It would be diffi cult to overemphasize the degree to which African American writers and orators represented the period following the Civil War as a moment of historically unprecedented hope. Initially heralded as the practical extension of democratic principle, and later harkened back to as a truncated experiment with democracy, Reconstruction’s lost promise continues to reverberate in the political imagination of African American culture. Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s March 18, 2008, speech serves well as a contemporary exemplar of this confl icted and ongoing legacy. In response to criticisms raised about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Obama condemned Wright’s provocative racial comments and yet affi rmed a blacknational historical memory traced back to the failures of Reconstruction. He acknowledged the anger and frustration of African Americans and the enduring racial hierarchies of twenty-fi rst-century United States. Stepping into a role many African Americans might recognize, Obama served on this day as a race teacher, asking a nation to remember that

so many of the disparities that exist between the African-American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. (New York Times, 18 March 2008)1

Just as Obama straddled the line between hope and censure, African American post-Civil War commentators were watchful and qualifi ed their praise from Emancipation through each hard-won political battle of the Radical Republican reform era. For Harper, the initial years of Reconstruction were a time of great productivity and experimentation. Despite continued misgivings about the intrinsic corruption of government, Harper, like the great majority of African American abolitionists, actively supported the so-called Radical Revolution of the 39th Congress of 1865. Led by a coalition of abolitionist Republicans and free labor advocates whose commitment to civil rights of a more utilitarian quality, this initiative would ultimately result in the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and

other major civil rights legislation. Southern Democrats of the planter class derisively termed the emergent Radical agenda “Black Republicanism.”