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

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

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

Day two of the 2019 Draper Conference brought four more panels, including a plenary session that concluded the proceedings. For my review of day one of the conference, see my previous post on Muster.

A panel on the topic of “Racial Terror and Violence” started off the morning block and questioned common assumptions about scholarly framings and documentary evidence from Reconstruction. Gregory Downs began with a provocative argument that challenged Eric Foner’s framing of Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution,” namely that historians ought to consider the revolution finished in constitutional and military terms. Crystal Feimster turned attention to the experience of freedpeople in Louisiana—where Lincoln invested the greatest hopes and suffered the worst disappointment—and traced the complicated intersections of mutiny by black soldiers (as a form of self-defense) and of rape of black women by white soldiers (as a weapon of revenge). LeeAnna Keith explored how “Alabama fever,” specifically the use of violence by Democrats toward Republicans in Barbour County, was a central part of the political “redemption” of the state in 1874. Kidada Williams deployed the lens of critical trauma studies to question how we attribute “agency” to freedpeople. She highlighted how African Americans’ testimony during the 1870s congressional hearings about the Ku Klux Klan could “transcend historical context.” This panel pushed both historiographical and methodological boundaries and represents some of the most interesting interdisciplinary work happening in the field of Reconstruction studies.

The second morning panel on “Political Economy” brought together transnational strands in the study of Reconstruction with those centered on material and agricultural concerns. Ana Lucia Araujo considered the case of emancipation in Brazil, noting how arguments over reparations centered on land redistribution, offering a comparison to the U.S. experience. Sven Beckert conceptualized “Global Reconstruction” as part of a century-long process of post-slave societies around the world, pitting rural cultivators against industrial capitalists from the United States to India to England to Brazil. Kathleen Hilliard presented the petition of freedman Frank Spruill to obtain a tax exemption as part of a radical reimagining of economic life in the Reconstruction South. Ariel Ron explored the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of a broader federal engagement with rural farmers in the Reconstruction South, reminding us that Abraham Lincoln once used scientific agriculture to dispute the pernicious mudsill theory of enslaved labor.[1] This panel effectively widened Reconstruction beyond the United States and raised contemporary, namely that of reparations for African Americans (more on this below).

Following lunch, the conference resumed with a panel titled “Grassroots Reconstruction: Gender, Education, and Black Politics.” Justin Behrend examined how a continued discourse of re-enslavement reflected the great progress made in black political mobilization by the middle 1870s. Hilary Green took on Eric Foner’s “Twilight Zone” of Reconstruction (i.e., the 1880s) as a period during which African Americans’ gains in Richmond public schools, as reflected in the biracial Readjuster Party, promised social mobility, economic justice, and educational uplift. Christopher Hager asked how the illiterate understood texts and followed how particular phrases (e.g., “illiterate Negroes”) revealed widespread literacy among African Americans by 1900. Tera Hunter raised again the question of reparations and considered how the family unit, as constituted through marriage, could be a double-edged sword for African American women, since it insisted upon traditional nuclear families and reinscribed patriarchy. This penultimate panel, like those before it, moved the chronological reach of Reconstruction beyond 1877, insisted upon the continued relevance of discourses around education and especially literacy, and placed women at the center of major narratives of the era.[2]

The plenary session, titled simply “Reconstruction,” provided a chance for senior scholars in the field to reflect upon the meaning of the conference theme. Amy Dru Stanley noted the “strange legacies of Reconstruction” by investigating how the commerce clause of the Constitution empowered Congress to safeguard African Americans from violence. She traced how sex as a legal category disappeared from the Reconstruction Amendment, which presupposed an automatic willingness of wives to engage in sexual relations with their husbands: sex had become, in this rendering, a “commodity fiction.” Steven Hahn gave a paper on the transnational connections of Reconstruction, comparing the American experience to Britain, France, and Brazil. Following the argument in A Nation Without Borders, he found Reconstruction was central to American capitalist development well through the Progressive Era. Charles Postel figured Reconstruction as a dilemma of equality and noted how the process demanded a solidarity based on exclusion. His study of the Granger movement demonstrated a twin opposition to railroads and Reconstruction, which suggests how democratic impulses from below presaged a pullback from racial equality in the West. The plenary session thus concluded the “Greater Reconstruction” conference.[3]

Audience and participants at the Draper Conference. Photo courtesy of Ana Lucia Araujo.

The scholarship of an older generation of historians loomed large in the final session and across the conference as a whole. For starters, the phrase, “the Greater Reconstruction” deserves its historiographic context. In The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s grand synthesis, the author notes that he “took the idea of the Greater Reconstruction” from Elliott West’s article “Reconstructing Race” (2003). West periodized the Reconstruction process as taking place over the years from 1846 to 1877 (incidentally, White framed the event only from the Civil War years until the middle 1870s). A question might be posed, then, whether this longer view of the Civil War Era disrupts other such historically significant moments (namely, those of the Gilded Age, the era of Jim Crow, or the New South). As the many papers of the conference have argued, placing African Americans at the center of the story of Reconstruction necessarily requires a reframing of the years that constituted the historical moment. Constructing narratives centered on the freedpeople themselves breaks new ground both in historical and historiographic terms. Yet, might these same reframings decenter African Americans from other historically significant moments in American history?[4]

Building upon past studies, historians should look to the most recent scholarship to understand the future of the study of Reconstruction. As noted in the previous post, the “Greater Reconstruction” framework can widen the story beyond the South, a project already well underway in the field. Scholarly works that could profitably contribute to this “Greater Reconstruction” approach, especially those about Native Americans, African Americans in the West, and African Americans in the North, would round out the story. In addition to those of several presenters at this conference, recent books by Heather Cox Richardson, Claudio Saunt, Lisa G. Materson, Kendra T. Field, and Millington Bergeson-Lockwood all point in this direction. As Eric Foner said in an afterword to another recently edited volume on Reconstruction, the “promise of reconceptualizing Reconstruction” beckons. If the “Greater Reconstruction” conference did not quite achieve the full extent of this promise, it made as good a start as any of which of I am aware.[5]

However, the happy truth of the historical profession is that no one conference can serve as the be all and end all of scholarship. History, Peter Geyl once quipped, is nothing if not “argument without end.” Indeed, the 2019 Draper Conference left me wondering: had the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Reconstruction years yielded other such gatherings of historians? The answer is a resounding yes. In 2017, the Advanced Research Collaborative of the CUNY Graduate Center and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies sponsored “Emancipations, Reconstructions, and Revolutions: African American Politics and U.S. History in the Long 19th Century,” which once more challenged chronology as an organizing principle for Reconstruction. In 2018, the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) conference, “Freedoms Gained and Lost: Reinterpreting Reconstruction in the Atlantic World,” honored the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitution by assembling a similar cadre of scholars to discuss the legacies of the Reconstruction. One month prior to the Draper Conference, the Duke Center on Law, Race, and Politics, and the Law in Slavery and Freedom Project at the University of Michigan organized a conference, titled simply “Reconstruction,” that took a multi-disciplinary approach to the topic.

The recent PBS documentaries, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War and Boss: The Black Experience in Business, likewise debuted concurrently with the 2019 Draper Conference. Several popular histories of Reconstruction have also appeared in the past few years.[6] Thus, in both academic and public forums, the topic of Reconstruction has not been ignored; if anything, the era is poised for a resurgence in scholarly publications and the popular imagination alike.

Like many others, I left the 2019 Draper Conference wondering what a history of a truly “Greater Reconstruction” would look like. If we yet lack this elusive volume of American history, several recent edited collections, forums, and roundtables have offered numerous possible routes to exploring the idea further. [7] In my own view, the proceedings of this conference cohered sufficiently to warrant publishing an edited volume around the most provocative, ground-breaking of the papers. Until then, we wait with anticipation to see the many scholars at the “Greater Reconstruction” conference bring their work to full fruition.



[1] For a definition of “mudsill,” see Michael E. Woods, “Mudsills v. Chivalry,“ Muster (blog), Journal of the Civil War Era, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2018/12/mudsills-vs-chivalry/.

[2] For Foner’s “Twilight Zone” comment, see Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, episode 3, directed by Julia Marchesi (Inkwell Films and McGee Media, 2019).

[3] For more on these arguments, see Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in the Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (New York: Viking, 2016); and the forthcoming books by Amy Dru Stanley, The Antislavery Ethic and the Spirit of Commerce: An American History of Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming); and Charles Postel, Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, forthcoming).

[4] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 873; Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 6-26.

[5] Eric Foner, “Afterword,” in After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, eds. Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014), 222. For the studies mentioned, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Claudio Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of the American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Lisa G. Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Kendra T. Field, Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018); and Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[6] For just one example of a popular history that engages the period of Reconstruction, see Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (New York: One World, 2017).

[7] For edited collections that have raised similar concerns, see Thomas J. Brown, ed., Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2014); Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, eds., The World the Civil War Made (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Carole Emberton and Bruce E. Baker, eds., Remembering Reconstruction: Struggles over the Meaning of America’s Most Turbulent Era (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017); the Journal of the Civil War Era’s forum, “Forum: The Future of Reconstruction Studies,” 2017, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/forum-the-future-of-reconstruction-studies; and “A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment,” Muster (blog), The Journal of the Civil War Era, July 9-14, 2018, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2018/07/a-muster-roundtable-on-the-fourteenth-amendment.

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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