PositiveThe New York Review of BooksAs the dean of Reconstruction studies, Foner is the ideal scholar to produce a history of the three amendments added to the Constitution during the period—amendments so powerful as to justify the book’s title, The Second Founding. He shows how each of them had its origins in the antislavery constitutionalism of the pre–Civil War abolitionist movement. Yet each was also the product of the specific moment in which it was proposed and ratified ... Foner places Reconstruction within the setting of a much older struggle for justice in the antislavery movement, and he sees later campaigns for civil rights as building on their predecessors. He posits an enduring conflict between democracy and equality on the one hand and racism and injustice on the other, and, crucially for Foner, the outcome of that conflict at any given moment comes down to a balance of power, primarily political power.
RaveThe Washington Post...[a] remarkable new book ... It’s an extraordinary story, and The Internal Enemy tells it in vivid prose and compelling, deeply researched detail. But Taylor never gets lost in details. He has important things to say — about slavery, about war and about America ... Indeed, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the ease with which Taylor moves from the lives of individual slaves, to the history of a large planter family, to the fault lines of Virginia politics, to the national debate over slavery in the western territories, out into the Atlantic world to the history of the British Empire.
Henry Louis Gates
MixedThe New York Review of BooksPart monograph, part exhibition catalog, the book is packed with an array of reproductions documenting the appalling variety of racist images that infected American culture by the early twentieth century. Those crude depictions stand in stark relief against the literary sophistication and dignity of the leading lights of the New Negro movement ... Gates...stresses how brief and unusual the Reconstruction era was in a nation where white supremacy is built into what he calls America’s \'cultural DNA.\' This unfortunate but increasingly popular genetic metaphor amounts to a confession of intellectual failure, an inability to think about history, about change over time, in analytically useful terms. Worse, it indicates a disturbing return to the kind of quasi-biological reasoning employed by the very white supremacists Gates so effectively exposes. Claims that racism is \'built into the DNA\' of the United States or that \'slavery is built into the DNA\' of American capitalism are not merely ahistorical, they are antihistorical. Their purpose and effect is to deny the manifest reality of historical change.
Edward L. Ayers
MixedThe Washington Post...few of them succeed as well as these volumes in capturing the day-to-day experience of the war without losing sight of military operations or the political issues at stake ... One of Ayers’s recurring themes is the terrible contrast between the beauty and agricultural richness of the valley and the violence and bloodshed of the war and its aftermath ... The irony, for Ayers, is that as the war became more brutal, its moral significance became clearer ... Whether these were contingent reversals or extensions of prewar patterns is hard to tell because Ayers starts his history of the war in 1859 with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry ... Fortunately for readers, such contentious issues are played out in the background, offstage as it were. Ayers set out to re-create the lived experience of the Civil War — for Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites, men and women, soldiers and civilians — without losing sight of the political turmoil and destructive violence that affected all of them ...succeeded brilliantly.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksAlthough The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln is anything but a conventional biography, it often reads like a series of biographical sketches. Blumenthal cites a number of previous biographies that provide a substantial proportion of his source material. And although he draws on many of the major speeches and writings of the characters he discusses, these two volumes are works of synthesis more than of original scholarship. Where Blumenthal does rely on primary sources, they are often memoirs or recollections that are not always reliable ... As expansive as his understanding of Lincoln’s political world is, Blumenthal’s account is in other ways narrowly conceived. This is a view of history in which politics is largely explained by reference to more politics...And yet this may be unfair, a case of a critic complaining that the author should have written a different book. Blumenthal is the ideal author for the kind of history he writes. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, and he passes judgment with the skill of a practiced polemicist ... For anyone wondering why Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation so soon after taking office, Sidney Blumenthal’s expansive political life of the sixteenth president is a good place to start looking for an answer.