Van Gosse is Professor of History and Chair of Africana Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. This interview is based on his new book, The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (The John Hope Franklin Series in African (The University of North Carolina Press, 2021).
JF: What led you to write The First Reconstruction?
VG: I discovered that black men had played a significant role in voting, parties, and elections from the Revolution on, which only a few historians had written about.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The First Reconstruction?
VG: First, that black men actively participated in mainstream politics from the 1790s, and their widespread disfranchisement was driven by the desire to erase their political influence. Second, aided by powerful white allies, they increased their influence in the decades before the Civil War, in New England, New York, and Ohio, greatly disturbing Democrats and slaveholders.
JF: Why do we need to read The First Reconstruction?
VG: Knowing there was a biracial politics after the Revolution challenges core understandings of U.S. history: Radical Reconstruction after 1865 was in many ways a culmination of the contested, rolling “first reconstruction” of the North after 1790.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
VG: After several years of travelling the country as a political organizer in the mid-1980s, I realized I needed to understand this country, if I wanted to change it.
JF: What is your next project?
VG: Very provisionally, an international history of El Salvador’s civil war in 1980-1994.
JF: Thanks, Van!