Reconstruction Unbound: American Worldviews in a Period of Promise and Conflict, 1865-1874

David Matthew Prior, University of South Carolina


In studying the United States' Reconstruction, historians have long devoted their energies to examining conflicts in and about the southern states. These conflicts, and the often brilliant literature devoted to them, cannot and should not be trivialized in understanding U.S. history during and after the Civil War. The focus on the South has, however, inadvertently led scholars to misrepresent how two leading political factions, Democrats and northern Republicans, thought about and argued over Reconstruction. Democrats and northern Republicans, despite all their disagreements with each other, both attempted to situate the reconstruction of the southern states in a context that was at once national and global. In particular, Democrats and northern Republicans approached developments in and policies towards the South as part of 'America's' engagement with historically-transcendent struggles of civilization against barbarism and republicanism against despotism and aristocracy. For northern Republicans, the abolition of slavery, Union victory in the Civil War, and policies towards the South constituted one of America's great contributions to the onward march of freedom and progress across the globe. For their Democratic critics, including many former Confederates, this was a catastrophic period in which northerner Republicans destroyed America's ability to embody and protect civilization and freedom by assaulting white supremacy. Yet, in order to bolster their arguments about the South, Democrats and northern Republicans each had to also demonstrate that they, and not their rivals, best understood the sources of, possibilities for, and threats to civilization and republicanism. Here, they found it both natural and necessary to look beyond the South even as they remained concerned with it. In recovering the ways in which these two groups maintained outlooks that were simultaneously sectional, national, and global, this dissertation sheds new light on the political and ideological conflicts of the Civil War Era, the study of modern nationalism, and the transnational turn in historical scholarship.