Reconstructing Reconstruction-era history

Alexa Nielson

Professor Steven Hahn of NYU (Weber State University)

Pulitzer Prize winner in History and Bancroft Prize winner in American History Professor Steven Hahn delivered the 20th Lampros Lecture at WSU, in what was an opportunity to hear someone who knows the field back and forth talk about Reconstruction and American politics.

Hahn teaches at New York University and earned his Ph.D in history at Yale in 1979. He has always been interested and engaged in the histories of slavery, race and empire in the nineteenth century.

On the topic of the lecture, Hahn noted that no one ever gets nostalgic about the Reconstruction Era.

“It was not a pretty picture,” Hahn said. “It showed how difficult it is for us Americans to resolve deeply divisive issues through electoral means. Most of the events of Reconstruction happened outside of the formal political process.”

The Reconstruction Era was a confusing time period for many Americans both then and now. Freedmen were given the right to vote and hold office, the Confederacy was put under the army’s rule and carpetbaggers from the North looked for economic opportunities in the South.

Hahn noted that the standard historical narrative of Reconstruction is not kind.

“The first movie blockbuster, ‘Birth of a Nation,’ portrayed the Reconstruction government as drunk, corrupt and stupid and made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klansmen fighting against them,” Hahn said.

He also noted that the era is tainted by revisionism from American scholars, and that today’s politics have echoes of true-to-life Reconstruction era politics.

During the era, alcohol-fueled scuffles and shouting matches in between candidates helped define Election Day politics. Additionally, the time was ruled by militarism, military occupation and multiple governments attempting to seize power, events Hahn drew global parallels to in today’s world.

The 20th Lampros Lecture helped put into perspective a connection between a dark, controversial time in U.S. history and today’s political climate.