Memory  /  Argument

How About Erecting Monuments to the Heroes of Reconstruction?

Americans should build this pivotal post–Civil War era into the new politics of historical memory.
Library of Congress

The most important point is that from 1867 up to the creation of a single-party/single-race rule in the South, the United States was unique: It was the world’s only biracial democratic republic. No other post-emancipation society anywhere ever had a comparable experience—not Cuba or any of the Caribbean slave societies, Brazil, or Russia. Nowhere else in the 19th-century world, in Europe or Latin America, did people who had been in slavery or serfdom shift so rapidly and transformatively into equal and full political, indeed constitution-amending, citizenship. Nowhere else did a myriad of officeholders and national legislators—men who had either themselves been recently enslaved or who, though free-born, had lived and worked previously under a fiercely unequal system—come to play prominent roles in legislation, local courts, and state and local administration. 

With Reconstruction, Americans invented a new kind of regime, unique among 19th-century nations. It was profoundly and massively redistributive in a way that the world had never seen up to that point, for it sealed the emancipation of human property and reversed the de-facto re-enslavement of 1866 by the white supremacist governments that President Andrew Johnson created by proclamation during his “presidential Reconstruction.” 

Thanks to the long civil rights movement, and to bipartisan action in the 1950s, 1960s, and after, America reinvented the biracial republic in new form, now more multiethnic and, thanks to the impact of the 19th Amendment, much more gender-neutral than the first one. During those decades, Americans grew to see Reconstruction very differently than they did during the heyday of Jim Crow, when Reconstruction was instead widely execrated among whites as a policy disaster.

As the campaign to bring down Confederate monuments shows, many Americans have grown to see the early 20th-century heyday of Confederate commemoration differently. That commemoration was meant to celebrate the final suppression of Reconstruction’s democratic revolution. Commentators regularly point this out. But the next question in the conversation hasn’t happened: You never hear someone on television asking, “Why don’t we commemorate Reconstruction?”