Introduction: A Contested History | Facing History & Ourselves

Introduction: A Contested History

Scholars discuss how and why the history of Reconstruction is so contested.
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English — US


  • History
  • Culture & Identity
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism

Introduction: A Contested History


Historiography is, kind of, the history of history. It's the way historians have told the story differently over time. The historiography of Reconstruction is particularly volatile. It's particularly dangerous. It's particularly hard to touch.

Reconstruction was once called by an American historian long ago, Bernard Weisberger, to be exact, in 1959. He called it the dark and bloody ground of American historiography, well, why? Why has this basically decade-long period of our history been so contested, so contentious?

The reason Reconstruction was so contested, and the reason it is still contested, is because it was essentially a decade-long referendum on what the Civil War actually meant. Who or what actually had won? Those are huge and profound questions with very different answers depending on who holds the power. Who's making the law? Who gets to control race relations? Who gets to control access to the ballot box? Who gets to control access to civil liberties? So the very issues of Reconstruction are, if anything, eternally contested.


Historical interpretation always changes. This is part of what historians do is to come up with new perspectives, new questions, new ways of looking at the past, and the Reconstruction era has been the subject of an enormous change in historians' perspectives over the last 30 or 40 years. Today, I think most scholars view it as a positive attempt to really bring about some form of interracial democracy in the United States.

There was a great deal of advance in terms of democracy itself. Public schools were planted in the South for the first time. The right to vote was expanded beyond belief for that generation, though only to black males. There was a whole new kind of energy and ideology behind what government was even for. And after all, 4 million people were freed from slavery into some kind of political and civil liberty.

I would say that African Americans exerted more real political power in more places during Reconstruction than they do now. In Reconstruction, you had a black majority in the legislature of South Carolina and Mississippi. You had blacks holding really significant positions of power, and the black community was very politically mobilized during Reconstruction. But all the while seething underneath and eventually bursting out in violent reaction, there is a counter revolution brewing on the ground in the South.

One of the ways that white Southerners attempted to grapple with this profound shift, profound transformation in their identity, this inversion of the social hierarchy, was lashing out in violent fashion.

Their primary goal was political. Their primary goal was to stop black politics.

Violence was successful in causing the federal government to abandon free people and to leave the South to the whims of white Southerners.

The people who get to tell the story are often the victors, so the people who wrote the first histories, who established the form that other historians relied on, were the descendants of slave owners. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Dunning, Burgess, all of these historians who were the first people to write the history had family ties to slavery. And so they wrote justifications of slavery, because they thought it was right. And they didn't think they had to figure out what the slaves thought, because they really didn't think the slaves thought anything.

The traditional view, as we call it, or the Dunning School view-- named after William A. Dunning, a professor at Columbia University more than a century ago-- the traditional view saw Reconstruction as the lowest point really in the whole narrative history of American politics and democracy. A cast of characters were carpetbaggers-- that is Northerners who came down to the South, according to this view, to just reap the spoils of office; Scalawags, who were white Southerners who cooperated with these new regimes; and then the blacks themselves, the former slaves who were variously described as being either just totally out of control and running amok or as children basically who were incapable of, actually, exercising the rights that were thrust upon them and, therefore, manipulated by white people.

According to that view, which I emphasize, again, is pretty much discredited now among scholars, the heroes were the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations, which eventually overthrew these Reconstruction governments and restored what was politely called "home rule" to the South, which we would call today just white supremacy.

What the early historiography of Reconstruction really tried to emphasize, in a very devious way, was that race didn't have anything to do with the Civil War. That it was a conflict in which black people were not the central actors, and Reconstruction itself was a vindictive attempt on the part of the federal government to enact revenge on the South, on a helpless prostrate South.

That view lasted a long, long time. It was put in place in scholarly work around the turn of the century, 1900 to 1910. It was given popular expression in the film Birth of a Nation and in a great bestseller of the 1920s by Claude Bowers called The Tragic Era, and it really dominated historical writing until the 1960s. And it not only was a view of history, but it had a certain lesson about American politics and race relations.

The fundamental underpinning of it was that black people are just incapable of taking part in American democracy, and the political lesson of that idea was that, therefore, the white South was justified and correct in taking the right to vote away from blacks. And throughout the early part of the 20th century when people demanded democratic rights for African Americans in the South, they were always met with this response, well, if that happens, we're going to have another Reconstruction. The horrors of Reconstruction will come back if the South, the white South, has to give up any power whatsoever to black Southerners.

The history we've tended to write and learn about Reconstruction often reflects-- deeply reflects-- the nature of any given present in which it's being written. Which is not to say that all histories are equal, it just depends on what period they're written in. They're not. Some are, lest we forget, based on better evidence, broader evidence, based on more open-minded assumptions, based on a new conception, actually, of what civil liberty even means, or what the right to vote even means.

Even though there was this very pervasive idea being perpetrated by white historians of what Reconstruction was about, you also have a counter-memory a counter-historiography, if you will, by black scholars, as well as everyday people at the communal level who have their own memory, their own history of what Reconstruction meant.

Dr. Du Bois, who was born three years after the end of slavery, but as a young teacher met men and women in the Tennessee countryside who had been slaves had a different set of questions to ask. He wanted to know what the slaves thought. He wanted to know what evidence was in the spirituals that they sang or the prayers that they wrote. He wanted to find out what they said at the Charleston Convention and in their loyalty league meetings, and so he wrote it in a different way.

Du Bois and other African American historians viewed Reconstruction as tragic, but from another perspective. They saw the tragedy of Reconstruction as being one of unfulfilled promise, of unfulfilled potential. As De Bois wrote about in Black Reconstruction, that the true tragedy, the true unending tragedy of Reconstruction is that people don't fully understand its significance.

Principally, in so far as the rights of African Americans are concerned, the transformation of the United States from a slave society to a multiracial democracy, which was really what Reconstruction was attempting to achieve, that's a grand experiment. That's an audacious aspiration. And it's not one that was going to be accomplished in 10 or 15 years. And so to assess Reconstruction as a, kind of, failure, I think, is a short sighted interpretation of the Reconstruction. We need to think about Reconstruction as one act in a series of dramas of democracy.

[SINGING] Fold the blanket and say good morning.

So you have this moment blacks are getting elected across the South and serving in all kinds of capacities. Now, it's that imagery of black men coming into state legislatures, serving as lieutenant governor here, as a congressman there and the mayor here and a mayor there, it's that image that later white supremacists, the Lost Cause, this tragic version of Reconstruction, seized upon. Because the claim was that none of these men were prepared for this. But the vast majority of them were educated, literate, and embraced politics like it was a fever dream. This was a triumph of this experiment in democracy.

But the residue of that old view was still around. Even though no historian today would repeat that view, it's still alive out there in popular culture, popular memory partly because it is legitimated among people who are displeased by the gains of the civil rights movement, who find African American claims on American society too radical or too demanding, and so they go back and they say, well, look at all the horrible things that happened in Reconstruction.

[SINGING] Waking up to the treason is over.

So what do you do if you know a truth that's very valuable? The truth of Reconstruction, the history books told it wrong, the politicians told that wrong, the movies, television, and the radio told it wrong, and that meant that the preachers and the journalists and the parents told it wrong. The lie has outlived the truth in this respect, except in Dr. Du Bois's, Black Reconstruction in America, except in the generation of historians like Eric Foner and Barbara Fields and David Roediger, who have told the truth about these things. That's why it's so important to get this story right, because if we continue to let the lie live, we continue to add to the harm that it's always done.

[SINGING] Hey, hey, whatcha doing? Hey, hey, whatcha doing?

Introduction: A Contested History

How to Cite This Video

Facing History & Ourselves, “Introduction: A Contested History,” video, last updated May 13, 2015.

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