I was brought up with the view that just as the Civil War was a great national tragedy, Reconstruction was a crime - the oppression of Southern white people by ignorant black people manipulated by corrupt Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags. I was taught that the Ku Klux Klan was the national liberation movement of the Southern white people, of which the 20th century Klan was a degenerate and unworthy successor.
Eric Foner, following in the footsteps of black historian W.E.B DuBois, set the record straight in RECONSTRUCTION: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, published in 1988.
The Reconstruction governments were the most progressive of the 19th century, establishing the foundations of public education and other public services, broadening the franchise for whites as well as blacks and setting a precedent for African Americans exercising equal rights as citizens.
Far from being ignorant and easily led, the Southern black leaders of that era were surprisingly astute and enlightened, given their restricted opportunities for education. The failure of Reconstruction was not a failure of African American self-government, but of the failure of the federal government to stand behind equal rights for all.
Reconstruction was a complex phenomenon. The Republican governments in the South rested on three groups – black people, including freedmen and newly-liberated slaves; Northern whites, including some do-gooders who wished to help the former slaves, but predominantly entrepreneurs in search of opportunity; and Southern whites, many of them small upcountry farmers, who had been loyal to the Union during the war and wanted a reward.
This was an unstable coalition because its members had different aims. The Northern whites and some of the Southern whites were primarily interested in railroad-building and economic development, not in public education or sale of public lands to small farmers.
Although things played out differently in different states, the Southern Republicans were unable in the end to stand up to the South’s landowning elite with its message of white solidarity, its uninhibited use of terror and violence and its superior firepower.
The authority of the plantation owner was replaced by the authority of the state and local government, which required black people to sign labor contracts with white employers and made it a crime to quit a job or be without a contract.
The Grant administration soon lost interest in black rights. After postwar demobilization, federal troops were needed to fight Indians and break strikes.
One interesting sidelight was information on the postwar careers of some of the figures of the Civil War era. The great abolitionists – William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips and Charles Sumner – were soon marginalized. Abolitionism never commanded majority support in the North to begin with, except for a brief period during the Civil War.