Author Interview--David Prior (Between Freedom and Progress) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with David Prior to talk about his new book Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics, published by the Louisiana State University Press.

Part 1

Since you open the door to the meanings of Reconstruction, you are also well-known at conference to make the suggestion that Reconstruction is not the best of terms to use for the post-rebellion period. So what do you think would be a better terminology for this era?

DP: I’ll admit I don’t have a good alternative to the term “reconstruction” at hand, but have my suspicions that the term stuck as a name for a period of American history precisely because it did not, at the time, evoke the cause of African American equality in a straightforward and inspiring manner. It was a term with a convoluted and complex set of meanings that, much like "contraband," as Kate Masur has shown, was noteworthy for what it said and what it obscured. I’m still in the early stages of a book-length study of the subject, but what my evidence suggest to me so far is the following. During the secession crisis and throughout much of the war, when people in and from the United States referred to “reconstruction,” they often meant the reunification of the country. In this, their usage reflected earlier, transatlantic discussions of places like Poland. The idea was of a polity that had been dismembered or destroyed that was being put back together. But there was always a strand of conservative thought that warned against “reconstruction” as the transformation of society—a trend that drew on the term’s earlier meanings and associations with European radicalism. As abolition and then the expansion of African American civil and political rights did in fact transform the South, northern and southern conservatives pushed to equate northern Republican policies with socialism, which the pre-war meaning of “reconstruction” as social transformation, and especially its stigma, facilitated. I’ve even become a bit cagey about describing those northern Republicans who were devoted to the cause of racial equality as “radical Republicans,” since at the time this turn of phrase likely did political work for white supremacists. So, altogether, I think there is a case to be made that when people, often Unionists in the political center, used the term “Reconstruction” to refer to reunion, they did so because it allowed them to evade questions about the plight of former slaves. When white supremacists used the term to refer to alleged northern radicalism, they meant to focus on emancipation, abolition, and civil rights, but here the term fed into their arguments that these were unhinged, socialistic actions. No doubt further research will flesh out and qualify that initial sketch, including by shedding light on a fuller cast of characters and meanings. 

Besides the global perspective, you also have a domestic chapter. Why did you use Mormon Utah? In our current Covid-19 environment, a title like "Blossoming Plague-Spot" seems fitting for both eras. Considering the challenges in other regions and with regard to Native people or the Mexican borderland, why select this religious fringe group? 

DP: I think it was more that Mormon Utah chose me. When I was working on my first chapter, on the Cretan insurrection, I was surprised by how often northern Republicans described Ottoman Turks as Mormons. Indeed, this analogy is the one, more than any other, that started me down the path to the final product. Earlier scholars, including the Mormon historian Leonard Arrington, had explored the Ottoman-Mormon analogy in depth, pointing to the practices of polygamy and theocratic governance to explain the linkage. But as is usually the case in the scholarship, such analogies end up coming off as sui generis—as an odd rhetorical maneuver unique to American discussions about two groups. Far from it, I argue, such analogies were endemic the political discourse of the day and emblematic of a particular worldview built around the core assumptions that struggles over freedom and progress defined all of human history but that that history was made by and for discrete peoples. I found the Mormon case both striking at first and rewarding the more work I put into it, in part because there has been an efflorescence of historical writing on the Mormons by historians like Sarah Barringer Gordon, John G. Turner, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Paul Reeve, Christine Talbot, Patrick Mason, but also because the primary sources stemming from postbellum arguments about the Mormons proved so rich. When northern Republicans also equated slaveholders, notorious for their sexual assaults on enslaved women, to polygamous Mormons, Democrats responded by arguing that it was recently freed African Americans who made a mockery of monogamy and were therefore the South’s true Mormons. Some Democrats also invoked a kind of mid-19th-century cultural relativism informed by their resentment of abolitionism, arguing that the Mormons should be left alone to manage their own institutions. The title of the chapter is actually a merging of two common phrases northern Republicans used to describe Mormon Utah, and seeks to capture the tensions in their thinking about a society that some northern Republicans saw as a moral blight on the nation but also a “frontier” triumph of ingenuity and perseverance. 

The literature on Reconstruction and the West is now quite rich, especially with works on California mentioned above as well as the big syntheses by Heather Cox Richardson, Elliott West, Richard White, and Steven Hahn. The borderlands connection is represented well by recent works by scholars such as Karl Jacoby and William Kiser. In the context of these works, I’ll note that Between Freedom and Progress is not a comprehensive narrative but an exercise in identifying a way of thinking common in the Civil War era but now mostly alien to us. The best way to demonstrate how the creative tension between two beliefs led Reconstruction’s partisans to link different regions and peoples together in their arguments was, I figured, to look at discussions they had that seemed odd in the context of existing scholarship. In that sense, I committed to a chapter on postbellum arguments about Mormons over other topics in the West for the same reason I picked Crete over, say, the Franco-Prussian War. The point is not that one of these topics is more important than the other, but that some better help illuminate a forgotten intellectual dynamic that was integral to how a great many people in the United States comprehended their place in the world. 

I want to challenge you a little for the next question. As authors we always hate the moment when reviewers critique us for the book that they wished we had written versus the book we actually wrote. So let me briefly be that evil reviewer and give you the opportunity to respond without writing another book. You have Crete, India, Africa, the Caribbean, and Utah, what about South America (say Brazilian emancipation, the Triple Alliance War, etc.) or China? (I seem to remember a running conversation between us over a few SHAFR conferences about the significance of trade with China and Japan in the Civil War era)

DP: I get sucked into research, as no doubt many of us do. When I got hooked on Crete and Mormon Utah early on that shaped the broader philosophy of the volume, which was to find things that seemed obscure at first but that people at the time thought were intrinsically related. (Although I do have a brief discussion of Brazil through the travel narrative of John Codman who, yes, also wrote on Mormon Utah). Looking back on the volume, I can see a case for an alternative approach of structuring it exclusively around themes—perhaps labor, gender, race—and then within those thematic chapters discussing all the disparate parts of the world that Americans took interest in. I think that might be much more suitable for a subsequent study. There are other episodes that warrant additional research, such as American interest in the Russian conquest of Central Asia, especially Khiva, which garnered some attention in the American press, including from one correspondent who traveled with the expedition. The War of the Triple Alliance, or the Paraguayan War, was of particular interest to me for a while, but given the drift of the volume it seemed too similar to Crete. For onlookers, it raised similar questions about religious and ethnic others, civilian atrocities, distance, and commerce as a force of “civilization.” Pursuing that as a second chapter certainly would have changed the shape of the volume, perhaps transforming it into a study of Reconstruction-era American’s views of foreign wars and atrocities. Mostly what I’d stress is how much room there is for additional studies and a need for broader syntheses down the road, once a full shelf of monographic work is done. 

To close, based on your book and your other edited collections, how should we teach Reconstruction, keeping this broader global perspective in mind?

DP: The teaching question is a tricky one because it largely depends on what context you’re teaching in. At UNM, I’m lucky enough to have a mid-level undergraduate course that I teach on the Civil War Era and another on Slavery and Abolition in North America. Then I also teach a variety of "American and the World" classes. For the course on the Civil War Era and for the Slavery and Abolition course, I take what most would see as a largely traditional approach, with much emphasis on capturing the diversity of voices and perspectives at the time with ample attention to history from the bottom up. In those classes, however, I do usually pause to explain to students why the term “reconstruction” does not mean what they likely think it means based on more recent usage—the physical rebuilding of the South—and explain some of its transatlantic lineage. I also try to work in different questions and exercises at times. One I’ve toyed with is asking students to try to imagine what the Civil War era would have looked like without the Irish Potato Famine—think of Steven Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis, the rise and fall of the Know Nothings, the Draft Riot, the number of Irish who serve in the Union Army, etc. etc. etc. Certainly there still would have been Irish immigrants, but not so many, and that certainly would have changed the political and cultural landscape, perhaps in pivotal ways. 

In the "America and the World" courses I am more ambitious with global angles, and seek to capture the manifold international linkages that suffused the postbellum United States and the complex global imaginings wrapped up with national politics. I’m currently prepping a course that will seek to connect the processes most closely associated Reconstruction to the rise of American imperialism at the turn of the century, which I see as offering a kind of alternative framing to the more traditional “Gilded Age and Progressive Era” model. There is now a lot of excellent literature to draw on about the Reconstruction-Imperialism nexus, including works like Heather Cox Richardson’s West from Appomattox and the latter portions of Steven Hahn’s A Nation without Borders, although I think the South tends to get second billing to the West. Of course, it’s important not to go too far and lose sight of the very real ways in which the world was not as interconnected then as it is now, and as I tried to argue in my introduction to Reconstruction in a Globalizing World, in a point not wholly my own, the really interesting question in transnational history is how connectedness and isolation entwined in the same historical moments and processes. At any rate, my main advice about incorporating global dimensions into the teaching of Reconstruction, to borrow some advice that a wise man once shared with me, is to do what makes sense in the context of the way you teach the course.

Are you going to continue your work in Reconstruction history?

DP: In my immediate plans I won’t be leaving Reconstruction. I have a second edited collection on Reconstruction and Empire that is under contract with Fordham moving along and am in the early stages of that book on the history of the concept of Reconstruction, which will mostly focus on the 19th century. With each of the chapters in Between Freedom and Progress, I’ve often felt the urge to go back and do a fuller book-length study, although some of those, were I to tackle them, might take me away from Reconstruction. I could see a good case, for example, for a multi-author anthology examining the Cretan Insurrection as a local, regional, and international event. Perhaps of more interest to the readers here, I think we definitely need fuller studies of the black press during Reconstruction, including the New National Era, which was a fascinating enterprise. There is still much more to say about the politics of anti-Mormonism. Probably to the detriment of my progress on my project on reconstruction as a concept, I’ve found myself continuing to work on, Paul Du Chaillu, the gorilla, race, and the American Civil War era. He was a truly perplexing dude, and I’d like to build on my chapter on him in Between Freedom and Progress