The Continuing What-Ifs of Reconstruction

tags: Jim Crow, Civil War, Reconstruction

Brooks Donohue Simpson (born August 4, 1957) is an American historian and an ASU Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University, specializing in studies of the American Civil War.

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. ...

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