The Right's 1877 Project

Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, historiography, Reconstruction, Lost Cause

In a recent column for The American Conservative, Helen Andrews argues that Reconstruction — that brief slice of the 19th century during which Black Southerners enjoyed extensive political rights under the aegis of Northern Republicans — was “objectively bad.” Further, she insists that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode,” as today’s mainstream historians do, “would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.” She proceeds to suggest that the conception of Reconstruction as “a noble experiment in interracial democracy” is crypto-communist agitprop.

In support of this argument, Andrews marshals two basic contentions:

• Reconstruction governments were uniquely corrupt. In Andrews’s words, Southern corruption during the period was “not just a matter of a little graft here and there,” but rather constituted “the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few.”

• Two of the most prominent “Reconstruction revisionists,” W.E.B. Du Bois and Eric Foner, are Marxists, she says. And both argued that Reconstruction should have redistributed more land from Confederate plantation owners to former slaves. Therefore, when historians “say that Reconstruction only failed because it was not tried hard enough, what they mean is that America did not go all the way to a 1917-style [Bolshevik] revolution.”

Andrews’s condemnation of contemporary U.S. historiography is almost refreshing for its forthrightness. Unlike some of her ideological bedfellows, Andrews is not trying to veil her wildly reactionary understanding of American racial history behind more respectable concerns; no ill-defined abstractions like “critical race theory” shroud her apologia for white Southern redemption. Yet Andrews is only candid in relative terms. In truth, her column is unrelenting in its refusal to baldly state its most incendiary implications.

Her account of Reconstruction-era corruption is a case in point. Andrews devotes much of her piece to reciting the period’s most notorious instances of graft and rentierism, from the South Carolina State House’s exorbitant liquor budget to the ring of would-be railroad barons who sucked millions of dollars out of North Carolina’s state legislature, only to exhaust taxpayers’ funds on speculative endeavors before completing a single track. But the existence of widespread corruption during Reconstruction is not in dispute. In his seminal “revisionist” account of the period, Foner writes, “Corruption may be ubiquitous in American history, but it thrived in the Reconstruction South because of the specific circumstances of Republican rule.” The question that separates revisionists like Foner from Redemption apologists like Andrews is not whether corruption was rampant during Reconstruction but why this was the case.

Foner attributes the phenomenon largely to the postbellum South’s inherent economic difficulties and political underdevelopment. War left much of the region’s economy in literal ruins. Restoring prosperity required rapid development in general and railroad infrastructure in particular. With private capital reluctant to invest large sums in the South, the burden of financing industrialization fell on state governments. Officials in those governments often had few economic prospects outside of office, in part because of wartime devastation, and extraordinary opportunities for soliciting bribes, as corporations and communities vied for state aid. Given this context, postwar corruption was liable to be extensive, even in the absence of Reconstruction’s democratizing reforms. In support of this view, revisionists note that southern Democrats (i.e., Reconstruction’s opponents) engaged in no small amount of corruption themselves. In fact, the legislation that transferred millions from North Carolina taxpayers to railroad fraudsters, which Andrews righteously condemns, was co-authored by former Confederates.

By contrast, the Dunning School — the dominant school of thought on Reconstruction for most of the 20th century and the one that Andrews implicitly champions — attributes postbellum corruption to Black enfranchisement specifically. In this view, the formerly enslaved simply were not prepared for the rigors of self-government. As voters, freed Blacks’ ignorance left them vulnerable to the depredations of demagogues; as legislators, their lack of civic virtue lent itself to corruption.

Andrews never frankly endorses this argument. But her column is premised upon it. The existence of corruption during Reconstruction cannot render the project “objectively bad” unless one stipulates that a less corrupt political order would have flourished in its absence. If Andrews does not believe that the restoration of white-supremacist rule in the postbellum South would have been preferable to Reconstruction — and/or that its ultimate restoration in 1877 was a form of progress — then her column makes little sense.

Read entire article at New York Magazine

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