2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part I

2019 Draper Conference Review: “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” Part I

On April 19 and 20, the University of Connecticut at Storrs hosted the 2019 Draper Conference on the topic of “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War.” The two-day event featured eight panels, consisting of thirty-one paper presentations and a keynote address.[1] All told, the conference revealed an incredible depth and breadth to the study of the era of Reconstruction and beyond. Given the recent debut of the PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War (2019), it was timely as well.[2]

I was fortunate to attend both days of the conference, and in this and a subsequent post, I will provide snapshots of the various panels, broken out by day. These notes are by no means complete. Readers are encouraged to check out the #DraperConference2019 hashtag on Twitter for some incredible live tweets by conference participants and to watch the archived recordings made of several of the panels, and where possible, assess for themselves the summations presented here.[3]

Opening remarks by Dr. Manisha Sinha, who was instrumental in bringing these scholars together. Photo courtesy of Megan Kate Nelson.

That being said, I would like to start my review of “The Greater Reconstruction” conference by providing a sense of the animating logic of the event. Manisha Sinha, Draper Chair of American History at the University of Connecticut, organized the program. Accordingly, she provided opening remarks around a series of questions that framed the various panels that followed. Fortunately, too, Sinha participated in the closing plenary session and offered some initial thoughts about the cumulative significance of what had taken place (more on that in the next post). Without her guiding vision, this important reconsideration of Reconstruction could not have taken place.

In keeping with the theme, each panel pushed the temporal and historiographic boundaries of Reconstruction. Day one opened with a panel on “The Legal History of Reconstruction” that featured an interdisciplinary gathering of historians and legal scholars. Pamela Brandwein brought attention to the state action doctrine as articulated in the Ex Parte Yarborough case (1884), and especially in the ruling of Associate Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley. Kate Masur connected the repeal of the black laws in the Old Northwest, prior to the Civil War, to the debates surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment in 1866. Christian Samito reminded us of another important truism, namely that the 1866 Civil Rights Act did not abandon an overarching commitment to federalism. John Fabian Witt challenged what he considered the last holdout of the Dunning School—the view of military authority as antithetical to civil rights themselves. Collectively, the opening panel effectively pushed back on the historiographic supremacy of the Cruikshank decision (1876) and the later Civil Rights cases (1883).

Panelists speaking on legal history. From left to right: John Fabian Witt (Yale Law School), Christian G. Samito (Boston University School of Law), Kate Masur (Northwestern), and Pamela Brandwein (University of Michigan). Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Araujo.

The second panel took a biographical turn and patterned itself in the traditional mode of political history that has privileged male subjects. Yet like all good biography, the four presenters found broader meaning in their subjects’ respective lives. Stephen Berry presented the story of Prince Rivers, whom he playfully termed “the most important man you’ve never heard of,” a formerly enslaved African American from South Carolina whose career as a soldier, politician, and coachman paralleled the ebbs and flows of Reconstruction. Drawing from his forthcoming book on the Adams family, Douglas Egerton revealed how the life of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., descendant of two U.S. presidents, paralleled the rise and fall of a political dynasty and the Republican Party’s commitment to Reconstruction. Bruce Levine spoke about his forthcoming biography of Thaddeus Stevens and traced his “democratic radicalism” in his political course during the Reconstruction period. John Stauffer discussed his ongoing research into the life of Charles Sumner and stressed his famous phrase—“equality before the law”—finding that Sumner anticipated the later jurisprudence of Justice Louis Brandeis. By telling biographies, moreover, they reminded us that Reconstruction continued, at least in their subjects’ minds, for many years ahead.[4]

Following lunch, the third panel on the topic of “Western and Native American History” got underway. The topics shifted the terrain of Reconstruction west of the Mississippi and opened an important line of inquiry into how far the “Greater Reconstruction” concept might extend. Kendra Taira Field complicated narratives of Reconstruction as extending only to African Americans in the South by tracking her own family’s genealogy, one that included Native Americans and African Americans. Ari Kelman argued persuasively against the notion, popularized by Charles Francis Adams, Sr., that the advance of liberty and the consolidation of empire proceeded along parallel tracks and listed several episodes in the so-called Indian Wars of the West to underscore the point. Heather Cox Richardson connected the political history of the Republican Party to the expansion of western states; however, she finds that these states shared much in common with the former Confederacy in their handling of labor and race relations. Stacey Smith homed in on California, noting how African American suffrage in view of Chinese political exclusion reflected potentially important “political microclimates.” This panel, a welcomed change of direction, nevertheless came to stand as almost an outlier in the conference (more on this below).

The fourth panel, conglomerated under the title “New Directions in the History of Emancipation and Reconstruction,” advanced numerous areas of new research. Abigail Cooper drew attention to the continued valance of conjuring in the spiritual beliefs of African American cosmology and included recent anthropological finds from Camp Nelson in Kentucky. Jim Downs rendered a critical fabulation of how medical doctors during the Civil War utilized black bodies as incubators for smallpox inoculation. Carole Emberton reminded us of the emotional toll of encountering freedom among the “charter generation of freedom.” Amy Murrell Taylor emphasized the material lives of everyday people in the South and especially the fundamental need for shelter. Although covering disparate topics, all four papers plumbed new depths of African American interiority during the 1860s and 1870s. Theirs were social and cultural questions that incorporated localized viewpoints to reflect broader themes in the Reconstruction period.

Finally, Eric Foner delivered the keynote address, titled “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.” Following the publication of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 in 1988, Michael Perman famously asked, “What is to be done?” Thirty years later, the question has been fully answered, as even the preceding panelists and even Foner himself continues to find new avenues of research. His current project paints with broad, presentist brush strokes: he begins with the premise that today’s driving political questions are Reconstruction questions. Foner reviewed how the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments originated in a “constitutional revolution” and traced their effects in the decades ahead. Designed for general readers, his forthcoming The Second Founding will surely provoke popular attention to the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction and continue to open, rather than close down, future investigations of the subject.[5]

Poster for “The Greater Reconstruction: American Democracy after the Civil War,” held at the University of Connecticut, April 19-20, 2019.

The 2019 Draper Conference continued with another full day of panels and presentations. But at the close of day one, an electric spirit filled the air. The four panels and the keynote address touched upon major methodological, chronological, and geographical fault lines in the historiography of Reconstruction. Here I will highlight two such strands that, in retrospect, appear especially important.

The first concerns the question of just how “great” the “Greater Reconstruction” concept should extend. As noted earlier, the third panel on Western and Native American History first raised this question. However, little seems to have been resolved by either that panel or the larger conference. If anything, the absence of Native American voices, and moreover attention to Native American history, limited this necessary discussion. In fact, during the plenary on the following day, Sinha offered her view that the story of African American Reconstruction in the South seems to stand separate from the history of the Indian Wars in the West. Perhaps, as Charles Postel later pointed out, this is because, in its own day, the term Reconstruction applied narrowly and exclusively to the southern theater. If historians insist upon a wider application, this neat historical association will be lost with it. And given the casting of Reconstruction in the recent four-part PBS Reconstruction documentary—one that has been critiqued for missing wider connections westward and northward—it will be a framing to which the public mind has not been exposed.

Equally, day one of the conference might lead one to suspect that Reconstruction consisted entirely of legal and political events, often conducted by white politicians in Washington, D.C. The voices of African Americans in the South appeared in passing, notably in the papers of Berry, Cooper, Downs, Emberton, and Taylor. Day two of the conference would correct the imbalance, but the mismatch raises a second major question about the “Greater Reconstruction”: whose story is it to tell?

Certainly, part of the complicated legacy of Reconstruction has been its use by later generations for political purposes. As the paper by Witt and the address by Foner reminded us, the remnants of the Dunning School, and its flawed view of Reconstruction as an abject failure, stubbornly cling to life in the popular mind. The telling of Reconstruction along a wider framework would speak in an inclusive, poly-vocal way, but what can be done to stamp out the last of the Dunning School’s pernicious effects?

In my own view, an emphasis on black political activism and black political leaders would center the narrative around questions of power, from which so much of the lived experience of African Americans in the South and more widely in the United States can be traced. Local political engagements are certainly important, yet the Reconstruction chronology might be profitably told alongside the longer story of black political power at the national level (i.e., through election to the U.S. Congress and in appointments to federal offices). For this reason, the expiration of the term of Representative George Henry White of North Carolina in 1901 might make for a fitting end to such a narrative.[6]

In the next post, I will continue my observations about day two of the 2019 Draper Conference.


[1] For the full program of speakers, see the conference program at http://www.cvent.com/events/reconstruction-conference/event-summary-33ded93de8984e5fb0d59029f690914d.aspx.

[2] Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019). See also the helpful reviews by Millington Bergeson-Lockwood, “Facing The ‘False Picture Of Facts’: Episodes 1 and 2 of Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, April 23, 2019, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2019/04/facing-the-false-picture-of-facts-episodes-1-and-2-of-reconstruction-america-after-the-civil-war; and Hilary N. Green, “A Long Retreat: Episodes 3 and 4 of Reconstruction: America After The Civil War,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, April 26, 2019, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2019/04/a-long-retreat-episodes-3-and-4-of-reconstruction-america-after-the-civil-war.

[3] For the various tweets using the official hashtag of the conference, see https://twitter.com/search?q=%23DraperConference2019&src=typd.

[4] Stephen Berry, The Black Prince: The Emancipated Life of Prince Rivers of South Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, forthcoming); Douglas R. Egerton, Heirs of an Honored Name: The Decline of the Adams Family and the Rise of Modern America (New York: Basic Books, forthcoming); Bruce Levine, Thaddeus Stevens, Revolutionary (New York: Simon & Schuster, forthcoming).

[5] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Michael Perman, “Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: A Finished Revolution,” Reviews in American History 17, no. 1 (March 1989): 78; Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: W.W. Norton, forthcoming). See also the excellent historiographic overview by John M. Giggie, “Rethinking Reconstruction,” Reviews in American History 35, no. 2 (December 2007): 545-555; and the review essay by Edward Blum, “Still Bloody, Still Tragic: The History of Reconstruction,” H-CivWar, June 2008, https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=14599.

[6] On this subject, see Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008); Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014); Luis-Alejandro Dinnella-Borrego, The Risen Phoenix: Black Politics in the Post-Civil War South (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016); and, for the later period, Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy, Jim Crow Capital: Women and Black Freedom Struggles in Washington, D.C., 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Thomas Balcerski

Thomas J. Balcerski is assistant professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King, forthcoming with Oxford University Press in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter at @tbalcerski.

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