July 17, 2020
“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
— William Faulkner
Eric Foner is a leading American historian, who spoke at the New York State Writers Institute’s Albany book festival. Reminding me of that Faulkner line, Foner spoke of history — and its interpretation — shaping current politics and culture. His talk was given back in the Fall, and seems all the more relevant now.*
America was a slave society for a lot longer than not. This was not confined to the South, but colored everything. And we’re still dealing with the fallout.
Foner focused on the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (1865–77), which he feels transformed America. Despite falling short in its aim of equality for African-Americans.
Foner said that from around 1900 to the ’60s, the received view of Reconstruction was the “Dunning School.” This viewpoint deemed Reconstruction’s reigning “Radical Republicans” misguided, even villainous, in trying to bend the South to black equality.
This view was embodied in the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, glorifying the KKK; it fit with the racial dispensation which had come to prevail. And I remember imbibing that viewpoint myself: “carpetbaggers” being a term of opprobrium for Northerners who went South in the reform effort, meddling where they had no business; the radicals’ leading figure, Thaddeus Stevens, a fanatical monster; President Andrew Johnson, who fought them, lionized; the one Republican Senator who opposed his impeachment was one of JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I was unreflectively somewhat racist myself in youth.
Only with deeper reading of history, and raised consciousness, was that whole picture inverted. (I grew to consider Johnson our worst president — until now.)
Foner calls Reconstruction our “second founding,” making the Constitution what it had never before been; a “regime change.” The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th established birthright citizenship, and equal protection of the laws; the 15th gave non-white males the vote. This swept away the pre-war legal paradigm, exemplified by the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, in which non-whites were not just second-class citizens, they couldn’t be citizens, with any rights, at all.
“A new birth of freedom,” said Lincoln at Gettysburg, prefiguring this.
But Southern whites fought back, with violent guerrilla warfare, led by the KKK. President Grant crushed them militarily. But withdrawal of those troops was part of the settlement resolving the disputed 1876 presidential election. That enabled southern whites to recapture political control, disenfranchising blacks and imposing the Jim Crow regime to keep them “in their place.” This was sanctioned by various judicial decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, and enforced with the terrorism of barbaric lynchings in which almost the whole white Southern population was complicit. (Foner suggested that the North’s desire to heal the Civil War’s wounds resulted in letting the Southern whites off the hook for their treason and later crimes.)
Meantime, I see the “radical” Republicans of the 1860s as having represented an advanced humanism utterly astonishing for their time. After all, the ex-slaves were very “other,” coming from a condition of abject degradation, viewed almost universally as biologically and morally inferior. How did those Republicans rise above that to embrace them as fellow citizens?
I asked Foner this question. He said a big factor was the heroic service of many blacks as Union soldiers, refuting ancient stereotypes. This helped in building an ethos of true democratic egalitarianism.
How tragic that today’s Republicans have gone radical in the opposite direction.
Foner appeared again later, in conversation with leading Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, discussing Confederate monuments. They put the subject in a larger context of “iconoclasm,” with action against statues venting societal transformation — as happened with monuments to Soviet “heroes” — and the Taliban’s dynamiting the giant Bamiyan Buddha figures.
It was pointed out that most Confederate monuments were erected not right after the war but during Jim Crow’s consolidation, as one more way to show blacks where they stood. It wasn’t just about heritage and history, but who gets to choose what to honor, and why. Foner noted that Tennessee has more memorials to General Nathan Bedford Forrest — the “homicidal maniac” who founded the Klan — than Andrew Jackson.
The statues also reflect Southern whites’ sweeping the crime of slavery under the rug while romanticizing “The Lost Cause” as a noble one, a battle for “state rights” and indeed “Liberty (!)” Holzer expressed amazement at the emotive power these tropes still pack. Southern whites really see their pride and honor somehow at stake. Thus the removal of statues has often provoked violence.
But secession was not a noble cause, it was a vile one. A rebellion against the ideals America actually stands for (or should). The war was not about “liberty” but its opposite, slavery — no slavery, no war.
The discussants quoted Robert E. Lee himself saying there should be no monuments to Confederate leaders, because it was not the South’s finest hour.
* What follows I actually wrote back then; I have a big backlog.