Note: Not too long ago I finished a manuscript that will appear in next March’s Journal of the Civil War Era. It addresses particular counterfactual queries concerning the course of Reconstruction and the policy pursued by Republicans. I have long been interested in Reconstruction policy, especially at the national level, as my 1998 book, The Reconstruction Presidents, suggests, although those readers who peruse the pages of The Political Education of Henry Adams (1996) will find it also addresses Reconstruction from the perspective of one of its critics. Thus what follows is in response to recent discussions, but it also reflects a far longer interest that has its most recent expression in the above-mentioned manuscript.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Reconstruction history to me is the degree to which some historians speculate about the what-ifs of Reconstruction in their eagerness to believe that what happened was not largely preordained if not inevitable. Then again, historians also don’t like to consider that something’s inevitable: whether a certain outcome to a historical process was inevitable sits along the same spectrum as speculating about what-ifs, for it’s useless to ponder “what if …” if something was inevitable. Moreover, the what-ifs we choose to explore reveal a lot about what we would “like” to have happened, and all too often one’s tale grounded in considerations of the counterfactual conforms closely to one’s personal fantasy about what ought to have happened.