Note: Not too long ago I finished a manuscript that will appear in next March’s Journal of the Civil War Era. It addresses particular counterfactual queries concerning the course of Reconstruction and the policy pursued by Republicans. I have long been interested in Reconstruction policy, especially at the national level, as my 1998 book, The Reconstruction Presidents, suggests, although those readers who peruse the pages of The Political Education of Henry Adams (1996) will find it also addresses Reconstruction from the perspective of one of its critics. Thus what follows is in response to recent discussions, but it also reflects a far longer interest that has its most recent expression in the above-mentioned manuscript.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Reconstruction history to me is the degree to which some historians speculate about the what-ifs of Reconstruction in their eagerness to believe that what happened was not largely preordained if not inevitable. Then again, historians also don’t like to consider that something’s inevitable: whether a certain outcome to a historical process was inevitable sits along the same spectrum as speculating about what-ifs, for it’s useless to ponder “what if …” if something was inevitable. Moreover, the what-ifs we choose to explore reveal a lot about what we would “like” to have happened, and all too often one’s tale grounded in considerations of the counterfactual conforms closely to one’s personal fantasy about what ought to have happened.
Thus it was with a mixture of interest, curiosity, and frustration that I read Annette Gordon-Reed’s recent ruminations about Reconstruction in The Atlantic. I might have remained silent, save for a knowing smile about that which will come out under my own name before too long, except that Kevin Levin decided to chime in with his observations. That sparked me to offer my own perspective.
I find Gordon-Reed’s essay problematic and somewhat predictable. Nearly every scholar of Reconstruction feels obligated to remind us about the impact of “the Dunning school” (namely Professor William A. Dunning of Columbia University, his graduate students, and perhaps a few people guilty by association) and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) as fashioning in the public imagination a portrayal of Reconstruction as a failure that never should have been attempted, at least in terms of defining the freedom and promoting the equality of African Americans. Republicans, whether Radical, scalawag, or carpetbagger, were almost all corrupt; the freed blacks were ignorant and unruly; white southerners suffered; and the restoration of home rule was promoted by gallant white southerners wearing white masks or red shirts. Oh, there were people who contested this tale, from Albion Tourgee and John R. Lynch to W. E. B. DuBois, author of the much-cited (and, like the works of the Dunning school, little-read) Black Reconstruction in America, 1865-1880 (1935), but they were in a distinct minority at the time. Gordon-Reed recapitulates that ritualistic recitation about as well as anyone does in a fairly concise manner. That Eric Foner, whose masterful Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) builds on DuBois’s work in important ways, teaches at the same Columbia University where Dunning once held sway, is an irony even C. Vann Woodward could appreciate.
So far, so good. Gordon-Reed then offers this rather common observation:
It was tragic that by the 1870s, white northerners, tired of dealing with the South’s racial problems and ready to move on, effectively abandoned Southern blacks to the mercies of people who had not long before thought of and treated them as chattel. Blacks’ status as outside of—or somehow “alien” to—the American republic continued, and continues today. That blacks have had to “fight” for the rights of citizenship, after the Fourteenth Amendment purportedly made them citizens, reveals the disconnect.
There is much to like in this observation, but the opening sentence offers room for disagreement. Like many other people (including people with whom Gordon-Reed would not find herself at home with when it comes to understandings of Reconstruction), Gordon-Reed speaks of “white northerners” as if they were a block of people. They were not. First, a good number of white northerners had never supported (the Republican version of) Reconstruction. They tended to vote Democratic. Moreover, while majority of northern white Republicans continued to support Reconstruction as Republicans envisioned it, a growing minority did not, and during the 1870s many of those people joined with minority Democrats to pose a real threat to continuing Republican hegemony in the North. The Republicans realized this as early as the election of 1868. After all, while a majority of white northerners (including a good number of Democrats) supported a war for reunion, fewer supported a war that aimed at the destruction of slavery, and fewer still (indeed, a minority) supported black political equality, as the struggle to secure black suffrage in the North before the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment suggested. Even fewer supported equality across the board. One reason Republican spokesmen increasingly turned to waving the bloody shirt in the 1870s was that they realized that justice for the freedmen was not a winning issue at the polls, while reminding people to vote as they shot (a practice also followed in the former Confederacy, where the blood on the shirts was that of the freedmen) could return a Republican majority.
Of course, white southerners were not a block, either: otherwise there would have been no scalawags.
(If the links above suggest that we’ve been here before, you’re correct. But a reminder never hurts.)
Gordon-Reed then turns explicitly to the world of the counterfactual:
In the end, the opportunities for blacks, the South, and the country as a whole that were lost because of the resistance to and abandonment of Reconstruction stand as one of the great tragedies of American history. The subject naturally provokes a series of “what ifs.” What if plans for land reform had been effectuated during that time? Doing so would have helped the freedmen to become landowners, a status recognized since the country’s origins as a foundation for personal independence. But black independence was exactly what white southerners didn’t want. They preferred to bring things back as close to slavery as possible, ensnaring former enslaved people and their progeny in a system of share cropping and debt peonage that stymied the growth of black economic wealth for generations.
What if blacks’ voting rights had not been cut off through official shenanigans and outright violence? What different political course might the South have taken? Support for public education and public works would likely have been much stronger if blacks had been active in the electorate. This, in turn, might have brought more sustained economic development, infrastructural improvements, and a higher standard of living to all in the region.
Promising “what-ifs,” to be sure. One can dream. But one must also deal with historical reality. So long as Andrew Johnson (a white southerner with Democratic roots) resided in the White House, large-scale land confiscation and redistribution simply wasn’t going to happen in the American South. By the time Johnson left the presidency, that opportunity was long gone. And yes, had black voting rights been respected and protected, things would have been different. If anything, this reminds us of the role played by white supremacist terrorist violence in overthrowing Reconstruction as well as the difficulties the Grant administration faced in defending it (not that Grant or members of his administration were entirely free of blame for the outcome). But this “what-if” comes without a clear notion of how to achieve it. Could such violence have been prevented? How? Could it have been defeated? How? What would it have taken in either case, and are those contemplated counterfactual measures based upon reasonable assumptions that were historically attainable?
And, finally, there is this “what-if”:
What if American historians during the aftermath of Reconstruction had not been white supremacists? A different type of society, and a different type of education about that society, would have given young blacks and whites an opportunity to learn another narrative about black people’s place in America.
Agreed. But note that, despite the efforts of historians, white and black, to question and counter the master narrative in a struggle that has lasted over a half century (or even longer, if one dates this effort as starting with DuBois’s book), we still see the pernicious impact of a narrative framed around white supremacist assumptions that still prevails in certain minds. How do historians address that … and will their efforts matter?
With some people, those efforts might well make a difference. With others … well, you know we’ll hear the whining about left liberal Marxist communists activist academics wrapped up in political correctness and all the rest of that claptrap characteristic of certain closed minds and loud mouths. We’ll even hear from some of the chattering classes that it’s useless or counterproductive to challenge that claptrap: blaming the critic, so to speak.
In short, it’s one thing to bemoan the impact of a certain school of historical understanding and to regret that it ever held sway (although I’d say that many people who do so haven’t read the very books they assail, which is nothing new). It’s quite another to offer a plan of action for today’s scholars.
As Gordon-Reed observes:
There is little reason to doubt that if the United States had started the process of rewriting the script on race relations during the late 19th century, instead of delaying it to the 1950s and 1960s, many problems that have their origins in the country’s troubled racial history might be closer to resolution.
Perhaps. But I’d observe that we often blame the past for the problems of the present as a way to sidestep the question of what we today can do to enhance understanding, counter harmful interpretations, and set forth a new understanding of what happened and why during Reconstruction. Some people are already engaged in that effort. More should be.
It isn’t a question of what if. It’s a question of what now.