Last week the racial history of America was very much in the air, with the Supreme Court disabling the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while disputes over Paula Deen’s affection for the Plantation South and the late Trayvon Martin’s alleged description of George Zimmerman as a “creepy ass cracker” washing across popular culture. Questions about what we are as a nation and who we are as a people, moreover, are traditionally in season just prior to Independence Day.
So Jamie Malanowski’s piece last Wednesday at Ten Miles Square on a new wave of Civil War revisionism, which I didn’t read until the weekend, was well-timed. It quotes at some length a post at The Atlantic by Tony Horwitz distinguishing new revisionists from old:
“Unlike the revisionists of old, [America Aflame author David] Goldfield sees slavery as the bedrock of the Southern cause and abolition as the war’s great achievement. But he argues that white supremacy was so entrenched, North and South, that war and Reconstruction could never deliver true racial justice to freed slaves, who soon became subject to economic peonage, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and rampant lynching. Nor did the war knit the nation back together. Instead, the South became a stagnant backwater, a resentful region that lagged and resisted the nation’s progress. It would take a century and the Civil Rights struggle for blacks to achieve legal equality, and for the South to emerge from poverty and isolation. “Emancipation and reunion, the two great results of this war, were badly compromised,” Goldfield says. Given these equivocal gains, and the immense toll in blood and treasure, he asks: “Was the war worth it? No.”
So whereas the old Civil War revisionists typically viewed Reconstruction as a horrific imposition of postwar tyranny on the South by fanatical and avaricious Yankees, it seems the new revisionists tend to think the unwillingness of the North to see Reconstruction through to a successful conclusion made the destruction wrought by the war excessive if not pointless or even counterproductive.
I have to say this argument is well worth discussing. The more I read about Reconstruction, the more its failure (or more accurately, its abandonment) seems pre-ordained, due to a combination of northern racism and economic colonialism, southern white terrorism, Republican delusions of a White Man’s southern GOP, and Democratic determination to rebuild the party’s national strength on a neo-Confederate Solid South.
What’s less clear, for obvious reasons, is the alternative history of the United States had the Confederacy been allowed to go its separate way. Malanowski offers his own guesses for both regions, including a United States that might have acquired Canada (the nation celebrating its own independence today) and a CSA that might have eventually abolished slavery for purposes of insuring its own economic survival.
I think a lot of revisionists, old and new, may underestimate the extent to which White Supremacy was (and in some precincts, still is) a cultural phenomenon central to white southern identity, and not just an instrument of a doomed agricultural economy. It’s always fascinated me that so many white southern “progressives” during the long reign of Jim Crow—including leading Populists, Wilsonians, and even New Dealers—were among the most virulent of racists. For that matter, the post-Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan viewed itself as “progressive,” and opposed to the reactionary capitalists who fomented race-mixing and tolerated medieval-minded Catholic immigrants.
That it eventually took what white conservatives aptly called a “Second Reconstruction” to effectively implement the Civil War Amendments to the Constitution is a reminder that a region poisoned by slavery was unlikely to heal itself. Yes, you can make a strong argument that a United States free of the South might have evolved in a significantly more progressive direction. But in the end, if you care about the victims of southern racism (which did include poor white folk whose determination to keep black folk “in their place” kept them in their own place as well), then the argument for letting their masters “go their own way” in hopes of a less disastrous trajectory simply means consigning them to one hell rather than another.
I’m struck at how often commenters at PA volunteer the opinion that we’d all be better off if the South had been allowed to secede, or indeed, were encouraged to secede today. Are you serious about that opinion? And does it bother you that millions of the country’s most powerless people might be betrayed and abandoned yet again?
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