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Rethinking Post-Civil War History

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

Occupationally, historians cannot leave any period of the past alone. They must rewrite history because their primary concern is to interpret it and to discern its meaning for the present. Since the present is constantly changing, so must the meaning which the past holds for the historian. To say that, let me hasten to add, is not to suggest or even to imply that the past is fictional or that history, as Voltaire said, is merely a pack of tricks played upon the dead. For only by rooting his interpretations in the facts and actual events of the past can a historian’s new interpretation or meaning be convincing to others. The historian, like the physicist or the biologist, does more than merely rummage among his documents until he arrives at his conclusions. All investigators, regardless of field, start out with some idea of what they want to test or expect to find. For example, it was the great civil rights crusade of the 1950’s and 1960’s which sparked the massive inquiry among historians into the nature of Southern slavery, thereby enriching our understanding of the impact of bondage on blacks and the effects of slavery upon the Southern economy.

Although that particular historical inquiry seems about to run out of steam, another foray into Southern history is gathering momentum and beginning to change our conception of the South’s past. In a sense, this new exploration is an extension of the recent involvement of historians with the nature of slavery, for now the years after the Civil War have come under scrutiny. The concern, however, is not with politics or the traditional aspects of Reconstruction but with the rather basic changes in the economy. Notable in this new literature is a book entitled One Kind of Freedom (1977), written by two economists, Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch. Their book is based on census data for five cotton states in the deep South and analyzed from the standpoint of modern economic theory. One striking result of their work is that we now have rather concrete measures of the cost of slavery to blacks as well as the cost of emancipation to slaveholders.

Although some historians have doubted that emancipation significantly improved the economic position of the former slaves because poverty remained the lot of most Southern blacks long after emancipation, Ransom and Sutch effectively remove those doubts. They show, for example, that the slaves’ share of total output on the large antebellum plantations went from 22 percent in 1859 to 56 percent for black tenants in 1879. More important than the growth in income, Ransom and Sutch emphasize, was the increase in the freedom of economic choice gained by the former slaves. It was just this freedom of choice that was often at the bottom of the annoyance of landowners with their former slaves. One planter soon after the war complained to a traveler about the “luxuries” his former slave Ben was buying. Among the objectionable items he listed were tobacco, candles, whiskey, candy, cheese, earrings, sardines, rings, and a breast pin—just those items a slave would have found hard to come by.

Perhaps most important of all to the former slaves was the new opportunity to increase their leisure. In freedom, small children and adult women were exempted from work as they had not been under slavery. And the men, too, must have elected to work less, for, according to Ransom and Sutch’s computations, the number of hours worked in agriculture fell about 30 percent per person. This clear election by the former slaves for more leisure not only offers a concrete measure of the coercion inherent in slavery; it also provides a key to understanding one of the dramatic changes in the economy of the South after 1865, namely the fall in agricultural production. As late as 1880, crop production for the five cotton states studied by Ransom and Sutch reached only 64 percent of the 1860 level. By 1900 it was no more than 75 percent.

For many years Southern and Northern scholars alike had concluded that the slow recovery of the Southern economy and the persistent poverty of the region were consequences of the war’s destructiveness. And there can be no doubt that in the last years of the war, as the Union armies pushed into the heartland of the Confederacy, deliberate destruction of equipment, supplies, and capital goods was central to the Northern effort to bring the Confederacy to its knees. Yet however severe that destruction may have been in certain localities such as Columbia, South Carolina or Richmond, Virginia, across the South, as Ransom and Sutch demonstrate, the impact was considerably less. One sign of that lighter impact was the rapid recovery of Southern manufacturing. In the five cotton states which they studied, Ransom and Sutch found that manufacturing output reached the 1860 level as early as 1870 and that between 1869 and 1889 the value added by manufacturing workers increased 2.5 percent each and every year. One may put this in perspective by recalling that even after modern wars, in which the physical destruction of plant was much greater than in the South during the Civil War, the recovery of manufacturing has also been quite rapid. Recall, for example, the resurgence of German and Japanese industry after the heavy and prolonged bombings of World War II. Unlike the enemy countries in that war, however, the South was not heavily industrialized, and so the rapid recovery of its industry did not mean a rapid recovery for the economy as a whole. The true reason why agriculture did not make a fast recovery, Ransom and Sutch contend, was that black people withheld a substantial portion of their labor now that they were free to pursue greater leisure. Most noticeable in this regard was the refusal of the women to work any longer in the fields. As early as 1866 the prestigious Southern journal De Bow’s Review observed that “most of the field labor is now performed by men, the women regarding it as the duty of husbands to support them in idleness.” (Actually, of course, black women were doing no more with their freedom than white women had been doing all along.)

For former slaveholders, the withdrawal of black women from agricultural production was only a minor or secondary cost of emancipation. Their primary loss, of course, was that their ownership of human labor had been ended. As individuals, they lost all the capital they had invested in their labor supply. The amount, incidentally, was far from small since about 60 percent of all the capital invested in agriculture in the five Cotton States was in slaves alone. It amounted to $1.6 billion as compared with a paltry $38 million invested in manufacturing. As Ransom and Sutch point out, although the loss of slave property could be very heavy for the individual planter, for the South as a whole emancipation did not deprive the region of any of its assets since the former slaves usually stayed in the South. All emancipation did was to transfer ownership of labor from the masters to the slaves; the economy lost no productive wealth. What the economy did lose, at least temporarily, was a system for bringing labor to work the land.


The new organization of labor that emerged and came to dominate the agriculture of the South for almost the next century was sharecropping. In accounting for the development of sharecropping as a significant system of organization of farm labor, Ransom and Sutch’s work is supported by other recent studies. Notable in this respect is Robert Higgs’ Competition and Coercion (1977), which, like Ransom and Sutch’s book, uses modern economic theory to analyze historical evidence. As we will see in a moment, Higgs and Ransom and Sutch have quite different conceptions of the role played by racism in forging the post-Civil War economy of the South. They agree, nonetheless, that the origins of sharecropping were not primarily racist, whatever responsibility sharecropping, once it was established, may have to bear for keeping blacks at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid. The true origins of sharecropping, these authors all agree, are to be found in the changed circumstances that confronted former slaves and masters now that the old masters had lost the legal power to coerce and control physically their workers. Most planters, as James L. Roark showed in his book Masters Without Slaves (1977), could not conceive of running a plantation without slaves. They believed, quite sincerely, that blacks would not work without coercion. They also wanted to use their workers in gangs, as they had done on the old slave plantations. The closest that the planters could come, under the changed legal relationship they now had with their former slaves, was to put them on wages. That would still permit gang work, and it promised a good deal of direct control over the worker.

But now that the blacks were no longer slaves they, too, had something to say about the matter. And here is where the new historical work on the economic history of Reconstruction makes a significant addition to our understanding. The blacks clearly preferred owning their own land and simply refused to work for wages or in gangs. Since most former slaves could not afford to buy land, they generally settled for giving a share of the crop to the owner in return for a lease. Thus sharecropping was at least a partial victory for the former slaves, who through this arrangement succeeded in obtaining family farms in place of the old gang-worked plantation. But it left the economic power of land ownership and credit disbursement still in the hands of the former masters. From an economic standpoint, the emergence of sharecropping was the basic decision of the Reconstruction era, for, unlike the political changes initiated by Radical Reconstruction, the economic decision prevailed long after the withdrawal of federal power permitted the overthrow of political Reconstruction.

Innovative as the work of Higgs and Ransom and Sutch undoubtedly is, it still uncritically repeats the traditional liberal argument that “the failure to carry forward plans for land redistribution appears as a great tragedy of this era,” to quote the language of Ransom and Sutch. “The absence of a land grant,” Higgs writes, “was a major deficiency of Reconstruction from the perspective of blacks. A land grant would not have produced miracles,” he admits, “but it would have given the freedmen a sharp boost in their struggle for genuine economic progress.” Generally speaking, most of the historical writing on Reconstruction, especially since the eruption of the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s, has similarly deplored the North’s failure to grant land to the freedmen. The absence of any significant land distribution has been taken as a concrete and telling measure of the lack of Northern concern for blacks in the South at worst and, at best, as a sign of the lack of economic and political realism among Northern policy-makers. Indeed, it is a commonplace of Reconstruction historiography to see in the refusal to bestow land upon the freedmen a primary explanation for the failure of Radical Reconstruction to ensure a secure place for blacks in the white-dominated South. Yet, however helpful a piece of land for each black family after emancipation surely would have been, it is not at all clear that grants of land would have changed significantly the long-term situation of blacks in the South.

There are two reasons at least for not thinking so. The first is that even if blacks had been given land, it is unlikely that they could have retained ownership during the long fall in cotton prices of the 1880’s and 1890’s. Given the inexperience of former slaves with commercial agriculture—as opposed to their long experience with the techniques of farming—it is doubtful that many of them would have been able to maintain ownership at a time when many, much more experienced white farmers were losing theirs. The second reason raises further doubts. In order for blacks to be given land it was necessary to take it away from whites. Given the traditional attitudes of whites towards blacks, if only because of the long association between blacks and the subordinate status of slavery, is it likely that whites would have suffered such a massive transfer of property from themselves to their former slaves? We do know from the history of Reconstruction how quickly and how violently whites reacted to Northern insistence that blacks be given the vote and the right to participate in government. So powerful was white Southern opposition to political participation by blacks that the North soon abandoned its support of it. Not until the Second Reconstruction a century later were black voters permitted to challenge seriously white rule in any Southern state. In light of the white South’s violent resistance to the loss of a monopoly of political power, is it likely that the confiscation of a large part of the land of the whites would have been accepted without even more violent resistance? And when that resistance ended probably few blacks would have still been in possession of the land they had been granted—possibly even fewer than the 22 percent who actually acquired land by 1890.

Higgs and Ransom and Sutch agree on a number of aspects of the Southern economy after emancipation, but they do not agree on the role of race as an obstacle in the improvement of blacks’ economic situation. Higgs contends that competition among farmers prevented discrimination to a large extent. His argument is essentially the application to history of neo-classical economic theory (with its attendant assumptions). If a man refuses to hire a good worker simply because the worker is black, so the argument runs, then the employer will have to pay a higher cost for a substitute either in the form of higher wages, or of inferior work for the same price. And since the employer is in competition with other employers, some of whom, at least, would rather get labor at the best market prices rather than indulge their racial prejudices or “preferences,” the discriminatory employer would eventually be forced out of business because his costs would be higher than his competitors’. The argument is one first developed some years ago by the neo-classical economic theorist Gary Becker in his book The Economics of Discrimination (1957). Obviously, the value of the argument depends upon one’s belief in the validity of the assumption on which the market model rests. It may be theoretically true that preferences vary among individuals, but in a society in which law and custom all discriminate against blacks, it seems more reasonable to assume that refusal to hire blacks would actually advance one’s business rather than hurt it.

Higgs, it is true, is not content to rely entirely upon assumptions, for he does provide examples from historical sources to show that black and white artisans and farm laborers did in fact receive substantially the same wages. Unfortunately, however, a good deal of this evidence is derived from the public testimony of Southern employers when they appeared before congressional or other investigatory agencies. Their evidence seems designed to deflect criticism of Southern labor practices rather than to give objective or even informed evidence about the actual operation of Southern industry and agriculture.

Even though Ransom and Sutch are, like Higgs, neo-classically oriented economists, they have a different conception of the role played by racism in shaping the economic situation of blacks after slavery. It was racism, after all, they point out, that denied blacks equal education, kept them out of certain trades by law or custom, and discouraged, where it did not prohibit, their buying land. Blacks, Ransom and Sutch argue, were thus rendered inefficient in the market by the white South’s racist practices. Moreover, the very emphasis upon race distorted the functioning of a market economy by discouraging blacks from seeking to compete while encouraging whites to doubt that any individual black could be as efficient as a white. Where blacks were thus judged as a group and not as individuals, then the market, which works on the assumption that each individual competes with all other individuals, could not protect blacks against discrimination, as Higgs and Becker contended. For under those circumstances the efficient black worker would have no advantage over the inefficient.

In seeing the persistence of racism from the days of slavery into the postwar years, Ransom and Sutch identified an aspect of antebellum life that was not changed by the Givil War and emancipation. Other recent historical studies have gone much further than that in asserting the essential continuity of Southern history, even across the chasm of war and the abolition of slavery. One of the staple assumptions of national as well as Southern history has been that the Civil War and all that it entailed was a dividing line. Especially did that seem true of the South where the war was principally fought, and where an essential economic institution was destroyed. Wilbur J. Cash, it is true, in his widely acclaimed book Mind of the South (1940) largely repudiated that view. To him the continuity of Southern history was hardly disturbed, much less disrupted by the war and its immediate aftermath. “The South,” he wrote, by which he meant the modern region, “is a tree with many age rings, with its limbs and trunks bent and twisted by all the winds of the years, but with its tap root in the Old South.” More recently, however, especially in the works of C. Vann Woodward and Eugene D. Genovese, the Civil War and emancipation are considered profound disruptions of the continuity of Southern history. The South, Woodward wrote as recently as 1971, has been “unique among the regions of the nation for abrupt and drastic breaks in the continuity of its history.” In his major work, The Origins of the New South (1951), Woodward stressed the discontinuity of Southern history more particularly by depicting the New South of the post-Reconstruction years as based upon a quite different social order from that of the old slave South. Genovese has not written about the postwar South, but the emphasis in his books on the special, even unique character of a slave society clearly implies discontinuity rather than continuity in Southern history. Nor is it an accident that Genovese and Woodward have been the severest critics of W.J. Cash’s Mind of the South.


In the Origins of the New South, which treats the South after 1877, Woodward described the men who made the New South as a novel breed, men who were not from the old, planter class, men who looked to Northern business for their principles and practices. They sought to industrialize the South and to make it like the North. Only in their belief in the need to continue to subordinate blacks did they display continuity with the antebellum years.

In the professional historiography of the South, the Origins of the New South is probably more influential, and certainly a more rigorously researched and lucidly written book, than Cash’s Mind of the South. In a fundamental sense Woodward’s book delineated for the first time the period it treated; before he wrote there was neither a substantial body of information about those years nor a conceptual framework for thinking about them. It became his period; in one stroke he created it. As historian Sheldon Hackney wrote in 1971 on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Origins, despite the subsequent outpouring of scholarly work “the remarkable thing is that there has been so little fundamental challenge to the outlines of the story established by Woodward twenty years ago. . . . There has been no major challenge to the Origins of the New South. . .,” he concluded. Hackney, who is a former student of Woodward, even went so far as to call Cash “the South’s foremost mythmaker.” Hackney did admit that William J. Cooper’s The Conservative Regime, South Carolina, 1870—1890 (1968) disagreed with Woodward since Cooper found that most of the state’s postwar conservatives were not only drawn from that prewar planter class, but that as a class they “welcomed industry to South Carolina and worked to create a favorable atmosphere for its growth,” to use Cooper’s words. Although these conclusions were diametrically opposed to Woodward’s view that the founders of the New South were a new class, Hackney minimized the impact by suggesting that “South Carolina may be a special case. . . .”

But what Hackney hoped was an exception, today seems to be more like a bellwether. Several new studies of the political economy of Southern states have recently called further into question the contention that the war and emancipation ended the dominance of the old planter class. Interestingly enough, two of these critics are Marxists even though Woodward’s Origins of the New South follows what might be called a Progressive approach to the period in that businessmen are seen as opponents of “the people.”

The first of the studies by a Marxist is Social Origins of the New South (1978) by Jonathan Wiener. It demonstrates that in Alabama the same antebellum planter families persisted as a dominant class well into the Reconstruction years. Out of the 236 planter families he studied in a single black belt Alabama county, 43 percent were still among the top land owners in 1870, as they had been in 1860. Although it might be thought that the survival of something less than a majority does not constitute a very strong case, there are good reasons for thinking otherwise.

First of all, simply as a technical matter, locating the names of individuals in two different federal manuscript censuses is extremely difficult because the geographical mobility of families in 19th-century America was very great. Once a family moved from its original county, locating them in subsequent census records is close to impossible since the county to which they migrated is usually unknown and the names listed in the original census records are not indexed! As a consequence of this difficulty, persistence rates in some Northern states have often been lower than 35 percent. And in those states the persistence that is being measured is simply that of anyone who can be located in two different censuses, not those who persisted in a given class, as Wiener was doing for Alabama. Given these problems, a persistence rate of 43 percent is very high, even though it amounts to less than a majority.

A further reason for accepting the rate as significantly high is that Wiener also calculated the persistence rate for upper class families in his Alabama county between 1850 and 1860, when there was neither war nor emancipation to reduce it and when high cotton prices would have tended to raise the rate. In that much more favorable decade, the rate of persistence of the same families in the upper tenth of land owners was still less than a majority—47 percent. Finally, as an additional measure of the survival of the antebellum planter class after the war, Wiener ascertained that the share of all real estate holdings of the elite in 1870 was actually greater than the share held in 1860—63 percent as against 55 percent in 1860. In short, in the important slave state of Alabama, war and emancipation did not disposses the old ruling class. In fact, it is an additional aspect of Wiener’s thesis that the old planter class was still so influential in the years after 1865 that it was able to inhibit the development of industry in northern Alabama, notably in deliberately retarding the growth of Birmingham’s iron and steel industry.

As a Marxist, Wiener’s emphasis upon the surviving planter class’s opposition to industrialization is central to his argument. He sees the planter class as primarily and narrowly involved with agriculture and to such a degree that an industrial sector would be perceived as competing with agriculture for labor and for access to the political authority and resources of the state government. His calling attention to planter resistance to industrial development is in line with Marxist historian Eugene Genovese’s insistence that the planter class in the antebellum years was hostile to industry. But because Wiener learned from his research that the war did not topple the upper class from its dominant position as land owners, he came to disagree with Genovese’s contention that the war had destroyed the antebellum planter class.


Another Marxist, writing about a different state, has raised equally powerful objections to Woodward’s conception of the New South. Dwight B. Billings, Jr., in his recent Planters and the Making of aNew South” (1979), looks into the social and economic history of North Carolina after the Civil War. Although his findings do not agree with Wiener’s on the attitude of the planter class toward industrial development, he is quite in agreement with Wiener in seeing continuity across the chasm of war and emancipation. Where Wiener showed that the planter class held onto its land after the war, Billings demonstrates that the cotton textile industry that gained prominence in North Carolina in the era of the New South and after was based in part on antebellum origins and in part on men whose social roots were in the antebellum planter class. In short, contrary to the standard view of the origins of the New South, manufacturing was not new in North Carolina in 1870 nor was its development thereafter the work of a new entrepreneurial, nonplanter class.

Billings shows that 23 percent of the men who owned textile mills in the years between 1865 and 1884 were listed as planters in 1869 in the city directories, while an additional 34 percent of mills were owned or partly owned by what Billings describes as “prominent agrarians.” In sum, a clear majority of textile mills were connected with the old planter class in North Carolina. In making this point, Billings, of course, is in sharp disagreement with Wiener’s contention that opposition to industrialization was inherent in the mentality or world view of the planters. But Billings is enough of a Marxist to suggest that the kind of industrialization fostered by the planters in North Carolina differed from that in the North. He sees the rural, paternalistically-ruled mill towns of the South as industrial reflections of the isolated paternalistic plantation community of the antebellum years.

In fact, it is just this suggestion that industrial development in the South differed from that in the North which unites Billings and Wiener against the standard interpretation in the Origins of the New South. In Woodward’s depiction, the New South was in league with the North and sought to reproduce or at least encourage Northern practices and values in the South. The men who sought to make a New South, Woodward contended, were not only divorced from the old planter class; they constituted a new kind of Southerner, one quite harmonious in spirit and activities with the so-called robber barons then transforming the North and consolidating their hold over the economy and politics of the nation.

Both Wiener and Billings have been, by their own admission, strongly influenced by the writings of Harvard historical sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr., whose book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966) first set forth what has come to be called the “Prussian Road” to economic development. Simply put, the concept states that historically there have been two models for the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. One was followed in England, where the dominant agricultural class was overthrown by a new bourgeois class that first attacked and then superseded it politically and culturally as well as economically. The other model was the road taken by Germany—and perhaps Japan— where the agrarian class (in Germany it was the Prussian Junkers) brought about industrialization from the top while continuing to maintain control over the emerging economic order. In the first, or English model, political democracy accompanied the transition because, among other things, that was how the new bourgeoisie overthrew the agricultural class. But in the second or Prussian version, democratic institutions did not evolve or become rooted because the old ruling class continued to dominate the new order and naturally had no interest in encouraging a challenge to its rule. In the eyes of Wiener and Billings the evolution of Northern industry followed the English model while the New South followed the German mode. Hence their stressing the continuity of the planter class’s dominance after the Civil War.

To discern merit in Wiener’s and Billings’ disagreement with the conventional view of the origins of the New South does not require that one accept their application of Moore’s Prussian road concept to the South. Indeed, there are at least two good reasons for not accepting it. For one thing it tends to exaggerate the difference between the North and the South before as well as after the 1860’s. The South, after all, was an integral part of the United States. Democratic institutions and values were old, widespread, and deeply rooted there as they were in the North. Constitutional liberty and universal white manhood suffrage came to the South at the same time that they came to the North; Southern whites of all classes were as active in politics as Northerners. In both sections, generally speaking, hostility toward blacks, slave or free, was about as severe. What set the South apart form the North before 1860 was the presence in the South of the plantation and the slave labor on which it depended. Given the many political and social values held in common by the people in the two sections, it seems a mistake to assume a fundamentally different world view for the Southern plantation owners as against Northern farmers, merchants, and businessmen, as Genovese, Billings, Wiener, and Marxists in general are wont to do.

The second reason for rejecting Moore’s Prussian road is that once one recognizes that the planter class shared many fundamental social and economic values with Northerners then the apparent contradiction between Wiener’s findings for Alabama and Billings’ for North Carolina dissolve. For when the question becomes one of simply ascertaining whether or not the planters of the antebellum years persisted into the Reconstruction and New South, the fact that Wiener saw them opposing industrialization and Billings saw them advancing it ceases to be a contradiction. We no longer assume that planters opposed industry. We still want to know, however, whether the leaders of the New South were a new class, as Woodward argued, or were men drawn from the old agrarian class that had dominated the South before the war. For that gives us an answer to the question of the effect of the war and emancipation upon the structure of Southern society.

That was the question asked in William Cooper’s study of South Carolina Bourbons, which, as we saw, Sheldon Hackney recognized as disagreeing with Woodward’s interpretation of the origins of the New South. Cooper found, it will be recalled, that the old agrarian class in that state encouraged the New South so that there was no real break in the character of the social support for the Old and New Souths. Roger L. Hart arrived at a similar conclusion in his study of postwar Tennessee entitled Redeemers, Bourbons and Populists (1975). Hart, like Cooper, is not a Marxist, so he lacked the ideological motivation of Wiener and Billings to determine whether the planter class inhibited or fostered industrial development.

Hart’s purpose, rather, like Cooper’s, was to test Woodward’s argument that the post-Reconstructon Redeemers were drawn from a new social class and one which exhibited an antiagrarian outlook. Hart is cautious in his conclusons, but there is little doubt that he finds Woodward’s depiction inadequate when he examines the social origins of the men who sparked Tennessee’s industrial development and dominated its post-war politics. Not only were many of the Tennessee Redeemers from the old planter class, but they were not especially favorable toward Northern business, as Woodward had argued. In short, there was no sharp break in outlook or shift in the character of the dominant social class after the war in Tennessee any more than there was in Alabama, North Carolina, or South Carolina.

This recent historical literature does more than support W.J. Cash’s conception of the continuity of Southern history. It also neatly illustrates once again the ways by which our knowledge of the past advances. Cooper’s study of South Carolina conservatives and Hart’s investigation of the Tennessee Redeemers exemplify perhaps the most frequently used way by which historians alter an established interpretation, that is, by measuring it against new evidence. The work of the two Marxist historians and that of neo-classical economist Robert Higgs illustrate another way by which our conception of the past is changed. Without the idea of the so-called Prussian model, neither Wiener nor Billings would probably have undertaken the kind of investigations they did. This is not to say that their conclusions were arrived at before they began, only that they had an idea—as all historians do—as to what they were looking for. Robert Higgs also shaped his investigation around his philosophical position, in his case, neo-classical economics. As a result, he was able to provide new information about, and new understanding of, the economy of Reconstruction and the New South. For without his belief in the way the competitive market functioned, he would not have uncovered the evidence he provides in his book on the equality of wage rates for blacks and whites in certain occupations.

The work of Higgs and the two Marxists also brings home to us that though a gain may be achieved when the past is approached through an ideological commitment, a cost is also often incurred. Neither Higgs’ neoclassical economics nor Marxism has a place for racism as an explanatory category. They simply ignore it. To the Marxists, class consciousness and class conflict are the primary bases for action and thus for historical change. To them, racism is simply a device introduced by the dominant class to confuse and defeat the subordinate class. Consequently, if one is going to explain the development or lack of development of industry in the South after the Civil War, white hostility toward blacks is not considered pertinent, except as an effect. Although people at the time may have talked or worried a great deal about the solidarity of whites of all classes in league against blacks, to the Marxist historian that solidarity is not an independent historical force or basic category of historical explanation.

Interestingly enough, a similar blindness to the role of racism as an independent variable in explaining the Southern past is evident in the work of Robert Higgs, who philosophically is about as far from being a Marxist as one can get. As we saw, he is exceedingly reluctant to think of racism as a basis for explaining human behavior in the past. Unlike the Marxists, Higgs emphasizes the role of individuals in history, seeing classes and races as merely aggregations of individuals, not as historical or social forces in their own right. (Ransom and Sutch, even though they are neoclassical economists, too, do not have the same blind spot about the role of racism in explaining Southern economic history. For them, the presence of racism actually helps to account for the persistence of poverty among agricultural blacks after Reconstruction).

The conclusion to be drawn here is not only that ideology exacts a cost, for that might have been expected. Rather the primary point is that in writing history over and over again, historians significantly advance our knowledge as well as our understanding of the past. The rewriting, it is important to recognize, is not simply the result of having unearthed new information. On the contrary, the new information gained is more often a consequence of the need to rewrite. For in seeking answers to new questions and by applying new theories to the past, historians must tease from the extant record new historical evidence as well as new insights into the meaning of the past. It is truly a historian’s occupation to rewrite history, but to do so he or she must first rethink the meaning of the past. And that is what an increasing number of historians have been doing recently about the post-Civil War South.


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