The Reconstruction Presidents

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During and after the Civil War, four presidents faced the challenge of reuniting the nation and of providing justice for black Americans--and of achieving a balance between those goals. This first book to collectively examine the Reconstruction policies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes reveals how they confronted and responded to the complex issues presented during that contested era in American politics.
Brooks Simpson examines the policies of each administration in depth and evaluates them in terms of their political, social, and institutional contexts. Simpson explains what was politically possible at a time when federal authority and presidential power were more limited than they are now. He compares these four leaders' handling of similar challenges--such as the retention of political support and the need to build a Southern base for their policies--in different ways and under different circumstances, and he discusses both their use of executive power and the impact of their personal beliefs on their actions.
Although historians have disagreed on the extent to which these presidents were committed to helping blacks, Simpson's sharply drawn assessments of presidential performance shows that previous scholars have overemphasized how the personal racial views of each man shaped his approach to Reconstruction. Simpson counters much of the conventional wisdom about these leaders by persuasively demonstrating that considerable constraints to presidential power severely limited their efforts to achieve their ends.
The Reconstruction Presidents marks a return to understanding Reconstruction based upon national politics and offers an approach to presidential policy making that emphasizes the environment in which a president governs and the nature of the challenges facing him. By showing that what these four leaders might have accomplished was limited by circumstances not easily altered, it allows us to assess them in the context of their times and better understand an era too often measured by inappropriate standards.
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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
An excellent study.
Florida Historical Quarterly
Superb. Places the Reconstruction presidents in the context of their times and illuminates the difficult and complex task they faced.
Journal of American History
A thoughtful and well-written book that deserves widespread attention.
Library Journal
Comparative studies of presidents inevitably introduce "the rating game." In this case, the Reconstruction presidential quartet is evaluated by the prolific historian and young author of Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction (LJ 10/15/91) and found to be dissonant. Lincoln epitomizes the ultimate democratic political leader--flexible as he struggled to preserve the last best hope of humankind while working toward a racial justice and active when necessary. His successor, however, proved to be the most dangerous kind of politician in a republic: an active, inflexible one. Although Johnson moved far beyond his past, unlike his predecessor he couldn't overcome it--especially his racism and hatred. The author allows for the best historical context to justify Grant and Hayes, well-intentioned passives whose excessive dependence on others spawned an environment that ultimately ruined reputations. A fine comparative study; recommended for all presidential collections.--William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
In a first-time collective assessment of the Reconstruction polices of Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes, Simpson (history, humanities; Arizona State U.) presents the challenges they faced in maintaining political support while seeking to provide justice for black Americans and reunite the country after the Civil War. The author contends that constraints on Federal action determined policies more than personal views on race. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
The historian Eric Foner has presented the Reconstruction as a failed opportunity to achieve emancipation and equality for black Americans. Here, Simpson (History/Arizona State Univ., Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, not reviewed) persuasively argues that, given their circumstances, the four Reconstruction presidents generally did as well as they could. The Reconstruction has always been controversial. For decades, scholars believed that the postwar policies of the Republicans were unduly vindictive and punitive. Yet some in recent years have charged that Congress was pusillanimous, half-hearted, and ineffectual in ensuring the equality of the South's ex-slaves. Such judgments, Simpson observes, fallaciously attribute the perspectives of the present to the past, "as if critics are seeking some sort of validation for their own views on race." He shows that, despite attitudes afloat that would be considered racist today, the Reconstruction presidents (with the exception of Johnson) were generally sincere in assisting African-Americans in overcoming the legacy of slavery, but were constrained by the 19th-century understanding of the presidency as an office of limited powers. Lincoln's priorities were winning the Civil War and preserving the Union; though he truly hated slavery, his emancipation policy was intended as a means to another end. Johnson, who shared white Southern antagonism toward African-Americans, sought a return to Jacksonian democracy of the past, but became bogged down in internecine disputes with Congress. Ulysses Grant, the author contends, was a pragmatist who balanced competing goals of restoring harmony to the formerConfederate states and realizing black citizenship, yet was driven by circumstances beyond his control. Though sharing the goals of Reconstruction, Rutherford Hayes, in a final bow to political necessity, withdrew federal troops from the South, unwittingly ensuring decades of second-class citizenship for African-Americans. A powerful analysis of a darkly formative period in American history. (History Book Club selection)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700608966
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 7/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 292
  • Sales rank: 1,193,046
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Brooks D. Simpson is professor of history at Arizona State University and author of Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction.

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Table of Contents



Part One: Abraham Lincoln

1. "Broken Eggs Cannot Be Mended"

2. "Much Good Work Is Already Done"

Part Two: Andrew Johnson

3. "There Is No Such Thing As Reconstruction"

4. "Damn Them!"

Part Three: Ulysses S. Grant

5. "Let Us Have Peace"

6. "Unwhipped of Justice"

Part Four: Rutherford B. Hayes

7. "The Great Pacificator"





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