This is your opportunity to practice your writing skills, examine your sources, think critically about the historians craft and argue your findings. Ensure that you spend AT LEAST one paragraph addressing Part 1 and AT LEAST one paragraph addressing Part 2.
Part 1: Compare the two secondary sources on Reconstruction.
Part 2: Using primary sources, evaluate the arguments of the two secondary sources.
Part 1: Comparing and Contrasting Secondary Sources
Two secondary sources, the work of prominent historians from different eras, are included below for you to review. The first selection comes from William Dunning’s (1857-1922) Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877, written in 1907. Dunning was born on the eve of the Civil War to a well-to-do New Jersey family and enrolled at Columbia University soon after the end of Reconstruction. He lived during a time when racial segregation and white supremacy were the unchallenged law of the land, and he wrote some of the first books about Reconstruction.
Dunning was such a compelling force in the first half of the twentieth century that the many historians trained and influenced by him are referred to as the “Dunning School.” He was particularly hostile to political idealists, a group that, in his mind, included abolitionists and Radical Republicans. Like many historians of his day, Dunning never questioned his own objectivity. However, later historians and activists have noted that his writings reflect the political beliefs and prejudices of his generation.
Interpretations of Reconstruction have undergone many changes since Dunning’s time. The second excerpt, written 91 years later, is from Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom. Born in 1943, Foner is the son of civil rights activists (one of them a historian) deeply concerned with the plight of African Americans. Foner completed his Ph.D. in 1969 during the height of the civil rights movement. Widely regarded as the leading interpretation of Reconstruction, Foner’s writing on the period brings together much of the scholarship that has revised “Dunning School” interpretations of Reconstruction, particularly as they described the role of African Americans in American society.
Before reading these excerpts, review Chapter 15 on the transition from President Andrew Johnson’s Restoration Plan to Congressional Reconstruction.
Compare the work of these two historians by answering the following questions. Be sure to support your answers with specific examples drawn from the selections by Dunning and Foner.
What is the topic of each excerpt? What period of Reconstruction is the author writing about? What groups are examined?
Generally, how does each author portray the Reconstruction process? What in each author’s writing reveals their attitude about Reconstruction? How do those feelings—whether positive or negative—affect each author’s point of view?
What are the similarities in these two excerpts?
What are the major differences in interpretation between the excerpts?
What is the main argument each historian makes?
How do these interpretations compare to that presented in Chapter 15?
These two excerpts were written 91 years apart. How might this have influenced the development of their arguments?
Secondary Source 1
William Dunning, Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877
It was, indeed, no novelty for the people of the South to be subject to government by the United States army. . . . The reasoning by which the policy of Congress was justified in the North was regarded in the South as founded on falsehood and malice. So far as the “black codes” were concerned, it was pointed out that they could not be alleged as evidences of a tendency to restore slavery or introduce peonage [dependence], since the offensive acts had in many of the states been repealed by the legislatures themselves, and in all had been duly superseded by the civil rights act. The much-exploited outrages on freedmen and Unionists were declared to be exaggerated or distorted reports of incidents which any time of social tension must produce among the criminal classes. The rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment was considered as merely a dignified refusal by honorable men to be the instruments of their own humiliation and shame.
Under all these circumstances the southerners felt that the policy of Congress had no real cause save the purpose of radical politicians to prolong and extend their party power by means of negro suffrage [voting rights]. This and this alone was the purpose for which major-generals had been empowered to remodel the state governments at their will, to exercise through general orders the functions of executive, legislature, and courts, and to compel the white people to recognize the blacks as their equals wherever the stern word of military command could reach. It was as inconceivable to the southerners that rational men of the North should seriously approve of negro suffrage per se as it had been in 1860 to the northerners that rational men of the South should approve of secession per se. Hence, in the one case as in the other, a craving for political power was assumed to be the only explanation of an otherwise unintelligible proceeding.
Source: Dunning, William. Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865–1877. New York: Harper & Bros., 1907. 109–12.
Secondary Source 2
Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom
Rejecting the idea that emancipation implied civil or political equality or opportunities to acquire property or advance economically, rights northerners deemed essential to a free society, most white southerners insisted that blacks must remain a dependent plantation workforce in a laboring situation not very different from slavery. During Presidential Reconstruction—the period from 1865 to 1867 when Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, gave the white South a free hand in determining the contours of Reconstruction—southern state governments enforced this view of black freedom by enacting the notorious Black Codes, which denied blacks equality before the law and political rights and imposed on them mandatory year-long labor contracts, coercive apprenticeship regulations, and criminal penalties for breach of contract. Through these laws, the South’s white leadership sought to ensure that plantation agriculture survived emancipation.
Thus, the death of slavery did not automatically mean the birth of freedom. But the Black Codes so flagrantly violated free labor principles that they invoked the wrath of the Republican North. Southern reluctance to accept the reality of emancipation resulted in a monumental struggle between President Andrew Johnson and the Republican Congress over the legacy of the Civil War. The result was the enactment of laws and constitutional amendments that redrew the boundaries of citizenship and expanded the definition of freedom for all Americans. . . .
Much of the ensuing conflict over Reconstruction revolved around the problem, as Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois put it, of defining “what slavery is and what liberty is.” . . . By 1866, a consensus had emerged within the Republican Party that civil equality was an essential attribute of freedom. The Civil War had elevated “equality” to a status in the vocabulary of freedom it had not enjoyed since the Revolution. . . . In a remarkable, if temporary, reversal of political traditions, the newly empowered national state now sought to identify and protect the rights of all Americans.
Source: Foner, Eric. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 103–105.
Part 2: Using Primary Sources to Evaluate Secondary Sources
When historians are faced with competing interpretations of the past, they often look at primary source material as part of the process of evaluating the different arguments. In the following selections, you’ll find primary sources relating to the period of Reconstruction.
Carefully read the primary sources and answer the following questions. Decide how the primary source documents support or refute Dunning’s and Foner’s arguments about this period. You may find that some documents do both but for different parts of each historian’s interpretation. Be sure to identify which specific components of each historian’s argument the documents support or refute.
Which of the two historian’s arguments is best supported by the primary source documents? If you find that both arguments are well supported by the evidence, why do you think the two historians produced such different interpretations?
Based on your comparison of the two arguments and your analysis of the primary sources, how has the interpretation of Reconstruction by historians shifted over time? What can you conclude about historiography from the work of these two historians?
Primary Source 1
Union Army general Carl Schurz, Report on the Condition of the South
A belief, conviction, or prejudice, or whatever you may call it, so widely spread and apparently so deeply rooted as this, that the negro will not work without physical compulsion, is certainly calculated to have a very serious influence upon the conduct of the people entertaining it. It naturally produced a desire to preserve slavery in its original form as much and as long as possible—and you may, perhaps, remember the admission made by one of the provisional governors, over two months after the close of the war, that the people of his State still indulged in a lingering hope slavery might yet be preserved—or to introduce into the new system that element of physical compulsion which would make the negro work. Efforts were, indeed, made to hold the negro in his old state of subjection, especially in such localities where our military forces had not yet penetrated, or where the country was not garrisoned in detail. Here and there planters succeeded for a limited period to keep their former slaves in ignorance, or at least doubt, about their new rights; but the main agency employed for that purpose was force and intimidation. In many instances negroes who walked away from the plantations, or were found upon the roads, were shot or otherwise severely punished, which was calculated to produce the impression among those remaining with their masters that an attempt to escape from slavery would result in certain destruction. A large proportion of the many acts of violence committed is undoubtedly attributable to this motive.
Source: Schurz, Carl. Report on the Condition of the South. 39th Cong., 1st sess., Senate Executive Document 2, 1865. 19.
Primary Source 2
Mississippi Vagrant Law, 1865
All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons so assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freed woman, free negro or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro, or mulatto, fifty dollars, and a white man two hundred dollars, and imprisoned at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days, and the white man not exceeding six months. . . All fines and forfeitures collected under the provisions of this act shall be paid into the county treasury for general county purposes, and in case any freedman, free negro or mulatto shall fail for five days after the imposition of any fine or forfeiture upon him or her for violation of any of the provisions of this act to pay the same, that it shall be, and is hereby, made the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free negro or mulatto, to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine and forfeiture and all costs. . . .
Source: Mississippi Vagrant Law, Laws of Mississippi, 1865, 90. In Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational & Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time. Edited by Walter Lynwood Fleming, 1:283 –286. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906.
Primary Source 3
Civil Rights Act of 1866
Be it enacted, . . . That all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States; and such citizens, of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States, to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property, and to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains and penalties, and to none other, any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, to the contrary notwithstanding.
Source: Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27 (April 9, 1866).
Primary Source 4
Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, “The Advantages of Negro Suffrage”
Unless the rebel States, before admission, should be made republican in spirit, and placed under the guardianship of loyal men, all our blood and treasure will have been spent in vain. . . . There is more reason why colored voters should be admitted in the rebel States than in the Territories. In the States they form the great mass of the loyal men. Possibly with their aid loyal governments may be established in most of those States. Without it all are sure to be ruled by traitors; and loyal men, black and white, will be oppressed, exiled, or murdered. . . . Have not loyal blacks quite as good a right to choose rulers and make laws as rebel whites? In the second place, it is a necessity in order to protect the loyal white men in the seceded States. The white Union men are in a great minority in each of those States. With them the blacks would act in a body; and it is believed that in each of said States, except one, the two united would form a majority, control the States, and protect themselves. Now they are the victims of daily murder. They must suffer constant persecution or be exiled. . . . Another good reason is, it would insure the ascendency of the Union party. . . . I believe . . . that on the continued ascendency of that party depends the safety of this great nation. If impartial suffrage is excluded in the rebel States, then every one of them is sure to send a solid rebel representative delegation to Congress, and cast a solid rebel electoral vote. . . . I am for negro suffrage in every rebel State. If it be just, it should not be denied; if it be necessary, it should be adopted; if it be a punishment to traitors, they deserve it.
Source: Stevens, Thaddeus. Congressional Globe, January 3, 1867, 252. In Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational & Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time. Edited by Walter Lynwood Fleming, 1:149–150. Cleveland, Ohio: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1906.