American reconstruction historiography problems

Published 17 Feb 2017

The American Civil war fought between the United States and the Southern slave states which called themselves the Confederate States of America. The war was the bloodiest in American history which caused hundreds of thousands of military and civilian casualties. The war led to the end of slavery, secession and strengthened the role of the Federal government. The end of the American civil war did not mean an end to the causes which led to the conflict. Reconstruction is the time period from 1863 to 1877 in which the American government attempted to resolve how the secessionist states would be reintegrated into the Union, the civil status of the Confederacy leadership and the political status of the freed blacks. History is the study of past events while historiography is the written documents and records about humans and past societies. Historians have collected and recorded facts about the reconstruction.

They have different interpretations, assumptions and aims about the event. Historians make observations using documents, letters, data and other sources to make generalizations. These generalizations form the basis of the historian’s interpretation. Few events in US history have undergone such dramatic shifts in interpretation. Reconstruction however has been universally concluded by historians as being a failure. Early historians saw Johnson and the confederates as traitors who had sabotaged the Union’s achievements. Only a decade after the reconstruction, historians pointed out to the incompetence of Johnson and his allies which led to the Radical Reconstruction.

The Dunning school of Reconstruction historians observed and concluded that the reconstruction was unfortunate in every way. This school of thought felt that Union’s motives were immoral and that they unleashed havoc on the South (Jr., 1991). They undermined the South’s economy and racial relations for generations. This school of thought assumed that the South was ready to accommodate to a reasonable plan that would integrate their states and resolve the issues of the American Civil War. This view however has been challenged by modern historians who have observed that the South was finding legal means to subjugate the black population.

The creation of the Klu Klux Klan and burning of black churches is evidence by modern historians that the South was not willing to accommodate. Most contemporary historians have rejected the assumption that Radical reconstruction led to deterioration of race relations. Much evidence suggests that race friction was rampant in the South before the Radical reconstruction. They suggest that plight of the freedmen were the motivating factors for the Radical reconstruction. Du Bois in 1935 provided the most significant challenge to the Dunning School. He wrote extensively about the efforts by African Americans to create a stable political environment in the South. He also argued that the reconstruction was an ideal opportunity for the African Americans to unite with white workers.

This was however sabotaged by southern whites who used the specter of racism to prevent such a bonding. Another problem facing the documentation of the event is historical revisionism which was popular in the 1930s. These historical revisionists interpreted the events of reconstruction on the basis of economics.

They argued that the real motives of reconstruction were to destroy the agricultural base of the South and replace them with a new network of national banks and to guarantee a “sound” currency. Post World War II historians saw reconstruction as an event which failed because of the high level of idealism. They concluded that the goals were too ambitious to complete and did not take into account the realities of the era (Dr Toer,). Another school of reconstruction historians were the neoabolitionist who were allied with the Civil Rights Movement and who praised the Radical Reconstruction.

They argued that a second reconstruction was needed for the twentieth century. Contemporary historians have written extensively on race, religion and gender issues of the Reconstruction. They include Nina Silber, David Blight, Cecelia O’Leary, Laura Edwards, LeeAnn Whites, and Edward J. Blum. Reconstruction is an event which has been documented, observed and reported by historians in many different ways. The problems faced in documenting the event have been bias, prejudice, generalizations, etc. Trends like multiculturalism, post modernism and the rise of cultural and social history have also influenced the historiography of the reconstruction.


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