Why Study Reconstruction?

The Reconstruction era was a pivotal moment in American history. Civil rights were set in motion as Americans grappled to rebuild after the division and trauma of the Civil War, raising essential questions about freedom and democracy.

Transcript (Text)

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We're never fully going to understand who are you, who am I, how did we get here, what are the problems that we're facing, unless we understand the histories that produced that.

Reconstruction, to my mind, is the most vital period of American history.

People were making history out of the ashes of war, creating an entirely new country.

The transfer from slavery to political liberty, practically overnight, had never happened anywhere else in history. This was a bold set of aspirations.

And it set in motion civil rights, notions of equal citizenship, the empowerment of black people, the idea that white people and black people could work together, could live together, could govern together, could love together, in a way that was unprecedented in American history. That was not going to be accomplished in 15 years, but it set in motion a series of things that we're still wrestling with today as a society.

Who is a citizen? What should the rights of citizens be? What are the relationships between the Federal government and the state governments? How do you deal with terrorism? That's a Reconstruction issue.

Those central questions of who is an American, what does it mean to be an American, and what is the American government, and therefore what is America, are really laid down from 1865, forward.

But all of this was happening in a society that had to face this, and try to deal with this, and define all of this, practically overnight in the wake of an all-out war.

It's a story of how ordinary people, facing very difficult odds, try to create a better society, try to create a functioning democracy, try to create a semblance of equality in this country.

In its highs and its lows, and its tragedy, its corruption, it's just a remarkable story and every student of American history should know it.

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