Author Interview--Van Gosse (The First Reconstruction) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Van Gosse to talk about his new book The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War, published by the University of North Carolina Press in February 2021.

Part 1

And as a follow-up, have we failed as historians to adequately talk about this paradox? Do we have to do better telling our students that gaining the right to vote meant taking it from others at the same time? Especially considering how some historians want to proclaim this perception that the United States is the symbol of democracy everybody in the world wants to mimic, but the reality is, the country is not doing well with democracy.

VG: I think much of the problem is the compartmentalization of subdisciplines. The political historians ignored black men and black voting as a factor in Northern party politics because they assumed a priori that there weren't enough of them to matter.  Racial disfranchisement was a minor or side issue, with the exception of foundational works like Phyllis Field's Politics of Race in New York.  Conversely, the social historians who embraced the history of Northern free people of color skipped over traditional political history, perhaps for the same reason--I'm not sure why, actually.

I suppose that is an interesting question of why. In addition, you are also pointing out that we are not just looking state by state at differences, but also within a state at differences between the urban environments and rural parts. Where did African Americans have more political freedom/opportunity? And, why?

VG: Overall, there is no question that African Americans enjoyed the highest degree of political freedom in the four states of Upper New England (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine), since at no point from the Revolution on were there any attempts in those states to restrict their right to vote.  But at the state level, it's more complicated, and really varies state-by-state.  In Pennsylvania, they were kept off the tax rolls in Philadelphia and therefore couldn't vote, and never objected over more than forty years.  Elsewhere, however, they voted in many counties, to a significant degree in those that remained Federalist.  In Ohio, they voted in large numbers on the Western Reserve, but also in some of the most Democratic and pro-southern counties along the Ohio River.  In New York, they voted everywhere up to 1821.

You offer a complex picture of African American voting, but you also indicate that there remains more work to be done. Do you think the patterns you found, especially with regard to Ohio will be replicated in other states of the Old Northwest?

VG: Hmm, I don't think so....but maybe a little bit in Michigan and Wisconsin.  See Ronald Formisano's article on the former, and very scattered references to black men voting by claiming the "preponderantly white" definition of Ohio Supreme Court. As for Wisconsin, Samuel R. Ward in 1848 said there were 200 black voters there, so who knows?  

The overriding fact here is that "Throughout the antebellum period, Ohio contained the majority of black Midwesterners: 25,279 in 1850, versus 11,262 in Indiana, 5,436 in Illinois, 2,583 in Michigan, 635 in Wisconsin, 333 in Iowa, and a mere 39 in Minnesota" (quoting myself here).  So their options were much greater and had greater impact in Ohio.  Certainly, it would have been significant if one of the other midwestern states had enfranchised black men, but they did not (see Robert Dykstra's Bright Radical Star on how this was fought to a standstill in Iowa).

Let's change direction a little. Your book is called The First Reconstruction, why did you decide on that terminology?

VG: Clearly, Reconstruction in the first instance means a specific period in U.S. history, defined by the federal government's policies and actions (legislation, three constitutional amendments, military occupation) to "reconstruct" the defeated rebel states so they could again participate in the Union.  But over time, the term has come to mean a lot more--ever since Manning Marable and others named the civil rights revolution of the 1950s-60s a "Second Reconstruction." The essence of this broadening is to define "reconstruction" as the periods and process by which the racial caste system of the U.S. is reordered in some basic fashion.  Now I (and others like Steve Hahn), are taking it back further, back to the Founding, to consider whether systematic emancipation in the new states north of Maryland, and the newly-slaveless territories under the Northwest Ordinance, also constituted a reconstruction of racial caste.  My argument is that it did, and that, as in both 1865-1877 and 1955-1975, it had partisan and electoral politics at its center--whether or not African Americans could share in power in our peculiar democratic system, versus the deeply rooted commitment to a herrenvolk republic, still evident today.

That is actually a great point, I was curious about because you so well illustrate the fragility of the right to vote in the United States, with African Americans losing that right temporarily. How much is your work also, maybe, a cautionary tale to our generation to not take voting rights for granted?

VG: It absolutely is that warning, and I have published two op-eds so far making that point, in the New York Daily News, and the Harrisburg Patriot-News, keyed to those particular states. I don't believe there is such a thing as "the rise of American Democracy," I think it's one long, continuous fight. The best theorization of this deep continuity in American politics remains the brilliant article by Rogers Smith and Desmond King in the American Political Science Review (2005), on "Racial Orders in American Political Development."

I feel like we have covered some good ground here. Where do you go from here? What are your future plans?

VG: To be honest, Niels, I really don’t know. I have a great deal of research compiled for a book on black politics post-1877, but I am not sure I want to actually do it. And there are other projects, including one putting El Salvador's revolutionary civil war into the context of the “global Cold War,” to be co-authored with a very good friend and fellow historian. We will have to see.