How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II

This spring, I’m teaching a college course called United States History Since 1865. It’s a staple of American curricula. I have decided that it might be interesting to provide a walkthrough of the first lecture.

This should be an opportunity to articulate, step by step, some basic intuitions about how to achieve truthful storytelling in the classroom. (It’s also a chance to show—in a real situation rather than a political taking point—how I handle “divisive concepts” and “widely debated and currently controversial issues” related to American racism, inasmuch as this first lecture was about Reconstruction.)

This lecture was not perfect. It didn’t represent especially sophisticated historiography. But I am going to try to use it now to demonstrate the problem-solving nature of an interactive lecture about a fraught topic.

Specifically, I believe this walkthrough will illustrate the following nine aspects of my method for telling a story in the classroom:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Each of these elements will appear in the description that follows, and most will appear several times.

In the first place, let’s consider the basic situation.

The lecture I was preparing would be the first content-focused lesson in my course. It would be about seventy-five minutes long. I knew there would be around thirty students present for its delivery. Few, if any, of these students could have read the relevant chapter in the main textbook yet. So the lecture should take nothing for granted about the background information students already might know, nor about how much interest they might have.

The next content-based lesson, to be delivered two days later, would be built around a set of primary sources I was asking these students to read ahead of time. But this first lesson would assume they were almost a blank slate.

This lecture needed to make sense on its own. It needed to be interactive somehow. And it needed to lay a foundation not only for the second lesson, but also for all the rest of the course. That meant it needed to explain, very early on, what we were doing here and why students should care.

Here’s one of the first rules I figured out as a graduate teaching assistant, some fifteen years ago: To get students to buy into a historical topic, think small. Focus on something concrete, local, and situated—and find a human-sized perspective to take on the events you want to narrate. Get students to join you in imagining a particular human moment before you ask them to ponder abstractions or generalities.

With this in mind, I called my lecture “After the End.” It would place students in the aftermath of a great war, facing an unknown future for the United States. We were imagining ourselves into the moment after everything happened.

Why that moment? When I delivered the lecture, I threw that as a question to the crowd before going any further. Why did this course, “United States History Since 1865,” begin in 1865? What was special about that year? As I expected, a small number of students were confident enough to reply out loud that the American Civil War ended that year.

Yes, I said, that’s right. Because the Civil War was a moment when many things changed.

Before I went any further, I explained that this lecture wouldn’t be about memorizing names and dates. Instead, I was asking students to pay attention to cause-effect relationships as the United States changed over time. My lecture slides would highlight certain terms (in yellow or gold) the same way a textbook might use bold print to indicate key concepts; students should learn to define those terms and explain their significances. But the whole point was to figure out what shifted in American life, and why.

So, I said, resuming the story, it’s 1865, and the guns are falling silent. Now we have to figure out what comes next.

My second slide had no text on it. It was just a high-resolution photograph of the ruins of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1865.

* * *

Standing in front of this background, I explained that we were starting our story after a cataclysm. On a conservative estimate, some 620,000 people had died in this war—far more in absolute terms than in any other war in U.S. history. (Many historians, I added, now believe a more accurate figure for the dead may be closer to three quarters of a million.) We lost about two percent of the entire country.

That meant everyone was affected. If you didn’t lose someone, you probably knew someone who did. Or you knew of someone who came home and was never the same. Or you won your freedom for the first time, or you knew someone who did. Or you spent four years waiting in terror for news. Or, in some cases, your city burned.

So when this war ended, we needed it to mean something. We needed this psychologically, morally, and politically.

What did it mean? What was it about? Again, I presented this as a question to my students, assuring them it wasn’t a trick question. What was the Civil War about?

Once again, a handful of students were willing to venture an answer: It was about slavery. And I concurred. That was exactly right.

Slide: "Overview. Evolving meanings of the Civil War. Presidential Reconstruction. Congressional Reconstruction."

But, I said, we do need to look a little more closely at that fact before we go any further. (Here, I put up a slide with a simple three-point outline for the rest of the lesson.)

The meaning of this war over slavery had evolved a bit over time. We would start there, and then we would talk about two phases in the “Reconstruction” process that followed the war.

First, make no mistake: Confederate leaders had been perfectly clear about why they wanted the war.

They had announced their secession from the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery, which they believed was under threat. They did this almost immediately after the election of Abraham Lincoln as the first Republican president in late 1860—for the Republican Party had been organized specifically to fight the expansion of slavery in the United States. The Confederates had been perfectly clear about their reasons for secession. And then, in the spring of 1861, they had fired on a U.S. military installation in the Charleston harbor.

Knowing that a few students might be skeptical of my version of events, I presented the class with a photograph and text from Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. He himself had held three dozen people in slavery. In an infamous speech, in Savannah in early 1861, he had made short work of declaring the cause the Confederates were fighting for: not merely the persistence of slavery in the South, but white supremacy writ large across American civilization.

As I like to do, as a way to maintain control of student attention, I displayed a small part of this speech for students to read along with me, but I also quoted a short portion that I didn’t display.

In the North, however, the situation had been more complicated. (I moved to a new slide.)

Before and during the war, northern white opinion had been divided over slavery. Even opponents of slavery didn’t necessarily believe the U.S. government had the constitutional power to liberate its victims.

I quoted Abraham Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley from August 1862: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

So what had changed? How had this become, for the United States, a war for the abolition of slavery?

Let me pause to reflect on what I did there. It was a paradoxical attempt to do two things at once. First, I was trying to reassure students that they knew this story already and could participate in recounting it. But second, I was also trying to create suspense by calling into question the familiar story. This destabilizing double effect would be crucial for drawing students into the moment of Reconstruction.

Now I provided what I believe to be the view of most 19th-century American historians today: a modified version of the “self-emancipation thesis” that doesn’t downplay the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s actions but stresses the importance of Black agency in the wartime context. During the war, African Americans asserted themselves—forcefully—against the slave power, driving crucial changes in federal policy between 1861 and 1865.

(Basically, I tried to present the synthesis found in Ira Berlin’s 1997 essay “Who Freed the Slaves? Emancipation and Its Meaning.” Somewhat ironically, though, I can tell that I also drew on James Oakes’s Freedom National, which makes a flawed argument about federal policy but is great on the indispensable role of warfare itself in the emancipation process.)

Avoiding the complexities of the debate, I presented this part of the lecture through three basic propositions.

First, opinion in the white North had been divided over slavery at the outset of the war, and even white opponents of slavery generally didn’t believe the Constitution allowed the federal government to take action against slavery in most places where it already existed. But second, during the war, enslaved Americans had made their own freedom an urgent military issue by liberating themselves and seeking freedom behind U.S. lines. Third, partly because of their actions, the U.S. government had subsequently enshrined the logic of emancipation’s being “a fit and necessary war measure” in the Emancipation Proclamation (and the Confiscation Acts, though I kept the story simple).

Then I observed a fourth development giving the U.S. war effort a clearer antislavery purpose: the enlistment of about 200,000 African Americans, who made this war their own struggle.

Here I added something new to the lecture—something I hadn’t included the last time I taught this topic. I’m glad I added it this time.

I wanted to make the service experience of these Black freedom fighters more immediate. So I borrowed a primary source exercise from DocsTeach, an educational tool provided by the National Archives. I put up side-by-side photographs of Private Hubbard Pryor. These photographs were taken at the time of his enlistment in the 44th U.S. Colored Troop Regiment in Chattanooga.

Pryor had liberated himself from slavery in northwestern Georgia and made his way about 70 miles north to U.S.-held territory. I asked students to consider the photos taken immediately before and after his induction. Looking at these photographs, what do you imagine the war means to Pryor, personally? What’s at stake for him as he dons this blue uniform?

I got good answers to this question.

Then I revealed that Pryor would be captured by Confederate forces about six months later and re-enslaved for the duration of the Civil War. Yet he would outlive the war for another quarter-century, finally dying as a free man in Texas in 1890.

It was tens of thousands of people like Hubbard Pryor, I said, who cemented the meaning of the Civil War as a struggle for the end of slavery.

Thus, I continued, by the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as president in early 1865, he now could describe the war in apocalyptic terms as a divine judgment against the United States. The entire war had become about abolishing this evil.

I noted that a few lines of Lincoln’s second inaugural address—the bit about “malice toward none”—have often been quoted out of context as a plea for national reconciliation. But the full speech is a searing indictment of slavery as it had existed in America since 1619, and an affirmation that “every drop of blood” shed in the war, on both sides, was the necessary payment for it.

That’s how, for people like Lincoln, the war’s meaning had changed during those four long years.

Let me pause again to note some of what I was doing, in terms of storytelling.

First, I was trying to make sure that Black Americans were represented in this story not only in the aggregate, but in at least one specific ordinary example. After all, I always try to remember the grim joke attributed (apocryphally) to Joseph Stalin, that a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic. It’s important not to let human realities, positive or negative, get lost in numerical abstractions.

The especially great thing about using the Hubbard Pryor photos for this purpose is that they capture a clear moment in time in a way that led students themselves, without even thinking about it, to formulate a narrative.

The way these photos were taken, apparently just minutes apart in the same location, meant students had basically no choice except to construct a rudimentary story around them. That was just psychology in action. Once the photos were up, I was mostly a bystander in the storytelling process … except for the fact that revealing Hubbard Pryor’s subsequent experience as a prisoner of war let me drive home a point about the nature of the Confederacy.

Second, by quoting Abraham Lincoln at two different points in time—or three, if we include the proclamation—I was making the Great Emancipator a realistically dynamic character. This had nothing to do with either undermining or affirming his traditional image of saintliness. It was simply a matter of showing him as a person who changed over time. It didn’t take much effort to demonstrate this process of growth; indeed, I did it without really making the lecture about Lincoln at all.

Now it was time, at last, to pivot to discussing Reconstruction itself.

Here, again, I needed to set a scene. By early 1864, I told students, U.S. forces controlled significant parts of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee. There were also several border states that hadn’t tried to leave the union, but which permitted slavery: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and the new state of West Virginia.

In this situation, I asked, what would you expect to be the key problems for rebuilding the country after a U.S. victory? What things need to happen that we might expect to be difficult? And what do African Americans, in particular, need?

Students offered some perceptive answers. Together, we proposed that, among other things, rebuilding would probably require convincing white southerners to lay down their arms; safeguarding the rights of Black southerners under threat from them; and meeting the urgent physical needs of war survivors and refugees.

Indeed, by the end of 1863, I said, Abraham Lincoln had devised a plan for—hopefully—neutralizing hostile white southerners at the same time as upholding the principle of emancipation. Lincoln proposed that the vast majority of defeated Confederates would be able to obtain an amnesty for their treason—theoretically a capital crime—by swearing a simple oath to remain loyal to the United States and to recognize emancipation.

To make the concept of a loyalty oath less abstract, I displayed (and quoted aloud) the notarized oath signed by Gen. Robert E. Lee two years later: “I, Robert E. Lee of Lexington Virginia do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States … and that I will … abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

In addition to the offer of amnesty, I added, Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” provided that any former rebel state would be allowed to organize a new government and send representatives to Congress once a mere tenth of its 1860 number of voters had sworn loyalty. This would, ideally, lead to the rapid formation of functioning state governments that could secure the South and uphold the freedom of formerly enslaved southerners.

But, I added, if this had become a war for Black liberation, then Reconstruction also involved the problem of slavery’s continued existence outside the Confederacy, untouched by the Emancipation Proclamation.

So now I introduced the Thirteenth Amendment as the first of three “Reconstruction Amendments” to the national Constitution, carefully noting the timing of its adoption: It was approved by Congress in early 1865, while the war raged, and it was ratified by the states at the end of the year.

Now, I said, for the first time, slavery had been outlawed everywhere in the United States or under American control. Yet there’s a sort of loophole here. What limitation does this sweeping prohibition have?

A student astutely observed that the Constitution still permitted forced labor as punishment for a crime.

That’s right, I said. That’s something to keep an eye on as we move forward in time.

Once again, let me pause to make an observation about the structure of my storytelling.

In this part of the lecture, I was repeating a trick from the opening minutes: Setting a scene that was also a problem that needed to be solved.

The U.S. occupation of rebel territory, which was a scene I could describe, necessarily entailed problems—some of which my students were capable of predicting. And the relationship between those problems and the limited scope of the Emancipation Proclamation let me remind students about at least one big problem for the rest of U.S. territory.

These problems, in turn, led directly to two key events that I needed to cover in this lecture: Lincoln’s amnesty plan and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Rather than simply stating them as facts to memorize, I could present them as solutions to specific problems arising at specific points in time.

This kind of storytelling was an organic process: Scenes led naturally to problems, which led naturally to solutions, i.e., key facts I needed to highlight, which advanced the action of the story (and led to new scenes and problems).

And hopefully, this narrative movement happened without making students lose sight of contingency—the fact that things could have turned out differently. The problems and solutions were presented as arising in time and space, in sites of conflict, not as factual faits accomplis.

At this point, we were finally well into the basic concept of Reconstruction. So now we needed to talk about the messiness it had in practice.

“Messiness,” by the way, is a dimension of the past that I find critical to get across in a college-level history course. A more sophisticated historiographical term for it is “complexity,” but I prefer a visceral way of speaking about it in class. “Complexity” can be neat, clean, and elegant. That is not the image I want to evoke here. Plans fail; people behave badly; tradeoffs become unbearable; accidents happen; things fail to make sense; evil triumphs—but not necessarily the way you expect.

It’s especially important to get this across when a lesson is built around a narrative of problems and solutions—i.e., a progress narrative—like the one I had been telling so far.

But it’s also important when the form of the narrative makes it a story about decline or failure—which is what the later parts of a Reconstruction lecture, or, in this case, a pair of Reconstruction lectures, must be.

It’s now time to take up the beginning of my failure narrative. Here again, it helps to set a specific scene.

I wish I could recall what historian inspired me to include this scene in my lecture, but it’s been part of it so long now that I simply don’t know. Relying ultimately on the “Rehearsals for Reconstruction” chapter in Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, I drew students’ attention to Louisiana, key parts of which were under U.S. military control as early as the spring of 1862.

From their headquarters in the occupied Gulf port city of New Orleans, federal commanders should have had a good opportunity to establish emancipation and equal rights in the former Confederacy.

Though located in the heart of the deep South at the terminus of the Mississippi plantation corridor, New Orleans itself had centuries of experience as a socially and culturally diverse city with a large free population of color and a significant unionist presence.

Granted, the city’s gens de couleur libres had faced deteriorating conditions over the previous three decades. There was also the awkward fact that U.S. occupation of New Orleans and a dozen other Louisiana parishes had come before the Emancipation Proclamation, so that the president’s directive did not directly apply to enslaved people there. And because the city fell so early, the will of New Orleans’ white elite to resist U.S. authority was far from broken. Yet there was reason to hope that parts of Louisiana could serve as an early model for a free South.

It was also promising that the key army commanders in New Orleans, Gen. Benjamin Butler and then Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, were both Yankee politicians with significant antislavery credentials. In charge of New Orleans, “Beast” Butler developed a reputation for harsh military rule. When he was transferred away in late 1862, Banks, replacing him, appeared to be ideally situated to win the support, or at least acquiescence, of the Louisiana elite while promoting Black rights.

But in practice, General Banks faced a tense political and social situation, in which pro-Union politicians were divided among themselves. He settled on a policy of accommodation with the enslaver elite. It led to a new state constitution abolishing slavery, yet it offered minimal protection to free Black Americans.

Under these conditions, the best-case scenario for Louisiana was grim. Abraham Lincoln told Banks in the summer of 1863 that their goal should be to establish “some practical system” that would let white and Black people “gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other” over the course of generations, mostly through the education of younger African Americans.

The bottom line in the meantime: The reorganized Louisiana government would not offer voting rights to its Black citizens. Planters and other members of the enslaver elite would keep their property, while their former captives would be on their own to find the means to survive. And the U.S. occupation forces would authorize and enforce a system of annual labor contracts that would largely confine newly “free” workers on plantations.

(I displayed and quoted from a similar labor contract from western Georgia in 1867, in which a formerly enslaved couple promised to be “faithful, industrious, and honest” and to “obey all reasonable demands” of their employer until the end of the year.)

The situation in Louisiana, in other words, showed that the United States would treat large-scale Black freedom as a disorderly social problem to be managed by the white ruling class. Occupied wartime New Orleans ended up revealing strict limits to the federal commitment to liberty. This was not a promising sign for what Reconstruction would mean elsewhere in the South, even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

With that context established, I could move into the contrast that would frame the rest of the lecture: The conflict between the presidential and congressional visions for Reconstruction after 1865.

We’ve now encountered several basic problems that will hamper Reconstruction, I noted, setting up the transition. But there’s one more we need to keep in mind. Tell me, what happens to President Lincoln on April 15, 1865, when he attends a play at a theater in Washington, D.C.?

Of course, several students were able to guess that this was the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. (Actually, I should have said he attended the play on April 14; he died the next morning.)

That’s right, I said. And this means the job of overseeing Reconstruction will now fall to his vice president, Andrew Johnson.

When Andrew Johnson became president, the war was still going on, and Congress was in recess. Because of this, for several months, setting policy for Reconstruction would be up to him.

Thus, I told students, we can speak of “presidential Reconstruction” as a distinct period of time as well as a philosophical approach to what Reconstruction should involve.

Some personal background information would be useful for understanding this moment.

In 1864, Johnson had been chosen as Lincoln’s running mate on a unity ticket—technically representing the “National Union Party” rather than the G.O.P.—as a unionist Democrat from Tennessee. He had been serving as a U.S. senator when his state announced its secession in 1861, and in 1862, Lincoln had even appointed him to be Tennessee’s military governor.

In that role, Johnson, who had grown up in poverty, had distinguished himself for vindictiveness against his state’s secessionist elite. So when he took over the White House in 1865, there was some reason to think he might set a harsh tone for Reconstruction.

Instead, the new president’s violent racism—and his belief in an expansive constitutional doctrine of states’ rights—won out. Johnson would do little to protect the rights of Black southerners beyond upholding the mere fact of emancipation. And he was quick to rehabilitate even high-ranking and rich Confederates who appealed to him for a pardon.

Presidential Reconstruction would change very little beyond the legal status of those who had been enslaved.

This set up the conditions for a challenge from antislavery “radical” Republicans in Congress, led by veteran abolitionist campaigners like Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. The latter, famously, had survived a near-assassination by proslavery politicians in the U.S. Senate chamber in 1856.

To establish the stakes of this challenge, I read from a speech Sumner gave in Boston in 1866: “The question at issue is one of the vastest ever presented for practical decision,” he told his audience. “Failure now will make the war itself a failure; surrender now will undo all our victories. Let the president prevail, and straightway the plighted faith of the republic will be broken, … and the rebel region will be handed over to misrule and anarchy.”

This conviction was the basis for “congressional Reconstruction.” It was made possible by a decisive Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1866—which gave the radicals the power to override Johnson’s vetoes.

Outlining the measures that the Radical Republicans passed into law over Johnson’s objections, I gave evidence of their success: By late 1867, about three quarters of a million Black southerners were already registered to vote—virtually all as Republicans, for obvious reasons.

Then, partly in response to Johnson’s vetoes and stonewalling, the Republicans advanced a new amendment that would enshrine several key ideas in our federal Constitution.

I quoted from the text of this Fourteenth Amendment at some length.

Then, picking up my laser pointer, I drew attention to several clauses and concepts that would become the basis for major shifts in American law, in future decades if not during Reconstruction itself: birthright citizenship, the privileges and immunities clause, the due process clause, and the equal protection clause.

With this amendment to the Constitution, I emphasized, the work of the Radical Republicans had laid a new basis for protecting all kinds of individual rights in America. Protecting the rights of Black Americans had become fundamental for defining, protecting, and expanding the rights of everyone else, too.

(Here, I was echoing the work of historians like Martha S. Jones, whose Birthright Citizens, published in 2018, shows how the “vernacular legal culture” of ordinary Black activists in Baltimore, contesting the limits of citizenship during the prewar decades, eventually helped redefine U.S. citizenship itself.)

Unfortunately, I added, both the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and central provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment would go virtually unenforced by the federal courts at first. In fact, when the Supreme Court of the United States did base major decisions on the Fourteenth Amendment later in the century—and well into the 1900s—the justices would use it mainly as a rationale for protecting private business corporations from regulations.

But that, I added, would be a topic for later weeks in the course.

In the meantime, the U.S. military was doing some things that were much more important, in the short term, for people who had once been enslaved.

I drew students’ attention to a scene that their textbook describes in some detail: A meeting in January 1865 between General William T. Sherman, who commanded the U.S. forces that had recently captured Savannah, and Black religious leaders in the city. At this meeting, the Black leaders pointed out what emancipation must mean in practical terms. Freedom, they said, meant “placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor.” In order to achieve this, they said, “we want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

General Sherman subsequently issued Special Field Order 15—approved by President Lincoln but later countermanded by Andrew Johnson—redistributing a zone of abandoned and confiscated coastal plantations to 40,000 Black refugees, in the form of forty-acre farm plots. Together with an offer of surplus army mules, this became an offer of “forty acres and a mule”—a shorthand expression, repeated down to our day, for the U.S. government’s broken promises to its formerly enslaved citizens.

Despite the reversal of Sherman’s promise, I told students, the work of the U.S. military became critical for making freedom real in the occupied South. This was what Reconstruction meant on the ground in the 1860s.

A special agency in the War Department called the Freedmen’s Bureau—officially the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands,” which is a name that provides important insight into the nature and scope of its work—was given the task of overseeing relief efforts for African Americans in the former Confederacy.

Some of the Freedmen’s Bureau was geared toward simple survival. We should think of this moment, I said, as comparable to other wartime refugee crises.

But some of the Freedmen’s Bureau work met critical longer-term needs.

For one thing, the Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for offering Black southerners a basic education on a large scale for the first time. By 1869, the Bureau would sponsor 3,000 teachers and something like 150,000 pupils. This was, among other things, an important opportunity for some antislavery northerners, including Black as well as white women, to do Reconstruction work. And its importance in Black life in the South would be difficult to overstate.

The Bureau could also offer some forms of legal representation, investigating complaints and intervening in disputes. The most important form of legal help it offered to many families, however, was one that might not seem obvious to students today: The Freedman’s Bureau certified marriages.

I displayed a copy of a Bureau marriage certificate issued in Kentucky in 1866. (I’ve written about this source before.) I read some of its contents, observing that it named the couple—Emily Pointer and John Pointer—and nine of their children, starting with the eldest, Nellie Ann Pointer, who was twenty years old.

What’s unusual about this, for a marriage certificate? I asked, inviting students to state the obvious. When I got the obvious answer—it listed children and certified a marriage that had already existed for a long time—I doubled down on it.

Here we have two people who have somehow managed to hold together their marriage and their family in captivity, with no legal recognition for any of it, since 1844. For more than twenty years, they’ve been on their own. And now, at long last, the government of the United States is recognizing what they’ve built. This, too, is part of the work of reconstructing the South.

Slide: Searching for Lost Family. Four newspaper advertisements from 1865 and 1866.

Before I moved on, this discussion of family life allowed me to talk briefly about another aspect of Reconstruction, as it was lived out by ordinary people trying to build freedom for themselves.

Following the war, and for decades afterward, countless people across the United States searched for loved ones who had been torn away from them by enslavers, or who had escaped—often family members they hadn’t seen in decades, but for whom they still longed. To explain, I displayed and read a few examples of their “information wanted” advertisements in different parts of the country.

Finally, it was time for me to bring Reconstruction to a crisis, so that I could wrap up this lecture and make an opening for the next one.

I had chosen the impeachment of Andrew Johnson—a visible and dramatic confrontation between presidential and congressional Reconstruction—as the moment that would serve as a hinge between my two Reconstruction lectures.

All through the process so far, I said, Andrew Johnson had been finding ways to obstruct Congress’s goals. Now, around late 1867, Johnson gave the Radical Republicans an opportunity to solve the problem by removing him from office. This opportunity involved the secretary of war Johnson had inherited from Lincoln: Edwin Stanton.

In the spring of 1867, Republicans in Congress had passed the Tenure of Office Act, which protected Stanton and other cabinet officials from being fired without the U.S. Senate’s approval. That summer, Johnson, believing (probably correctly) that the law was unconstitutional, had fired Stanton anyway, hoping to replace him with a secretary of war who would act in ways more consistent with the president’s views.

(The actual process of replacing Stanton—originally with none other than General Ulysses S. Grant—was pretty complicated and took several months. Also, Republicans in Congress had already been trying to impeach Johnson for other things. But I didn’t go into either of these facts in class.)

Republicans responded to this legal violation by impeaching Andrew Johnson in February 1868.

Here, I stopped to pose a basic procedural question: How does impeachment work, exactly? This is a process we’ve recently become, uh, more familiar with than we used to be. What does it involve? Answering the question, one student offered me an impressively detailed description of the roles played by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

In February, I said, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Johnson. His trial took place before the Senate over the course of several weeks. It understandably became a public sensation. (I gestured at the image I’d found of a ticket—one of 1,000 printed for each trial day— admitting a spectator to watch the excitement from the gallery.)

I was trying to play up the drama of the moment. I knew that in this case, many students might not actually know what the outcome would be for Andrew Johnson.

Finally, I said, on May 16, 1868, the Senate came to its decision. When the vote was finally held on three articles of impeachment, the Senate failed to reach the required two-thirds majority to remove Johnson from office … by only a single vote. A few Republican senators had gotten cold feet.

I offered the conventional interpretation of what came next: Johnson finished out the final year of Lincoln’s second term relatively quietly. He was not nominated by either party to serve a second term. In November of the same year, the Republican candidate, Ulysses Grant, won the election, allowing Reconstruction to continue along Republican lines—for now.

Meanwhile, I said, the South was being successfully transformed in a few crucial ways. To wrap up the narrative with a proper denouement following the crisis, I offered this as one last “scene.”

General Grant’s victory in the presidential election of 1868 had been made possible by southern Black voters.

During the later 1860s, the states of the former Confederacy had been writing new state constitutions, complying with Reconstruction policy by recognizing not only African Americans’ freedom but also Black men’s voting rights. Across the South, substantial numbers of Black men now took part directly in politics, both locally and nationally.

Indeed, between 1868 and 1876, the first-ever Black congressmen (some of whom were visible on the screen) would be elected to sit in the U.S. government: fourteen members of the House of Representatives, and two members of the Senate.

The bitter irony, I told students, is that these trailblazing African American officeholders came from the former Confederacy. Northern states still didn’t offer the same protections that southern states had been required to establish.

But in 1870, a final “Reconstruction amendment” to the U.S. Constitution was designed to transform the North as well as the South. The Thirteenth Amendment had abolished slavery; the Fourteenth had established birthright citizenship and the principle of the equal protection of the laws. Now the Fifteenth Amendment promised that Black men would never be denied the right to vote on the basis of their race.

Unfortunately, with this amendment, the cause of equal rights for African Americans had reached its legal high point for the next 95 years.

I finished the lecture with a simple photograph of the U.S. Capitol dome being rebuilt in the 1860s. It was a fitting visual metaphor, I said. During the Civil War, the national capitol had been literally remade to be stronger, taller, and grander than before.

* * *

Standing in front of this background, I offered three possible takeaway points from the day’s lecture.

First, we had seen Black equality, not just legal emancipation, become central to the Civil’s War meaning, both during the fighting and afterward.

Second, we had seen the federal government’s role in American life fundamentally change—with new guarantees for individual rights being made at the national level.

Third, we had witnessed a troubling paradox: It was under military occupation that the American South had started to become meaningfully democratic for the first time.

That paradox—and what it implied about the limits of Reconstruction—would be important to keep in mind. Because this window of opportunity would not last long.

Powerful forces of reaction are gathering, I said. We’ll talk about them next time.

There you have it. That was my first lecture in U.S. History II in the spring of 2022.

Laying out the full lecture this way, I notice all kinds of things I could have done better. There are omissions and judgment calls that seem like glaring mistakes, in fact. For one thing, the lecture should have been more interactive, ideally with a small-group element. It was extremely male and actually very white, too—although I’m happy to say the next lecture, delivered two days later, would be much better in all three of those respects. I also notice that the three-point outline was oddly balanced, and several slides were too text-heavy.

But in the room, it seemed to work.

Reviewing what I’ve written here, I find that each of the nine storytelling moves I identified at the beginning of this post was crucial to making the narrative work. What’s more, each of these elements was interrelated with the others. They depended on each other to be effective:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Reflecting on where these narrative moves came from, I think most of them arose in my work through trial and error during my first years of teaching. I don’t really see them as copies of specific models.

Yet in the general ethos I see here, I do detect affinities with certain teachers I can credit, particularly professors I took or worked for in graduate school. The way I incorporate biographical material, for example, probably owes a lot to Andrew W. Cohen’s methods in the modern U.S. survey. The occasional use of visual metaphors, and the examination of images as primary sources, seem related to my acquaintance at various times with teaching by Junko Takeda (early modern France), Lisa Jarvinen (world history surveys), and Andrew C. Lipman (the American Revolution). My storytelling mode, for lack of a less vague term, has a few traces of the example of David H. Bennett, who for decades ran a legendary set of auditorium courses in 20th-century U.S. history at Syracuse University—although I’m probably the only person who would see a resemblance. The way I construct slides has a faint trace of the undergraduate New Testament courses I took with Renate Viveen Hood.

But my suspicion is that each of the people I have named had to come up with their own solutions to the same problems that I had to solve as a young instructor.

It’s true that teachers heavily influence each other. And it’s true that certain methods have proven successful for designers of all kinds of narratives, around the world in generation after generation. But it’s also probably true that anyone who tells stories in the classroom will have to settle gradually into their own approach to the challenges that tellers of true stories face. That’s the single most important source of our resemblances.

The way I told the story of Reconstruction this spring is different from the way I told it two years ago, and it’s very, very different from the way I told it the first time, nine years ago. That’s a good thing.

What remains the most consistent are the basic narrative challenges: commanding and holding attention, eliciting active involvement, explaining concepts, linking ideas, showing change over time, and simply finding places to start and stop.