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“A Short History of Reconstruction” by Eric Foner Essay

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Updated: Mar 13th, 2020


A short history of Reconstruction by Eric Foner is centered mainly in the period surrounding the Civil war era, a period which bore profound controversy and intrigue.

African Americans and women from an early stage in American history found themselves misplaced in society and the developing findings that followed led to the alteration of the meaning of Reconstruction.

Varying definitions of freedom emerged that ultimately changed the understanding of Reconstruction and inarguably shaped the outcome of Reconstruction.

Definitions of freedom

Eric Foner encapsulates the definitions of freedom before, during, and after the Civil War, which also compares the definition of what slavery meant to African Americans and also White Americans.

Freedom from Slavery

After the Revolutionary War, white Americans embraced the ideology and belief that the possession of slaves meant economic independence and real freedom (Foner 1990, 22).

Majority of the White Americans felt the Revolutionary War had been fought to protect their property, which included their slave property. Hence, most of the white Americans possessed the notion that abolishing slavery would reduce white Americans to slaves (Foner 1990, 15).

The emergence of a capitalistic America during the early 19th century also played a role in altering the perception of freedom. After the Revolution, enslavement gradually diminished, revealing a form of liberation for the slaves.

However, with the abolishment of slavery, there emerged a deep division between the north and south due to their differing opinions on slavery (Foner 1990, 71).

The North caused economic modernization of industry and had great influence in the development of the greatest slave society in the South earning the name “The market revolution” (Foner 1990, 73).

Universal liberty was despised in the south since they believed the existence of slavery was the true expression of freedom for American whites (Foner 1990, 43).

Not long after the development of capitalism brought forth another form of abuse called wage slavery (Foner 1990, 101). The dependence of the workplace by laborers for financial freedom brought about the exploitation of the laborers by their employers.

Political freedom

After 1800, the political power associated with voting was only limited to American white males. Race and sex were, therefore, the ultimate determinant to political freedom and neither African Americans nor women had any political leverage (Foner 1990, 65).

Even Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers believed that African Americans were entitled to enjoy the same rights stated in the Declaration of Independence, but he added that they should do it elsewhere and not within the United States(Foner 1990, 82).

White men in the South were however of the view that freedom was a privilege accorded to the African Americans and not a universal right.

Defenders of political freedom in both the North and the South felt that blacks did not hold the ability to govern themselves since they lacked discipline (Foner 1990, 43-44).

American white men of the South were protected by the constitution, granting them protection and immunity from the central government’s interference of their lives and property (Foner 1990, 69).

Emancipation of women

The American view of women was also tantamount to slavery. Women were considered domestic helpers and were not allowed to make decisions without their husbands’ consent.

Even though the marriage was voluntary, the prevalent laws had made the wife submissive and enslaved to the husband (Foner 1990, 122).

The husbands had a right to own their wives’ person as property, and her performance of domestic labor, both willing and unwilling was supported by common law.

The common law stated that the free man was the head of the family and master of the household, whose personal independence was achieved by the enforced dependence of the wife and children (Foner 1990, 89).

The correlation between slaves and free women came to be used frequently in debates on emancipation.

It was evident that the institution of marriage had to be changed and through the emancipation of women, the settings of slavery within marriages would be impeded (Foner 1990, 123).

The empowerment for women would also give them political leverage, didactic and economic opportunities as well (Foner 1990, 123). Freedom was therefore defined in the sense of emancipation of women from slavery and marital bondage.

Application of freedom in Reconstruction

The focal ideology of freedom was centered between property rights and personal rights as well as political, and economic freedom. In Reconstruction, the South felt the former slaves were free as people but only free from forced labor (Foner 1990, 82).

The South was the most resistant front in the proper implementation of emancipation. At the end of the Civil War, the Republican Congress felt that it needed to be more specific in its elucidation so that all Americans would possess the right to benefit from their labor.

For example, the Thirteenth Amendment had already abolished the power of one person to own another, either in marriage or slavery. In 1866, the Republican Party recognized that civil equality was not being honored to allow for freedom to truly work (Foner 1990, 70).

The Fourteenth Amendment was introduced to emphasize the perception of universal equality as applicable to the law. Consequently, African Americans were granted political rights equivalent to those of white, leading to the emergence of the free labor society in the South.

Freedom in its semblance and application was different for both white Americans and African Americans. To the white Americans, democracy was a legacy accorded to them by their forefathers through struggle (Foner 1990, 119).

For African Americans, freedom was a versatile notion that affected every phase of their lives. In due course, freedom was theorized as the equal division of political and economic opportunities previously exclusive to the White American male (Foner 1990, 113).

Reconstruction further defined latitude the ownership of self and honored the right to compete in the labor market rather than controlled independence that was customary in slavery and marriage (Foner 1990, 120).

In this sense, Reconstruction allowed for free men and women of all racial backgrounds. However, even though African Americans were granted rights within the political and economic fields, they were not included in the conceptualization of the land reforms.

Reconstruction was responsible for underpinning the notion that a free man can remain economically dependent, but political freedom was somewhat limited to African Americans.

Voting was considered to be the first step towards liberty and the only factual identification of the free man (Foner 1990, 97).


The perception of slavery, freedom, and tradition did have a major impact on the real interpretation of freedom. The south was especially receptive to the fact that slaves were the true definition of American whites’ freedom.

The dominance over the wives by their husbands was also closely related to slavery since the wife was bound by law to submit to her husband regardless of what he did to her.

Women and slaves were viewed as private property rather than people and as such the government had no authority to question their treatment.

Indeed, many of the states in the South believed they had the right to govern themselves, and political freedom to them was the protection of their property from interference from the federal government.

The concept of universal liberation, however, became quite popular in American and the domination of wives and slaves at work and at home gradually ceased.

The passing of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments was of crucial importance in the establishment of freedom for all.

The exact interpretation of universal freedom became a major challenge in the Civil War and Reconstruction because one definition would not satisfy all conditions throughout the country. This is partly the reason why the definition of freedom in the constitution is moderately vague.

Freedom in these terms was economic freedom, political freedom and freedom over self. The post civil war era brought about several immense changes in America, but one prominent predicament that was not attended to was the allocation of land to former slaves during land reforms.

Emancipation was the perfect tool that highlighted the plight of women and slaves and also underscored the fact that freedom and slavery could never correlate.

It is, however, worthy to note that even in this day and age America is still in a contradicting situation where economic dependence is still very reliant on political freedom, and It is therefore very plausible that economic freedom was overlooked during Reconstruction.

Reference List

Foner, Eric. 1990. A short history of Reconstruction, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row.

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