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A Short History of Reconstruction’ by E. Foner and ‘A Nation Under Our Feet’ by S. Hahn Essay

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Updated: Dec 13th, 2021

Reading Foner’s book, A short history of Reconstruction, one may be deceived to think that the Reconstruction took less than the decade or so it took yet he unfolds its facts with such mastery and preciseness only a historian of his caliber can deliver. It presents a shorter and simpler version of his earlier work, Reconstruction, albeit the former does not leave one with unanswered questions. We earlier had a significant view of the Reconstruction as a period of Prosouthern and anti-black, but Foner has erased that distorted interpretation of our past as we will see.

Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet presents the history of African American political consciousness say some fifty years after slavery, something that has eluded many historians for some time. The author delves into political activities during the slavery period which formed a basis for later mobilization. In the book are leaders, and the building of political communities which were defended, and rebuilt to achieve their ultimate goal which was self-governance; political freedom. He links earlier the first generation of emigrants to others who remained in the north using Black Nationalism forms like Garveyism. This book is a mix of a troubling yet inspiring experience of black American democracy.

Among other themes, these two books are advocates of three things. First, changes that took place in the black American society, introducing their struggles and the transformation necessary for the present state of being for the black community. Secondly, the books highlight a great deal of racism towards the black and class for the white community, which brought tribulation for the black community. Third, they point to the expanded presence of federal authority as well as the growing commitment to supporting equal rights for all regardless of race, the latter which saw more blacks in the north and south welcome the power to vote with open arms.

Taking a recap of Foner’s work, he starts by pointing in the preface how dark the Reconstruction period was to historians until the 1960s when revisionists changed this notion. The Reconstruction is a time after the civil war when America and the south were trying to redefine themselves now that slavery had ended. Abraham Lincoln freed slaves to help in the war, deemed an advantage to the north. He had not thought of the repercussions of the freedom though he died before he could solve it. His successor, Andrew let the Southerners back into the country and gave the slaves to them to do with them as they wished. In essence, Andrew hated the southerners and blacks alike and putting them together as a means to an end; enslaving them altogether. The Radical Republicans provided for the slaves to work as free wage-workers but did not give them land which left the blacks’ fate in the hands of the South, an action that pushed civil rights for blacks to the late 1960s. 1960 revisionists viewed Radical Republicans as reformers genuinely committed to fighting for the rights of blacks in an idealistic fashion. Foner however concedes that recent research of the Reconstruction shows that these Radical Republicans were actually conservative and equally held racist views. They (Republicans) did not resist much when whites started to govern the South, if anything they prompted it. The preface alone presents us to the racism that was in the era.

Foner goes ahead to describe the African-American experience during the civil war and Reconstruction. They were totally involved in the war with thousands of them being recruited into the Union Army. This actually marked the beginning of African American leaders as most of the future city leaders had once served in the Union Army as Foner acknowledges. He notes that “for men of talent and ambition, the army flung open a door to advancement and respectability”. However, as Reconstruction progressed, African Americans were subjected to violence and racism despite their involvement in the civil war and sharing duties where matters of the nation were concerned.

Hahn’s work is an answer to his rhetorical questions; he thus says in the prologue “This book started as an effort to address these questions”, the questions being “Given the coercions and dangers of slavery and incipient freedom, how can we account for the development of these solidarities, for their dynamics and boundaries, for their responsibilities and compulsions? And what would such an accounting mean for our understanding of African Americans, the South, and the nation? He answers these by dividing his work chronologically and thematically into three parts. The first is concerned with how the slaves and freed people conducted themselves, especially the politics involved in the Civil War and how the war formed a platform for social and political revolution. This part seeks to understand social relations, labor practices, religious affiliations and other forms of a community association that enabled political intelligence among the slaves and effectively organized them wherever they were distributed. These perhaps are the driving force to the Union invading the Confederate South and the presence of the slave rebellion.

The second part is an analysis of the Radical Reconstruction; the point where Fonner starts his work. It focuses on the struggle for empowerment of the black community, politically, while also looking at grassroots mobilization. In this part are various challenges African Americans encountered in their efforts to obtain public power, chief among them being racial barriers making it difficult for African Americans to obtain political power.

Part three argues out various means employed by former confederate states to try terminating African American politics during the reconstruction. Generally, Hahn emphasizes the power kinship and societal affiliations had on the political success of African Americans, perhaps a virtue majority of them carried from their mother countries believed to be West Africa.

To exemplify change, Foner and Hahn take account of the transition of slaves into free laborers and eventually equal citizens at the end of the war. In their discussion of the Reconstruction, the two-note that African Americans went back to farms not as slaves but as share-croppers, a position better than the one but with its own slavery-economic slavery. Foner particularly acknowledges this when he says “it was an economic transformation that would culminate, long after the end of Reconstruction, in the consolidation of a rural proletariat composed of a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to Northern financiers and industrialists”. Hahn depicts emotional and personality changes in the way African Americans governed themselves. After slavery and in the war he brings the essence of social meetings and circulation of political material that enabled empowerment for their communities-education wise while blending solidarity unique to the African Americans. These gave them the courage to carry out a rebellion that is still the largest heard of in history. They could speak for themselves and actually joined the Union, though not voluntarily for all, to fight confederacy because there was the belief that it will lead to subsequent crushing of slavery which it partly did. He says that by 1865 “their expectations and political activity found expression both informal demands for civil and political rights and in the explosion of rumors about federally sponsored land redistribution”; something that depicts political maturity for a people who were too silent to speak of the ills done unto them.

Racism and class are other common aspects of these books. Both books highlight the formation of groups to act against African Americans key among them being the Ku Klux Klan. This was a great barrier to social growth and especially voting. On voting, restrictions barred most blacks from voting implying fewer blacks went into legislation. As if that was not enough, free people’s lives were segregated, schools, areas of recreation, terminals, even state boundaries especially with anti-black groups that terrorized them. Hahn tells of the plea by plantation farmers to be granted personal security by ending violence and disorder, as they “secure homesteads”. It was the outcome of violent attacks- murdering and midnight raids of the Ku Klux Klan, and all they wanted was a place without the fear of “men who opposed our moral and political advancement”. The wealthy southerners did not make things any easier for the African Americans when they took over governance, as their treatment of them was even worse than that of the north, they had a class of their own which was not to be brought to the level of the blacks-apparently, analysis of Reconstruction by earlier historians present it as a blow to the Southerners by the north. As much as Andrew wanted to hurt their pride, African Americans were the worst hit, more because of their color.

Clearly expounded by Foner are the presence of growing Federal authority and the belief that all citizens had equal rights to their race notwithstanding. Foner illustrates how voting by blacks encouraged corruption as their presence at the poll often broke already established rules. Support for the reconstruction was thus undermined and the blacks were deemed unfit to vote.

Different in Hahn’s book, an aspect not exhibited by Foner is the emphasis the former has on kinship and societal bonds. He feels that these were the enabling features of their politics. It is actually an answer to all his questions, the initial drive in writing his book anyway. He shows that even when everything else changed in the African American community, people were transferred and murdered for instance; kinship remained the binding factor in their political loyalties, slave workgroups, camps, in the civil war itself, the voting and so on.

In conclusion, the two books are quite informative being a reminder of the twists of the lives of African Americans, their tribulations in the reconstruction and the unfolding of their freedom, with which later came their civil rights. Hahn’s work is broader as it covers their societal backgrounds and it brings the essence of freedom. Foner’s work however simple but factual covers the effects and stages reconstruction took on African Americans.

Bibliography

Foner, Eric. A short history of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Hahn, Steven. A nation under our feet: Black political struggles in the rural South from slavery to great migration. Boston: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2003.

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