Wednesday’s Book Review: “Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians”

before-obamaBefore Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians. Edited by Matthew Lynch. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers, 2012. 2 Volumes.

This is a very fine two-volume collection of biographical essays on African American politicians serving in both elected and appointed office during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, 1865-1876. Some 2,000 such individuals attained office in the American South, and some of them reached very high office in Congress or state government. I had some knowledge of a few of these politicians’ careers, such as P.C.S. Pinchback of Louisiana and Robert Brown Elliott of South Carolina. They are ably discussed in essays in this volume. What I also very much enjoyed, however, was learning about a larger number of other black politicians I had not heard of before.

All of the essays are fine contributions that will serve as an excellent resource for students to explore the history of black politicians during the Radical Reconstruction period. I suspect this will become a standard reference work in libraries that will be tapped by college students and some advanced high schoolers. I have no doubt but that this work will be very useful to them.

I was introduced in this collection to the career of John R. Lynch of Mississippi, the individual that attracted the editor to this project in the first place, and there are several essays on aspects of his career by editor Lynch. These are all outstanding and reflect a broad effort that helps to encapsulate an expansive period and a range of issues. I was especially interested, for instance, in the essay on the debate between John R. Lynch and turn of the century gentlemen scholar James Ford Rhodes; his History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 appeared in seven volumes between 1893 and 1906. Rhodes’ account of Reconstruction incensed John Lynch, appropriately so, and the two carried on a spirited correspondence over interpretation, truth, and bias. Lynch, who lived until 1939, outlasted Rhodes but never convinced him that this history was inaccurate.

The debate with James Ford Rhodes informs this set of biographical essays on black politicians during Reconstruction in more ways than one. During the first half of the twentieth century the so-called Dunning school dominated the historiography of Reconstruction. William A. Dunning, a professor at Columbia University, trained a large number of historians and all of them approached the story of Reconstruction as a tragic period in which vindictive radical Republicans sought to punish southern whites who had dared to secede from the Union. These Republicans imposed military rule on the South supported by federal troops that kept in power corrupt state regimes led by people from the North called “carpetbaggers” who came to the South at the end of the war for the main chance, southern white “scalawags” who cooperated with them, and ex-slaves. For the Dunningites this represented an inappropriate, even evil, set of actions. Dunning laid out the parameters of this interpretation in Reconstruction, Political and Economic: 1865–1877 (1907), and his students continued it through a range of state and local histories that emphasized political corruption, racism, and a pro-white Southern perspective.

This became a remarkably powerful interpretation, and dominated the professional historical community until the 1950s. It also informed racist films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) as well as a host of popular historical works such as Claude Bowers’s The Tragic Era (1929) and E. Merton Coulter’s The South During Reconstruction (1947). It took the rise of the modern Civil Rights movement and reappraisals of Reconstruction springing from that ferment to alter Dunning’s dominant interpretation.

This is an important work that collects very useful biographical essays of African American politicians. These biographical essays focus on their contributions to the remarkable changes that resulted from the Reconstruction era. Not all of them were effective, although many were. What all of them struggled with, however, was an overwhelmingly racist society and all made profound contributions to the creation of a more equitable America.

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