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During the 1960s and 1970s, historians of the American South concentrated on the institution of slavery. Debates on the economic performance of the plantation, the relations between masters and slaves, and the results of slave efforts to create a culture and community of their own were vigorous and sharply defined. At times these scholarly disputes were noticed by the press, and authors of ambitious, interpretative books on slavery even appeared on TV talk shows to defend their views. During the past few years the slavery debates have subsided although they have not been fully resolved. But much was learned, and a consensus developed on one crucial point: the Afro-American slaves were now recognized as historical actors in their own right and not simply as the hapless victims of forces beyond their control.
With the great slavery controversy only temporarily exhausted and awaiting new perspectives that cannot yet be foreseen, the emphasis in work on southern history has moved ahead to the postwar era, to Reconstruction and the “New South.” The study of this turbulent period had somewhat stagnated during the boom in slavery history, and it is clearly ripe for reinterpretation. Furthermore, some of the postwar studies carry over from the studies of slavery.
The Reconstruction era itself (1865–1877) was, until very recently, dominated by a group of scholars known as “revisionists.” What they were revising was the older view that northern policies to reconstruct the South were ill-conceived and crassly motivated, and led to extremely corrupt governments composed of white opportunities (“carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”) who rode to power on the votes of ignorant blacks who should never have been enfranchised in the first place. The revisionists performed a necessary and valuable service by showing that proponents of “Radical Reconstruction” were at least partly inspired by a desire for racial justice, which anticipated the civil rights movement of recent times; they also deflated exaggerated views of the venality and incompetence of the southern Republicans—white and black—who presided over the “Radical” regimes. Besides pointing out the good intentions and positive achievements of the freedmen and their allies, they exposed the vicious racism and violent tactics of the “redeemers”—southern whites who opposed and eventually overthrew the Reconstruction regimes.
The problem with the revisionists, however, was that they were locked into a debate over issues that were essentially moral and ideological in character. Their defense of black rights and equality against the racist scholarship of the first half of the twentieth century was laudable; but once this message had gotten across, they demonstrated little capacity to shed new light on the complex process of how a slave society was transformed into something quite different.
The essential character of the “New South”—the more enduring order that emerged out of the wreckage of Reconstruction—was fixed for more than a quarter of a century by one of the most remarkable works ever produced by an American historian. C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South described the triumph …
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