The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography

This is an article by Bernard J. Weisberger published in the Journal of Southern History, Volume XXV, No. 4, November, 1959, pages 427-447.

The article is a landmark examination of the state of Reconstruction historiography as of when the article was published. It can be used as a bibliography to point the student toward other works to consult as well as a source of ideas for scholars to use in looking at the current state of Reconstruction scholarship and analyzing what is lacking.

Weisberger tells us, “In February 1939, the Journal of Southern History carried an article by Francis B. Simkins describing a number of ‘New Viewpoints of Southern Reconstruction.’ Frankly facing the fact that ‘the main issue of the Reconstruction period, the great American race question,’ like Banquo’s ghost, would not down, Simkins asked for a fairer analysis of Reconstruction’s achievements and failures and an end to the notion that encouraging the Negro in voting and officeholding was somehow a crime of crimes. By adopting a more ‘critical, creative and tolerant attitude,’ he said, historians of the South could better discharge their ‘great civic obligation.’ In the following year, Howard K. Beale took up this theme with a brisk, provocative essay, ‘On Rewriting Reconstruction History,’ in the American Historical Review. Forthrightly, Beale asked if it were ‘not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of ‘white supremacy’?’ He then posted a list of questions previously ignored except in scattered numbers of the Journal of Negro History and in W. E. B. DuBois’ 1935 volume, Black Reconstruction. What was the whole story of popular government in the South from 1865 to 1900? What were the economic connections of the so-called Redeemers? How much of the famed Reconstruction debt went for gilt spittoons and legislative boodle, and how much for social, educational, and industrial rebuilding? Where did the poor white fit into the picture? What lessons could be learned by considering Reconstruction anew, this time as a short-lived revolution which placed power in inexperienced hands? These questions struck to the heart of the prejudiced version of Reconstruction laid down around the turn of the century by Rhodes, Burgess, and Dunning, developed by Fleming and some of the individual state historians of the period, and widely popularized, in 1929, by Claude Bowers’ zestful work of imagination, The Tragic Era. That story is familiar. It told of how ‘Vindictives’ and ‘Radicals’ in Congress shouldered aside Johnson and the Supreme Court and imposed ‘Carpetbag’ and ‘Scalawag’ and ‘Negro’ governments on the South by the bayonet. These new governments debauched and plundered a proud but helpless people until finally, desperately harried whites responded with their own campaigns of violence and persuasion. These respectable folk at last took advantage of mounting Northern disgust with ‘carpetbag crimes’ to restore ‘home rule’ unopposed.” [pp. 427-428]

Weisberger says that even though DuBois, Beale, and Simkins heralded a new interpretation of Reconstruction, in the twenty years since there was still much work to be done. He says, “Yet something seems to have blunted the purpose of the historical guild, and the discovery of what this something is deserves professional attention. Certainly it is no lack of revisionary work on the monographic level. There is plenty of that, some of it brilliant. One is almost tempted to cite the leading journals passim for fear of overlooking meritorious pieces, but short of that, one may point to at least half a dozen books and twice that many articles of genuine significance.” [p. 429] He highlights three books by C. Vann Woodward, Reunion and Reaction: the Compromise of 1877 and the End of Reconstruction (1951), Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (1951), and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955). He also suggests articles by T. Harry Williams: “The Scalawag in Mississippi Reconstruction,” Journal of Southern History, X (November 1944), “Why They Impeached Andrew Johnson,” American Heritage, VIII (December 1956), and “The Radicals and Lincoln” in Lincoln Reconsidered (1956). He highlights several more books and articles by various historians covering a number of Reconstruction topics.

“Varied as are all these works in quality, aim, and scope, their total impact clears the air. They show, first of all, that the so-called ‘scalawags’ were not all the ragged underlings of Southern society, but included–at least early in the period–many erstwhile Southern Whigs, high in status and thoroughly baptized in the church of the Lost Cause. The nucleus of a Southern Republican party, they were displaced by extremist pressure from overardent Radicals, both Negro and white, on the one hand, and die-hard ‘white line’ supporters on the other. Often, however, the issues on which they were challenged had as much to do with patronage and with profit as with race. Secondly, the Republican state governments chosen under the operation of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 were not composed exclusively of corruptionists, white or Negro, and achieved a number of  praiseworthy social and educational reforms. Thirdly, such corruption as did exist was shared in by many white and respectable Southerners, later to become ‘Bourbons,’ who did not scruple to profit by the lavish gifts of the sinful ‘carpetbag’ governments to Southern development companies. Moreover, when restored to control, these ‘Conservatives’ continued to keep the doors of the state treasuries hospitably open to businessmen who had formerly supported the Radicals. Fourthly, the restored ‘Conservatives’ were willing to live with Negro suffrage, provided they could control its outcome. The ‘sin’ of enfranchising the illiterate freedman was apparently washed whiter than snow, once he switched to the Democratic ticket. Fifthly, life somehow went on under ‘bayonet rule.’ Crops, capital, and order were restored, after all, and there were cakes and ale as well as heartbreak and ugliness. Violence there was; but the legend of Negro militiamen’s ‘atrocities,’ perpetuated in Thomas Dixon’s The Klansman, is as baseless as the implication in Albion Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand that every square Southern mile contained a secretly buried victim of the Klan. Lastly, neither in Congress nor in the South were the Radicals the purposeful and unified group of conspirators that they have been amde out to be by friendly biographers of Andrew Johnson. Johnson himself, pilloried though he was by his enemies, added to his own woes by personal hardheadedness, political stumbling, and a blind belief that the incantation of constitutional formulas could change the brute facts of power distribution.” [pp. 431-433]

He goes into what at the time were some of the holes in Reconstruction scholarship and talks about shortcomings in textbooks and teacher training in Reconstruction. He tells us, “If we have been unjust to some actors in the Reconstruction story, it is because we have not come to terms with some larger problems of United States history. In the first place, white historians have shied away from grasping the nettle of race conflict, mainly because of the difficulty of recognizing their own emotional involvement in the problem. Yet this unwillingness to dwell on the almost universal nineteenth-century conviction of the Negro’s innate inferiority often leads to a slipshod evaluation of materials. It is proper to take account of the frankly political motives of many Radical defenders of the Negro voter. It is equally proper to bear in mind the frankly racial motives of some of the Radicals’ opponents. A glance at source materials of the sixties, for example, shows that many so-called conservatives opposed the Radical program for the South not because they were devoted to states’ rights, or agrarianism, or the Constitution, or the Democratic party alone, but plainly and simply because they thought it was sinful to give so-called Africans the right to share in governments framed by a clearly superior Anglo-Saxon race.” [pp. 436-437] He tells us about black historians and their perspective and how the perspective white historians bring conflicts with it. He says, “Historians are not obliged, of course, to support the Negro’s case unreservedly wherever it appears. They ought, nonetheless, to walk humbly when talking of the American Negro as slave, freedman, voter, or worker. He is known to us almost exclusively through the writings of white men, who, whether well-intentioned or not, were interested parties to a conflict. Conflicts may be solved peaceably, but not wished away. The conflict between white Southerners’ determination to be the architects of their own society and black Southerners’ desire for a place of dignity in that society did not disappear in 1877. It was ‘solved’ by Northern acquiescence in the subordination of the Southern Negro.” [pp. 438-439]

Weisberger also tells us there has to be a re-evaluation of the claims of corruption during Reconstruction. He also says historians need to reconsider land frauds. Also ripe for reconsideration are the carpetbaggers. He says, “A third error in compiling the Reconstruction record has been its treatment as an almost isolated episode in federal-state relations. The national fetish of Constitution-worship is partly to blame here. ‘Constitutional history’ is not valid as a study of inviolable principles, but rather as an examination of how men adapt their principles to the actual shifts of power within a political system.” [p. 442] He identifies the fourth problem as the poor training many historians have in economics and other disciplines “by obsolete, unsophisticated, and intellectually isolated viewpoints.” [p. 444] Finally, he says the historical profession needs to engage in a great deal of introspection. “Historians themselves work from implicit assumptions, measurable in the light of sociology and psychology, and it is a legitimate duty of scholars to examine those assumptions.” [p. 446]

The article is necessary for any students interested in the way Reconstruction has been interpreted and how those interpretations evolved.

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