Skip to content

Response to Review of Gold and Freedom: The Political Economy of Reconstruction

I would like to warmly thank Charles Thompson for engaging so thoughtfully with my book Gold and Freedom and its argument. Although it is a work about the United States after the Civil War, I agree with him that it does have significant echoes in the present time. Space has a powerful pull on political imaginations, and how communities see (and police) themselves. He cites how the crisis of the Euro currency reactivated a spatial understanding of European economic culture, with a northern part of the continent presumed to be more disciplined and responsible than a supposedly lazy South refusing to take responsibility for its own actions. More recently, the British referendum on the European Union obviously conjured rival spatial politics, both within the UK and about the relation of the country to a global space (privileging Europe, the former Empire, or the Atlantic), with dramatic results both on local social relations and on the political arrangements of parties and state. In the United States, the talk of ‘blue states’ and ‘red states’ that emerged in the late 1990s might be one of the most striking of such political shorthands, encapsulating region, demography and ideology in a single, two-color map. This image is both true and false, of course. It is true as it has consequences on who exercises power, whom they see as their constituents, and how power is distributed across space. It is false as far as it caricatures, simplifies, and sometimes hides the social and power relations at the local level, along many lines that inform ‘imagined communities’ and ‘identities’ – race, class, gender, origins, sexuality, etc.

Of Charles Thompson’s discussion of my book, this is precisely the point I would most like to address here. After the US Civil War, Reconstruction developed into a far-reaching and contentious reconfiguration of social relations in a post-slavery nation. In the South especially, the interactions from individual to individual were then extremely (and often violently) politicized. A great number of good works have showed this in the past 25 years, at the local level in the South, but also more recently in the trans-Mississippi West. We have learned a great deal from that multiplicity of approaches, and my own argument does not seek to displace them but to build on them.

One key thread throughout my book is an attempt to understand how the local and the non-local were articulated politically, how the relations between individuals and groups ‘on the ground’ were shaped, and in turn impacted relations at a much larger scale. It focuses on Federal institutions, parties, and politicians not as the fount of all politics that would rain its decrees on civil society, nor as the mere mirror of social forces, but as an autonomous (but not independent) institutional set where social realities are felt, transmuted, turned into policies and power relations. The argument here is that the political system is a prism that does not merely reflect or command, though it does both, but more importantly rearranges contradictory local social dynamics into political action that, in turn impacts the whole of society.

So the whole book is an attempt to understand Reconstruction that makes sense of how social realities on the ground, where both class and race were very contentiously rearranged, were transformed in the more formal political game, through a set of political institutions (the three branches of government, parties, and yes, sections) with their own rules of engagement. Somewhat prosaically, politicians with their own agenda still had to conform to norms, power relations, conflicting goals and collective organization that, on a day-to-day basis, shaped what they could and would do or not.

This is through formal politics that the money question and the tariff, although important in their own right, became such central issues for Reconstruction. It is because power is arranged through a set of national political institutions that the post-war story of the South cannot be understood solely as a story about race, even though race was obviously a key part of it. If greenbacks interfered, helped, then hindered the ongoing and contentious reform of the South, it was precisely because both were political issues that collided not on their content, but through the political dynamics they created both in society and in the political world. This is precisely those mechanisms that I seek to illuminate in Gold and Freedom.

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that, when I wrote the book, I had in mind how much it could shed light on our present. In view of the recent elections in the United States, however, and probably on the looming elections in Europe, I do believe it had become vital to understand why those who people our political institutions (politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, etc.) respond, or do not respond, to some social movements and not to others; why they are attuned to some social changes and completely, sometimes stubbornly deaf to others. My empirical research was on a period of history some 150 years ago. I hope the argument, and more largely the approach, can help shed light on what is happening now, or at least how it has come about.