Review: Steven Hahn and Kate Masur

Approaches to the Political Culture of Reconstruction

A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2003)

An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. by Kate Masur (2010)

Post-revisionist scholars of American Reconstruction emphasized how political and social change after the American Civil War failed to galvanize a radical transformation in the lives of black Americans. They found instead that hardships for freed men and women under Reconstruction had a great deal more in common with slavery than what revisionist scholars had described. Influenced by the lively econometric debates of the 1970s in the field of American slavery, this generation of historians laid great emphasis on how the economic conditions of slavery in antebellum America persisted in Reconstruction, and highlighted how economic dependence significantly circumscribed the meaning of freedom for previously enslaved men and women. [1]

As this review will attempt to show, both Steven Hahn and Kate Masur approach the period of Reconstruction with significantly more emphasis on the transformation of black political life than post-revisionist scholars. Both Hahn and Masur are invested in exploring the nature of political participation by freed men and women in American Reconstruction. As their works suggests, the emergence and further transformation of the political landscape in Reconstruction did present opportunities for black men and women unprecedented in antebellum America. Despite the reality of economic dependence, both Hahn and Masur show how this period allowed for a politically meaningful and lasting articulation of demands for freedom and equality.

Steven Hahn: The Roots of Black Nationalism

Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, published in 2003, covers the history of political mobilization of black Americans in the rural South, from the antebellum period into the early twentieth century.[2] This expansive arch allows Hahn to present a genealogy of black separatist politics rooted in the social and political bonds created in antebellum black rural life. Most specifically, Hahn’s goal is to argue that the Marcus Garvey movement, which sought to develop an economically independent black community, is representative of a key political demand: black autonomy. This principle organizes Hahn’s work, and provides continuity in black political consciousness across A Nation, from the antebellum period and Civil War (Part I), to the formal process of politicization under Radical Reconstruction (Part II), and into the transformation black politics after Reconstruction and the Great Migration (Part III).

A Nation under Our FeetUsing innumerable documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau archives, A Nation explores the experience, consciousness and mobilization of black Americans across the rural South, from East Texas to Southside Virginia. Hahn explains that slaves rooted their politics in a worldview shared by “the West African societies from which they originally came” and “most rural societies in the preindustrial world.”[3] This statement is key for his argument, as it presents the development of an independent black political consciousness, one that was not “reactive” to Republican Party policies. However, Hahn’s emphasis on rural life as the key politicizing experience of black Americans overshadows any of the contributions informed by Northern, urban experiences. By defining the parameters of his investigation to the American South, Hahn avoids having to delve into the political contributions by black Americans in an urban setting. When he does describe the presence of the “emerging urban black community” it functions to point out how opportunities for political participation in the North were bound up with the designs of the Republican Party.[4]

To support his claim that self-governance and separatism were central to the black political tradition,[5] Hahn cites the role black families and kinship networks played in both antebellum and post-abolition political association. He characterizes the development of rumor networks across plantations, religious fellowships and the contests over deployment of labor as explicitly political acts.[6] Arguably operating with an expansive definition of politics, Hahn asks to his readers to “look backward” from Reconstruction into the antebellum period in order to understand how these efforts by black slaves were politically indispensable. Hahn argues that it was under this period of initiation to American life when slaves developed a “proto-peasant consciousness,”[7] i.e., by learning lessons of self-reliance and political negotiation slaves gained an initial understanding of their capacity as political actors.

In the post-abolition period, Hahn goes to great lengths to show that although it was Republican Party agents who were responsible for opening the channels of political participation in the South, American blacks mobilized their community networks to influence the shape of Reconstruction. Hahn successfully shows how family ties were integral to support political initiation, including but not limited to the Banner family in the Hamburg Lodge of the Union League in North Carolina;[8] the Yancey family in the Leasburg League in North Carolina;[9] and the Medlock family in the Union League in Texas.[10] This evidence bolsters Hahn’s argument that black initiatives relied on the strength of community-based networks; it fails, however, to elucidate why separatist ideas within these networks were more powerful than liberal integrationist perspectives.

Overall Hahn is not confident that racially integrated political projects in the nineteenth century had much chance for success, but there are few moments when A Nation raises the prospect of a successful integrated political movement. “Political biracialism,” Hahn writes, “did have its moments in east-central Texas. And we must be sure not to ignore or dismiss them.”[11] Hahn describes how Union League organizers, a small collection of carpetbaggers, white Unionists (many of them German immigrants), alongside black majorities in Texas (especially in east-central Texas) enable Republicans to wrest control of local governments and send their representative to the state legislature. Not only did these local governments withstand Redemption but, in the years that followed, they became more firmly entrenched, and on occasion more militant and more prone to influence by black Americans. Evidencing a commitment to Republican Party efforts, this instance does raise the issue as to whether or not biracial—or even, as in this case, multiracial—political mobilization centered on radical Republican ideals is also part of the history of black political consciousness.

As a whole, Hahn presents a genealogy of black political consciousness as wholly apart from nineteenth-century bourgeois radicalism. Distancing himself from what he has labeled as “liberal approaches” to Reconstruction, Hahn’s work aims to provide an independent history of black experience and black politics. Although a scholarly work with innumerable contributions, Hahn’s approach problematically treats American blacks as a monolith. And even though Hahn himself recognizes that, for example, black politicians in the rural South pursued “goals of a nascent black bourgeoisie,” he does not explore the implications of these emergent class divisions, but, rather, asserts that even these politicians had come to “see their destinies as inextricably linked to those of the rural masses.”[12]

By treating black Americans without significant divisions in their political imaginations, Hahn implies that the common experience of Southern rural slavery and its aftermath did not produce competing responses by American blacks. However, just as southern white Americans did not speak with one single voice, freed men and women also differed in their political and social outlooks. Elected black officials, sharecroppers, editors, ministers, et al., were divided by their political visions—divisions that if examined could have problematized his approach.

Kate Masur: Beyond Political Equality

Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land focuses on the process of Reconstruction in Washington DC.[13] In contrast to Hahn’s study, the integrated urban setting in An Example for All the Land provides ample opportunity for Masur to explore social and political relations between white and black actors. Masur argues that as black men and women moved to the capital (mostly from the upper Southern states of Maryland and Virginia), and as enlisted men populated the ranks of the Union army, Washington emerged as the center of debates about emancipation, freedom and equal rights. An Example focuses on the actions by black Americans in Washington that helped define their civic status during an after emancipation.

An ExampleIn the postbellum United States, Washington D.C. had a diverse black community made up of a free black elite, the newly emancipated, and northern migrants. One of the strengths of Masur’s book is her portrayal of the divisions within this black community reflecting the different social and political visions at work. To support her observation, she notes how black activists “debated the importance and propriety of independent black political organizations ever since the principle of racial equality had begun making inroads in American political culture.” At the 1869 National Convention of Colored Men in Washington, black Americans publicly argued about whether or not to continue building a black “equal rights league” as way of “[binding] the colored people together in one common cause,” or if “there should be no colored leagues but simply leagues of American citizens, irrespective of color.”[14] This careful approach to divisions among black Americans provides a useful contrast to the monolithic portrayal of the black community by Hahn.

Masur treats the radical period of Reconstruction as a veritable break. She highlights the transformative impact black enfranchisement had, which resulted in Republican office holders. She argues that enfranchisement galvanized black demands for public employment provided the condition for a spike in what she terms “upstart claims,” i.e., the demand of rights and privileges ahead of legislation.[15]

Citing multiple instances of black demands for social equality, including transportation boycotts and petition-writing, Masur successfully argues that free black men and women in Washington challenged the limited notion of “political equality” and pushed for a broader definition of ‘civil rights.'[16]

Similar to Hahn, Masur sees electoral participation as insufficient and describes the persistence of racist attitudes targeting black Americans.[17] Masur underlines how gains by free men and women during radical Reconstruction provoked deep hostilities by government officials resulting in political elites “[organizing] around a shared contempt for black men’s newly acquired political power.”[18] By way of equivocation and arguments against “corruption” and “mismanagement of the city,” white political elites attacked the efforts of black Washingtonians. Embedded in the general conservative turn in Reconstruction politics on national scale between 1871 and 1878, federal lawmakers successfully defined blacks as a problematic and divisive element in the body politic, and thus successfully mobilized for the eradication of local self-government in the DC.

The Future of Reconstruction History

A missing element to both Hahn and Masur’s narratives is the effect of class divisions among the black community. Although noting the degree of independence gained by property-owning blacks, Masur explicitly counterposes “race” against “class” as key to her analysis. This unfortunate framework treats these social divisions as separate “identities,” as opposed to exploring how racial divisions affected class formation or how class formation may have affected racial divisions. In many ways the racially integrated urban setting of Washington with an emergent black bourgeoisie is—potentially—a particularly fruitful region in which to investigate how class formation affected demands made under the banner of “social equality:” Is economic inequality also challenged by this demand? Or are these concerns for some but not all black Americans? The lack of investment in this question seems like a lost opportunity in Masur’s work.

Untouched in many ways by both A Nation under Our Feet and An Example for All the Land is the question of the relationship between economic conditions and social transformation—or, if we return to a post-revisionist framework: how exactly does economic dependence limit social freedom? Masur’s observations about the panic of 1873 as a backdrop to the conservative turn in Reconstruction gestures at this possibility as do Hahn’s observations about an emerging political elite in the South. Despite Hahn’s insistence on the black rural experience, he has surprisingly little to say about the influence of the institution of sharecropping on black (and white) political consciousness. In a brief descriptive account he notes,

Poorer white landowners reliant on the labor of their households and neighbors, together with white tenants, sharecroppers, and wage hands, often welcomed the departure of African Americans whose services they did not need or with whom they may have vied for employment; if nothing else, they did not readily enlist in the campaign of containment. [19]

This insight would have been a particularly productive beginning for an investigation on how racial biases were informed by the impoverished material conditions of white sharecroppers, and how these, in turn, may have shaped the attitudes of black American toward whites. There was room for Hahn here to explore how this misplaced hostility affected the formation of a black political consciousness. This too seems like a lost opportunity in Hahn’s work.

Perhaps in response to the post-revisionist turn, both Hahn and Masur pay special attention to placing black political participation at the center of their narratives—however, Masur is relatively more successful in presenting a nuanced portrayal of differing aspirations and political imaginations within the black community. Hahn, although more ambitious in scope, concentrates on the ideological continuity across decades and thus underlines a shared perspective across the black community. Both works however, set the bar high for scholars invested in advancing the field in the twenty-first century.


[1] For a thoughtful and succinct account of Reconstruction historiography, see Eric Foner, “Reconstruction Revisited,” Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 82- 100.
[2] Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
[3] Ibid., p. 17.
[4] Ibid., p. 107.
[5] Ibid., p. 8.
[6] Ibid., p. 15.
[7] Ibid., p. 44. The influence of Sidney Mintz is evident in this part of Hahn’s argument. See Sidney W. Mintz, “The Rural Proletariat and the Problem of Rural Proletarian Consciousness,” Journal of Peasant Studies 1 (April 1974): 291-325.
[8] A Nation, p. 188.
[9] Ibid., p. 183.
[10] Ibid., p. 165.
[11] Ibid., p. 397.
[12] Ibid., 210.
[13] Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C., (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
[14] Ibid., p. 242.
[15] Ibid., p. 7.
[16] Ibid., pp. 106-107.
[17] See A Nation, p. 400.
[18] An Example, p. 194.
[19] A Nation, p., 357.

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