Reconstruction and American Imperialism

David Prior's picture

In this post, David Prior of the University of New Mexico addresses some questions embedded in a volume of essays he is editing on Reconstruction and American imperialism for Fordham University Press.

Through Fordham University Press’s excellent “Reconstructing America” series, I’ve been working on an edited volume focused on two historical moments: the one emerging in the mid-1860s from abolition and Union victory and the other centered on the turn-of-the-century rise of the United States as an international power. The eleven contributors to Reconstruction and Empire (expected 2021) dive into topics like Civil War veterans in Cuba’s Ten Years’ War, the postbellum missionary activities of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Mormons’ stances towards American war-making after the “reconstruction” of their own domestic institution, polygamy. The volume offers a collective exploration of interpretive opportunities that I hope will convince readers of the need for further research and debate. Below, I raise three questions I’ve found myself asking as I reflect on the volume and revise its short introduction. I’d love to hear any thoughts H-CivWar’s readers and contributors had to offer.

1. Why did scholarship ignore the relationship between these two moments for so long? Recent scholarship has interrogated the relationship between Reconstruction and American imperialism, most clearly in Heather Cox Richardson’s pathbreaking West from Appomattox (2007). We also now have works like Rebecca Scott’s Degrees of Freedom (2005) and Ian Tyrrell’s Reforming the World (2010) that do the archival digging to trace some hitherto obscure lives that connect these two moments. And one can see a productive debate shaping up between the perspectives of Manisha Sinha (The Slave’s Cause [2016]) and Don Doyle (multiple recent essays), who see the more liberal and egalitarian impulses of the Civil War-era fueling anti-imperialism, and those like Eric T. L. Love (Race over Empire [2004]) and Robert Beisner (Twelve Against Empire [1968]), who capture racism’s influence on the same. Finally, recent essays by the likes Andrew Zimmerman and Alison Efford point the way to broader syntheses.

But it is striking how rarely Reconstruction has garnered attention in the diplomatic history on the origins of U.S. overseas imperialism. In part this stems from the different paths that Reconstruction and diplomatic scholarship took from the 1950s to the 1980s. The diplomatic history from this time is rich, but tended to find the origins of American imperialism in Gilded Age industrialization, not Reconstruction, conventionally understood to be centered on the South. Concurrently, Reconstruction scholarship focused on social history from the bottom up, often with a focus on southern localities. But is there a deeper reason for the divergence? Surely the fall of the slaveholders, the Civil War’s martial legacies, or the ascent of humanitarianism in political rhetoric are key factors behind the specific version of American overseas imperialism that develop at century’s end.

2. How should modern scholars engage with Black Reconstruction’s imperial thesis? Perhaps the standout absence from the mainline diplomatic scholarship on American empire is W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935). It argued that the white supremacist assault on Reconstruction, defined as an experiment in interracial democracy and African-American empowerment, contributed to the rise of the United States as a racist world power that in turn spurred on a late-19th- and 20th-century imperial order. That order, Du Bois argued, rested on the enslavement of non-white people around the globe. (On these points, see Eric Foner’s and Moon-Ho Jung’s essays in the 2013 special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly.) In my reading, Black Reconstruction’s imperial thesis had the potential to spark a scholarly debate in its day. But it didn’t, and Black Reconstruction’s imperial thesis—and indeed the entire volume—slid into obscurity.

Du Bois’s imperial thesis was and is at once provocative and original but also impressionistic. It is also, of course, disconnected from modern monographic scholarship, most of which has been published after Du Bois’s death (1963). I suspect that, because he was writing at the height of southern Democratic congressional power, Jim Crow, and European imperial reach, Du Bois tended to downplay Reconstruction’s enduring imprint on the United States as geopolitical power. It is noteworthy, for example, that while turn-of-the-century imperialists were certainly racists, they were not the diehard proslavery expansionist that had recently dominated American foreign policy. Nor were American corporations engaged in the wholesale owning of or trafficking in chattel slaves. The foreclosing of both of those possible developments are legacies of Reconstruction. It is a stunning and fortuitous historical coincidence that the Civil War destroyed slavery right before the triumph of industrial capitalism made the United States a global power.

3. What are the major interpretive fault-lines in our age of “new syntheses”? A series of competing arguments about how to periodize and describe the United States postbellum decades has roiled recent scholarship. Heather Cox Richardson, Elliott West, Rebecca Edwards, Richard White, and others have offered interpretations that diverge from the long ascendant paradigm that we might call “The Gilded Age and Progressive Era, with a side of Reconstruction.” These new perspectives are, moreover, local manifestations of two broader phenomenon: the profession-wide interrogation of once-accepted categories of analysis; and the return to prominence of sweeping narrative syntheses. There are, for example, at least four recent and innovative big-picture narrative tomes relevant to my volume: Richardson’s West from Appomattox, H. W. Brands’s American Colossus (2010), Steven Hahn’s A Nation without Borders (2016); and Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands (2017).

I would argue that each of these works in fact plays up Gilded Age themes at the expense of those central to traditional Reconstruction scholarship, even as three of these authors redefine “Reconstruction” and foreground it as a concept. Each also works with different chronological contours, with Brands and Richardson taking Appomattox and the War of 1898 as bookends. White ends his narrative in 1896 while Hahn’s volume covers almost a full century (1830-1910). But, more importantly, the scope of these closely argued works means that  they warrant closing readings alongside each other with a careful eye to subtle points of departure. Do they make, or at least imply, different accounts of how Reconstruction, in a traditional sense, conditioned or inhibited the rise of America as a global power? The authors clearly have distinctive perspectives on who late-19th-century Americans were and who they were becoming. That, in turn, must have implications for their readings of how the U.S. government projected power abroad. Are there underlying, competing schools of interpretation akin to those that long shaped scholarship on Civil War causation? If not, will some emerge in the coming decade? 



Hi David,

I’m by no means an expert on this topic, but for the sake of moving conversation along, I’d like to draw attention to an essay that deals with the issues you raised but in a somewhat different way: Jay Sexton’s “The Civil War and U.S. World Power” which appears in American Civil Wars (2017) edited by Don Doyle. What I like about Sexton’s argument is that it connects the two moments you refer to in a seamless way; it integrates an accounting of means and ends with a discussion of ideology; it incorporates Reconstruction into an account of American imperialism; and it accounts for the varied ways the United States responded to different imperial opportunities.

I can’t provide a summary of Sexton’s entire argument, but so far as the war and American imperialism was concerned, he writes that “though the Civil War unlocked the immense power of the United States, the actors, institutions, and political processes that harnessed it were not always capable of moving in concert thereafter to project this newfound national power.” (15) Moreover, the ability of the United to project this power also depended on the actions of foreign states—both the Europeans who had designs in the western hemisphere and states of Central and South America. Northern victory had depended not just on the federal government itself “but its synergy with a nationalizing patriotic civil society” that involved a number of voluntarist organizations and, significantly, Wall Street. “The power that enabled the Union victory,” Sexton continues, “was the result of complex relations and negotiations between the state, finance, and the varied institutions of civil society—all the way down to the individual soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefield.” (23) To make a long story short, Sexton writes that the necessary coalition of stakeholders—diplomats, consults, the navy, missionaries, exporters, investors, foreign lobbies, collaborators, the Republic Party, interest groups, etc.—was unwieldy. (27) When it came to the American West, no problem, all hands were on deck. When other projects arose, however, the coalition was difficult to mobilize. The Reconstruction of the South, was a good instance of this difficulty. As a rule of thumb, Sexton states that limited projects were easy to launch because they required less effort and smaller coalitions. Bigger projects were much difficult to mount.

What say you about this argument and its effectiveness? To what degree do you find it congruent with some of the other arguments you have referred to? I am a naif when it comes to these matters.



Dear Hugh, 

Thank you for this helpful reply. Jay Sexton's essay is insightful and I should have referenced it alongside Zimmerman's and Efford's. His main point--that the Union's/U.S.'s ability to project power was at its height when multiple state and non-state actors rallied behind or shared a common goal--is an important one. It does much to explain how the Union could wield so much force to defeat the Confederacy without ensuring a dynamic foreign policy after the war. I think some might quibble with the ins-and-outs of the argument, but its main point strikes me as being hard to contest. One question that hangs over the essay is whether the formal birth of American overseas empire entailed or depended on the same kind and level of state-non-state unity as the Union exercised in the Civil War.  

Part of what I should stress more clearly is that there are works that reach across this time period (roughly 1865-1900), as well as manifold arguments about the connections from the Civil War to the conquest of the American West and then to American overseas imperialism. The time period of Reconstruction is in there, but less so its core, defining processes (although what these are is also a subject of debate). In the more thorough diplomatic histories covering this period, you can find discussion of particular events like the purchase of Alaska or the settlement of the Alabama Claims. But Reconstruction as a consuming, divisive cultural moment, however, garners much less attention as something integral to the evolution of American power. In Sexton's essay, I think he's getting at a general point that I share sympathy with--the ways in which the Gilded Age tends to overshadow other factors shaping American power abroad--but from a different departure point, the zenith of Union military power at the end of the Civil War. I should also note that Mark Summers's The Ordeal of the Reunion has some thoughtful comments on the relationship between Reconstruction, the conquest of the West, and American contact/power abroad. 

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior