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68 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unconscionable chapter in American history
It is a pleasant fiction held by many, even taught in high schools, that the Civil War was fought to free slaves and in fact did just that. Unfortunately, such a view is simplistic in the extreme. This book demolishes any such simplistic notions in its comprehensive examination of the incredible struggles of freedmen and their allies during the era of Reconstruction,...
Published on December 28, 2009 by J. Grattan

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33 of 46 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars State's Rights vs. Slaves' Rights
I believe it was Charles Beard who first called the American Civil War "The Second American Revolution". Although he was chiefly concerned with the shift in the balance of power from the Southern slaveholders to the Industrial North, modern historians who agree with him see emancipation and the rise of black rights as among the most revolutionary events in American...
Published on August 31, 2004 by Omer Belsky


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68 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unconscionable chapter in American history, December 28, 2009
By 
J. Grattan (Lawrenceville, GA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Paperback)
It is a pleasant fiction held by many, even taught in high schools, that the Civil War was fought to free slaves and in fact did just that. Unfortunately, such a view is simplistic in the extreme. This book demolishes any such simplistic notions in its comprehensive examination of the incredible struggles of freedmen and their allies during the era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877, to achieve even a modicum of freedom, much of which had been yanked away by the end of the 19th century by the old Southern oligarchy. Despite the overall excellence of the book, the sheer volume of the information of this tumultuous time makes this book a challenging read. Economic, sociological, and political developments are examined from the intersecting parameters of individual states, multi-state farming regions, race, class, political parties, North vs. South, businessmen vs. farmers, etc.

One fact that this book makes evident is that Reconstruction was not one, well-thought program. In fact, Reconstruction lurched from one policy to the next, involving at various times the control of the Union army, the Freedman's Bureau, Presidential Reconstruction, Radical (Congressional) Reconstruction, policies of neglect, and finally Redemption. In addition, these multifarious programs and regimes of control were capriciously managed almost always to the detriment of freedmen, depending on the competencies and prejudices of administrators. Reconstruction, if nothing, is very complex - difficult to summarize.

The author details any number of pervasive factors that formed a backdrop to the entire period of Reconstruction. First, he notes a substantial divide between upcountry, small yeoman farmers and Blackbelt plantation owners. Many of those yeomen had Union sympathies, if not actually serving in the Union army, which resulted in harsh retribution at the hands of Confederates. After the War, they shared with freedmen a strong tendency, at least initially, to vote Republican and a vulnerability to the depredations of the crop-lien system. More significant was the utter unwillingness of Southern elites to give up total control over their former slaves. They wanted no part of Northern free-labor ideology. They induced Union army occupiers, as well as through Black codes, passed during President Johnson's version of Reconstruction, to make it illegal for a freedman to be unemployed, and in some cases, to live in towns, to not be under a year-long labor contract, to travel freely, etc. However, it was the reaction of both radical and moderate Republicans to this harsh regime that sought to virtually re-enslave that precipitated Radical Reconstruction. Congress overrode Presidential vetoes of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment and in the Reconstruction Act demanded that Southern states ratify that Amendment and legislate freedmen suffrage before being readmitted to the Union.

By far the most horrendous aspect of Reconstruction was the unmitigated violence perpetrated on freedmen by white Southerners. The violence organized under the Ku Klux Klan was so pervasive that Congress created special legislation to curtail it. But the Klan was only the tip of the iceberg. After the War, the violence was mostly to enforce the Black Codes; later, after the readmittance of the states, the ascendance of the Republican Party, and the election of hundreds of local and state freedmen, the violence was used to deter political participation. The Colfax Massacre in Louisiana, April, 1873, in which whites in support of the Democratic candidate in a disputed election killed at least 150 blacks, some waving white flags of surrender, is only the most egregious of countless acts of violence. It was this sort of intimidation that played a large role in more Southern states being "redeemed" each election cycle.

Of course, the North was an inextricable part of Reconstruction. Many so-called Radicals, led by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, wanted to confiscate rebel lands and redistribute them to freemen. As the author shows, some redistribution occurred, but often such takings were overruled and lands returned. Moderates wanted reconciliation and amnesty, partly to make the South a safe place for Northern investments, especially in railroad building. The Depression of 1873 abruptly ended inflated hopes that a new era of prosperity would raise all boats, including the fortunes of freedmen. But more important to the demise of Reconstruction than economic disruptions was a shift in Republican Party concerns from a principled opposition to slavery and the coercion of freedmen to a concern with electoral politics. Increasingly, it was held that freedmen must achieve civil and political equality on their own, regardless of the forces arrayed against them; and that the expanded, interventionist state necessary to fight the Civil War must be reduced. Less principled, it was suggested that Reconstruction had been a terrible mistake, wasted on people without the capacity to fully contribute to society. The backroom dealings that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House in 1877, retaining Republican control, essentially ended Reconstruction, permitting Southern elites to reverse virtually all of the gains of the previous ten years - the re-imposition of slavery being the only exception. Even forms of Black Codes were reinitiated.

In the final analysis, the author contends that Reconstruction was a failure. It did not integrate freedmen into society. Despite legislation and several Constitutional amendments freedmen were, in practice, not able to exercise wide-ranging civil and political rights inherent in US citizenship. The author suggests that the failure reflects on the inadequacy of the national state, not its being too large as claimed. Yet, the status quo was changed. For a brief period, there was joint government involving blacks and some whites. It was the insistence of freedmen that led to the funding and establishment of public schools as well as community-based institutions including churches, fraternal organizations, and mutual-aid societies, many of which endured and sustained the black community during the dark era of Jim Crow, or the imposition of blatantly discriminatory laws.

Some reviewers have suggested that the author's alleged affinity for Marxist thought invalidates the book. In actuality, the book is very even-handed, very detailed, and sources well documented. The book, however, does not sugarcoat the egregious suppression of rights and the killing of thousands of freedmen for trying to exercise those rights. Furthermore, these reprehensible acts went on for one hundred years. This book is probably not widely read; it should be. No other book even attempts to be this thoroughgoing in describing and explaining Reconstruction. Sadly, this book is a window into the conceit of American moral superiority.
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100 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The standard for Reconstruction scholarship, August 22, 2000
By 
John A. Cusey (Houston, TX USA) - See all my reviews
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Eric Foner breaks no new ground with this book. The demolition of the traditional portrayal of Reconstruction as a period of unmitigated evil and injustice, where rapacious and corrupt Northerners joined with incompetent black Southerners to deny virtuous white Southerners of their rightful place in government, began as early as 1909; with a paper presented by WEB DuBois at Columbia University. The demolition was largely completed by Kenneth Stampp's 1965 book about Reconstruction, and it would be difficult to find a reputable scholar today who would disagree with the general premise of revisionist scholarship about Reconstruction: that while Reconstruction state governments and the Republican Congress were very much creatures of their time, they accomplished much that was good and noble, and that the criticisms of them by the Redeemers and their sympathizers in the academic community were frequently unjust and based on bald racial prejudice.
Instead of breaking new ground, Foner's book does an admirable job consolidating the revisionist consensus. With his emphasis on the role that the former slaves themselves played in Reconstruction, he emphatically rejects the notion, sometimes present even in revisionist scholarship, that somehow whites... were the only agents in Reconstruction. Likewise, he presents a nuanced portrayal of the Republican coalition in Congress that enacted the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, the Reconstruction Acts, the Enforcement Acts, and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871: they were not monolithic Radicals, nor were the Radicals among them monolithic in their goals and ideals. Finally, he does an admirable job of replacing Reconstruction in the social, economic, and global context that so many accounts have managed to remove it from.
Foner's prose is lucid and engaging, and his book is well-researched... and well-organized aside from a couple of minor editorial lapses... It is more complete and more all-encompassing than any other single-volume book about Reconstruction that I know about, and it ought to be the starting point for anyone interested in the period. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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110 of 136 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reconstruction Revisited, January 1, 2003
By 
James Ferguson (Vilnius, Lithuania) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Paperback)
A major undertaking. Eric Foner and Leon Litwack (Been in the Storm so Long) have rescued Reconstruction from the dustbin of history. Each has offered a timely re-exploration into one of the most pivotal periods in American History. For Foner, Reconstruction represents the often forgotten conclusion to the Civil War, an attempt to address the social injustices that resulted from over two centuries of slavery. What is even more compelling about Foner's account is that he absorbs the early women's suffrage movement into this early battle for Civil Rights.
This remarkably well-researched book gives probably the most thorough examination of Reconstruction to date. Foner begins in 1863 with the emancipation proclamation, and carries the era through to 1877, when a fateful compromise was reached by Republicans and Democrats which led to the notorious period of Redemption, in which most of the gains during this period of time were nullified.
Foner covers a tremendous amount of ground. He has uncovered old court records and other valuable information, which demonstrate just how active a role Blacks had in Reconstruction. He notes the seminal work of W.E.B. DuBois (Black Reconstruction in America), which went largely ignored by the "Dunning School," which interpreted Reconstruction as an unmitigated failure in social improvement. Foner, like DuBois, notes how many beneficial social changes came as a result of Reconstruction such as public health, education and welfare. But the Redeemers could hardly stand to see Blacks in power, and fought tooth and nail to re-establish the old social order in the South, finally winning over the Grant administration, which pardoned the Southern states, and allowed them to regain the political ascendency, much to the chagrin of the Radical Republicans, who had been instrumental in shaping the Civil Rights legislation of this time.
This book presents so many revealing portraits. It is as much a social as it is a political history of Reconstruction. Of the many compelling stories was the attempt by Blacks to make a thriving concern of the former Jefferson Davis plantation. Despite the fact that Jefferson Davis' brother had ceded the plantation to the former slaves, the Mississippi courts eventually gave title to Davis' heirs. During this brief halcyon period, the freedmen had made a success of the plantation, never realized under the Davis administration. Foner offers this case, as well as many others, to demonstrate that the former slaves were fully committed to Reconstruction, and so this as the opportunity to gain the social and political ascendency they had long been denied.
One is left to wonder what it might have been like had callous Republicans like Rutherford B. Hayes not sold out Reconstruction, and allowed the process to continue through the late 19th century. Instead, the Redeemers nullified much of what had been gained, leading to the notorious era of Jim Crow.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Heavy, dense reading, but worth it, March 31, 2007
This review is from: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Paperback)
If you read Battle Cry of Freedom and want to read the sequel, here it is. The book is every bit as detailed and scholarly, and presents the era extremely well. The problem is that where Battle Cry covered the Civil period chock full of intriguing characters, major events, and familiar territory, Foner must work with a very muddled and confusing time in American history. The test of a good writer is whether s/he can make sense of a difficult topic, and Foner does an excellent job. A recommended read for serious students of American history.
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39 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece of American history, December 30, 2001
By 
pnotley@hotmail.com (Edmonton, Alberta Canada) - See all my reviews
Based on 98 sets of private papers and more than fifty contemporary periodicals and newspapers, Eric Foner's Reconstruction is a superbly researched work of history. But this book is more than simply a synthesis that refutes the racist Dunning school interpretations. It is an invaluable and innovative work of history in its own right. First, Foner emphasizes the self-activity of the African-American community in its own right, as ex-slaves struggle to form their own churches, educate their children, revive their family life and mobilize themselves for political action. Second, Foner notes that racism cannot be seen as a diabolos de machina, dooming Reconstruction policies on the shoals of immutable prejudice, but as a complex phenomenon that, though very powerful, was also effected by other forces. Third, and perhaps most important, Foner explains the Reconstruction period as part of a transition towards capitalism. He is excellent on the implications and limitations of the Republican free labor policy, and on how African-Americans and white yeomanry tried to maintain their independence from the market and were ultimately sabatoged in this goal by the malevolence of the reconfigured and reconstitued Southern elite. For these passages alone, Foner has made an invaluable contribution to a Marxist interpretation of American history.
One should not forget Foner's considerable skills of summarization and detail. One remembers such details as the fact that Andrew Johnson was so cheap and penny-pinching that he opposed aid to assist the victims of the Irish potato famine. One is struck repeatedly by the use of violence to defeat Reconstruction (300 African-Americans alone were murdered by vigilantes in the summer of 1874 in Mississippi). One is also struck by Foner's insight on many issues. When I first read this book thirteen years I was amazed to realize that white opposition to the Confederacy was not simply confined to West Virginia and border states like Tennessee, but also to the interior regions of Alabama and North Carolina. There is also Foner's portrait of Lincoln who, if less than heroic in this account, is redemmed by an open-mindedness and willingness to consider alternatives. Foner also refutes the vulgar Beardian view that the Republican Radicals were nothing more than an advance army for Northern Industrialists, though at the same time pointing out the limitations of their laissez faire ideology. As the best volume in the Harper and Row New American Nation series one should point out that Foner also goes into detail about the transformation of the North, the rise of industrial capitalism, of labor protest, of the fate of the women's suffrage movement, and the brutal conquest of the West. Foner is also acute on the difficulties between the black-white alliance in much of the South, which was not merely the result of white racism, but also the undermining of yeomary independence and the contradictions of Southern Republican policy. (It needed to raise taxes to insure vital public services like education, but it also tried to encourage market production at a time when massive debt and low commodity prices insured the weakening of small landholders.)
But what makes Foner's account so superb is that it is a moving and haunting narrative of a great injustice and a great tragedy. Foner discusses the ungeneous attitude of the post Civil war Southern elite as they sought to reintroduce as much of slavery as they could, and as they vitiated education and the judiciary and other protections for freed people. To everyone's surprise the Radical Republicans are able to arouse enough popular opposition to overcome this. But they are limited by a tragic flaw: their free labour ideology cannot recognize the reality of class struggle. Their laissez-faire ideology limits their options. Foner is excellent on the fate of the land question, and he points out that land itself would not have ensured Africa-American prosperity. But every little bit helps and every little bit hurts. As one reads the results of "Redemption," and the rise of violence, disfranchisement, the sacking of black education, the adulteration of the judicial and creditor system to benefits whites against blacks and planters against everyone else, one learns a vital truth. The Reconstruction era was arguably the Republican party's finest hour, as it willingly went to the defense of a despised and powerless minority. By contrast, with its psychotic racism and fatuous laissez-faire cant, this was one of the worst hours of any American conservatism. In his History of the American People, Woodrow Wilson once condescendingly referred to the ex-slaves as "a host of dusky children untimely let out of school." Of course, slavery was a school whose pupils were forbidden to read and never allowed to graduate from. In reading this book, one can feel only rage at those intellectuals who euphemize violence and condescend to its victims.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staggering, December 27, 2010
By 
Richard Ostrow (San Diego, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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I was led to this book by a persistent layman's desire to understand what exactly happened after the Civil War and why Reconstruction so notoriously "failed." This monumental book was so much more than I bargained for. It is not only a study of the post-War South, but also of the forces unleashed during the War itself, of the post-War North, of the growing frontier West and, most importantly, of the modernizing forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution, the growth of Northern capitalism and the national state required to direct it. Though distinctly Marxist in his approach, Foner never falls prey to the rhetoric, reductionism or false inevitability that mars so much Marxist historiography. This book is instead full of the interplay of flawed humans, honest and corrupt, and of societal forces, moderning and reactionary, that dueled so fiercely for control of the post-War nation. The completeness of the research leads to a sure-handed analysis that seems to leave nothing unexamined. I can see why this book won the Parkman Prize in 1988.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Worthy Text..., December 20, 2005
Eric Foner presents a compelling and gripping account of an often misunderstood period in American history-- Reconstruction. I consulted Foner's text in completing my dissertation on W.E.B. Du Bois' educational philosophy and its consistency with Critical Race Theory. I must say that in my studies of the Reconstruction period, I reached many of the conclusions Foner reached. Ultimately, Reconstruction was the victim of what I refer to as the "tyranny of political compromise." The Democrats in their desire to reclaim the "Old South" and the Republicans in their desire to secure the executive branch ripped Reconstruction asunder. It is important to point out that Reconstruction had been assailed by the Judicial branch of government as well. Foner is to be commended for illuminating these and other realities of the Reconstruction era.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sad, Sad Story, October 17, 2006
This review is from: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Paperback)
This book is excellent, but it's thick and heavy going. I found a reduced edition in paperback which I started to read first, but soon found that I preferred the detail and color in the full edition. Reconstruction was a genuine tragedy and one that could have been avoided if the federal government under President Grant had cared about what was happening to the blacks in the south. Even after the Ku Klux Klan killing spree of 1865-66, murder and lynching continued to occur and massacres too, as the white population attempted to avoid negro suffrage and negro economic independence. By the end of the era, white supremacy was firmly reestablished, and things remained that way for another century. I found to my surprise that some of the figures I had learned to hate were not bad men at all: Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican, strove for civil rights, and also in Congress, Ben Butler, the political general of the Civil War and buffoon of New Orleans, was even more radical, opting for total suffrage, including giving women the vote.

It's depressing reading, loss after loss after loss, but for anyone who wants really to understand why our history is so blotted with evil periods, the book is a must. Five stars.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Failure of Reconstruction, August 26, 2006
This review is from: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Paperback)
Eric Foner's essential work on the post-Civil War American South. I'm not a fan of alternate histories, but this book makes you ponder 'what could have been' if Reconstruction had been more successful. Much like the early days of the English revolution when "for a short time, ordinary people were freer from the authority of church and social superiors than they had ever been before, or were for a long time to be again", so former slaves briefly experienced unprecedented freedom and political power. (See Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down). Ex-slaves had made tremendous strides in political and to a lesser extent economic power, but the white North lost interest and called the troops home. Southern white elites reasserted their power with violence if necesssary. Jim Crow soon followed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars State of the Art Reconstruction interpretation, June 20, 2014
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With the June, 2014 issue of The Atlantic reopening a worthwhile discussion of reparations for African-Americans, there should be a corresponding revival of interest in what happened to the enslaved people after the Civil War. No better place to go for a clear, accurate, complete discussion of Reconstruction than Eric Foner's important book.

While the impact on the emancipated and their children is central, this is a comprehensive treatment of a complex subject. A more accurate title might be The Reconstruction Era in the United States, for Foner covers not only the usual ground of Presidential and Radical Reconstruction but also discusses the impact on the north of the end of slavery, broad economic developments, and the twists and turns of the Republican and Democratic parties through the election of 1876 and the surrender of black freedoms in exchange for a Hayes presidency.

This broad scope is important because the Civil War may have been primarily about slavery, its shadow fell across virtually every aspect of American society, economics, and politics. Much of what textbooks generally discuss as "The Gilded Age:" robber barons, railroad expansion, growing inequality, corruption in all regions and at all levels of government and business, etc. are more properly understood in the context of the country's response and recovery to changes wrought by the Civil War.

Read this book if you have a serious interest in the U.S. in the post-Civil War era or to see some of the bizarre origins of current social problems.
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Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner (Paperback - February 5, 2002)
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