As we enter into the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction many historians are questioning how to re-interpret the period and present it to the public. From a lay perspective history is often seen as stagnant, made up of names, dates, and facts to be learned and recited. But in reality, the understanding of history shifts and changes as new evidence is uncovered or a new interpretation is adopted. In historian lingo this is called historiography, essentially the history of how history has been understood and presented in the past.
In terms of Reconstruction, there has been a wide swing of scholarship in the last century, beginning in the early twentieth century with the Dunning School, named after William Dunning’s book on the period. This school of interpretation presented southern whites in a positive light, ready to accept defeat and follow Johnson’s generous plan for Reconstruction that mirrored the wishes of the deceased Lincoln. In this interpretation, radical reconstruction was seen as a negative period, where corruption reigned and northerners took over southern society, forcing “black rule” upon it. Underlying this narrative was the incapacity of freed blacks to be equal members of society, let alone political leaders.
The Dunning interpretation of Reconstruction brought censure from the African-American community and the small cohort of black historians. As the racial and political climate changed in the middle of the century, scholarship shifted drastically away from the Dunning School. The rise of Revisionist history coincided with the growth of the Civil Rights Movement and calls for equality across racial lines. Revisionist historians presented scholarship that redefined Johnson as racist and Radicals as positive reformers in a program of Reconstruction that was not corrupt but instead sought to provide equality to freed blacks and revitalize the southern economy. With revisionism, the interpretation of Reconstruction did a complete turnaround from the Dunning School, presenting the period as positive and full of promise.
As America moved on from the Civil Rights Movement, a new set of scholars challenged the Revisionist School. Disappointed that the social movements of the 50s and 60s had achieved only limited success in fixing the deep-seated racial problems in America, scholars turned a more skeptical eye on Reconstruction as a promise unfulfilled. Despite the sweeping changes orchestrated by Radical Reconstruction, those changes seemed short-lived once you looked at the challenges of the twentieth century. Post-Revisionist scholars agreed that Reconstruction was a period of radical change, but emphasized the “conservatism” of radical Republican policy and argued that there was a continuation between the Old South and the New.
Transitioning into the twenty-first century, many historians present Reconstruction along these lines: as a period of radical change and promise that went unfulfilled once the North lost interest and the government pulled back its political and military oversight over the South. The important thing to note in this history of interpretation is that ideas about Reconstruction shifted in tune with events occurring in American society at the time. As we enter the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, American society is also hotly debating race in our modern society and in our past. As historians engage anew with these questions of Reconstruction, it may be that interpretations will shift once again to reflect this new generation of scholars.
Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.
Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies. She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012. Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate. She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War. In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.