The Failed Promise: Book summary and reviews of The Failed Promise by Robert S. Levine

The Failed Promise

Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

by Robert S. Levine

The Failed Promise by Robert S. Levine X
The Failed Promise by Robert S. Levine
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Book Summary

Robert S. Levine foregrounds the viewpoints of Black Americans on Reconstruction in his absorbing account of the struggle between the great orator Frederick Douglass and President Andrew Johnson.

When Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the country was on the precipice of radical change. Johnson, seemingly more progressive than Lincoln, looked like the ideal person to lead the country. He had already cast himself as a "Moses" for the Black community, and African Americans were optimistic that he would pursue aggressive federal policies for Black equality.

Despite this early promise, Frederick Douglass, the country's most influential Black leader, soon grew disillusioned with Johnson's policies and increasingly doubted the president was sincere in supporting Black citizenship. In a dramatic and pivotal meeting between Johnson and a Black delegation at the White House, the president and Douglass came to verbal blows over the course of Reconstruction.

As he lectured across the country, Douglass continued to attack Johnson's policies, while raising questions about the Radical Republicans' hesitancy to grant African Americans the vote. Johnson meanwhile kept his eye on Douglass, eventually making a surprising effort to appoint him to a key position in his administration.

Levine grippingly portrays the conflicts that brought Douglass and the wider Black community to reject Johnson and call for a guilty verdict in his impeachment trial. He brings fresh insight by turning to letters between Douglass and his sons, speeches by Douglass and other major Black figures like Frances E. W. Harper, and articles and letters in the Christian Recorder, the most important African American newspaper of the time. In counterpointing the lives and careers of Douglass and Johnson, Levine offers a distinctive vision of the lost promise and dire failure of Reconstruction, the effects of which still reverberate today.
19 illustrations

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"[E]xcellent...[R]eaders will appreciate Levine's many significant insights...Outstanding as both a biography and a work of Reconstruction-era history." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Brilliantly spotlighting Douglass's rhetorical strategies and mounting despair over the failure of Reconstruction, this trenchant study speaks clearly to today's battles over voting rights and racial justice." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This richly researched, comprehensive work is a crucial addition to American history sections that also traces the roots of government failure to quell anti-Black violence." - Booklist (starred review)

"In this engrossing new book, Robert S. Levine has penned a nuanced and detailed study of the 'hopes and frustrations of Reconstruction' during Andrew Johnson's presidency. While focusing on the relationship between Johnson and Frederick Douglass, the author also includes the views of numerous African American writers who witnessed Johnson's transformation from self-styled 'Moses to Black People' to betrayer of Reconstruction. The Failed Promise is a lesson for our times as we continue to confront our nation's unfulfilled promise of racial equality." - Henry Louis Gates, author of Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow

"An illuminating study of Andrew Johnson's presidency and impeachment, offering a much-needed focus on African American leaders like Frederick Douglass and Frances Harper. Levine dramatizes the turbulent context in which they and their allies fought for the promise of Reconstruction, even as its tragedy unfolded. With expert readings and clear prose, this is a thoughtful and original study of the dynamics between official politics, social movements, and the Americans whose very lives hung in the balance." - Holly Jackson, author of American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation

This information about The Failed Promise was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

Robert S. Levine

Robert S. Levine (Ph.D. Stanford; General Editor and Editor, 1820–1865) is Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville; Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity; Dislocating Race and Nation: Episodes in Nineteenth-Century American Literary Nationalism; The Lives of Frederick Douglas; Race, Transnationalism, and Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies; and The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson. He has edited a number of books, including The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville and Norton Critical Editions of Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and Melville's Pierre.

Levine has received fellowships from the NEH and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2014 the American Literature Section of the MLA awarded him the Hubbell Medal for Lifetime Achievement in American Literary Studies.

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