Historiography of the Reconstruction Era

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Riham Elshazli
Professor Clement Price
Civil War and the Reconstruction
12/11/12

Historiography of the Reconstruction Era
At a time when America was trying to piece itself back together, the Reconstruction Era is one of the most important chapters in history. It is also, however, one of the most debated. After the Civil War, the South was devastated and thousands of freed slaves needed to be integrated into society. When Andrew Johnson took office, he was moderate in his views as to what should happen to restore order to the United States. However, some Republicans had other plans in mind. They wanted to impose harsher terms and used Congress to do so, justly giving them the name Radical Republicans. Opinions about this time period have swung back and forth between America’s most prominent of historians. Through the years, the different theories suggested about Reconstruction have been entirely conflicting, with one side calling it a failure while another calls it a success. Perhaps this chapter in history is so hotly contested because of the dramatic changes that have occurred in black society over the years. As society changes and new information rolls in, writers see former events through a new lens. The first view, brought up by William Dunning in 1907, categorized Reconstruction as a disaster because of the corruption of Radical Republicans. 30 years later, revisionists such as Vann C. Woodward challenged that notion, claiming that Reconstruction failed because of economic reasons, not because of corruption. During the 1960s, neoabolitionists such as John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp suggested that Reconstruction was not a failure at all; rather, it left a legacy that eventually brought on the Civil Rights Movement. The most current view, held by historians such as Heather C. Richardson, claims that Reconstruction affected the entire nation, not just the South, and that most of the change has been positive.

The first view to emerge, spearheaded by William Archibald Dunning, labeled the Reconstruction as a failure because of the corruption of Radical Republicans and corruption in the government. In his book Reconstruction, Political and Economic, published in 1907, Dunning painted a dreadful picture of Radical Republicans, claiming that they only wanted to punish the Southern rebels and that they cared about nothing except keeping their party in power. To do so, the Radical Republicans pushed President Johnson aside and “gained a firm control of all branches of state governments.” To assure their power, they pushed for black suffrage. Since the South was under military rule, the “military authorities assumed the duty of promoting in every way participation [in voting] by the blacks.” Dunning believed that voting power was put into the hands of people who were illiterate, ignorant, and “unfit for the task,” an idea that was “unconceivable to the southerners.” He concluded, “Hence…a craving for political power was assumed to be the only explanation for an otherwise unintelligible proceeding.” Dunning and his students resolved that the only reason why the 15th Amendment was ratified was because the Radical Republicans needed the black vote to keep their power. In the end, Dunning states why the Reconstruction was a failure, “The party, then, which triumphed in the making of constitutions…consisted chiefly of freedmen, led by the detested ‘carpet-baggers’…and the even more detested ‘scalawags.’” The people in control of the government were corrupt and cared only for their own needs. After analyzing William Dunning, it is somewhat understandable as to why he held such a grim view of Radical Republicans. He lived during a time (1857-1922) when corruption in Republican government was a recurrent problem, which is why he held an unpleasant view of them. Also, the students that created the “Dunning school” and helped him formulate his theories were all from South, so there was much bias in the help he received....
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