From our 2008 Summer School, Northern Anti-Slavery Rhetoric

In some respects, the title of this lecture, “Post 1960’s Neo-Abolitionist Historiography,” is a lie.  I’m actually going to start earlier than the 1960’s, but I promise you we’re not going to lengthen it out any more than that. A lot of this is going to be a cautionary tale for us because in many respects the subtext here is: “How do we treat our enemies in history?” And we all have enemies. We just do. Let me give you an example from my family. Both my father’s and my mother’s family have been in America for quite a long time, particularly my mother’s family, but Irish families. Nevertheless, even though they had missed such things as the famine and what have you, within those families’ cultural memories was suspicion – not hatred, but certainly suspicion and distaste for the English. It just was always there. And the key thing was: “How do you deal with that? When you meet someone of English ancestry or you meet an Englishman, how do you deal with that?” And my parents would say: “Well, with charity. Do not be rude. Above all things, do not be rude. Be hospitable. And try to listen when you meet these folks.” And it was difficult. In fact, it was very difficult when my mother’s half-sister began to go out with an Englishman during the hunger strikes of the 1980’s. That became very tense and very difficult, but it can be done. For the Irish, this is very hard. The definition of Irish Alzheimer’s is that we forget everything except our grudges. And so, when this is the case, it can be difficult. But to give you a story of how well it was done, Cecil Woodham-Smith, the English historian, wrote a wonderful book on the Irish Potato Famine called The Great Hunger. And as she was going through the secondary work, she was surprised to find Irish historians were very restrained in their criticism of the English Tory government at the time and later the English Whig government. And she said it was remarkable that they were able to see beyond the inherited prejudices and the terrible injustices that were done, to see that here had occurred a problem that in many ways was unsolvable, that had to simply be a tragedy that we live through. And often-times we have to do this. The neo-abolitionist historians do not. And as part of this subtext, we’ll talk about why they do not and what their particular perspective is and how in many ways it actually undermines some historical works that could otherwise be great historical works, but are diminished in many respects because of those prejudices that are not dealt with with kindness, understanding and hospitality.

Well then, there are four things that we’re going to take a look at very quickly. First, we’ll try to define the term “neo-abolitionist” as best we can. Secondly, I’m going to identify some neo-abolitionist historians. Neo-abolitionist historians now have a pedigree as long as one of the genealogies in Genesis, so we’re just going to look at a few. If I leave one of your favourites out, forgive me. Thirdly, we’re going to take a look at some of the ideas and claims of neo-abolitionism. Finally, I’ll do an evaluation of some of the ideas and claims that these folks come into play with.

So, first the definition. I’m actually going to borrow from Ken Stampp here. Ken Stampp, in many respects, can be seen as perhaps the first neo-abolitionist historian. He wrote a book called The Peculiar Institution, and in that book he basically said that, ultimately, he was doing historical scholarship from the perspective of the abolitionist movement. A neo-abolitionist historian, then, could be described as: “One who adheres to an ideological commitment closely aligned to the ideas and worldview of the 19th-century abolitionist movement.” So, what is that worldview? At least, what is some of that worldview? First, slavery and its racist underpinnings were the chief source of conflict in Antebellum America and the primary cause of the Civil War. Second, the South’s defense of slavery was racist in nature, secondarily classist in the preservation of planter hegemony. Third, secession and civil war were both a product of the South’s commitment to expand and defend slavery. Fourth (and finally), the failure of Reconstruction in its radical form was brought about by a lack of Northern resolve and by Southern violence. The South, unfortunately, was ultimately the victor at the end of Reconstruction, at least in a social sense. Thus, this would bring about the necessity of another, new abolitionist movement: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

You can see embedded in there some of the old abolitionist claims overlaid in a new modern expression. Where does the term neo-abolitionist come from? In some respects, it can be traced back to [Marxist historian] Howard Zinn in the 1960’s. Howard Zinn wrote a book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in which he referred to them as “the new abolitionists.” From there on, during the debates over slavery and Reconstruction in the 1960’s, a number of historians critical of these neo-abolitionists began to tag them as neo-abolitionists, and many of those historians embraced the term, because they identified very closely with the abolitionist movement. Most recently we’ve seen a number of historiographical works that have come out, especially in the 1990’s, that continue to propagate the views of the neo-abolitionists. We’ve also seen a few essays out there that takes a look at these folks, and I’m just going to mention two of those essays. Don Fehrenbacher wrote a small review of a minor neo-abolitionist work, and one of the things he pointed out was that in neo-abolitionist historiography, too often the ideology of the author was overwhelming the historical record with respect to the anti-slavery radicals. Most recently, James Brewer said basically the same thing and that ultimately, when it came to the issues of the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction, an ideological agenda was shaping history into the image that these historians wanted it to be.

Well, where did it all come from, where did neo-abolitionism really get its rise? It wasn’t just the external factors of the rising Civil Rights Movement, it was really a process that was somewhat healthy in the process of revision, and it began with Ken Stampp. In 1952, Stampp wrote The Peculiar Institution, and he later followed it up with another book on Reconstruction. In The Peculiar Institution, he described himself as “a scholarly descendant of the Northern abolitionists.” Stampp was reacting to U.B. [Ulrich Bonnell] Phillips. U.B. Phillips was the great social historian of the South, writing from Georgia in the early 20th century, Phillips wrote two books: Life and Labor in the Old South, and American Negro Slavery. Phillips had five assertions, and for a very long time the historical profession, including neo-abolitionists, agreed with four of them (it was the fifth one they didn’t agree with). Phillips’s assertions were these:

1: Slavery was unprofitable.

2: Slavery led to economic stagnation.

3: Slavery was economically inefficient.

4: Slavery retarded growth.

5: Ultimately, slavery was not an economic system, but rather a benign, paternalistic social system made necessary by the inferiority of the Negro race. It ultimately resulted in comparatively good living standards for the Negroes. Slavery involved complex management systems that included not just coercion but also rewards. He asserted that the slaves did have influence on the plantations and that there was a feature of compromise and reciprocity in their relationship.

Now, when all is said and done, Phillips was a racist in the narrow sense of the term. He did believe in an inherent inferiority of black people, and certainly the social inferiority of African Americans at the time. That was the thing that set Stampp off. Stampp could accept the first four propositions but rejected the fifth because it was overlaid with racism. He felt compelled to react to it. So, in The Peculiar Institution, Stampp said that slavery was actually a “cruel and brutal system of social control” and “A bestial regime.” (Couldn’t you hear that coming from the mouths of abolitionists in the 1830’s, 40’s and 50’s?) According to Stampp, the lying and cheating of slaves which Phillips pointed out as a mark of inferiority was actually part of a day-to-day resistance on the plantation, a way to somehow find methods to protest against this bestial treatment. Stampp claimed that Phillips’s racism simply blinded him to these facts.

Stampp would go on to revise the standard view of New Jersey historian [William Archibald] Dunning on Reconstruction. The Dunning School had held that Reconstruction was a tragic era in American history, that a devastated South had been suddenly saddled with taxes and high-spending state governments, a military occupation that was very provocative, and a situation where African-Americans began to take political leadership roles when they were not yet prepared for them. Stampp decided he had to go after Dunning as well. Stampp insisted that the “tragic era” did not occur. In 1965, he wrote The Era of Reconstruction, in which he states: “Rarely in history have the participants in an unsuccessful rebellion endured penalties as mild as those Congress imposed on the people of the South.” Stampp argued that much of what Dunning did not like, the spending he classified as wasteful, was spent on public education and infrastructure, that these were positive results of Reconstruction, and that the Reconstruction governments were actually very progressive in attempting to rebuild Southern society. In all fairness to Stampp, that’s an arguable point. The interesting debate would have been: “Would a region such as the South, after the devastation and loss of 60% of its wealth, have been able to begin a massive commitment to building schools, roads, and other infrastructure projects using bond issues that had to be paid for in taxes?” That is a very debatable point in those instances. The curious thing is about the rebellion issue. If there was a rebellion, why were there no trials? It is very curious that there were no trials – probably because there would have been no convictions. Labelling Southern secession objectively as rebellion is problematic from a historian’s point of view, but nevertheless, Stampp is very comfortable with the word “rebellion,” just as the abolitionists would have been comfortable with that word in their day.

A contemporary of Stampp, Stanley Elkins, went even further. In Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, Elkins laid out his view of the plantation as the Nazi concentration camp. Obviously, Elkins was wrestling with an interesting problem that many historians of slavery wrestle with: Why were there not more slave rebellions throughout the history of American slavery? Why do we just have Nat Turner, the Stono Rebellion, and Denmark Vasey? Why aren’t there more? Why doesn’t there seem to be a situation in which there are conspiracies in which free blacks are able to find arms and get them onto the plantation? So, Elkins came up with an interesting idea: We have the same question about the folks in the concentration camps in Germany – why aren’t they resisting, why are they going along with the program? Now, a cynic might reply: “Because they were starved, buddy. They were starving. If you put people on a diet of a few hundred calories a day and work them for twelve hours, that will break anybody’s will.” In any event, Elkins believed that what essentially had to have occurred on the plantation was a concentration camp mentality that basically broke the resistance of any African-Americans before a rebellion could ever get started. So, he would make assertions about the living standards being much poorer than they actually were. He spent a lot of time focusing on the slave patrols throughout the South in which free whites would occasionally ride the roads at night (and sometimes during the day) making sure blacks had passes, licenses of freedom, things of that nature. For Elkins, the South was one big, fat concentration camp. Elkins was the first historian to try and make that link.

Most of the historical profession did not buy this. They saw Elkins’s book as very provocative and the thesis as very ambitious, but it seemed to go too far. If you looked at the actual letters of the planters, you weren’t reading Goebbels, you weren’t reading people asserting the master class was in place and the slaves had to be kept down. And concentration camps were concentrated for one particular reason: control or extermination. Plantations had other business. Nevertheless, it did show a very interesting trend in the neo-abolitionist scholarship at the time.

Enter one James McPherson. Those of you who are Civil War historians certainly know that McPherson is considered the foremost authority on the War, but he began life very interested in Reconstruction. C. Vann Woodward wanted McPherson to do a work on Reconstruction in Alabama to refute one of the Dunning students (Fleming, I believe), who had published a work that looked at Reconstruction as not a particularly good thing for Alabamians. McPherson, however, was very interested in abolitionists, and he began to ask a good historical question: “What happens to these people after the Civil War? Do they just go away? What ultimately happens in this instance?” So, McPherson wrote a dissertation that became a book called The Struggle for Equality and he later followed that up with The Abolitionists’ Legacy. What McPherson really wanted to do was refute the charge that the abolitionists had washed their hands of the African-Americans, that they had just gone away and were no longer concerned. He does a fairly good job of refuting the charge. Indeed, the selected group of abolitionists and their children that he looks at do seem to still with African-Americans, both in the North and the South, in terms of schooling, writing letters to Congressmen, and trying to continue the politicization of equality throughout the Union and in some of the States. He’s a good enough historian to understand that this wasn’t just benevolence – there was a good deal of paternalism involved. Indeed, if you read McPherson’s books closely, you can see that, in a sense, the abolitionists were making a case that their form of paternalism was a more benign form of paternalism than that practiced on the plantations of the South. It’s also true that if you read it closely, he’s probably dealing with a large minority –but a minority– of abolitionists and their families in these instances, because not all abolitionists were the same, and you could certainly do a wonderful work that would categorize different abolitionists at the time.

In any event, for McPherson the abolitionists became the true inheritors and exponents of America’s liberal heritage, especially its commitment to both liberty and equality. McPherson insisted that abolitionists did remain interested (at least the two-hundred or so that he looked at), and involved in the betterment of African-Americans well after Reconstruction ended. However, much of their activity is going to be bent toward education and vocational training, and away from the more controversial political fights. And this is kind of interesting: When abolitionists were going up against Southern slaveholders, they were more than willing to tangle in the field of controversy. When they were faced with resistance from their own people after Reconstruction, they tended to back down. The great issue for them (and this can be read into McPherson between the lines) was slavery. True, many stay in the field, but many leave after slavery is done, and they don’t fight with same public vigour that they had once possessed.

That first group of historians –Stampp, Elkins, and McPherson– can be looked upon as the kind of liberal wing, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement that was beginning and also by the experience of World War II. Stampp’s a very good example of this, and the quote I’m going to read you probably would have been seen as very open-minded in the 1950’s, but today it would have gotten him in a whole lot of trouble, particularly if you put it up on YouTube. Stampp’s view on race, for instance, showed the perspective of this early neo-abolitionist school. He remarked on page vii of The Peculiar Institution that: “Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins. Nothing more, nothing less.” That’s not gonna play in Princeton anymore! This perfectly encapsulates that classical liberal (and indeed modern liberal) progressive idea that we’re all the same inside, culture doesn’t necessarily matter, race doesn’t necessarily matter, but that would be a hard sell today in some universities. The curious thing that goes on with this work is that there are some omissions and some questions that have to be asked about it. For instance, the emphasis is on plantations, particularly large plantations, but we know this is a minority of experience for Southerners, both white and black. Most slaves were held on very small holdings. So, what of these? This wasn’t moonlight and magnolias, this was usually trying to raise four bales of cotton and enough corn to feed the hogs, that would go on, say, in the Piedmont South. What was the experience in those regions? It was left untouched by this particular group. Were Southern attitudes on race at a fundamental variance with other 19th-century Americans? This was a question that wasn’t necessarily raised. You could certainly paint the racist brush against Southerners, but was that necessarily at variance with other folks? That question was not addressed. If the South’s atttitude wasn’t at odds with the rest of America’s, then how exactly was the South exceptional in its treatment of African-Americans, at least in a social sense? What might have been behind Northern resistance to slavery? Was it all benevolence and humanity and drinking from the milk of human kindness? These questions really weren’t explored by these folks, and they were worth exploring if you were going to be a revisionist historian in this field.

Is it possible that African-Americans escaped one sort of paternalism for another when it came to Reconstruction? One of the interesting things (and to be fair to neo-abolitionist historians, it is often a criticism of theirs) is that no government made an attempt to place African-Americans’ independence on an independent economic foundation. That said, is abolitionism just another form of white paternalism that they’re suffering under? That’s a question, it seems to me, that would have to be asked if you were going to revise this. Finally, was the South really in a position to make huge investments in public education and infrastructure after the War’s devastation? I had a professor at USC and we were discussing Reconstruction and he said, “You know, Dunning comes out and says that the tax rate went up by 300%, but my gosh, that just meant that somebody who was paying maybe fourteen dollars was now paying about fifty-two dollars. Surely he could afford that!” And I said: “How? If he hadn’t gotten a cotton crop in that spring at the surrender, how was he gonna afford that? I mean, the foreclosure records are all there, obviously they’re not affording that. So, can you really begin to issue a public debt on devastation to pay for these things, even if you believe they’re good things?” And this leads us to one last-last question that just popped in my mind. (Sorry, but I’m gonna take a swipe at public school, here). Is that necessarily a good thing? A good example is South Carolina. The Genoveses [Eugene and Elizabeth], I believe they published this, but in a couple conversations them years ago, they mentioned that in South Carolina a higher proportion of both men and women held college educations than in any other State in the Union, including Massachusetts. South Carolina had a fascinating education system. There were some public activities in certain communities, but there were also private seminaries, tutors, and a lot of folks went overseas as well. It was a very diverse, very effective educational system. Bishop England of Charleston, the Roman-Catholic Bishop, had a school for free blacks for a very long time, that many of the finest families of Charleston subscribed to and helped keep going. So why go to a Northern system that requires enormous amounts of public investment? Because ultimately, if you look at South Carolina, it’s a hybrid of the Massachusetts school system that requires enormous amounts of public investment and oversight. These are all questions that should have popped up and just don’t with these folks.

The next group of neo-abolitionist historians is the materialists (let’s just be honest, the Communists and Marxists), but we also have a few liberals in there, too. I’ll start with the liberals, beginning with the infamous (or famous depending on your point of view) Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman and their book, Time on the Cross. Now you might say, “Devanny, how can you make them neo-abolitionists?” Well, just you wait and see. Robert Fogel was a graduate student in economics, and this was a time (late 50’s-early 60’s), when economists were saying “Hey, let’s take a look at history!” This made historians very nervous. (If you want to make historians really nervous, come up with a pie chart or a bar graph). In fact, historians were circling the wagons and getting ready to fight the great war against the hordes of cliometricians (economic historians) before they took over the castle. Fogel found an article in which the author asserted that slavery may have been economically feasible after all, might have been pretty darn efficient. Fogel believed that couldn’t have been possible, so he and Stanley Engerman began their own study of the subject and came to find out that slavery was efficient. So, they published a few papers here and there and people immediately criticized them for their methodology (cliometricians are big into methodology). Fogel and Engermann said “Okay, you’re right, we do have the wrong methodology. Slavery wasn’t more efficient by 9%.  It was 39% more efficient than free labour. Whoa, what’s going on there?” So, they immediately began this very long, exhaustive study. They predominantly looked at very large plantations, most of which were run on the gang system of labour. They found that slavery was very profitable, very efficient, as long as you’re using the gang system. The task system, often used in the South Carolina Low Country and some other places, was less efficient but still pretty efficient. They found that plantation slaves working on the gang system were leaving free white Northern farmers in the dust in terms of efficiency and productivity. Not only that, they also found that slaves were actually receiving a pretty decent return on their investment when compared to free white Northern labour.

The historical profession didn’t like this at all. This simply could not be. “You’re wrong! Your techniques are wrong! You’re missing the moral issue! How could this be?” Indeed, if you read Fogel, he’s a little disturbed by all this himself. He’s like, “How could it be?” But he’s good enough to say, “This is what the numbers are telling me, this is what the records are telling me in these particular instances.” However, some interesting things do happen on the way with all this. Fogel does get upset about what he sees as some moral issues. And here’s the interesting moral issue: If slavery does result in economic growth and prosperity, would this morally justify the system in a tacit sense? He’s not being funny. He’s serious. And this goes back to the old American temptation: “If I can make money at it, it must be morally good!” And Fogel is very concerned because one of the American moral arguments against slavery was its inefficiency.  You couldn’t make a profit on the thing; therefore, it must not be particularly good in a moral sense. This is a uniquely American statement. In fact, in many respects, it’s almost similar to the most vulgar expression of the Wealth Gospel that you can find preached on TBN. Nevertheless, this certainly was rhetoric that was present in the Missouri Compromise debates, this concern that material progress does equate with a morally good society. So, Fogel, both in his book on the slavery debates and in other places, gives us a moral attack on slavery. Now, this is interesting to me. Slavery doesn’t exist anymore, so why is there a necessity to attack it? It’s obvious that for him this is a very grave concern.

Fogel comes up with a number of different reasons why we can attack slavery morally, and this is why he too is a neo-abolitionist. His first argument is a Quaker-Evangelical argument, that slavery corrupts the master. How? Fogel makes the assertion that Quakers and Evangelicals believe that moral evil is associated with external institutions. In his view, it’s not something that arises internally, but externally. If you have a problem with this, please contact Fogel. This is him, not me. I have a problem with it, but I’m a Catholic, so, you know. Ultimately, men achieve salvation by unselfish acts and the struggle against evil. (Sounds like Pelagianism, but in an event, this is what Fogel said.) This is a strong argument. Slavery is a morally corrupt external institution, it’s going to corrupt men because it’s morally corrupt, therefore, we have to get rid of it in order to be pure and free. (Sounds a lot like those abolitionists, doesn’t it?)

Fogel’s second argument is that slavery denied economic opportunity to the slave; their prosperity was limited. Okay, but here’s a problem I had as I was reading this: Wasn’t that also true of free blacks in the North? Or the South? That wasn’t something that was peculiar to a slave system, that was something that was peculiar to everybody, so to speak. His third argument is that denial of citizenship to the slaves was wrong. Granted, that is a moral evil, especially if people are contributing to the wealth of the country, if they have a stake and property in the country. But wasn’t that also true outside of areas where slavery was present? Argument four is that slavery denied cultural self-identification. Fogel had a lot of trouble with this one, and as I read and re-read his definition, he seemed to be arguing that slavery was immoral because it limited free association, that African-Americans could not freely associate with each other. That’s a very arguable point in both North and South. It seems to me that we have a ton of sources and a ton of literature that say free association was going on, but let’s accept the point for the moment. Isn’t that also true of the secular Puritans in New England, wasn’t that what they were beginning to decry? That you have a bunch of black folks freely associating with each other and raising hell on a Sunday? In other words, that argument doesn’t quiet fit. It could be that Fogel meant they couldn’t form corporations, and if he said that, I’d say “You’re right, but I’m not sure they’d allowed to do that in Ohio, either.”

Fogel’s next argument is going to send a little chill up your spine: “War was needed to destroy the powerful economic system of the South, or at least a coalition of armed countries.” That’s on page 47 of The Slavery Debates. The South was no longer Nazi Germany – it was Iraq! “It was needed.” That really turns things on its head, to me, I mean, wealth has suddenly gone from an indication of the good society, the prosperous society, to: “Well, they were so wealthy and their economic system was so good that we had to take some cannons there and blast the living daylights out of it!” That argument sounds a little bit to me like that good old-fashioned “Slave Power conspiracy,” doesn’t it? And this is from a guy, by the way – I don’t want you to get a bad taste for Fogel. Fogel is a very good historian and he does a good job with his cliometrics, and he is very open to criticism, but it does show you that we have to be careful with our prejudices. He’s got ‘em, and it’s very obvious that he has ‘em. Because, the funny thing is, you could certainly put this argument in the hands of a Marxist, or heck, a Distributist, who would say: “Well, war was needed to destroy the powerful economic system of industrial capitalism, or at least a coalition of armed countries.”

The most influential of our materialist neo-abolitionists, of course hails from the Left, and this would be the famous Eric Foner. Foner’s father and uncle were members in the Communist Party and were dismissed from their positions in the New York university system for such, and that’s gotta have a deep impact and effect. Foner was very deeply influenced by Marxist class analysis. His mentor and dissertation director, Richard Hofstadter, was a former Communist Party member. Hofstadter broke with the Communists over the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, that was it for him. Hofstadter was kind of eccentric anyway. I don’t mean to say that he was feeding Alger Hiss information so that he could go to Whittaker Chambers and off to Moscow, but Hofstadter certainly had very strong leanings toward the Left; he had been in the Young Communist League. Hofstadter once told Foner when he was at Columbia University: “I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it!” Foner’s vision of history has some traditional American elements attached to it. Indeed, he has the typical American love of the underdog, and he believes that history really should be a celebration of what he calls “visionaries and underdogs,” and that these should be central to the historical drama in much the way that the “great white fathers and mothers can be central to the drama, too.” So, for him it was necessary to recover the history of forgotten Americans, and for him this meant coal miners, silk workers, slaves. He has a longer list, which can be found in his book, Who Owns History? I went through his list several times, and I never found rural Southerners in there, either white or black. That was really curious. I never found rural Southerners in there, as if there’s these reams of history on rural Southerners and they’re not the forgotten ones.

In fact, what I’ve found in Foner that’s interesting (and the Marxism’s obviously there in the class analysis), is a big fat dose of what I call “New York Parochialism.” If you ever meet metropolitan people, they’re very interesting. I taught in an urban school in Baltimore City, and we took a trip up to Gettysburg one time, and as we were traveling through the countryside, one of the young ladies from a very fine family comes up to me and says: “Mr. Devanny, what happens if we get ill or hurt?” And I replied: “What do you mean, darlin’?” And she said: “Do they have hospitals out here?” In response I assured her that no, they had no hospitals, but they did have horse doctors with leeches and she would be well provided for. This happens, believe it or not. If you really sit down with folks who have an urban background, for them the rural areas can become the Heart of Darkness. They’re like Joe Conrad going and steaming up the Congo.

Foner’s most famous work, of course, was on Reconstruction, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. He goes after the Dunning school (as everybody does). If you are interested in the history of slavery, you have to read Dunning and you have to read Phillips. They are still important historians, Phillips even more than Dunning. Everybody (Foner even admits this himself), everybody reacts to Phillips – he set the agenda, he is still the test in many ways. In Foner’s view, the Dunning school had frozen whites “in an unalterable opposition to any change in race relations.” That assertion left two questions in my mind as I read it. First, were Southerners avid readers of Dunning? “Oh, yes, I’ll read this New Jerseyite so that my view on race relations can be forever fixed!” Second, had race relations never changed? C. Vann Woodward makes a very interesting case that Jim Crow was a very discernible shift in race relations in the South in the 19th century. For Foner, racial justice is the central theme in Reconstruction, and equality the central value in America. He believed that the first Reconstruction gave rise to an unfulfilled lands and rights hunger, and that the second civil rights revolution that occurs in the 20th century would create economic opportunity, but would leave isolated poor in urban areas. He never mentions the rural ones, again. We could take a trip to Mississippi and find quite a few isolated rural African-Americans who are poor. We need to get Foner down here and take him on a rural trip and assure him that they’re not gonna shoot him, either the blacks or the whites.

Racial justice, in his view, was hampered by the racism of white Southerners, which warped the region’s scholarship. That’s right, all of y’all who are from the South who are scholars, you’ve been warped! Reconstruction focused on one aspect of its eponymous subject: the effects of Federal and State policies on African-Americans. What’s interesting about this is that John Hope Franklin, a very, very fine African-American historian did a work on Reconstruction and how it related to African-Americans. Foner’s really doing the same work over again. He has some different things in there, but for him this isn’t just the unfinished revolution, it is a history of African-American Reconstruction. That’s fine, that’s good, that’s also necessary. But he tells us that what he’s offering us is a synthesis of all of Reconstruction, and “it ain’t that,” as they would say back in my hometown. What about Southern whites? Well, they do exist in Reconstruction, but only as the oppressors, the resistant ones.

When Foner looks at Southern whites, he puts them in their own chapter and calls it “Resistance to Reconstruction,” and he goes on and on ad infinitum about the Ku Klux Klan ad nauseum. Don’t get me wrong, you need to talk about the Klan during Reconstruction because they are an important element of it. However, if you look at the Klan’s history closely, you’ll find them in the Piedmont area of North Carolina and South Carolina, sure enough. They are really present and they are very active. The Low Country of South Carolina? Uh, uh, not there. Southern Georgia? No. Some of the Black Belt regions of Alabama? Nowhere to be seen. Other regions? They’re sporadically there, but there’s no great Klan Conspiracy, and Foner even admits this. It’s not as if Nathan Bedford Forrest was sending the orders out from Tennessee to all the Klan enclaves and what have you. In fact, the Klan units tended to be very individualized, but he focuses in on the Klan and this is something that I didn’t understand. If you really, really wanted to go after whites for military or paramilitary resistance to Reconstruction, wouldn’t you focus on the White Leagues and the Red Shirts? They were pretty darn effective! They pretty much came out and brandished their weapons and said: “We’re done, we’re done with this. We are ready to engage in some true forceful opposition.” Foner leaves them alone. Now, I’m gonna be kind to him. I don’t think this is because he’s a particularly poor historian. When you come from New York City and you’ve got that parochial attitude, you think: “South, fried chicken, NASCAR, the Klan. Okay, so I’ve gotta write about the Klan and I really have to be in the forefront,” and in this instance I think that’s what Foner does. He admits that they’re localized, but he devotes an entire chapter to Klan activity (for the most part) and leaves the far more effective White Leagues and Red Shirts alone (for the most part).

The sources are very interesting, too. Foner’s sources are generally Federal and State papers, diaries and accounts of Northerners or Southern Republicans, or African-Americans. Now, you need to read those things, to be sure, and he’s wise to use them, but I did not see many collections of white Southern papers, either from the elite or from the yeomanry. In fact, I would really want to know why a guy would want to join the Klan, particularly in Charleston. Why did some of these Jewish guys join the Klan? Or in New Orleans, why are some of these Irish guys signing up for the Knights of the White Camelia or the Klan? Foner never tells us. He just assumes that they’re racist, and, well, what more do you need? They’re just racist. But we never get an idea of something that Foner tells us he’s very concerned about. He tells us: “I’m very concerned about complexity and I’m afraid that in America we’re losing the idea of complexity and contingency in history.” I am too! So, brother, why aren’t you giving us some complexity with some people you obviously feel an enmity towards? You need to do that if you’re going to be a truly great historian. Foner’s sources gravely need to be broadened out.

When all is said and done for Mr. Foner, his work became extremely influential for a time, in the 1990’s and a little beyond. However, I did read recently in a reference work on Reconstruction put out by ABC CLIO, when they talked about Foner’s book, they nailed him hard on leaving out the Southern narrative, especially the white Southern narrative. It’s pretty well accepted in the historical profession that Foner has done this. So, this attention to complexity, uncertainty, and contingency is often overwhelmed by the neo-abolitionists’ ideological commitments. Their ideology hinders them; they begin to write advocacy history from a very narrow perspective. Foner claims his Reconstruction is a new synthesis, but it’s an African-American history, maybe an updating of John Hope Franklin, and it would be a wonderful addition if it were that, but the book isn’t doing what Foner claims the book is doing. He neglects too much and there are too many counterintuitive results.

There are some open questions, too, about Reconstruction. Too many questions about Reconstruction have not been asked by the neo-abolitionists. Here’s a few:

1: Why did it last so long? We often think about why it failed. Why did the thing last so long? Why did they just keep going on and on with it? There really isn’t much work on that, nor is the question asked.

2: What was the real role of violence? You know, if you read some of these folks, the role of violence seems to be linked up with the idea, “Yahoo, let’s go get us some blacks!” That’s not accurate. Years ago, in an AP U.S. History class, one of my students wanted to write a paper on the Klan. I said, “Okay, here’s what you can do. I’m gonna give you your topic, and you’re gonna have to go to Chapel Hill to research it. If you really want to write about the Klan, that’s what you’re gonna have to do.” And the topic I gave her was:

“I want you to find out what role the violence played, the secret handshakes, and all the other stuff that went along with it. Here’s a hint – a lot of these fellas are consciously referring back to Scotch-Irish social organization when they form the Klan. A lot of them have Scotch-Irish blood in them. If you go back to Ireland from whence many of these people came, these folks’ grandfathers and great-grandfathers ‘rode the night’ in groups called ‘The Heart of Oak Boys,’ ‘The White Boys,’ or ‘The Defenders.’ Both Catholics and Protestants were doing that all the time. Find me links. And if there are no links, that’s fine, you can write about the no-links.”

She found links! It was cool, really cool. Nobody does that stuff. Nobody has seen that there might be some interesting cultural continuities or cultural breaks, nor is anyone looking for motivation in this particular instance. Was violence just random, or was it narrowly construed? One of the things I talked to my student about was that when the Irish and Scotch-Irish used violence, they used it in a very particular way for a very particular purpose. It often looked random, but it wasn’t. They might run the landlord’s whole herd of cattle into the nearest loch, and I guarantee you the rents didn’t go up the next year. They oftentimes used violence in a very brutal but also very restrained fashion. So, why did whites join paramilitary societies? I would love to know why your average, ordinary white (and some African-Americans) were joining the Red Shirts. I want to know in their own words. I want to know why some of these fellows joined the White League. Tell me why they say they are. You can tell me if you think it’s all BS, but it would be good to read their motives in their own words.

3: To what degree and number were African-Americans touched by Reconstruction policies and agencies? I don’t think that’s been done. How deep and broad did it really go? Did the average African-American have continual contact with the Freedmen’s Bureau and these other agencies? That stuff hasn’t been touched too much.

4: What was the role and the scope of military occupation of the South? That has really been left neglected, and there’s material for a wonderful dissertation there. You could look at it on an overall level, you could look at it on a State level – what was the policy, what was the military actually supposed to do, and under whose authority did they come in their various districts? To what extent could they pursue violence or sanctions? What were the interactions between whites and blacks and the military?

Sources exist to answer all these questions, and these aren’t even my questions; these are coming from Reconstruction historians who would like to see the work done in these fields.

When all is said and done, there are some surprises for our neo-abolitionists. If you recall, recently (or maybe not too recently) McPherson wrote a book called What They Fought For, and it dealt with the diaries and letters of Civil War soldiers, North and South. McPherson expressed his surprise that he just didn’t find much on slavery from Southern soldiers. He was expecting it to be in there, but it wasn’t in there, and this was very shocking to this boy from the Upper-Midwest. I’m glad he was surprised; it shows that there’s hope for McPherson, who is without a doubt an outstanding historian in many ways. Contingency and complexity filled those letters, and they are worthy of fields of study, and they are best studied when one checks one’s ideological commitments at the door, or at least tries to understand the commitments of your adversaries.

I’ll leave us with a quote about this to end this little cautionary tale of neo-abolitionist historians. Don Fehrenbacher, in reviewing a minor neo-abolitionist work, chastised the historian in this fashion: “Great history can be written when the historian adheres to his own ideological commitments but another part of him understands and sympathizes with the enemy.” Fehrenbacher was not a Southern sympathizer, but he understood the necessity for understanding. The task of the historian is to enter a foreign country and then learn to understand it, and you wish to sympathize with what you can sympathize with, even when it runs counter to yourself. And so, to go back to those Irish historians of the Great Famine, who really could have sharpened the knives and stuck them with glee into the bosoms of English leadership, chose not to. Instead, they looked to understand the plight of their enemies and to come to a better understanding of human nature in time, as well. This is what history is all about.

John Devanny

John Devanny holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Devanny resides in Front Royal, Virginia, where he writes, tends garden, and occasionally escapes to bird hunt or fly fish..

One Comment

  • Tom Wiggins says:

    Americans with English heritage were the first to settle most of the South. The Torries were British.
    While many Irish and Scots-Irish did settle lands in the South, the majority was settled by English decendants. This is often lied about and the South is likened to the Scots-Irish for a simple reason. The same bloodlines made Jamestown the first settlement that survived, and have been hated for it ever since.
    As far as radical reconstruction failing, I would completely disagree. Every state constitution was illegally radified, and still in place today. White southerners were (and are again) completely subjugated, slave owners or not. All the natural resources below the Dixie line were raped, by northern companies, and exported. Reconstruction ended and the carpetbags left simply because there was nothing left to destroy or steal.

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