Title Reviewed:
The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877

Author Reviewed:
Kenneth M. Stampp

Albert Castel


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 61, Issue 3, pp 272-273

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877. By Kenneth M. Stampp. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. Pp. ix, 228, iv. Notes, bibliographical note, index. $4.95.)

For many years the standard view of Reconstruction in this country has been a Southern one, namely that it was sordid in its motives, oppressive in its application, and tragic in its consequences. During the past generation, however, and especially since 1960, historians have thoroughly re-examined the period. As a result all of the old concepts have been either totally rejected or substantially modified. According to the new interpretation Reconstruction contained at least as much good as bad and represented in particular a worthwhile attempt to deal with a problem which still vitally concerns the nation-that of the Negro's place and role in American life. This revisionistic approach, which obviously has been influenced by modern-day developments on the civil rights front, already prevails among professional historians and is rapidly making its way into the textbooks and classrooms.

Kenneth M. Stampp's The Era of Reconstruction sums up the new research and is avowedly revisionistic. In general it is superior to John Hope Franklin's Reconstruction After the Civil War, (1961) the only other book so far available that presents a synthesis of recent Reconstruction historiography. Not only does it have the advantage of later scholarship, but it is better written and more objective. In fact Stampp's work can be compared favorably to Clement Eaton's History of the Southern Confederacy in that it packs a lot of information and sound analysis into a relatively short space and in an eminently readable style.

Because of the long domination of the Southern viewpoint on Reconstruction, it is always necessary, in writing or speaking of the subject, not only to describe what happened but also what did not. Stampp does an excellent job of this, using facts and common sense to demolish many fallacies and misconceptions. Especially perceptive is his criticism of Charles Beard's "Second American Revolution" thesis, which saw Reconstruction policy as mainly inspired by the economic interests of Northern big business. Stampp readily grants that Beard and his followers made a valuable contribution to history by calling attention to the economic aspects of the period. But, as usual in their case, they went too far–so much so that they practically excluded all other factors. The reason for their one-sidedness, Stampp believes, lies in a concept of history which regarded economic motives as the only "real" ones and which ignored other types of causation.

In conjunction with his criticism of Beard, Stampp also disposes of the old question of whether the Radicals were motivated by "idealism" or by "partisanship." He simply points out that neither in the minds of the Radicals nor as a matter of objective fact was their any inherent contradiction between the two, at least during the early stages of Reconstruction. In other words, by advancing the cause of the Negro the Radicals advanced the interests of the Republican party and vice versa. Eventually, of course, Reconstruction ended ingloriously as the North and the Republican party abandoned the Negro to the Southern "Redemptionists." The Radical effort to establish and protect Negro civil and political rights had apparently failed. In the long run, however, it did not. While in power, and by the only means and at the only time they could have done so, the Radicals had put through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Nearly a hundred years later, these measures served as the legal springboard for a New Reconstruction, one which must succeed or this nation shall fail.

Since The Era of Reconstruction is essentially and frankly a summary of the work of other writers, the specialist will encounter little in it that is new; but he will experience the satisfaction of seeing most of his judgments affirmed by one of the leading historians of the Civil War period. The non-specialist, the student, and the interested layman will find the book a stimulating as well as an informative introduction to the latest and best in Reconstruction scholarship. It is to be hoped that this work reaches a large audience, especially among people of influence, and will thus help to dispel some of the myths about Reconstruction that hamper efforts in the civil rights field to this day.

Albert Castel, Western Michigan University

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.