on May 20, 2001
This book is not and it does not pretend to be an in-depth analysis of all relevant aspects of Reconstruction or a detailed narrative of all of the events that took place in this period. Rather, it is an excellent summary of the revisionist scholarship about Reconstruction that gained currency in the '50s and '60s, and it is essential reading for anyone interested in this era of history.
The Dunning view of Reconstruction, which had almost universal scholarly and popular acceptance from the turn of the 20th Century until the '50s, held that rapacious and vindictive Radical Republicans hijacked the Reconstruction process from the just and magnanimous policies of Andrew Johnson and installed in the South state governments dominated by unscrupulous and incompetent white carpetbaggers and scalawags. These state governments were monuments to misgovernment and corruption, and the entire region (indeed, the entire country) breathed a collective sigh of relief when the white "redeemers" finally forced them out of office. The black freedmen were portrayed as ignorant, infantile, incapable of self-government, and prone to political and economic manipulation in this account of Reconstruction.
Revisionist scholars, beginning as early as 1909 with W.E.B. DuBois seminal paper about the subject but really not gaining momentum until the '50s, held that the Dunning school was substantially in error about the progress and nature of Reconstruction, and that this error was largely caused by bald racial prejudice. While the Radical Republicans did have crass economic motives, they honestly believed that the freedmen ought to have civil and political rights. While the Reconstruction state governments were often corrupt and incompetent, they were not out of the ordinary for state governments of the time, and the redeemer governments were frequently as bad or worse. Despite the corruption and the base motivations that did exist, much was accomplished during Reconstruction that should inspire pride: the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which guaranteed blacks civil and political rights; the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, which guaranteed blacks the equal use of public accomodations and which provided the Federal government with the legal basis to prosecute those who would deny the black man his civil rights; the institution of truly republican governments in the former Confederacy; the beginning of the reconstruction of the South's infrastructure, which had been largely destroyed by the Civil War; and the foundation of such worthwhile institutions as state-supported schools.
Stampp does an admirable job of summarizing both the historiography of Reconstruction and the revisionist view of it. His prose may be somewhat dry at times, but nevertheless it is lucid and engaging in its totality. The key merit of this book is not, however, its groundbreaking scholarship -- indeed, there is nothing groundbreaking about this book -- or its literary style. This has been an enormously influential book because it makes revisionist scholarship about Reconstruction accessible to the masses. In so doing, it has performed the invaluable task of popularizing the revisionist conclusions about Reconstruction, thus making popular acceptance of our later-day Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, more readily attainable.
As wonderful and influential as this book is, it is not without its shortcomings. Stampp does an insufficient job of citing his sources. This is, in part, because this book is largely the written and polished version of lectures about Reconstruction that he has given over the years; unfortunately, understanding why there are so few citations does not excuse it. His ending bibliographical essay, while very useful, ultimately does not take the place of detailed in-text citations, and his book suffers for it.
Secondly, his depiction of the freedman leaves something to be desired. One of the great modern-day complaints about the Dunning school of Reconstruction is that it does not treat Reconstruction-era blacks as actual agents in Reconstruction history. They have no will, and they are not actors in the drama. Rather, they are acted upon. Stampp certainly does not share the racist assumptions of the Dunning scholars that he seeks to replace, but he does share with them the assumption that the black man was not a prime actor in this story. It is rather amazing to me that Stampp discusses the freedman as incessantly as he does and yet fails to talk much about him.
Neither of these two criticisms should take that much away from this otherwise excellent book. Read it as an introduction to the era, and treasure it for its salutary historical influence.
on March 28, 2000
Call this effort from the great historian Reconstruction deconstruction. He deconstructs the notion, all too lazily accepted even today, that Reconstruction was a failed political movement, the only accomplishment of which was pocket-lining by Carpetbaggers from the North.
Far from it, Stampp convincingly argues. While he does not deny that the Radical Reconstructionists had a political agenda that included punishing the South and forcing through a pro-industrial, high-tariff program that a populist South was bound to oppose, he also points out Reconstruction wrought many positive changes, including bringing the newly freed African-American into the political process.
Stampp also is able to show the social programs launched by the Reconstructionists under the aegis of the Freedmen's Bureau were necessary in a South that was all too eager after the war to force black citizens into a new servitude. For example, the federal officials were instrumental in monitoring court proceedings in the South, ensuring that justice was served for all citizens, not just those holding money and political power.
The reasons for Reconstruction's demise have been well documented, and Stampp does not shy from acknowledging the obvious instances of corruption and soaring taxes. But he points out that in the decades following the end of the war, corruption was hardly unique to southern governments and that tax increases were to be expected in states and local communities whose infrastructures had been badly damaged by war.
Finally, Stampp reminds us, lest we forget, that Reconstruction failed because of a determined effort by diehard white supremacists and secret organizations such as the Klan. This effort was best characterized by the Mississippi Plan of 1875, in which anti-Reconstructionists set out openly to ensure that black citizens would not make it to the polls to vote. This perversion of democracy spelled the end until the 1950s, essentially, of efforts by the U.S. to achieve political and social equality for blacks.
This is essential reading for students of American history. It represents an important contribution to the literature that illuminates this country's self-inflicted racial problems.
on August 2, 2013
Southerners like myself who learned zilch about Reconstruction in school - or, worse, who "learned" the racist version of it - can profit from this short, highly readable book by one of the great American historians. Foner's book is more up-to-date, but I have not found it an engaging "read." (I might should have cheated & bought the abridged version.)
Stampp briskly lays out how Reconstruction began, why Congress needed to take it over, the strengths and errors of Congressional Reconstruction, and the sad collapse of the North's willpower to protect the blacks it had liberated in 1865.
As other commenters note, Stampp's 1965 book differs from contemporary views; Grant's stock as a president has gone up, and more attention should be paid to blacks themselves as agents (as was the complaint about Spielberg's "Lincoln" movie). Due to when it was written, Stampp's book also has to consider and rebut pro-Southern arguments that were taken much more seriously in his day. In that regard, the book reminds me of books on evolution that don't go into sufficient detail because they are too busy rebutting creationists.
But for the reader new to Reconstruction, the book is still very much worth reading.
on September 23, 2014
Before reading this, I read Eric Foner's book on the Reconstruction, so this review will include comparisons.
First off, this book was very easy to get through. While Foner provided a lot of detail, the structure was horrible, jumping around chronologically and geographically. Stampp, on the other hand, told one aspect of the story at a time, often focusing on one person/faction through several years, which gave significant insight into the reasons behind various decisions. Foner only really did this when referring to Johnson, and not to the same extent. In both layout and insight, this book blew Foner's away.
To be fair, Foner does offer one thing Stampp does not, which is a focus on Negroes in America during Reconstruction. Because Stampp focuses on political movers and shakers, the true impact of a lot of these policies can be missed, and Foner locked in on them with letters written by the affected people, a small collection of pictures, and local stories. This decision resulted in more "jumping around," but it was moving, and resulted in a greater knowledge of their situation.
I wasn't fond of the attempts at persuasiveness. He makes a valid point about the Reconstruction's popular view being a bit unfair, but he devotes pages to just arguing their intentions. This is not a long book, and I felt cheated out of worthwhile information to make room for this narrative. Still, there is a lot of worthwhile information, and the majority of it does support his argument.
My biggest complaint, though, and it is a failure on the parts of both Foner and Stampp, is that after 1872 the book just falls apart. In Foner's case, it's not as noticeable. After all, there is no structure to lose. In Stampp's, 1872-1877 is touched on briefly, and while I understand some of that was due to their being fewer groundbreaking laws, amendments, and initiatives, the writing in this section seems like someone eager to be done with the book. Additionally, and this is unforgivable, there is disturbingly little information on the election of 1876.
The 1876 election is mainly regarded as the most controversial election in US history. In addition, it is considered the end of Reconstruction. Devoting so little energy into explaining the mindsets, deals, and key players involved in this event is comparable to not mentioning any debates or actions during the Civil War; it is an exclusion of one of the most significant events in the Reconstruction.
It would be more accurate to describe this book as 1865-1872, with a few notes on surrounding years. And again, Foner was not any better in this regard.
All in all, I recommend this over Foner's work, which was the standard when I began reading this. There is no question that Stampp offers the reader a clearer picture of the Reconstruction as a whole. I would like to give this 3.5 stars, but that wasn't an option, so I went with 4.
on January 5, 2007
A cohesive and well-written account of Reconstruction by a world-renowned historian. Stampp does not present a flowing narrative of historical events, rather he gives his own revisionist perspective on the policies of both the Johnson administration and the Radical Republicans. An excellent work of scholarship, accessible to both the student and those with a general interest in American history - Thoroughly recommended.
on June 23, 2012
This was an informative and interesting book. The author's thesis is that the radical reconstructionists were less corrupt than was commonly assumed at the time. He gives them credit for their noble goal of protecting civil rights and blames conservative parties in society for ensuring that reconstruction failed.
Stampp was passionate about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In this context, he took issue with the traditional portrayal of the radical Republicans as corrupt and inept carpetbaggers and scalawags. Historiographical analysis was a strong suit for this author. However, the book does have some drawbacks. The tone of the book is tendendentious and polemical. Sources are not clearly cited. The biggest problem with the book is that the evidence backing his arguments is mostly anecdotal and quantifiable data is rarely used.
The section on Andrew Johnson is illuminating, but he fails to give Lincoln enough credit for his achievements. Also, he should have given Grant more credit for being committed to protecting civil rights in the South. Reconstruction would have ended years earlier if Grant had decided to remove troops from the South.
The author is correct that Reconstruction was a noble effort to protexct civil rights. However, he fails to realize that it was doomed to fail because it could only be enforced by keeping troops in the South for generations. This would be hindered by shortages in manpower and money in the laissez-faire Gilded Age and the economic devastation of the Panic of 1873.
Overall,this is a good book and is worth reading. It is important to keep in mind that it was written in 1965 and better and more compelling evidence has surfaced since then. The author's passion for civil rights is to be commended. The language he employs is lively and engaging. His anger at the disenfranchisement of African-American citizens is tangiable and warranted.
on August 31, 2005
The standard view of reconstruction up to the middle of the last century was that it was very bad: the radical Republicans, opposed to Lincoln's desire to show leniency toward the people of the South after the rebellion was terminated, went out of their way to see that the South was "punished." Historians began revising this view during the 1960s; Stampp's book is among the best of these revisions. Stampp admits there were many mistakes committed by the radical Republicans, and their idealistic aims, especially toward the blacks, might not have been so pure, but he believes if it wasn't for the radicals there would be no 14th or 15th Ammendments to the Constitution. As with most controversies, there is probably truth to be found on both sides of the argument. Stampp develops his argument carefully and fairly. What was truly tragic was the utter failure of the government (and the people) to prevent or even care any longer about the South's "experiment" with two separate societies, which began in earnest after Grant's two disastrous terms as President. Jim Crow would end up being almost as bad as slavery itself.
on January 14, 2004
What amazed me the most about this book by Kenneth Stampp is its readability. The book is suprisingly entertaining despite what some may consider its dry subject matter. Although, some of the revisionist ideas of Mr. Stampp have been taken to task by recent historians, The Era of Reconstruction still remains one of the essential tools for any student of American history.
Mr. Stampp can perhaps be taken to task for some of the far-fetched psychological connections he makes when trying to surmise the motiviations of historical personages, most notably Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, but the fact that Stampp used psychology in his historical speculations is remarkable because of the fact that his work was written in the mid sixties. By delving deeper than any historian before him into the motivations behind reconstruction, Stampp's work remains fresh and readable even today.
on March 11, 2010
I bought this very old book (1965 edition) from the second hand booksellers in Ankara. I did not have a chance to read it for years. I must admit I had a prejudice against the book and the subject. I thought that after Howard Fast's Road to Freedom no book can surpass it in the field of Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). I was wrong! I am really happy that I was wrong, I learnt a lot from the late Mr. Kenneth Stampp albeit too late.
The writer carefully builds the scene during the Civil War, probably the bloodiest period in US history. He describes the various aspects of the Northern and Southern sides basing the foundation of his analysis to the class interests of either side. After examining the Northern side he concludes that the rapidly developing capitalism has created a new strata in the society. New industrial bosses are step by step dethroning the usual old generation of Northern elite who held on to power during previous periods. Stampp sees in this elite the seeds of the future US imperialism. With regards to Lincoln, Stampp clears the picture even more brilliantly. He uses the argument of abolution of slavery only as an argument for his fight to preserve the union. Even Lincoln does not have a clear solution for the Negro question
Stampp is utterly correct when he declares that most of the Republicans are not quite devastated by the early death of Lincoln. As Lincoln sought to deal with the Negro Question without the Congress, the Republicans (Radicals most of all) are happy to pursue their own solution for the problem. However the new president Grant is not what he say he is. His Presendial Restoration attempts will be thwarted by the Congress paving the way for the Radicals dominating the scene.
Stampp is curiosly cathes the bull by the horns as he describes the failure of giving the land formerly belonging to white owners to be distributed to the emancipated slaves. The class conscious Northerns, even the Radicals' reforms have limits. They only want to emancipate the slaves, they are not bothered how they will survive after centuries of bonding. It is a free country, so let them take care of themselves!
After the Johnson impeachment of 1867 the Radicals are powerfull and have allies in the South. The scalawags (poor white men), carpetbaggers (Northerns arriving south) and freed Negros. The first to get off the Reconstruction will be scalawags. The poor white men from the South think that they ought to be compensated as they are members of the superior race. The carpetbagger Northern entrepreneurs arriving South joins the powerful White elite in reconstructing the devastated South. The Negro is emancipated from the slavery to be bonded into another form of slavery. Quoting from Stampp: "The negro was first freed, then enfranchised then launched into practical politics and then mercilessly beaten into reasonable subjection."
Stampp asks rightly why the federal government did not resist the southern white elite when they forced, blackmailed and killed the negroes to vote for them. He mentions that the Northernmen were not at all leftists fighting for ideals but businessmen caring for their gains. As the southern economy was beginning to revive with the help of huge railroad constructions, the Northern powerful bosses came to realise that if they demanded the rights for the Negroes and the lowly classes they would be encouraging the communists and radical revolutionaries. This was not small talk as the year was 1871, the yearof the Paris Commune! So the Southern states were left to their own devices, re-forming the social slaver of the Negroes and the poor whites.
A very easily readable book, a must for the interested history reader of the era. Despite being old, yet remains unchallenged. Ought to be re-printed. Bravo Mr. Stampp. Rest in pace...
on December 1, 1998
Stampp really helps to dissuade readers of the old Reconstruction interpretations that still exist. These old interpretations from the Dunningite era need to be exposed, deconstructed, and put in their proper place--an example of what happens when personal biases and agendas are placed before history, thereby leading to a slanted, subjective view. Stampp sets things straight, and really sheds new light on our nation's past, and turns traditional beliefs upside-down.