The Reconstruction Presidents

With a new Foreword by Sanford Levinson

Brooks D. Simpson

During and after the Civil War, four presidents faced the challenge of reuniting the nation and of providing justice for black Americans—and of achieving a balance between those goals. This first book to collectively examine the Reconstruction policies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes reveals how they confronted and responded to the complex issues presented during that contested era in American politics.

Brooks Simpson examines the policies of each administration in depth and evaluates them in terms of their political, social, and institutional contexts. Simpson explains what was politically possible at a time when federal authority and presidential power were more limited than they are now. He compares these four leaders' handling of similar challenges—such as the retention of political support and the need to build a Southern base for their policies—in different ways and under different circumstances, and he discusses both their use of executive power and the impact of their personal beliefs on their actions.

“An excellent study that will be consulted not only by specialists but by anyone interested in the history of the Civil War, American race relations, and American government.”

American Historical Review

“A superb book that places the Reconstruction presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes—in the context of their times and illuminates the difficult and complex task they faced.”

Florida Historical Quarterly
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Although historians have disagreed on the extent to which these presidents were committed to helping blacks, Simpson's sharply drawn assessments of presidential performance shows that previous scholars have overemphasized how the personal racial views of each man shaped his approach to Reconstruction. Simpson counters much of the conventional wisdom about these leaders by persuasively demonstrating that considerable constraints to presidential power severely limited their efforts to achieve their ends.

The Reconstruction Presidents marks a return to understanding Reconstruction based upon national politics and offers an approach to presidential policy making that emphasizes the environment in which a president governs and the nature of the challenges facing him. By showing that what these four leaders might have accomplished was limited by circumstances not easily altered, it allows us to assess them in the context of their times and better understand an era too often measured by inappropriate standards.

About the Author

Brooks D. Simpson is professor of history and humanities at Arizona State University and author of Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction.