Radical Reconstruction

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 10 10:54:38 MDT 2003

Stuart Lawrence wrote:
> The meaning of the term "Radical Reconstruction" is not controversial.
> Historians widely use it to refer to the 1867-1877 period, from the
> passage of the Reconstruction Act by a Congress led by Radical
> Republicans to the end of Federal military occupation in the South
> following the disputed 1876 presidential election.

However, in the context of the post-Civil War period, there were was a
challenge to the racial status quo unlike any that would be seen until
the late 1950s. Blacks were not only given the vote, they asserted
themselves politically. Some of the Radical Republicans were also
radical in the more common sense of the word. That being said, there
appears to be divisions over the question:

The revolutionary nature of the Civil War and Reconstruction would seem
self-evident: they not only emancipated four million slaves (at a cost
of at least 620,000 lives) but also granted those slaves civil and
political equality with their former masters and elevated a number of
them to political office within three years of their emancipation.
Contemporary observers certainly perceived this as a revolution. British
and French journalists reporting from the United States during the 1860s
described Emancipation and Reconstruction as a "mighty revolution" and
"one of the most radical revolutions known in history." Thaddeus
Stevens, they told European readers, was the "Robespierre" of "the
second American Revolution." None other than Karl Marx wrote extensively
about the "world transforming... revolutionary movement" going on in the
United States. A northern journalist, visiting the South a decade after
the war, wrote, "I do not believe that the ruin of the French nobility
at the first Revolution was more complete than . . . that of the proud,
rich, and cultivated aristocracy of the low country of South Carolina,"
where former slaves now owned considerable land and held most of the
government offices. Speaking in behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1866,
which granted ex-slaves equal citizenship and empowered federal courts
to enforce civil rights, a senator from Maine conceded that "this
species of legislation is absolutely revolutionary." He went on, "But
are we not in the midst of a revolution?"

Revisionist historians in the 1960s accepted the notion of
Reconstruction as revolution, and praised its achievements. Some of them
believed that it was not revolutionary enough; in particular they
regretted that Thaddeus Stevens's proposal to confiscate the !and of
wealthy "traitors" (Confederates) and grant it in forty-acre plots to
the freed slaves was never adopted. Without the basis of economic
independence that this might have provided them, the largely landless
ex-slaves were vulnerable to the white counterrevolution that swept away
many of their civil and political rights. Without land reform, one
revisionist scholar wrote in 1969, "Reconstruction was a revolution

It was but a step from this assertion to a belief that Reconstruction
was no revolution at all. By the 1970s a number of "post-revisionist"
historians had taken precisely this position. Post-revisionism grew up
in the climate of disillusionment with American institutions produced by
the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the civil-rights movement. If
capitalist democracy produces imperialism and napalm bombing in
Southeast Asia, if civil-fights and voting-rights acts leave the masses
of black Americans impoverished in urban ghettos, what good are they?
Such was the question asked by a growing number of white radicals and
black militants.

full: http://lilt.ilstu.edu/gmklass/foi/read2/mcpher.htm


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