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Friday, July 8, 2011


Part Two: Telling the Story of America

It is commonly said that the victors in a war get to write its history. Their soldiers are brave, dedicated patriots; the defeated opponents are craven untrustworthy cowards. Their leaders are statesmen; the leaders of their opponents are terrorists. They had every right to defend themselves; their opponents launched unprovoked and unjustified sneak attacks. So it has always been, for as long as written records have existed of the wars of the past. But by a curious twist of fate, the earliest histories of the Civil War and its aftermath, and of the institution of slavery that lay at its heart, were written by the defeated Southerners, not by victorious Northerners. Within a generation after Reconstruction, the broad outlines of the story had been sketched. For the next half century and more, that story was elaborated, repeated, simplified for school books, and given the stamp of approval by the academic establishment of White historians, northern and southern..

The story went something like this: "Before the War for Southern Independence, as the Civil War was sometimes referred to, Southern Whites had built a genteel world of refinement, culture, manners, breeding, and wealth. Lovely belles and courtly gentlemen cared in their thoughtful, parental manner for charming, happy, child-like, carefree darkies who were unable to look after themselves and were fiercely loyal to ole Massa. When the heartless, intrusive, rapacious North sought to destroy this gentle, time-honored civilization, men of honor took up their swords and rode off to defend the South, blessed as they left by their weeping wives and sorrowful Black retainers. Overwhelmed by superior forces but never defeated in spirit, the South was raped and pillaged by the Northern conquerors, who then wantonly and unthinkingly set free four million ignorant, unskilled, childlike Negroes to fend for themselves. Worse even than the destruction of its gracious houses and fruitful plantations was the despoiling of the South’s great traditions of democracy. Jumped-up illiterate former slaves, a few weeks, from the cotton fields, were tricked out in stolen finery by the Northern conquerors and told to call themselves Representative or Senator. Deprived of the guidance of their former masters, these caricatures, more to be pitied than reviled, made a mockery of the halls of government in which, for generations, educated and refined gentlemen had practiced the difficult arts of self-government. Driven half-wild by the thoughtless despoiling of everything beautiful, cultured, and genteel, a few Southerners even resorted, out of necessity, to extra-legal means of reestablishing some semblance of civilization, forming such well-meaning but in the end unhelpful organizations as the Ku Klux Klan."

Some of you may find it a little hard to believe that this appalling series of absurdities ever won anything like general acceptance even in the South, let alone in the North, so a few selected quotations may help to provide some context for these remarks. Here first are two passages from books written early in the shaping of this story. In 1907, William Archibald Dunning published a scholarly work entitled “Reconstruction, Political and Economic.” The book was part of a long series of books with the general title The American Nation: A History, edited by a professor at Harvard University. Here is what Dunning had to say about “the Negro.”


"The negro had no pride of race and no aspiration or ideals save to be like the whites. With civil rights and political power, not won, but almost forced upon him, he came gradually to understand those more elusive privileges that constitute social equality. [page 213]"

Six years later, William Watson Davis, in a work on “The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida” published as part of a series by Columbia University, offered this description of slavery.

"The fact is that the Southern slave was well-fed, well-housed, well-treated, and lastly, well-watched and controlled; hence the peace about the slave quarters on isolated plantations when war was raging at no great distance. Many slaves in the white households loved “their white people” [I think he probably meant “white folks”] and in return were loved with a sincerity proven by experience. They needed no watching and controlling. It was to them that the “master” confided his women and little children when he went away to fight. [page 219]"

William E. Woodward [why are all of these historians named “William”?] offered this dismissive and contemptuous evaluation of the Negro in his 1928 book, Meet General Grant:

"The American Negroes are the only people in the history of the world, so far as I know, that ever became free without any effort on their own... They had not started the war or ended it. They twanged banjoes around railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would come along and give each of them forty acres and a mule." [Quoted in Du Bois, Black Reconstruction.]

Those of you who are fans of old movies will recognize these conceptions of African Americans from the famous classic, Gone With The Wind, starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia De Havilland and Thomas Mitchell.

Not surprisingly, the earliest scholars to challenge this story of slavery and Reconstruction were Black historians, who knew from personal experience, as well as from their scholarly research, that the story was simply wrong. There are many names to call here. Pride of place must be given to Carter G. Woodson, who was born in Virginia ten years after the end of the Civil War. Woodson is widely and justly considered the Father of Black History. He did extensive research on many aspects of the African-American experience, which he published in a stream of books. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which continues to this day under its new title, The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. He founded the Journal of Negro History, now the Journal of African American History. And he even originated Black History Week, which has since been expanded to Black history Month.

But I should like to speak about another scholar, whose name may in fact be known to most of you: W. E. B. Du Bois. William Edward Burghardt du Bois was born in 1868, just three years after the end of the war, in the Western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington, seven miles from the New York border. After completing high school, he went south to Fisk University, founded two years before Du Bois’ birth in Nashville, Tennessee. From Fisk, Du Bois traveled to Germany for two years of graduate studies, as did many young American scholars at that time. While in Germany, Du Bois actually met and studied with the greatest Sociologist of all time, Max Weber. On his return to the United States, Du Bois enrolled as a doctoral student at Harvard University, and in 1895, at the age of twenty-seven, he was awarded a doctorate by Harvard, the first Black person to win that honor. His dissertation became the first of his scores of books, under the title The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870.

In his long life, Du Bois wrote countless books and articles, played a major role in the founding of the NAACP, established and served as the first editor of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that still appears regularly today, led the movement to unite the peoples of Africa with the millions of descendants of Africans scattered across the world by the slave trade, a movement known as Pan-Africanism, and he even found time to write a series of autobiographical accounts of his life. Du Bois was the greatest social scientist America has produced. Note that I did not say “the greatest Black social scientist,.” but “the greatest social scientist” simpliciter. There are a handful of stellar social scientists who might compete with him for that title – Thorstein Veblan, Margaret Mead, Robert Merton, Talcott Parsons, George Herbert Mead. But the scope, quality, and sheer volume of Du Bois’ work, and his major role in the political life of this nation, justify awarding the palm to him.

Hounded by the U. S. Government for his political views, Du Bois finally left America and spent his last years in the West African country of Ghana. There, on August 27, 1963, at the age of ninety-five, he died, one day before the historic March in Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream” oration, arguably, with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, one of the two most famous public speeches in American history.


James R MacLean said...

I've long been quietly fascinated by the point with which you began this post: the old saw, that the victors write the history books, failed to apply in the Usonian Civil War (UCW).

Eventually I came to the conclusion that (a) people don't really look at the UCW in a comparative way; it's nearly always written about or discussed as an historically exceptional event; and (b) all wars are revolutionary to some degree for the belligerents, and civil wars differ in the revolutionary aspect being especially obvious.

Wars have strong naming conventions which prevent this sort of uniform comparison; to my way of thinking, the American Revolution I would regard as an Anglo-Saxon Civil War/Revolution (ASCR), and the Civil War was in fact two distinct revolutions followed by a long series of thermidorean reactions.

Seen in this light, the business about writing history books takes on some elements of class conflict: the newly emerging business managerial class in the USA was represented in the universities by a loyal, like-minded cohort of scholars doing scholarship-management. They had "quietly" squashed the victors of 1865-1870, and now needed to de-legitimize them as architects of a new social order.

James R MacLean said...

The two distinct revolutions I mentioned above included (I) a legal-cum-constitutional one that enabled a fundamentally new entity to emerge from the wreckage of the old Union; and (II) a social-political revolution that flared out from the reformist intelligentsia.

Revolution-I was quick (mid-1861) and involved a resolution to the philosophical paradox posed by a secession within a republic.

Revolution-II was prolonged, ambiguous, and uncertain. It began after the issue of greenbacks and rapidly grew in scope. Greenbacks were the nexus between I & II.