Dearth of a Nation
An unflinching look at the unfinished business of Reconstruction
In the American-history textbook I used in my public high school, the chapter that covered Reconstruction included a photo of Thaddeus Stevens, the nineteenth-century radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who appeared, to judge by the evidence of this daguerreotype, to have been in a foul mood. I distinctly remember how the photo’s caption referenced Stevens’s glowering, stormy countenance as an outward and visible sign of his spiteful scorn for the vanquished Confederacy. As far as the textbook’s authors were concerned, such vengeance—and only such vengeance—accounted for what they seemed to believe was overly harsh and restrictive federal rule over the South in the years immediately following Appomattox and the Lincoln assassination.
Bear in mind that I had come across this picture sometime in the school year of 1968–69, by which time Martin Luther King Jr. had lived and died, as had so many other civil rights leaders, activists, and dreamers. But even in the relatively enlightened New England city that raised and schooled me, the idea of Yankee conquerors unfairly strong-arming postbellum Southern whites was so embedded in the American mind that it was all but taken for granted. This was true even in my predominantly black, inner-city high school—though I do remember a furtive question lurking, unarticulated, deep within my fifteen-year-old head: Why, exactly, was it a bad thing to be hard on the South for going to war over enslaving black people? As best as I can recall, nobody else in my class asked the question, either—at least not out loud.