Date of this Version
Documentary Editing, Volume 20, Number 2, June 1998.
ISSN 2476-1796 (electronic); ISSN 2167-1451 (print)
It is hard to believe that ten years have passed since the publication of Eric Foner's magnum opus, Reconstruction: America} Unfinished Revolution, 1863- 1877. It seems like only yesterday that the historical profession first encountered what is now considered the definitive history of the postbellum era in the United States~ The main reason for this temporal illusion, of course, is that scholars have offered little or no revision of the main story Foner offered in 1988. Indeed, the book seems destined to go the route of C. Vann Woodward's monumental work, Origins of the New South, which survived unscathed for over a quarter of a century before bowing to revisionism. Even now, in many seminar rooms across the country, Woodward's arguments are still considered credible. Foner's thesis has so far proven no less durable. Both men initiated paradigm shifts so compelling that even their detractors were forced to frame critiques within the authors' original parameters. Books like these are not easily overturned or ignored.
In Woodward's case, the task of challenging his main contention (that in the post-Reconstruction South, political power devolved not back to the old planter class, but to the former, antebellum merchant class) proved to be a somewhat facile exercise for scholars like Sheldon Hackney, Jonathan Weiner, and J. Morgan Kousser. They simply delved deeper into the primary materials, combing sources that Woodward had found either unavailable or unappealing. The challenges facing aspiring revisionists of Foner, however, are far more formidable. Not only did Foner masterfully synthesize over fifty years of scholarship (borrowing his main thesis from the eminent African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois, no less), he also blitzed readers with an arsenal of fresh primary materials. If revisionists have any hope of improving upon Foner's efforts, they necessarily lie in uncovering new sources rather than reworking old ones. Barring that, they somehow will have to effect another paradigm shift.
It is within this historiographical context that the Library of Virginia has published the diary of Jacob E. Yoder, a white teacher at the Freedmen's Bureau school in Lynchburg, Virginia.