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 …