Skip to main content

Eric Foner: The Significance of Reconstruction in American History

Eric Foner: The Significance of Reconstruction in American History

Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00

Eric Foner gave the 2013 James A. Field Lecture in History, "The Significance of Reconstruction in American History." Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of multiple books including, most recently, the Pulitzer, Bancroft, Lincoln Prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2011).

James A. Field, Jr., was the Isaac H. Clothier Professor of History and International Relations at Swarthmore College, serving on the faculty from 1947 until his retirement in 1986. Widely published in the fields of American Naval History and International Relations, Field also served four years in the Navy during World War II. He won the Bronze Star for heroism, helping in the evacuation of a small aircraft carrier that was damaged by a kamikaze attack in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The James A. Field, Jr. Lecture Endowment was established by Thomas D. Jones, Jr. '53 and Vera Lundy Jones '58, in 2001, and is named after the late James A. Field, Jr., a distinguished professor of history at Swarthmore College from 1947 to 1986. The Field Endowment supports a biennial lecture by visiting scholars at Swarthmore College on the subject of the history of the United States.

Audio Transcript

Tim Burke:  Hello. Greetings. I'm Tim Burke, I'm the chair of the history department. It's my great pleasure to at least begin the process of introducing our speaker by telling you a little bit about the lecture series that has given us the opportunity to have him here today. The James A. Field lecture endowment was established by Thomas D. Jones Jr, class of '53, and Vera Lundy Jones, class of '58, in 2011. It's named after the late James A. Field Jr, a distinguished professor of history at Swarthmore College from 1947 to 1986.

James A. Field Jr was the Isaac H. Clothier professor of history and international relations at Swarthmore College. He's widely published in the fields of American naval history and international relations. He also served four years in the navy during World War II and won the bronze star for heroism, helping in the evacuation of a small aircraft carrier that was damaged by a kamikaze attack in the battle of Lady Gulf.

The field endowment supports a biannual lecture by visiting scholars at Swarthmore College on the subject of the history of the United States, and donations to the endowment can be made to Swarthmore College. We're very grateful for its existence, and for the opportunity that it affords us to bring distinguished guests for us and for all of us to hear and benefit from.

I'll ask my colleague, Professor Marjorie Murphy in the history department to introduce our distinguished guest. Professor Murphy.

Marjorie M.:   Here we go. I'm very excited today. Professor Eric Foner has been an inspiration to me almost my entire career. I only just now remembered when it was we met. One of the most important subjects in American history is reconstruction. One of the first books I read after I graduated from college and going back and reading things, was Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Dubois. It was an inspiration that led me to go back to graduate school.

When I got there, I was really lucky because new historian was on the scene, and that was Eric Foner. I remember when his free soil and free labor book came out, how excited I was. I remembered it as an emotion but I actually took the book out the other day and saw all these excited comments I wrote in the margins as I was reading a political history that was rich and terribly informative, and was impassioned in a way that the Dubois book had been for me the first time.

 Then, when Professor Foner's book, his books after that were amazing, the American Black Past, Nat Turner, this list is long. Tom Payne and Revolutionary America. I still teach Tom Payne in my American working class history course, because of this book. Policies and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War. Eventually, we get back to reconstruction. When I saw his book on Lincoln, I thought, this is logical, this is where this body of this major body work should go.

I'm not the only one who recognizes the brilliance of this historian. The Pulitzer Prize committee, the Bancroft committee, every prize in American history. This is an amazing career, and we are so lucky to have him come right at this moment in his life, because he can look at these works and bring to us a rich reconsideration of how we should think about reconstruction in America. We're in a historic moment, and when we launched this lectureship, we had Arthur Schlesinger come, and it was 2004. An election was about to happen.

Things weren't changing fast enough for Arthur, and for many of us, they weren't changing fast enough at the time. We couldn't imagine at that point that we would then have President Obama become President of the United States. Right now, we're in a period of time where everything that we see going on politically brings my mind back to black reconstruction, and what that was all about.

I make these connections in my mind, and I see a historian who's really given us a political past that we can engage in. The one thing that Eric wanted me to remind you of, in this very long list of all of these books, these wonderful lectures, these amazing articles that he has published, was that he's been on the Colbert Report twice.

Without further ado, I know you're all excited, I'd like to introduce Eric Foner.

Eric Foner: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much, Marg. Yes, we were reminiscing, Professor Murphy picked me up at the train and we were reminiscing trying to figure out how long we've known each other, which makes me feel old eventually, because she was a young student when I was a teacher when I first met her.

Anyway, I'm very happy to be here at this great institution. I've never actually spoken at Swarthmore before. I've been here doing research once at your wonderful library. But, I'm very happy to talk to you today. I'm going to talk for what professor's think is an hour, IE about 45 minutes, and then I would be very happy for a while to answer questions or field any comments. Please feel free once that comes along.

I'm going to talk this afternoon about this period after the American Civil War which we call reconstruction. Usually, dated from 1865 when the Civil War ended to 1877, but as with many other periods of American history, it just keeps expanding. We have now a long Civil Rights Movement, we have a long 19th century. I started doing a count basically, we think the 19th century goes from 1789 to 1914, and reconstruction is expanding. There's now along reconstruction, which begins really during the Civil War and maybe didn't even end until around 1900 or something like that.

The point really, to begin with, is this. It's not really a question of a particular time period, but a very important historical process. That is the process, reconstruction is really the process by which the United States tries to come to terms with the consequences of the Civil War, the two momentous consequences of the American Civil War. One, being the preservation of the nation, and the other, the destruction of slavery.

In some ways, we're still trying to work out the consequences of the destruction of slavery in our society, 150 years after it happened. Now, I've devoted, as was briefly mentioned, a lot of my career to studying this period of reconstruction. A couple of my books are about it. I've curated a museum exhibition about reconstruction in the 1990s, which is actually online, digitalized. It's got a lot of nice images in it.

Anyway, I have to acknowledge that most Americans don't know very much about reconstruction, despite my efforts. Back in the 1990s, the department of education conducted one of these surveys that they frequently do to show how little anyone knows about American history. Which leads everyone to throw their hands up without realizing that the same surveys were done 100 years ago and no one knew anything about American history back then either.

This one asked graduating seniors from high schools about 15,000 of them, to just identify or say something intelligible about various things in American history, like the westward movement or the Civil Rights Movement. 85% could say something about the westward movement, but at the bottom of the list, the very, very bottom was reconstruction. Only 20% of people graduating from American high schools back then could say anything about reconstruction.

Since I had just published a 600 page book on reconstruction, I found this disheartening. The fact is that even if we're not aware of it, and Professor Murphy alluded to this a little bit, I want to argue that reconstruction is really part of our lives today, now, 150 years later in the United States. Or, to put it another way, the key questions confronting American society in some ways are reconstruction questions. You can't understand them without knowing something about that period, almost a century and a half ago.

Over the last 15 years or so, we almost seemed at certain points to be reliving some aspects of reconstruction. There was the impeachment of President Clinton back in the 1990s, which was replay in some weird ways of the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson during reconstruction. There was the disputed election of the year 2000, which was kind of analogous to the disputed election of 1876, which ended reconstruction. In both cases, Florida, there was a big controversy about who would carry the state of Florida.

 There're many other things. Here, let me go into something a little more substantive. Everybody in the world knows, I think, that President Obama is the first African American president of the United States. Everybody in this room knows that, obviously. But, here's a slightly more obscure point. How many, in all of our history, how many African Americans have served in the United States Senate? There have been maybe 2000. That's just a guess, people who've served in the United States Senate.

The answer to that question, I think, if we want to count Corey Booker, who was just elected but hasn't been sworn in, there are nine. Four of those, many of them appointed. Illinois kept appointing blacks to the Senate a few years ago, just for brief periods. My point is that, two of those nine were elected during reconstruction. Two African American men from Mississippi served in the US Senate during reconstruction, which is a suggestion that there was a fairly unique moment in American history, certainly in terms of political democracy and the participation of African Americans in American democracy.

Having a black president is a significant change in our history, obviously, but in reconstruction, African Americans, as we'll see in a little bit, held all sorts of offices from not president, but from the US Senate, Congress, down to members of the legislature, sheriffs, justice of the peace, school board officials, et cetera, et cetera. It was a remarkable moment of interracial democracy in our long history.

Issues that are on the agenda of our country right now, in the newspapers today, are reconstruction issues. The definition of American citizenship, who is or should be a citizen, that's a reconstruction issue. It was determined or redefined during the reconstruction period. The relationship between the federal government and the states within our federal system, that's being debated in Congress every day now, the cry that the federal government is too strong, the states should be empowered. That's a reconstruction debate also.

Terrorism is a reconstruction problem. The first widespread terrorism in American history was not Osama Bin Laden or 9/11, but was the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups like that during reconstruction. It's a melancholy fact to think about, but the Klan and groups like that in reconstruction killed more Americans than Osama Bin Laden ever did. More American citizens died at the hands of political terrorism during that period.

Affirmative action, which is before the Supreme Court as we speak, is a reconstruction question. It originated in reconstruction in debates over what the responsibility of the nation was to the four million people who would achieve their freedom during the Civil War. What sort of recognition should be given to the 250 years of slavery. They didn't use the word affirmative action, but that was a concept debated in reconstruction.

I could go on. One other point, and this I think is important to anybody here who is studying in a history class, you will have heard about this, not necessarily, but reconstruction is a prime example of what we call the politics of history. I'm not just talking about a historian is a Democrat or a Republican or something like that, I'm talking about the way historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape the politics of the present, the time that is the historian is writing in.

For many, many years, certainly into the, well past the middle of the 20th century, what we call the old or standard view of reconstruction dominated historical writing and textbooks and popular thinking. In a nutshell, in a very brief summary, that view saw reconstruction after the Civil War as the lowest point. The low point in the whole saga of American democracy. According to this point of view, which is not taught in schools anymore I don't think, but is still widely accepted by people who were educated maybe a generation ago, President Lincoln, at the end of the Civil War, just before he was assassinated, wanted to bring the defeated South back into the Union in a lenient and quick manner.

He was assassinated, his policy was continued allegedly by his success, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was thwarted in his effort to reunite the nation by some of the villains of the piece, the radical Republicans in Congress. Either because of his hatred for the South or from another point of view, the desire to fasten the grip of Northern capitalism on the South. These radicals took over Congress, overturned Johnson's policy, and instituted what we call radical reconstruction based on black suffrage, based on giving black men the right to vote.

Because black people, according to this view, are inherently incapable of intelligently exercising political rights, there followed an orgy of corruption and misgovernment in the South. Presided over by carpet baggers, that is Northerners who went down to the South to reap the spoils of office, and scalawags, who were white Southerners who cooperated with these governments.

Blacks, although it was called black reconstruction before Dubois, they really were not actors, they were more manipulated by others. They were more childlike, and these whites manipulated them in order to get into power. Eventually, groups like the Ku Klux Klan decided enough was enough and overthrew these governments and restored what was politely called home rule, or what we should really call white supremacy, in the Southern states.

What are the politics of this view? This interpretation had an amazing longevity. Historians make their living overturning what previous historians have done. That's our job, we're always trying to prove the guy who came before us as wrong. To remain the accepted view of a period of American history for 50 or 70 years, is unheard of. There's no other era of American history where the same view was dominant in 1900 as in 1960, let's say.

Impossible. This was true of reconstruction. Why? Because this view of reconstruction was congruent with the racial system of the United States in the Jim Crow era, until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Because what were the lessons of that old view? One, it was a mistake to give black men the right to vote. Reconstruction proved that black men are not capable of voting because they misused the vote. Therefore, any effort to give African Americans back their right to vote, which was taken away around 1900, would just lead to another reconstruction. The alleged horrors of reconstruction were always invoked when efforts were made to expand or restore political democracy, that is to say, in the South.

Second of all, reconstruction was imposed on the South according to this view by Northerners, northern whites. Maybe some of them were do gooders who actually thought they were doing the right thing, but the basic point was, Northerners do not understand race relations in the south. Only white Southerners do. Therefore, efforts from outside, the white South should unite in rejecting efforts from outside to change Southern race relations. Particularly in the 1930s, when in the New Deal, a new generation of white and black Southerners began to challenge the racial order. The alleged horrors of reconstruction were always invoked again, in order to say no, we cannot change.

Finally, something which seems very arcane today, this view of reconstruction was a pillar of what we used to call the solid South. The solid Democratic South. Today, the South is overwhelmingly Republican. Abraham Lincoln, if he came back today, would not only be very old, but would be quite surprised that the Republican party, which he helped to found, which was centered in the North and indeed didn't even exist in the south before the Civil War, now is fundamentally a Southern party. Its center of gravity is in the old Confederacy, even though it exists elsewhere as well, of course.

Anyway, up until the 1960s, '70s, even '80s, the South was solidly Democratic. The horrors of reconstruction were invoked in order to tell white Southerners they should not vote Republican. Whenever the Republican party started to make inroads in the South, reconstruction was brought up again. You vote Republican, you're going to get another reconstruction.

In other words, there was a political underpinning to this old view of reconstruction. Now, when the civil rights revolution took place, this entire edifice of interpretation fell to the ground, because the ultimate, the basic foundation of this school was black incapacity. That was the basic assumption, that black people are simply incapable of having equal rights. Once that falls apart, once the country decides no, we are going to actually try to bring about equal civil rights in this country, the old view falls apart, and scholars now, you mentioned W.E.B. Dubois.

Back in the '30s, Dubois had published his great book, Black Reconstruction, which was a devastating indictment of this old school. In the mainstream colleges in universities, it was ignored until the 1960s by and large.

Anyway, our view of that period has been fundamentally reshaped in the past 30, 40 years. I think reconstruction today is viewed ... One of the great old books of the old school was called the Tragic Era by Claude Bowers, a Democratic party newspaper man who painted in lurid tones the horrors of reconstruction, the Tragic Era.

Today, I think historians, if they say reconstruction was tragedy would say, the reason it's tragic is not that it was attempted, but that it failed, that this effort to actually create a genuine democracy in the house. That's the tragedy, not that people attempted to do it. Therefore, it left to subsequent generations this difficult problem of racial justice.

Now, to understand how radical reconstruction was in its moment, and how despite its failure in any ways, it reshaped American life, let's just for a minute go back before the Civil War. On the eve of the Civil War, as you all know, the vast majority of African American people were in slavery. There were four million slaves in the United States and about a quarter of a million free black people.

American slavery was the largest and most powerful slave system ever known to mankind, in all of human history. It was certainly the most powerful, the economic system in the United States at that time, far more important than banks, railroads, factories, none of them had the economic importance of plantation slavery on the eve of the Civil War. It was embedded in the Constitution slavery. Slave owners pretty much controlled the federal government for almost all of the period from the Constitution to the Civil War. The power of slavery shaped our ideas or people back then, ideas about American nationhood, American citizenship, who is an American. The power of slavery gave those questions a powerful, racial overtone, even in places like Pennsylvania and New York where I live, which abolished slavery after the American Revolution.

On the eve of the Civil War, no black person could be a citizen of the United States. Citizenship was just for white people. I'm not just talking about salves, I'm talking about those 250,000 free negro people. That was what the Supreme Court said in the famous Dred Scott decision of 1857, that citizen, very explicitly, America is a country for white people, blacks are aliens here even if there were born here, and they can never be citizens, and as Chief Justice Tawny said in that decision, "Black people have no rights which a white man is bound to respect."

That's a pretty strong statement of this racial definition of who is an American. Now, I don't emphasize this to say, loom how bad our ancestors were, I just want to make sure the point about how remarkable the change that took place in the Civil War and reconstruction was, given that past history.

The political scientist, Benedict Anderson, famously once wrote a book about nations and nationalism, in which he called a nation an imagined community. A nation is not just a piece of land, it's not just a boundary on a map, it's a concept. It's an imagined community. We all, most people, if you think of ourselves as Americans here, although we will never meet most other Americans, there're over 300 million Americans, but we all have something in common with them because of this concept of nationality. We know what we think it is to be an American.

That concept changed fundamentally as a result of the destruction of slavery and reconstruction. Now, before the Civil War, a small group, mostly abolitionists, put forward a different vision. Their vision was of a nation of equality, where race did not become the determining factor in what rights you had, in which everybody born in the United States was a citizen of the United States. They had a alternative Constitutional vision. It was not implemented at all before the Civil War, but it was during reconstruction. Some of those very courageous abolitionists were from right around here, of course. Philadelphia, this neighborhood, Quakers, other abolitionists, very important, black and white, who put forward this vision of a different kind of nation.

Now, in the Civil War, that abolitionist vision gains much greater support for many reasons, but I think one that I want to point to is the service of 200,000 black men in the Union army and navy. In the last two years of the Civil War, 200,000 black men served in the army and navy, and their service placed on the national agenda, the question of black citizenship. Fighting and dying for the nation gives you a claim to inclusion.

President Lincoln, who had never supported the right of black people to vote before the Civil War, he deeply hated slavery, but he shared many of the prejudices of his era, in his very last speech before his assassination, for the first time publicly, and indeed for the first time of any American president up to that moment, said, "I think some black men should have the right to vote in reconstruction. Who?" He said, what he called the very intelligent. These are these educated free black people, but he also added, "Those who serve our cause as soldiers."

The soldiers should have the right to vote. You might say, that's not universal, it's only for men of course at that time, women could not vote anywhere, but even that limits it, it's not all black men. It's not universal, but nonetheless, Lincoln, by this point, is way ahead of the curve. Only five Northern states allow black men to vote at that time. New York didn't, Pennsylvania didn't, Ohio didn't, Illinois where Lincoln didn't.

Lincoln understands that this issue is now on the agenda of the nation. Now, Lincoln is assassinated a couple of weeks after this speech. His successor, Andrew Johnson, who in the old view was the hero and was the defender of the Constitution, and in fact, I think, is certainly a good candidate for the worst president in American history. Now, there's a lot of competition for that role, but he's got a good claim to being the worst president in American history.

One of the things we do as historians on occasion to have fun, so to speak, is that these rankings of the presidents. You might've seen it, maybe once in a while, you get a thing, let's rank the presidents, great, near great, mediocre, really horrible. Lincoln always comes out right at the top and Franklin D. Roosevelt, these things have a certain sameness after a while. But, I have been devoting a lot of career to pushing Andrew Johnson down the list, and I've accomplished a lot, because 25 years ago, he was right up there, and then high level. He was number eight or nine. The last one I saw, he's the next to the last from the bottom.

The only guy below him with James Buchanan, the one who came before Lincoln. I was annoyed, because I actually declined to participate in that survey, because I thought it was so stupid, but if I had voted, I could've put him over the top, or over the bottom, if I had taken part. Anyway.

Andrew Johnson lacked every quality of greatness that Abraham Lincoln had. He was deeply racist, stubborn, inflexible, no sense of public opinion, no real connection with the Republican party, and incapable of working with Congress. He thought that the former slaves, now free, they're free. Absolutely. But, they should just go back to work on the plantations, they'd receive some wages, and that was it. They should not bother with politics, they did not deserve basic civil rights.

He set up new governments in the South in 1865, completely controlled by white Southerners. Given a free hand, they enacted a series of laws called the black codes to regulate these freed slaves. The black codes basically gave blacks virtually no rights except basically the right to get married, legally, which they hadn't had as slaves of course, and basically required them to go back to work on the plantations, and if they refused to do so, they would be deemed to be vagrants and arrested and fined, and if somebody couldn't pay his fine, he would be sold for the year to someone who would pay the fine.

This seemed to the North like an effort to restore the essence of slavery, basically. Unfree, coerced labor in the South. The point of these laws is now effective they were, because they were abrogated very quickly by the federal government, but that they indicated what would happen if the white South was just given a free hand. They discredited Andrew Johnson's reconstruction program.

Very quickly in 1866, Congress decided first that Johnson's plan needed to be amended, eventually overthrown, and to do that, they passed one of the most important laws in American history, and probably the most important Constitutional amendment in American history. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Many people know about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 98 years later, but here's a interesting fact. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 in some ways is a stronger law than the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the high point of the Civil Rights Movement. It took us 100 years to get back to where they'd been in 1866.

The Civil Rights Act of 18, this is the origin of the concept of civil rights in our law. The Civil Rights Act. What does it do? First of all, it declares that anybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States. That seems pretty simple, but that makes black people citizens, which they had not been before. This has become, as you may know, a point of great debate. Then, that principle is put into the 14th amendment to the Constitution soon afterwards.

This is a point of great debate nowadays. I myself, a couple of years ago, went on some CNN show to debate a guy, is anybody here from Arizona? That's a long way. Then I can tell you what I think of Arizona. They're pretty crazy down there. I debated a member of the legislature. Arizona, as you know, doesn't seem to like immigrants that much. This guy was defending, they were passing a law to say, children born in Arizona whose mothers are illegal immigrants, or undocumented immigrants, are not citizens. I said, you can't do that, man. I'm sorry, Arizona can't abrogate the Constitution of the United States, I'm sorry, it's just not allowed.

His argument was, the 14th amendment, which come at this, says all persons born in the United States and under the jurisdiction thereof are citizens. Are these children of undocumented immigrants under the jurisdi ... Of course they are. If they commit a crime, they're arrested, they're put in jail. They're under the jurisdiction.

The people that the Civil Rights Act and 14th amendment were referring to as not being under the ... Who can imagine who they were referring to? Who was not under the jurisdiction thereof of the United States in 1866? What population living within the borders of the United States? Indians, right, Native Americans. They were under their own tribal jurisdictions. They were not. That has nothing to do with illegal immigrants and their children.

Anyway. This question. The Civil Rights Act goes on to say that all these citizens are to enjoy the same equal rights in certain realms. They list what rights you were to have, what are they? The right to own property, the right to sign a contract, the right to go to court, the right to testify. These are the rights of what we call for free labor. You need those rights to compete in the labor market in the United States. They don't mention the right to vote yet, that's not in there. The rights of free labor.

What's interesting about this law, to show you how things have changed so rapidly at this point, is that it doesn't just say everyone is to have these equal, it says that all people must enjoy these rights the same as white people. The same as white people. This is a very interesting formulation. The idea of whiteness before the Civil War was a ground of exclusion, they say, white men can vote. That's to exclude non whites. Here, white, this is introduced as a grounding of equality for everybody. If whites have certain rights, other people have to have the same rights. A complete change in the racial underpinning of our law, relating to citizenship.

Of course, subsequent Congresses can overturn a law. The civil rights law of 1866 is still on the books, by the way. But, it could be repeated by another Congress. Very quickly, Congress decides to put these concepts into the Constitution, into the 14th amendment, so they can't just be repealed by the next Congress that comes along. The 14th amendment has been in the news a lot lately also, just a couple of weeks ago, because it's a long complicated amendment, and one of the clauses has to do with the national debt.

The validity of the debt of the United States shall not be questioned. A rather odd way of putting it, shall not be questioned. They were those before ... They decided a week ago that the government should actually pay its bills. There was some talk that if Congress did not raise this debt ceiling, that is allow the government to borrow sufficient money to pay what it has to pay, that President Obama could unilaterally do it on the basis of the 14th amendment. Since the 14th amendment says you can't just get rid of the national debt. Now, there's no jurisprudence on this, Obama said I'm not getting involved in that, and it didn't happen.

Reconstruction popped back in. This was to prevent the repudiation of the debt which had been accumulated during the Civil War. To fight the Civil War, they had borrowed an enormous amount of money and there was some question, how're they going to pay it back. It also, by the way, says that the debt of the Confederacy shall never be repaid. That debt is just abrogated. Every once in a while I get a phone call from someone, "I'm remodeling my old house and I found back here a bunch of these Confederate bonds, are they worth anything?"

I said no, I'm afraid not, they're not worth. Look at the 14th amendment, they're not worth anything, but they look kind of nice. I would frame them and put them on a wall, it'd be a nice little decoration in your house. No one is getting their money back from Confederate bonds. That's also.

All right, that's not the important part of the 14th amendment. The important part is the first section, which says again, anybody born in the United States is a citizen, but this time instead of listing the rights citizens are supposed to have, it says here the principle, all these citizens are to enjoy the equal protection of the law. That's not a specific right, that's a general principle to be applied across the board. The equal protection of the laws.

The 14th amendment makes the Constitution what it really becomes in the 20th century, an avenue, that is something that people who feel they are being denied equality can appeal to. It puts the notion of equality in the Constitution. The original Constitution said nothing about the equality. There was no concept of citizens having equal rights, absolutely not. Every state in the Union before the Civil War had special laws discriminating against black people in one way or another. That did not violate any part of the US Constitution. Now, it says the states cannot discriminate among citizens in terms of their rights.

This, as I say, is a fundamental change in the Constitution, and in our whole concept of what it is to be an American citizen. It introduces the concept of equality for citizens, which we have not really had in any legal way. Over the course of, certainly the 20th century, group after group has claimed greater equality by going back to the 14th amendment. One of the most striking fairly recent examples, 10 years ago now, was in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Supreme Court overturned a law of the state of Texas, another oddball place now that I think about it, which made homosexual acts between consenting adults illegal, a crime.

 The guys who wrote the 14th amendment were not thinking of gay people when they wrote the 14th amendment. That was not on their minds. But, this is an example of what we call a living Constitution. The principle of equality, Justice Kennedy, in a very brilliant majority opinion, said exactly, "Our concepts of rights and freedom grow over time. This is now a violation, for the state to intervene in your personal private life and tell you what you can and can't do in your own bedroom, is a violation of your rights."

It may not've seemed that way in 1866, but it does to us today. The 14th amendment is a living thing, it is used now in all sorts of ways, including ways that were not anticipated by the people who wrote it in 1866.

Another highly important part of this is the final clause of the 14th amendment, which says Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment by appropriate legislation. Congress shall have the power to enforce it. To understand my point about this, is to go back and look at the Bill of Rights. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The first words of the first amendment, the amendment that gives us our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, et cetera, freedom of religion, first words in that are, "Congress shall make no law." Congress. The Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the federal government, it was based on the idea that a too powerful federal government is a danger to individual liberty. You hear that around today all the time also.

It didn't have anything to do with the states before the Civil War. You couldn't have a national established church because of the first amendment, but Massachusetts had an established church until the 1820s. Did that violate the Bill of Rights? No, that's a state. Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government. States can do whatever they feel like.

Now, the 14th amendment says no state can deprive you of your basic rights, and Congress will enforce this. Look at the difference. Congress shall make no law, versus Congress shall have the power. The 14th amendment exemplifies the shift of power in the federal system away from the states, toward the national government because of the Civil War, and because of a new concept of nationality and national power that comes out of the Civil War.

It's this principle of the federal government enforcing the basic rights of citizens, it again a very new idea but it's a reconstruction idea and it's still very much in our world today.

Now, the 14th amendment says nothing about the right to vote. Again, it has a complicated thing of what happens if states don't give various people the right to vote, but it does not give anyone the right to vote. Soon after that, Congress decided that not only were Andrew Johnson's governments bad, they were terrible and they had to be gotten rid of. They passed what is the reconstruction act of 1867, which sweeps away the governments of the South that Johnson had created, and sets in motion a process for putting into effect new governments there, based on for the first time in American history, interracial democracy, for men. Women still can't vote. Men, black and white, will now be able to vote in the South.

This launches what we call radical reconstruction. It launches a period of interracial democracy, where new governments come into power all around the South based on black and white voting, in which as I said, hundreds, thousands, a couple of thousand I think African American men hold public office, the first time in American history. I tried to figure out how many African American men held a public office before the Civil War. I can count three of them, maybe there's a couple more. One guy in Massachusetts, one in Ohio, maybe there's a couple more.

This is nothing. Hardly anybody. Now, it becomes a major feature of life. These governments faced daunting obstacles, the South had deep economic problems after the Civil War. They created the first public school systems ever to exist in the South, first time ever, for black and white pupils. They tried to rebuild the Southern economy, they passed the first state based civil rights legislation, they tried to protect the rights of black laborers on plantations.

Reconstruction was a time of a remarkable experiment, as I said, in democracy. That what Dubois, the subtitle of Dubois' great book, Black Reconstruction, I don't know of the exact words, is the story of democracy in the world, or something like that. Dubois pinpointed, this the key issue here, democracy and what it is and whether it will exist.

 But of course, the problems confronting people coming out of slavery were not just political, they were also economic. This is where reconstruction does not go ... One might say, the political revolution goes forward but the economic revolution does not. Particularly with regard to the famous land issue. Many people who don't know nothing about reconstruction, have heard the phrase 40 acres and a mule. It's the name of Spike Lee's film company, among other things.

Where does that come from, actually? I'll tell you where it comes from. In January 1865, in December 1864, General William T. Sherman, after his famous march through Georgia, arrived with his conquering army at Savannah. Thousands, tens of thousands of slaves had just abandoned the planta ... He had marched through one of the great plantation districts of the south, and slaves by the thousand just left the plantations to find freedom by following along with Sherman's army. No army wants thousands of civilians hanging around with them. They have to deal with them, they have to feed them, they impede their movement.

When Sherman get sot Savannah, he meets with a group of black ministers there and says, basically, what am I going to do with all these black people here? He says, it's an interesting thing, this famous colloquy, he meets with 18 black ministers, and there's an army stenographer there, copying everything down, and Sherman says, "What do you think freedom is?" They say, "Freedom is being able to take care of ourselves, basically, without being dependent on white people." "What do you think slavery is?" "Slavery," they said, "Is the theft of our own labor, is enjoying the fruits of one man's labor without his permission."

Slavery is enjoying the fruits of another man's labor without his permission. Stealing the fruits of someone's labor. Oddly enough, that is exactly what Lincoln's definition of slavery was, the theft of labor. There are many grounds for attacking slavery, but Lincoln honed in on this, that it is a denial of a person's rights to the fruits of his own labor.

"How can people enjoy freedom," says Sherman. "Give us land," they say, "Give us land and then we will really enjoy freedom." A few days later, Sherman issue the famous Field Order Number 15, which says, I'm taking all this land, 50 or 60 miles inland, from the cost in South Carolina and Georgia, this is some of the richest, the home of some of the richest plantation owners in the South, and I'm going to divide it up into 40 acre plots of land for black families. I'll give them a mule too, we got loads of mules in our army that're broken down, I've been riding them hard. If these guys can nurse these mules back to health, they can have one.

That is where 40 acres and a mule comes from, Sherman's Field Order Number 15. In fact, by the end of the war, some unknown number of thousands of black families are settled on Sherman land. It didn't last, of course. President Johnson begins the process of restoring this land to the former owners, later on, when radical reconstruction comes, there're people like Thaddeus Stevens, a great member of Congress from somewhat west of here, Lancaster area of Pennsylvania, who wants the federal government to distribute land to the former slaves, but it doesn't happen.

My point is, political democracy goes forward, but economic democracy does not, and the mass of former slaves have no alternative, so to speak, than to be very poor and go back to work for white employers in some form. But, the political revolution was dramatic enough that it inspired, as I said, a violent counterrevolution. The Ku Klux Klan and groups like that which tried to use terrorism to stop people from voting, to intimidate them, to assassinate local leaders, there's a long complicated, I can't go into it now, story about how violence eats away at the foundations of these reconstruction governments.

The federal government at first intervenes in 1871, President Grant sends federal troops into South Carolina and crushes the Klan. You can do that if you're willing to use force. But, a few years later, violence rears its head again. The north is retreating from this ideal of reconstruction. One by one, these governments of reconstruction fall and are replaced by governments of white supremacist democrats.

Now, this is a long story and I'm almost at the end of my time, so let me just jump more to the present. Reconstruction doesn't just end in 1877. That's usually the ending point. It peters out over another generation. It's not until 1900 that a whole new system of racial inequality is finally put into place in the South, based on racial segregation, based on taking the right to vote away from black men, based on violence, lynching, and not no longer the Klan, but lynching of individuals who step out of line. Our labor market in which blacks are confined to the very lowest rungs.

This is the system which dominates Southern life. This is the era of Jim Crow, until the 1960s sweeps it away. Let me just, a couple of lessons we might think about today, and then I will stop. One is, rights on the books are not always sufficient. They're not self enforcing. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th amendment, the 15th amendment trying to get black men the right to vote, all those remain on the books. But, they were just violated with impunity.

It's interesting to reflect. The civil rights revolution in the 1950s and '60s did not produce any change in the US Constitution. They didn't need a new Constitution. What they needed was the Constitution we already had to actually be enforced. It had been violated for 75, 100 years. With the acquiescence of the North, this is not just a Southern story, with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court and presidents and Congress.

When apartheid was overthrown in South Africa, they wrote a new Constitution. They needed a new Constitution because they had an apartheid Constitution. We didn't have that. We had an actual democratic Constitution, it just was violated with impunity. The lesson of that is, as they used to say in the colonial era, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

The other point finally is, where does reconstruction fit in American history. Is it just a weird abrogation as the old school wants just to refer to it? I think it's a important lesson that very often, we think of American history as just a inevitable trajectory of greater and greater freedom, greater and greater rights for people. But actually, our history is much more complicated than that. It's much more interesting than that. It's stories of ups and downs, of progress and retrogression. Rights can be gained and rights can be taken away also.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was a Massachusetts abolitionist who commanded a regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War, wrote, when the war ended, revolutions may go backward. Reconstruction was a revolution that eventually went backward. But, the fact that it happened at all laid the foundation for another generation, many, many years later, to struggle to try to bring to fruition the goals and aspirations of that time, and the concept of a country beyond the tyranny of race that had really first been put into our history during reconstruction.

That's why I say, I think you cannot understand American history without knowing something about reconstruction, and maybe knowing about reconstruction can help us think in more creative ways about some of the issues that still reverberate in our society, 150 years after the Civil War. Thank you very much for listening.

Marjorie M.:  [inaudible 00:52:07] questions and answers, and I want all my great American history students to show up in history.

Eric Foner:  Yes sir, up there.

Audience:  Someone-

Eric Foner:  Can I, I'm sorry, can I ask you to stand, because the acoustics here are based on sound going that way. I need to be able to hear you.

Audience:   Some have argued that we're in one of those regression periods right now. Do you agree, and if so, what institutions do you see [inaudible 00:52:32]

Eric Foner:  I think periods are always a little more complicated than just being progressive or just being retrogressive. I think there's always a struggle between these various impulses. I do think that the most unfortunately, perhaps, the most dynamic or energetic element in our society, in our politics right now, is to my mind a rather retrogressive one, whether you call it the tea party or whatever, the extreme conservatism which is highly motivated, highly mobilized, highly funded, and even though by no means a majority in any remote way, still significant enough to actually influence strongly the whole discourse of public life.

The abolitionists 150 years ago proved that you don't have to be a majority to influence public discourse. You've just got to seize the public square and force your ideas into it. Even though President Obama obviously does not like these tea party people and have stood up against them in this debt and government shutdown issue, nonetheless, he's still fighting on their turf, so to speak. The battle now is, how much should we cut out of everything. Whereas in fact, we need more, we don't need to cut, we need more. We need more for education, we need more infrastructure. We need more to stimulate jobs and stuff.

Even President Obama is in this mode of, no, we don't want to cut as much as those guys do, they're crazy. Still, it's all about cutting entitlements, cutting this, cutting that. In a sense, I think this is a period. On the other hand, the very fact that we have an African American president, whatever one thinks of his specific policies, I'm not telling anyone what they should think about that. Still, symbolically, given the tortured history of race in our country and our country's history, it's certainly a major, it will be seen as a major, significant thing in American history that we finally have an African American president. Maybe one day, we'll have a woman president, I don't know. If so, we'll probably be about the 70 or 80th country who got around to doing it, because every other civilized place in the world has had a woman leader except us.

Yeah, I'm not a great optimist at the moment, but on the other hand, I generally like to think things are always going to get better. Maybe they will. Yes sir.

Audience: Oh, I know you're not in the business of speculating.

Eric Foner:  I'm happy to speculate.

Audience:  As they say, if not you, who.

Eric Foner:  Right, okay.

Audience: What would Lincoln have done?

Eric Foner:  What would Lincoln have done. This is what we call counterfactual history, which is fine. I don't object to it. I don't mind answering questions like that because no one can prove I'm wrong, right? In fact, people ask me that so frequently, that I even put a few pages in this book I published about Lincoln a few years ago, I end up by saying, all right, all right, everyone wants to know what Lincoln would've done. Here's what I think, although it's speculation.

It's inconceivable to imagine Lincoln getting himself into the fix that Andrew Johnson did, and being impeached, and almost one short of being removed from office. Lincoln was far too good a politician, far too savvy at working with Congress, far too attuned to Northern public sentiment, to ever get himself into Andrew Johnson's fix.

I think what would've happened is what happened in the Civil War. That is, Lincoln and Congress would've worked out some policy. Lincoln and Congress didn't always agree, but he had a, unlike Obama, he had a majority in both houses of his party, so he could work with them rather more easily than President Obama can at the moment. I think you would've probably ended up with something like what was actually passed in 1866, basic civil rights for the former slaves, maybe limited black suffrage like Lincoln had talked about in his last speech.

I don't think you would've had radical reconstruction. Whether that would've been good or bad, I don't know. You probably would've gotten something like the 14th amendment. Maybe a less radical reconstruction would've had more staying power. Maybe a reconstruction with the combined backing of the president and Congress, because Andrew Johnson as president kept obstructing the law. Laws were passed over his veto and he just kept telling the South, you don't have to abide by these laws, these are really laws. Go out and ...

The president is supposed to enforce the law. He encouraged violent opposite in the South. Lincoln would certainly never have done something like that. But, on the other hand, the further you get into a counterfactual, the more total speculation it becomes, because you're mixing assumption, assumption, assumption. What would Lincoln's response have been to the Ku Klux Klan? I don't know. I have no idea.

But, much of the Congress was faced with violent intransigents in the South, eventually said, we either give up and say okay, we lost the Civil War, or we just go forward, and we go to something we don't even want really, which is universal black male suffrage. That's the only way to get these white rebel violent people under control in the South. It's the only way to avoid having a permanent military occupation of the South. You get governments in there which can ...

Maybe, I don't know, would Lincoln have gone that way? I really have no idea. The further you go down that road, the less rational it becomes, so to speak, to talk about it. There's no question in my mind that Lincoln and Congress would've cooperated with each other far more effectively than his success, Andrew Johnson, managed to do.


Audience:  You mentioned that only 20% of American-

Eric Foner:  Wait, stand up again, because I can't quite hear you sorry.

Audience:  You mentioned that only 20% of American high school graduates know about the reconstruction. Do you think there's a political reason for forgetting about this part of history?

Eric Foner:  That's an interesting question. As somebody once said, Americans like tragedies with a happy ending. Reconstruction doesn't have a happy ending. It's hard to deal with. Reconstruction, on the one hand, I find it rather inspiring actually, that ordinary people, many of them just out of slavery, many of them others, actually struggled against tremendous odds for basic human rights.

I think it's a wonderful story, but unfortunately, it didn't succeed. What came later was a terrible retrogression. I think it doesn't quite fit in the story of endless progress so to speak in American history. There are also more pragmatic reasons why reconstruction tends to get lost in the shuffle. In high schools, let us say, American history is often taught in two semesters, which break at the Civil War. Sometimes, you're supposed to reconstruction but they never do in the first semester, or maybe the second semester, they're supposed to start with reconstruction, but they've got so much to cover, that they zip right through it.

I often actually lecture the groups of high school teachers, and they're always saying oh my God, I just can't figure out how to get to reconstruction somehow, even though I'd like to. I think it will be interesting to see, we are now in the middle of what we call the sesquicentennial, or the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. 1865, 2015, coming up in two years, is the beginning of the 150th anniversary of reconstruction. Will there be any commemoration, any marking of that? Will there be any indication of that? I don't know. I honestly don't know. It'll be interesting to see how we try to deal with 150 years since reconstruction.

Many people do find it very difficult to probably deal with and grasp. Whether you call that political or just personal or what, if you go around the South today, the public south, I'm not talking about what's taught in universities, still, is filled with relics of the old point of view. Monuments to Klansman. There are more monuments in Tennessee to Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the fingers of the Ku Klux Klan, than there are to Andrew Jackson or any of the presidents who came out of Tennessee, Jackson, Polk, or Johnson. There are more statues of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

It's going to be hard to ... There are almost no public commemorations. A few are beginning of these black senators. Do you think there's a statue of Hiram Revels, the first black man to serve in the US Senate in Mississippi? No, they're not putting one up over there.

The public recognition of this period is still locked in a very old fashioned point of view which is discredited among historians, but still has a lot of purchase in the popular realm. Yeah, that's an interesting question. Professor [inaudible 01:01:47], yes.

Professor: This isn't a question about what would Lincoln have done, but it's a question about what you would've done.

Eric Foner: Me, if I were around then?

Professor:  Given your knowledge in hindsight [crosstalk 01:01:58]. Since the real tragic era was the era of Jim Crow, what policies might have prevented that era from happening, or were there any policies that would've [crosstalk 01:02:09]

Eric Foner:  Yeah. As you well know, we often say, historian's greatest tool and greatest liability is hindsight. We know what happened. That gives us great insight. We can see patterns that people, at the time, nobody in the 1850s knew they were living in the pre Civil War decade, but we know that. That gives us insight into things.

But, okay, on the other hand, knowing what happened gives it an aura of inevitability, because once it happens, we can explain it. We can come up with a logical explanation of why it happened, which makes it seem like the only possible outcome, because our task is to explain what happened. That's what historians are paid to do. It's not to explain what didn't happen.

At every moment in history, there are all sorts of possibilities in existence. Most of them are closed off eventually. If there had been during the ... I grew up in the Cold War, most of you are too young to remember the Cold War, thank goodness, it was a crazy time. If there had been, God forbid, a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was eminently possible at certain points, and civilization had survived, future historians would've been able to explain very, very clearly why that was inevitable. You could have a million explanations, but it just didn't actually happen, luckily.

Those books are not being written. This is all a way of saying, it's hard to figure out an alternative pathway in history. I am not actually one of those who believes giving out land was a panacea, and if they had given out land, all these problems would've been solved. Obviously in an agricultural society, it's better to have land than not have land, no question about that. It would've given these former slaves greater economic independence, and yet, to be a small farmer in the South after the Civil War was no bed of roses, white or black.

All over the world, the terms of trade were turned against agriciul ... There was a giant agricultural crisis in the world in the last part of the 19th century. Black farm owners would've suffered from that just as much as whites actually did in the late 19th century.

To me, the real question is, can we imagine a circumstance under which the federal government would have actually maintained the will to enforce the law, which is what we're really talking about here. Actually, enforcing the Constitution and the laws. I think it's possible to imagine that happening, and I think if it had happened, things might've been different. I'm not saying you would've had utopia in the South, nirvana, but you might've had a situation where the basic rights of all people were grounded, were actually recognized and enforced.

Even today, as I show you how difficult this is, nobody is disenfranchising all black voters the way they did in 1900. As you all know, there are still efforts going on in Pennsylvania itself to disenfranchise some voters. Voter ID cards, there are efforts to, there are always a lot of people who think too many people are voting, and the wrong kind of people are voting, and let's get rid of some of those.

If that's happening now in the 21st century, imagine how difficult it would've been to stop that in the last 19th century. Yeah, I'm not one of those who think the failure of reconstruction is completely inevitable but it does require a lot of speculation about counterfactuals, which didn't, unfortunately, happen. I don't know if that's really an answer.


Audience:  Earlier when you discussed that two in nine African American Congress members came from Illinois state, you mentioned participation, or that they came during reconstruction, you mentioned participation. What do you think the role of participation has now in terms of the theories of [inaudible 01:06:19] or [inaudible 01:06:20], and what does it need to play in terms of people and the consequences of political participation anywhere from the Tea Party to just voters going ...

Eric Foner:  That's an interesting question if I understand it correctly. Political participation, we live at a time of great cynicism about politics. Politicians are held in low regard, I don't know what it's like in this great state, but where I come from, politicians are despised by many people for good reason. I saw a poll, one of these Gallup poll or something, raking the reputation of various categories and occupations, and politicians came out third from the bottom. The only groups less well regarded than politicians were convicted felons and Wall Street bankers. That was it. How low can you get?

In the 19th century, it wasn't like that. Political participation was terribly important to people. The struggle, sometimes people say, why are they making a big fuss? Women spent a century trying to get the right to vote. What difference did it ... The problems of women weren't just because they couldn't vote. There were so many disabilities in the law and in society and education against women and not voting, maybe not've been the biggest one at all. Why did they make such a big deal about the right to vote?

Because, in a political democracy, the right to vote becomes the absolute emblem of liberty. If you're in czarist Russia, they got one man, one vote, the czar. That's it. Everyone else doesn't have the right to vote, so what difference does it make if you don't? Being excluded from the right to vote is not a stigma, but in the United States, it is. In a self proclaimed democracy, to be excluded from the right to vote is a stigma, that's why so many of these groups, it's the right to vote that becomes the focus of their demands, and in reconstruction, black people went to vote in an 80, 90%.

Today, if 50% vote, they think it's a great turnout. 90% of people, many of them illiterate. Former slaves. The insisted on, this is a symbol of our membership in the society, so to speak. Does voting solve all your problems? No. Does having black people in office solve all their problems? No. Does having a black president solve the problems of race in this country? No. It's a sad and interesting fact, I think, which future historians will have to try to figure out, that actually, under President Obama, African Americans have actually suffered more than other people from the economic decline, which began before he got in, obviously, but his policies have not reversed the economic distinction among, that have put blacks at a tremendous disadvantage in this recession.

I'm not even sure exactly what you're asking, other than that. I think in a society like this, political participation is a very ... To lack it is to be stigmatized. People understand that, and they value the right to vote. On the other hand, when the right to vote as today doesn't appear to actually give you an opportunity to address deep seated social problems, then people because cynical about politics. People are afraid or are alarmed, I should say, about rising inequality in the country. Rising economic inequality.

Do you think voting is going to ... Electing this guy or that guy or that gal is not going to really change that, I don't think, very much. The sources of it are deeply rooted in the economy and not in the politics. It becomes a problem, and when people don't think political participation will help them, they become cynical about politics, and that then opens the door to more, to only those who are really organized to actually affect change.

I don't know if that's really an answer, but it's stimulated by your question. Yes?

Audience: I was wondering if you could speak to-

Eric Foner:  I have to ask you to speak louder, I'm sorry.

Audience: I was wondering if you could speak to the effects of reconstruction in the South to whether there's any legislation change in Northern states, and how that played that?

Eric Foner: Yeah, that's a great question. Indeed, we need people to study that. If you would like to come to graduate school and write a PhD in history on that subject, I will commend you. Certainly, there was a reconstruction of the North also, it was not the same as the South, but of course these amendments cover the whole country. The 14th amendment swept away discriminatory laws in the North as well as in the South. By the way in California, against the Chinese. They don't actually even mention black people specifically in that amendment, they just say everybody.

It's not even only for citizens, at some points, they say all persons are entitled to this, that. That includes non citizens. The legal principle of equality required a lot of change in the North as well as in the South, and then African American men get the right to vote in the North in 1870, after the South. When the 15th amendment is ratified, Pennsylvania has to give black the right to vote, New York has to give blacks the right to vote, after Mississippi and Alabama, so we shouldn't feel like we're so ahead of the game up here.

Now, of course, African Americans in the North represented tiny, tiny proportion at that time, maybe one or 2% of the population, this is before the vast migration from the South to the North in the 20th century. There was little opportunity for political power, let us say. But certainly, there was change, many schools became racially integrated in the North for the first time, public facilities, transportation, hotels, theaters began admitting black people which they hadn't before the war. I think there was a easing up of racism in the North occurring in reconstruction also.

Of course, the Southern system that comes in afterwards is a regional system. The North doesn't have equality, but it doesn't take the right to vote away from black men. This becomes very important when migration increases, the black population in the north, they can actually vote and have many more political options than they do in the South in the early 20th century.

It is needed to have more people to look at what's happening in the North, and the West also, in the reconstitution of everything that's going on in reconstruction.

Are we almost done? One more question, who wants to be the last question? Someone who hasn't asked a question. Yes, this young lady.

Audience:  How did you come to choose this area [inaudible 01:13:31]

Eric Foner:  Of reconstruction? Life is full of surprises. As I was, Professor Murphy mentioned my book on Tom Payne, this is going back a long ways, the 1970s. I had this idea back then, since I had been around in the '60s and everybody was freaked out and everything, I had this idea of writing a book modeled on Richard Hofstadter's book, The American Political Tradition, but it would be the American Radical Tradition. Someone should write that. Profiles of famous American radicals. I had it all blocked out, and the first chapter was going to be Tom Payne.

When I wrote that chapter, it came out to 200 pages. I said, you know, maybe I'll just turn this into a book. There is this bicentennial of the revolution coming up, so all right. Then I said, I'm going to be back to my other book, but then literally, out of the blue, I got called by a great historian long gone, Richard Morris, who was the editor of what they called the New American Nation series, which was this book series, Harper & Roe, he had books on different periods, all the different periods of American history, and he said, what he actually said was, "David Donald," another great historian of that era, "was supposed to write the book on reconstruction and he just dropped out. He said he couldn't do it. It defeated him. Would you like to do it?"

I said, what kind of invitation is that? I said, you know, yeah, I've always been kind of interested in reconstruction, I didn't even know that much about it. I said yeah, okay, I'll do it. That's why I did it, because someone asked me. Then I discovered it was very complicated, and it took me 10 years to actually do all the research and write it. By that time, I was stuck in reconstruction. I then continued doing other stuff, although I've also written in other areas as well.

My interest in it was one, just being invited, two, knowing about Dubois and Black Reconstruction and thinking that was a great book, but it was 50 years old, it needed to be rethought. Also, just thinking, this was still in the civil rights era. If you want to understand race in America, you've got to understand reconstruction. That was a motivation. If Morris had called me up and asked me to write about the medieval church, I would've said no, I'm not interested in that. This was something that seemed really relevant to use a hack kneed phrase, to our society, and it still is.

 Okay. Thank you all very much for coming along.

Tim Burke:   We have a reception out in the lobby, and you're all welcomed [inaudible 01:16:05]


Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing