illinois) and Representative John Bingham (Ohio). Johnson not only refused to support congressional efforts to protect freedmen’s rights in the South from the emerging Black Codes, he pardoned Confederate sympathizers and agents, restoring their rights and property, except for their slaveholdings.

Johnson’s actions, “[f]rom his first moments in office…signaled his fellow white southerners that he would demand almost nothing of them,” writes Egerton. Once it became clear he would curtail Reconstruction, Southerners concluded that resisting what remained of it held few risks and promised many benefits. The worst such resistance involved “targeted violence” against the freed slaves and the black and white activists assisting them. “Small-scale but highly lethal violence” by the Ku Klux Klan and others “began as early as 1866.”​


- Alan
 
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Oxford University Press published Richard White's volume on Reconstruction and Mr. Guelzo may expressed dissatisfaction with it. OUP may have allowed a response, as long as cost was contained.
 

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The first goal was reunion, and the second was peace. Civil equality and economic justice for the freedmen were well down the list of priorities.
Getting the 14th and 15th Amendments passed by holding reunion hostage for a short period did not make them law in the hearts and minds of the people.
 

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The 15th Amendment was seriously flawed. Not enacting women suffrage at least at state option, and not making apportionment on numbers of voters was a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes.
 

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Part 9:

The new state legislatures devoted their limited funds to trying to pay off their Confederate debts and their limited attentions to protecting former Confederates. They also spent a lot of time trying to define exactly who was white and limiting the opportunities for freedom of black people. This was not reassuring to Republicans.

The crowing glory of the all white electorates of the former Confederacy was their purposeful antagonizing of their conquerors. Guelzo informs us that A"ll told, Johnson’s self-reconstructed states chose for senators and representatives (in addition to Stephens) six Confederate cabinet officers, four Confederate generals, and fifty-eight members of the Confederate Congress." (p. 25). None of these white Democratic legislatures found the time to take any steps to place blacks on a level playing field with whites.

Guelzo argues that President Johnson naively believed that Southern whites would do the right thing. I think he is too generous in his assessment of Johnson's failure. This blatantly racist president showed almost no regard for the rights of African Americans.
 

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Johnson's decision to walk away from the Republicans and embrace Southern conservatives and Northern Democrats crippled Reconstruction and spelled the end of his presidency. These were the same Northern Democrats who could declare in a state convention; “We want no Negro equality,” Wisconsin Democrats exclaimed, as “it would degrade and brutify our race, giving Negro Husbands and Negro progeny to our fair daughters and sisters.” When voters rejected Johnson's new racist electoral coalition in congressional elections in November 1866, Republicans began stripping Johnson's power to control Reconstruction three months later.

The Southern conservatives responded with the Ku Klux Klan. In response to the disqualification from voting of some leading Confederates by congressional Republicans, writes Guelzo, Southern whites imposed "a kind of counter-disfranchisement on blacks through intimidation." I am not sure that this is an accurate characterization. Southern whites had already disenfranchised blacks long before Congressional Reconstruction was even a proposal. There was nothing "counter" about the disenfranchisement of blacks.

Nor was the violence of the Klan anything new for black people. There bodies had regularly been the targets of physical abuse during slavery when overseers whipped them and slave patrols hunted them down with dogs who tore their flesh with their sharp teeth. The experiences of war had created a generation of Southern men inured to the use of deadly violence for political and racial ends. There were few moral limits in the South restraining the actions white men could take to control black bodies.

The terrorism reached its first climax in the Fall of 1868, just before the election of U.S. Grant to the presidency.
 

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Although Grant won in 1876 in an Electoral College landslide and he captured a significant majority of the popular vote, the Democrats picked up 22 seats in the House of Representatives. The Democrats were on their way to a slow recovery of their fortunes.

Reconstruction was not helped by the Republicans in the South. Guelzo rejects the charge that the Southern Republicans were any more corrupt than the Democrats who had preceded them in office. "They were more incompetent than corrupt; and the corrupt among them were not more corrupt than the slaveholding regimes that had preceded them," Guelzo writes. "But incompetence and corruption were not what the hour called for..." (p. 73)

While Texas and Georgia had balanced budgets, the other Southern states all went into debts funding new educational projects and infrastructure. This contributed to movement of poorer whites away from the Republican Party. The failure by the Federal government to even try to break up the great planter landholders meant that the old slavearchy would reemerge as the Bourbon political leadership. No longer the lords of the slaves, they were still the lords of the land and white resistance would coalesce around them. The Republicans also were damaged by their own in-fighting, which turned violent in Arkansas. By 1876 only South Carolina and Louisiana still had Republican governments.

Guelzo identifies another contributing factor to the problems of the Republicans; "the lack of a single commanding leader who could bind together the disparate threads of African American identity into a single movement." (p. 108) I have to say that I have not seen this cited as a factor in Republican failure before. I don't think that any other historian has even held out the possibility that the disparate former slave communities of the South could have invested a single African American man with the power of a "commanding leader" who could settle all rivalries among state and local black leaders and "bind together" the movement for civil rights. Not even Southern white conservatives had such a leader, so I am not sure why Guelzo thinks that this was even a possibility.
 
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Nor was the violence of the Klan anything new for black people. There bodies had regularly been the targets of physical abuse during slavery when overseers whipped them and slave patrols hunted them down with dogs who tore their flesh with their sharp teeth. The experiences of war had created a generation of Southern men inured to the use of deadly violence for political and racial ends. There were few moral limits in the South restraining the actions white men could take to control black bodies.

The terrorism reached its first climax in the Fall of 1868, just before the election of U.S. Grant to the presidency.
Slavery needed the lash to function, Jim Crow needed the Klan and the lynch mob.
 
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