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This is one of two critical review for HIST 912 Comprehensive Examination and Readings in Modern America,

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877. Updated Edition. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics Kindle Edition , 2014.

Eric Foner in his book, Reconstruction America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, discusses two very distinct themes. First, he demeans the Dunning School of Analysis, explaining how the school’s doctrine tainted American history by focusing on Southern whites, making them the victims during Reconstruction, thus giving them the center stage, with little to no voice for the blacks. Foner stepped outside of the Dunning ranks and broke with its obtuse dogma, giving the black voice, the freedmen, center stage examining their experiences, aspirations, and thoughts, thus repositioning the established lens on the black experience during Reconstruction. Peter Kolchin suggested the Dunning philosophy of Reconstruction was a “Tragic Era” led by “vindictive Yankees” along with “Radical Republicans” who were seeking to “humiliate the South”. Moreover, he proposed, the Dunning school of thought was still the prevalent mentality until the release of Foner’s book[1]

Second,Foner suggested Reconstruction was a radical revolution which abruptly accelerated social and economic changes, thus going from a slave culture to a free labor society destroying the South’s antebellum hierarchy and its enduring economic system. He remarked, “like a massive earthquake, the Civil War and the destruction of slavery permanently altered the landscape of Southern life…no aspect of life emerged untouched from the conflict”(51,61). Moreover, this earthquake was created by the Radical Republican’s utopianlabor policy.

This plan allowed freedmen for the first time to have active economic roles and to become contributors in the reformed societal hierarchy. They were not, as the Dunning school portrayed, “passive victims”, “unthinking” with animalistic characteristics, who, if freed, would threaten to destabilize the entire country (13). Moreover, this policy, a test in “multiracial democracy” (35), allowed freedmen to display zeal for their recent civil rights, independence, political, and social liberties. Foner points out, during this period, the freedmen demonstrated they were civic minded and used good political and social judgment. Also, this successful behavior caused bewilderment and exasperation to many southern whites (135).

Furthermore, while the blacks were flexing their civic muscles, the Radical Republicans, with their “utopian vision of a nation” (332), struggled with how the newly created “free labor system” (212) would supplant the previous system of enslavement. Likewise, Foner indicated “free labor” had many interpretations and created much confusion over its meaning whereas, to freedmen, it meant “economic mobility” (236), to be independent and to have their own land (244). Additionally, northern reformers and southern farmers had their own unique visions of free labor.

According to Foner, northern investors believed free labor suggested freedmen would earn their own wages while continuing to work on plantations. Yet, by 1868, the post-war dogma of free labor became progressively removed from reality, thus hampering the success of the free labor system. Initially, the Radical Republican utopian policy believed “all classes in a free labor society shared the same interests” (236). The reality, ex-masters and previous slaves inherited the longstanding Antebellum social and economic patterns and mindsets, which challenged the Radical Republicans utopian dream of free labor. By 1876, pressure from a growing southern political power and the turbulent election of Rutherford B. Hayes, put an end to Reconstruction and the utopian dream was over.

Foner presents a wide range of issues, far greater than can be discussed here. He examined the political, social, and economic turmoil the country faced during the Reconstruction period, along with its failed vision of a shared free labor system. Yet, Foner demonstrated, despite the failure of this vision, freedmen did have some success in their fight for equality, and while not fully successful, their struggles laid the groundwork for the contemporary black community(139).

Works Cited


Kolchin, Peter. “Reviewed Work: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 72, no. 4 (1988): 752-54.

  1. Kolchin, Peter. “Reviewed Work: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 72, no. 4 (1988): 752-54.