The Complex History of Reconstruction as a Concept

David Prior's picture

In this post for the blog, David Prior of the University of New Mexico unpacks some of the questions hanging over his research project on the concept of Reconstruction.

Thank you to Lois and Hugh for kicking us off, I’ve really enjoyed reading and discussing the first two posts. Since I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Niels a few weeks back, I’ll introduce myself briefly. Having recently finished my first book, Between Freedom and Progress (LSU, 2019) and an edited volume, Reconstruction in a Globalizing World (Fordham, 2018), I’m currently working on wrapping up a second edited volume, Reconstruction and Empire (with Fordham), and starting a book-length study on the evolution of the concept of Reconstruction. I also keep getting distracted by working on the Civil War-era career of Paul Du Chaillu, the subject of my second chapter in Between Freedom and Progress. He, among other things, authored the first modern accounts of living gorillas based on personal observations and argued that “the Negro” was doomed to extinction without slavery.  Of those projects, the one on Reconstruction as a concept has me scratching my head at present, in particular as I try to think through its structure and larger argument.

There has been much recent interest in the efforts of Heather Cox Richardson, Elliott West, and others to reconceptualize Reconstruction as a national project that included the western states and territories. I took some interest in this topic early on in my career when in 2010 I published on the Reconstruction of Mormon Utah (substantially revised as ch. 5 of Between Freedom and Progress). I had a sense then that the territory represented a special case within Reconstruction’s emerging western theme because it was Civil War-era Republicans themselves who made the connection—not just or even primarily recent historians. Mormon polygamists were, Republicans argued, akin to slaveholders, and the Church’s hierarchy was an illegitimate temporal authority, much as secessionists had been. Since then, I’ve become more concerned that the field needs to distinguish between how scholars have attempted to define and redefine Reconstruction and what the term meant to people in the Civil War era, including how they imbued it with their own metaphorical meanings. West’s work in particular has received some pushback, including by Rachel St. John (here), and so I think the field is now primed for a fuller examination of the complex evolution of the term “Reconstruction.”

Such a history, I’m certain, needs to avoid the trap of thinking that Civil War-era Americans had only one definition of Reconstruction while also not confusing the term’s original ambiguity with our own reinventions of it. It also needs to avoid lapsing into the argument that because Reconstruction sometimes meant different things it never meant the same thing twice. In my first publication on the history of the concept (here), I argued that the term “reconstruction” had two antebellum meanings that were particularly influential to what it came to mean as a name for something specific to U.S. history. These two meanings—reconstruction as national resurrection and as social transformation—shaped how Americans used the term during the Civil War era and how scholarship has evolved since then. In making this argument, I drew on Mark Summer’s The Ordeal of the Reunion, which argued that the literal meaning of reconstruction was to reunite the country. I have also recently found Louis P. Masur’s Lincoln’s Last Speech, the early portions of which make a similar argument for the war years. These two works serve as helpful reminders that while historians have come to think of Reconstruction as quintessentially about African American experiences of and in the wake of abolition, for many Americans at the time it referred to the reunification of the North and South. This is only part of the story, I’ve pointed out, because in the Antebellum Period “reconstruction” could also mean social transformation, which easily got mapped onto discussions of abolition and the expansion of African American rights, although sometimes in counterintuitive ways. I still have much research to do, but it’s already clear to me that there is a complex history to be written about the interplay of those two meanings, among others, as well as the term’s subsequent evolution.

What I need to start doing now, in addition to a lot of research, is to move beyond that initial insight towards an analysis that uses the evolution of the word’s meanings to say something broader. I have a good sense of what many of the parts of this story are, but am still thinking through it as a whole. If I write a history of the concept of Reconstruction from the 1840s into the early 20th century—the time frame I currently favor—clearly the book cannot simply be a giant dictionary entry chronicling every use of the term. I have some provisional ideas, but need to develop them further as I research the topic. I’d welcome any tips or advice.

One big-picture argument that I find myself contemplating is how the concept of “reconstruction” fits in with the evolution of a transatlantic language of society—with a set of abstractions that named and described types of societies and their putative place in history. We still take many, if not all, of these terms for granted and use them in our own analysis and rhetoric: “nation,” “republic,” “the state,” and the now uncommon “civilization.” But these terms tended, I think, to gain broad currency beyond a small educated elite over a specific period of time—say the late 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. Both of Reconstruction’s key antebellum meanings—as national resurrection and grassroots social transformation—reflected a broader set of assumptions that what a society was and how it worked was manifest to the public and subject to popular debate.

Another is that the term “reconstruction” serves as a useful way to frame America’s place in world history. In the 1840s, Americans began using the term, often in discussions of European developments. In essence, their uses of it reflected the continued influence of western Europe. From there, however, Americans transformed the term into something specific to the United States—provincializing it—and then re-exported it to newly-taken colonies and then the war-ravaged landscape of the 20th century, transforming it again in the process.


Hi David,

I find your question is an interesting one. As I mentioned in my introduction last week, the book I finished two years ago was studied how Britons thought about the American Civil War. Although I did not focus on their attitudes toward reconstruction, the subject did come up repeatedly in my research. It's my impression that most British observers throughout much of the war thought that a) the North could not win the military conflict and that b) even if it won the war, the political task of reuniting the country would prove impossible. I don’t remember them using the term “reconstruction” but they were obviously referring to a version of the concept when they spoke about this political task of bringing white Southerners back into a free will association with the North that would make a sustainable democratic federation possible. This seemed to be the primary problem to them. They also discussed how the place of African Americans in society and politics might change as a result of the war. This discussion sometimes but not always overlapped with the political question. It was like a Venn diagram with two circles that overlapped about halfway—bring white Southerners back into the Union and where African Americans would fit, with the former being the more substantial problem in British eyes. It almost goes without saying that British observers were fundamentally conflicted about almost everything having to do with reconstruction; a wide variety of forces pulled them in different directions.

Best wishes,


Hi David,
Your project reflects one of the ways the field grows: understanding how the terms we use as historians evolved, and what that they meant to people in different times and places. But as you note, both the research and the presentation of the research can feel daunting.

While you're quite correct that few people want to read a series of dictionary entries, people do love to read good stories. Could you offer vignettes of different "uses" of Reconstruction in different times and places, then tease out for each what they reveal about what Reconstruction means in that instance? The concrete examples of how a particular meaning was deployed by or how it affected different people/groups could illustrate the evolution of the term as you trace it.

Looking forward to hearing more about this project in the coming months,

Dear Hugh and Lois, 

Thank you for those comments. Hugh, one of the topics that I'm interested in is tracking the divergence between how Civil War-era Americans used the term vs. how people in Europe did, especially because the starting point of my analysis is their initial shared understandings of the term. If British observers are not using the term to describe the United States postbellum and postabolition settlement, that is itself interesting. Your comments also reminded me of Stève Sainlaude's recent France and the American Civil War, which noted a similar skepticism in France concerning the prospects of a successful reunification of the country. 

Lois, I think you're right that the vignette approach would work. I'll have to scratch my head about which individuals / moments would work. One could think of the original 13th amendment as one possible subject, including how people when debating it spoke for or against reconstruction as reunification. In the antebellum period some pro-slavery conservatives might warrant a profile for their warnings that abolitionists wished to "reconstruct society."  I'll keep thinking about it, but I think that will be a very helpful approach. 

Best wishes,