Power  /  Forum

The Future of Reconstruction Studies

This online forum sponsored by the Journal of the Civil War Era features 9 essays and a roundtable on the future of Reconstruction Studies.

Nearly thirty years later, this forum provides a number of helpful answers to Perman’s question. Nine leading scholars were asked to assess the state of the field of Reconstruction studies on significant topics—some of them as old as the field itself, some of them having emerged since Foner—African Americans, labor and capitalism, law, religion, politics, the South, the state, the West, and women. As standalone essays, they reflect some of the much-lamented atomization of the profession. But together, they also point toward several common themes that force historians to reconsider a number of common assumptions or think in new ways altogether.

Collectively, these essays call for an expansion of the boundaries of the field of Reconstruction studies and for this expansion in four ways, all of which are growing areas of inquiry in the field: wider geography, broader chronology, deepened interdisciplinarity, and fuller engagement with the general public. The first three are driven by the kinds of questions professional historians ask, and they disrupt any classic notion of the Reconstruction “era.” But the fourth, public engagement, has the potential to push back at the historical community and raises real dilemmas for historians moving to rethink basic aspects of the long-held Reconstruction narrative. Tighter chronologies and restricted geographies offer an immediate interpretive payoff, and one that has been narratively advantageous for synthetic approaches—especially those widespread in college classrooms, and increasingly, as in the journalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie, the general public.

Many new interpretive horizons have appeared since Foner, but how to write a new general synthesis given these approaches remains to be seen. Historians have known for a long time that 1877 was a fictional period divide—because the troops left in the South had little reach, because there was no bargain between northern Republicans and southern Democrats, because the process of southern Democratic redemption was well underway by the mid-1870s, because Democratic hegemony came later as with the defeat of the Readjuster movement in Virginia, or because nothing was really dead with regard to federal civil rights enforcement until the defeat of the Lodge Force Bill in 1890—and several of the essays here underscore that point. It may also be the case that a broader geographical vision—incorporating the western United States—gives the lie to a Reconstruction beginning with the Civil War, because the aggrandizement of the American state and the broad reach of federal power across the continent actually began with the territorial acquisition that came with the Mexican-American War.