Power  /  Q&A

Learning from the Failure of Reconstruction

The storming of the Capitol was an expression of the antidemocratic strands in American history.

Last Wednesday, January 6th, a day after Georgia elected its first Black senator, a mob encouraged by Donald Trump and his false claims of election fraud stormed Capitol Hill, resulting in at least five deaths. Despite widespread condemnation of these events, the F.B.I. revealed on Monday that it expects protests at all fifty state capitals in the days leading up to next Wednesday, when Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President. These events have drawn comparisons to coup attempts around the world, but also to the Reconstruction era, when white mobs inflicted violence on citizens and legislators throughout the South.

To better understand the lessons of Reconstruction for our times, I recently spoke by phone with Eric Foner, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia, and one of the country’s leading experts on Reconstruction. During the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed the use of Confederate imagery by those who stormed the Capitol, balancing unity and punishment in the wake of terror, and the historical significance of the two Georgia Senate runoffs.

The most common historical parallel over the past four years has been to European fascism, for a variety of reasons. But there have also been references to American history going back to Jim Crow and the Civil War. How does what we’ve seen in the past week, and specifically what we saw on Wednesday, fit into the larger American story and make those American comparisons especially vivid or interesting in your mind?

Well, I guess the sight of people storming the Capitol and carrying Confederate flags with them makes it impossible not to think about American history. That was an unprecedented display. But in a larger sense, yes, the events we saw reminded me very much of the Reconstruction era and the overthrow of Reconstruction, which was often accompanied, or accomplished, I should say, by violent assaults on elected officials. There were incidents then where elected, biracial governments were overthrown by mobs, by coup d’états, by various forms of violent terrorism.