In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Reconstruction, Democracy, and United States Imperialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Studies in Literary and Political History
  • Published Primary Sources
  • Studies on Newspapers, Postwar Terrorism, and Visual Media
  • Lost Cause/New South Scholarship

Atlantic History Reconstruction, Democracy, and United States Imperialism
Stefan M. Wheelock
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0377


The era of Reconstruction (beginning roughly with the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 and ending, in effect, with the Republicans’ loss of control over the House in 1874) ushered in a seismic shift in US domestic polices as well as its cultural and international relations. The close of the US Civil War resulted in the emancipation of approximately four million slaves. Reconstruction-era policies sought to transform slaves into wage laborers, extend to blacks the rights of citizenship, and guarantee the right to vote to a greater share of the US male population. The period’s policies also reverberated through the political and economic crosscurrents of the Atlantic world from the 1860s into the early twentieth century, significantly transforming the global logic of empire and expansionism. The defeat of the Confederacy communicated to the world that the US government was ostensibly willing to contend for principles of freedom and equality. But as the historian David Prior straightforwardly contends, it took approximately thirty years for the United States to shift from engaging in one of the most radical experiments in democracy the world had ever seen to “constructing a racist empire” that exerted its hegemony over Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the Caribbean as well as the Philippines. On the domestic front, blacks’ postwar economic and political gains were diminished by discrimination, racial terror, and novel forms of enslavement. The late 1870s saw the global demand for cotton surge, and the United States seized on the opportunity to compete aggressively in world markets, becoming the majority supplier of cotton for Britain, France, Germany, and their respective territories. This surge in demand drove prices down, forcing many recently emancipated blacks and poor whites into debt peonage and sharecropping, but it also helped establish the United States as a global player. Presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant expressed perennial interest in annexing the Spanish colony of Cuba and the Dominican Republic from as early as the 1860s, and the US government, by 1900, acquired the Philippines and Hawaii as territories. Ironically, the abolition of slavery in the United States formed part of the rationale for the presumed cultural superiority of Anglo-Protestant civilization over nonwhite peoples. The United States would bring freedom, civilization, and progress to supposed benighted nations, or so the logic went. If ideologies of white supremacy were rarely explicitly articulated in American policy documents of diplomacy, US patterns of post–Civil War racism and racial paternalism, nevertheless, shaped the cultural practices of expansionism as white settler colonialism extended westward, resulting in the extermination of indigenous populations, and as the United States annexed Atlantic and Pacific islands in what would now be characterized as the nations of the Global South. Set in motion by consequential turn-of-the-century figures such as then President Theodore Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the new blueprint for a rising global racial order also reshaped patterns of geopolitical cooperation and resistance among nonwhite populations, forging new alliances and fostering cultural tensions among US black, white, Latin and Afro Caribbean, Mexican, and Asian peoples. In the century after Reconstruction, the US South devolved into a collection of de facto apartheid regimes that established separate and unequal conditions for whites and blacks. And the emphasis on the Anglo cultural superiority of the United States over darker peoples and other nations in what has been called “the American century” helped eclipse national legislation on racial justice and equity until the civil rights movement.

General Overviews

The scholarly attention to the imperialist legacies of Reconstruction is growing, taking much of its cue from what Prior characterizes as W. E. B. Du Bois’s provocative “imperialism thesis,” articulated in the classic work Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. Du Bois proposed that the postwar subjugation of African Americans (and the subsequent failure of an abolitionist democracy to emerge) formed a mold of the arguments for US global domination and hegemony over nonwhite peoples at the dawn of the twentieth century. At issue is the degree to which Reconstruction’s policies directly influenced US patterns and practices of American diplomacy and geopolitics. Eric Love 2004 sounds a word of caution in this regard, asserting that if racism was an entrenched cultural phenomenon that informed virtually all aspects of American life, it was not expressly articulated in the writings of American diplomacy because it risked encumbering efforts to promote US expansionism as a democracy-generating enterprise in the world. Still, such concerns have not quelled interest in researching the impact Reconstruction-era racism had over the rationale for American power abroad. In fact, historians, bearing such considerations in mind, are attempting to better understand how Reconstruction-era politics and postwar practices of American diplomacy coincided and diverged. One of the more notable attempts is to be found in Prior 2022, which assesses the Reconstruction era’s fateful shifts in policies from a global perspective and surveys the translation of post–Civil War ideas of empire and freedom across national borders. Beckert 2014 provides a useful historical account of how cotton turned the United States into an economic force in global markets. Prior and others have looked to the admirable attempts by Eric Foner 2013 and Jung to call attention to Du Bois’s early emphasis on an emerging Global South. Link 2019 adds to this effort by showing how US political, economic, and social trends were themselves transformed by an increasingly globalizing capitalism and emancipationism that extended across national borders. White 2017 and Richardson 2007 have enlarged the historical understanding of Reconstruction to include the issue of westward expansion. Downs 2019 has helped to center the issue of the proposed annexing of Cuba in postwar US efforts at empire building. The study of the historical connections between Reconstruction and the Global South has also benefited from Jung 2008s penetrating study of the racial formation of “coolies” (a derogatory term for Asian labor) in reimagining postwar racial inclusion/exclusion and from Hahn 2017, which focuses attention on the United States as an imperial actor from the early nineteenth century onward.

  • Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Vintage Books, 2014.

    A sweeping account of the impact cotton had on the reshaping of the circulation of global commodities from the Age of Conquest up until the twentieth century. Beckert provides a fairly substantial historical analysis of how the plantation economies of the US South helped develop the United States from a fledgling state into a rising world power at the dawn of the twentieth century.

  • Downs, Gregory P. The Second American Revolution: The Civil War–Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469652733.001.0001

    An instructive historical monograph that chronicles both the Civil War’s and Reconstruction’s impact on the ideological currencies of republicanism and freedom in the Atlantic, particularly Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880. Introduction by David Levering Lewis. New York: Free Press, 1998.

    Originally published in 1935, Black Reconstruction in America is arguably the fountainhead for much of modern Reconstruction-era historiography. It represents one of Du Bois’s major attempts to document the successes and failures of the Reconstruction era, the tragic triumph of white supremacy in the historical context of the Civil War, and the ideological impact Reconstruction had on the globalizing of the “color line.”

  • Foner, Eric. “Black Reconstruction: An Introduction.” South Atlantic Quarterly 112.3 (2013).

    DOI: 10.1215/00382876-2146368

    Provides a compact and useful synopsis of the major themes that run through W. E. B Du Bois’s seminal historical account of Reconstruction. Here, Foner briefly revisits Du Bois’s speculative (and controversial) thesis that implicates the post–Civil War suppression of black rights and equality in US efforts to extend its geopolitical power and influence over mainly nonwhite nations at the turn of the twentieth century.

  • Hahn, Steven. A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1910. New York: Penguin, 2017.

    An important contribution to historical studies on the foundations of US nationhood in the nineteenth century. Beginning with the 1830s, the book explores how US statehood and identity developed with imperial ambitions in mind into the first decades of the twentieth century.

  • Jung, Moon-Ho. Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

    An expansive study of how the racialization of Asian labor contributed to ideologies of enslavement, freedom, and equality domestically in the post–Civil War United States and in US imperial expansion.

  • Link, William A., ed. United States Reconstruction across the Americas. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019.

    An important work that seeks to show how transnational practices of emancipation, the globalizing of capitalism, and emergent nationalisms significantly contributed to the evolution of political, social, and economic developments in the United States.

  • Love, Eric. Race over Empire: Racism and U.S. Imperialism, 1865–1900. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    A compelling study that argues that foreign policy makers largely eschewed an explicitly racist logic of expansionism for fear that it might encumber possibilities for the American political experiment to serve as a redemptive force for the global good. Serves as an important counterargument and check on scholarly attempts to anchor the drafting of post–Civil War foreign policy documents and initiatives in an expressed racism.

  • Prior, David, ed. Reconstruction and Empire: The Legacies of Abolition and Union Victory for an Imperial Age. New York: Fordham University Press, 2022.

    A timely collection of essays that explores the effect Reconstruction-era policies had on the practices and patterns of US imperialism after the Civil War.

  • Richardson, Heather C. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    A sweeping historical study of the ways in which white settler colonialism and the formation of an American middle class expanded westward in the United States from the time of Abraham Lincoln through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.

  • White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    The volume says little about US imperial expansionism, but it is a historical monograph that rivals Eric Foner’s study of Reconstruction in breadth and scope, arguing that the Reconstruction period and the Gilded Age of late nineteenth-century monopoly capitalism were mutually reinforcing in their development and in their subsequent impact on late nineteenth-century US society.

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