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Reconstruction: A Concise History

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The era known as Reconstruction is one of the unhappiest times in American history. It succeeded in reuniting the nation politically after the Civil War but in little else. Conflict shifted from the battlefield to the Capitol as Congress warred with President Andrew Johnson over just what to do with the South. Johnson's plan of Presidential Reconstruction, which was sympathetic to the former Confederacy and allowed repressive measures such as the "black codes," would ultimately lead to his impeachment and the institution of Radical Reconstruction.

While Reconstruction saw the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, expanding the rights and suffrage of African Americans, it largely failed to chart a progressive course for race relations after the abolition of slavery and the rise of Jim Crow. It also struggled to manage the Southern resistance towards a Northern free-labor economy. However, these failures cannot obscure a number of accomplishments with long-term consequences for American life, among them the Civil Rights Act, the election of the first African American representatives to Congress, and the avoidance of renewed civil war. Reconstruction suffered from poor leadership and uncertainty of direction, but it also laid the groundwork for renewed struggles for racial equality during the civil rights movement.

In this concise history, award-winning historian Allen C. Guelzo delves into the constitutional, political, and social issues behind Reconstruction to provide a lucid and original account of a historical moment that left an indelible mark on the American social fabric.

192 pages, Hardcover

First published April 2, 2018

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About the author

Allen C. Guelzo

41 books175 followers
Allen Carl Guelzo (born 1953) is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews
Profile Image for Matt.
907 reviews28.1k followers
December 5, 2020
“Reconstruction can…reasonably be characterized as the ugly duckling of American history. The twelve years that are the conventional designation of the Reconstruction period, from 1865 to 1877, teem with associations and developments that seem regrettable, if not simply baleful. They left a long legacy of bitterness, especially among Southerners who believed that they had fought an honorable war and were handed a dishonorable peace, as well as Southerners who refused to accept defeat and manufactured the myth of a glorious ‘Lost Cause’ to justify themselves…Reconstruction also coincided with an eruption of notorious levels of graft, corruption, and fraud in American civil governments – not least in the ones erected by federal forces in the former rebel states. But Reconstruction is probably best known, and least liked, as the greatest missed opportunity Americans ever had to erase the treacherous impact of slavery and race in a reconstructed and unified nation. There is, in other words, something in Reconstruction for nearly every American to regret…”
- Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History

One of my general rules of reading is to avoid books with subtitles that include the words “a short history” or “a concise history.” My reasoning is simple. If I’m going to take the time to learn a subject, I don’t want to waste it on brief summaries that flatten out complications and substitute judgment for analysis.

Obviously – no sense burying the lede – I have broken that rule in the case of Allen C. Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History. I did this for a couple reasons. First, the Reconstruction Era is a hugely important part of American history, but one that is overshadowed by the war that came before it, and by the Civil Rights Movement that came after. Second, Guelzo is one of the best Civil War historians around, and wrote my all-time favorite book on the subject (Gettysburg: The Last Invasion).

Unsurprisingly, given Guelzo’s reputation, Reconstruction is an excellent primer on a thorny topic. It is brisk, well-structured, and hits all the high notes. Early on, Guelzo presents an analytical framework for approaching Reconstruction, dividing it into four stages.

The first stage, Early Reconstruction, begins in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln began tinkering with ways to bring seceded states back into the Union. This stage ended in 1865, with the surrender of the Confederate Armies, and Lincoln’s own death (leaving us to ponder what he would have done).

From 1865 to 1867, we have Executive Reconstruction, the period in which Andrew Johnson made his bid for worst, most racist president in the history of the United States. Initially vengeful toward the South, Johnson made a startlingly quick U-turn on the issue of Reconstruction, standing by as rebellious states tried to return to the fold as though the Civil War never happened. One of the telling low points of this interim was the election of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens – he of the infamous Cornerstone Speech – to the United States Senate.

The third stage, Congressional Reconstruction, took place between 1867 and 1870. This is the stage that hurts the most, because it was the period when the course of the United States could have been altered, putting her on the trajectory to live up to her loftiest notions. During this hopeful span – hopeful, at least, to those who believed in basic decency – the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified, blacks were elected to Congress and state legislatures in impressive numbers, and economic standards rose dramatically for the previously enslaved.

Unfortunately, beginning in 1870, we have the Overthrow of Reconstruction, which saw the Democrats kick the Republicans out of power and “redeem” the Southern states. As Guelzo notes, it is hard to pin down when this period actually ended. Some say it’s 1877, when the Democrats took over the last Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana. You could also say, however, that this dismantling of progress – a massive detour of that arc bending towards justice – lasted until the 1890s, when the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson gave its imprimatur to legalized segregation.

Guelzo moves through these stages efficiently and elegantly. His perceptions about Reconstruction are often quite nuanced and strongly argued. One of his major points is to reclaim Reconstruction from the Lost Causers who tarred it as an unlawful and corrupt exercise in federal authority (apparently taking the view that starting a war that kills almost a million and costs a few billion is a no-harm, no-foul sort of situation). For Guelzo, the failure of Reconstruction is not in its actual functioning, but in the fact that it ended far too soon. As he points out, there were black voter majorities in five states, and when those people were allowed to vote – there and elsewhere – blacks were able to attain positions of power. He implicitly agrees with the view of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who believed that federal troops should have occupied the South for forty years, irrevocably changing their behavior, if not necessarily their hearts.

Eschewing the conventional wisdom that Reconstruction ended because of the exhaustion of white northerners, Guelzo lays out a variety of reasons for its ultimate demise. The most obvious is the campaign of terror waged by Southerners, in particular by ISIS-adjacent organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League. These terrorists recognized an irony in the Fifteenth Amendment, which stripped away the Three-Fifths Clause. Now, in the apportionment of Congressional delegates, every black person would be counted, giving Southerners more power in Congress. By keeping those black persons from voting, they actually gained an advantage from a constitutional amendment meant to increase equality.

Another problem came from the Republican Party itself, riven by factionalism. Some white Republicans tried to make deals with white Democrats, only to see themselves betrayed. Among blacks as well there were sharp disagreements that ultimately weakened them in the face of a monolithic foe marching in lockstep.

Guelzo also makes an interesting, often overlooked point about the role of the Supreme Court. Even though it was filled with men appointed by Lincoln and Ulysses Grant – both extremely supportive of black civil rights – the Court at this time decided it was going to reassert itself. During the Civil War, for example, Lincoln ran the war from the White House. In the aftermath of Johnson, Congress ran Reconstruction. At a certain point, the Court decided to announce its presence by a willy-nilly evisceration of the foundational elements of Reconstruction. Important civil rights laws were ruled unconstitutional, while the Fourteenth Amendment was unceremoniously castrated.

Overall, I found Guelzo’s take on Reconstruction to be fascinating, mainly because he does not seem to be advancing a single hard and fast position. Instead, he is holistic in his examination, at times bordering on the Jesuitical. To that end, Guelzo mentions that while the end of Reconstruction was a tragic abandonment of the black community, it allowed for white reconciliation. This is an ugly truth – and certainly not something that Guelzo endorses – but it did allow post-Civil War America to avoid having the Mason-Dixon Line turn into the 38th Parallel.

Because this is a “concise history,” there were many moments when I wanted more amplification. For example, Guelzo makes an offhand comment that Reconstruction – at its best – was far more successful than other post-enslavement programs in places like Russia and Brazil. Not knowing anything about the end of Brazilian slavery or Russian serfdom, I would have appreciated a deeper comparison. Furthermore, with space at a premium, there is no opportunity to learn anything about the lives, actions, and motivations of those who lived during this tumultuous time of transition.

The shortcomings of concision, however, are more than offset by the benefits of distilled insights. I’ve had Eric Foner’s huge, well-regarded Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution on my shelf for years. Having read this as an aperitif, I feel prepared to take it on.

Even if you do not plan on studying Reconstruction at any great depth, this is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the ongoing struggle for equal rights in America. In one short volume, Guelzo shows us what was possible, and what was lost.
3 reviews5 followers
February 26, 2023
I’ve been studying the Reconstruction for a while now and I’ve got to admit that it’s really distressing to read about it even after the passage of nearly two centuries; it doesn’t feel like history because the struggle for equality in America is very much alive and even though I am an outsider and I expect myself to keep my cool and remain level-headed, it still somehow gets to me. It troubles me partly because I grew up fully expecting the United States to be a land of freedom and equal rights even if not equality. I don’t know how much this expectation is recognized in America but I do suspect that a lot of people around the world still look up to the U.S. with admiration, respect, and even envy. This romantic notion of America that a lot of us embrace (in my country at least) is to a great extent the product of our own aspirations and our naïveté; we Iranians have tried multiple times in our recent history to be the authors of our own destiny and even though there have been some triumphs, it has been mostly a story of defeat. In our struggle for a better republic, it seems that a lot of us have regarded the United States as a lighthouse for guidance — the country that is among the first to have achieved what we’re still trying to achieve and hasn’t exactly been shy in showing off its accomplishments. In doing so, we have usually imagined America as one monolithic story of success and tended to brush aside its own struggles and setbacks.

Putting the Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction in perspective, it appears that the United States managed both to “nobly save” and “meanly lose”, “the last best hope of earth”.

Reconstruction: A Concise History is a short book yet it succeeds in giving you a broad sense of what was accomplished and more importantly what was lost. Guelzo presents a gloomy picture of the era (and rightly so) but he does point out that the situation could’ve got wildly out of control, and the fact that it didn’t should count as one of the few silver linings. The only thing that this book lacks is a few individual stories of former slaves who at the very least got their basic freedom — an ugly freedom no doubt: as the book shows, a lot of African Americans got tangled up in peonage which was not really that different from slavery. But nevertheless a freedom was granted that undoubtedly changed their day-to-day lives and it could have given a better sense to the reader of how the life on the ground was like for the former slaves if some stories were included.

The writing is really clear and I enjoyed the way Guelzo presents his arguments. The chapter on the constitutional crisis, and the often-overlooked role played by the judiciary branch in the Reconstruction, was particularly interesting: the rivalry that the reinvigorated Supreme Court (led by Salmon P. Chase) started in the federal government, and the irony that one of the staunchest abolitionists during the war would initiate a process that ultimately undermined the legal achievements of the Republicans.

Frederick Douglass incisively summed up the Reconstruction with regards to African-Americans:
“The colored man is the Jean Valjean of American society…He has escaped from the galleys…[T]he workshop denies him work, and the inn denies him shelter; the ballot-box a fair vote, and the jury-box a fair trial. He may not now be bought and sold like a beast in the market, but he is the trammeled victim of a prejudice, well calculated to repress his manly ambition, paralyze his energies, and make him a dejected and spiritless man, if not a sullen enemy to society.”
- Frederick Douglass, 1881

I’m looking forward to study the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and even though it finally delivered on some of the promises of America to its Black citizens and ended the segregation in the South, it just makes me really sad that another counter-revolution formed (pretty quickly) to cripple it. A counter-revolution that is still breathing and I do not think is going to stop anytime soon.
Profile Image for David Eppenstein.
679 reviews162 followers
April 4, 2022
In keeping with its promise of conciseness this book is relatively short with only 130 pages of text. I confess it took me more time to read than it should have but this had nothing to do with the book or its merits and everything to do with the reader, me. It's Spring and the weather is nice and it was time to put the book down and get off the couch and get outside. My garden needed cleaning and then there were other things and you know how that goes. So Professor Guelzo's book had to wait. There are more things to life than books but books are very important and have their time and purpose. Back to the book.

I do not claim to know a lot about the Reconstruction and I thought a book promising conciseness might be a way to get a broad view that might guide further reading. Like others I was more than impressed with Guelzo's treatment of the Battle of Gettysburg in his book of that title. So from this book I expected no less than to be further impressed and I was. For such a short book it really lays out what went on during the Reconstruction and why. What also struck me while reading this book was thoughts of another book I read a little over a year ago. That book was by Eric Foner and titled The Second Founding and it was about the passage of our 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. The drafting and passage of those amendments took place during and were key elements of the Reconstruction. Foner in his book took issue with the drafting and clumsiness of those amendments and Guelzo's book details why that occurred. I regretted not having had the opportunity to read both of these books back to back as they do complement each other. If this period does interest you then I strongly suggest getting both of these books to read together and you won't be disappointed.

As for Guelzo's book I cannot fault it in any way. It does what it claims and has piqued my curiosity about this period as it is a great deal more unfortunate than I ever realized. Guelzo clearly depicts a lost opportunity for this country and the consequences of that failure are still with us. I was amazed at the similarities between the Reconstruction Era and what we are enduring today in our national government. After 4 years of a devastatingly harmful period of conflict there was a chance to mend and to heal but the very same forces that existed over 150 years ago are again at work to trade long term national benefits for short term personal and regional advantage. Guelzo enumerates the reasons for this failure and his enumeration is correct. I suppose a successful Reconstruction just wasn't going to be possible under the circumstances of the time and the nature of the people of the time. This book will leave you pondering a lot of "What Ifs"and I sure hope history isn't going to be repeated for us today. Enjoy.
Profile Image for Canon.
600 reviews56 followers
July 6, 2022
“But instead, American Reconstruction wears the garb of improvisation, uncertainty, and experiment—which historians have difficulty containing within narratives that thrive on direction, purpose, and determinism,” (9).

In many ways, I’m fascinated by the Reconstruction Era (which Guelzo roughly divides into four phases spanning 1862-1877, with the earliest attempts at reconstruction occurring in the midst of the War) more than the Civil War proper. Perhaps this is due to my being more interested in the social, political, and legal history of the conflict than the military campaigns per se.

In any event, we all know that the Union was victorious over the Confederacy. Yet the history of Reconstruction shows how the promise of that victory was greatly diminished in the War’s aftermath, through untaken opportunities to permanently remake the nation and the former Confederacy’s despotic resurgence under the banner of the Lost Cause. In the memory and legacy of the War, as in the political regimes that grew out of it, the South was perhaps not the loser in the long run. There is ultimately a sense of tragedy that hangs over the entire era, a feeling of bitter disappointment that is not unfamiliar in current U.S. politics.

This book was apparently republished in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series, and it would be one of the better in that series I’ve read. The sections on law (including dueling theories of statehood and the constitutional impossibility of secession) and the Ku Klux Klan (and general terror in the South perpetrated by white fraternal organizations and paramilitaries) were the most interesting to me.
Profile Image for robin friedman.
1,778 reviews207 followers
May 19, 2021
Reconstruction And Free Labor

Allen Guelzo's "Reconstruction: A Concise History" (2018) offers a brief yet thoughtful look at the twelve-year period following the Civil War, 1865 -- 1877, an era which Guelzo finds can "reasonably be characterized as the ugly duckling of American history." The Henry Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, Guelzo has written extensively on Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation, the battle of Gettysburg and other subjects. I have learned a great deal from reading Guelzo, both historically and philosophically.

The Reconstruction Era has been written about widely from differing perspectives. Guelzo's book is intended only to offer a "brief introduction to the topic at hand" and to attempt "no more than to fashion a basic scaffolding for understanding Reconstruction." Guelzo succeeds admirably in this modest aim: his book offers readers an eloquent, informed basic understanding of Reconstruction which will encourage those interested to pursue the subject further. (The volume includes an excellent bibliography.) The book also will interest those readers with a background in the Civil War and Reconstruction because Guelzo offers his own interpretation of Reconstruction and its significance.

Guelzo understands Reconstruction as a free labor revolution without the taint of some Marxist interpretations. He understands "free labor" as "a shorthand term for liberal economic democracy" which stressed individual economic effort through what was still a society of small-scale manufacturing and industry with the possibility of upward mobility. The belief in free labor promoted several other virtues including "thrift, prudence, industry, religious faith, temperance, rationality, and nationalism". In his book on the Reconstruction Era in the Oxford History of the United States, "The Republic for which it Stands", Richard White offers a similar view of free labor and its importance following the Civil War. Guelzo, however, has more of a belief in the vitality and value of the movement than does White, who argues that the ideology of free labor was already obsolescent as a result of the industrialization following the Civil War.

For Guelzo, Reconstruction was an attempt to bring free labor to the defeated South. While noble in part, the effort failed because the South had a different economic value system based on the plantation, restricting land ownership to the few, and derogating the value of individual labor as compared to leisure and caste. The partial failure of Reconstruction was due in large part to its rejection by the South at least as much as it it was due to shortcomings in design and execution in the national government.

With this understanding of Reconstruction, Guelzo guides the reader through the leading events and figures of the Era. He discusses President Johnson's efforts at presidential Reconstruction which in many respects set the stage for what followed by returning most large landholdings in the South to their former owners. He discusses how the Radical Republicans in Congress took control over the Reconstruction process and impeached Johnson. Guelzo discusses Reconstruction under President Grant, whom Guelzo finds well-meaning towards the Freedpeople but a weak political leader. He discusses the violence in the South which relatively quickly overturned the reconstructed governments established under congressional reconstruction. His account discusses in some detail the effect Supreme Court rulings, culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson had in undermining Reconstruction. Guelzo also is insightful in drawing parallels between Reconstruction in the South and the ongoing settlement in the West. He discusses as well how government corruption and financial panic assisted in the rebirth of the Democratic Party and worked to limit the impact of Reconstruction.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Guelzo offers a thoughtful summary both of the successes of Reconstruction, which are greater than sometimes supposed, and of its failures. The United States and its federalist system of government survived without a further civil war. The losers in the process were southern African Americans who remained in poverty and in a state of near-peonage. The large failure of Reconstruction still remains with the United States.

Guelzo writes lucidly and with a sense of the ambiguities and difficulties of history. This short book is filled with measured reflection and understanding. For those reading only one book on the Era, Guelzo's study will offer material for thought. Those interested in reading further might want to explore the Library of America's recent volume "Reconstruction: Voices from America's First Great Struggle for Racial Equality" edited by Brooks Simpson which offers a substantial collection of source material from the Era.

Robin Friedman
Profile Image for Mark Jr..
Author 6 books305 followers
April 13, 2022
Very concise. Very sad—sad to see an opportunity for repentance squandered. The era was more fraught than I knew. Guelzo is a trusted guide. Appreciate his work on this.
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
412 reviews37 followers
May 28, 2021
This little book is certainly what the title claims: concise. It is an excellent overview of the Reconstruction years. Though brief, it covers a lot of material which makes the prose quite dense, so it takes longer to read and digest than one might think. I found myself running to maps and topics in other sources to refresh my recollection. Dr. Guelzo's portrayal of the odious Andrew Johnson also made me want to read a fuller biography. I'm considering Annette Gordon-Reed's Andrew Johnson; I admire her scholarship and really enjoy seeing her on panels and in interviews, but her literary style is a bit too dry and academic. I'd welcome suggestions.
On Reconstruction, I would still recommend Eric Foner's The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution and Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, but Dr. Guelzo's book is a very good introduction.
Profile Image for John Kennedy.
206 reviews2 followers
April 13, 2020
This slim (130 pages) scholarly volume provides some good insights into the 12-year period after the Civil War, "the greatest missed opportunities Americans ever had to erase the treacherous impact of slavery and race in a reconstructed and unified nation." Andrew Jackson's lack of leadership following the assassination of his predecessor Abraham Lincoln got the era off to a rocky start. Indeed, the pro-Southern Johnson empowered former Confederate officeholders to return to rule, leaving ex-slaves little better off than before. Except now they were deprived of newly enshrined rights.
Guelzo goes down a few rabbit trails (e.g. on Native Americans and Mormons), but thankfully those digressions are brief. He could have expanded on some other themes, but the book is meant as an overview.
"Reconstruction should have been the moment when working-class blacks and whites together seized an opportunity to create a new American economic and political order," Guelzo states. Alas, Reconstruction ended in 1877, with no federal role in ensuring voting rights or fair elections for an additional eight decades.
Profile Image for Maxine.
1,232 reviews40 followers
April 12, 2018
As stated in the publisher’s blurb to Reconstruction: A Concise History by Allen C. Guelzo, Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, ‘the era known as Reconstruction is one of the unhappiest in American history’. It was meant to unite the country after the Civil War while advancing the cause of the freed slaves and bringing the northern free-labour model to the south. It succeeded for the most part in the first objective but failed in the others. In his book, Guelzo explains what the designers of Reconstruction intended, what was accomplished, and what went wrong. This is a relatively short but well-written and well–documented book. Guelzo avoids the heavy pedantry of many history books making this an interesting, informative, and highly readable book for anyone who wishes to understand this important period of American history, the ramifications of which are still being felt today.

Thanks to Edelweiss+ and Oxford University press for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Joshua Madl.
41 reviews
October 18, 2021
Truly fascinating. This book highlights the complexity of reconstruction and solidifies for me the idea that our country today is largely shaped by how the country healed from the civil war - for good and for bad.
151 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2019
Very Informative -- I learned a lot about a part of history I always wanted to know more about but so little is written. Well-written but almost too concise to stand all alone-- had to do further research after and while reading to make sense of it
Profile Image for Cristian Planas.
13 reviews1 follower
July 29, 2018
This is a beautiful book, that epitomizes the Reconstruction in just 130 pages. It's full of quotes from the direct protagonists: Andrew Johnson, Charles Sumner, Ulysses S. Grant: they manage to bring the reader closer to the actual period.

Most importantly, its theme gives "Reconstruction: A Concise History" a strong poetic flavor. This is not a history of dynasties, kings, and queens; it's a history of (defeated) human rights, a struggle that continues today. It's a memento of the vulnerability of progress: reactionary forces can move back the hands of the clock. After the Civil War the Union was rebuilt, keeping federalism intact; slavery was abolished. Unfortunately, equality for all races was utterly defeated in the post-war. "We were eight years in power", and yet, it was not enough.
Profile Image for Amanda Weeder.
223 reviews
October 20, 2018
I've long been fascinated by the period of American history that we call Reconstruction. Most of my school history books gave it a few paragraphs at most, but I've always sensed that it was a very complicated period of time. This book was perfect for a short overview of the decades after the Civil War. It's easy to look back now and see how things could have been done differently -- decisions that could have changed the next century of American history for the better. It was frustrating to know that political decisions made by a few affected the lives of millions. However, this book did a good job of explaining what might have been possible and what would not because of the culture and financial climate at the time.

This book was a great starting point for Reconstruction history, and I definitely want to know more.
Profile Image for Dana Kraft.
410 reviews9 followers
August 27, 2018
I like reading history and have read precious little about the Reconstruction specifically. For me, this was an excellent introduction and the author delivers on his description that the book is “a basic scaffolding for understanding the Reconstruction.” I wish more history books were like this.
745 reviews25 followers
January 25, 2019
This was a very nice, well-written, and yes - concise - history of an often overlooked and confusing period in US history. I've read other books, but this might be the best one-book intro to the period. Eric Foner's history is far more thorough, but that can make it hard to sit through sometimes.

It's only 130 pages of text -and it takes about 70 pages to get to 1869. But, then again, the early years were the key and more volatile years.

Some semi-random points that interested me along the way: the Radicals introduced 4 bills in 1867: 1) creation of military Reconstruction districts that answered to Congress, 2) creation of a registry of eligible voters (something no previous federal government had ever done, 3-4) logistical matters flowing for the first two acts (how uncooperative civil officials could be unseated and how voter registration was to be done).

The South was economically devastated by the war. Emancipation wiped out around $2 billion in assets. Per capita income fell by 40%. Real estate value fell from 18% (Tennessee) to 70% (Louisiana). A third of the livestock and half of the south's machinery was gone. Banking capital was done by 28%.

Free labor ideology encouraged small-scale manufacturing and industry as well as the values of thrift, prudence, industry, temperance, rationality, and religious faith. The later counter-Reconstruction would also push back against much of this. Gueizo says that Reconstruction tried to be a bourgeois revolution, but failed.

States were readmitted rather fast - too fast, in Gueizo's point of view. He thinks it meant the government couldn't really control them in order to enforce any social change. Seven states were readmitted in 1868 - all but VA, MS, TX, and GA. They were all readmitted in 1870 - by July of that year. That officially ended Reconstruction, but the Reconstruction-era governments survived in many of the states for years longer. The book has a nice chart on Redemption (on p.106):
VA - 1869
NC - 1870
GA - 1871
TX - 1873
Ark, AL - 1874
MS - 1876
LA, FL, SC - 1877
(TN isn't on it - because it skipped military Reconstruction).

Liberal Republicans was a revolt of many in the party against the Radicals. The Liberals didn't share the racism idealism of the Radicals. They blamed the Rads for the chaos of the South.

The 14th Amendment expressly declared that the states were obligated to protect the rights "privileges or immunities" is the exact phrasing) of citizens - but it never specified what those were, making it possible to roll back voting rights and civil rights.

Black landownership went from 2.2% in 1870 to 24% in 1910. Literacy from 20% to 69%. But gains were better in coastal and mountain areas - not in the Black Belt area. Political rights were rolled back a generation after Reconstruction.

At the end, Gueizo argues that Reconstruction was overthrown instead of a failure. The key to overthrowing it was the Democratic Party, which waged an impressive national revival. They had no interest in doing it, so it flopped. There were hardly any troops in the south by the end - only 4,300 in July 1871 - and less than that afterwards. The Lost Cause developed - where the South drafted Lincoln onto their side. (Note: similarly, we see something like this where conservatives court judges quote MLK while ruling against blacks in the US).

Random note: this book reinforces an idea I've had for a while: the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth was a historic turning point in US history. The difference in how Johnson handled things and how Lincoln may have handled things is so vast as to be a massive "What If" in US history.
Profile Image for Mike Fendrich.
190 reviews5 followers
September 15, 2020
It is a concise history but it delivers a powerful punch to this awful, dark period of US history. I thought it was a very balanced account of the time period.
Profile Image for Casey.
440 reviews
July 16, 2022
A good book, providing a short but detailed overview of the Post U. S. Civil War Reconstruction of the South. The author, noted historian Allen Guelzo, gives a chronological history of Reconstruction, from its wartime beginnings through to its abrupt end with the 1876 Presidential election. As with his other books, Guelzo provides a thorough analysis alongside the history. He explains the major affect Washington politics and Northern economic conditions had on the ebb and flow of executive Reconstruction policies. Guelzo also describes how conditions in the South varied widely, depending on both the results of the war’s devastation and the outcomes of emancipation. Ultimately, the book tells how, despite the energy of many in the North, Reconstruction ended as a failed attempt to better the lives of all Americans. Great for understanding a significant example of post-conflict resolution. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to better appreciate many of the social and cultural issues still affecting America today.
October 8, 2021
It is very obvious to me I never learned anything about reconstruction. I'm sure this book was very well written, and the timeline at the end was very helpful; however, I have very little knowledge of politics and law so I was starting with very little knowledge to build on. This was a book built very heavily on law and politics. One of the most appalling things I learned was the amount of massacres done by the KKK between 1865 and 1875. Whole towns, gunned down, even after surrending. I'm dismayed I've never heard anything about that before. What is very apparent, is that no matter how the south wants to rebrand the civil war as not being about race, their push-back against northern reconstruction policies betrays their feelings of white superiority. I'm glad I started with this overview before I dig into more detail-oriented books about reconstruction. Perhaps now, I have some prior knowledge to build upon.
385 reviews10 followers
October 4, 2019
This book delivers a lively, quick paced overview of the Reconstruction era, focusing on the political, military, and judicial aspects of the ups and downs. Guelzo describes the failure of Reconstruction due to the infighting of Republicans, resistance from Democrats (from north and south), the quick reintroduction of Confederate soldiers into political positions (like... seriously... WTF... Andrew Johnson was a shithead), and the failure of the courts to uphold the federal government's ability to protect civil liberties. Well written and packed with information. References to some historical events and judicial decisions were unfamiliar to me and were left unexplained, but that's what you would expect in a concise history. You could read it in a weekend.
Profile Image for Alex O'Connor.
Author 1 book59 followers
July 18, 2019
Truly excellent. Very concise, and I learned quite a bit. I really wish more books would be like this, there was absolutely no fat in the narrative. I am looking forward to reading more books by Guelzo in the future.
7 reviews
October 21, 2022
In a brisk 130 pages, Allen Guelzo tells the story of Reconstruction. As he says in his introduction, the short nature of the book necessitates simplifying many topics, but this is probably the best overview of the period that you can read in an afternoon. While he only briefly delves into the historiography of the period, Guelzo explains the subject with nuance; he ever downplays the terrorism that white Southerners engaged in while also pointing out the role racism in the North and Republican election losses played in undermining reconstruction.

The only complaint I have is the conclusion: “Both the Civil War and Reconstruction were remarkable for their limited durations.”, Guelzo says, but his own evidence makes that claim questionable. The South was in a state of low intensity war for much of Reconstruction, a fact implicitly acknowledged in Grant’s 1868 campaign slogan “Let us have peace”. That same year, 4000 black refugees fled to Nashville to escape Ku Klux Klan violence. It’s hard to reconcile the horrific violence of the period with that blithe assertion. Still, this book is a good primer on the topic. A key takeaway is that it’s easier to force a people to surrender their weapons than to surrender their convictions, a message as relevant as ever.
Profile Image for Marcelo Gonzalez.
213 reviews2 followers
January 21, 2021
Do not do as I did and go into this expecting a civil rights for blacks book. Like books written about the Civil War that focus on battles absent slavery, Reconstruction focuses on policy and politics largely absent civil rights of blacks.

The book says "concise" and it delivers at only 130 pages with nary a word wasted. Guelzo jams more information into so small a space than you'd believe possible. As mentioned, the book focuses heavily on the policies enacted as well as those failed to be enacted during the period after the Civil War. It does not hesitate to name drop with no context and is incredibly dense in that regard.

An aside: I read this in the final day of Trump's presidency and the similarities between him and Andrew Johnson, specifically in demeanor and political stances, are striking if not absolute evidence for the circular nature of history.

This is about as thorough a concise history as you will ever see and serves exactly the purpose it sets out to do. One simply would wish for even a little bit more about the practicalities of living in the Reconstruction Era.
482 reviews4 followers
June 10, 2018
As we know from our more modern adventures in the Middle East, it’s SO much harder to win the peace than win the war. This was certainly true of the US Civil War. Despite all kinds of advantages, it took 4 long years to subdue the Confederate army. Is it any wonder that introducing free market, liberal economy into that same huge region which near universally was so wedded to slavery was SO hard? That was the aspiration of Reconstruction (as least for the Republicans - the Democrats wanted no part of it). This is a tight, academic coverage of the topic - complementary to the “Report on the Condition of the South”. If you only read one, I’d read the report from the period as it more starkly projects how it would take over a century to finally win the peace in the South.
Profile Image for Erik.
30 reviews5 followers
April 19, 2022
These books that attempt to condense down massive topics into "concise" or short works always grab me ("I can learn about so much in a short period of time") yet always seem to disappoint me. I'll learn one day. That said, this book did a good job conveying the political side of Reconstruction fairly well. The author crams in a lot of names of people in here which just didn't work for me as there isn't enough time to delve into nearly any of them to create a compelling read. Better to leave out some actors than muck up the historical narrative. The number of direct quotations was equally jarring in a book that is cutting and cutting to create a brief read. I learned a fair amount but, disappointingly, the book didn't leave me hungry to learn more about this era.
Profile Image for Miles Smith .
993 reviews36 followers
November 22, 2018
Guelzo writes beautifully and this violence is no exception. The brisk narrative sweeps the reader through the Reconstruction Era. While there aren’t very many surprises, Guelzo’s interpretive stamp is on full display. As always bourgeoise liberalism and its defenders represent the height of the American order. The maintenance of capitalism, liberalism and the ephemeral American nation justified militarism and breach of the rule of law. The full integration of freedmen might have been accomplished, Guelzo argues, if not for perfidy of southerners and northern democratic allies. Reconstruction didn’t fail, Guelzo argues. It was betrayed.
477 reviews20 followers
June 18, 2019
Didn’t wow me in any way, but well written, and an undoubtedly interesting time. Here are the thoughts / historical parallels that stood out most to me:
-lessons of difficulty of how to manage military intervention, and how long to maintain force, parallels to Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan (and WWI)
-indicates developmental Econ problems of how important slow cultural change is for allowing adoption of new institutions to actually work (and how important institutional practices are), and compares with Trumps election as good example of the role “backlash” can play
-always am surprised reading about extremity of evil of Klan’s behavior (particularly the Louisiana massacre)
76 reviews5 followers
December 5, 2019
I wanted a quick, concise refresher on the subject; this did the job well. It's only 130 pages of easy text.

Guelzo's conclusions:

"Merely to call Reconstruction a failure is too simplistic. Reconstruction was overthrown, subverted, betrayed" (129).

"The ability of the Democratic Party to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of near self-destruction in 1860 to reconquer the House of Representatives in 1874, the Senate in 1878, and the presidency in 1884, is one of the least considered aspects of Reconstruction's demise, but it is also one of the most potent" (125).

Richard White's book on the era was far more thorough, of course, but this one was worth the time.
455 reviews
June 27, 2018
If you are looking for a book with a great deal of detail covering Reconstruction after the Civil War, this is not it. It is exactly as the title says, A Concise History. However, it covers all the important points in clear fashion and the summary of what was good and what was bad during this time is excellent! I though the epilogue alone was outstanding as it was very well written. The style is straight forward and easily readable. I strongly recommend this book for anyone wanting a good overview on this period.
Profile Image for Bill.
509 reviews7 followers
April 27, 2020
A good assessment on the Reconstruction Era. The Union really left the South a mess after the War, and if Lincoln had lived and Johnson wasn't President, there may have been a better shot of better reunification. In the end though, racism remained and the South suffered economically. It felt like Germany after World War I when the Allies called in the war bonds, further putting Germany into debt. A nice concise look at house the African American community was impacted, as well as the overall South.
Profile Image for A.
405 reviews
August 24, 2019
Perfect for what it is- a quick review of reconstruction. Not comprehensive and even spotty in its narrative flow, still sums things up very well and briefly. Even handed in pointing out problems with northern and southern biases in approaching this era. For me, an excellent reminder about just how failed the attempt to provide justice or redress to southern slaves. Relevant to current considerations of repartitions.
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