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Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Long Arc of Reconstruction

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The story of Reconstruction, more than any other topic in American history, is often tied to the myths and whims of the era in which it is written. Most historians and public commentators agree on what Reconstruction was: an attempt, after the Civil War, to rebuild American democracy so that it guaranteed civil, political, and economic rights to almost 4 million formerly enslaved people. But there is often disagreement about how much it achieved, what slowed its progress, and why it came to an end before its project was fully realized.

For the Republicans in office after the Civil War, there were really two Reconstructions. The first, the Reconstruction of Andrew Johnson, was designed to be conciliatory toward much of the rebellious South and had little intention of upsetting the status quo beyond a grudging acceptance of the end of slavery. The other Reconstruction, led by Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, attempted to change the very terms of American democracy by extending the franchise and civil rights to African American men. It also aspired to something more—land reform, economic democracy, and the remaking of the American polity around the principles of racial equality and inclusion. The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution guaranteed citizenship to all those “born or naturalized in the United States” and ensured that the right to vote would not be limited because of skin color. The second Reconstruction found its expression in the nation’s original civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first in American history to ensure equal protection under the law. It was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1875—the last gasp, in many respects, for the black political power and Radical Republican spirit that fueled many of the advances of Reconstruction.

From 1865 to 1877, both Reconstructions took place in an American South convulsed by almost constant violence. African Americans were massacred in cities as large as Memphis and in towns as small as Colfax, Louisiana, and Hamburg, South Carolina. The era was marked by a near-revolution and a counterrevolution, the latter succeeding in 1877, when the narrow victory of the Republican presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was followed by the withdrawal of the few remaining federal soldiers in the South in order to persuade Congress to back Hayes’s presidency. Although Reconstruction had been largely rolled back across much of the South before 1877, the withdrawal of federal troops is recognized as the end of the period.

The battle over whose Reconstruction would be remembered, however, persisted into the 20th century. During the Gilded Age and the Progressive era, as the democratic advances of the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed by the Democratic and Republican parties and the Supreme Court, a new narrative of Reconstruction began to take hold: that of a white South broken by the Civil War, then taken advantage of by Northern carpetbaggers, Southern scalawags (white Republican Southerners), and recently freed African Americans who had gone from being enslaved to holding power over their former masters. This new narrative was more than an oversimplification; it was mostly downright wrong, a willful misrepresentation of the past by white Southerners and Northerners interested in telling a story that justified the rise of the Jim Crow system. But this view of Reconstruction stuck, and a whole body of historiography arose from it that prevailed for the first decades of the 20th century. It became known as the Dunning school, named after the prominent Columbia University historian William Dunning. Many of his popularizers, including Claude Bowers (author of The Tragic Era) and E. Merton Coulter (author of The South During Reconstruction), went even further in their efforts to paint Reconstruction as an era of corruption and mismanagement—one that called into question the ability of African Americans to govern.

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