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Reconstruction Revisionism

The Library of America is reissuing W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, a farrago of distortions.

The wholesale reinterpretation of history around a left-wing narrative about race, which the 1619 Project is trying to accomplish for the rest of the American story, was first trialed on the history of Reconstruction. For most of the 20th century, Reconstruction was seen as a squalid and shameful coda to the Civil War when Northern Radicals and carpetbaggers enacted their wildest fantasies of humiliation and spoliation on a prostrate South. Starting in the 1960s, a group of revisionist historians began arguing that Reconstruction had actually been a noble experiment in interracial democracy, too quickly abandoned. It is noteworthy that this line started being touted only after the last people with firsthand memories of Reconstruction had died.

The ur-text of this revisionist school is W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), now reissued in a deluxe edition by the Library of America. In his introduction, Du Bois promises a straightforward history, differing from its predecessors only in that “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings.” In fact the book is much more than that, a bold attempt to apply a Marxist framework to the Civil War period, from the “general strike” of labor that supposedly crippled the Confederate war effort to the “counterrevolution of 1876” that overthrew the Reconstruction governments’ “dictatorship of labor.”

Black Reconstruction is not the sort of book any scholar would want as the foundation of a new interpretive school. Du Bois was no historian. He consulted only limited sources and did no original archival research, an omission that “disturbed many scholars, several of whom dyspeptically noted the author’s generous foundation support,” according to his biographer David Levering Lewis. The germ of the project was a dispute Du Bois had with the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. They commissioned an entry on black history from him, which he withdrew when they asked him to delete some excessively rosy passages on Reconstruction. Obviously the Britannica editors wanted a racially progressive spin on history, or they would not have gone to Du Bois. But there is a line between creative reinterpretation and outright fantasy, and in their professional opinion, Du Bois had crossed it.

There is no point beating around the bush: The version of Reconstruction history that Du Bois presents is based on motivated reasoning and tendentious distortions of the evidence. That is why it is so disturbing that this school is now the conventional wisdom. With no tools other than repetition and vehemence, these brazen innovators succeeded in getting their misrepresentations enthroned as orthodoxy and the commonsense histories of yesterday not just superseded but slandered as racist.

To begin with a simple example, Du Bois attempts to refute one of the major accusations against the Reconstruction state legislatures, that they were profligate and corrupt. “The increase of debts under the Reconstruction regime was not large… There can be no possible proof that all of this increased indebtedness represented theft; nor is there any adequate reason for believing that most of it did… There is nothing on the face of the figures that proves unusual theft.”

Perhaps the figures do not prove theft but they certainly suggest it. Between 1868 and 1872, the South Carolina legislature appropriated $200,000 for furniture; when auditors examined the State House in 1877, only $17,715 worth of furniture (in original prices) was found; in 1890, the whole House chamber was refurbished for $3,061. Expenditure on champagne and whiskey for the Columbia State House was $125,000 in a single year, equivalent to about $1.5 million today. Other states, such as Louisiana, saw tenfold increases in their budgets relative to prewar averages. Du Bois suggests this money might have been “spent carefully and honestly upon legitimate and necessary matters of restoration and government.” No one at the time was so naïve.

When he does acknowledge that corruption occurred, Du Bois draws a false equivalence between carpetbag governments and their corrupt northern contemporaries, which included urban machines like Tammany Hall. The absurdity of this comparison can be easily illustrated: During the years of Reconstruction, Tammany-controlled New York saw the opening of Central Park and Prospect Park and groundbreaking on the Brooklyn Bridge, three all-time marvels of urban engineering. North Carolina, by contrast, spent tens of millions of dollars on railroads that were never built. By 1880, New York was the biggest, richest city in America while the South was still poorer than it had been before the war. Southern corruption was not just a matter of a little graft here and there. It was the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few.

If budget numbers are not eloquent enough, we also have the testimony of thousands of Southerners in books, diaries, and letters describing legislators who openly sold their votes for cash and judges who refused to convict thieves who were caught red-handed unless the victim paid the going rate for justice. Du Bois discounts this eyewitness evidence as worthless. “Three-fourths of the testimony against the Negro in Reconstruction is on the unsupported evidence of men who hated and despised Negroes and regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk,” he writes. 

This is how all Reconstruction revisionists must treat primary sources, as so many lies and delusions. Perhaps there are indeed instances where modern readers might usefully interrogate the motivations behind written testimony. When Southerners write over and over that undisciplined “militias” of armed freedmen made them feel unsafe, drilling in the middle of the street and intimidating local Democrats confident in their immunity from legal consequences, it may be that these fears were partly motivated by racial prejudice. But Du Bois is glib to write off all the evidence this way. In Gaston County, North Carolina, the Union League came to town and, soon after, 28 white farmers had their barns burned down in a single week, leaving the victims destitute and near starvation. Did Gastonians dream that? Did the barns burn themselves?

The most persuasive testimony we have is not from ex-Confederates but from true-believing liberals who nonetheless became convinced that Reconstruction was a betrayal of their ideals. James S. Pike, author of the scathing book The Prostrate State about Reconstruction South Carolina, was a Radical Republican from Maine and a former ally of Thaddeus Stevens. Daniel Chamberlain of Massachusetts commanded a black regiment in the Union Army, yet in 1901 he published the overwhelmingly negative assessment “Reconstruction in South Carolina” in the Atlantic Monthly, itself the house magazine of high-minded Boston abolitionism. Reconstruction ended not because Southerners overthrew it but because Northern liberals could no longer in good conscience defend it. 

The plain truth is that Reconstruction was bad, objectively bad. It was a time of school commissioners who signed their names with an X, tax collectors who pocketed huge sums for private use, tinpot tyrants who had citizens court-martialed and sent to the Dry Tortugas for the crime of insulting the Republican Party. The only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.

It is no coincidence that the two most prominent Reconstruction revisionists, Du Bois and Eric Foner, are both Marxists. Du Bois died a Stalinist and appointed prominent communist historian Herbert Aptheker as his literary executor. Foner is a longtime Soviet sympathizer whose father and uncles were CPUSA members. In 1990, he encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev, faced with upstart secessionists in the Baltics, to imitate Abraham Lincoln’s example and preserve his union.

These men’s communist affiliations are not just a “gotcha.” When revisionists say that Reconstruction only failed because it was not tried hard enough, what they mean is that America did not go all the way to a 1917-style revolution. Foner is circumspect about this, referring delicately to expropriation and “the make-or-break issue of land redistribution.” Du Bois comes right out and says it: “Only a vast and single-eyed dictatorship of the nation could guide us up from murder in the South and robbery and cheating in the North into a nation whose infinite resources would be developed in the interest of the mass of the nation—that is, of the laboring poor.”

Du Bois describes Reconstruction as “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen.” The parallel is apt. The only question is why the Library of America would reissue the book of a man who argued that America’s never attempting a Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat on a national scale was a bad thing.

Reconstruction has been called a piece of the 20th century that fell into the 19th. It certainly bears a resemblance to the postcolonial regimes that arose in Africa in the 1960s, both in the ruin that followed and in the how-dare-you reaction of defenders who insist that any more gradual path would have been an unspeakable moral enormity. Recently we have seen a push to do for the last 400 years what Du Bois and his heirs did for Reconstruction: rewrite history so that good is bad, heroes are villains, and the solution to every problem no matter the circumstances is to give money and power to racial minorities. If that push succeeds, it may equally be said in the future that Reconstruction historiography was a piece of the 21st century that fell into the 20th.



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