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Revising Reconstruction

| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

What happened outside Washington provides a fresh take on the post-Civil War years in Douglas R. Egerton's new book “The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era” (Bloomsbury Press).

A professor of history at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the author of six previous books, Egerton uses “progressive” here not in its current political sense but in the sense of efforts toward delivering on the promise of liberty for all Americans. Exploring why Reconstruction didn't fulfill that promise for freed Southern blacks, he looks at not just Washington politics — the focus of most prior histories of Reconstruction — but at state and local politics and “some 1,500 African-American officeholders, in both the North and South, who fought entrenched white resistance,” according to the publisher.

Taking the lead in efforts to help freed Southern blacks, Republicans were following the late President Abraham Lincoln's moral leadership but also saw political opportunity in the South. By 1870, Congress had given black men the right to vote and had its first black senator and representative, a black jurist had taken a seat on South Carolina's Supreme Court and blacks had been elected to hundreds of local offices.

One key point for Egerton in explaining why such gains proved ephemeral is an unintended consequence of Lincoln dropping Maine abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin from his 1864 re-election ticket in favor of Tennessee's Andrew Johnson. As a Wall Street Journal review noted, Johnson's succession to the presidency after Lincoln's assassination “put Reconstruction in the hands of a racist, formerly slave-owning alcoholic who sabotaged efforts to extend civil rights — and physical protection — to newly freed slaves.”

And when the presidential election of 1876 didn't produce a clear Electoral College majority for Democrat Samuel Tilden or Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, the price demanded by former Confederate states' Democrats in Congress for electing Hayes was federal troops' withdrawal from the South. Combined with waning Northern interest in Reconstruction, that paved the way for racial oppression, often violent, to continue, not ending until the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

To Egerton, Reconstruction was sensible, admirable policy defeated by a violent racist minority — and thus, a missed opportunity. Had Reconstruction turned out differently, the nation might have been spared much turmoil and blacks might have been able to exercise their full civil rights before the 19th century ended.


“Wounded: A New History of the Western Front in World War I” by Emily Mayhew (Oxford University Press USA) — Medical advances that have enabled more U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive what once would have been fatal wounds build on innovations in military medicine that quickly arose a century ago amid the horrors of the Great War. The author, a research associate at Imperial College, London, and an examiner at its medical school, draws on letters, diaries, memoirs and journals to trace actual World War I cases from battlefield to stretcher, aid station, ambulance, operating tent and beyond. This system of quickly beginning treatment near the front lines saved millions of lives while dealing with the effects of new weapons such as poison gas and recognizing not just physical injuries but mental ones, too. Along the way are individual stories that a Weekly Standard review called “inspiring and often deeply moving.”

“The Cure in the Code: How 20th Century Law is Undermining 21st Century Medicine” by Peter W. Huber (Basic Books) — Spotlighting an area where federal laws and regulations lag far behind technological innovation, the author, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, maintains that medicine's rapidly developing capacity to decode individual human genomes and tailor patients' treatments accordingly — as with breast cancer — is being hindered by what the publisher calls “outdated drug-approval protocols developed decades ago during medicine's long battle with the infectious epidemics of the past.” He urges doing away with FDA-mandated large-scale clinical trials in favor of “adaptive trials” in which patients and doctors digitally share what they learn from modifying treatments. He also calls for reforming intellectual-property rights and tort law to encourage investment in this new “molecular medicine.” In his view, it's a matter of whether or not America will lead the world in treating such diseases as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

“Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World” by Daniel Hannan (Broadside Books) — The author, a British member of the European Parliament, views “Western values” as a misnomer, insisting that those cherished rights and liberties should be credited specifically to speakers of English — the British, who spread them worldwide via their empire, and their American cousins. He points out that America's Founders thought of themselves as Englishmen wronged by an errant king and Parliament, not as revolutionaries, and that most of the rest of the world today groups Brits and Yanks together, thinking of them almost as one nationality. Starting with the 10th-century origins of English common law, he traces that shared political heritage through its milestones and landmarks — the Magna Carta, the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, the U.S. Constitution. And he covers how that shared heritage contrasts sharply with that of continental Europe, where statism is on the rise.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or

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