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The Reconstruction Presidents.

The Reconstruction Presidents. By Brooks D. Simpson. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Pp. ix, 276. $35.00.)

Numerous studies continue to highlight the complex circumstances that characterized efforts to reconstruct the South in the wake of Confederate defeat. A variety of state and regional studies, as well as others that emphasize specific aspects of the process, have recently served to further our understanding of the burdensome challenge that confronted policy planners during Reconstruction. In this new survey, Brooks Simpson returns to a familiar theme, Reconstruction era leadership. More specifically, he provides a chronological analysis of the four Reconstruction presidents.

Simpson reminds the reader that each of the men who served as president presided over a distinct phase of Reconstruction that involved peculiar circumstances and challenges. Rather than digressing into an account of the well-known events that characterized Reconstruction, however, Simpson remains true to his purpose and emphasizes the abilities and contributions of each man. Although he admits that his study relies, at times heavily, on earlier scholarship, the author is far from timid in presenting his interpretation of the relevance of the presidents. Through much of the study Simpson's perspective conforms to standard, widely held beliefs. Lincoln remains among the greatest of presidents, abundantly endowed with wisdom and compassion, yet challenged in a manner that had confronted no president before him. Johnson serves as the one Reconstruction president whose racial attitudes determined policy. Even worse, Johnson, who enjoyed the greatest opportunity to craft policy both beneficial to friends as well as commanding the potential to improve the quality of life for millions, instead squandered early hopes through the politics of confrontation and defiance. Hayes, the least significant leader, if measured by the treatment each receives, emerges as one who achieved the best he could under the circumstances.

It is the author's sympathetic treatment of Grant that may represent Simpson's most significant departure from standard historiography. According to Simpson, Grant faced the most daunting challenges that confronted any of the Reconstruction presidents. In contrast to the corruption-laced bungling assigned to the Grant administration by many other scholars, we find a determined president committed to justice in the face of adversity fashioned by both friend and foe. Simpson maintains that the task confronting Grant was beyond the powers of a president to overcome and concludes by asking, "Who else could have done a better job, and how?"(232).

Readers who demand groundbreaking research in support of any narrative may be disappointed with this volume. The paucity of primary research evident in some of the chapters remains the study's greatest weakness; chapter four on Johnson includes only three primary source notations. Despite the limits in certain areas of his research, Simpson has produced a compelling compilation that is certain to stimulate debate among scholars. Most readers will undoubtedly be pleased with this well-written and accessible treatment of the Reconstruction presidents.

Samuel C. Hyde Jr. Southeastern Louisiana University

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hyde, Samuel C. Jr.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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