Review: A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction

by James Durney on October 19, 2009 · 0 comments

A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction (Civil War America)
by Mark Wahlgren Summers

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (September 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807833045
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807833049

ADangerousStirFearParanoiaAndTheMakingOfReconstructionPeople who read history know how the story ends.  We have read the last chapter of the mystery novel and are now working are way to the inevitable conclusion.  Knowing the story can result in seeing history as fixed and the participant’s actions as predestined.  We forget that they have not read the final chapter.  They do not see a predestined course to an inevitable conclusion.  Things were no clearer, to them, than they are today.  Both see a myriad of possibilities fraught with perils real and imagined.  The media works to attract business not to tell the truth.  Personal considerations, public prejudiced, irrational fears and silly unreasonable expectations play major roles in what did or did not happen.  All to often, this gets lost in the history of large political events.

Mark Summers brings all the fear, unreasonable expectations, paranoia, public prejudices and media overstatements together to produce a unique look at Reconstruction.  This is not a clear dispute between Presidential and Congressional Reconstruction policies.  This is not a contest between the radical and moderate/conservative Republicans in Congress.  This is not politics “as usual” between Northern Democrats and Republicans over control of the country.  Yes, all of this is occurring and the author includes it in the proper perspective.  What sets this book apart is the author’s concentration on these fears, delusions and assumptions that occurred in making and unmaking of Reconstruction policy.

America had just put down a rebellion.  For the first time, a president is murdered.  Emancipation freed millions of blacks but what would happen to them?  The government was badly in debt, taxes high and thousands of men were invalids.  Thousands more were trying to put their lives back together, adjusting to civilian life after the years of war. Much of the nation was in ruins and business had to switch from military to civilian production.  Over all of this is a series of options and legal questions on reconstruction that victory had not settled.  The author does an excellent job of covering the legal questions and political problems the nation faces in 1866.  This very impressive foundation, allows readers to understand the reasoning behind the many parties decisions.  Of equal importance is the state of newspapers, North and South, during this time.  Highly partisan, reporting speculation as fact while often lacking resources to do more than copy stories from other papers, they play a major role in shaping public opinion.  Often, the newspapers do little more than confirm the prejudices of their subscribers, echoing the position of the party to which they belong.

The President and the Congress cannot work together.  The public fears a second civil war.  The President leads an army fighting for a Congress of Northern Democrats, Copperheads and former rebels saving the nation from radicals and preserving the Constitution.  A Congressional army of state militia and GAR veterans fights to preserve the victory of 1865.  Did it happen, no it did not.  At the time, people did not know if it would or not happen and newspapers use a lot of ink reporting this story.

This book takes us back to the fears and dangers of the years immediately following the Civil War.  We see Reconstructions not as a failed process or a conflict between branches of government but as a real moving item.  All sides are stumbling in the dark, unsure but determined to save America from “her enemies”, whoever they might be.

This book will challenge you and make you think.  The author is able to make the questions and issues understandable in a few pages.  Fully footnoted, some of the statements are surprising for their venom, with a good selection of Thomas Nast cartoons to illustrate the times.  This is not a quick read BUT it is an important contribution to our history of Reconstruction and is a necessary addition to your library.

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