Prepare yourself. I’m climbing on a soapbox this morning. The Reconstruction Era mystifies many with its complexity. It was an era of positive change and social oppression. An era of anger and reconciliation. And era of hatred and caring sacrifice. An era when American ideals and values were changing, and an era where there was extreme conflict against those changes as the battle for Constitutional interpretation continued.
The different views and beliefs combined with deep-seated convictions never quite settled by some on the Civil War battlefields erupted into conflict in the halls of Congress and in the South. It was an era as complex as the Civil War itself. So why isn’t it discussed more frequently? Honestly, I think many people just aren’t comfortable with the happenings of the Reconstruction Era. After-all, it can be awkward to discuss the horrible lynchings, economic destitution, and political eruptions. Maybe it hits a little too close to some issues in the modern era for some folks…
Last August I wrote a series Rebuilding? Observations on the Reconstruction Era and the responses from readers were overwhelming. You asked for “Part II,” and I’m pleased to start it today. The Reconstruction Era is not an area of historical expertise for me, but – as with so many interesting topics – I’m willing to learn and share what I research. The topics covered this month are directly related to some requests from readers and then a few others I thought would be interesting.
Today’s post tries to unravel why so little time is spent on this period in the classrooms.
So…What Happened After The Civil War?
Ever looked on the history shelves at the library? At my local library, there are about six shelves dedicated to housing books about Lincoln, the abolition cause, and the Civil War. And then there’s less than six books about The Reconstruction. Is it just me, or does something seem wrong here?
And I’m not the only one seeing a problem. Recently, I saw a conversation on Twitter with folks explaining things they’d never learned about the Reconstruction Era in school. And the list went on and on. Some even said they didn’t go beyond the Civil War in that particular class (high-school and/or college).
Too often students are left with a big blank space and question marks after the Civil War when it comes to the Reconstruction. Studies tend to jump on to famous inventions or maybe the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876).
Is It A Problem With The Facts?
Was/is Reconstruction often swept aside because some people found the facts unpleasant since it drastically changed their way of life? Historical facts like: the South lost the Civil War, slavery was over, before the law all U.S. male citizens are equal. This may explain some interpretations seen in old history text or story books. (Conversely, other old history texts and story books completely vilify the South before, during, and after the Civil War which doesn’t exactly match the historical facts either. Let’s be fair…)
And lest you think I’m only pointing at a certain region below the 36th Parallel, I would like remind all readers that racism was not solely a Southern problem. Far from it. Look back at letters by Union soldiers from the Civil War. Look at the riots and mob violence in Northern cities. Some Americans – then and now – have serious racism issues, which unfortunately leads to ignoring the facts or trying to rewrite them.
Is It A Problem With Government Changes?
Remember the age-old debate about states rights which was a factor leading into the Civil War? Well, that wasn’t completely solved on the battlefields. And – in many ways – it got exacerbated during the Reconstruction Era. Why?
Well, there was debate over how to let the Southern States back into the Federal government and processes. Some favored immediate admittance as soon as states had reestablished their state and local governments and ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Others – particularly the Radical Republicans – wanted to “punish” the South, leaving military governments in place indefinitely. The situation became more controversial since the newly established state governments tried or simply passed laws limiting freedoms for black Americans. Federal troops were needed to help protect the freedmen and limit/prevent the crimes committed by secret societies upholding white supremacy.
So – because some (let’s be clear – not all) Southerners didn’t want to accept the facts, new Constitutional laws, and new societal changes, violence erupted, further compounding the question: should the South be divided in military districts or allowed back into the Union with full privileges as soon as possible? How many rights does a state have? (Go read the Constitution for the answer.) But, if a state is breaking the Constitution, should the Federal government have the power to take measures?
Perhaps it is questions like these, which may sound quite similar to some modern political situations, that make the Reconstruction Era unpopular in many public history studies…
Is It A Problem With The Human Heart?
I’ve thought long and hard about bringing up this opinion, but it is at my bedrock beliefs when addressing the Reconstruction Era and other challenging times of history.
It is a popular notion these days to say the human race is basically good. Looking around, I’m not exactly sure how folks come to that conclusion, but it goes back centuries to humanist philosophers. However, biblical teachings are clear than mankind is desperately wicked. Forgiveness is not a natural human trait. Hatred, revenge, or harboring bitterness come much more naturally.
Was it this inherit sinfulness at the root of the conflicts of the Reconstruction? Was the North so bent on “punishing” the South? Was the South so angry about losing slaves and the war that they couldn’t forgive and took their frustration out on the more innocent among them (freedmen)? (Generally speaking here – yes, of course, there are plenty of positive individual examples.)
Instead of restoration, the Reconstruction Era became a vicious cycle of violence and retaliations while the victims tended to be the freedmen who were already struggling to find their way and survive in a nation unfortunately prone to racism. No wonder it’s easier to stick the Reconstruction Era under the proverbial rug. It’s hardly a “golden moment” in American History, and the questions, struggles, and wrongs make us feel uncomfortable and well they should. Sometimes, I think we could use some more lessons about the politics, social struggles, and mistakes book-ending the Civil War and leave off the lessons of “this regiment moved here on Gettysburg battlefield” in the faint, faint hope that we might actually learn from the past and not repeat mistakes.
And it is with that hope, I climb off my soapbox and prepare to study more aspects of the Reconstruction Era. I hope I didn’t scare you off. I hope you’re ready to be brave and look at this important era. In the coming weeks, I promise to share the historical truths but in a less hard-hitting manner than today.
P.S. Why do you think the Reconstruction Era is one of the least popular to discuss in classrooms, books, and other history forums?