Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction

Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, pp. 104–123 (on Blackboard)

Throughout the Eric Foner reading A Short History of Reconstruction, it focuses on the radical reconstruction time period. A time period in the late 1800s, where black minorities and enslaved African-Americans needed the assistance of other party leaders and abolitionists to help fight for their civil rights. During this time, African-Americans were still enslaved and working overtime due to a white man governed land or “white man’s government” (105). The south did not have representation, especially since freedmen and enslaved African-Americans could not vote, since they weren’t seen as equal. However, changes were made during the Radical Reconstruction era. 

Radical Republicans played a key role in helping the minority gain their civil rights during the Radical Reconstruction era. The Radical Republicans had one main goal, rather a commitment to help slaves live a free life with the same rights granted towards white Americans as the civil war was occurring and afterwards when it was over.  This can be supported by the reading as it  states, “On the party’s left side stood the Radical Republicans, a self-conscious political generation with shared experiences, and commitments, a grass-roots constituency, a moral sensibility, and a program for Reconstruction.” (104) Foner focuses on two radical leaders throughout the reading: Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Foner describes both in the phrase: “differed in personality and political styles.” (105) To further explain their differences, Stevens was painted as “a master of Congressional infighting, parliamentary tactics, and blunt speaking” (105) while Sumner was painted as a dislikable character, “disliked by Senate colleagues for egotism, self-righteousness, and stubborn refusal to compromise, acted as the voice, the embodiment, of the New England conscience.” (105) 

As the reading continues, it discusses the changes that radicals managed to fight for. One major change being the 14th Amendment which granted all citizens equal protection/citizenship. The 14th Amendment is also widely known as it was one of the three amendments (including the other two: the thirteenth amendment – abolished slaves and the fifteenth amendment – the right to vote) passed during the Reconstruction period to a changed future for African-Americans. During this time, freedmen and slaves were granted the right to vote which granted the south representation. “… did the Fourteenth Amendment, the most important ever added to the Constitution, receive the approval of Congress. Its first clause prohibited the states from abridging quality before the law… Before the war, three-thirds of the slaves had been included in calculating Congressional representation.” (114) 

Overall, this reading strengthened my understanding of the Reconstruction time period. The descriptive details taught me the overall obstacles and achievements that Radical Republicans achieved/attempted like the fight for the plantation land as homesteads for former slaves, the fourteenth amendment, southern representation and more. The Reconstruction time period was a turning point for African Americans, especially with the assistance of radical leaders.


One thought on “Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction”

  1. This is a thorough and generally well-written account of Foner’s chapter, but you make a major mistake at the beginning when you write that “African Americans were still enslaved.” Remember, slavery was destroyed during the Civil War by the Emancipation Proclamation and other Union policies, and formally abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865… The Reconstruction period is generally considered to be the period that started after the end of slavery, when the debate became about the rights and freedoms of former slaves.

    This is why chronology is so important, even if you don’t memorize a lot of specific dates. Instead of “the late 1800s” as you write in the beginning, try thinking in terms of decades, with a few significant dates as markers: 1865 as the end of the Civil War; Reconstruction lasting through the second half of the 1860s and most of the 1870s.

Leave a Reply