Reconstruction Period

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
Lots of French people and French history buffs can go on for days about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, but talk about the Revolution of 1848, which had a huge impact on mid-late nineteenth century European political and intellectual history, and you are more likely to hear crickets than spirited discussion. Most anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of European history is familiar with the works of eighteenth century French intellectuals Voltaire and Rousseau, considerably less of equally influential nineteenth century French intellectuals such as Auguste Comte (the founder of Sociology) and Charles Fourier (the most influential Utopian Socialist).
Apart from a few bits (namely the Napoleonic and American Civil wars), I've often felt that the 19th Century in general gets surprisingly little attention. For every one English-language book about the Franco-Prussian War, that's a bookcase you could fill with books about Napoleon. I wonder why.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
Americans talk perpetually about the Civil War and the events that led up to it. Very little is mentioned of Reconstruction. In you opinion why is that?
Southerns didn't wanted to be reminded of when they were ruled by the North, and blacks were running government

Northerns didn't wanted to be reminded of the corruption or Restoration period, with blacks guilty of much of the corruption, it wouldn't help with pushing the civil rights agenda. They also didn't want to dwell on how the North betrayed the blacks after Resgoration period.

So both sides had reason to skip over the Restoration period and not dwell on it.
 

spellbanisher

Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
4,136
The Celestial Plain
Apart from a few bits (namely the Napoleonic and American Civil wars), I've often felt that the 19th Century in general gets surprisingly little attention. For every one English-language book about the Franco-Prussian War, that's a bookcase you could fill with books about Napoleon. I wonder why.
I once took a seminar with a 20th century American historian, and he said he hated the nineteenth century. Basically, he considered it to be a unredeemingly shitty century. There was slavery and imperialism. Labor was constantly losing. Government was thoroughly corrupt and in the pocket of capital. There were frequent depressions. Old ways of life were destroyed. And even when there were seeming "triumphs," like the abolition of slavery, they were quickly nullified, as in the case of slavery, which was replaced with repressive institutions such as debt peonage (Sharecropping) and Jim Crow. Native populations were genocided in many areas. Immigrants were systemically discriminated against. In contrast, while there were genocides and totalitarian regimes and massive wars in the twentieth century, at least there seemed to be more triumphs: the formation of welfare states, the end of colonialism, women's suffrage, Civil Rights, workplace protections and labor rights, and the defeat of communism and nazism. And that seems like a pretty good explanation as to why the twentieth century is a nicer century to study than the nineteenth.

Although, I would consider the abolition of slavery a triumph, even if it wasn't an unqualified one. On plantations, Blacks could not form their own schools, churches, press, and self-help organizations. Without access to education, the right to own property, or the ability to form their own organizations, there is no basis for the Civil Rights movement a century later. And without Constitutional recognition of Blacks as citizens, there is basis for challenging repressive laws or demanding that the Federal government intervene in Southern politics on behalf of Blacks. So abolition was a huge step forward, even if took a century for those gains to be put in use for a mass movement.

In a sense, people dislike the 19th century in the same way that they dislike a rich and successful bully. The nineteenth century saw the triumph of industrial capitalism, a transition in technology and wealth that was unprecedented in human history. Yet, it always seemed that this technology and wealth favored invariably the Big Guy over the little guy. Europe became fabulously wealthy, and then went out and conquered and subjugated the rest of the world, and then justified it under the rationalization of "White Man's Burden." Industrial technology made thousands of men into millionaires, yet almost every major labor protest or strike ended in violent suppression from government or private troops. Meanwhile, children developed rickets and deformities working in factories, tens of thousands of people died in factories, in mines, and in the railroads every year, usually leaving their families destitute, the rapid westward expansion in the United States caused the virtual annihilation of Native American populations, and tens of millions of people perished in famines in colonies around the world while colonialists got off rich. And of course there was the fact that women had no rights in this era. And because medicine, sanitation, and urban planning hadn't quite caught up with industrial technology, living standards in some ways worsened. For instance, for much of the nineteenth century, average heights declined. Even when one considers that nineteenth century industrialization did, on average, increase incomes and access to consumer goods for millions of people, it still came with tremendous growing pains, with devastating economic busts, high seasonal unemployment, labor convulsions, tedious, dangerous, backbreaking, and sometimes disgusting factory work, the movement to unsanitary cities, massive pollution of air and water, the end of the Jeffersonian independent farmer ideal, and the dismantling of older forms of social networks and social welfare. It made people more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the market while having access to fewer safety nets. The little guy just couldn't catch a break.

When people think of earlier of centuries, they think of the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution, things that we considered to have brought progress to large swaths of humanity. We think of notions of universal equality and the infinite improveability of man. Likewise, when we think of the twentieth century, we think of modern medicine such as antibiotics. We think of computers and the internet, and of automobiles, technologies which are empowering and liberating for the individual. We think of going to the moon and of curing major diseases such as Polio, of endless consumer abundance. In other words, absent things like nuclear bombs, twentieth century technology and science seems very benign and beneficial and to portend greater things to come (think of shows that depict the future like Star Trek). We also think of things like the triumph of liberal democracy over totalitarianism, and the expansion of human rights.

In contrast, when we think of nineteenth century technology and science, we think of irrevocable loss. Railroads led to vast deforestation and environmental degradation. Industrial technology destroyed old ways of life, turned proprietors and farmers into wage workers, and moved rural people from family farms to factories and dirty, overcrowded cities. While the automobile is a symbol of freedom and opportunity, the railroad is a symbol of concentrated wealth and power. While twentieth century technology promised infinite progress and an almost utopian standard of living for all people, nineteenth century technology severed man from nature. Twentieth century technology is seen as clean, sterile, like computers and high speed trains. Nineteenth century technology is dirty, grimey, smokey, loud, and disruptive. There is a reason why in the nineteenth century you see the rising popularity of the myth of the noble savage. People longed for ostensibly simpler times when they were more attuned with nature, when people owned their own farms and lived at a slower pace. In terms of social science, you see the emergence of odious doctrines such as social darwinism and fascism.

So yeah, the nineteenth century may be extremely important, but it aint pretty.
 
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Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
That was a excellent post, spellbanisher. I enjoyed reading it, and I think you pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the head.
 

Tuthmosis III

Ad Honorem
Oct 2011
3,738
the middle ground
In agreement with Salah, I say: Great post, spellbanisher.
Could it also be said that nineteenth century journalism seemed to bring the plight of the common man into sharper relief than in earlier times?
 

spellbanisher

Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
4,136
The Celestial Plain
In agreement with Salah, I say: Great post, spellbanisher.
Could it also be said that nineteenth century journalism seemed to bring the plight of the common man into sharper relief than in earlier times?
Maybe late nineteenth century journalism, like 1890s on when you have social reformers, muckrakers, and photo documentation. Jacob Riis, for instance, published his very influential photo documentary of the New York Slums, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890, although his articles first came out in 1889. While there were some papers and mags sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and labor, for the most part, magazines and newspapers were conservative and middle class and tended to disdain the working classes before 1890. Which makes sense, because if you worked for a newspaper or magazine, you were probably a WASP, and the people with the education and money to read papers were WASPs as well. Although there were a number of British writers who focused on the plight of the common man in the nineteenth century, most notably Charles Dickens.

Also keep in mind that the "common man" before the late nineteenth century, at least in the United States, was typically self-employed, either as a farmer or as a small business owner(this of course refers to white males). In 1820, for instance, about 80% of adult white males were self-employed. The population was also overwhelmingly Protestant. The late nineteenth century saw not only the rise of the wage laborer, but a mass of immigration from non-Protestant countries.
 
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Tuthmosis III

Ad Honorem
Oct 2011
3,738
the middle ground
Right. The real fruits of "social conscience" writing would come in the twentieth century in any case starting with the Progressive movements. Good points.
 
Jun 2013
505
Connecticut
A lot of info is mentioned how badly the last half of the 19th c. (1865-1900) was - in the US and the world. Spellbanisher wrote a great synopsis.

OK so back to the Reconstruction Period. Can we say some positive things came out of it? And what would they be? Many times the birth of a "new order" is painful.
 

spellbanisher

Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
4,136
The Celestial Plain
I think most of the major institutions of the Southern African American community, which includes black churches, schools, universities, newspapers, and other self-help societies, were created during Reconstruction.
 
Jun 2013
505
Connecticut
I think most of the major institutions of the Southern African American community, which includes black churches, schools, universities, newspapers, and other self-help societies, were created during Reconstruction.
I was thinking along the same lines. All those institutions were created and the amazing thing is that they were created in little more that a decade. Talk about moving at light speed to catch up. In 1863 the blacks were equal to a pair of boots or a shovel and were as literate as the shovel. Looked what they achieved by 1873. That is revolutionary in a positive sense. So I think that's something good that came out of the Reconstruction.