The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920

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Release Date: 
March 26, 2024
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“consummately persuasive in its air-tight arguments, [and] equally dizzying in its topical breadth and the cumulative impact of its finely detailed storytelling.”

Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause proved a transformative history of abolitionism in America largely because the book turned on its head the prevalent notion that the lion’s share of antislavery ideology, sentiment, and action in the United States sprang from the “bourgeois liberalism” of enlightened and altruistic whites. While The Slave’s Cause was far from the first book to acknowledge or emphasize the contributions of enslaved people to their own emancipation, it made a strikingly strong case for the movement’s Black origins and interracial leadership.

“The insidious divide between white thought and black activism that pervades some books on abolition is both racialist and inaccurate,” Sinha writes, arguing convincingly that neither “the scholarly nor the lay consensus” (with notable exceptions like Kellie Carter Jackson’s bracing Force and Freedom) recognizes the long and complex history of Black resistance. “To read [Blacks] out of the abolition movement,” Sinha maintains, “is to profoundly miss the part they played in defining traditions of American democratic radicalism.”

If “bourgeois liberalism” and an embedded racial hierarchy were indeed the defining features of antebellum abolitionism, the tendency of contemporary radical movements fighting the ongoing criminalization of Blackness to take on the “abolitionist” mantle and align themselves with their antislavery forbears would be both misguided and ahistorical. Sinha’s framing of abolitionism as a radical, democratic, anticapitalist movement fueled by “the slave’s struggle for freedom and human dignity,” and as the progenitor of succeeding generations’ resistance to American adventures in oligarchy and empire affirms the kinship that modern-day, self-styled abolitionists claim.

Sinha’s rigorously researched and brilliantly argued new book, The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860–1920, picks up almost precisely where The Slave’s Cause leaves off—not just chronologically, but also in recognizing the national and even transnational echoes and forces at work in the ferocious battles over emancipation during the Civil War and the decades that followed.

And though, again, Sinha is far from the first historian to counter long-standing, long-cherished, and fervently defended misconceptions and outright lies about Reconstruction and its presumptive “failure,” she recontextualizes it in revealing and often surprising ways. She extends Eric Foner’s notion of Reconstruction as a “Second Founding” to trace the arc of a “Second American Republic”—a deliberate nod to France’s acknowledged interruptions of and successive attempts at post-revolutionary-era republicanism—that began with slaves’ self-emancipating flight to union camps during the Civil War and concludes with the ratification of the 19th Amendment extending suffrage to women in 1920. Sinha regards the 19th as the last in a string of Reconstruction amendments that began with the 13th abolishing slavery in 1865.

Sinha challenges multiple myths about Reconstruction, beginning with the big white lie that it constituted a despotic imposition of federal power on the sovereignty of southern states and the freedom of white elites, and the Lost Cause mythology that arose during its overthrow and has persisted in some quarters ever since (even though W.E.B. DuBois delivered a convincing and well-documented counter-narrative in Black Reconstruction in America in 1935).

But Sinha goes further than that, positing Reconstruction’s early success as an unleashing of “broad emancipatory goals” that encompassed not just freedpeople but Black and white American women and the country’s indigenous population as well. She cites Reconstruction-era freedpeople—freedwomen in particular—as agitators for and organizers of a wider push for economic democracy in America. She also identifies numerous freedwomen as activists who sought to build a “composite nation,” and “demanded the social and gendered reconstruction of American democracy.”

Sinha argues that Reconstruction and the 14th Amendment in particular attempted not only to build a new post-emancipation south, but also “birthed a national citizenship, expanding the boundaries of political belonging, rights, and claims on the nation-state.” As such, Reconstruction’s violent overthrow through systemic racist terror didn’t simply “redeem” the white supremacist South or roll back the gains freed Blacks had achieved in the 1860s. It ensured that the Second American Republic would re-establish American capitalism without reconstructing American democracy, as radical Republicans and abolitionists had clearly intended.

Moreover, the restoration of racial apartheid in the South would more broadly defeat the egalitarian impulses of Reconstruction and embolden the American conquest of the West and the sweeping land usurpation that enabled it. It effectively reinforced whites’ sense that their own freedom was incomplete—and their victimization intolerable—as long as they were denied their right to total domination of other races, as Jefferson Cowie demonstrates in Freedom’s Dominion. Native American dispossession and extermination were as much the result of natural, “inexorable forces” as were southern “redemption,” notions advanced in the lofty justifications of westward expansionism advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner and others.

By century’s end, with segregation entrenched by judicial fiat and “American democracy hobbled,” Sinha contends, “imperial dreams of empire” prevailed. The southern racial regime in turn served as a model for American colonial attitudes toward new territorial subjects in the Philippines and the Caribbean.

“The demise of the Second American Republic,” Sinha writes, “inaugurated an era of hierarchy and inequality—racial, ethnic, gendered, and economic—rather than one of equal citizenship promised by the war for emancipation and Reconstruction.”

Sinha maintains that working within the traditional “temporal bounds” of Reconstruction (beginning with the end of the Civil War in 1865 and concluding with the Compromise of 1877 that traded the removal of federal troops from the south for Republican victory in a contested election) is both limiting and reductive. On one end it ignores Wartime Reconstruction, initiated by the collective efforts and demands of “refugeed” slaves-turned-Union soldiers to set the terms of their own emancipation shortly after the war began. On the other it disregards the direct repurposing, in many cases, of the troops stationed in the South to the West to displace indigenous populations and suppress their insurgencies. (Not to mention the head-snapping transition of General William Tecumseh Sherman from leading the military emancipation of one race to orchestrating the genocide of another.)

Sinha emphatically avoids using some of the familiar terms and phrases associated with the post-Civil War era: “Presidential Reconstruction,” because Andrew Johnson’s craven campaign to restore white southern planter power subverted Reconstruction rather than constituting a phase of it; “carpetbagger,” “scalawag,” and “Redemption,” because terms invented to perpetuate white supremacist mythology distort rather than illuminate the historical record.

If The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic is consummately persuasive in its air-tight arguments, it is equally dizzying in its topical breadth and the cumulative impact of its finely detailed storytelling. Sinha reveals much that’s new about Reconstruction’s rise and fall in her attention to the fascinating and often tragic careers of Black abolitionists who served in public office during Reconstruction’s brief legislative heyday, and the Black convention movement through which many of those who survived their expulsion from office kept their struggle alive. She also devotes ample attention to the ascent and decline of Black print culture in the second half of the 19th century as fledgling interracial democracy struggled to survive.

Moreover, Sinha details the critical roles that Black women played in the suffragist movement that kicked into high gear after the war. She also recounts with painstaking and painful specificity the ruptures that occurred in that movement as the 15th Amendment extended the franchise (however briefly) to Black men with white women still largely deprived of voting power and other rights of citizenship. She documents the decline of abolitionist feminism’s progressive intersectionality as leading white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony bristled at the privileging of “ignorant Black men’s” voting rights over educated women’s, and made common cause with white supremacists who shared their newly adopted views on Black male suffrage.

Similarly wrenching is Sinha’s exhaustive account of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white terror groups in the South after the war, peaking with massacres of Black public servants and voters at Colfax, Louisiana, Eufaula, Alabama, Hamburg, South Carolina, and elsewhere. She also describes the dogged efforts of the federal government and Freedmen’s Bureau to document the Klan’s innumerable lynchings, whippings, rapes, and murders of freedpeople and secure indictments against them, and the federal government’s subsequent failure to achieve convictions or slow the terrorists’ onslaught. “The vicious southern opposition to black citizenship, however, would long outlast all northern intervention,” Sinha concludes.

In much the same manner as Heather Cox Richardson in To Make Men Free, Sinha chronicles the decline of the Republican Party as a radical emancipatory force, and the rise of Liberal Republicans (not a few of them converted ex-radicals) who championed laissez-faire capitalism and free markets and small government, and “condoned rapacious unregulated capitalism and the abandonment of Reconstruction, even as they fashioned themselves as classical republicans upholding political virtue.”

By exposing the capitalist triumph that abetted and followed Reconstruction’s overthrow, Sinha dispenses with the “romance of reunion” so often evoked to characterize the general rapprochement between northern and southern whites that had firmly taken hold by the century’s close.

Sinha also tells the part of the story that usually constitutes the end of Reconstruction, when the federal government and military summarily withdrew its commitment to the defense of Black lives (let alone the expansion of Black citizenship), southern state laws exploited loopholes in the 15th Amendment to eliminate Black voting on assorted non-racial pretexts, convict leasing and debt peonage largely re-enslaved Blacks throughout the region, and “racist terrorism was forgotten by white Americans amid [1876’s] ‘centennial gush.’”

The various threads of Sinha’s arguments for how Americans selectively forget the restoration and expansion of white supremacy in the Second American Republic converge visibly in the enduring work of a single individual: Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor commissioned to carve the gigantic faces of four American presidents into the Lakota people’s sacred Pahá Sápa (Black Hills). There was no forgetting in Borglum’s conception of what the monument would symbolize: “a tribute to American democracy” supremely ascendant in “the triumph over the Lakota.”

The desecration was the point.

Sinha goes on to note that “Borglum was also hired for the initial work on the Stone Monument memorial to Confederate leaders in Georgia, which was funded, in part, by the Ku Klux Klan.” Stone Mountain, Georgia’s most popular tourist attraction, still stands proudly as a symbol of the unreconstructed south and the Klan’s 1915 rebirth.

The strident celebration of contemporaneous white conquest that links these monuments remains little understood today, at least among the conquerors’ heirs. The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic does much to set the record straight.