Over the past thirty years, Ulysses S. Grant has seemingly become a topic of study for every pop historian and Civil War expert in the field. The heavy work of reassessing Grant started with historian Brooks Simpson, but now countless biographies of the man–several of them 700 to 1,000 pages long–have been published in recent years. Several noteworthy figures well-known beyond the academy such as H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have all taken their turn writing studies that can easily be found on the shelves of a local Barnes & Noble store. The accuracy and reliability of these Grant biographies vary. It is easy to look at every new major biography and wonder what else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said.
From my perspective on the ground level of public history, however, I can safely say that even though Grant’s reputation as a whole has improved considerably, the view of Grant’s presidency as hopelessly corrupt and failed still remains. Classrooms throughout the country still point to corruption claims as the one major fact to know about Grant’s presidency, and academic historians not intimately connected to the Grant studies phenomenon still frequently look upon his two terms negatively or not at all. Richard White’s magisterial new overview of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, cites liberally from William McFeely’s problematic Grant biography and subsequently interprets Grant as a vain, publicity-starved executive who did not really care about the protection of black rights in the South. Eric Foner’s equally magisterial overview of Reconstruction barely mentions the Grant administration at all, even though its eight years in office occurred during that era. Kenneth Stampp’s now-dated study of Reconstruction conveys a sentiment still common among most Americans that Grant “contributed little but political ineptitude” during his presidency.
And so, within a crowded field of new Grant scholarship and still widely divergent understandings of Grant’s presidency among history enthusiasts of all levels, Charles Calhoun’s new study of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency manages to say something new about a greatly misunderstood time in American history. In assessing the Grant administration, Calhoun convincingly argues that Grant’s presidency “produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation” (7). Determined to face the new political challenges of Reconstruction in his own way, Grant faced enormous resistance from his critics even before taking office. Given the circumstances, one would be hard pressed to find anyone from the time who could have done any better.
Calhoun’s book works well on two levels. For those already familiar with the issues Grant faced during his presidency, Calhoun provides added depth. For those not familiar with those issues, the book’s clarity allows it to simultaneously function as a useful introduction.
Among the arguments Calhoun makes:
- Grant expressed great reluctance to run for President in 1868, but felt that it was his obligation to run. President Andrew Johnson had attempted to inaugurate a quick restoration of the Union on his own, without the help of Congress. He worked to re-enfranchise and pardon the mass of former Confederates who had recently engaged in active rebellion against the country. He also proclaimed that America should have a “white man’s government.” By essentially handing the keys of Reconstruction back to those most opposed to it while ignoring the black and white southern unionists who had fought to maintain the Union, Johnson unintentionally pushed Grant into the Republican Party. As Grant would state in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, Reconstruction meant “whether the control of the Government should be thrown immediately into the hands of those who had so recently and persistently tried to destroy it, or whether the victors should continue to have an equal voice with them in this control,” with assistance from Congress. Grant sought political reunion and sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, but not at the expense of sacrificing the fruits of Union victory: Union, emancipation, and, in his mind, political equality irrespective of race, nativity, or sect.
- Senator Charles Sumner expressed skepticism about Grant’s dedication to the Republican Party and Reconstruction even before he ran for president. Even though many former Confederates bitterly resisted the Reconstruction process, a central theme of Calhoun’s book is that Sumner and his New England cohorts (Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, John Lothrop Motley, etc.) expressed their own vitriolic criticisms of Grant that arguably shaped future negative perceptions of his presidency more than the former group. Sumner believed his long service to the Republicans meant that he deserved the role of Secretary of State. When Grant went in a different direction and the New England cohort did not receive the plum government offices they believed they were entitled to, they actively resisted the administration and led the push to form the Anti-Grant Liberal Republican party. It was common to hear critics who called for “reform” and the end of the patronage system for filling government offices during Grant’s presidency, but with astonishing frequency these critics were often disgruntled office-seekers themselves.
- Calhoun dedicates a good chunk of the book to Grant’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Treaty of Washington, proclaiming neutrality amid growing tensions between Cuba and their Spanish colonizer, and his failed effort to annex Santo Domingo–the Dominican Republic today–to establish a military presence in the Caribbean and provide a black state for African Americans facing persecution in the south. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish’s able administration of the State Department is a central feature of Grant’s foreign policy.
- Another central focus lies in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances, which I’ve written about here. Grant and his first Treasury Secretary George Boutwell successfully lowered taxes, interest rates on government bonds, and the national debt. They desired a return to the gold standard in the wake of paper “greenbacks” being utilized during the Civil War to help fund the government, but were cautious not to return to the gold standard too quickly and subsequently deflate the country’s currency. They concocted a scheme to “grow up” greenbacks until they were of equal value to gold, upon which the government would return to the gold standard. Calhoun also assesses the 1869 “Black Friday” gold ring and the economic panic of 1873. Calhoun argues that Grant became increasingly conservative in his views towards financial matters by the time of the panic, and that this perspective complicated Grant’s and Congress’s efforts to alleviate the depression.
- Calhoun argues that Grant felt a sincere sympathy towards Native American Indians and argued that they had been “put upon” by whites. Rather than advocating for Indian extermination, which some Generals like William Sherman and Philip Sheridan supported, Grant sought peace through a new peace policy and a Board of Indian Commissioners that would clean up the country’s Indian trading posts. Grant, however, also advocated for white westward expansion and acknowledged that the two ideas were contradictory. Implicit in his policy was the belief that Indians would have to assimilate to white ways. This assimilation called for Indians to become Christianized farmers on reservations who would embrace “civilization” and be trained to eventually become American citizens. Some Indian tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek heartily supported Grant’s policies, which were strongly influenced by his friend and Seneca Indian Ely Parker. Other tribes, particularly those in the Plains region, realized that their lands and way of life were becoming extinct. The Peace Policy therefore led to some of the worst battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. Calhoun offers a wonderful chapter on the Indian Peace Policy during Grant’s first term, but I would have liked more analysis of the negative effects of the policy during his second term as the violence increased.
- Grant tried his best to protect white and black unionists in the South and ensure that all would have a chance to enjoy citizenship and suffrage rights. Most notably, the Department of Justice was formed to prosecute white terrorists in groups like the Ku Kux Klan when states and localities refused to bring these groups to justice. This initiative was the first in which the federal government enforced and protected civil rights for Americans, but many white Americans, even those who were sympathetic to the Republican Party, were apprehensive about government overreach and the power of the federal government to intervene in local elections (even though many of these people heartily supported military intervention in Indian affairs). Grant himself even expressed more reluctance to get involved in Southern elections towards the end of his second term, no doubt influenced by a poor economy, growing northern indifference towards southern affairs, and a changing Congress (Democrats gained a majority of House seats in the 1874 midterms) that opposed his policies.
- Corruption did exist in the Grant administration, most notably through the Whiskey Ring Scandal of 1875 and Secretary of War William Belknap’s receiving of kickbacks from the sale of government jobs, but Calhoun offers a strong defense of Grant’s administration on this count. Some Cabinet members like Amos Akerman and Ely Parker were unfairly charged by political opponents with corruption charges. Disgruntled office-seekers called for civil service reform, and Grant expressed willingness to go along with these initiatives as long as Congress played a role in the process. When they continually slashed funds from a Civil Service Commission established in 1871, Grant concluded that civil service reform could not be effectively implemented. As with any claims of corruption today, one must always look at the agenda of the person making the claim. In a heated political climate with much resistance to Grant and Reconstruction more broadly, corruption claims were often used to delegitimize the President’s initiatives. Calhoun’s study, combined with Mark Summers’s Era of Good Stealings, convincingly shows that while government corruption as an issue was very important in the 1870s, actual corruption was not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1850s and 1860s.
I highly recommend Calhoun’s book.
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
A couple weeks ago the Journal of the Civil War Era announced that they had overhauled the design of their blog, Muster. A couple days after that I received an email stating that the blog was looking for writers to contribute essays on a regular basis, and that I was invited to join the team. So…I’m very pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to Muster. I will be writing roughly five or six essays a year and offering a particular focus on interpreting the Civil War era within a public history setting, although that will not be my only focus. I’ve written previously for Muster before becoming a regular contributor, with the most recent essay focusing on the Frank Blair statue at Forest Park in downtown St. Louis.
The team of regular correspondents now writing for Muster is truly outstanding, and I am greatly honored to have been asked to be a part of this exciting initiative. My first essay as a regular correspondent should be up next week – we’ll see what happens from here!
As Reconstruction continued in the mid-1870s, white Democrats in states throughout the south became increasingly desperate and brazen in their efforts to overthrown the Republican Party from power. The Republicans–the party of which the vast majority of black voters aligned with–faced intimidation at the polls and armed paramilitary groups at political meetings. Sometimes outright violence occurred. In the contentious state elections of 1875 in Mississippi, the Democrats and various paramilitary groups created the “Mississippi Plan” to remove Republicans from office, by violence if necessary. President Ulysses S. Grant hesitated to offer aid to Republican Governor Adelbert Ames when asked for federal troops to restore order. Grant feared that the sight of federal troops meddling in a state election would hurt the Republicans in state elections in Ohio, a place where support for military rule of the South and Reconstruction as a whole was beginning to wane.
African American Congressman John Roy Lynch of Mississippi arranged a meeting with President Grant to discuss patronage matters and the President’s refusal to send troops to help Governor Ames. What follows is Lynch’s recollection of that meeting, which he included in his fascinating book The Facts of Reconstruction (1913). I think it is one of the clearest explanations Grant offered in discussing his understanding of Reconstruction’s goals and what the “fruits of victory” in the Civil War meant for the country’s future. We can also see that the end of Reconstruction came about partly because of white Northern indifference to violence and fraud at the polls during elections in the South. What follows is from pages 150-155.
“[I] informed the President that there was another matter about which I desired to have a short talk with him, that was the recent election in Mississippi. After calling his attention to the sanguinary struggle through which we had passed, and the great disadvantages under which we labored, I reminded him of the fact that the Governor, when he saw that he could not put down without the assistance of the National Administration what was practically an insurrection against the State Government, made application for assistance in the manner and form prescribed by the Constitution, with the confident belief that it would be forthcoming. But in this we were, for some reason, seriously disappointed and sadly surprised. The reason for this action, or rather non-action, was still an unexplained mystery to us. For my own satisfaction and information I should be pleased to have the President enlighten me on the subject.
The President said that he was glad I had asked him the question, and that he would take pleasure in giving me a frank reply. He said he had sent Governor Ames’ requisition to the War Department with his approval and with instructions to have the necessary assistance furnished without delay. He had also given instructions to the Attorney-General to use the marshals and the machinery of the Federal judiciary as far as possible in cooperation with the War Department in an effort to maintain order and to bring about a condition which would insure a peaceable and fair election. But before the orders were put into execution a committee of prominent Republicans from Ohio had called him. (Ohio was then an October State–that is, her elections took place in October instead of November.) An important election was then pending in that State. This committee, the President stated, protested against having the requisition of Governor Ames honored. The committee, the President said, informed him in a most emphatic way that if the requisition of Governor Ames were honored, the Democrats would not only carry Mississippi–a State which would be lost to the Republicans in any event–but that Democratic success in Ohio would be an assured fact. If the requisition were not honored it would make no change in the result in Mississippi, but that Ohio would be saved to the Republicans. The President assured me that it was with great reluctance that he yielded–against his own judgement and sense of official duty–to the arguments of this committee, and directed the withdrawal of the orders which been given to the Secretary of War and the Attorney-General in that matter.
This statement, I confess, surprised me very much.
‘Can it be possible,’ I asked, ‘that there is such a prevailing sentiment in any State in the North, East or West as renders it necessary for a Republican President to virtually give his sanction to what is equivalent to a suspension of the Constitution and laws of the land to unsure Republican success in such a State? I cannot believe this to be true, the opinion of the Republican committee from Ohio to the contrary notwithstanding. What surprises me more, Mr. President, is that you yielded and granted this remarkable request. That is not like you. It is the first time I have ever known you to show the white feather. Instead of granting the request of that committee, you should have rebuked the men–told them that is is your duty as chief magistrate of the country to enforce the Constitution and laws of the land, and the protect American citizens in the exercise and enjoyment of their rights, let the consequences be what they may; and that if by doing this Ohio should be lost to the Republicans it ought to be lost. In other words, no victory is worth having if it is to be brought about upon such conditions as these–if it is to be purchased at such a fearful cost as was paid in this case.’
‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘I admit that you are right. I should not have yielded. I believed at the time that I was making a grave mistake. But as present, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what was believed to be party obligation. If a mistake was made, it was one of the head and not of the heart. That my heart was right and intentions good, no on who knows me will question. If I had believed that any effort on my part would have saved Mississippi I would have made it, even if I had been convinced that it would have resulted in the loss of Ohio to the Republicans. But I was satisfied then, as I am now, that Mississippi could not have been saved to the party in any event and I wanted to avoid the responsibility of the loss of Ohio, in addition. This was the turning-point in the case.’
‘And while on this subject,’ the President went on, ‘let us look more closely into the significance of this situation. I am very much concerned about the future of our country. When the War came to an end it was thought that four things had been brought about and effectually accomplished as a result thereof. They were: first, that slavery had been forever abolished; second, that the indissolubility of the Federal Union had been permanently established and universally recognized; third, that the absolute and independent sovereignty of the several States was a thing of the past; fourth, that a national sovereignty had been at last created and established, resulting in sufficient power being vested in the general government not only to guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of government, but to protect, when necessary, the individual citizen of the United States in the exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges to which he is entitled under the Constitution and laws of his country. In other words, that there had been created a National citizenship, resulting in a paramount allegiance to the United States–the general Government–having ample power to protect its own citizens against domestic and personal violence whenever the State in which he may live should fail, refuse, or neglect to do so. In other words, so far as citizens of the United States are concerned, the States in the future would only act as agents of the general Government in protecting the citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.’
‘This has been my conception of the duties of the President, and until recently I have pursued that course. But there seems to be a number of leading and influential men in the Republican party who take a different view of these matters. These men have used and are still using their power and influence, not to strengthen but to cripple the President and this prevent him from enforcing the Constitution and laws along these lines. They have not only used their power and influence to prevent and defeat wise and necessary legislation for these purposes, but they have contributed, through the medium of public meetings and newspaper and magazine articles, to the creation of a public sentiment hostile to the policy of the administration. Whatever their motives may be, future mischief of a very serious nature is bout to be the result. It requires no prophet to foresee the that national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost. In other words, that the first two of the four propositions above stated will represent all that will have been accomplished as a result of the war, and even they, for the lack of power of enforcement in the general government, will be largely of a negative character. What you have just passed through in the State of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.’
It is needless to say that I was deeply interested in the President’s eloquent and prophetic talk which subsequent events have more than fully verified.
Whenever I study a particular time period in history, I find it very helpful to think about the sorts of questions people at the time would have been mulling over as they looked towards the future. It is easy to look at past events in hindsight and assume that everyone knew what would come next. Even trained historians can be guilty of minimizing the significance of a social, cultural, political, or economic change as “inevitable” when in reality it was anything but. I often wonder if assigning students papers in which they have to make a “thesis statement” is as effective as perhaps asking them to first think about one or more “guiding questions” to provide structure to their inquiry before formulating any sort of answer or argument when explaining a historical event.
In any case, the Reconstruction Era (generally defined as between 1863 to 1877) presents itself as one of the most misunderstood and ignored periods in American history, and the political complexities of the era do not lend themselves to easy explanation. Even after studying the period for a number of years I still find myself sometimes struggling to explain the significance of the era to visitors and students in a cogent manner. What follows are four questions that have helped me make sense of Reconstruction’s complexities:
- How would the United States restore and maintain a stronger union in the wake of a major secession crisis and the nation’s deadliest conflict?
- How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
- What economic labor system would replace slavery in the South, and to what extent would national, state, and local governments involve themselves in economic affairs?
- What would be the future status of African American freedpeople, former Confederate secessionists, and American Indian tribes? How would the government protect and expand the rights of African Americans, encourage former Confederates to become law-abiding citizens again, AND promote peace with American Indian tribes at the same time they promoted westward expansion?
(4a. What would be the correct size and scope of government to regulate society in a time of vast social, political, and economic changes?)
While the black freedom struggle has become a centerpiece of recent Reconstruction studies, we should always remember that for most whites in the North, the central question for them was how to restore the Union quickly and peacefully. African Americans served loyally in the Civil War and many believed they were entitled to protection, citizenship, and voting rights. Once white Northerners felt that the country had stabilized and that enough legislation had been passed to protect African Americans (most notably the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), it did not take long for them to abandon Reconstruction and essentially state that blacks were on their own to face the future even though rampant racism, discrimination, and violence continued to exist.
What do you think? What essential questions do we need to consider when studying Reconstruction?
The historiography of the Reconstruction era has and continues to be overwhelmingly focused on questions of race, citizenship, and equal protection under the law in the years after the American Civil War. For an era of remarkable constitutional change and the dramatic transition of four million formerly enslaved people into citizens (and, for some, into voters and elected leaders), this focus is understandable. Reconstruction-era scholars almost unanimously agree today that Reconstruction was a noble but “unfinished revolution” undone by an end to military rule in the South in 1877 and an apathetic white North no longer interested in protecting black rights, which in turn allowed unrepentant, racist white Southern Democrats to overtake their state governments and impose Jim Crow laws that ushered in a long era of white political supremacy throughout the region.
The “unfinished revolution” thesis is undoubtedly true, but there is more to the story of Reconstruction than the question of Black Civil Rights (although the importance of that story cannot be overstated). The country’s finances were in shambles and questions emerged about the best way to pay down the federal deficit and establish sound credit; women fought for the right to vote but were denied this right when the 15th amendment limited suffrage to men only; Indian tribes throughout the west faced the prospect of rapid white westward expansion and a federal government that simultaneously preached peace with the tribes but also did little to stop white encroachment of their lands; and immigrants from mostly Southern and Eastern Europe began to settle in the United States, causing a great deal of consternation among political leaders about how to best assimilate these people into American culture.
Regarding the latter issue, historian Ward McAfee’s 1998 publication Religion, Race, and Reconstruction: The Public School in the Politics of the 1870s is a masterful treatment of the role of public education during the Reconstruction era. I just finished reading the book and I learned a ton from it.
McAfee’s thesis is essentially three-pronged. The first argument is that increasing numbers of immigrants to the U.S. during Reconstruction raised a great deal of concern within the Republican Party, especially those who had flirted with Know-Nothingism in the 1850s and held anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic prejudices. Republicans feared that these immigrants held their allegiance to the Pope above their allegiance to the U.S. and that the Catholic church kept their parishioners illiterate, superstitious, and ignorant of the larger world. These immigrants would attempt to subvert the country’s republican institutions and make America a bulwark of the Vatican. The emergence of public education during Reconstruction, therefore, was not just an effort to educate the formerly enslaved but also an effort to promote (Protestant) morals, good citizenship, and obedience to republican institutions among immigrant children ostensibly being raised on Catholic principles.
The second argument relates to the division of taxpayer funds for public schools during Reconstruction. These emerging public schools during the era often incorporated Bible readings in class without much complaint. Republicans argued that Bible readings would teach good morals to students and that these teachings were appropriate as long as they took a “nonsectarian” approach that didn’t cater to any particular denomination. Most of these readings were done out of King James Bibles originally translated by the Church of England, however, and Catholics accused public school teachers of engaging in pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic teachings. To remedy this issue, Catholics established their own private, parochial schools and called upon the federal government to ensure that state tax funds for education be equally distributed between public “Protestant” schools and private Catholic schools. Republicans led the charge against splitting these funds and undertook an effort to ban public funding for “sectarian” schools. Towards the end of Reconstruction the Republicans made this issue a centerpiece of their party platform, and in 1875 Congressman James Blaine led an unsuccessful effort to pass an amendment banning public funding for sectarian schools (although “nonsectarian” religious instruction and Bible readings could still hypothetically take place in the public school classroom). While this amendment failed, 38 of 50 states today still have their own state “Blaine amendments” banning the funding of sectarian schools.
The third and arguably most provocative argument from McAfee is his contention that Reconstruction failed largely because of an initiative by the radical wing of the Republican party to mandate racially integrated “mixed-race” schooling in 1874. Most Republicans were skeptical if not outright hostile to racially integrated public schools (in stark contrast to their desire to have children from Protestant, Catholic, and other religious backgrounds intermingled together in public schools). Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, however, was a dedicated proponent of racial integration in the schools and refused to compromise on the issue. When Congress began debating the merits of a new Civil Rights bill in 1874 that would mandate equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation, and jury service, Sumner insisted on including a clause on racially integrated public schools. When news of Sumner’s demands became public, Democrats and conservative Republicans in both the North and South responded with outrage. Conservative Republicans in particular stated that while equal treatment in public facilities was acceptable, mandating mixed schools was a bridge too far. Republicans lost control of Congress after the 1874 midterm elections, and, according to McAfee, the cause of this loss was the insistence of Radical Republicans to mandate racial integration in schools.
Prior to reading McAfee I was of the belief that the devastating Panic of 1873 was the primary reason why Republicans lost the 1874 midterms, but McAfee presents convincing evidence that the mixed-schools initiative also contributed to those losses in a significant way. With Democratic control of Congress now assured, Reconstruction’s future was doomed. A Civil Rights Act was passed in 1875–largely in tribute to Sumner after he died in 1874–that mandated equal treatment in public facilities and jury service, but the clause mandating racial integration of public schools was removed. In any case, the Supreme Court in 1883 determined in Civil Rights Cases that parts of the Civil Rights of Act of 1875 were unconstitutional because, according to the court, the 14th amendment requiring equal protection of the laws only applied to the actions of the state and not the actions of private individuals and organizations.
Religion, Race, and Reconstruction is a fine piece of intellectual history that brings life to a long-forgotten element of Reconstruction history, and I highly recommend the book to readers of this blog.
The famed scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a fierce critic of the idea of scholarly “objectivity.” As Brandon Byrd points out in an excellent essay for the African American Intellectual History Society, Du Bois’s status at the turn of the twentieth century as a black professor at Atlanta University in the Jim Crow South exposed him to the necessity of fusing “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation” to remake American society upon the ideals of social and political equality and equal protection of the laws. Indeed, Du Bois understood long before most of his academic contemporaries that claims of “objectivity” and being “cool, calm and detached” in one’s work run the risk of merely being a rhetorical claim to unwarranted power and authority and the maintenance of the scholarly status quo.
Byrd’s essay reminded me of another work from the Du Bois canon: a chapter from his magisterial Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) entitled “The Propaganda of History.” Historians correctly cite Black Reconstruction as a landmark publication in the historiography of Reconstruction scholarship. In a time when the Dunning School of though argued that Reconstruction was a complete failure and that the effort to enfranchise black men and engage in bi-racial governance after the Civil War was a mistake, Du Bois provided comprehensive statistical analysis and primary source evidence to argue that Reconstruction was actually an era of great civil rights achievements and remarkable evolution in both economics and legal practices in the United States.
Black Reconstruction is also a remarkable achievement, however, because it probes the philosophical depths of the historical enterprise itself. Is history a science or art? How do people remember the past over time, and how do those memories shape the way we understand history? Can a nation collectively write its own history in an objective fashion? In the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois argues that the history of Reconstruction taught in schools throughout the country at that time had been largely incorrect–even based on lies–because its authors were white supremacists who were “objective” in name only and because the United States was “ashamed” of its Civil War history. “The Propaganda of History” is a really remarkable essay for its time and I believe it still resonates today. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy!
“How the facts of American history have in the last half century been falsified because the nation was ashamed. The South was ashamed because it fought to perpetuate human slavery. The North was ashamed because it had to call in the black men to save the Union, abolish slavery and established democracy.
What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? . . . [A]n American youth attending college today would learn from current textbooks of history that the Constitution recognized slavery; that the chance of getting rid of slavery by peaceful methods was ruined by the Abolitionists; that after the period of Andrew Jackson, the two sections of the United States “had become fully conscious of their conflicting interests. Two irreconcilable forms of civilization . . . [with] the democratic . . . in the South, a more stationary and aristocratic civilization.” He would read that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought on the Civil War; that the assault on Charles Sumner was due to his “coarse invective” against a South Carolina Senator; and that Negroes were the only people to achieve emancipation with no effort on their part. That Reconstruction was a disgraceful attempt to subject white people to ignorant Negro rule . . .
In other words, he would in all probability complete his education without any idea of the part which the black race has played in America; of the tremendous moral problem of abolition; of the cause and meaning of the Civil War and the relation which Reconstruction had to democratic government and the labor movement today.
Herein lies more than mere omission and difference of emphasis. The treatment of the period of Reconstruction reflects small credit upon American historians as scientists. We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans. The editors of the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica asked me for an article on the history of the American Negro. From my manuscript they cut out all my references to Reconstruction. I insisted on including the following statement:
White historians have ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption. But the Negro insists that it was Negro loyalty and the Negro vote alone that restored the South to the Union; established the new democracy, both for white and black, and instituted the public schools.
This the editor refused to print, although he said that the article otherwise was “in my judgment, and in the judgment of others in the office, an excellent one, and one with which it seems to me we may all be well satisfied.” I was not satisfied and refused to allow the article to appear.
War and especially civil strife leave terrible wounds. It is the duty of humanity to heal them. It was therefore soon conceived as neither wise nor patriotic to speak of all the causes of strife and the terrible results to which national differences in the United States had led. And so, first of all, we minimized the slavery controversy which convulsed the nation from the Missouri Compromise down to the Civil War. On top of that, we passed by Reconstruction with a phrase of regret or disgust.
But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth? If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with the accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics in research and interpretation.
If, on the other hand, we are going to use history for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego, and giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment, then we must give up the idea of history as a science or as an art using the results of science, and admit frankly that we are using a version of historic fact in order to influence and educate the new generation along the way we wish.
It is propaganda like this that has led men in the past to insist that history is “lies agreed upon”; and to point out the danger in such misinformation. It is indeed extremely doubtful if any permanent benefit comes to the world through such action. Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
Here in the United States we have a clear example. It was morally wrong and economically retrogressive to build human slavery in the United States in the eighteenth century. We know that now, perfectly well; and there were many Americans North and South who knew this and said it in the eighteenth century. Today, in the face of new slavery established elsewhere in the world under other names and guises, we ought to emphasize this lesson of the past.
Moreover, it is not well to be reticent in describing that past. Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center. The difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law.
One reads, for instance, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, with a comfortable feeling that nothing right or wrong is involved. Manufacturing and industry develop in the North; agrarian feudalism develops in the South. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today.
Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy. Can all this be omitted or half suppressed in a treatise that calls itself scientific? Or, to come nearer the center and climax of this fascinating history: What was slavery in the United States? Just what did it mean to the owner and the owned? Shall we accept the conventional story of the old slave plantation and its owner’s fine, aristocratic life of cultured leisure? Or shall we note slave biographies, like those of Charles Ball, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass; the careful observations of Olmsted and the indictment of Hinton Helper? . . .
One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only remember that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner, or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children, or that Alexander Hamilton had Negro blood, and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect men and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.
No one reading the history of the United States during 1850–1860 can have the slightest doubt left in his mind that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the Federal Union. Since the attitude of the nation concerning state rights has been revolutionized by the development of the central government since the war, the whole argument becomes an astonishing reduction ad absurdum, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War except the recent reiteration of statements which make the great public men on one side narrow, hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness . . .
This, then, is the book basis upon which today we judge Reconstruction. In order to paint the South as a martyr to inescapable fate, to make the North the magnanimous emancipator, and to ridicule the Negro as the impossible joke in the whole development, we have in fifty years, by libel, innuendo and silence, so completely misstated and obliterated the history of the Negro in America and his relation to its work and government that today it is almost unknown. This may be fine romance, but it is not science. It may be inspiring, but it is certainly not the truth. And beyond this it is dangerous. It is not only ideals; it has, more than that, led the world to embrace and worship the color bar as social salvation and it is helping to range mankind in ranks of mutual hatred and contempt, at the summons of a cheap and false myth.”
When I look at the Reconstruction Era–particularly the period from 1865 to 1870–I see a time of deep reflection about how and why the U.S. Constitution needed to be significantly changed in the wake of the Civil War. As historian David Blight argues, the Reconstruction Era was a “twelve-year referendum on the meaning of the Civil War,” a time in which remarkable changes in basic ideas of citizenship, political equality, freedom, and the very definition of what it means to successfully achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness transformed the United States. I also subscribe to Blight’s thesis that the Constitution before the Civil War was America’s “Old Testament” and that the Constitution since the war is our “New Testament.” Indeed, we today don’t live under the Constitution as it was written before the war, with legal protections for slavery, no clear definition of U.S. citizenship, and voting rights determined by the states largely on the basis of class, property, and skin color (and, of course, gender).
The 14th amendment (1868) is particularly noteworthy for its sweeping changes to America’s legal boundaries. The amendment defines citizenship as a birthright or through a naturalization process, puts a check of the power of states to deny the right of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and demands that all citizens be given the equal protection of the laws (no more laws like Missouri’s 1847 law banning blacks from learning how to read or write, whether they were free or enslaved). It also broadens the power of Congress by giving them the power to pass legislation to enforce this amendment. The equal protection clause continues to be a point of contention in legal practice, with the Library of Congress stating that the 14th amendment “is cited in more litigation than any other amendment,” from legislation regulating religious practices in schools to gay marriage and much else. Regardless, the 14th amendment more explicitly and specifically explains that achieving political equality among U.S. citizens is a goal of the federal government.
Without diving too much into contemporary politics, I sometimes wonder if the ideals of political equality stated in the 14th amendment are either taken for granted or openly scorned by some Americans today. For example, former Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 platforms were based partly on the idea of abolishing the 14th amendment, and columnist George Will, citing an inaccurate law review article, argued in 2010 that birthright citizenship can and should be abolished from the constitution. And what about all of the recent flighty rhetoric about “getting back to our constitutional roots,” “Make America Great Again,” or the popular impulse (at least on social media) to proclaim oneself a “constitutionalist?” Is this rhetoric calling for a return of American governance and liberty based on the pre-Civil War, “Old Testament” constitution? I would venture to guess that the answer differs based on who you’re talking to. But I can’t help but question what, exactly, this rhetoric purports to reclaim from American history. What are we trying to get back to?
Addendum: To be sure, the 14th amendment has its shortcomings and has sometimes been defined by the Supreme Court in a very narrow fashion. In Civil Rights Cases (1883) seven of the eight justices argued that the 14th amendment only applied to state actions and not the actions of individuals and private groups. In other words, it prevented racial discrimination by the state, but not racial discrimination by private individuals, business owners, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Additionally, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which argued that racial segregation in public facilities was legal, was justified on the basis of the 14th amendment, claiming that such segregation was legal provided that the facilities were “equal.” Moreover, the amendment did not ensure voting rights to blacks because there were fears among the Republican Party that Northern whites would reject the amendment (numerous Northern states had already rejected state referendums on the question after the Civil War), and it did not provide citizenship to Native American Indians throughout the country. It was also the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, much to the anger of Suffragists who promoted women’s rights and suffrage qualifications. Check out the National Constitution Center’s resources on the 14th amendment to learn more.