The First Reconstruction

Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War

By Van Gosse

760 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 19 halftones, 4 maps, 8 tables

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7253-3
    Published: August 2022
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6011-0
    Published: January 2021

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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It may be difficult to imagine that a consequential black electoral politics evolved in the United States before the Civil War, for as of 1860, the overwhelming majority of African Americans remained in bondage. Yet free black men, many of them escaped slaves, steadily increased their influence in electoral politics over the course of the early American republic. Despite efforts to disfranchise them, black men voted across much of the North, sometimes in numbers sufficient to swing elections. In this meticulously-researched book, Van Gosse offers a sweeping reappraisal of the formative era of American democracy from the Constitution's ratification through Abraham Lincoln's election, chronicling the rise of an organized, visible black politics focused on the quest for citizenship, the vote, and power within the free states.

Full of untold stories and thorough examinations of political battles, this book traces a First Reconstruction of black political activism following emancipation in the North. From Portland, Maine and New Bedford, Massachusetts to Brooklyn and Cleveland, black men operated as voting blocs, denouncing the notion that skin color could define citizenship.

About the Author

Van Gosse is professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College.
For more information about Van Gosse, visit the Author Page.


"Gosse's immensely detailed The First Reconstruction offers a revealing, at times startling reconsideration of early national and antebellum political history. . . . A valuable work of history that speak[s] powerfully to our own historical moment."—New York Review of Books

"Gosse . . . does something revelatory: he has excavated the widespread engagement of black men in the electoral sphere. . . . A timely intervention for our own historical moment. The long history of racism in America has not faced such popular scrutiny since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s."—Jacobin

"In this creative, deeply researched, lucid, and well-argued book, Gosse (Franklin and Marshall College) offers a reinterpretation of an evolving reconstruction in race relations in the northern states long before the traditional start of Reconstruction following the Civil War in 1865. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice Reviews

"Gosse shows that men working behind the scenes or bent on small scale practical achievements deserve a place in history, and this book is a tribute to unsung heroes who worked in the trenches of electoral politics. By giving pride of place to the voices of the participants, often quoting extensively from newspaper articles, editorials and, to a lesser extent, letters, Gosse makes us feel the vibrancy and urgency of those debates."—Journal of American History

"An important work that provides a new interpretation of the politics of the ealy republic."—Civil War Monitor

"This pioneering work examines in depth the little-known ways that African Americans engaged in electoral politics during Republic's early years."—Portside