Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Foner’s The Making of Radical Reconstruction

When analyzing Foner’s chapter from A Short History of Reconstruction named “The Making of Radical Reconstruction,” the beginning is what was very intriguing. Especially in the differences between radical leaders like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, it demonstrates the differing opinions between the nation, and even more focused on the congressman within the Radical Republicans. The controversy stemmed from how congress should approach reconstruction. Thaddeus Stevens was considered “a master of Congressional infighting, parliamentary tactics, and blunt speaking,” while on the other hand Sumner was disliked by other congressmen for “egotism, self-righteousness, and stubborn refusal to compromise, acted as the voice, the embodiment, of the New England conscience” (105). Both characters demonstrate ideologies that are often coexistent with the opinions of W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington because it was the ever-growing debate whether black people should compromise and assimilate into a predominately white culture, or should they go through political action in order to ensure equality of all. Even though Foner implied that all “Abolitionists considered him their politician,” this was not always the case. It was never a question whether Republicans were fighting for equal rights, but rather the party’s internal controversy on how they were to approach it (105). The easiest way to look at the differences between the two ideologies was the economic questions that reconstruction faced. Still focusing on Charles Sumner, he believed in a laissez-faire, or free market capitalism, which involved minimal involvement in the economy. Considering his perception on how reconstruction should be approached, his opinion on laissez-faire is very interesting considering how he is pushing for maximum involvement from the government during reconstruction. Besides the use of “free labor” there was very little intervention from the government that allowed for black people to advance withing society (106). Republicans believed that if they took these approaches, they would be able to provide equal economic opportunity. While some proposed taking land from white southerners, the idea never go enough support to ever be seriously considered. Looking at reconstructions impact on the present, it seems as if Republicans failed because over 100 years after reconstruction there is no sign of equal “economic opportunity” as seen by the massive wealth and income gap (106).

One thought on “Foner’s The Making of Radical Reconstruction”

  1. Good post—your comparison to DuBois and Washington is apt, because Foner’s interpretation of Reconstruction was heavily influenced by DuBois’s, and in fact their two works became the touchstones for a thorough re-interpretation of the period, which had long since been dominated by “Lost Cause” and “Tragic Era” histories. That said, I’m not sure Stevens/Sumner map onto DuBois/Washington that neatly… Although Foner emphasizes divisions within the Republicans, you could also say there was a consensus around free labor and laissez-faire. You astutely hint at Foner’s larger argument in the book, which is that these economic philosophies and their ambiguities limited the Republicans’ approach to Reconstruction, thus contributing to its ultimate failure.

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