How Past Scholars Sustained White Supremacy

Students of the Civil War and Reconstruction eventually learn the historiography of the time period, and with that comes a familiarization with such scholars as Ulrich Bonnel Phillips [see also here and here] in slavery studies and William Archibald Dunning and his acolytes in Reconstruction studies [See the Dunning School]. We’ve previously discussed a little of this. This post, however, is not about those men. Rather, it concerns what’s been taught to generations of American school children.

Schools and textbooks were early targets of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in their quest to spread lies about the Civil War, secession, and Reconstruction [see also here]. That they succeeded in their quest in the South is well understood and documented. With a few exceptions, such as sociologist James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, what has not been extensively studied is the influence of general U.S. History textbooks used at the secondary and university levels.

In this article, we can see some books used in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s taught students a load of lost cause nonsense. “A central theme of the books was the Lost Cause, a narrative – considered mostly mythical by historians – that holds that slaves were content and that Virginia could have dealt with slavery on its own if not for meddling Northerners whose actions led to the Civil War. When the books were being developed, the Byrd organization was worried about some new unpleasantness: the civil rights policies of President Harry S. Truman. There is a clear connection, said Adam W. Dean, a Lynchburg College historian who specializes in slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction: The Byrd organization wanted to tell a new generation that Virginians were justified – in the mid-1800s and again in the mid-1900s – in wanting to handle race-related issues on their own. ‘Segregationists in very high offices in the state thought that they could use the Lost Cause version of the Civil War to support segregation,’ said Dean, who wrote about the textbooks in a 2009 edition of the Virginia Historical Society’s scholarly ‘Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.’ Dean added: ‘I think (those overseeing creation of the textbooks) believed this history. They didn’t view themselves as lying to people.’ This nonsense had a pervasive effect that continues to this very day. “In her study, William & Mary’s Sheriff said the three textbooks and the controversy they spawned have not faded from memory. ‘I have been struck by the number of people who, when they have seen my copies of the state-commissioned Virginia histories, have remarked that they remember them from their childhoods,’ she said. On a recent day in Richmond, two middle-aged women strolled down Monument Avenue to get a close-up look at the 61-foot-tall memorial to Lee. The women chatted pleasantly with two strangers, and then the talk turned to the cause of the Civil War. It was about secession, not slavery, one of the women said. Confident in her view, she added: ‘People need to learn their history.’ ”

Here’s another article on Virginia textbooks. The article gives us an example of the lost cause baloney in these books. ” ‘Virginia: History, Government, Geography’ was a seventh-grade textbook that, among its other transgressions, spun a fictional tale of contented slaves: ‘It was not difficult for the Negroes to adjust themselves to Virginia life. They had worked hard in Africa, and so the work on the Virginia plantations did not hurt them. In Africa they had known a form of slavery more stern than that of the Virginia plantations … In his new home, the Negro was far away from the spears and war clubs of enemy tribes. He had some of the comforts of civilized life. He had better food, a better house, and better medical care than he did in Africa. And he was comforted by a religion of love and mercy.’ ”

Donald Yacovone of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University has an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that reports on a survey he performed of over fifty textbooks in Harvard’s collection of over three thousand books published between 1800 and 1980. He tells us, “After reviewing my first 50 or so textbooks, one morning I realized precisely what I was seeing, what instruction, and what priorities were leaping from the pages into the brains of the students compelled to read them: white supremacy. One text even began with the capitalized title: ‘The White Man’s History.’ Across time and with precious few exceptions, African-Americans appeared only as ‘ignorant negroes,’ as slaves, and as anonymous abstractions that only posed ‘problems’ for the supposed real subjects of history: white people of European descent.” He continues, “The assumptions of white priority, white domination, and white importance underlie every chapter and every theme of the thousands of textbooks that blanketed the country. This is the vast tectonic plate that underlies American culture. And while the worst features of our textbook legacy may have ended, the themes, facts, and attitudes of supremacist ideologies are deeply embedded in what we teach and how we teach it.”

As an example of what was prevalent before the Civil War, Yacovone introduces us to Noah Webster’s text, History of the United States, published in 1832. “Webster, of dictionary fame, once told the black minister and abolitionist leader Amos G. Beman that ‘wooly haired Africans’ have ‘no history, & there can be none.’ Webster dismissed Africans as nonentities and elevated puritans, especially Connecticut puritans, to the level of founding fathers. His book made only passing mention of colonies (later states) below Mason-Dixon and completely ignored slavery. History, for Webster, was the record of his puritan forbearers, and no others. The standard of whiteness-in-history had been set.”

In the article, we learn, ” Until 1860, no American history textbook ever mentioned the name of an abolitionist or even the existence of an antislavery movement. If slavery was mentioned at all, the discussion focused on Congress and on political leaders like Henry Clay. History took place in European exploration, colonization, revolution, Constitution-forming, party politics, and presidential administrations — and nowhere else. The Connecticut-born Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who sometime wrote as ‘Peter Parley,’ may have been the most successful textbook author and writer of the mid-19th century. He claimed to have published 170 volumes, selling seven-million copies. He also boasted that his Pictorial History of the United States, originally published in 1843 and still in print after the Civil War, sold 500,000 copies. His 1866 edition simply tacked on a new chapter about the war, but his textbook neglected to discuss the fall of slavery. The message to students: Black lives do not matter. There are exceptions, of course. From the 1870s and to the early 1900s some textbooks, such as ones by the abolitionist and colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson; by the Canadian-born author, newspaper editor, and librarian, Josephus Nelson Larned; by the great Civil War reporter Charles Carleton Coffin; or especially by the Harvard University historian Albert Bushnell Hart, treat the abolitionist movement sympathetically. They see it as an agent of democracy and its membership as unpopular Cassandra’s, men and women who stood up to slavery and created the constituencies that Lincoln and his fellow Republican politicians used to resist the South. Given the era and available resources, these authors presented history fully and inclusively, even giving space to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth.” Especially bad, it seems, were the chapters on Reconstruction prior to the 1960s. “The worst chapter in almost every textbook published before the 1960s, these books repeated relentlessly and emphatically the phrase ‘ignorant negro.’ Indeed, descriptions of the Reconstruction era in history textbooks published from about 1900 to the mid-1960s provide a stunning immersion in white arrogance, black incapacity, and nostalgia for the sweet days of slavery and Southern white racial domination.”

Examples of how African Americans, abolitionists, and slavery were treated in these textbooks abound. “Arthur C. Perry and Gertrude A. Price’s two-volume American History (1914), a grammar-school text, helped explain the life of slaves by employing an image of gleeful ‘negroes’ at their cabin’s door after a day’s work, enjoying getting ‘together for a rollicking time.’ But for generations of students, the textbooks of the Columbia University historian David Saville Muzzey shaped their understanding of the central crisis of American history. With over 50 publications, his influence became pervasive, especially through his History of the American People, a heavily illustrated tome of 700 pages for high-school students, used relentlessly between 1927 and 1938, and for many decades after under various other titles. For Muzzey, ‘the mutual provocation of the abolitionists and the ardent defenders of the slavery system’ caused the Civil War, and the North bore prime responsibility for causing the South to secede through its relentless hostility to slavery. More to the point, Muzzey explained that Reconstruction proved an unmitigated disaster, setting the untutored former slaves against ‘the only people who could really help them … their old masters.’ Instead, Northern radicals manufactured an ‘orgy of extravagance, fraud, and disgusting incompetence,’ placing upon the South the ‘unbearable burden of negro rule.’ This ‘crime of Reconstruction,’ he wrote, would be the root cause of sectional bitterness that would endure ‘to the present day.’ ” Believe it or not, some of these textbooks used in northern states like Indiana actually praised the Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan and cheered white supremacy. “Between 1931 and 1943, the Yale intellectual historian Ralph Henry Gabriel, along with Mabel B. Casner, a Connecticut high-school teacher, explained to students that the central problem of Reconstruction was that the former slaves ‘found that freedom could be a greater curse than slavery.’ In Southern states under Republican rule, the ‘Negroes were ignorant, and most of the carpetbaggers were rascals.’ Fortunately, however, white men organized secret societies to ‘fight the evils that surrounded them,’ especially theft, which was ‘very common among those who had recently been slaves’ and restored white power.”

In showing the influence of the Dunning School on succeeding generations of schoolchildren, we find, “The University of Chicago’s Marcus Jernegan’s The Growth of the American People (1934), relied on the toxic scholarship of Claude Bowers, George Fort Milton, and even Thomas Dixon Jr. Jernegan described the Freedmen’s Bureau as an organ for ‘race hatred,’ but the Ku Klux Klan appeared as the bulwark against carpetbag corruption. According to Jernegan, the Klan did little more than play on the ‘superstitious fears of the negroes’ and scared them at night by dressing in white sheets and shouting ‘Beware! The Great Cyclops is angry!’ and thus discouraged blacks from voting. Accusations of real Klan violence, he asserted, were largely fabricated.”

There are also examples from the 1940s. “The University of California at Berkeley’s John D. Hicks, best known for his study of the Populist Movement, described slavery in his advanced textbook, A Short History of American Democracy (1943) as ‘By and large … a distinct advance over the lot that would have befallen him [the slave] had he remained in Africa.’ Besides, Hicks suggests, where else could a people so untutored enjoy picnics, barbecues, singing, and dancing? The slaves’ ‘devotions [religion] were extremely picturesque, and their moral standards sufficiently latitudinarian to meet the needs of a really primitive people. Heaven to the Negro was a place of rest from all labor, the fitting reward of a servant who obeyed his master and loved the Lord. … [C]ohabitation without marriage was regarded as perfectly normal, and a certain amount of promiscuity was taken for granted. Slave women rarely resisted the advances of white men, as their numerous mulatto progeny abundantly attested.’ Berkeley’s history department recalls Hicks’s enormous influence, classes with over 500 students, and the impossibility of estimating ‘the number of students whose knowledge of American history has been built on the Hicks histories, but it is certainly an immense number.’ ”

Yacovone concludes his article, “It would appear that despite the monumental outburst of scholarship produced since the mid-1960s, the way we teach history remains as lifeless as John Brown’s body. But as Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at the Ohio State University, observed in the introduction to ‘Teaching Hard History’: ‘Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines.’ History is far from a dead thing. ‘We carry it within us,’ James Baldwin memorably remarked. We ‘are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frame of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.’ ”

After reading the article I decided to take a look at the textbooks I’ve accumulated from various sources. While nowhere near the 3,000 Harvard has, I do have a few. In this post I’ll consider one example, The Heritage of America, edited by Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins, Revised and Enlarged Edition, (1951). This text is actually a collection of firsthand narratives from the first explorations of America to World War II. The first mention of slavery I could find is in a letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, dated August 6, 1822, in which he was discussing Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence and wrote, “Congress cut off about a quarter of it [the DoI], as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptional, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published. I suppose the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.” [p. 151] Next there’s an excerpt from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, which talks about “Negro slaves.” There’s no mention of the Missouri Compromise and the argument over slavery’s expansion. An excerpt from Rebecca Felton’s “Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth” has no mention of enslaved people. In the chapter on reformers, there’s a brief mention of “Abolition agitation,” [p. 413] but no discussion of abolitionists in that chapter. Chapter 17 is titled, “The South and Slavery.” One of the readings, “The Reverent Mr. Walsh Inspects a Slave Ship,” is an excerpt from Reverend R. Walsh’s “Notices of Brazil” and is a condemnation of the slave trade. In the next reading, “Nellie Thomas Recalls Her Grandfather’s Plantation in South Carolina,” we get a “Moonlight and Magnolias” picture of slaves: “Amid such conditions–conditions that were their right–slaves were happy and cheerful and worked willingly and enthusiastically.” [p. 455] In the introduction to the reading, the editors wrote, “The happiest aspect of slavery was presented on those great plantations of the lower South where the masters were kindly, conscientious, and personally interested in their human property. Had the South shown more of this ‘patriarchal’ type of slaveholding, and less of slave-driving by overseers, attacks on the institution would have been fewer and weaker. Sometimes the master and mistress worked far harder than their servants.” [p. 454] Another reading is a defense of slavery from Joseph Holt Ingraham, who was born in Maine but later moved to Mississippi. This reading is called, “A Yankee Approves of Slavery,” even though Ingraham lived out the remainder of his life in Mississippi. Another reading, this one by the English actress Fanny Kemble, opposes slavery. Kemble had married a Georgian planter. Ingraham has another excerpt included in the readings, this one on “Social Classes Among the Slaves,” which again defends slavery. In “Field Hands on the Combahee,” Duncan Heyward describes what he claims to have been the treatment of enslaved people on his family’s plantation. Again, we’re treated to the claim they were well-treated and happy to be enslaved. The next reading is “Thomas Dabney Runs a Model Plantation,” an excerpt from Susan Dabney Smedes’ “Memorials of a Southern Planter.” Once again, enslaved people were well treated and happy to be enslaved. Chapter 18 is titled “Abolition and Fugitive Slaves.” It consists of five readings: “Garrison is Mobbed by the Boston Conservatives,” “Elijah Lovejoy is Martyred for His Abolitionism,” “Levi Coffin Runs and Underground-Railroad Depot,” “Anthony Burns Is Sent Back to Slavery,” and “John Brown Makes a Speech at Harper’s Ferry.” There’s really no attempt to foster an understanding of the abolitionist position. Abolitionists are depicted as reviled in the North. While in the previous chapter we are told enslaved people in the South were well-treated and happy with their lot, white northerners are depicted as being supportive of slavery, even in Boston, which was a prime area for abolitionists. In the sections on Westward Expansion we get no mention at all of arguments over expansion of slavery. In the chapter on Texas and the Mexican War, there’s no mention of slavery. In the sole mention of the Compromise of 1850, the editors wrote, “Calhoun, Clay, and Webster all played their last great roles in the debates on compromise between South and North in 1850. To express his opinions on Clay’s great Omnibus or Compromise Bill, Calhoun wrote his last formal speech, which Mason of Virginia read to the Senate on March 4th. Immediately afterward Calhoun went to hear Webster’s great speech of March 7th in favor of compromise. Before the month closed he was dead. Clay died in June of the same year and Webster in October.” [p. 626] In an excerpt from The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, we have a reading called “Carl Schurz Hears Lincoln Debate With Douglas.” Nowhere in the excerpt do we read of what Lincoln and Douglas debated. We don’t read any of the arguments. In debates that centered squarely on slavery, there is not a single word about the subject in the reading. In the section on the Civil War, there is no mention whatsoever of what caused secession. The seceding states just up and decided to secede for all we would know. The chapter on Reconstruction would bring a smile to the Dunningites’ faces. The perspectives are all white perspectives, and the views of southerners presented are all the former confederate views–hostile to Reconstruction and especially hostile to blacks participating in government. The view of blacks in South Carolina comes from James S. Pike’s The Prostrate State. “This dense Negro crowd they confront do the debating, the squabbling, the lawmaking, and create all the clamor and disorder of the body. These twenty-three white men are but observers, the enforced auditors, of the dull and clumsy imitation of a deliberative body whose appearance in their present capacity is at once a wonder and a shame to modern civilization.” [p. 813]

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One comment

  1. interesting that there is such a spate ( well 3) of recent similar articles.

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