Defining Documents in American History: Reconstruction Era Review

“The period of American history known as Reconstruction refers to the dozen or so years immediately following the Civil War. It was the North’s attempt to literally rebuild the ravaged economies, societies, and especially, the governments of the defeated Southern states, which had earlier tried to secede from the union. Leaders in Congress felt that, only after a period of rehabilitation, so to speak, could these states rejoin the nation on an equal footing with the others. As the reader might surmise, this volume is one in a series from the publisher, each covering discrete epochs of American history.

Here we have a collection of 40 primary sources that speak to us from across the chasm of decades. Through these letters, speeches, journal entries, and various other forms of the written word, the actors of this confused and confusing time tell us, in their own way, of the momentous decisions they faced and how they resolved them. While some are excerpted, many appear in their entirety. These documents are presented in groups of five to seven under such headings as “Debating Reconstruction” (a big picture look at the basic issues), “Acts of State” (legislation and Constitutional amendments), “Extreme Reactions” (white southerner’s resistance to Reconstruction, formation of the Ku Klux Klan), and so on. Documents are arranged chronologically within each grouping.

What sets this volume off from the myriad other documentary U.S. histories available is the amount and rigor of analysis that accompanies each piece. Every primary source is introduced with a Summary Overview that provides the gist of the piece at hand. “Defining Moment,” with a few broad brush strokes, paints a verbal canvas illustrating the political and social environment in which a speech was delivered or a law passed. “Author Biography,” as the heading suggests, is a thumbnail sketch of the person responsible for the piece, while “Historical Document” is just that, helpfully set off from the rest of the text in a shaded box. “Document Analysis” helps the reader more thoroughly understand what the author was driving at, given that English language usage of the mid-Nineteenth Century was oftentimes more dense or florid than that of today. “Essential Themes” places each document within the larger historical patterns of the era and the years to follow. Finally, the bibliography and additional reading section concludes each critical essay with a short list of supplemental material. In addition to all this, four appendixes supply a chronology, a list of Web resources, another separate bibliography, and an index. Purchase of this volume entitles the user to free online access to the complete contents.

Editor Michael Shally-Jensen holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Princeton University. He has assembled an able crew of contributors for this volume, the majority of whom hold doctoral or other advanced degrees. Their writing styles are uniformly clear, concise, and cogent.

To cite just one example of a competing title, The Civil War and Reconstruction: A Documentary Collection, edited by William E. Gienapp (Norton, 2001), is representative of books concerning this topic. While broader in scope and containing more material, this volume lacks an index and the amount of commentary relative to the work under review, both of which make it a less useful resource. Reconstruction Era of the Defining Documents series is highly recommended for purchase by all public and academic libraries, especially those of the latter that support American history or American studies curricula.”