On complexity and revisionism in the doing of history

Why Study HistoryFrom Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

On complexity:

Historians realize that the past is complex. Human behavior does not easily conform to our present-day social, cultural, political, religious, or economic categories. Take Thomas Jefferson for example. Jefferson is the most complex personality of all of the so-called founding fathers. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence–the document that declared that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom–one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was a champion of education and founder of one of our greatest public universities–the University of Virginia. As a politician, he defended the rights of the common man, and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties. As president, he doubled the size of the United States and made every effort to keep us out of war with Great Britain.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Though he made several efforts to try to bring this institution to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to uphold the kind of Virginia planter lifestyle–complete with all it consumer goods and luxury items–that he could not live without. He was in constant debt. And he may have been the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Another example of the complexity of the past is the ongoing debate over whether or not the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I recently published a book titled Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? In the course of my promotion for the book–at speaking engagements and on radio shows across the country–I was often asked how I answered this question. I found that most people came to my talks or tuned into my radio interviews with their minds already made up about the question, looking to me to provide them with historical evidence to strengthen their answers. When I told them that the role of religion in the founding of America was a complicated question that cannot be answered through sound bites, many people left the lecture hall or turned off the radio disappointed, because such an answer did not help them promote their political or religious cause.

Yet the founding fathers’ views on religion were complex, and they do not easily conform to our twenty-first-century agendas. The founding fathers made sure to keep God and Christianity out of the United States Constitution but did not hesitate to place distinctly Christian tests for office in most of the local state constitutions that they wrote in the wake of the American Revolution. Some founders upheld personal beliefs that conformed to historic orthodox Christian teaching, while others–especially major founders such as Adams, Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin–did not. The founders opposed an established church and defended religious liberty while at the same time suggesting that Christianity was essential to the health of the republic.

The life of Jefferson and the debate over Christian America teach us that human experience is often too complex to categorize in easily identifiable boxes. The study of the past reminds us that when we put our confidence in people–whether they are in the past (such as the founding fathers) or the present–we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed by them. Sometimes great defenders of liberty held slaves, and political leaders who defended a moral republic rejected a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the inspiration of the Bible. Historians do their work amid the messiness of the past. Though they make efforts to simplify the mess, they are often left with irony, paradox, and mystery.

On revisionism:

Historians must come to grips with the fact that they will never be able to provide a complete or thorough account of what happened in the past.

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. As [historian David] Lowenthal notes, “History usually depends on someone else’s eyes and voice: we see it through an interpreter who stands between past events and our apprehension of them.” While the past never changes, history changes all the time. Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident. Even if we can assume that drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who caused the accident. It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weight the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event. But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable witness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault. This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened. History has changed. This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present. But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” receives a high compliment. In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West). Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always take place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history. Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by the what historians called the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early twentieth-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake. The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.

In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again. In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion. They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century. These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.

In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves. Rather than viewing the Blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important moment in American history….

In the end, all historians are revisionists. The Christian historians R.G. Collingwood wrote that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way; every new historians, not content with giving new answers to old questions, must revise the questions themselves.” This may mean that a historian will challenge the cherished myths of a particular culture or uncover evidence that does not bode well for a patriotic view of one’s country. (At other times, of course, evidence could strengthen the public bonds of citizenship). As new evidence emerges and historians discover new ways of bringing the past to their audiences in the present, interpretations of specific events change. This makes history an exciting and intellectually engaging discipline.

 

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

trump-with-evangelical-leaders

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since our last update?

Rudy Giuliani shares a tweet from a spokesperson for Liberty University’s Falkirk Center. Notice how Giuliani uses Jenna Ellis’s tweet of Psalm 27 to make a political statement. When he says “we all matter” I think we all know the message he is sending in the midst of our post-George Floyd moment. In a follow-up tweet, Ellis gives Giuliani an “Amen.”

As the coronavirus cases spike, Ellis retweets an anti-masker attacking California senator Kamala Harris:

Liberty University’s Falkirk Center does not understand history. It’s tweet today seems like a defense of Confederate monuments. I am guessing Russell Kirk is taken out of context here. As I argued in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, history is always created from a dialogue the between past and the present. Sometimes the past is useful in the present. Sometimes the past is a “foreign country.” Ironically, the Falkirk Center and the rest of the Christian Right activists who talk about the past, have mastered the kind of cherry-picking Kirk may be warning against here.

What is the relationship between the following tweet and Jenna Ellis’s anti-mask retweet above? It seems that “rights” are a form of self-fulfillment, while concern for others is a form of self-denial. John MacArthur’s lesson might be useful for evangelicals as they think about masks and the spread of COVID-19.

Florida is seeing record numbers of coronavirus cases. Paula White is opening her church:

Wow: This is an amazing tweet from Trump’s #1 court evangelical:

Tony Perkins is hosting a video conference called “Arise and Stand.” You can watch it here.

Here is Gary Bauer’s Facebook post:

Kudos to my good friend Vice President Mike Pence!

Vice President Pence stood firm in the face of the media mob this Sunday, as well as the mob in the streets, by refusing to repeat the divisive slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” He was pressed to do so during an appearance on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”

Of course Black Lives Matter, as do Asian lives, Hispanic lives and Caucasian lives. That’s the truth. And it’s also a central Christian principle that the color of our skin is the least unique thing about us. What makes us special is that we are made in the image of God, and the vice president strongly believes that. 

Read the rest here.

I’ve said this before, this pivot toward “all lives matter” is simply a way for those on the Christian Right to avoid tough conversations on race in America following the killing of George Floyd. When Pence refused to say “Black Lives Matter” on television he was sending a message to the Trump base.

all lives matter cartoon

It’s all about the Supreme Court justices for Ralph Reed.

Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran have a nice response to Reed’s way of political thinking:

When Christians think that the struggle against abortion can only be pursued through voting for candidates with certain judicial philosophies, then serving at domestic abuse shelters or teaching students at local high schools or sharing wealth with expectant but under-resources families or speaking of God’s grace in terms of “adoption” or politically organizing for improved education or rezoning municipalities for childcare or creating “Parent’s Night Out” programs at local churches or mentoring young mothers or teaching youth about chastity and dating or mobilizing religious pressure on medical service providers or apprenticing men into fatherhood or thinking of singleness as a vocation or feasting on something called “communion” or rendering to God what is God’s or participating with the saints through Marion icons or baptizing new members or tithing money, will not count as political.

Read the entire piece here.

Ralph Reed, perhaps more than any other member of the Christian Right, is responsible for what Hauerwas and Tran call a “failure of political imagination” among evangelicals.

According to Robert Jeffress, the “eventual collapse of our country” is now certain:

And last but not least, David Barton is on the Eric Metaxas Show today. When activists indiscriminately topple and deface monuments, it just provides ammunition and fodder for Barton’s Christian Right view of the past.

Barton defends a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a white supremacist who helped found the KKK. He seems to think that such a statue is essential to his ability to teach history. This comment even makes Metaxas squirm: “I think we all would agree that lines can be drawn, we don’t have a statue to Adolph Hitler.” In this sense, Metaxas’s obsession with Godwin’s Law serves a useful purpose.

When Metaxas says that debate over monuments is “complicated,” he reminds me of something I wrote at the end of my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:

In 2010 the political commentator Glenn Beck devoted an entire television program to a discussion of George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century evangelical revivalist and the precipitator of the event known as the First Great Awakening. Near the end of the show, Beck’s conversation with his guests–two early American religious historians–turned to the topic of slavery. Beck wondered how Whitefield could inspire anti-slavery advocates in England such as John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” while at the same time owning slaves. Befuddled by this paradox, and clearly at a loss for words, Beck turned to the camera and said, “Sometimes history is a little complex.”

Barton peddles an unbelievably dumb theory about the origins of slavery and race in America. He says “out of Jamestown” came “slavery and intolerance and classism and racism.” But out of Plymouth came “liberty and freedom and constitutional government, bills of rights, etc.” His source is an uncritical use of an 1888 wall map showing these “two strands of history, one bad and one good.”

Apparently, Barton has never studied New England’s Native American history or the intolerance the Puritans showed to the likes of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. But wait, it gets better. Barton says that “both of those groups were Christian, but Jamestown was not biblical. They [just] professed Christianity. That’s much of what we see in America today. 72% of the nation professes Christianity, only six percent have a biblical world view.” Slavery started in Jamestown, Barton argues, because the settlers didn’t “know the Bible.” This is interesting, since during the early 19th-century Virginians used the Bible to justify slavery. I guess they were more biblically literate by that time. 🙂

Barton seems to suggest that New England did not have slaves. Wrong again. Even Jonathan Edwards, one of Barton’s heroes, a man who Barton would probably say had a “Christian world view,” owned slaves. Granted, New England did not have a slave-based economy, but slavery was not illegal prior to the American Revolution. If you want to learn more, see Richard Bailey’s Race and Redemption in Puritan New England. and Joanne Pope Melishs’s Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780-1860

Barton goes on to say that today “we look at past generations through today’s filter and today’s lens and you really can’t do that.” This is rich coming from a guy who has built his entire career around cherry-picking from the founding fathers and then applying such cherry-picked passages to contemporary Christian Right politics. (See my comments about the Falkirk Center’s tweet about Russell Kirk).

He then uses this argument to reject systemic and institutional racism. Here is Barton:

So all the notion that America is institutionally racist–you gotta see what the atmosphere was like in that day–we were leading the world in the right direction that day. Now we can look back where we are today and say we weren’t perfect…but we’re not the racist nation everyone is trying to make us out to be. When you know history, you see that all clearly.

Barton speaks as if the Civil War–a war over slavery in which 700,000 people died–never happened. Is this “leading the world in the right direction?” Heck, he sounds as if slavery never existed in the United States. He dismisses four hundred years of slavery and racism by saying, “yeah, we weren’t perfect.” Barton is not a historian. He only cares about the parts of the past that advance his political agenda. Read this recent post to see the depths of racism in the evangelical church or grab a copy of Believe Me.

And finally, Metaxas praises Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a great moment of national unity. He says that Lincoln showed “graciousness” toward his enemy. He said that because of this graciousness, Lincoln and Grant allowed the Confederate monuments to stand. Barton says that Lincoln’s “zealous” Christian faith is why he tried to reconcile with the South after the war. He says that Lincoln took seriously Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5 about “reconciliation.”

There are so many problems with this part of the interview that it is hard to know where to start.

  1. Lincoln did want to the bring the Union back together and he tried to use his Second Inaugural Address to do it. But let’s remember that this address was delivered after victory in the war was all but secured. The Union won. Whatever reunion needed to take place, Lincoln believed, must happen on his terms. The idea that he would allow Confederates to continue to celebrate their slave-holding “heritage” with the erection of monuments does not make sense.
  2. Metaxas seems to think that these Confederate monuments were erected during the days of Lincoln. Most of them were built in the early 20th-century as a way of defending the Confederate’s “Lost Cause”–a commitment to white supremacy. Lincoln had nothing to do with them.
  3. Lincoln was not a Christian. Nearly all Lincoln scholarship is clear about this.
  4. 2 Corinthians 5 has nothing to do with the Civil War or nationalism.
  5. But most disturbing is the fact that Barton and Metaxas seem to be endorsing a white romanticized idea of reunion and reconciliation that left out African Americans. The best book on this subject continues to be David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

Until next time.

The Author’s Corner with Adam Domby

the false causeAdam H. Domby is Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. This interview is based on his new book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The False Cause?

AD: Honestly, I didn’t intend to write this book. Originally, I was just going to write a couple of articles before revising my dissertation for publication. I had found the Julian Carr speech that he gave at UNC while a graduate student. In the speech, Carr brags about whipping “a negro wench” during Reconstruction. I thought it was a neat source to use to discuss monuments and teach about Jim Crow. However, after a letter to the editor I wrote was published in 2011, activists mobilized my research, and really shifted public opinion about “Silent Sam.” In time, this made me realize that these speeches had an important power worthy of looking at more closely.

Meanwhile, I also stumbled upon evidence of pension fraud at the NC State archives. At first I thought I would just write an article about the extent of pension fraud. As I dug deeper it became clear to me that all of the increasing number of fabrications I was finding were not just about remembering the past in a positive fashion but about controlling contemporary politics. And I came to realize the stories told during monument dedication speeches were tied to the acceptance of fraudulent pensioners as legitimate. These were not separate side projects. I had started considering making it a second book project when then the election of Donald Trump occurred and I thought, a book about lies and white supremacy might be timely. Indeed, it became increasingly clear as I wrote that Americans were struggling to understand how lies, often lies that were obvious to everyone–even those who accepted them–functioned to erode democracy today. The creation and evolution of of the Lost Cause in North Carolina provides numerous parallels in examining how democracy is harmed by lies and how lies function to support white supremacist ideologies. So I put aside my dissertation based book on divided communities during the Civil War and Reconstruction (which I will one day return to) and set out to write this one.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The False Cause?

AD: That is hard but here goes: The book argues that the Lost Cause narrative of the past was not only shaped by lies, but that these lies served to uphold white supremacy and to justify the establishment of Jim Crow. Additionally, the book shows how these lies still influence how the public, and even some historians, remember the Civil War today, and still serve to uphold white supremacist world views.

JF: Why do we need to read The False Cause?

AD: I think it depends on who you are but most people will find something in this book of use. We live in a time when lies are being used to erode democracy and empower white supremacists. North Carolina in the 1890s-1900s can teach us a lot about white supremacists. Additionally, the Lost Cause remains a robust mythology that many Americans still believe to be an accurate reflection of the past. These narratives continue to uphold racist ideologies today. The evolution and creation of these narratives of history need to be better understood. If you believe the Confederacy fought for states’s rights and slavery had nothing to do with it, then you need to read this to understand why you were taught a false narrative. For historians of the Civil War the book makes the argument that historical memory and the study of fraud can also teach us about events during the war as well as the memory of the conflict. Historians of memory may find my methodology of focusing on lies and fabrication innovative (I hope). Political historians will hopefully find the analysis of how historical memory was used in North Carolina politics new and exciting. Commentators on contemporary race relations may gain a better understanding of how ideologies of white supremacy depend on false narratives of the past. If you are interested in Confederate monuments and flags The False Cause explains how they are tied to white supremacy. I like to think the book has something for everyone. I think every professor of American historian needs to be able to discuss many of the aforementioned issues with their students. This book provides the tools needed to talk about why lies, white supremacy, and rewriting the past are so relevant today. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AD: When I got to college, I was a math major. That lasted one semester. I’d always been interested in history but had not considered it as a career. Some early classes, which I thought at the time would be electives, made me realize I loved research. You can blame Aaron SachsBob MorrisseyJohn Demos, and David Blight for me ending up a historian. I highlight those four because early on they took the time to teach me about doing my own research and showed me I could enjoy writing. They also made me realize how important the past was to the present. We don’t always realize how important a good teacher is in shaping where we go in life. Still, even as I graduated college, I was convinced I was going to be a Park Ranger and would never return to school. Only after a stint in politics did I return to graduate school and start to consider myself “a historian.” 

JF: What is your next project?

AD: I have a variety of projects. I will return to the book based on my dissertation eventually. That examines how divided communities were fractured during the Civil War, and their legacies long after Appomattox. It has arguments about both the Civil War and the postwar period. But first I am finishing a bunch of smaller projects. I have two coauthored projects; one on a rabbi who was also a conman and one on how public historians can better incorporate the experience of prisoners of war into the interpretive framework at historic sites. I have a smaller article project about the College of Charleston’s ties to slavery in the works that I am researching currently. Finally, I have been working with a graduate student of mine to create a geographic database of over 5,000 Confederate pay rolls that detail the impressment of enslaved people during the Civil War. We hope to have that available for scholars to use by year’s end. I like to keep myself busy.

JF: Thanks, Adam!

 

19th-Century Evangelicals on the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

1869_Zions_Herald_BostonThis morning I read chapter nine of Victor Howard’s book Religion and the Radical Republican Movement, 1860-1870.  The chapter is titled “Impeachment and the Churches” and it focuses on how Protestant churches, denominations, and clergy responded to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.  While Howard’s chapter covers a specific segment of mid-19th century evangelicalism (mostly northern, radical, anti-slavery churches who favored Republican Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War), it provides some interesting context in light of today’s announcement of articles impeachment and the expected court evangelical opposition to these articles.

Here is a passage on p. 155-156. (I added the links):

The lawmakers of the new Fortieth Congress met immediately upon the adjournment of the Thirty-ninth Congress and promptly undertook the task of amending the Reconstruction Act.  On March 23, 1867, a supplementary bill was passed which gave federal military commanders on the South authority to initiate Reconstruction by registering eligible voters and calling state conventions, but Johnson, as the radicals feared, used his presidential powers to obstruct congressional Reconstruction.  Basing his action on the investigations of the Military Board and the report of the congressional committee, General Sheridan had removed the governor of Louisiana and local officers responsible for the New Orleans massacre. Johnson ordered Sheridan to defer the removals, but Sheridan answered him with a protest against recalling the order.  The president sought the opinion of Attorney General Henry Stanbery, who declared that the military commanders were not authorized to promulgate codes in defiance of civil government of the states but were to cooperate with the existing governments which were set up under Johnson’s plan of Reconstruction.  Stanbery’s interpretation virtually emasculated the Reconstruction Act. Stanbery also denounced General Daniel Sickles’s acts in North Carolina as illegal.  The general angrily asked to be relieved of his duties so that he could defend his conduct before a court of inquiry.

The editor of the Baptist Watchman and Reflector asserted “If the President acts on this opinion…to obstruct justice, he will…inaugurate a new war in Congress.”  The generally conservative Ohio Baptist Journal and Messenger concluded, “The President’s conduct from the first has not been such as to inspire confidence in his ability or integrity.  Congress has therefore only the more solemn responsibility resting upon it to be calm, vigilant, and unfalterting in its adherence to duty. The editor of the Zion’s Herald was more direct.  “Without doubt, the easiest remedy would be the prompt impeachment and remove of President Johnson.”

Here is a passage from p. 159:

The Baptist Christian Times and Witness condemned Johnson’s course but still did not think Congress should impeach him, because the president’s term was drawing to a close and opinion on the matter remained very divided.  “Providence has graciously provided for the protection of the country during the remainder of the term…by giving to loyal people such a decided preponderancy in Congress to keep wrong doing in check,” explained the editor.  But J.W. Barker, editor of the Christian Freemanviewed the crisis differently.  “When he who bears the sword bears it so vainly as to be no terror to ‘evil doers,’ but to cause the good and loyal to quake, he has lost his divine commission as a magistrate,’ the editor charged. 

Here is Howard on p. 160:

By October 1867, several ecclesiastical bodies were going on record in support of the current objectives of Congress.  The New London (Connecticut) Baptist Association, for example, resolved that “the open hostility of the President to the laws of Congress and the consequent hindrance to the peaceful progress of reconstruction fill us with the most painful solicitude.”  The Grinnell [Iowa] Association of Congregational Churches characterized Johnson as “an aider and abettor of principles inimical to the best interests of the country.”

The Author’s Corner with David Prior

between freedom and progressDavid Prior is Assistant Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. This interview is based on his new book, Between Freedom and Progress: The Lost World of Reconstruction Politics (LSU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: I stumbled into the project through primary source research. When I started my graduate work, my advisor encouraged me to look at U.S. foreign relations during Reconstruction. In the process of doing that, I wrote an early seminar paper on American interest and involvement in an insurrection by Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Crete against Ottoman imperial rule from 1866 to 1869. I was struck by how people in and from the United States, including former Confederates, not only discussed the insurrection, but argued over its meaning through competing sets of analogies to slaveholders, Apaches, Mormons, Poles, and Russians. Those analogies, and the underlying worldview they stemmed from, became what my book was about. I researched a number of seemingly disparate case studies that people at the time connected to each other and to Reconstruction, which is itself a term borrowed from Europe through analogy. I found myself attempting to fathom why these events, places, and individuals all called out for attention from people who, one would think, would have been narrowly focused on the South and its relation to the Union.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: In the broadest sense, the aim of the book is to take a new look at the cultural, intellectual, and political landscape inhabited by Reconstruction’s partisans—those who struggled over and with Reconstruction’s core issues. Between Freedom and Progress does this by recovering why and how they imagined themselves as actors in world history, and in particular how a belief that struggles for freedom and progress transcended the globe stood in creative tension with a closely related assumption that history was about and made by coherent, distinctive groups of people (nations, races, religions, tribes) with their own characters.

JF: Why do we need to read Between Freedom and Progress?

DP: To recover a sense of the otherness of the past, even while we continue to acknowledge the ways that racism and inequality link the United States and the world today back to the contested politics of the postbellum decade.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DP: I loved history, as well as economics, going back to high school and double majored in college. When I started thinking about graduate school, I decided I enjoyed history a touch more, although I’ll admit I’ve always missed being able to engage with both disciplines.

JF: What is your next project?

DP: Right now I am working on an edited volume entitled Reconstruction and Empire that looks at the various ways in which the legacies of the Civil War and abolition shaped the imperial moment of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

JF: Thanks, David!

Eric Foner on the “Buried Promise of the Reconstruction Amendments”

Foner new bookOver at The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Eric Foner on the promise of Reconstruction.  Foner, of course, remains the foremost historian of  Reconstruction.  I have taught his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 several times over the years.  Foner’s current book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, focuses on the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

Here is a taste of his interview with Chotiner:

You say early in the book that, in one sense, “Reconstruction never ended.” What exactly do you mean?

I defined Reconstruction in two ways. One, it’s a particular time period of American history. You can debate the dates. It starts in 1865, when the Civil War ends, or maybe it starts in 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, and it ends sometime in the eighteen-seventies, although there’s debate about that also.

But, I think, more importantly, Reconstruction is a historical process. And the process is, How does the United States come to terms with the results of the Civil War? The unity of the nation we seem to have come to terms with. But the other matter is the destruction of slavery. How does the United States deal with the fact that four million people who were slaves became free? What role would they have? What rights would they have? How would they be treated? And those debates are still going on. Pick up today’s newspaper, and you’ll find things which relate back to the legacy of slavery. So in that sense, the reckoning has never happened, or we’re still grappling with the consequences of two hundred and fifty years of slavery.

Did you write this book because there was an area of Reconstruction you wanted to learn more about or teach people more about, or had things changed in your understanding of your previous scholarship?

Why does one choose to write a book in the first place? It may be some archival discovery, which was not really the case here. It may be the way debates are going on in the present. That did influence me. The issues central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote, are still part of our politics today. Who should vote? Who should be a citizen? What does equality before the law really mean? But, most important, and without trying to denigrate any other scholar, I lecture a lot about Reconstruction—I lecture in law schools, I lecture in history departments, I lecture to public audiences outside the academy—and I have found that there’s very little knowledge of why the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments are important, or what they were trying to accomplish, even in law schools.

One of the things that I think needed to be corrected is that so much discussion of these amendments is based on just law-making places, like Congress and the Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m a historian. You’ve got to look at the whole society. Everybody was debating these questions during Reconstruction. So if you want to find out the meaning of these amendments, you’ve got to look way beyond Congress and the courts to see the general debate. And I felt that hadn’t been really illuminated enough.

Read the entire interview here.

Nice Work Ted Cruz…Kinda

As readers of this blog now, I am not a big Ted Cruz fan.  I criticized him heavily during the 2016 campaign and also covered him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

But I am glad to see this:

Thanks, Ted Cruz!  Here is a Washington Post piece.

ADDENDUM:  These days I am just happy when a leading Republican calls out racism and white supremacy.  But as Al Mackey notes in the comments, let’s not pretend that Cruz’s references to Forrest as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic convention is not sending a subtle message rooted in the idea, popular among the Right today, that the Democrats continue to be the party of racism.  Kevin Kruse and others have debunked this view of history for its failure to recognize change over time.

Michael Gerson on the Failure of Reconstruction

Reconstruction 2

The Washington Post columnist reminds us of the “horrors” of Reconstruction.  The column basically serves as a reflection on Henry Louis Gates’s Stony Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.

Here is a taste:

Gates is especially insightful in revealing how black people, after their constitutional rights were stolen, attempted to reassert their dignity in nonpolitical ways. Through Booker T. Washington’s version of self-help. Or by cultivating the achievements of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth.” Or through the artistic excellence of the Harlem Renaissance. Or through pan-African pride.

Ultimately, Gates argues that Frederick Douglass got closest to the truth — that there is no path to pride and equality that does not include political power, particularly voting rights. This was the main theme of the NAACP and, eventually, of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is a tribute to the importance of justice as the first human need.

The denial of justice recounted by “Stony the Road” was every bit as bad as apartheid. It was not just racism, but also the systematic attempt to destroy — through violence, threats and mockery — the dignity, political rights and social standing of blacks in America. It was far worse than anything I was taught in history classes. Yet only by knowing this period can we understand how white supremacy became the broadly accepted, and sadly durable, ideology of white America.

Read the entire piece here. It is good to see Gerson writing on this theme.

The Author’s Corner with Stanley Harrold

American AbolitionismStanley Harrold is Professor of History at South Carolina State . This interview is based on his new book, American Abolitionism: Its Direct Political Impact from Colonial Times into Reconstruction (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write American Abolitionism?

SH: For years I concentrated my research and writing on the physical clashes between antislavery and proslavery forces on both sides of the North-South sectional border. Particularly in writing Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), I came to appreciate how these confrontations influenced the sectional politics that led to the Civil War. Those involved included escaping slaves, black and white abolitionists who encouraged and aided the escapees, and defensive white southerners who pursued the escapees. But, in focusing on these clashes and those involved, I limited the book’s scope to a restricted region and a relatively brief time period. As a result I began to wonder about other ways that abolitionists directly impacted American politics and government over a much more extended period, stretching from the late 1600s into the late 1860s. Also the recent upsurge in interest among historians regarding the abolitionists’ impact on politics has emphasized their indirect political impact through preaching, holding public meetings, and circulating antislavery propaganda in attempts to influence public opinion. Because other broader forces than these influenced northern popular opinion, this is an impressionist enterprise. Therefore American Abolitionism focuses precisely on direct abolitionist impact on colonial, state, and national government, through petitioning, lobbying, and personal contacts with politicians, as well as the direct impact of abolitionist physical action on northern and southern politicians.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of American Abolitionism?

SH: American Abolitionism argues that, beginning during the Colonial Period and extending through the Early National period, the Jacksonian Era, the 1850s, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, abolitionists’ direct political tactics helped influence the course of the sectional conflict. The book emphasizes that even those abolitionists who emphasized moral suasion and refused to vote engaged in effective efforts directly to influence formal politics.

JF: Why do we need to read American Abolitionism?

SH: As I suggest above, the book provides a much more precise understanding than previous studies of the abolitionist impact on American politics and government over an extended period of time. It begins with Quaker abolitionist petitioning and lobbying from the 1690s into the 1770s. It discusses expanded efforts to influence politics, undertaken by the first antislavery societies, mostly at the state level, during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. It covers the expanded direct tactics undertaken by immediate abolitionists, aimed at Congress and begun during the late 1820s. It explores the relationships between abolitionists and the Free Soil and Republican parties from the late 1840s through the Civil War, including increasing abolitionist efforts to personally influence Radical Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln. The book concludes with an evaluation of such efforts.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SH: For me becoming an American historian was a gradual process. I enjoyed a fine liberal arts undergraduate education at Allegheny College, where I took courses in art, literature, philosophy, as well as history, and did not decide to major in history until the middle of my junior year. I graduated in 1968, while the Vietnam War was raging. I decided to go to graduate school at Kent State University in part because I was not sure what else to do and hoped being a graduate student might provide a continued draft deferment. At first I was not sure that I wanted to be a professional historian or continue in graduate school after earning a master’s degree in American history. But, as I learned more about the historical profession, and came under the influence of my adviser John T. Hubbell, I finally committed myself to a career as a professor of American history, with a concentration on the Civil War Era and the abolitionist movement.

JF: What is your next project?

SH: For the first time, I have not begun a new book project after completing one. I shall, though, remain co-author, with Darlene Clark Hine and Willian C. Hine, of the African-American Odyssey, the leading black history textbook, which is currently in its seventh edition. I shall also remain co-editor, with Randall M. Miller, of the Southern Dissent book series, published by the University Press of Florida.

JF: Thanks, Stanley!

#OAH19: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History”

Freedmen's Bureau 2Katie Lowe, a graduate student in American history at Towson University, is back from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians where she was covering the conference for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  In this conference dispatch, she writes about Session #AM2873: “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.”  Read all of her OAH dispatches here.

Technically, the OAH meeting didn’t end until Sunday, but I had to catch a train, so my last panel on Saturday was #AM2873, “Revisiting Reconstruction Political History.” It was a good choice!

Corey Brooks (York College, PA) began with a discussion of Andrew Johnson’s veto of the Freedmen’s Bureau legislation and its eventual revision and passage. He argued that the bill represented a need for Congress to “advance meaningful liberty.” Brooks noted that there was a vocal minority, rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, against using a federal agency to help people of color. After Johnson’s initial veto, the legislation was changed in terms of appropriations, aid, and the distribution of claimed and abandoned land.

Hilary Green of the University of Alabama discussed efforts in Alabama to ensure education for African Americans during Reconstruction. These efforts were framed around the concept of “education as a vehicle for citizenship.” Delegates to Southern state conventions worked to have public education become part of state constitutions, with Alabama’s statute opening free education to all children ages 5-21. It became a right of citizens, including African Americans, to access education. This raised the question of who would be deemed worthy to gain education and the revolutionary nature of the conventions.  Texas and Arkansas had vague language in their statutes, without comment on freed or former slave status, while Florida’s statute made education accessible “without distinction or preference.” Race, class, and place continued to define access to education. Opposition from the South, philanthropy from the North, and the availability of resources could all affect the quality of schooling.

Kevin Adams of Kent State followed up with an examination of the far Western United States during Reconstruction..  He focused on the Army’s role in Reconstruction as part of a “chronological and geographically expansive approach.” Anti-Chinese mobs in the 1880’s triggered the use of the Army as posse comitatus in Seattle, even though this practice had officially ended years earlier.

Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut rounded out the panel with a paper reexamining Reconstruction with regard to the expansion of the state and the redefinition of American democracy to include political and civil rights for African Americans.  She began by suggesting that conventional wisdom, which paints abolitionists as political neophytes, is inaccurate. The political history of abolition and Reconstruction includes debates over the nature of the Constitution that led to political and social changes through government power.  Slaveholder influence in the U.S. government did not result in the growth of the state, but abolitionist work did. Radical Reconstruction could be seen as “rescuing the federal government from the clutches of the slave power.” She notes that suffrage and black citizenship were not new ideas during Reconstruction. The work of radical/political abolitionists remade constitutions to ensure the “[inscription] of black rights into law.” Sinha concluded by emphasizing the interaction between political citizenship and social justice.

The chair/commentator, Andrew Slap from East Tennessee State University, emphasized the “radical and revolutionary nature of Reconstruction” and suggested that the multiple approaches taken by the panel countered the idea of a “greater Reconstruction” that was too big to say anything meaningful. The floor was then opened to questions.

The first question was for Manisha Sinha.  How representative were radical abolitionists? She said that they were the “ideological vanguard” of the party, which is why they are important to the conversation and the formation of the idea of an American state responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens. Corey Brooks added that late wartime and post-war legislation had radical voices setting the parameters for congressional debate.

The next question was for Corey Brooks: Did the Freedmen’s Bureau have its own authority even after its reauthorization and realignment under the War Department?  The answer is yes. A follow up; “Why did Andrew Johnson veto the legislation? Brooks stated that Johnson claimed that eleven states did not have representation at the time and so he believed passage would be inappropriate.

Someone asked Kevin Adams if Washington was still a territory, how did federal authority extend there? He said that the Washington territory had asked for federal intervention.  Moreover, a broader view had emerged by this point giving government the power to intervene in all civil rights issues.

A member of the audience asked Hilary Green if the discussion over Reconstruction education extended to universities.   Yes, in South Carolina the University of South Carolina was desegregated. Some states agreed to build separate schools and others made provisions for students with special needs (blind, deaf).

Thank God for Big Government (Socialism?)

Lincoln socialist

Was this man a socialist?

Mike Pence recently railed against socialism.  Here is a taste of a Newsweek article about what he said at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference:

Vice President Mike Pence continued the Republican attacks on what they claim is socialism infiltrating the Democratic Party, making the dubious claim Friday that it was “freedom, not socialism, that ended slavery and won two World Wars.” Pence, speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, did not mention what started slavery in the United States.

“It was freedom, not socialism, that ended slavery, won two World Wars and stands today as the beacon of hope for all the world.”

If it was freedom that ended slavery then presumably it was also freedom that allowed it, with a provision written into the Constitution that specifically referred to slaves and the “three-fifths compromise,” whereby they were counted as less than free people. Moreover, Southern states continued to argue for the freedom to keep slavery in place as the country descended into the Civil War. It was also not capitalism, which Pence appeared to be referring to, when he said it was freedom that ended slavery. Indeed, many historians have noted the explicit links between slavery and the birth of American capitalism. 

Read the rest here.

What the Union did to the South after the Civil War was not described as “socialism,” but it was an attempt by a powerful federal government to seize what the South (and the Supreme Court in Dred Scott) believed was private property, namely slaves.  Southern slaveholders were fighting for their own liberty and “freedom” to own slaves.  Lincoln used government power to take away this liberty.  For Lincoln, morality trumped the South’s “freedom” to hold another person in bondage.  This was the ultimate example of the United States government seizing private property and redistributing it (through emancipation).

Historians Urge the Passing of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act

Reconstruction

Historians Gregory Downs and Kate Masur urge Congress to pass the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act.  Here is a taste of their recent piece at The New York Times:

Many contemporary controversies over issues like voting rights and the scope of the government have their origins in the period following the Civil War. That era, known as Reconstruction, is one of the most contentious in this nation’s history, and also one of the most misunderstood.

Congress can help fix that by passing the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park Act before the end of the year. The bill, passed by the House in September and now under consideration in the Senate, would empower the National Park Service to connect Reconstruction sites all around the country; encourage visitors to talk about Reconstruction at local historical sites; and help convey the full story of how America was remade after the Civil War.

Reconstruction started in the early days of the Civil War. As United States forces entered the South, enslaved African Americans immediately pressed for freedom. They escaped to Union lines, demanded pay for their work, petitioned for their rights and served the Union war effort as laborers and soldiers. Some four million African Americans built new lives in freedom during the postwar Reconstruction era — reuniting families separated by slavery, building churches, founding schools and serving in government.

From 1865 to 1870, Congress passed, and the states ratified, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which permanently transformed the country. These Republican-led initiatives promised freedom, citizenship, due process and equal protection to everyone on American soil, and also prohibited racial discrimination in voting. These constitutional changes were so momentous that, in 2017, President Barack Obama called Reconstruction the nation’s Second Founding.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Erin Mauldin

51pZylgYBPL._SX351_BO1,204,203,200_Erin Mauldin is an assistant professor of History and Politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. This interview is based on her new book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (Oxford University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Unredeemed Land?

EM: While reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution for a graduate seminar in US Political History at Georgetown University, I realized that many of the economic, legislative, and political issues of that period are intimately tied to the use of natural and agricultural landscapes: fights over land redistribution (or the lack thereof), crop lien legislation, animal theft laws, the timbering boom, and of course, the expansion of cotton production. Yet very few environmental histories of the US South even discussed the period between the end of slavery and the Gilded Age, and the dynamic literature on Reconstruction had failed to absorb any of the insights or approaches of environmental history.

I set out, then, to write an environmental history of Reconstruction in the South, and over time, narrowed the focus to the changes occurring in rural areas (rather than urban ones). As I worked on my dissertation, however, I realized that one cannot explain the events of Reconstruction without grappling with the war. Fortunately, a flowering of scholarship appeared on the environmental impacts of the Civil War around the time of my graduate studies, and so my project follows those works and asks simply, “what happened next?” If the Civil War was a truly environmental event, then one would assume those changes did not stop being relevant after 1865. As a result, my book is an environmental history of Reconstruction in the rural U.S. South that connects large-scale economic changes of the period, such as sharecropping, the expansion of cotton production, and the closing of the open range, to environmental changes wrought by the Civil War.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Unredeemed Land?

EM: The Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change and destroyed traditional systems of land use in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region’s subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy. Southern farmers both black and white found themselves unable to “redeem” their lands and fortunes, with serious consequences for the long-term trajectory of the regional economy.

JF: Why do we need to read Unredeemed Land?

EM: I think that anyone interested in the Civil War, Reconstruction, race in America, economic inequality, or environmental history might find something here to like or, at least, argue with. So much of what we read in the news about the ecological and economic aspects of war zones in the Middle East, and the ways that environmental changes push people into refugee situations around the world—all those truths held in the American past, too. It’s time we started thinking about them.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

EM: As an undergraduate, I wanted to go to medical school. However, I loved studying history, and performed well in those classes. I was attracted to the story-telling that happens in history classes and books, as well as the investigative work of piecing together past events. So, I combined coursework in both History and Biology, reluctant to give up either. When it came time to write my senior thesis for my History major, my undergraduate mentor in that department suggested I draw on my interest in the sciences, and I produced work that investigated early air pollution control efforts in Birmingham, Alabama. Through that experience, I decided I would rather research and write for a living than go to medical school. I was very, very fortunate to receive a doctoral fellowship to study environmental history with J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and haven’t looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

EM: Tentatively called “The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities,” my next book will investigate the role of environmental racism in racially segmenting the geographies of 19th-century cities. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of freed  people to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta and Richmond; and newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, filth, disease, and industrial contamination, but the white public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods.

This project, then, argues that industrial pollution caused the cementing of an urban black/suburban white dynamic long before the Civil Rights Era, which, over time, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, and allowed further environmental degradation.

JF: Thanks, Erin!

The Author’s Corner with William Green

image_miniWilliam Green is Professor of History at Augsburg University. This interview is based on his new book The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity (University Of Minnesota Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Children of Lincoln?

WG: After 1870, when it seemed that African Americans were about to begin a period of unprecedented freedom with the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, white supremacy grew even more emboldened throughout the South as racial discrimination deepened throughout the North. Notably, all of this happened on the complaisant watch of Republicans who controlled the federal government and had in various ways emancipated and enfranchised the African American in the name of their martyred president. I wanted to know whether a similar dynamic – complaisance in the face of, what Eric Foner termed, “America’s unfinished revolution” – occurred in Minnesota.

I had just finished Degrees of Freedom, which examined the origins of the civil rights in Minnesota, and I found through the experiences of black residents, traits that were similar to what I saw nationally. But that book looked at the history through the experiences of black Minnesotans. The Children of Lincoln sets out to understand the motivations of often well-intended white patrons who amended the state constitution to establish black suffrage only to conclude that they had done their part, failing (or refusing) to acknowledge that voting rights alone did little to secure opportunity (i.e., farms and apprenticeships for skilled jobs) and end racial discrimination (i.e., denied service in restaurants and theatres). And yet, their expectation of gratitude from African Americans had the effect of quashing any chance for candid discussion between supposed black and white friends. I wanted this book to detail why white patrons who had fought for black equality settled for second-class citizenship, not even five years after Appomattox.

To gain insight into this dynamic, I profiled four Minnesotans – a Radical Republican senator whose public service straddled the years of war and reconstruction, an Irish Protestant immigrant farmer who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Infantry, the founder of the postwar women’s suffrage movement in Minnesota, and a St. Paul businessman and church leader who was key to founding Pilgrim Baptist Church, that would become Minnesota’s oldest black congregation. Each profile offers an often overlooked corner of Minnesota history, which, when pieced together, much like a mosaic, detail a uniquely multifaceted portrait of 19th century liberals.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Children of Lincoln?

WG: 1) The paternalism of white “friends”, though seemingly benign, was as duplicitous to black opportunity as the actions of a bigot; and 2) Self-satisfaction with one’s high-minded work was the surest way to watch the purpose and success of that work fade away.

JF: Why do we need to read The Children of Lincoln?

WG: The Children of Lincoln reminds us that after the war, with the massive influx of immigrants, farmer and labor tensions, agitation for women’s suffrage, railroad policy, expansion of industrial growth and monopolies, railroad expansion, the growth of urban centers and relocation of African Americans, the North needed its own policy of reconstruction.

I also think that The Children of Lincoln uniquely examines how little the “friends of black people” understood the nature of racism, and in particular, when blinded by hubris, were unable or unwilling to see it in themselves.

The book’s title is lifted from the address by Frederick Douglass during the dedication of the Emancipation Memorial when he said to the white listeners who had assembled for the unveiling, “You are the children of Lincoln, but we (African Americans) are at best his step-children.” He uttered these words under the likeness of the martyred president standing with outstretched arms over a freed slave forever huddled at his knee, now frozen in bronze. To white observers, the statue seemed majestic but to black onlookers, the statue seemed to commemorate the eternal duty of blacks to be both unequal and grateful to their white patrons. One year after the dedication, Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican President-elect, withdrew federal troops from the South to mark the end of both reconstruction and federal protection.

The Children of Lincoln examines how the actions of four Minnesotans who did not know each other, came to mirror what the national party leadership did. The book explores how the welfare of the African American came to be the welfare of an abstraction, for “the Children” had allowed the idea of freedom to supplant its reality. As such, I think the book gives an important perspective, and offers issues for discussion on the nature of race relations that carries over to today.

Readers of history – lay and professional – who are interested in Minnesota, Civil War, Dakota War, reconstruction, civil rights, black history, women’s suffrage, and church history, will be interested in The Children of Lincoln.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

WG: I suppose I always had the inclination to be an American historian. Born in Massachusetts and growing up in Nashville and New Orleans, I was surrounded by history and I enjoyed learning about the events of long ago. But those were the days when I was “only” a student of history. It wasn’t until I researched material for what would be my first publication – an account of an 1860 Minneapolis slave trial – when I felt that I had become a historian. I learned the thrill of the hunt, peeling away the layers, going ever deeper into the lives and actions of people who initially only revealed pieces of themselves, discerning how my subject and the larger context affected the other, interpreting the past and acquiring the courage to follow the evidence, honing the skill of engagingly telling the story, trying always to be disciplined, patient and just in doing the work.

JF: What is your next project?

WG: I have a manuscript on the history of liberalism in mid-19th century Minnesota that is being reviewed for publication; and I’m presently working on a biography of an African American woman who was active in the colored women’s club movement and women’s suffrage, and who drafted and successfully lobbied for passage of an anti-lynching bill in 1921.

JF: Thanks, William!

Library of America Publishes Volume on Reconstruction

ReconIt is edited by Brooks D. Simpson.  Over at the LOA blog you can find an interview with Simpson.  Here is a taste:

Library of America: In your introduction to the volume you write: “Most Americans don’t know very much about Reconstruction, and in many cases what they may think they know is wrong.” What do you hope readers will learn from Reconstruction? What does the experience of reading writings by those who lived during Reconstruction offer readers that standard narrative/analytical histories do not?

Brooks D. Simpson: Reconstruction is typically taught at the break in a year-long survey of American history, so it tends to get short shrift in most courses. Instructors of first-half surveys sometimes fail to reach it, while in the second-half survey Reconstruction is at best a prelude to the Gilded Age, with its stories of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and social and political turmoil. Moreover, once upon a time accounts of Reconstruction featured assumptions about poor southern whites punished by vindictive white northerners, while giving scant attention to the fate of freedpeople deemed by most scholars to be unfit for freedom in any case. Although W. E.B. Du Bois challenged that interpretive framework in 1935 with his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, it took until the 1960s for mainstream scholarship to contest that tale. It has taken far longer for new interpretations to take root in classrooms and textbooks: old beliefs continue to have staying power in the minds and hearts of a significant number of white Americans.

By presenting what people at the time said about what was going on in the world about them, this volume reminds us that Reconstruction was a time of great turmoil when Americans debated what the Civil War and emancipation really achieved. Was the war for reunion nothing more than that? What did freedom for over four million former slaves mean? How did Americans contest the concepts of liberty and equality, and what role would government and the governed play in resolving that dispute?

Instead of imposing on the past what we assume people must have said and meant, we can discover what they said, what they wanted, and how they viewed the issues at stake. We can hear many voices, black and white, North and South, male and female, well-known and unknown, participate in this discussion. In particular we can come away from this volume with a notion of just how fiercely contested were definitions of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the extent to which violence helped shape the outcome of America’s first great experiment in racial democracy.

Read the rest here.

Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.

A Short Survey of Reconstruction Historiography

Recon

Do you need a quick primer on the historiography of Reconstruction?  If so, check out Allen Guelzo‘s short piece at History News Network: “The History of Reconstruction’s Third Phase.”  Here is a taste:

Understanding Reconstruction as a bourgeois revolution – in fact, according to Barrington Moore, the last bourgeois revolution – creates an opportunity for a third re-visioning of Reconstruction, and without the Eurocentric necessity to make it conform to the New Reconstructionists’ Marxism or the Progressive racism that fueled the Dunningites. We are already beginning to see a galaxy of new questions about Reconstruction take shape, and to find in work like Mark Wahlgren Summers’s The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction (2014) an understanding of what Reconstruction actually did accomplish, in Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) the chronic unwillingness of Americans to fund post-conflict regime changes, and through Forrest A. Nabors’s From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017) an appreciation of the hitherto-ignored role played by Northern Democrats in league with their quondam Southern allies in paralyzing Reconstruction efforts.

These new movements may not be enough to get us a Museum of Reconstruction, and I have to confess a certain shrinkage at the prospect of what a Reconstruction re-enactment might look like (that will depend on who writes the script). But why not a Society for Historians of Reconstruction? It is time to bring Reconstruction home to us all, not as a Southern event or even the shadow of a European one, but as a uniquely American one, on an American landscape.

Read the entire piece here.

How to Talk to People About the Causes of the Civil War

RebelsAaron Astor teaches history at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee.  He is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri, 1860-1872 (LSU Press, 2017).  Over at his Facebook page, Astor reflects on how he begins conversations with people about the causes of the Civil War.  It’s a great post (especially in light of this) and I appreciate Astor’s willingness to let me post it here.  (And thanks to John Craig Hammond for bringing it to my attention).  Enjoy! –JF

I speak and write regularly about the causes of the American Civil War, to both academic and popular audiences. Engaging with different people who hold different assumptions about the Civil War and its legacies today has forced me to develop a set of priming points that I use to begin the conversation. Here are some of the key ones. If you find them useful, feel free to share them.

1. People in the 19th century thought about the world differently than we do today. This is especially true for matters of race, slavery, labor, freedom, economic class, gender and citizenship. We need to understand what people back then thought and avoid the temptation to impose our 21st century values upon 19th century people.

2. People in the past did not know how their stories would end. They made choices they did based on what they valued, what they knew at the time, what they were able to do, and what they hoped or feared would happen. We should respect the drama of their uncertainty as we evaluate their actions.

3. Just as we cannot impose 21st century values back into the 19th century, we cannot and should not teleport our ancestors of the 19th century into our own time. Our ancestors certainly passed down cultural baggage to the following generations and thenceforward through the decades on to us. But that does not mean we should be defined today by plucking people out of the past and using them to make us good or bad people today.

4. If we wish to honor our ancestors, the best way to do so is to learn about them and their lives, their worlds, their hopes and fears, and in their own historical contexts. If we wish to draw inspiration from them, we should look at how they confronted or transcended their own times.

5. Getting to the causes of the Civil War now, we need to think about HOW 19th century white Americans argued about slavery and how those arguments came to dominate politics. That means looking beyond the purely moral arguments advanced by abolitionists, white and black, most of which were bitterly rejected across the North. Those arguments were certainly critical to advancing the anti-slavery cause, but we must be careful not to assume that those who opposed slavery in 1860 agreed with Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison that slavery should be immediately abolished.

6. There is what I like to call the “Northern myth” of the Civil War: that ordinary white Northerners opposed slavery because they believed in racial equality. (And as evidence, every Northern town has a station stop on the Underground Railroad supposedly run by some important white family). The reality is that this view was held by a tiny, though vocal and active minority. Far more important to antislavery as a political position was the view held by men like David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, who said, “I have no squeamish sensitiveness upon the subject of slavery, nor morbid sympathy for the slave. I plead the cause of the rights of white freemen.” He, and the majority of white Northerners who came to oppose slavery and consequently voted for the Republican Party in 1860 did so because they thought slavery was bad for whites. Yes, they thought slavery was bad in the abstract too – Lincoln spoke of the right of a man to the “bread he has earned with the sweat of his brow.” But what animated white antislavery thought was the damage slavery did to white Northerners, not what it did to black Southerners (or black Northerners).

7. White Northerners developed an ideological opposition to slavery as a social and economic system that they felt encouraged laziness, inefficiency, aristocracy, haughty arrogance and entitlement. The presence of slavery meant that labor was to be viewed as a curse. Two direct consequences came from this: slaveholders would occupy the best lands in Kansas and crowd out good white Northern farmers who wanted free soil to labor upon freely. Thus the slavery extension question was critical. Another problem white Northerners identified was the tendency of slaveholders to violate the rights of free speech, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom to petition in the North. No matter how much ordinary white Northerners disliked abolitionists in their midst, they bitterly resented Southerners’ insistence that Northerners become slave catchers under the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Act, or abstain from peacefully agitating on matters of conscience. They felt that the “Slave Power Conspiracy” was violating the rights of free white Northerners.

8. Turning to what I call the great “Southern myth,” we need to think about what the majority of white Southerners who did not own slaves thought about slavery. While there were free soil-style objections (and occasional outright abolitionist) sentiments among white Southerners in the early 19th century, by the 1840s and 1850s very few white Southerners expressed anything like opposition to slavery as a whole. They might bitterly resent the planter class. But if they publicly rejected the slave system, on either moral (like John Fee of Kentucky) or economic (like Hinton Rowan Helper of North Carolina) grounds, they were hounded out as dangerous traitors. Non-slaveholding whites supported slavery because it shielded them from falling into the true bottom of the social order (Herrenvolk Democracy), buttressed the entire economic order (slaves as labor and as valuable chattel property), provided employment as overseers, and prevented the prospect of a Haiti-style violent insurrection. Slaveholders absolutely dominated the political system, both regionally and nationally in the 1850s, and non-slaveholders looked to them for assistance in bad harvests, or aspired to join them and become slaveholders. While not every white person objectively benefited from or defended slavery equally, the vast, vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners viewed the prospect of abolition with horror. Note here that even in East Tennessee, future Unionists like Andrew Johnson and William Parson Brownlow vigorously defended slavery right up through 1860.

9. Turning now to the Civil War itself, the immediate turn to war in April 1861 had to do with preserving the Union. Remember that seven Deep South states (SC, MS, AL, LA, FL, GA and TX) seceded after Lincoln’s election. Eight other slave states rejected secession at that time. Only after Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s troop call-up did four Upper South states (VA, NC, AR and TN) join the Confederacy. Four remaining border slave states (MO, KY, MD and DE) remained in the Union. Preserving the Union militarily helped convinced the second tier states to secede. But as Lincoln pointed out in his First Inaugural, to fail to keep the Union intact at that point would have meant the death of the experiment of self-government (something European autocrats celebrated) and the likely disintegration of what remained of the Union. Lincoln termed secession a kind of breach of contract, wherein both sides never agreed together to allow for secession. National self-preservation is always the first task of any government. One can argue against these claims today and may did so back then. But the logic of the war-for-Union argument was compelling and obvious. Just as the American colonies did not expect to be allowed to break from Great Britain peacefully, neither did the secessionists believe the Union would really let the Southern states go peacefully. The secessionists figured a war would come. They just thought they would win that war.

10. Secessionists were clear about why they seceded upon Lincoln’s election. They felt the Republican Party would not defend slavery in the territories, would not crack down future John Browns, would create an anti-slavery party within the less-enslaved parts of the South, and would turn foreign policy toward anti-slavery. Slavery was stronger than ever in 1860. Secession was an act of overconfidence. And secession, as the multiple ordinances and declarations of causes showed, was designed explicitly to protect slavery and white supremacy.

11. Finally, individuals who joined the Confederate (or Union) army had multiple reasons for doing so. But if we are talking about the causes of the Civil War, we must look to the causes of secession and the reason the antislavery Republican Party emerged victorious in the 1860 election.

Still More on John Kelly’s Civil War Comments

Compromise

In addition to my analysis of Kelly’s remarks and Carole Emberton’s Washington Post op-ed, I also want to call your attention to Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times piece on this controversy.  It is a nice overview of the various compromises that took place from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861.  She quotes David Blight, Manisha Sinha, and David Waldstreicher.

Read it here.