Review of “Eric Foner's Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877”

One of the problems that I have with writing short reviews for very long, detailed books like this is that I must avoid the complexities of the content presented. In a few words I could say that Reconstruction: American’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner describes the post-Emancipation Proclamation world of the Southern United States and how it went through various stages of Reconstruction, wherein Northern rule held varying degrees of control over the South, to Redemption wherein the previous humanitarianism disappeared and Southern rights reasserted their rule via “state’s rights.” To summarize over 600 pages into this sentence is certainly not fair to the wealth of the research that Eric Foner has done nor accurately describes the vicissitudes of the period. But this is – in a few words – what the book is about. Rather than doing so, for this book I’ll post links to some other reviews that go into extensive detail and also post the essay questions that my students could pick from to answer below as the latter, I believe, shows what the book deals with and the former is available for those that would like a more expository understanding of the material the book contains.

Here is an appraisal and analysis of the book from Reviews in American History:

And here is a review from the New York Times.

Essay Questions

Chapter 1

The World the War Made

  1. Justify historians Charles and Mary Beard claim that the Emancipation of American slaves was more than just the end of a particular form of a system of labor.
  2. Examine W. E. B. Du Bois’s claim that it was the blacks that led the drive towards Emancipation.
  3. Compare and contrast the economic effects of the war on the North and the South.
  4. Explain how the Civil War helped consolidate the American state.
  5. Evaluate why Northern military policies would vacillate between progressive and regressive.
  6. Describe the ways that the Civil War was the mid-wife of the revolution.
  7. Discuss some of the black institutional responses to emancipation.
  8. Compare and contrast free labor ideology with slavery and assess the validity of the former’s claims
  9. Describe the role of class in the South’s internal civil war.


Chapter 2

Rehearsals for Reconstruction


  1. Describe the rationale for the10 Percent Plan described in Lincoln’s Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction.
  2. Discuss how the actions of the new Reconstruction governments helped to undermine the perceived legitimacy of their rule.
  3. Compare and contrast the arguments for and against confiscation.
  4. Identify some of the manners in the Banks system and other laws enforced the interests of Southern property owners.
  5. Examine the various roles and responsibilities of the Freedman’s Bureau.
  6. Explain what made the small Sea Islands experiment so worthy of national attention.
  7. Evaluate with examples the army’s role in the transformation to labor policy formation in the occupied south.
  8. Distinguish the causes for black rural and city delegates disagreements on policy formation.
  9. Analyze reasons for the North’s tenuous commitment to emancipation.


Chapter 3

The Meaning of Freedom

  1. Describe some of the manners in which the freed blacks exercised their new freedom.
  2. Contrast black family and social life before and after Emancipation.
  3. Explain the changes that occurred in Black-attended churches following Emancipation.
  4. Identify the reasons for the rise in civil-aid societies.
  5. Examine how land ownership related to the freedman’s desires for economic independence.
  6. Distinguish several manners in which freedman used the new labor conditions to obtain better wages and working conditions.
  7. Compare and contrast the dynamics of farming for self-sufficiency with farming for the market.
  8. To what extent did black political organizations change between 1864 and 1866?
  9. Contrast the waning interest with conventions with the social ferment of the Southern countryside.

Chapter 4

Ambiguities of Free Labor

  1. Describe in detail the economic conditions of the South.
  2. Explain the rationale for planters placing personal life provisions within contracts.
  3. Analyze the conflicts between new northern planters and southern blacks.
  4. Identify the methods by which southern planters and the military now regulated the labor of free blacks.
  5. Discuss the role of the market from the vantage point of freedman, plantation owners and the government.
  6. To what extent did paternalism motivate institutional responses to the conditions in the South.
  7. Identify the limits to the Freedman Bureau’s efficacy.
  8. Examine the role of coercion in the creation of contracts.
  9. To what extent did sharecropping emerge from the post-war economic exigencies.

Chapter 6

The Making of Radical Reconstruction

  1. To what extent do you agree with Thaddeus Stevens claim that the Congress in session in 1866 was “making a [new] nation” and that “technical scruples” ought not to be allowed to prevent them from their statecraft?
  2. Describe in detail the changes sought by the Radical Republicans and their motivations for them.
  3. Compare and contrast the views of Moderate and Radical Republicans
  4. Evaluate the Civil Rights Bill.
  5. Explain the relationship of black and women’s suffrage.
  6. Justify the claims of a number of modern historians that Andrew Johnson was the worst president.
  7. Examine why Eric Foner states that the Reconstruction Act passed by the 39th session of Congress was a “incongruous mixture of idealism and political expediency”.
  8. Define “states rights” and describe how it played a contentious role in the Congressional debates.
  9. Kanye West recently tweeted: “What is your definition of true freedom? There is no true freedom without economic freedom.” Analyze how this relates to the issues surrounding Reconstruction.

Chapter 8

Reconstruction: Political and Economic

  1. Define and describe the four areas Foner cites which limited the Republicans efforts to reshape southern society and establish their legitimacy.
  2. Compare and contrast the qualities of the government positions obtained by blacks and whites.
  3. Analyze the role of graft & corruption amongst the political parties and races between 1868 and 1872.
  4. Explain how new economic legislation provided more power to blacks.
  5. Describe the social and economic effects of blacks entering into the market economy.
  6. Identify the causes that lead to two plantation regions underdevelopment.
  7. To what extent did state-sponsored economic development contribute to financial crisis?
  8. Examine the goals and outcomes of state-sponsored economic development.
  9. Describe the reasons for the rise of the landlord-merchant class.


Chapter 10

The Reconstruction of the North

  1. Describe the effects the railroads had on the geography and economy of the North and West.
  2. Compare and contrast the relationship between business politics in the frontier areas with that of freedman in the South.
  3. Identify the reasons for the creation of unprecedented income inequality in the North.
  4. Explain the challenges that technological progress made to the free labor ideology once lauded by the Northern elite.
  5. Discuss the differences between black and white experiences of labor.
  6. Distinguish what is meant by the term “professionally managed politics”.
  7. To what extend and by whom was economic legislation considered “dangerous”.
  8. Identify the reasons why Reconstruction was losing its strength as a political force.
  9. Compare and contrast perspectives on government reform.




Also worth checking out is this interview with Eric Foner: