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The Dunning view of Reconstruction, which had almost universal scholarly and popular acceptance from the turn of the 20th Century until the '50s, held that rapacious and vindictive Radical Republicans hijacked the Reconstruction process from the just and magnanimous policies of Andrew Johnson and installed in the South state governments dominated by unscrupulous and incompetent white carpetbaggers and scalawags. These state governments were monuments to misgovernment and corruption, and the entire region (indeed, the entire country) breathed a collective sigh of relief when the white "redeemers" finally forced them out of office. The black freedmen were portrayed as ignorant, infantile, incapable of self-government, and prone to political and economic manipulation in this account of Reconstruction.
Revisionist scholars, beginning as early as 1909 with W.E.B. DuBois seminal paper about the subject but really not gaining momentum until the '50s, held that the Dunning school was substantially in error about the progress and nature of Reconstruction, and that this error was largely caused by bald racial prejudice. While the Radical Republicans did have crass economic motives, they honestly believed that the freedmen ought to have civil and political rights. While the Reconstruction state governments were often corrupt and incompetent, they were not out of the ordinary for state governments of the time, and the redeemer governments were frequently as bad or worse. Despite the corruption and the base motivations that did exist, much was accomplished during Reconstruction that should inspire pride: the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which guaranteed blacks civil and political rights; the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, which guaranteed blacks the equal use of public accomodations and which provided the Federal government with the legal basis to prosecute those who would deny the black man his civil rights; the institution of truly republican governments in the former Confederacy; the beginning of the reconstruction of the South's infrastructure, which had been largely destroyed by the Civil War; and the foundation of such worthwhile institutions as state-supported schools.
Stampp does an admirable job of summarizing both the historiography of Reconstruction and the revisionist view of it. His prose may be somewhat dry at times, but nevertheless it is lucid and engaging in its totality. The key merit of this book is not, however, its groundbreaking scholarship -- indeed, there is nothing groundbreaking about this book -- or its literary style. This has been an enormously influential book because it makes revisionist scholarship about Reconstruction accessible to the masses. In so doing, it has performed the invaluable task of popularizing the revisionist conclusions about Reconstruction, thus making popular acceptance of our later-day Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, more readily attainable.
As wonderful and influential as this book is, it is not without its shortcomings. Stampp does an insufficient job of citing his sources. This is, in part, because this book is largely the written and polished version of lectures about Reconstruction that he has given over the years; unfortunately, understanding why there are so few citations does not excuse it. His ending bibliographical essay, while very useful, ultimately does not take the place of detailed in-text citations, and his book suffers for it.
Secondly, his depiction of the freedman leaves something to be desired. One of the great modern-day complaints about the Dunning school of Reconstruction is that it does not treat Reconstruction-era blacks as actual agents in Reconstruction history. They have no will, and they are not actors in the drama. Rather, they are acted upon. Stampp certainly does not share the racist assumptions of the Dunning scholars that he seeks to replace, but he does share with them the assumption that the black man was not a prime actor in this story. It is rather amazing to me that Stampp discusses the freedman as incessantly as he does and yet fails to talk much about him.
Neither of these two criticisms should take that much away from this otherwise excellent book. Read it as an introduction to the era, and treasure it for its salutary historical influence.
Far from it, Stampp convincingly argues. While he does not deny that the Radical Reconstructionists had a political agenda that included punishing the South and forcing through a pro-industrial, high-tariff program that a populist South was bound to oppose, he also points out Reconstruction wrought many positive changes, including bringing the newly freed African-American into the political process.
Stampp also is able to show the social programs launched by the Reconstructionists under the aegis of the Freedmen's Bureau were necessary in a South that was all too eager after the war to force black citizens into a new servitude. For example, the federal officials were instrumental in monitoring court proceedings in the South, ensuring that justice was served for all citizens, not just those holding money and political power.
The reasons for Reconstruction's demise have been well documented, and Stampp does not shy from acknowledging the obvious instances of corruption and soaring taxes. But he points out that in the decades following the end of the war, corruption was hardly unique to southern governments and that tax increases were to be expected in states and local communities whose infrastructures had been badly damaged by war.
Finally, Stampp reminds us, lest we forget, that Reconstruction failed because of a determined effort by diehard white supremacists and secret organizations such as the Klan. This effort was best characterized by the Mississippi Plan of 1875, in which anti-Reconstructionists set out openly to ensure that black citizens would not make it to the polls to vote. This perversion of democracy spelled the end until the 1950s, essentially, of efforts by the U.S. to achieve political and social equality for blacks.
This is essential reading for students of American history. It represents an important contribution to the literature that illuminates this country's self-inflicted racial problems.