Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction
by Eric Foner and Joshua Brown
The Other American Revolution
A review by Steven Hahn
Midway through his new book on emancipation and Reconstruction, Eric Foner remarks on how "unanticipated events" -- in this case, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- "profoundly shaped" the course of the era. Foner finds it "inconceivable" that Lincoln, had he lived, "would have so alienated Congress" as to have faced impeachment, and speculates that Lincoln and his fellow Republicans in Congress would likely have fashioned a Reconstruction plan "more attuned to protecting the rights of the former slaves than the one [Andrew] Johnson envisioned, but less radical than the one Congress eventually adopted." Such a plan, Foner acknowledges, might well have united the North and gained greater acceptance in the white South, thus smoothing the process of sectional reunification and avoiding the struggles and political violence that left bloody and painful scars on the nation for generations to follow. But, he asks, would such an alternative, however appealing in some regards, "have served the nation's interests, and especially those of the former slaves?"
Foner's question defies the reconciliationist narrative that has long focused popular opinion on the importance of healing the nation's wounds -- and has long demonized Reconstruction as a dark, vindictive, and misguided episode in our history. Yes, it is said, the Civil War was an awful and divisive conflagration, and one that suggested the limits of our political institutions. But in the end both sides agreed to lay down their arms and rebuild the country, a project that would have been hastened were it not for the Radical Republicans who took charge of Reconstruction in 1867 and the white supremacist vigilantes who fought to defeat their initiatives.
Consider a recent example of the reconciliationist school, Jay Winik's highly touted April 1865, which celebrates Grant's offer and Lee's acceptance of generous terms at Appomattox. Winik, who covered civil wars elsewhere in the world during the past two decades and knows how inconclusive they can be, never asks if Grant's magnanimity served the interests of African Americans, who had themselves endured more than two centuries of slavery and helped to save the Union. But Foner does ask the question, in an arresting and confounding manner; and so he reminds us that talk of the "national interest" at any point in our history generally ignores African Americans, or at least tends to code the "nation" white. And this is a measure of the challenging ways in which Eric Foner has re-oriented and reshaped our understanding of the past.
Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he has been for most of his adult life. Like his mentor Richard Hofstadter, he has had an enormous influence on how other historians, as well as a good cut of the general reading public, have come to think about American history. This is the result of his voluminous scholarship and of his decades as a teacher. Indeed, when one considers the chronological and topical range of Foner's many books and essays -- not to mention those of his doctoral students -- only Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, David Brion Davis, and, in an earlier era, Charles Beard (who was also at Columbia) would seem to be his genuine rivals in impact and accomplishment.
Foner has reached across the span of American history in The Story of American Freedom (1998) and Give Me Liberty! (2004). He has explored the radical political impulses of the latter half of the eighteenth century in Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976), and has confronted the interpretive contexts of historical writing in Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (2002). In an innovative book of lectures, Nothing but Freedom (1983), he considered the slave emancipation process in very broad comparative perspective. Yet Foner's greatest energies have been devoted to the nineteenth century, and especially to the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here his imprint has been wide and deep, and Forever Free, a book written chiefly for a non-academic audience, shows many of his important thematic marks.
The very title, Forever Free, with its subtitle joining emancipation and Reconstruction, not only identifies the central interpretive thrust of Foner's new book, but also reflects one of his major conceptual interventions, developed most fully in his justly acclaimed Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, which appeared in 1988. Unlike previous historians (regardless of their viewpoints) who understood Reconstruction principally as a political process meant to re-unite the nation, Foner sees it as a social and political process -- a social and political revolution -- commencing with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 rather than with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
In this, Foner extends the remarkable insights of W.E.B. DuBois, whose Black Reconstruction in America -- which appeared in 1935 and was long ignored by professional historians -- placed slavery, slaves, and ex-slaves at the center of the great drama of national conflict. African Americans emerge as powerful political actors in Forever Free, as they did in DuBois's book. Their individual and collective decisions, their struggles, their challenges to authority, their courage in the face of repression, and their visions of freedom put emancipation on the table of Civil War policy, in Foner's judgment, and a new set of rights claims on the political board of Reconstruction. In the vivid pages of Forever Free, we become acquainted with these extraordinary people, some well-known, some virtually unknown -- Robert Smalls, James K. Green, Henry Adams. We are also offered riveting images from the period and six stimulating essays by Joshua Brown on the changing visual culture of race and equality in nineteenth-century American society.
African Americans are not, of course, the only powerful actors to appear in Forever Free. Lincoln, Johnson, Sherman, and Grant, among other familiar political and military leaders, all have prominent parts. So, too, do the Radical Republicans, who have figured crucially and have been represented sympathetically in Foner's writings since his very first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970), a pathbreaking treatment of the ideology of the Republican Party in the 1850s. But African Americans drive the action in Forever Free. And Foner's ideas about the historical sources of black activism have developed significantly. Twenty years ago, in Reconstruction, he saw slaves coming to political life largely when the Civil War began and various groups of Northerners (black and white) came into contact with them; now he sees the experience of enslavement as establishing the foundations on which the new politics of freedom would be built, as African American slaves, in the face of their masters' enormous power, constructed their own relations, institutions, and sets of political beliefs and practices. "It is essential to bear in mind," Foner writes, "the overwhelming economic and political power of slavery in order to appreciate the radicalism of emancipation and Reconstruction."
Foner therefore begins the slavery chapter (the first, and the longest, in the book) with an account of General Sherman's meeting with twenty black ministers (most of whom had been slaves at some point in their lives) in Savannah, Georgia in early January 1865. Here we learn of the richness and the density of black hopes at the moment of emancipation. Defining freedom as the opportunity to "reap the fruit of our own labor, and take care of ourselves," one of the ministers, speaking for the group, thought it necessary "to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor." Three days later, Sherman issued his Field Orders No. 15, reserving 400,000 acres of prime plantation land along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia for exclusive black settlement, to be divided into forty-acre plots and made available to black families together with the use of army mules (the basis of the expression "forty acres and a mule").
Rarely have the aspirations and sensibilities of slaves and freedpeople -- or of any working people -- made themselves felt so directly on public policy, and toward what were unmistakably revolutionary ends. The freedpeople had some allies in the national government, and also among the Northern public, who supported land reform not only to place black freedom on a secure basis but also fully to break the back of the antebellum slaveocracy and the plantation system over which it had presided: to create in the South a society more resonant with what they valued in the North. But land reform threatened property rights throughout the nation, in a way in which the abolition of property in slaves never quite did; and so those allies were relatively few in number and summarily defeated. The social revolution of the middle period would have clear limits.
Yet here, and elsewhere in his scholarship, Foner focuses on another revolution that the Civil War and Reconstruction made possible, and one that, in his view, remains incomplete. This was the political revolution that extended the franchise to African American men and laid the basis for an "interracial democracy" in the South, and in the United States more generally. Given the conditions of political life in American society at the time of the Civil War, Foner's view would seem to have a good deal of merit, however much it dissents from several decades of revisionist historical writing.
That revisionism began by adopting the idea of American political exceptionalism -- the notion that America stood apart in the Atlantic world in its early embrace of democratic politics and practices, and in the steady expansion of democratic rights thereafter. Black enfranchisement thus appeared to revisionists as part of the Whiggish logic of American political history, advanced chiefly by liberal white leaders, who were applauded for their efforts rather than condemned for their vindictiveness, as they had been by a previous generation of Southern apologists.
Foner's work complicates this optimistic narrative. He reminds us of how complex and contested America's early political history was, of how deep an imprint the interests of slaveholders and their allies had left on it. By the eve of the Civil War, despite a period of democratization in the Jacksonian years, the country was effectively a native-born white man's republic. Women had campaigned for political rights and been defeated. Free blacks in the North had campaigned for political rights and been defeated. Slaves in the South (who constituted 40 percent of the population there) had been excluded from civil and political society. Immigrants, especially poor Irish immigrants, faced increasing obstacles to their political participation and increasing hostility from native-born Protestants. The federal government had enacted a tougher Fugitive Slave Law, which gave slavery a basis in every state. And the Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, had determined that black people, slave or free, could not be citizens of the United States, and indeed had no rights that whites "were bound to respect."
It was, in sum, scarcely imaginable in 1861 that slavery could have been abolished in anything but a gradual way (as it was abolished in the Northern states), let alone that former slaves could have won civil and political rights in relatively short order. Yet revolutions can reconfigure the imaginative landscape; and while Foner grants Lincoln and the Radical Republicans significant roles in advancing the course of revolution (he offers a particularly useful and nuanced reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, "perhaps the most misunderstood important document in American history"), he sees African Americans as sparking the revolutionary impulse. They fled their plantations and farms in great numbers and forced the Lincoln administration to confront directly the problem of slavery. They pressed to serve in the Union armed forces and eventually enlisted in the many thousands. And, celebrating their military service in defense of the nation, they came to demand what antebellum America had explicitly denied them: full citizenship.
The results were nothing short of breathtaking, and on a world-historical scale. The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery without gradualism or compensation to slaveowners. This set the American South apart from every other slave society in the Atlantic world, with the exception of Haiti. So, too, did the Fourteenth Amendment, the Military Reconstruction Acts, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which established a national citizenry and incorporated people of African descent into American civil and political society. For the first time in our history, the "right to vote" was inscribed in the federal Constitution. "Reconstruction," Foner insists, "represented less a fulfillment of the [American] Revolution's principles than a radical repudiation of the nation's actual practice of the previous seven decades." White Southerners of the day, and Southern sympathizers ever since, would likely have agreed with this assessment, even if such radical repudiations contributed, for them, to the illegitimacy and the corruption of the Reconstruction experience: the spectacle of carpetbaggers and illiterate blacks marching to the polls, sitting in the state legislatures, making policy, adjudicating court cases, taking bribes, imposing high taxes, tramping on the rights and prerogatives of defeated Confederates, and transgressing the rules of race and sex -- a world truly turned upside down.
Foner understands the radicalism far differently. Black enfranchisement, in his telling, led to a groundswell of political mobilization in town and countryside alike, as former slaves organized Union Leagues and Republican Party clubs, educated each other and debated the issues of the day, formed alliances with white Republicans who were native to the South (known as scalawags) or from the North (known as carpetbaggers), nominated candidates for state and local office (most of whom were white), and helped rewrite state constitutions. The picture he paints is not one of ignorant black folk being manipulated by their betters or wreaking vengeance on their former owners. His picture depicts black men, and black women, transforming political skills they had developed under slavery and, in the process, creating the possibilities for the first genuine democracy that the South ever had.
In Forever Free, as in Reconstruction, Foner devotes a great deal of attention and energy to this political revolution's dimensions. Almost everywhere in the former Confederacy, Republicans took control of state governments and began not only to rebuild the economic infrastructures (especially railroads), but also to construct new institutions of civic life for black as well as white Southerners. Perhaps most consequential were the South's first systems of public education: although racially segregated, they provided African Americans with access to new forms of personal and community empowerment. In some states, such as South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where black legislators sat in substantial numbers, issues of land, labor, and civil rights were tackled (and in some cases carried forward) too.
Yet the most stunning changes brought about by Reconstruction's democratic revolution were to be found at the grassroots. In the heart of the plantation districts, where large slaveholders had once ruled, former slaves came to serve as grand jurors, councilmen, supervisors, magistrates, school commissioners, surveyors, treasurers, and even as sheriffs. In some places -- McIntosh County, Georgia; Edgefield County, South Carolina; Adams County, Mississippi -- enclaves of genuine black power took shape, challenging the long-held hegemony of white landowners and other employers. More widely still, African Americans had the opportunity to serve on trial juries, thus offering their communities avenues of grievance and measures of justice that previously had been unavailable.
White Southerners, and especially white property owners, were not amused. For them, black political empowerment at the state and local levels manifested the fundamental illegitimacy of Reconstruction, and threatened the very bases of the racial hierarchies they had constructed. "Negro rule," they called it; and they fought back with ferocity. From the moment of black enfranchisement, they organized paramilitary companies -- the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, the Red Shirts -- and tried to make a mockery of electoral methods. They intimidated Republican voters, assassinated black leaders, drove out duly elected officeholders, and on occasion set up dual governments. The ballot box seemed to register which side had more weapons or had taken control of more polling places. It appeared to be a particularly turbulent variant of latifundist politics.
White paramilitarism would have presented black and white Republicans with difficult challenges under any circumstances. But, as Foner argues, those challenges proved increasingly intractable because the Republican coalition was itself divided and the federal government, over which the party held sway, was increasingly reluctant to intervene. Although African Americans composed the rank and file of the Republican Party in the South, party policy there and elsewhere was made by white men closely aligned with the sectors of banking, commerce, and manufacturing. Their interests were in solidifying Republican power nationally, and in promoting commercial and industrial development. And as labor unrest stirred throughout the country after the Panic of 1873, they came to sympathize more with the travails of white Southern landowners and less with those of black Southern laborers.
Republican governors in the South were reluctant to mobilize state militias to protect the rights of Republican voters, since many of the militiamen would be black and armed, and President Grant, a Republican, was reluctant to send in troops to shore up Republican regimes under siege. Rather than recognizing paramilitary politics for what they were and attempting to defend their black allies, most white Republican leaders instead tried to cut deals with their opponents and, in the end, to blame the victims for corrupt and anti-democratic practices. Appropriately, the last Republican governments in the South (South Carolina, Louisiana, and -- yes -- Florida) fell when the contested presidential election of 1876 produced a settlement and President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the few troops left guarding the statehouses.
When did Reconstruction finally come to an end? Most historical accounts identify the end of Reconstruction with the toppling of the Republican governments and Hayes's withdrawal of federal troops, but in truth the answer is less straightforward. Before the nineteenth century was out, Republicans would again hold state power in the South: in alliance with the Readjusters (an insurgent movement organized around the issue of state debt repayment) in Virginia, and in alliance with Populists in North Carolina. African Americans would continue to vote in substantial numbers, and in some places to hold local, state, and national offices, at times as Republicans, at times as independents, and at times owing to "fusion" agreements with Democrats. And the federal government would continue to keep an eye on elections in the South, and to threaten intervention when federal laws were violated. Small wonder that Southern white supremacists widely associated the end of Reconstruction not with the withdrawal of federal troops but with the disfranchisement of black voters in the 1890s and the following decade.
Foner is keenly aware of the interpretive complexity, and he asks us to think about the periodization of these decades on two levels. On the one hand, he regards the withdrawal of federal troops and the restoration of "home rule" to the South in 1877 as a moment of enormous political consequence in what he calls the "abandonment of Reconstruction." The way was thereby cleared for the establishment of the "Jim Crow" South, for new forms of domination and repression, for social separation and political exclusion. African American communities were left on the defensive and pretty much to their own devices. Booker T. Washington accordingly emerged as the pre-eminent national black leader.
On the other hand, Foner conceives of Reconstruction as initiating a struggle for political democracy and racial justice that would be ongoing, derailed but not wholly defeated, driven underground but not silenced, capable of being re-invigorated and re-asserted. It is America's "unfinished revolution," even though Foner terms the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s the "Second Reconstruction," which, he argues, "embraced the ideals and in many ways fulfilled the revolutionary political and social agenda" of the first.
So was there one Reconstruction? Two Reconstructions? An "unfinished" Reconstruction? These are large questions of American social and political development, and one wonders whether the lack of conceptual clarity here is owed to tensions in Foner's own intellectual and political perspective, particularly involving matters of class and race.
Foner has long been a leader among historians in advancing a class analysis of the American past. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men argued that the Republican Party grew out of a dynamic capitalist society in the antebellum North and organized the aspirations of an emerging middle class around a critique of the slave South and an ideological celebration of free labor. Foner heralded the role of the party's radical wing, and downplayed, though acknowledged, the racist and nativist currents that could be found among Republicans of various stripes. He effectively did for the North what the Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese, in The Political Economy of Slavery in 1965, did for the South: he made a case for fundamentally antagonistic societies developing within the borders of the United States, each based on discrete forms of class relations. Conflict was unavoidable.
Foner has developed a sophisticated class analysis that takes ideology and politics very seriously. He has understood the Civil War and Reconstruction -- and the emancipation process more generally -- as a struggle over the meaning of free labor, and over the civil and political standing of free laborers. In Reconstruction and in other writings, he saw many of the obstacles to change in the contradictions and limits of free labor ideology and of the social groups that had come to embrace it. Class matters, he has insisted; and in so doing he has given the study of American politics an impressive reach and depth, and has placed the Civil War and Reconstruction in a broad historical and international framework.
At the same time, Foner's efforts to put the black struggle for freedom, justice, and equality at the center of the Reconstruction story has the effect of shifting the analytical emphasis away from class and the dimensions of class power. Clearly hoping to counter the negative images still common among the public, Foner is at pains to show that Reconstruction made possible something America never had before, and presumably something most of us would value: an interracial democracy. Here the "story of American freedom" reached an exceptionally dramatic stage, one that gave meaning and substance to a highly contested idea, and one that would continue to galvanize the disfranchised and dispossessed despite political setbacks and savage repression. In this way, Reconstruction could be understood either as ongoing or as periodically re-enacted.
There is something intriguing and compelling about a Second Reconstruction coming nearly a century after the first, and some of the parallels (the monumental Supreme Court decisions in 1857 and 1954, the assassination of Northern presidents and the ascendancy of Southern vice presidents named Johnson, electoral turning points in 1876 and 1968, to name a few) are outright eerie. Yet the similarities may be more apparent than real, all the more so as we come to recognize that popular mobilizations for civil rights began as early as the 1920s and may more usefully be seen as part of the anti-colonial, pan-African, and social democratic impulses of the three decades after World War I.
The idea of Reconstruction as an "unfinished" or re-enacted revolution also rests heavily -- perhaps too heavily -- on a close association between African American aspirations and the goals of civil and political equality, full citizenship, and integration. There can be no question that the association was, and remains, a powerful one. But what of those black ministers in Savannah who told General Sherman that freedom meant reaping the fruits of their labor and taking care of themselves, and that they wished to farm their own land and live by themselves, separated from whites? They made no mention of civil rights, voting rights, or citizenship. Their interest was in community reconstitution, economic independence, and self-governance, and given the near unanimity of their sentiments (only one of the twenty ministers dissented), we must assume that those feelings were widely shared among men and women coming out of slavery.
Foner recognizes these protonationalist and separatist tendencies -- more so than he did in Reconstruction -- but he still attaches the greatest significance to the ends of citizenship and interracialism and regards separatism chiefly as the product of Reconstruction-era (and later civil rights-era) political disappointments and defeats. This perspective enables the various political and cultural projects that funneled into Reconstruction to meld comfortably. Yet if black proto-nationalism and separatism were more consequential and more deeply embedded than Foner allows, as may well have been the case (especially among rural ex-slaves, who were the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves), then those were the tendencies that provided the context for black understandings of citizenship (rather than the other way around), and the projects of Reconstruction seem far less in alignment.
Reconstruction, that is, may be properly understood in connection with American state-building and with an assortment of American popular movements. First and foremost, Reconstruction brought to fruition a process that had commenced with the American Revolution and the Constitution: a process of establishing a modern nation; determining the relation between federal, state, and local power; and defining the civil and political standing of people living within the country. The process was highly explosive, principally -- though not exclusively -- because of slavery; and it eventually provoked a rebellion on the part of slaveholders against the presumed authority of the national government.
In this sense, it is arguable that Reconstruction began when federal troops first set foot on Confederate soil, although Foner is undoubtedly correct that the Emancipation Proclamation set the course of Reconstruction in a revolutionary direction and united for a brief period the political interests of Radical Republicans and African Americans. Indeed, Reconstruction showed the influence of several popular movements that had emerged in previous decades and then battled to leave their marks. These included middle-class social reform movements, movements for economic and political nationalism, movements against slavery, and movements for race equality and gender equality.
Needless to say, the relations between these movements were intricate and ever-shifting. At times many were brought into close alliance, and at times alliances faltered and conflicts erupted. The possibilities for Reconstruction seemed to be changing almost constantly, and there were moments, particularly between 1863 and 1868, when not only emancipation and black civil and political equality, but also land reform and women's rights, were on the table. In the end, however, moderate and conservative Republicans, who generally shared the views of manufacturers, bankers, farmers, and white Protestants oriented to the domestic market and to a range of social and cultural practices, took charge of the Reconstruction process and defined its limits. The abolition of slavery would be inscribed in the Constitution, a national citizenship would be proclaimed, equality before the law and the right of contract would be consecrated, and the sovereignty of the federal government would be settled -- but federal jurisdiction would also be hedged, land reform rejected, and women's political rights defeated. Compared to the political world of pre-Civil War America, this was truly a new one, brought about through revolutionary transformations; but with the restoration of "home rule" to the former Confederate South, or perhaps with the Dawes Act of 1887, which sought to break up tribal sovereignties among Native Americans (the trans-Mississippi West is part of the story of Reconstruction too), this revolution, in its own terms, could be considered "finished."
African Americans, as Foner persuasively argues, played a central part in turning the political crisis of the Civil War era into a revolution and in remaking the nation. Still, the activities and the demands of slaves and freedpeople that proved so consequential in wartime and Reconstruction had very deep roots and very distinctive dynamics. They involved claims to local empowerment as well as to formal rights, which pressed well beyond what Republican policy-makers, even radical ones, were prepared to accept. Their developing agenda simultaneously looked back to a peasant politics of land, kinship, and community and anticipated a twentieth-century politics organized around, as DuBois put it, "the color line." Which is to say, black struggles gave shape to Reconstruction, but they were not identical to it.
What were ongoing and "unfinished" were popular movements for freedom, democracy, empowerment, self-governance, and citizenship. They almost continually pressed upon the arenas of America's formal politics, and could make themselves felt with great intensity at times of political instability and crisis. One thinks, for example, of the years between 1932 and 1965, perhaps even more appropriately called a "Second Reconstruction," when mobilizations of working and other humble folk of different races and ethnicities helped to refashion the nature of state authority and the social compact, creating as much of a social democracy as the United States has ever had.
The civil rights movement emerged out of the struggles of this extended period, though it showed, like its Reconstruction-era predecessors, complex and contradictory tendencies. Some of the tendencies (integrationism, egalitarianism, non-violence) have been celebrated and embraced; others (separatism, nationalism, armed self-defense) have been vilified, ignored, or disowned. At all events, however much we may seek to parse them, these tendencies are intricately entwined in African American communities. We have yet to appreciate fully this political and cultural intermixture, or to understand what it has meant for modern American society. But as we do, Eric Foner's work and commitments, in Forever Free and elsewhere, will not only guide our efforts, they will also remind us of how central African Americans have been to the nation's history and to the national interest.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.