Helen Andrews recently published one of the best articles that I have ever seen at The American Conservative on Reconstruction.
“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. …”
I covered a lot of the same ground in my Southern History Series.
As Eric P. Kaufmann noted in his book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, this sweeping revision of American history by leftists began in the late 1920s and early 1930s:
“The nature of the American historical narrative changed somewhat between 1875 and 1925, but it was not until the 1930s that a new generation of historians began to interpret the United States as a truly cosmopolitan melting pot. Historiography during the 1875-1925 period therefore completely reflected the double-consciousness of liberal American ethnicity. As Edward Saveth notes, the American academy combined a belief that the United States was an Anglo-Saxon country which ought to defend its ethnic boundaries with the universalist idea of the United States as a refuge for the world’s oppressed and a composite melting pot (Saveth 1948: 13-14). …
American historians, though lagging some years behind their social science colleagues, also abandoned ethnocentric historiography with remarkable swiftness (Kennedy 1977: 94-96; Plumb 1969). The change actually began in the years after 1925, which witnessed a growing retreat from romantic history writing – the only remaining practitioners being the immigrant “filiopietist” ethnohistorians. Evidence of the emerging sensibility can be gleaned from the pages of contemporary professional history journals. “In the early twenties,” Kathy Scales observes, “there are, for the first time, a number of articles on particular ethnic groups among colonial immigrants, and from 1932 to 1935 the same kind of emphasis is seen on the contributions of particular ethnic groups to the Revolution” (Scales 1991: 285).
The fact that even defenders of the teaching of American mythic history abjured the privileging of “old Americans” in the nation’s historical narrative demonstrates the magnitude of the change that had already occurred by 1935. For instance, Howard Mumford Jones, after defending the need for a mythic history to inspire the nation, added: “‘Old Americans’ (hateful phrase!) tend to take the point of view that American history is their private possession because they were here first. Aside from the fact that the only persons entitled to the benefit of this silly argument are the Indians, the assumption is not even true’” (quoted in Scales 1991: 287-288).
The rise of fascism in the mid-1930s helped galvanize the more pluralistic worldview outlined above. “The confrontation with Nazism [had] induced a shift in liberal sensibilities,” argues Gary Gerstle, “that was, in the 1930s, subtle but would, in the 1940s, achieve seismic proportions. The magnitude of this shift can be discerned in the outpouring of books on racial problems and religious prejudice during the 1940s. Causes that had languished on the liberal agenda – civil rights … and immigration reform – were now embraced” (Gerstle 1994: 1070)
Gerstle correctly asserts that cultural issues pertaining to ethnicity and race became more prominent with the rise of fascism and war (Gleason 1992: 165-166). Yet the crucial shifts in consciousness that he describes were already in place by the early 1930s, providing a vital substratum that conditioned the American response to fascism. In the words of E. Digby Baltzell, “the central ideas of the New Social Science, largely developed before the First World War … finally came into their own as the dominant view of man and society, in the course of the thirties … they now shared John Dewey’s faith in the plasticity of human nature” (Baltzell 1964: 270-271).
As the 1930s progressed, Anglo-Saxon ancestralism came to be totally eclipsed within American academic historiography. Marcus Lee Hansen, a student of Frederick Jackson Turner, consummated this process with his immigrant-centered interpretation of American identity (Saveth 1948: 202, 204-208). Steeped in the new left-liberal thinking of his day, Hansen took issue with aspects of Turner’s thesis. Insisting that Turner had overemphasized the role of the frontier and underemphasized immigrant contributions, Hansen, described as “America’s first transethnic historian,” stated in 1938 that the American, though influenced by the British strain, was also a product of the world’s cultural diversity. No longer the province of Anglo-Protestant pioneers, the American story would increasingly revolve around the experience of urban immigrants, arriving by steamship to forge a new industrial civilization (Shenton 1990: 252). Hansen’s position was supported by fellow historian T.C. Blegen, who observed that scholarship post-Turner revealed “a new emphasis … an emphasis that took into account the varied background of the racial elements that lend color and richness to the epic of America (quoted in Saveth 1948: 219).
Hansen and Blegen, though pioneers in the field of American historiography, should not be accorded to much significance. Nor should American socialists. Rather, the rise of cosmopolitan Americanism must be traced to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century activity of the Liberal Progressives, who distilled anarchist and Social Gospel influences into a coherent and grounded program. Their egalitarian ethics, infused with a strong dose of secular liberalism, gave birth to the archetypal modern American vision: that of a universal, humanistic, melting pot nation, drawn from all corners of the world, in which the Anglo-Saxon was but one influence among many …
“The new doctrine rapidly established a foothold in the nation’s school history texts. “The notion that America was a ‘melting pot’ entered the majority of the texts during the forties,” writes Frances FitzGerald. “In the forties and fifties, it was the catch phrase for all discussions of the immigrants, and the Statue of Liberty was the illustration beside them (FitzGerald 1979: 80). I am not suggesting that Lazarus’s ideas , or the statue’s universalist interpretation, were entirely unacceptable prior to the 1930s. However, before this time, universalism had its place – a place it was forced to share with Anglo-Protestant symbolism.”
Pretty much everything that followed should be understood as American history as seen and interpreted and understood by progressive liberals or Marxists through the prism of their own ideology and values. They are people who are writing about the past from the perspective of their own times. The “anti-racism” craze, for example, didn’t infect and overwhelm liberals until the late 1930s/early 1940s. As time goes on, you will find the rise of feminist takes on history or queer theory inspired takes on gender.
Eric Levitz is whining about the article.
“In a recent column for The American Conservative, Helen Andrews argues that Reconstruction — that brief slice of the 19th century during which Black Southerners enjoyed extensive political rights under the aegis of Northern Republicans — was “objectively bad.” Further, she insists that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode,” as today’s mainstream historians do, “would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.” She proceeds to suggest that the conception of Reconstruction as “a noble experiment in interracial democracy” is crypto-communist agitprop. …”