Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The truth of this observation by Southern writer William Faulkner came home to me as I worked my way through this “perennial classic,” Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Then, as now, differing opinions about where to draw the line between property rights and civil rights divided families, political parties and the country. This sober, nuanced story, which tells what happened after the death of the Great Emancipator, changed my thinking about our country’s past and present. I learned that the South was not a monolith. Some of the propertied people and many of the small, independent farmers were Unionists. I learned that African Americans played a key role in shaping local government policy during the early days of Reconstruction, but that their advances were set aside as white men started reclaiming their positions of power, often resorting to violence. Finally, I learned how the federal government expanded its power during and after the war, taxing income, instituting the draft and building a large bureaucracy. Its role during the early days of Reconstruction as guarantor of the rights of former slaves against local infringement set it at odds with those of that day who revered the Founding Fathers for the strict limits they’d set on centralized power. It was this concentrated power that the Fathers saw as the major threat to individual liberties. This sounds familiar, as well as the fear of 19th-century Republicans and Democrats alike that “special measures” adopted to ease the transition of former slaves to eventual self-sufficiency would foster a “culture of dependency.” The debt-ridden Southern states taxed the poor heavily to pay for education and hospitals, but within a decade were forced to abandon these programs. Eventually, the federal government tired of its effort to reconstruct the South. It never, however, completely disbanded the army, which it now used to break strikes among immigrant laborers and to fight Native Americans. This was not an easy book to read, not only because it covered unfamiliar territory in great detail, but also described atrocities committed against the innocent. I am glad I stuck with it nevertheless.

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