Oct 21, 2015

Books About the History of Catalonia

Picasso self-portrait during his Blue Period in Barcelona. 

At the last meeting I was asked to identify alternative books on the history of Catalonia. I found a useful article from the Harvard Political Review that may serve as a background for the choice. It was decided to postpone discussion of a book on Catalonian history for the selection of a book to discuss in April 2016.

Here are some books to consider:

The Revolt of the Catalans. a Study in the Decline of Spain 1598-1640  by J. H. Elliott. issued in 1963 (reissued in 1984, out of print), Hardcover $25.70; 44 used & new from $15.79, Unrated,  552 pages of text. Here is a review of the book. We are reading a book by J. H. Elliot for December.
The revolution of Catalonia in 1640 was a signal event in seventeenth-century Europe. Its causes and antecedents - essential for an understanding of the revolution itelf - form the basis of Professor Elliott's study of the Spanish monarchy at this time. They throw remarkable light on the whole question of the decline of Spain in the seventeenth century from its position of pre-eminence in Europe. From the fierce suppression of Catalan bandits by their Castilian overlords during the second decade of the century, Professor Elliott traces the gradual deterioration of relations between the principality of Catalonia and the government in Madrid. He shows how Olivares, the favourite and chief minister of Philip IV, attempted to use Catalan resources to fight Spain's foreign wars, and how the growing tension led ultimately to a revolution, which he suggests played a crucial part in Spain's decline. Professor Elliott's story is almost entirely based on previously unknown documents found in the Spanish national and local archives. These sources enabled him to write the first full-scale treatment of Olivares and his policies. While exciting as a story in its own right, it also stands as a case-history of the perennial struggle between regional liberties and the claims of central governments.
Barcelona by Robert Hughes. 1992, 4.1 stars (Amazon, 34 reviews)/3.9 stars (Goodreads 486 ratings), 592 pages (542 of text) We read his book, The Fatal Shore, some years ago. Here is a brief review of the book. (Identified by The Guardian as one of 10 of the best books on Barcelona.)
Barcelona is Robert Hughes's monumentally informed and irresistibly opinionated guide to the most un-Spanish city in Spain. Hughes scrolls through Barcelona's often violent history; tells the stories of its kings, poets, magnates, and revolutionaries; and ushers readers through municipal landmarks that range from Antoni Gaudi's sublimely surreal cathedral to a postmodern restaurant with a glass-walled urinal. The result is a work filled with the attributes of Barcelona itself: proportion, humor, and seny -- the Catalan word for triumphant common sense.
Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin. 2002, 4.7 stars Amazon (7 reviews)/ 3.74 stars Goodreads (242 ratings), 240 pages. (Identified by The Guardian as one of 10 of the best books on Barcelona.) Toibin was nominated some years ago for the Man Booker Prize.
This book celebrates one of Europe's greatest cities -- a cosmopolitan hub of vibrant architecture, art, culture and nightlife. It moves from the story of the city's founding and its huge expansion in the nineteenth century to the lives of Gaudi, Miro, Picasso, Casals and Dali. It also explores the history of Catalan nationalism, the tragedy of the Civil War, the Franco years and the transition from dictatorship to democracy which Colm Toibin witnessed in the 1970s. Written with deep knowledge and affection, Homage to Barcelona is a sensuous and beguiling portrait of a unique Mediterranean port and an adopted home. 'Toibin has the narrative poise of Brian Moore and the patient eye for domestic detail of John McGahern, but he is very much his own man' Observer 'Having lived in Barcelona off and on since the 70s, Toibin knows all the fascinations of its sensuous Mediterranean history and lifestyle and "the most precious jewels in the city's treasury of bars" 
Catalonia Since the Spanish Civil War: Reconstructing the Nation by Andrew Dowling. 2014. unrated, 272 pages. Here is a review of the book.
Catalonia Since the Spanish Civil War examines the transformation of the Catalan nation in socioeconomic, political, and historical terms, and offers an innovative interpretation of the determinants of its nationalist mobilization. With Franco’s and Spanish nationalism’s victory in 1939, and the consolidation of a long-lasting dictatorship, it appeared certain that the Catalan national movement would be crushed. Yet, this did not happen and Catalan nationalism and identity reemerged at the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975 more firmly rooted than before. The 21st century has been marked by an ever-growing independence movement, culminating in the vast demonstration in the city of Barcelona in July 2010. Andrew Dowling provides multifaceted viewpoints in historic perspective and reflects on possible steps and outcomes for this new pro-independence turn in Catalan nationalism. The themes treated in the book—Franco’s Spain, nationalism, anarchism, Catholicism, communism, and the Catalan role in Spain’s transition to democracy—make this work an essential point of reference for students and researchers in Hispanic studies, modern European history, and political science. Andrew Dowling is a lecturer in Catalan and Spanish history at Cardiff University.
Goodbye, Spain?': The Question of Independence for Catalonia by Kathryn Crameri. 2015, unrated, 224 pages. Here is a review of the book.
Goodbye, Spain? discusses the question of Catalan independence and is fully up-to-date with respect to the most recent elections. Support for independence in the autonomous community of Catalonia has risen significantly since 2005. Opinion polls confirm that the idea of holding a legally binding referendum on independence is now supported by 80 percent of Catalans. Many commentators on nationalism in Western Europe had come to the conclusion that there was no serious threat to the established nation-states from secessionism within their borders. Causes for these striking changes in public sentiment include changes in the Catalan political landscape since 2003, problems of infrastructure, public apathy with the political process, disillusionment with the Spanish government, a rise in anti-Catalan feeling from other Spaniards (and a rise in anti-Spanish feeling among Catalans), the effects of the global financial crisis, and the bumpy ride experienced by Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy. One notable change has been a shift in the dominant discourse of Catalan nationalism from concerns regarding language, culture, and identity toward the political and economic welfare of Catalans.
What's up with Catalonia?: The causes which impel them to the separation edited by Liz Castro. 2013, 4.2 stars (Amazon 17 reviews)/3.73 stars (Goodreads 49 ratings), 224 pages. Here is a review of the book.
On September 11, 2012, on Catalonia’s National Day, one and a half million people from all over Catalonia marched peacefully and joyfully through the streets of Barcelona, behind a single placard: Catalonia: New State in Europe. Fifteen days later, President Artur Mas called snap elections for the Parliament of Catalonia, in order to hold a referendum that would let the people of Catalonia decide their own future. The rest of the world and even Spain were caught by surprise, but the events unfolding in Barcelona have been a long time coming. In this new book, 35 experts explore Catalonia’s history, economics, politics, language, and culture, in order to explain to the rest of the world the fascinating story behind the march, the new legislature, and the upcoming vote on whether Catalonia will become the next new state in Europe.
And I add the book that was considered in the last meeting, resulting in a request for more choices on the history of Catalonia.

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris. 2014, 4.9 stars (Amazon 8 customer reviews))/4.55 stars (Goodreads 11 ratings), 300 pages.
How much does the world know about Catalonia and its role as a great medieval empire and one of Europe's first nation states? In Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective author Simon Harris takes the reader through 1,000 years of Catalan history focusing on the Principality's often difficult relationship with Castile-dominated Spain. This insightful and balanced history gives an insider's background to the current political situation and why Catalonia is currently deciding whether or not it wants to be independent from Spain. 
Simon Harris has lived in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, since 1988, where he is a university-level teacher of English and translator. His main writing topics are Catalan history, language and culture. His first book, Going Native in Catalonia. was published by Native Spain in 2008. He self-published Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective in late 2014. He is currently working on a biography of Catalan president Artur Mas centered on the Catalan independence movement, which he plans to self-publish in spring 2015.
A friend of our member John recommended a few more books on the History of Catalonia

Catalonia: Nation Building Without a State (apparently published in the USA as Catalonia) by Kenneth McRoberts. 2001, 3 stars (Amazon one review)/3.5 stars (Goodreads 4 ratings) 224 pages. The paperback edition, the only one available at the U.S. Amazon is $45.)
Catalonia provides a thorough survey of Catalonia's politics, society, culture, and economy. It traces Catalonia's political and economic insertion within Spain, paying particular attention to the terms of Catalonia's political autonomy.
John's friend wrote:  "I noticed a number of copies are available online for as little as $10."
The History of Catalonia By F. Xavier Hernandez Cardona. I can't find this on Amazon, except in the Catalan language on the French Amazon site.)
John's friend wrote: "published in 2007, which I bought in Barcelona. Online copies were $20+.
Catalan Nationalism: Past and Present by Albert Balcells. 1995, unrated, 248 pages. Amazon prices the paperback edition at $39.96.
Outlines the history of Catalonia, showing how the national and cultural identity of the region peristed despite persecution. This provides the necessary background for the analysis of the contemporary political and cultural situation in Catalonia in the wider context of the European Union. 
John's friend wrote that this is "a more specialized book."
The Basques, the Catalans and Spain: Alternate Routes to Nationalist Mobilization by Daniele Conversi. 2000, 3.33 stars (Goodreads  6 ratings), 338 pages.
This work provides an introduction to Basque and Catalan nationalism. The two movements have much in common, but have differed in the strategies adopted to further their cause. Basque nationalism, in the shape of the military wing of ETA, took the path of violence, spawning an efficient terrorist campaign, while Catalan nationalism is more accommodating and peaceful. Conversi examines and compares the history, motives and methods of these two movements, considering the influence of such aspects of nationalist mobilization as: the choice of language, race and descent; the consequences of large-scale immigration; and the causes and effects of social violence.
John's friend wrote:   A fourth more political science-oriented book covering Catalans and Basques.

One Other Thing

2015 is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. I wanted to get this new book on the great British charter into consideration before the year is up.

Magna Carta: The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter by Dan Jones. 2015, 5 stars but only 5 Amazon rating/4.07 stars by Goodreads on 59 ratings, 144 pages. (only available in Hardback, Amazon quotes at $16.64) Here is Dan Jones discussing the book on NPR's Diane Rehm Show. SELECTED for March 2016
From the New York Times–bestselling author of The Plantagenets comes a beautifully produced account of the signing, impact, and legacy of a document that became one of the most influential statements in the history of democracy 
On a summer's day in 1215 a beleaguered English monarch met a group of disgruntled barons in a meadow by the river Thames named Runnymede. Beset by foreign crisis and domestic rebellion, King John was fast running out of options. On June 15 he reluctantly agreed to fix his regal seal to a document that would change the world. A milestone in the development of constitutional politics and the rule of law, the "Great Charter" established an Englishman's right to Habeas Corpus and set limits to the exercise of royal power. For the first time a group of subjects had forced an English king to agree to a document that limited his powers by law and protected their rights. Dan Jones's elegant and authoritative narrative of the making and legacy of the Magna Carta is amplified by profiles of the barons who secured it and a full text of the charter in both Latin and English.
Catalan Flag

Oct 17, 2015

Discussion of Foner's Short History of Reconstruction

Nine members of the History Book Club met on Wednesday evening, October 14th, at the Kensington Row Bookshop. It was a lovely evening, with a touch of coolness in the air.

Future Books

We began by choosing a book to be discussed in the future. That discussion was based on a blog post suggesting alternative books on international organizations, Scandinavian history, Iberian history, and a late entry of a book of economic history by Angus Deaton, the new Nobel Laureate in Economics. We chose The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Maryland author Lars Brownworth,

Eli the owner-manager of the Bookshop, who has been so helpful to us for the past several years, had put out copies of ten of the books under discussion, which greatly facilitated our decision. I note that quite of few of them were purchased from the Bookshop before we left. Contact Eli (kensington.books@verizon.net) if you want Sea Wolves or any others on the list.

We noted that the Kensington Row Bookshop is the distribution point in the USA for books in the Catalan language and has a reading room with books in the Catalan language. Given their hospitality and their expertise club members felt we should know more about Catalonia. Moreover, Catalan independence from Spain is likely to become an important issue in the coming year given the recent election of a pro-independence local government recently, Catalonia is the economic driving force of Spain today, and has a history which in many ways is different that that of the rest of Spain, Thus we agreed we would like to read a book on Catalan history, but neither of those suggested seemed to fit the bill. Therefore recommendations of good, readable Catalan histories are sought. Add them as comments to this post, or send them to John.Daly@gmail,com.

The Post Civil War Reconstruction

The book chosen for this discussion was A Short History of Reconstruction, Updated Edition by Eric Foner. It is a newly updated abridged edition of the 1988 classic work, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. That book when it was first published won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for History, Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. For many years a professor of history at Colombia University, Foner has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians.

Allen, one of our members, in early August had provided a review of the book in which he followed common practice and divided the Reconstruction into three phases:
  1. Presidential Reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson,
  2. Radical Reconstruction when as a result of the elections of 1868, radical republicans took control of the Congress (and Grant replaced Johnson as President), and
  3. The end of Reconstruction, when Republicans lost enthusiasm for many of the elements of the radical program and the panic of 1873 led to a depression. (We noted that the corruption that had occurred in Reconstruction programs also had political fallout in the Congress and in Republican support for the institutions of Radical Reconstruction.)
A member, starting out the discussion, said that the Civil War had established two things:
  1. That the United States of America is one nation, indivisible (the original Articles of Confederation stressed that the Union was to be perpetual); and
  2. Slavery was no longer to be tolerated in the USA.
While there were physical damages resulting from the war to be repaired, he stressed that the Reconstruction was going to be mainly about institution building.
  1. Political institutions would have to be adjusted. Freedmen would have to be given rights in the new political and legal institutions, while those who had committed treason in their leadership of the Confederacy would have to have their rights as U.S. citizens adjudicated. Temporary government institutions in the former Confederate states would have to be created and then replaced.
  2. Labor related institution had to undergo a major change; slavery was no longer to be legal, and some new alternative to link workers to enterprises had to be created in the formerly slave states. After false starts, eventually tenant farming emerged in the plantation system, in which plantation owners supplied tools and seed, and tenant farmers supplied labor, with the crop divided between the owners and the workers.
  3. Former slaves created a number of important cultural institutions for themselves, such as nuclear families, churches, schools, clubs, and other associations. The tenant farmers had rights to the land that they worked; they housed their families on that land, and grew subsistence crops as well as the market crops which were contractually shared with the plantation owner.
He mentioned that Eric Foner had chosen to set the dates of the Reconstruction as beginning in 1863 (when the Civil War was still far from ended) to 1877 (when Rutherford B. Hays won a hotly contested election by making a deal with the Democrats to not oppose contested electors in return for his withdrawing all troops from the Southern states; the 1876 election was marked by suppression of the black vote in much of the south by the KKK and other white militias, as well as by appointment of electors by State governors who did not vote as the state's citizens had instructed in the election.).

The Impeachment of President Johnson

A member asked for help understanding the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Another, one quite knowledgeable about the U.S. history of the period, responded that he was quite disappointed in the books' sketchy treatment of the impeachment.

Andrew Johnson was from Tennessee, a former slave owner and a Democrat. He was added to the ticket by President Lincoln in the 1864 election to provide balance (and draw votes that would not have gone to Lincoln with a radical Republican running mate). However, the two had quite different views. Here is what one source says on Johnson's views.
Johnson believed the Southern states should decide the course that was best for them. He also felt that African-Americans were unable to manage their own lives. He certainly did not think that African-Americans deserved to vote. At one point in 1866 he told a group of blacks visiting the White House that they should emigrate to another country. 
He also gave amnesty and pardon. He returned all property, except, of course, their slaves, to former Confederates who pledged loyalty to the Union and agreed to support the 13th Amendment. Confederate officials and owners of large taxable estates were required to apply individually for a Presidential pardon. Many former Confederate leaders were soon returned to power. And some even sought to regain their Congressional seniority. 
Johnson's vision of Reconstruction had proved remarkably lenient. Very few Confederate leaders were persecuted. By 1866, 7,000 Presidential pardons had been granted. Brutal beatings of African-Americans were frequent. Still-powerful whites sought to subjugate freed slaves via harsh laws that came to be known as the BLACK CODES. Some states required written evidence of employment for the coming year or else the freed slaves would be required to work on plantations.
Johnson quickly ran into grave legislative difficulties with the Republican Congress, difficulties that were only exacerbated when the election of 1867 returned a still more radical group of Republicans to control the House of Representatives/

(The Military Reconstruction Act, vetoed by Johnson and overridden by the Congress in 1867, divided the South into five military districts under federal control and imposed strict requirements on southern states in order for them to be re-admitted to the Union. Johnson also vetoed the Tenure of Office Act and that veto too was overridden in 1867.) When Johnson sought to remove Generals Sheridan, Sickles and Pope from their commands of southern military districts, radical Republicans charged that he was seeking to repeal Reconstruction. Johnson then sought to fire Secretary of War Stanton. (Johnson continued his defiance of Congress and named General Lorenzo Thomas as the new Secretary of War. Three days later the House of Representatives voted impeachment on a party-line vote of 126–47 on the vague grounds of "high crimes and misdemeanors," with the specific charges to be drafted by a special committee. The Senate failed to convict Johnson by one vote.)

Some of the key players in the Senate trial of Johnson were mentioned.

A member recommended Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy by David O. Stewart as an excellent book on the impeachment.

40 Acres and A Mule

General Sherman on his famous march began distributing land to "contraband" -- slaves who had escaped to the Union forces. Early in Reconstruction this process was emulated by distributing abandoned land and land confiscated from Confederate leaders to former slaves.

We noted that while many slaves had experience growing subsistence crops on land put aside for that purpose on the plantations, those slaves were supplementing rations of corn meal distributed by the plantation owners. That is a much less demanding task than running a working farm. It would perhaps have been asking too much of recent slaves to run working farms unless the Freedman's Bureau had been able to supply a great deal of financial assistance and training to the new farmers.

A member asked who were the people who successfully homesteaded land under the Republican led program opening the west. Another answered that he believed they had been farmers who were moving to new homesteads; they in fact knew how to run a farm.

Early in the Reconstruction, the land that had been distributed to former slaves was taken back by the government and given back to plantation owners.

Restoring the Southern Plantation and Export Agriculture to Productivity

The members spent considerable time discussing this topic.

Source: "U. S. Slavery"
The United States had assumed huge debts during the Civil War, and reducing the debt had to be a major preoccupation for national leaders. That meant restoring production and restoring exports.

Here are data on U.S. cotton exports in the latter half of the 19th century:
  • in 1860 cotton goods were the #1 export of the USA with a value of 58 million 1914 US$
  • in 1880 they were the #3 export with a value of 97 million 1914 US$
  • in 1900 they were the #7 export with a value of 196 million 1914 US$
  • in 1929 they were the #4 export with a value of 364 million 1914 US$
Cotton in the early 20th century was a great business for the United States. The cotton growing are was very productive and the cotton bales could relatively easily be gotten to ports. When the cotton gin was invented and when it became common in the cotton plantations at the end of the 18th century, the most labor intensive part of production of cotton fiber was mechanized: the cost of cotton fiber went way down. This event was simultaneous with the mechanization of cotton cloth production in the industrial revolution, and factories in England and the north of the USA began to produce large quantities of high quality cotton cloth at low costs. They quickly came to dominate global markets, and English cotton cloth was even exported to India -- up till then one the world's greatest producer of cotton cloth.

Members noted that a lot of southern cotton bales were shipped north even during the Civil War. There was a brisk smuggling trade, notably up the Mississippi River. Thus the factories in the northern states were able to continue operating, We thought the Union blockade of Confederate shipping had been more successful in blocking cotton exports to Europe, and to feed its factories the British had begun to grow cotton in Egypt and the Sudan, and had increased cotton production again in India. Thus, after the war, Southern cotton was exported into a global market for cotton fiber and faced competition. Prices tended to go down.

A member noted that there was a lot of cotton produced in the Confederacy during the Civil War that was not smuggled out. In the burning of Charleston, for example, bales of cotton exceeded the capacity of the warehouses, and were stored in the streets of the city. When the fires started in confiscated cotton, they spread to the bales piled in the streets, and from the huge conflagration in those bales, spread to houses, stores and government buildings, essentially destroying the city. Those dangerous bales of cotton would have been exported before the Civil War.

Of course, the plantation owners in the cotton growing region wanted to return their plantations to profitably growing and exporting cotton. They were joined by influential people in the north who saw business profits from cotton. Thus, there was a natural confluence of interests between those who wanted to retire government debt using export duties on cotton, those who wished to obtain profits growing cotton on their plantations, and those who wish to make profits buying and selling cotton and producing cotton cloth. This did not bode well for early Reconstruction efforts to redistribute plantation land and give it to former slaves to run as small farms.

The ultimate solution to institutionalizing labor-plantation relations in the cotton region was share cropping. Increasingly share cropping benefited owners more than share croppers (who were white as well as black). But the government, the intermediaries and the cloth producers also benefited, Even the share cropping families had some security on the land, roofs over their heads, and places to grow some food for the table and even some produce for the market -- something of which many had dreamed as slaves.

Source: "37 maps that explain the American Civil War"
The map source also provided this information:
The Civil War freed the slaves, and Reconstruction temporarily granted them basic political rights. But the settlement of the war made no provision for land reform or economic redistribution. The federally owned land of the West was secured for free (largely white) owner-operated farms, but the basic underpinnings of the Southern plantation economy were left intact. Newly freed slaves owned no land or farm equipment, and had little in the way of formal education. With Southern governments from the 1870s onward uninterested in providing any of those things, most of the rural black population was forced into a particularly unremunerative form of tenant farming known as sharecropping. In exchange for land to till, seeds to plant, and basic equipment, the sharecropper would do all the work and hand a large share of the proceeds over to the landowner. Discriminatory enforcement of laws against "vagrancy," barriers to education and the professions, and discrimination on railroads and other public accommodations made it exceptionally difficult for sharecroppers to move from job to job or bargain for better conditions.
There was another means for whites to obtain black labor. Blacks were arrested for vagrancy or other minor crimes and quickly brought before a justice of the peace who convicted and fined them. The person convicted would then be required to pay the fine and court costs, and if he did not have the funds to do so would be placed in jail; few could pay. The sheriff would then rent out the labor of the jailed (almost entirely black) men in the form of chain gangs. Thus mine, factory and plantation owners could rent chain gangs to do the labor needed at very low costs -- an armed sheriff's deputy guard would be included in the deal. (The club discussed a book on this topic some time ago -- Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.)

(We did not talk much about the other plantation crops -- rice, sugar cane and tobacco -- but it is not unreasonable to assume that similar processes occurred in the regions in which they were produced for the international market.)

The Piedmont and Highlands of the South

These highlands were less suited to the export crops discussed above. In consequence, they were held in small farms rather than large plantations, and the white farmers living on them had few if any slaves. Before the Civil War, these white farmers often differed from the plantation owning class on many issues, but it was the latter that obtained political power. 

The position of these white, small-farm owners during the Civil was conflicted. They were the ones that seceded from Virginia to create West Virginia and who brought the new state of West Virginia into the Union, providing troops for the Union forces. But many also supported and fought for the Confederacy.

Those remaining in the southern states after the Civil War again sought political power on the state level, but eventually were again to loose influence in favor of the richer plantation owning class.


Racism was and remains the original sin of the United States of America. Northerners were racist as well as whites in the south, and relatively few in the north were comfortable giving voting rights to the freed slaves. While women by the hundreds moved to the south to teach in the new schools opened for black children, there were limits to how much whites in the north were willing to be taxed to help blacks in the south to recover from slavery.

The Ku Klux Klan and similar white militias were institutionalized in the south as a southern white response to the Union's efforts to improve the status of southern blacks, and especially to the increased political and economic clout that the black population was gaining in the south. The KKK was willing to use large scale violence to enforce the racism of southern whites. When Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the Union troops from the south there was no force there capable of protecting the black population from the southern militias.

A member asked if, since there were many black Union soldiers, there had not been black armed resistance in the south to the KKK and similar white groups, The response was that indeed there had been battles between armed blacks and armed whites in some places in the south after the Civil War, but the KKK and its allies established dominance.

Short Attention Span in the North, Long Term Aid Requirements in the South and Southern White Resistance

Reconstruction ended 12 years after the end of the Civil War. That is not much time to remake a social order, to rebuild political and economic institutions, and to undo the damage done to a people by centuries in slavery. Yet a member suggested that the American public seems often to tire of difficult tasks of this kind. Think of the decision not to join the League of Nations after World War I, the election of President Eisenhower to end the war in Korea, the antiwar movement which resulted in a chaotic departure of U.S. diplomats and military from Vietnam, and the election of Barack Obama who promised to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was justly pointed out that there were important reasons that Reconstruction ended. The Union military force of volunteers ended, to be replaced by professional military services. The professional army was cut in size again and again in the post Civil War period until it numbered some 35,000; they were barely enough to garrison the south or fight the Indian wars in the west, but not sufficient to do both. Then the panic of 1873 led to a five year depression, and adding to a huge debt from the Civil War that had still to be paid, increased tax payer unwillingness to finance Reconstruction programs.

A member asked if there were attractive investment opportunities for private investors during this period that also competed with funding of government Reconstruction programs. Obviously, a lot of money was being invested in new railroads and in the development of lands newly opened by those railroads.

Unfortunately, it can take a lot longer than 12 years to change key political, economic or social institutions. Ask a Russian or a Ukranian how long it is taking to build successful new political and economic institutions in those countries after the fall of Communism. Similarly, institution building efforts in the foreign assistance program have often proven to have taken much longer than originally estimated, or to have failed entirely. (Americans may have underestimated the long term investments that are required as the Reconstruction began, as many still do today.)

Southern whites were not ignorant of their own interests, and wanted to keep political power, to maximize their income and wealth, and to maintain the antebellum social stratification and their privileged place within it. Many were skilled politicians and could use those skills to protect their interests. Others had long experience and good contacts for making money; some of whom still were relatively affluent after the war, and money talks. Moreover, the southern whites were not adverse to using violence to achieve their goals.

The combination of Union unwillingness to stay the course, the intrinsic difficulty of achieving the changes that the radical Republicans hoped for, and the effective resistance of many southern whites to the Reconstruction, eventually gravely limited its success.


One of the pleasures of these meetings is that we enjoy getting off track and talking occassionally (as Monty Pyshon might say) about something completely different. A couple of members had seen the new movie Rosenwald. IMDB describes the movie as
a documentary about how Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the son of an immigrant peddler who rose to head Sears, partnered with Booker T. Washington to build 5,400 Southern schools in African American communities in the early 1900s during the Jim Crow era. Rosenwald also built YMCAs and housing for African Americans to address the pressing needs of the Great Migration. The Rosenwald Fund supported great artists like Marian Anderson, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and Jacob Lawrence. Among those interviewed are civil rights leaders Julian Bond, Ben Jealous and Congressman John Lewis, columnists Eugene Robinson and Clarence Page, Cokie Roberts, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rosenwald school alumni writer Maya Angelou and director George C. Wolfe and Rosenwald relatives.
Of course, the movie is relevant to the Reconstruction, or at least to the work that still needed to be done to help the victims of slavery as late as the early 20th century. It is noted that the  Ridgeley Rosenwald School in Prince Georges County (next door to our club's county) is one of the best restored Rosenwald schools in the country, and likely to be worth a visit.

Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy today is one of America's foremost authors, whose books include The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, and The Great SantiniTwo of his novels, The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, were made into Oscar-nominated filmsOur member, Joe. is going to a party in South Carolina to celebrate Conroy's 70th birthday. Joe told us a little about meeting Conroy when Joe was a 24 year old, just starting his teaching career and Conroy was a 15 year old student who had been assigned to Joe's writing class.

Joe ran a hard class. Students had to make a book report every two weeks, and had to complete a class project. They also had to write a letter to the editor, and correct and improve it until it was publishable. (One week, late in the semester, the letters to the editor sections of the Washington Post and the Washington Star were completely devoted to the letters from students in the class.)

Conroy selected an analysis of William Falkner's novels for his semester project. Evry other week he gave a book report on a Falkner novel. The final project report was so good it not only rated a top grade, but Joe told Conroy that he should become a professional writer. Joe also alerted the school principal that Conroy was exceptional -- worth keeping an eye on during the future.

(How many of us who have taught have the privilege of teaching such a student, or indeed were capable of teaching him so well.)

Final Comment

Some members read Foner's Short History of the Reconstruction while others read the longer Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. The opinions of members of the shorter book were all over the map -- A couple of members loved it (and went out to buy the longer book to read in the future), while others found the book hard to follow and too condensed. Note the comment above by one member who found the lack of coverage of Andrew Johnson's impeachment a major failure of the book.

The club has read a number of books relating to the Civil war in the four years of observance of the 150th anniversary of that war. It seemed appropriate in 2015, 150 years after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox to General Grant, to shift attention to the Reconstruction. Historian Foner is probably the best regarded writer on the Reconstruction.

Note that the rules for book selection are that the book should be relatively short to be easily read in a month, that it should if possible be available in paperback, and of course that it should be selected by members attending. Thus the longer Foner books on the Reconstruction seemed not to fit our guidelines. Moreover, two members who had read the short history recommended it strongly to the other members of the club. While the book's value was not agreed upon in the meeting, compromises sometimes fall short of excellence in historical works as in other spheres.

Other Materials of Possible Interest Related to the Reconstruction

A member posted three times on his blog on the book:
Open Yale offers a course titled THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION ERA, 1845-1877. It is taught by Professor David W. Blight and is free online. The online material includes a syllabus, and 17 sessions each with some printed material and a streaming video of Prof. Blight's lecture.

The Wikipedia entry on the Reconstruction Era.

Note on the Book Club

The History Book Club has been meeting monthly in Montgomery County, Maryland since July 2002, While typically 10 to 20 members show up to discuss books in person, the mailing list includes about 100 people who are informed of the club's selections and who receive notification of books selected by the club members for reading.g

The club blog has just passed 10,000 page views, and recent summaries of book discussions are viewed 100 to 200 times; some reach 400 page views or more. We are delighted that others find our posts interesting. All are welcome.