Teaching the Reconstruction Era Through Political Cartoons

Teaching the Reconstruction Era Through Political Cartoons

During this past fall semester I received an email from a curriculum coordinator at a local school district. She stated that a high school history teacher was running short on time, but wanted to spend one day with his students discussing the Reconstruction era before the end of the semester. The teacher wanted to bring in someone who had knowledge of the period and would be willing to lead a discussion on the larger themes of the era. As a Park Ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, I’ve worked hard over the past few years to study Grant’s presidency and to better understand the Reconstruction Era. I also served as the first Social Media Manager for Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, on an interim basis in 2017 and 2018. Needless to say I anxiously jumped at the opportunity to speak with students about Reconstruction.

As I have previously discussed on this website, one of the biggest reasons the Reconstruction era is so misunderstood is that it is rarely taught in the classroom. When it is taught, the narrative will often focus on stories of scandal, corruption, and mistreatment of former Confederates. The broader focus of current historical scholarship—which emphasizes the legal, political, and economic changes that brought about a new spirit of equality and civil rights in American life—is often left out. And the reality for many teachers is that having one day to teach Reconstruction is a luxury. So what could I do to help this teacher have a productive experience for his students?

The most relatable content for middle and high school students when it comes to Reconstruction are the many hundreds of political cartoons that were created at the time. When looking at good examples for classroom use, the best online resource I have come across is Princeton University’s digital collection of Thomas Nast cartoons. Featuring more than 500 cartoons that cover a range of topics—emancipation, civil rights, women’s rights, immigration, and party politics, among others—I picked out six of my favorite works and brought them with me for the classroom presentation. Each one focused on a different topic.

When I arrived for the presentation (along with a colleague of mine), we spread the cartoons throughout the room and began with a short introduction to the students. We explored some of the larger themes of Reconstruction and briefly discussed the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. From there we had the students get out of their seats and participate in a “gallery walk.” We asked the students to walk around the room the same way they’d visit a museum and to then stand by the political cartoon that they thought was the most interesting. We then gave the students about five minutes to closely analyze each political cartoon and to make a decision.

“Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 1869. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

At this point we had each group explain their political cartoon to the rest of the class. What did they see in the cartoon? What was the message being conveyed? Who was the intended audience for this cartoon? How might someone disagree with the message of this cartoon? Was the cartoon persuasive? I went through this checklist of questions and had the students lead the conversation with occasional input from the park rangers. One example I used for this exercise was “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” designed by Nast in 1869. Students observed the messages of the cartoon (“Universal suffrage,” “Come One Come All,” “Self Government”) and took note of the various people sitting at the table and pictures of the wall. They quickly picked up the larger themes of the cartoon: democracy, liberty, equality, and the idea that the United States should be a beacon of freedom for people of all nations. In addition to the questions I posed during the discussion, this cartoon could in turn lead to further discussions about whether or not Nast’s vision of America has been fulfilled. Through this short exercise we were able to introduce Reconstruction to the students, several of whom expressed their appreciation for our visit.

Another tool I have developed for classroom use is a visualization of the broader themes of Reconstruction and how they connect with one another. This document represents my best attempt to highlight four crucial ideas:

1. The central questions of Reconstruction
2. Changes to the U.S. Constitution through three Amendments
3. The experiences of various groups who lived through Reconstruction
4. Resistance to Reconstruction and its eventual replacement by Jim Crow legislation

A Visualization of the Reconstruction Era. Courtesy of the author.

I have used this visualization for a few classroom visits in the past, and I think students like the way it summarizes a complex time period on one sheet of paper. Nevertheless this document is very much a work in progress and I invite feedback from readers of this blog to improve it.

If you work with students in a middle, high school, or college setting, how do you go about teaching Reconstruction, particularly if you’re running on limited time? Let us know in the comments.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at PastExplore@gmail.com.

3 Replies to “Teaching the Reconstruction Era Through Political Cartoons”

  1. I don’t know if my recollection is accurate but I seem to remember this topic coming at the end of a semester (many, many years ago), as you indicate and as such, not covered to any great extent. I believe this “vacuum” unfortunately allowed the “Lost Cause” narrative to dominate the zeitgeist for the 150 years following the war.

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