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Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen

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Reconstruction was a time of idealism and sweeping change, as the victorious Union created citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. But these Reconstruction was a time of idealism and sweeping change, as the victorious Union created citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. But these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and the brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob them of their base of support. Despite their status as congressmen, they were made to endure the worst humiliations of racial prejudice. And they have been largely forgotten—often neglected or maligned by standard histories of the period. In this beautifully written book, Philip Dray reclaims their story. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary news accounts, and congressional records, he shows how the efforts of black Americans revealed their political perceptiveness and readiness to serve as voters, citizens, and elected officials. We meet men like the war hero Robert Smalls of South Carolina (who had stolen a Confederate vessel and delivered it to the Union navy), Robert Brown Elliott (who bested the former vice president of the Confederacy in a stormy debate on the House floor), and the distinguished former slave Blanche K. Bruce (who was said to possess “the manners of a Chesterfield”). As Dray demonstrates, these men were eloquent, creative, and often effective representatives who, as support for Reconstruction faded, were undone by the forces of Southern reaction and Northern indifference. In a grand narrative that traces the promising yet tragic arc of Reconstruction, Dray follows these black representatives’ struggles, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the onset of Jim Crow, as they fought for social justice and helped realize the promise of a new nation.


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Reconstruction was a time of idealism and sweeping change, as the victorious Union created citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. But these Reconstruction was a time of idealism and sweeping change, as the victorious Union created citizenship rights for the freed slaves and granted the vote to black men. Sixteen black Southerners, elected to the U.S. Congress, arrived in Washington to advocate reforms such as public education, equal rights, land distribution, and the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan. But these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and the brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob them of their base of support. Despite their status as congressmen, they were made to endure the worst humiliations of racial prejudice. And they have been largely forgotten—often neglected or maligned by standard histories of the period. In this beautifully written book, Philip Dray reclaims their story. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary news accounts, and congressional records, he shows how the efforts of black Americans revealed their political perceptiveness and readiness to serve as voters, citizens, and elected officials. We meet men like the war hero Robert Smalls of South Carolina (who had stolen a Confederate vessel and delivered it to the Union navy), Robert Brown Elliott (who bested the former vice president of the Confederacy in a stormy debate on the House floor), and the distinguished former slave Blanche K. Bruce (who was said to possess “the manners of a Chesterfield”). As Dray demonstrates, these men were eloquent, creative, and often effective representatives who, as support for Reconstruction faded, were undone by the forces of Southern reaction and Northern indifference. In a grand narrative that traces the promising yet tragic arc of Reconstruction, Dray follows these black representatives’ struggles, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the onset of Jim Crow, as they fought for social justice and helped realize the promise of a new nation.

30 review for Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen

  1. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Most of the “capitol men” are long-familiar by name, but the pride-instilling Black History childrens books my parents dutifully distributed necessarily skimped on the lurid details of real politics. The lovable knave in the pack is P.B.S. Pinchback, aka “Pinch,” introduced by Dray as “hated, loved, always dapper”—a fine way to come down to posterity, if you ask me. Pinch was a former riverboat cardsharp with many a hair’s-breadth ‘scape in his past. Hair’s breadth like bribing the pilot to steer Most of the “capitol men” are long-familiar by name, but the pride-instilling Black History childrens books my parents dutifully distributed necessarily skimped on the lurid details of real politics. The lovable knave in the pack is P.B.S. Pinchback, aka “Pinch,” introduced by Dray as “hated, loved, always dapper”—a fine way to come down to posterity, if you ask me. Pinch was a former riverboat cardsharp with many a hair’s-breadth ‘scape in his past. Hair’s breadth like bribing the pilot to steer near shore so you can jump off into the bayou as the suckers you just fleeced blaze away from the deck rails. He was also a quick-drawing street fighter; strolling through New Orleans in 1868, Pinch heard the distinctive click of a pistol being cocked, twirled drawing his own pistol and, in a hail of bullets, some of which hit a passing streetcar, wounded his would-be assassin. He rose to governor of Louisiana and corrupted contender in a disputed senate race. He was also the grandfather of Cane author Jean Toomer. My favorite Pinch story is that of the 1872 New York-to-Louisiana train race. Pinch, then Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor were staying at the same New York City hotel after a round of eastern fence-mending, when an aide to Pinch whispered to his boss that certain reform legislation, which the Governor had vowed to veto, might be signed into law if Pinch could only get back to Louisiana first and assume the powers of acting executive. Pinch had a dinner appointment with the Governor that night, but cannily left his trunk in the hall outside his room and took off; sure enough, when dinner time rolled around and Pinch was a no-show, the Governor simply assumed his deputy had found his own fun somewhere in the big city. Upon waking, however, the Governor realized what was up and set off as well, first wiring ahead to a minion in Mississippi to lure Pinch off the train with word of an urgent telegram—just the sort of telegram Pinch was expecting from his minion back in New York, keeping him abreast of the Governor’s movements. Pinch stepped into the station’s telegraph office to find a blank message and the door locked behind him. He was angrily beating on the windows when the train pulled away. The Governor beat him home. Pinch was stunningly handsome in an alpha-walrus Victorian way, and, to many whites, disconcertingly (rather than reassuringly) light-skinned—he was son of a white planter and the slave girl he freed and married. Dray quotes some hilariously florid newspaper nervousness about Pinch’s indeterminate racial appearance—“a bronze Mephistopheles,” with an “evil look” and a “sardonic smile” (Baudelaire says somewhere that Satan is the prototype of all roguish handsomeness). America’s is a racially stratified society and uncategorizable individuals are always more or less subversive. While one of my sisters was bartending, louts would inquire challengingly, “what are you?” She always offered them a free drink if they could correctly guess her ingredients in three tries or less. I adopted the same response to “what are you?”; and while I find it hard to imagine how I would appear as anything other than black, I get the question a lot, and people have ventured Indian, Hispanic, and, in one case, devotedly tanned guido. "You’ve got three guesses” has put some people off: my sister has had a more good-natured time with the drunken louts than I have had with genteel whites, who hate to be put on the spot and forced to flip through their private handbook of Racial Characteristics. The existence of such handbooks is thought offensive and vehemently denied; everyone strives to be colorblind. There’s an episode of My Name is Earl, in which Joy, unexpectedly on the evening news and eager to impress potential jurors of her upcoming trial, introduces her multiracial family thus: “Here’s my family of many colors. As you can see, I have one black and one white child, but because I don’t see color, I can’t tell which is which”. South Carolina congressman Robert Brown Elliott emerges the hero from my reading. A classic American self-fabricator, Elliott claimed to be of Jamaican parentage, born in Boston, and educated at Eton—an origin story credited in his lifetime, astonishingly, but for which contemporary scholars find no evidence. He might have indeed been born to West Indian parents in Liverpool and then taken to sea with the Royal Navy or merchant marine, as one of Melville’s autodidact isolatoes. What is beyond doubt is that he acquired superb classical and legal educations somewhere—probably in his own candlelit room—and after the Civil War established himself in Charleston, South Carolina as a learned lawyer with a magnificent private library and the devotion of widely idolized quadroon belle. He modeled himself on the great scholarly statesman and Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, which may explain the Boston in his biography (Elliott’s Yankee apotheosis was an invitation to give the chief eulogy at Sumner’s Faneuil Hall memorial service); and Eton may stand for the high-born polish he sought; in any case, there’s no better Afro-Saxon this side of W.E.B. Du Bois. Elliott stepped forth as the race’s champion in the big heavyweight parliamentary bout of the era. It was 1874, at the height of debate on Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill. The bill had just been attacked in a long oration by Alexander Stephens, and Elliott was to deliver the Republican rebuttal. Stephens was the former Vice-President of the Confederacy who’d been amnestied after the war and allowed to resume his Georgia congressional seat (it is incredible, or not, that the government executed the harmless half-wits in John Wilkes Booth’s grotesque entourage, but allowed the ringleaders of treason—Lee, Davis, Stephens—to slip out of their deserved nooses). Vice-President sounds like a lightweight post, but Stephens was something like the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy. In his famous 1861 “Cornerstone” address, he enunciated the Confederacy’s white supremacist raison d’état, explicitly repudiating the Enlightenment assumptions of the Declaration of Independence, and proudly boasting that the new southern nation “rests on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” “Our new government,” he proudly declared, “is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” So yeah, Stephens is the worst shit ever. He also presented a freakish physical appearance, being wheeled into chambers in full mad scientist get-up. Five feet tall, ninety pounds, and confined to a wheelchair, he had a “shrunken, consumptive chest, a sallow, mummified face, in which the bony structure stood forth like a death’s head.” He was, Dray quotes one scholar, “little more than a brain.” (After an aborted peace negotiation in 1864, Lincoln and Grant joked among themselves at Stephen’s shocking physiognomy—“Did you see that guy?”) In one corner, the mad scientist of white supremacy; in the other, Elliott, described by the New York Times as “of the blackest of his race”—“black as a highly polished boot.” Elliott’s dark skin tone and pronounced Negroid features were important in packing the galleries with spectators, including dignitaries like General Sherman, because most of his colleagues (Pinchback, for instance) were light-skinned mulattos whose poise and accomplishment whites could comfortably rationalize with reference to their partial white parentage.* Elliott, however, was the much-maligned thing itself, the African—the supposedly savage, irreducible Other at the core of white fear and loathing. Elliott was standard bearer of the darkest and most marginalized, then and now, and he wiped the floor with Stephens. I read Dray’s generous extracts from Elliott’s rebuttal with a series of fist-pumping yeahs! It is scarcely twelve years since gentleman shocked the civilized world by announcing the birth of a government which rested on human slavery as its cornerstone. The progress of events has swept away that pseudo-government which rested on greed, pride, and tyranny; and the race whom he then ruthlessly spurned and trampled on are here to meet him in debate, and to demand that the rights which are enjoyed by their former oppressors shall be accorded to those who even in the darkness of slavery kept their allegiance true to freedom and the Union. I’m ashamed to have long known of Stephens, but never to have heard of Elliott until opening this book. One of the incidental pleasures of reading history is the chance to catch-up with the bit players of earlier books. I left Philippe Régis de Trobriand somewhere about the middle of Connell’s Son of the Morning Star—at Fort Stevenson, a remote Dakotas garrison, filling his diary entry for New Years Eve 1867 with just the sort of cosmic reveries that the endlessly rolling Great Plains inspire. Trobriand was a cultivated French aristocrat who moved to America in 1841, after losing a bet—a motive not quite as high-minded as de Tocqueville’s, but after the passage of two decades in which he charmed New York society, wed an heiress relative of Edith Wharton and founded a journal that introduced de Vigny and Gautier to American readers—plus an 1850s interlude studying painting in Venice, I guess the terms of the bet weren’t total banishment—de Trobriand had accumulated enough patriotic feeling to volunteer for the US Army’s contingent of French immigrants, the Lafayette Guards, when the Civil War broke out. He stoutly defended a key position at Gettysburg, was promoted general, commanded a division in Grant’s last campaign to trap Lee, and emerged from the precipitous disbandment of the volunteer forces with a coveted colonelcy in the Regular Army. After the war he was given a PR leave to compose a memoir of his service for French readers—Quatre Ans de Campagnes à l'Armée du Potomac (1874)—at the end of which he reported for duty in the politically chaotic occupied South and, later, on Crazy Horse’s Great Plains. Trobriand shows up in Capitol Men commanding the bluecoat battalion that ousted, at bayonet point, a ruffian Neo-Confederate mob that had seized the Louisiana legislature and declared a coup d’état. Way to go Trobes! But the action was a political disaster for the Grant administration. The war-weary public was spooked by any show of armed federal force in the South, however justified and consistent with, you know, law and order and democracy and stuff, and from then on Democratic opponents of the Grant administration would holler about “New Orleans Bayonets” whenever federal intervention into the rapidly deteriorating southern situation looked likely. President Grant and the congressional Republicans were duly intimidated; in a phrase, Reconstruction failed because the partisans of white rule were willing to use violence, while the federal government was not. Grant cracked down hard on the Klan during his first term, but he was cowed by the later, more organized political violence. The North won first battle of wills, 1861-65, and the South won the second, 1865-77. I’ve always thought of Adelbert Ames as a man who just missed out on destiny. The original colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteers, Ames was promoted to brigade command shortly before Gettysburg, the battle in which the men of the 20th made their famous save-the-day charge under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (as a Bowdoin theology professor turned soldier in a sacred cause, Chamberlain is pretty much the beau ideal of antislavery Congregationalist manhood and the fighting New Englander). Ames, it turns out, was no footnote, not even in wartime—he won the Medal of Honor and made his own heroic stand at Gettysburg—and he cut a major figure during Reconstruction as the military and then civilian governor of Mississippi. (He was also George Plimpton's great-grandfather.) Ames was run out of the state in 1876 by white rule ruffians who had taken to shooting into the state house and governor’s mansion, in supplement to their usual sport of massacring blacks in the countryside. Ames had appealed to Grant for federal support—support Grant was constitutionally obligated to provide, but we know how little the constitution counted for in those times. During the subsequent Senate inquiry, Ames was asked his impression of the sentiments of Mississippi whites: In one phrase, hostility to the negro as citizen. Justice is what the Democratic leaders do not want. They want supremacy—absolute despotic control of the negro—to make him powerless in politics and in the courts of law, so that they can re-establish their old-time control over his labor as far as it is possible after the abolishment of property in man. A summary that goes to the heart of the matter. The racist romance of the South was so fantastic—the Stainless Belle shining from behind the shield of the White Knight, as he lances the snarling Black Beast—that we tend to think of it as a freestanding pathology, and in doing so skirt the really horrifying fact that so luxuriant a mental growth, so Spenserian a mind-fuck is rooted in the rather simple fact of the great profits made from slave labor. Money messes with our heads. Southerners at the start of the nineteenth century could without excessive regret pronounce slavery a fading institution—but the cotton gin made that labor arrangement explosively profitable, and within two generations they were declaring slavery a positive moral good, worth founding a state on, worth destroying America for. One of the revelations of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839), the book I out aside for Capitol Men, is the great naturalist’s eye for human as well as animal society. His observation of a Brazilian slave-owner: While staying at this estate, I was very near being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. * When in the 1950s Malcolm X valorized the surly field slave over the traitorous half-breed in the big house, he was asserting his own redeemed-criminal street cred against the genteel mainstream black leadership of the time, not accurately describing the previous century. A light-skinned leadership class drawn from favored slaves was inevitable, and not disadvantageous: the Pinchbacks of the world were literate and unintimidated by whites.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    I've read numerous books on American history in general and the Civil War in particular, and the fact that I have only ever heard of one of the African-American statesmen mentioned in this book (Robert Smalls, and then only in connection with his wartime service) is ample testimony to the enduring success of the South's 'Redemption' in the antebellum years. That men such as Robert Smalls, Robert Brown Elliot, Blanche K. Bruce and John Roy Lynch among others raised themselves from slavery to beco I've read numerous books on American history in general and the Civil War in particular, and the fact that I have only ever heard of one of the African-American statesmen mentioned in this book (Robert Smalls, and then only in connection with his wartime service) is ample testimony to the enduring success of the South's 'Redemption' in the antebellum years. That men such as Robert Smalls, Robert Brown Elliot, Blanche K. Bruce and John Roy Lynch among others raised themselves from slavery to become both state and national figures - governors, senators, congressmen - and yet have been so comprehensively forgotten, demonstrates as nothing else can how Reconstruction led to the sacrifice of the freedmen's political and social equality on the altar of 'reconciliation'. I can think of innumerable books written on the Civil War and Reconstruction, but barring a few high-profile exceptions such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, very few have focused on the African-American political figures who played such an important role in the postwar years - and who could be more important that the first African-American congressmen, the first to represent their people in the halls of Congress? It was a brief window of opportunity, a scant two or three decades, before the door of opportunity slammed again - and after 1901, when George H. White's term as congressman for North Carolina expired, it would be another three decades before African-Americans were again represented in their government. This is history at its best, shining light into the dark corners of America's past, bringing shamefully-neglected figures back to the light. This is the first of Philip Dray's books I've read but I'll be looking out for his name now.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Theophilus (Theo)

    For some reason, most high school (and some college) textbooks jump from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War as if nothing significant happened in the United States in the intervening years. I found this hard to believe. I have been reading over the years and discovered that it can be seriously argued that the South did not surrender, but merely changed tactics in 1865. This book fills in some blanks about the activities of Congress, but seeks to dispell the myth that all was well with the For some reason, most high school (and some college) textbooks jump from the Civil War to the Spanish-American War as if nothing significant happened in the United States in the intervening years. I found this hard to believe. I have been reading over the years and discovered that it can be seriously argued that the South did not surrender, but merely changed tactics in 1865. This book fills in some blanks about the activities of Congress, but seeks to dispell the myth that all was well with the newly freed slaves. There was no "happy ending" after Lee surrendered (not the South) at Appomattox. Before Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama there were many Arfican Americans who were dedicated and active in fighting for the rights of full citizenship for America's "darker brother" (Langston Hughes). An excellent read for anyone seriously seeking the truth in American history.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Raymond

    Closer to a 4.5. It's been a while since I've read some straight history, and Capitol Men definitely delivered. A post-reconstruction tale of mostly individual but obviously interconnected African-American individuals who made a mark on the government and in history in general following the Civil War, this is the sort of stuff I had ultimately wished I had gotten in history classes. Instead, it's overlooked for plenty of reasons (good and bad) and the result is that we lose out on some really int Closer to a 4.5. It's been a while since I've read some straight history, and Capitol Men definitely delivered. A post-reconstruction tale of mostly individual but obviously interconnected African-American individuals who made a mark on the government and in history in general following the Civil War, this is the sort of stuff I had ultimately wished I had gotten in history classes. Instead, it's overlooked for plenty of reasons (good and bad) and the result is that we lose out on some really interesting stories about people who really deserve more praise. I can't think of a favorite at this time out, and that's both because there are so many fascinating individuals highlighted and because of the distance between reading and now. Overall, this is really a must read for anyone who has any interest in all in post-Civil War political history, or those who are looking for those little-known stories from the past. A really great read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ariel

    This is the sad story of Reconstruction that our country has tried for so long to suppress. It's a hard read because of that, because of what a horrible failure the nation was in attempting something good and then letting it all fall away after years of making progress. It's essential to teach people about Reconstruction now more than ever. Southern historians have buried and distorted this reality for years. And the reaction of racist whites to civil and voting rights of black citizens and imme This is the sad story of Reconstruction that our country has tried for so long to suppress. It's a hard read because of that, because of what a horrible failure the nation was in attempting something good and then letting it all fall away after years of making progress. It's essential to teach people about Reconstruction now more than ever. Southern historians have buried and distorted this reality for years. And the reaction of racist whites to civil and voting rights of black citizens and immediate turn to violence as a political tool to wield against them reminds us all that the things we are facing today are not new. We've seen them before. We let these forces win once before. We can't let it happen again.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    Reconstruction - the story of how the Confederacy lost the War, but won the peace. This history describes the efforts of Black ministers, tradesmen, and freed slaves, and their Northern sympathizers, to further democracy, education, and civil rights in the Southern states following the Civil War. Unfortunately, they couldn't withstand the Southerners' defiant, "rebel spirit" and their intense hatred for their Black neighbors. And Northerners, while shocked by the mob violence and massacres and K Reconstruction - the story of how the Confederacy lost the War, but won the peace. This history describes the efforts of Black ministers, tradesmen, and freed slaves, and their Northern sympathizers, to further democracy, education, and civil rights in the Southern states following the Civil War. Unfortunately, they couldn't withstand the Southerners' defiant, "rebel spirit" and their intense hatred for their Black neighbors. And Northerners, while shocked by the mob violence and massacres and Klu Klux Klannery, didn't have the will to continue the fight. So this is not a cheerful read - in fact, it felt pretty heavy. But it is an important part of our history that should be better known. There are a lot of important lessons to be learned here, not just about the past, but about human nature and goodness and evil. The book itself is too long and detailed, although it's very well researched. I thought it would be a collection of biographies of the first Black congressmen, and I'll keep looking for more of that information. It's surprising that there isn't more being written about these brave and exceptional men. But I applaud Philip Dray for doing such excellent research into an era that has been clouded by revisionist history and story-telling.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Elliott

    Most history books these days advertise themselves as products: ‘The _____ that changed the world/nation,’ or ‘How _____ changed the world/nation.’ Books like this tend to aim broadly distilling the actual event back to obscurity in spite of its claims, and they are often poorly executed and prefer narrative ease over any actual history. Worst yet this sort of book reaffirms the dominant view of historical inquiry as being largely useless. They throw out names, events, and dates so specialized a Most history books these days advertise themselves as products: ‘The _____ that changed the world/nation,’ or ‘How _____ changed the world/nation.’ Books like this tend to aim broadly distilling the actual event back to obscurity in spite of its claims, and they are often poorly executed and prefer narrative ease over any actual history. Worst yet this sort of book reaffirms the dominant view of historical inquiry as being largely useless. They throw out names, events, and dates so specialized and obscure to seem exhaustive, but the books largely just leave them where they fall. There is an assumption that “the modern world” as the audience lives it, is all the context needed, while a good history-or rather true history ought to extend this narrative to the present day and show its relevance. It’s a slight difference. Rather than: ‘how the event created the modern world,’ a better history would be: ‘how the event is creating the modern world.’ I praise this book Capitol Men by Philip Dray for actually doing the latter. In fact this book is more about the present day, than the Reconstruction Period with which it is concerned. One does not have to look very far into the text even to see this. Dray recounts the “masterly inactivity” of the defeated Southern-Democratic party which is perfectly in tune with today’s stalling tactics of GOP congressional leaders. The large “racial solidarity” for Horatio Seymour’s 1868 Presidential Campaign could easily be the 2012 Republican National Convention where placards stated “Put the white back into the White House.” See the voter intimidation tactics that required competency exams at the polls, that read exactly like today’s Voter ID bills passed in GOP legislatures. But, most eerie yet comes from the South Carolinian Winnsboro News that stated regarding the Reconstructed Government of that state: “’This vile, rotten, wicked, corrupt and degrading regime must be reformed or overthrown…We see no practical method of accomplishing it except by some form of revolution.’” For comparisons see Ron Paul’s ideas on “rEVOLution,” Glenn Beck/Rush Limbaugh’s wishing for the country’s failure, or even Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz’ laughable 700ish count “million man march” of 2013 that all have stated much the same thing in our own present. My critique of this book is that it could stand to be longer. There is enough information here to write a full seven biographies on the first black members of Congress, and volumes linking them together. I applaud Dray for having an excellent knack on where and when to stop and where and when to continue on a topic, but certainly more is needed.

  8. 4 out of 5

    EJ Daniels

    Commenting on James S. Pike's The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government, Philip Dray laments that "a book so lacking in objectivity could become popular and even well regarded." How fitting that a similar charge can be leveled at Dray's own Capitol Men: from its gushing platitudes to its biased source material to its myopic conclusions, Capitol Men delves into one of the most tragically misrepresented components of American history - the contributions of black congressmen during Commenting on James S. Pike's The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government, Philip Dray laments that "a book so lacking in objectivity could become popular and even well regarded." How fitting that a similar charge can be leveled at Dray's own Capitol Men: from its gushing platitudes to its biased source material to its myopic conclusions, Capitol Men delves into one of the most tragically misrepresented components of American history - the contributions of black congressmen during Reconstruction - and somehow manages to leave the subject matter even more masticated, misconstrued, and muddled than it previously was. At the onset, however, Dray is to be commended for bringing back into the public conscience the likes of men like Hiram Revels, Blanche K. Bruce, Thomas Hamilton, and George H. White. That their legacies have been ignored and intentionally buried is a travesty, and if readers of Capitol Men gain nothing else but to have learned their names, something beneficially shall be gained. Such titans of American history, however, deserve a far better biographer than Dray. His narrative structure is poorly arranged, jumping from the chronologically to the geographical with little rhyme or reason. His argumentation is sloppy and childlike in its petulant insistence: Dray would rather blithely opine than prove a point and his logic is so circular as to set one's head spinning. Overly reliant on modern secondary resources for his historical background, such references as Dray makes to primary sources tend to be inherently biased; he relies extensively on Republican and black newspapers to positively characterize favored subjects and, in one glaring incidence which neatly reflects the whole, he takes the word of one figure, Robert Smalls, as evidence that said Robert Smalls was not guilty of a crime. This poor approach to history presents itself in Dray's risible assessments of topics ranging from the Civil Rights Act of 1875 & its legality, the Freedman's Bank, the processes by which Southern states were "redeemed" to the legacy of P.B.S. Pinchback. Other than basic biographical details, he manages to bungle nearly every component of this work. Despite its many, many flaws, however, Capitol Men is nevertheless an essential read for anyone interested in the black personages behind Reconstruction. Readers will have to grit their teeth and muddle through this poorly written, poorly researched, and poorly argued history until a more circumspect and able author writes a better account of this seminal period of American history.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Damon

    "..not since the Reconstruction" has become a popular phrase in contemporary politics. Dray's book offers a new perspective on quite an old cliche; you'll be surprised to learn that Doug Wilder was technically not the first black governor.[But I won't spoil it for you; the one who was did so under a technicality but was governor nonetheless:]. Dray's book flows and reads effortlessly. Some of the information will surprise and delight; otherwise it potentially 'inflame' your sense of human dignity "..not since the Reconstruction" has become a popular phrase in contemporary politics. Dray's book offers a new perspective on quite an old cliche; you'll be surprised to learn that Doug Wilder was technically not the first black governor.[But I won't spoil it for you; the one who was did so under a technicality but was governor nonetheless:]. Dray's book flows and reads effortlessly. Some of the information will surprise and delight; otherwise it potentially 'inflame' your sense of human dignity and fair play only to remind you that this is a bygone era in American politics ... but it's implications and similarities to contemporary socio-politics will astound you... I guarantee it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    Important information and history that every American should take the time to learn. Unfortunately, the writing style is so dry and disconnected that it was a chore to finish the book. There really isn’t a unifying theme, other than all six served in Congress. It reads like a text book stating fact after fact, rather than using a narrative style of telling each person’s story. I would have preferred separating this into individual short biographies of each person, and connecting their stories wh Important information and history that every American should take the time to learn. Unfortunately, the writing style is so dry and disconnected that it was a chore to finish the book. There really isn’t a unifying theme, other than all six served in Congress. It reads like a text book stating fact after fact, rather than using a narrative style of telling each person’s story. I would have preferred separating this into individual short biographies of each person, and connecting their stories when and where applicable.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    The best book about Reconstruction that I have read. Admittedly, it's pretty dense, but it's also compelling, informative, and clear. Contains numerous events and figures who are essentially forgotten today who should be much more prominent in our history. If you read one book on Reconstruction, this should be it. The best book about Reconstruction that I have read. Admittedly, it's pretty dense, but it's also compelling, informative, and clear. Contains numerous events and figures who are essentially forgotten today who should be much more prominent in our history. If you read one book on Reconstruction, this should be it.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    This is easily the best book on Reconstruction I have ever read. It is the rare history book that both has a compelling historical narrative and also clearly outlines how this affects your life and our society today. A must-read for any American trying to understand how we got where we are.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mariah Oleszkowicz

    The book started and ended with Robert Smalls so I'm glad I read his biography before reading this book. There is so much that goes on in so many places that it's hard to fit it all in one book. This author made a valiant attempt. I'm pretty sure he achieved his objective. The hard part is keeping it all straight. There are stories within stories and he introduces people adjacent to the topic parenthetically with own details, so at times it is difficult to keep straight what is happening. On the The book started and ended with Robert Smalls so I'm glad I read his biography before reading this book. There is so much that goes on in so many places that it's hard to fit it all in one book. This author made a valiant attempt. I'm pretty sure he achieved his objective. The hard part is keeping it all straight. There are stories within stories and he introduces people adjacent to the topic parenthetically with own details, so at times it is difficult to keep straight what is happening. On the other hand, he does a great job of displaying the complexity, confusion, violence, and corruption of the time. I learned so much, but I'm very glad I spent some time on learning about individual characters so I could follow along. My main take-away: taking away the vote and political clout of the black man was a deliberate and violent move in the south. The Republicans even said that if you can't intimidate the black man away from the polls, then kill him. The Reconstruction period is a prime example of how democracy can fail whole groups of people and why America is not the blameless beauty so many people like to claim she is.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Rohn

    I think this is my new go-to introduction to Reconstruction book. Framed through the experiences of the southern Black congressmen before, during, and after Reconstruction, this book provides a narratively strong and extremely accessible history of the era which doesn't sacrifice important details for ease of consumption I think this is my new go-to introduction to Reconstruction book. Framed through the experiences of the southern Black congressmen before, during, and after Reconstruction, this book provides a narratively strong and extremely accessible history of the era which doesn't sacrifice important details for ease of consumption

  15. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Very interesting review of the Reconstruction era. It went into a little more detail than I cared for at certain points, but overall a fascinating (and sad) story of the promise of Reconstruction and how it failed. Connects to conversations we are still having about race and voting rights.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Juniper

    After touring Lincoln's Cottage in DC, we were conversing with our tour guide and he mentioned this book. I am so thankful he did. I cannot recommend it enough; it is an exceptionally informative history book! (...most of which you'll never learn about in a high school or college class.) Dray does an excellent job of compiling extensive info covering many people, places, and times. The book spans from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. It's the most intriguing history After touring Lincoln's Cottage in DC, we were conversing with our tour guide and he mentioned this book. I am so thankful he did. I cannot recommend it enough; it is an exceptionally informative history book! (...most of which you'll never learn about in a high school or college class.) Dray does an excellent job of compiling extensive info covering many people, places, and times. The book spans from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century. It's the most intriguing history book I've read to date...although it was heavy reading (a lot of violence and atrocious acts). I had to reread many passages and then stop to let it soak in and reflect on it. One obvious (and sickening) observation is how much of this horrible history is completely--minus the amount of violence--being repeated. When giving book reviews, I don't like to give away details...some people like that, some people don't...but with this book there is just SO MUCH to discuss, I'd end up writing a book myself if I did try to give details. I would like to end with some paragraphs from the epilogue about one of the "Capitol Men" John Roy Lynch: While surviving black Reconstruction figures grew accustomed to such slights, John Roy Lynch of Mississippi chose to make a corrective response. Never relinquishing his egalitarian vision of American race relations, he became an active memoirist of the Reconstruction period because he was concerned that most historians and other commentators were distorting it. He would produce two informative books, The Facts of Reconstruction (1913) and an autobiography, Reminiscences of an Active Life (not published until 1970), but his most daring literary exploit was to challenge two of America's most prominent early historians of Reconstruction, James Ford Rhodes and Claude G. Bowers. Rhodes's multivolume history dealing with the war and Reconstruction, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 to the Final Restoration of Home Rule at the South in 1877, appeared in 1906, although a decade passed before Lynch saw it. He then informed his friend George A. Myers, a black Ohioan who managed the barbershop in the lobby of Cleveland's Hollenden Hotel and who knew Rhodes, of his displeasure with the work's inaccuracy. Rhodes replied through Myers that Lynch's objections did not surprise him since he (Lynch) "was a severely partisan actor at the time while I, an earnest seeker after truth, am trying to hold a judicial balance and to tell the story without fear, favor, or prejudice." Myers offered to introduce the two men, but Rhodes declined, instead saying, "Why does not Mr. Lynch write a magazine article and show up my mistakes and inaccuracies and injustice?" Taking Rhodes's suggestion, Lynch produced a lengthy two-part article titled "Some Historical Errors of James Ford Rhodes," which appeared in the Journal of Negro History in October 1917 and April 1918 (both sections were published together in book form in 1922). Lynch began with a shot directly across the bow, writing of Rhodes's work, "I regret to say that, so far as the Reconstruction period is concerned, it is not only inaccurate and unreliable but it is the most biased, partisan, and prejudiced historical work I have ever read." He took issue with the very title of Rhodes's book, pointing out that in terms of the region's demographics, the South had actually enjoyed home rule, if that phrase meant democratic rule by the broadest number of residents, only under the Reconstruction governments of the late 1860s and early 1870s. Lynch parodied Rhodes's contentions that it had been wrong to enfranchise blacks after the war, that those who entered politics were incompetent, or that they ever dominated Southern politics. He argued that blacks in elected offices were no more incompetent or corrupt than whites and that the Reconstruction governments achieved many significant breakthroughs; indeed, Lynch ventured that "the Southern reconstructed governments were the best governments those states ever had before or have ever had since." Myers sent Lynch's lawyerly article on to Rhodes with his own scribbled admonishment: "I think one of your mistakes was made in not seeing and talking with the prominent Negro participants that I could have put you in touch with." Years later Lynch also laid siege to one of the most popular books ever written about Reconstruction, Claude G. Bowers's The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln, published in 1929. Bowers's entertaining work drew ruthless caricatures of Republicans, blacks, and carpetbaggers and offered a vivid purplish-prose account of the era's drama, while suggesting that the nation had erred in not accepting President Andrew Johnson's version of Reconstruction. To Bowers, a veteran author of popular nonfiction in the 1920s, the complete marginalization of blacks in American society was so much the entrenched status quo that congressional Reconstruction could perhaps only appear as a sad, painful burlesque; but Lynch was merciless in taking the white author to task for numerous inaccuracies.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dutchermann

    Strong, fascinating collective biography of important men like Robert Smalls.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Polly Callahan

    Recommended by Hassan Adeeb

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sherry Schwabacher

    This is the history they should be teaching in our schools. We cannot begin to "form a more perfect union" until we face the facts of our past. The twisted ideology of the "Lost Cause" that infiltrated our culture following Reconstruction has kept us from fulfilling our true mission - to "...let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of This is the history they should be teaching in our schools. We cannot begin to "form a more perfect union" until we face the facts of our past. The twisted ideology of the "Lost Cause" that infiltrated our culture following Reconstruction has kept us from fulfilling our true mission - to "...let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world." These words were spoken in Chicago in 1912 by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This was at the height of the imposition of Jim Crow laws following the Plessy v. Ferguson case in which racial segregation was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. Philip Dray's book goes a long way to refuting much of what we were taught in school concerning Reconstruction and fills in many blank spots in our historical knowledge.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Patty

    I have such mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, it's not that well written. Oh, it's not awful. But it reads like a high school textbook rather than narrative nonfiction; Dray doesn't pick a person, a topic, or a series of events to provide a guide-line through his book, but just gives a general summary of stuff that happened at vaguely the same time and vaguely the same place. Even his subtitle is inaccurate: of the seven black congressmen on the cover, two of them are mentioned liter I have such mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, it's not that well written. Oh, it's not awful. But it reads like a high school textbook rather than narrative nonfiction; Dray doesn't pick a person, a topic, or a series of events to provide a guide-line through his book, but just gives a general summary of stuff that happened at vaguely the same time and vaguely the same place. Even his subtitle is inaccurate: of the seven black congressmen on the cover, two of them are mentioned literally once in the entire book, and that's during the preface when he's describing the cover. None of them get the sort of birth-to-death detail that you'd expect from a title with "Through the Lives". Instead the book is dominated by people such as President Grant, Frederick Douglass, Adelbert Ames (a white man, the Reconstruction governor of Mississippi), P.B.S. Pinchback (a black man, briefly governor of Louisiana), Robert Smalls (also a black congressman, but for some reason not included in the group on the cover), and Benjamin Tillman (a white supremacist who pioneered many of the tactics of what became Jim Crow). All of whom are certainly important figures during Reconstruction! But you know, if you're going to write narrative nonfiction, you need to be more selective than "everyone who did something important". On the other hand, Dray's topic is so fascinating that it almost doesn't matter how he presents it. I mean, I know about Reconstruction, right? I am reasonably well-educated American. And yet this book was constantly shocking me. Did you know, for example, that in the South Carolina gubernatorial election of 1876, the Democrats were so determined to reclaim the state for white supremacy that they committed blatant election fraud ranging from merely stuffing ballot boxes to disrupting Republican campaigning efforts with paramilitary groups to the outright massacre of six black voters? Despite all of these efforts, the election was close enough that both parties declared themselves the winners. They both celebrated their own inaugurations, set up their own legislatures, and began to govern. President Grant sent a small delegation of federal troops to support the Republicans (who, you know, were not bragging about how they had broken election law), but that move proved so unpopular in both South Carolina and the North (it was seen as an "intervention of the military authority", which, like, I'M PRETTY SURE THE MILITARY IS SUPPOSED TO INTERVENE IF SOMEONE VIOLENTLY STEALS AN ELECTION) that the troops were eventually withdrawn and the Democratic candidate seized control. And this was not an unusual event! There is account after account in this book of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan literally kicking elected officials out of their offices with violence and death threats and claiming them for themselves. Sheriffs, postmasters, mayors – no government position was too big or too small. And the federal government just... allowed this to happen! Or did you know that there was a federal law, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, that made segregation on public transportation and in public accommodations (such as hotels and restaurants) illegal? It was overturned by the Supreme Court a mere eight years later, but seriously! Many of the exact same rights that were fought for in the 1950s and 60s had been already won, but then were erased and forgotten. I don't know. This book just made me flail and splutter. I'm not entirely sure I recommend it, but I do wish the information in it was more widely known.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mike Reed

    This book should be required reading for everyone, history keeps repeating itself. The debate over voting laws today are reminiscent of the laws of the past. White America seem to be in a constant battle to keep black citizens in a lower class.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Non-fiction book about the post-Civil War, Reconstruction era, focusing on the first black Congressmen. Pretty fascinating part of history that I knew little to nothing about. After the War, slavery ended and blacks were given the right to vote. Since they were actually in the majority in many Southern states, it resulted in blacks being elected to public office - including serving as Governor or Lt. Governor in states like Louisiana and South Carolina. After about a decade, though, Southern whi Non-fiction book about the post-Civil War, Reconstruction era, focusing on the first black Congressmen. Pretty fascinating part of history that I knew little to nothing about. After the War, slavery ended and blacks were given the right to vote. Since they were actually in the majority in many Southern states, it resulted in blacks being elected to public office - including serving as Governor or Lt. Governor in states like Louisiana and South Carolina. After about a decade, though, Southern whites rebelled, intimidating (or killing) blacks to vote Democrat or not at all. So eventually, whites are restored to office, the KKK and similar groups rose up and blacks only technically had the right to vote. The North was still weary from the War and turned a blind eye to the abuses, not wanting to start a second Civil War. Intersting side note - women's rights groups initially supported legislation to give black men the right to vote. But eventually stopped that support when it became clear it wouldn't be extended to women. So men who were slaves a year earlier had the right to vote around 50 years before women.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Neil

    In the postbellum South, violence, or the threat of it, had replaced slavery as the key mechanism by which whites controlled African Americans; it wasn't the sole means of oppression, of course, but the most immediately effective at terrorizing the black populace, breeding apathy and disillusionment in the North, and ultimately enabling the Southern redemption (346). An interesting and highly readable account of a group of extraordinary African Americans who endure all the horrors of racism duri In the postbellum South, violence, or the threat of it, had replaced slavery as the key mechanism by which whites controlled African Americans; it wasn't the sole means of oppression, of course, but the most immediately effective at terrorizing the black populace, breeding apathy and disillusionment in the North, and ultimately enabling the Southern redemption (346). An interesting and highly readable account of a group of extraordinary African Americans who endure all the horrors of racism during and after Reconstruction. Dray is able to convey the hopefulness this men had with the passing of the 15th Amendment. Conversely, Dray is at his best recounting the obstacles facing the newly freed; namely, the unstoppable force that was Southern resistance to Reconstruction, Civil, and Equal Rights.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Gayla Bassham

    Really 4 1/2 stars. This is a great book and you should all read it immediately. Of all the really compelling historical figures in this book, the one that stood out the most to me was Robert Smalls. I cannot figure out why he is not better known. As best I can tell, there are only two biographies of Smalls in print: one, fairly short, by an academic press and a picture book for children. Smalls led a very full life and really deserves a full-length biography. He was born into slavery; made a thri Really 4 1/2 stars. This is a great book and you should all read it immediately. Of all the really compelling historical figures in this book, the one that stood out the most to me was Robert Smalls. I cannot figure out why he is not better known. As best I can tell, there are only two biographies of Smalls in print: one, fairly short, by an academic press and a picture book for children. Smalls led a very full life and really deserves a full-length biography. He was born into slavery; made a thrilling escape to freedom in the fall of 1861; served the United States Navy with honor during the Civil War (he was the first African-American man to captain a ship); served in the South Carolina house of representatives and senate; and ended up owning the house in which he had been a slave.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    It is one thing to tell a US History survey that after the Civil War, Reconstruction state governments had black Congressmen, judges and officials, but that they were removed by Bourbons after 1876. It is something else to get to know them as human beings through Philip Dray's intensely personal and beautifully reconstructed group biography, especially their tragic and definitive dismissal from the halls of power into the Jim Crow south. It is one thing to tell a US History survey that after the Civil War, Reconstruction state governments had black Congressmen, judges and officials, but that they were removed by Bourbons after 1876. It is something else to get to know them as human beings through Philip Dray's intensely personal and beautifully reconstructed group biography, especially their tragic and definitive dismissal from the halls of power into the Jim Crow south.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    One of the best history books I have ever read, this is story, both sad and inspiring, about the courageous freed slaves who played a major role in American politics before the South imposed apartheid and prevented them and their descendants from participating in public life until the Civil Rights Movement completed the job the Civil War began.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christopher Richardson

    A fascinating look into the lives of several prominent African-Americans during the era of Reconstruction and the brief "window of freedom" afforded to African-Americans after the Civil War but before the rise of segregation. A fascinating look into the lives of several prominent African-Americans during the era of Reconstruction and the brief "window of freedom" afforded to African-Americans after the Civil War but before the rise of segregation.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bryan Ericson

    This was a great book that tells the story of some of the first African American men to enter Congress during Reconstruction before Jim Crow turned the Southern Congressional delegation lilly white until the mid 20th century.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Intriguing review in New Yorker about the accomplishments and lives of the blacks elected to Congress during Reconstruction

  30. 5 out of 5

    Darryl

    I love reading about history I currently know little about.

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