Dave’s exegesis on the varied meanings of “reconstruction” is similar to my experience with investigating the meaning of “compromise” before the Civil War. That term has several applications in everyday life and legislation, but changes to its meaning were responses to circumstances, not to some abstract and mystical philosophical process. The sectional crisis imbued “compromise” with a particular application and resonance in public discourse.
Thank you again for your excellent questions. Let me add a few comments.
I agree with most of your post, but I do have a question and a qualification.
I. I am glad you pointed out the difference between using a 20th-century term—“Civil Rights Movement”—to refer to the antebellum period and using a 19th-century term—“Reconstruction”—to describe efforts in the 20th or 21st centuries. I had wanted to make this distinction in my follow-up post, but I was already taking up too much space. So here I am again taking up more space.
Brook writes that “reconciliation required negotiating at least two different notions of justice.” I couldn’t agree more, it’s why I argued that the period required arriving at common meaning of freedom that a majority could live with. Today’s headlines scream at us to seek guidance in the past through scholarship and reflection. Lefties aren’t the only ones who write from a cause, an issue, a concern about the world they live in -- every historian does. That’s not presentism or anachronistic so long as it avoids confirmation bias.
I cannot address all of the points you raise, but let me take a stab at addressing your concern about unstated assumptions by looking again at the title of Kate Masur’s excellent book, this time its lead: UNTIL JUSTICE BE DONE. I think that one of your points—correct me if I am wrong—is that many write today as if the meaning of “justice”—past and present--has already been decided rather than being contested and subject to revision.
Right on, Brook Thomas. Anachronisms abound in analogies like this as labels get stretched far beyond their utility. Yet Brook doesn’t explore why this is happening, and I don’t blame him, because doing so questions the premises of the thread, which puts one at a disadvantage in having to pursue a lengthy exercise in confronting core assumptions. I’m tackling it here, with sincere apologies for mammoth length, but concision is near impossible under these circumstances. The burden falls upon the skeptic, so if you can stick this out please bear with me.
I agree with much of what Lois Leveen has to say in reply to David Pryor's post about uses of the term "Reconstruction." But I wonder if her final reference to Kate Masur's new book is not an indication of the questions David raises about the appropriateness of using a term used to describe one period to describe another.
As someone who writes primarily for audiences beyond academia, I think you're right to wonder what we can assume the general public knows about "Reconstruction" in any context. But I suppose your questions underscore that scholars do not entirely live with certainty about Reconstruction, either.