“The history of the world,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1897, “is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.” More than 100 years later, these words still resonate. While few scholars today would feel comfortable endorsing a single idea as the key to “all history,” most have been trained to view concepts like racism and racial identity as essential to a full understanding of a society’s cultural DNA. Three new books by Edward Blum, David Roediger and Ira Katznelson are part of a flourishing cottage industry in academia, examining, as Du Bois did, the enormous impact of race on American history.
Like most scholars of race relations in the late nineteenth century, Blum views the era of Reconstruction, stretching from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865 to the departure of Northern troops from Southern soil in 1877, as a time of tremendous optimism, and ultimate tragedy, for the nation’s freed people. Change was in the air. Radical abolitionists were recognized for their foresight in opposing slavery, while black fighting men were hailed for their courage under fire. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed African-Americans full citizenship, at least on paper. Indeed, it was Southern whites who stood apart from the national mainstream–their “outsider” status heightened by a galling refusal to blame themselves for the bloodshed or to punish those who had caused it.
Over time, however, the Northern urge to reform the South fell victim to political squabbling in Washington, a nationwide economic depression and endless violence against blacks who tried to exercise their newfound constitutional rights. Some historians believe that a more gradual Reconstruction, one that pursued less radical goals, might have succeeded. Others disagree, contending that the North’s commitment to civil rights was never strong enough to combat the fierce resistance of Southern whites to even the most modest gains by their former slaves. Either way, the advances of Reconstruction were quickly reversed, leaving Southern blacks powerless and segregated, unable to vote or to seek protection under the law.
Where does Blum stand? In his view, the pursuit of racial justice was swamped by an idyllic vision of national healing, based on restoring the white racial unity that had been torn asunder by the war. And those most responsible for this vision, he contends, were Northern Protestant ministers, evangelists and reformers who used their pulpits, revival tents and social crusades to “reforge” the broken white Republic. Whiteness soon became the national identity, white supremacy the national faith.
His examples are compelling. Most of us remember Harriet Beecher Stowe and her brother, the minister Henry Ward Beecher, as fiery abolitionists who mobilized Northern opposition to slavery. (Lincoln famously referred to Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as “the little lady who started the big war.”) But few of us, I suspect, are aware that Beecher spent his later years preaching “mercy” and “magnanimity” toward the defeated South in terms that would have made Margaret Mitchell blush, or that Stowe, who purchased a winter home in Florida, ended up spinning the virtues of Southern society to a generation of gullible Northern tourists. For her, writes Blum, “a new and ideal United States would be one in which northern and southern whites ruled benevolently and former slaves worked cheerfully in a naturally subservient status.”