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Reconstruction Reconstructed

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Black Reconstruction. An Essay fmvard a History of the Part Which Black Polk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-00. By W. E. B. Du Bois. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $4.50.

Dr. du bois is probably the greatest scholar of his race anywhere. A doctor of Harvard University, professor of sociology in Atlanta University for many years, and author of several books which treat carefully the historic problems of his race, he naturally appeals to people who are concerned with the slavery and Reconstruction questions. His “Suppression of the Slave Trade,” published in 1896, made a reputation for him as a careful and not very partisan historian. He now ventures to give the world the first authoritative account of the Negro’s role in the Civil War and during Reconstruction—one of the most difficult tasks in American historiography.

His leading chapters bear the titles: “The Black Worker,” “The Coming of the Lord,” “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” “The White Proletariat in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida,” “The Founding of the Public School,” and “The Propaganda of History.” There are other provocative chapters on the Southern planters and the Northern industrialists which raise interesting queries. There can be no doubt that the author has spent a great deal of time trying to present an authoritative account of the ordeals through which the members of his race and the unhappy “poor whites” passed during the decades under consideration. Nor can there be any question that a great many historians have fallen consciously or unconsciously into the class of writers so sharply condemned in these pages. Von Ranke and Momm-sen no doubt fell at times from their high status; Bancroft, Macaulay, and Rhodes were also propagandists in a certain sense; but few historians will agree that William A. Dunning of Columbia University and Frederick J. Turner of the University of Wisconsin were propagandists as described in the closing section of this volume. After reading nearly nil these 728 pages I am forced to the conclusion that their author has revealed himself as quite as much a propagandist as the worst of the many historians whom he condemns. Is true history impossible?

In the space allowed me I am afraid I cannot cite paragraphs and pages to show just what sort of work we have here. But there is interesting information about nearly all phases of the period treated. As to the actual status of Negro slaves, Dr. Du Bois gives a fairly accurate presentation. Nor is he more hostile to the planter class than was James Ford Rhodes. He gives useful quotations from Negro speeches and letters and he calls attention to Negro slaveholders in different states of the South—though he does not emphasize the cruelty of black masters to black slaves. His account of Negro intelligence and artistic activity in Charleston and New Orleans is revealing. What he has to say about the patriotic Negroes in Reconstruction years seems to be just and fair. Nor can any one fail to recognize the cruelties and crimes that characterized the unhappy years of 1865 to 1880. There is not a parallel to this epoch in modern history; but there has not been another such civil war. Dr. Du Bois is right when he says Lincoln lost his hoped-for democracy in the Northeast; also right when he says the South and West lost most of the democracy for which the War was supposed to have been waged.

But when the author seems to condemn poor Andrew Johnson and to praise Charles Sumner, he reveals that he has not studied closely the correspondence in the Library of Congress and the Sumner papers at Harvard. On one occasion after Sumner had a long conversation with Johnson, he wrote that God Almighty had removed Lincoln, or words that went even further than these. Dr. Du Bois portrays Sumner as an ideal saint in public life. One of my “Yankee” graduate students once proved in seminar that when Johnson appointed Karl Schurz to go South and bring back an accurate report to the Executive, Sumner had an interview with Schurz and made an arrangement whereby the President’s investigator was to receive payment for suitable articles to be sent to Boston while he was on his official journey. Why then should Dr. Du Bois reveal such indignation because the President treated Schurz coolly on the presentation of his document? It is clear that Johnson had learned of the doubtful role of his former friend. Dr. Du Bois treats Thaddeus Stevens as a champion of pure democracy, North and South. But serious doubts arose in my mind, when I read Dunning’s article on the subject, because of Stevens’ business relations, his tariff votes, and especially the fact that he received $1000 for his vote on the Alaska Purchase bill.

If I had been trying to tell the truth about Andrew Johnson, I could not have praised Lincoln’s reconstruction programme, which Sumner damned, and then have condemned Johnson’s scheme when it was the same programme. Nor could I have held firmly to my conviction as to Sumner’s greatness when I remembered that it was he who did most to defeat, through propaganda in England, the British cabinet’s purpose to recognize the Confederacy; and then, having won his cause, turned upon England in 1869 and demanded the annexation of Canada without a popular vote.

It is an inviting task to try to tell the true story of the American Civil War and Reconstruction—but most difficult, as these chapters show. While Dr. Du Bois agrees with other historians that there were shameful abuses in the South and even more shameful exploitation of the masses of the people in the North, he falls into considerable errors when he tries to show that there were no public schools for white children in the South before 1868. There were educational campaigns in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia before 1850, and there were state superintendents of education in each of these states. These movements were not wholly successful—for that matter, similar movements in the North had failed; but to say public education began in 1868 is not correct.

When any historian declares that the enlisting of two hundred thousand Negroes in the Union army saved the American republic, one might reply that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation saved it; and if that is so, it was aristocratic England that saved the Union, because Lincoln issued the proclamation in order to block the British cabinet move which Gladstone was pressing. Lincoln said himself that the decree freed no slaves. And there were other incidents which a real historian should not overlook. In the summer of 1864 Lincoln was almost certain of his defeat the following November. But a group of uneasy Georgia leaders went to see Jefferson Davis and demanded the removal of General Joseph E. Johnston, who was playing a Fabian game against Sherman. This delay was intended to postpone Union military success, a policy which Lee said would save the South by defeating Lincoln in the coming election. Davis yielded to Georgia persuasion and put a reckless man in Johnston’s place. Atlanta fell on September 2; and its fall caused Lincoln’s re-election. So Jefferson Davis saved the Union. And there are other incidents such as the Walker negotiations for European loans which, when Union credit was about to collapse, also “saved the Union.” Aware of these and other critical situations, one might hesitate to say that the Negroes saved the American republic—although one could not deny the importance of the Negro movement.

One who has done nothing but study history for forty years is a little hesitant about dogmatic attitudes, and at the same time is convinced that one of the greatest opportunities of our time is the unpartisan writing of history, European as well as American. I am sorry Dr. Du Bois has not given us a perfectly disinterested and convincing account of the slave problem at the most critical moment of our history. Absolute devotion to a social theory, such as communism or fascism, defeats historical endeavor.


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