“In this provocative work of political history, Fairclough unequivocally declares that post–Civil War Reconstruction didn’t achieve its goal. . . . Fairclough’s book is a chilling reminder of how some Americans willingly perverted the democracy they claimed to treasure so they could uphold white supremacy.”—Publishers Weekly
“A masterful and revelatory examination of Reconstruction populated by a cast of compelling characters who leap to life in all their glory, gore, and pathos.”—Lawrence N. Powell, author of The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
“This deeply researched study illuminates a complex period, city, and state and advances a reinterpretation of Reconstruction politics that is both welcome and overdue.”—Paul D. Escott, author of Uncommonly Savage: Civil War and Remembrance in Spain and the United States
The chaotic years after the Civil War are often seen as a time of uniquely American idealism—a revolutionary attempt to rebuild the nation that paved the way for the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. But Adam Fairclough rejects this prevailing view, challenging prominent historians such as Eric Foner and James McPherson. He argues that Reconstruction was, quite simply, a disaster and that the civil rights movement triumphed despite it, not because of it.
Fairclough takes readers to Natchitoches, Louisiana, a majority-black parish deep in the cotton South. Home to a vibrant Republican Party led by former slaves, ex-Confederates, and free people of color, the parish was a bastion of Republican power and the ideal place for Reconstruction to have worked. Yet although it didn’t experience the extremes of violence that afflicted the surrounding region, Natchitoches fell prey to Democratic intimidation. Its Republican leaders were eventually driven out of the parish.
Reconstruction failed, Fairclough argues, because the federal government lacked the means and the will to enforce the rights it had created. Congress had given the Republicans of the South and the Freedmen’s Bureau an impossible task—to create a new democratic order based on racial equality in a lawless region tortured by deep-rooted racial conflict. Moving expertly between local conditions and wider developments in Washington, The Revolution That Failed: Reconstruction in Natchitoches offers a sobering perspective on how Reconstruction affected African American citizens and what its long-term repercussions were for the nation.
Adam Fairclough is professor emeritus of American history at Leiden University. He is the author of several books, including A Class of Their Own: Black Teachers in the Segregated South.
In this interview, Adam Fairclough tells us about his new book and the history of Reconstruction.
From your book’s title, it’s clear you believe that Reconstruction failed. How does this view differ from other historians, such as Eric Foner, whose writings established him as the leading authority on the Era?
In 1986, when his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution appeared, Foner also argued that Reconstruction failed. Since then, however, an emphasis on Reconstruction’s positive accomplishments has morphed into a view that its successes outweighed its failures, and that Reconstruction laid the groundwork for the 20th century civil rights movement. By examining in detail the history and aftermath of Reconstruction in Natchitoches, and Louisiana generally, I show that the civil rights movement succeeded in spite of, not because of, the legacy of Reconstruction. I dispute, too, Foner’s notion of “American exceptionalism”—that Reconstruction testified to America’s unique devotion to democratic principles. Even today, the right of universal suffrage and the practice of free and fair elections are insecure.
Are there aspects of Reconstruction you believe could be valuable to revisit in today’s political climate?
Reconstruction demonstrated that states and localities, left to themselves, could not be trusted to—or were incapable of—protecting the constitutional rights of blacks and guaranteeing “equal protection of the law” to all citizens. A strong federal government must do that. In gutting the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has ignored that lesson from history. It assumed that racial discrimination was a thing of the past, and that states, especially in the South, could be trusted. The subsequent history of voter suppression shows that belief to be false.
Did anything surprise you while doing your research for
I was surprised at how quickly northern public opinion turned against Reconstruction, and how the southern opponents of Reconstruction got away, literally, with murder. I was also surprised that the stereotype of the corrupt northern “carpetbagger,” far from being wholly false, was to a large extent true.
Why did you choose to focus your book on the local parish of Natchitoches, Louisiana?
It’s an interesting place—the oldest European settlement in Louisiana with a strong French flavor. Despite the intensity of the political battle over Reconstruction, both sides avoided violence. And there is a colorful cast of characters, from Raford Blunt, the charismatic Baptist preacher, to James H. Cosgrove, the whisky-swigging Democratic editor who spewed abuse at his Republican opponents. All the political leaders were home-grown—this was a struggle that separated old friends and divided families. It is as dramatic a story as you are likely to find.
Recently, New Orleans has removed all of its Confederate statues, and many local governments across the U.S. have begun following in their footsteps. What does the removal of these statues say about the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction?
It shows above all that Confederate memorials have become symbols of the far right (the Nazis and KKK). That fact has caused me to change my mind on this issue. Before, I thought: “leave them alone.” Now, I think they should be placed in museums. The issue also testifies to the fact that many white southerners have yet to admit that the Confederacy was formed to defend slavery. The removal of Confederate monuments is an effort to end that massive exercise in evasion.
As a British historian of the United States, how do you think having an outside perspective on American history aids your research and arguments?
Many US-born historians assume that the United States has been 1) committed to a set of core principles from its foundation, and 2) the source of democracy and freedom in the modern world (“the last best hope of earth”). “Outside” historians generally see these assumptions as a form of nationalist ideology, not historical fact. Knowledge of France and Britain, and even of Switzerland and New Zealand, gives one a different perspective on the development of democracy.
Apart from the Civil War, Reconstruction was the most violent episode in the history of the United States. Why has Hollywood ignored its dramatic potential?
The answer is, perhaps, that there is no “happy ending.” The happy ending of Birth of a Nation, the triumph of white supremacy, won’t work today—this outcome was tragic. The violence and racism of the era, and the betrayal of the black population, may be too uncomfortable for popular culture to confront.