Reconstructing Democracy
Grassroots Black Politics in the Deep South after the Civil War

Justin Behrend

How politically engaged freedpeople shaped a new system of governance in the South


"Behrend's exploration of the coherence, no less than the contradictions, of popular mobilization is memorable. Here is a book for scholar and activist alike."
—Julie Saville, American Historical Review

"Reconstructing Democracy deepens, elaborates and adds to a broader debate over Reconstruction, with careful argument and the patient accrual of evidence. In the meticulous work found on every page – and in the abiding devotion of the author to the idea that common people have a political history – Behrend's work is the perfect place for scholars to begin the work of re-imagining the history of America's most tortured historical moment."
—Erik Mathisen, Reviews in History

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Former slaves, with no prior experience in electoral politics and with few economic resources or little significant social standing, created a sweeping political movement that transformed the South after the Civil War. Within a few short years after emancipation, not only were black men voting but they had elected thousands of ex-slaves to political offices. Historians have long noted the role of African American slaves in the fight for their emancipation and their many efforts to secure their freedom and citizenship, yet they have given surprisingly little attention to the system of governance that freedpeople helped to fashion. Justin Behrend argues that freedpeople created a new democracy in the Reconstruction era, replacing the oligarchic rule of slaveholders and Confederates with a grassroots democracy.

Reconstructing Democracy tells this story through the experiences of ordinary people who lived in the Natchez District, a region of the Deep South where black political mobilization was very successful. Behrend shows how freedpeople set up a political system rooted in egalitarian values wherein local communities rather than powerful individuals held power and ordinary people exercised unprecedented influence in governance. In so doing, he invites us to reconsider not only our understanding of Reconstruction but also the nature and origins of democracy more broadly.


Page count: 376
7 b&w photos, 1 table, 1 map
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $59.95

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Justin Behrend is associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Geneseo.