I am beginning to read A Short History of Reconstruction, Updated Edition by Eric Foner, published this year. Foner's 1988 book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes; this shorter book has been updated to include some of the more recent scholarship. Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery was published in 2011; it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History, the Bancroft Prize, and the Lincoln Prize. Professor Foner has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.
- Here is a review of the book.
- Here is a video discussion of Foner's earlier, longer book on Reconstruction.
The Civil War resulted in two major changes in American institutions:
- Slavery was abolished and all slaves were emancipated. Thus the plantation system of agriculture, as it had depended on slave labor, was also forced to end or to find new institutional mechanisms for the supply of labor.
- Disunion was no longer an institutional option, as it had seemed to many Americans since the creation of the nation; thus the United States of America was thereafter a singular noun, rather than the plural noun it had been in the past. The federal government emerged from the Civil War transformed into a much more forceful institution, capable of raising armies numbering millions of men, with a much increased budget. New initiatives included creating a national currency, supporting the development of a trans-continental railroad and telegraph, instituting a national system of land grant colleges with its national system of agricultural research stations and extension services, and creating the Homestead Act by which the federal government used its ownership of land to foster settlement of the west and its economic development.
Perhaps even more serious, it changed America. Hundreds of thousands of young men had died in the war, and huge numbers of civilians had died as well. Much of the country, especially in the South, had been decimated and left in ruins; however, northern manufacturing industries sometimes had been quite successful during the war. Millions of former slaves were now freed, seeking to find new ways of living, or even surviving. Cotton, the nation's main export before the war, had not been exported (even to the northern mills) in large quantities during the war, and the nation had to deal with new international competition in the cotton market.
The term Reconstruction Era, in the context of the history of the United States, has two senses: the first covers the complete history of the entire country from 1865 to 1877 following the Civil War; the second sense focuses on the transformation of the Southern United States from 1863 to 1877, as directed by Congress, with the reconstruction of state and society.It seems to me that it may be useful to use different words to differentiate between the two concepts.
- One concept is Governmental Reconstruction Programs. We have now a body of experience now with post conquest efforts: Afghanistan and Iraq, South Korea, Germany and Japan, World War I, the Spanish American War. The 13th, 14th and 15 amendments and the Congressionally mandated reconstruction programs were of significant albeit limited size.
- The other concept is more general social and economic development, which is brings in northern and western development as linked to the development of the south in a now single nation (albeit one with great internal divisions). Again, half a century of development theory may be useful here.