In This Review

Reconstruction: A Concise History
Reconstruction: A Concise History
By Allen C. Guelzo
Oxford University Press, 2018, 192 pp

The failure of Reconstruction remains a pivotal event in U.S. history, and the changing ways in which successive generations of historians have understood the period illustrate the dramatic shifts in American attitudes on race over the last 140 years. For almost a century after the Civil War, white southerners and their allies dominated the study of Reconstruction. Their narrative—of southern whites uniting to overthrow corrupt and incompetent governments that were maintained by federal bayonets—was received almost everywhere as gospel. Beginning in the civil rights era, however, historians shifted their focus to the nobility of Reconstruction’s central aim: ensuring equal rights for newly freed slaves. Guelzo offers a concise, clear, and temperate account of one of the most complex periods in U.S. history. Unlike earlier historians, he never loses sight of the cause of the newly free. But he points to the lack of political experience that left Reconstruction-era southern governments vulnerable to pressure from wealthy and wily white oligarchs. Guelzo also underscores the collapse of political will in the North for a long-term occupation, which is what a serious Reconstruction strategy would have required. In his telling, Reconstruction emerges as a terrible but probably inevitable tragedy.