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The South After Slavery

One of the more exquisite nightmares in Orwell’s 1984 is the bureau where newspapers, books, magazines, and written records of all kinds are continually revised so that the raw materials of history will in no way conflict with the latest pronouncements of Big Brother. Winston, the leading character, has the job of rewriting back issues of the London Times to bring them into line with the current “truth.” Orwell’s target was of course Stalin’s Russia, where Big Brother himself quite literally reshaped the past to suit his own needs. There, a one-time colleague, Trotsky, could virtually disappear from the story of the Revolution and become an “unperson” for an entire generation of young Russians.

It can’t happen here? Let us see. True, we have no censorship, no “official” accounts of the past, and certainly no tampering with historical records. We operate on the faith that even when historians go wrong, history itself doesn’t; future generations will know the story as it actually happened, even if we don’t. Yet Tocqueville knew better: for him, the functional substitute for Big Brother in a democratic society was “the people.” We, too, are fully capable of rewriting our own history, and without even having to revise our records. All we need is a broad popular consensus supported by strong public emotion. The “facts” are not changed, only our perceptions of them; they can become un-facts even when the evidence for them remains the same.

This, as Kenneth Stampp has perceived, is about what happened to the history of Reconstruction in the late 1890s and the first decades of the twentieth century. The men who had actually experienced Radical Reconstruction knew very well that it had been a complex and confused interlude, one in which leading white Southerners often changed sides, some several times. And the experience itself had varied enormously from state to state. But with the disfranchising movement of the late Nineties, the leaders of the movement insisted again and again that Reconstruction had shown beyond a doubt that utter incapacity of the Negro to participate in government. Misled by carpet-baggers from the North (read foreign adventurers) and scalawags from the South (read native traitors), the Negro had provided a voting base that made possible the most corrupt, inefficient, inept governments that ever tyrannized over an Anglo-Saxon people. Only force, organized in desperation by patriotic local groups, finally saved the South from Negro rule and imminent collapse. Within a decade, a politician’s argument had been taken up by a new generation of professional historians—many, though not all, Southern—and by World War I they had succeeded in making it the “official” version of Reconstruction for the entire country. It was they, in effect, who gave Griffith his scenario for Birth of a Nation.

In the process, no records were rewritten; they were simply read differently. Whole patterns of complexity could be selectively ignored. Respectable post-bellum Southerners like James Longstreet or James Alcorn who co-operated with the Radicals could either be redefined as traitors or become virtual un-persons. Otherwise, how could David Donald have made such a stir in the 1940s when he pointed out that many of the so-called scalawags in Mississippi had come from old first families? No historian, even of Reconstruction, has deliberately suppressed anything. It is just that those who wrote about it in the Progressive Era, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, simply could not allow any complexity or ambiguity to confuse the story. Even the exceptional study, such as James Garner’s on Mississippi—which, though Southern, was quite fair and unpolemical and described a political situation that was most complex—could be atomized and absorbed into the main stream without raising any real questions. The story’s theme and outlines remained as straightforward and uncomplicated as a Russian textbook on the 1917 revolution.

That is why Kenneth Stampp needed to write this book, but that is only part of the reason why this book is so welcome. It, too, has not just popped up out of nowhere. It is a kind of culminating product of yet another tradition—a long line of counter-effort that has had much rougher going than the tradition just referred to.

The counter-effort “revisionism,” actually began as far back as thirty years ago. W.E.B. DuBois in 1935 tried unsuccessfully to turn the whole thing on its head by making the carpetbaggers, Negroes, and scalawags the tragic heroes of a frustrated proletarian revolution. Somewhat more influential was a thin stream of articles, and an occasional book, by young historians—again many of them Southerners—which chipped away at various aspects of the legend. The scalawags were not all treacherous, the carpetbaggers were not all corrupt, and the Radical regimes accomplished a number of commendable things—such as public school systems, together with excellent constitutions, many of which were retained long after the end of Reconstruction. The Negroes, who never really “overran” any of the state legislatures, produced a number of very creditable leaders. By the 1950s, some of this revisionism had even found its way into Northern high school textbooks.

And yet for the country at large, the old orthodoxies and old simplicities were not easily dissolved. Even in the 1960s the journalist David Lawrence, harassed by the civil rights movement, regularly warned his readers that the North, unlike the South, knew nothing about the horrors of Reconstruction and thus could not begin to appreciate the Southern whites’ fear of political domination by ignorant Negroes. Again and again he gravely appealed to “the lessons of history”—a version of history that for most historians had been out of date for twenty-five years. The civil rights movement has, to be sure, created a new sympathy for positive Federal legislation, much of which is reminiscent of the Radical measures of the late 1860s and early 1870s. But historical revisionism has never really been able to reverse the old legend, because that is impossible: no amount of it can turn Reconstruction into an enterprise of sweetness and light. A reverse orthodoxy is out of the question. The picture has only been muddled, unavoidably so, and what we have long needed—even before getting a complete new “history” of Reconstruction, which is yet to come—is a precise statement of what the issues are.

Stampp has provided such a statement. His book is not very long, no more than a schematic outline of the subject, and that is all to the good. It begins, as it should, with the history of an attitude, which in this case is not to be detached from the history of the subject itself. The remainder is a brief narrative, but its very brevity makes clear that a bare narrative line distinctly at variance with a comparable one of fifty years ago is fully conceivable. (It is also good to be reminded that Reconstruction had a chronology, just like any other historical event.) I myself might question whether either Lincoln or Johnson had much of a general notion of how Southern society ought to be overhauled, though between Lincoln’s planlessness and that of Johnson there was a world of qualitative difference. And yet Stampp can be quite matter-of-fact in considering how a postwar Lincoln might have gone about nationalizing the Republican party: the common sense of the matter, and something that would not have occurred to William A. Dunning in 1907.

Stampp then charts the gradual collapse of Johnson’s restoration policy in the face of rising Northern fear that the South would regain by the ballot-box what it had lost on the battlefield. (He is fully aware that historians have had to be re-trained even to take this fear seriously again.) By the fall of 1866 the Radicals were in firm control of the government, and by early 1867, with the Reconstruction Acts, they would impose their own terms on the South. Why? Partly because they were afraid of a Democratic victory in 1868 if the former Confederate states were readmitted without limitations in their political power; partly because of growing Northern fury over Southern treatment of Unionists and Negroes; partly because there was a substantial minority within the Republican party whose principal commitment was to equal rights for all. Yet to Claude Bowers in 1929, or to J.G. Randall in 1937, such an obvious answer would not have been the common sense of the matter.

For the old party-liners, Reconstruction was a total revolutionary upheaval, a kind of blackout. Stampp sees it, as anyone with two eyes should, as something less than a half-way revolution. The Federal government did little or nothing to turn ex-slaves into property-holders; it did give them the vote, but no stable guarantees for keeping it. He shows how the North lost interest, depicts the fine impartiality with which Southerners attacked the crooked government of Louisiana and the honest one of Mississippi, and reminds the South itself what a sad disappointment its own “Redeemers” were.

Any person who wants cues on how to read Reconstruction history can do no better than to start with Stampp. He will then realize what a waste of energy it is to reargue the old questions; he may even start asking new ones. Here is a brand new question, as simple as can be: how did it feel, and what was it really like, to live in the 1860s and 1870s? How did Southern communities make daily terms with their Radical governments while they had them? How much power was a Northern military commander actually given, how did these communities look to him, what sorts of problems did they make for him? What were the real preoccupations of a carpetbag governor? Did Southern politicians of the Redeemer era slough off entirely the political habits they acquired during Reconstruction? What must have been the psychic impact on a Negro community of being asked, for the first time, to take part in public life?

It is now possible to imagine the entire effort of Reconstruction as something other than an insane nightmare, and to recognize that one of the reasons for its turning into one was the inhibited, half-baked, and half-hearted way in which Reconstruction was conceived and set in motion. No one seemed able to think the whole thing through or take full responsibility for it. Peacetime Federal power was an instrument that Americans of the 1860s had no experience in using and no idea of how to combine with local power in effecting national policy.

Yet a fund of experience was accumulated during that period. There is a body of historical precedent to be drawn upon, and both the public and the Federal government have great need of it today. It has simply not been available, because the newspeak and doublethink of the Progressive Era long ago placed it beyond the bounds of legitimacy. Kenneth Stampp is one of the leaders in bringing that history back (for that is all it is), and in restoring that experience to something like its original state.

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