Eric Foner on the politics of history

The historian Eric Foner from a talk at Swarthmore in 2013:

One other point, and this I think is important to anybody here who is studying in a history class, you will have heard about this, not necessarily, but reconstruction is a prime example of what we call the politics of history. I’m not just talking about a historian is a Democrat or a Republican or something like that, I’m talking about the way historical interpretation both reflects and helps to shape the politics of the present, the time that is the historian is writing in.

For many, many years, certainly into the, well past the middle of the 20th century, what we call the old or standard view of reconstruction dominated historical writing and textbooks and popular thinking. In a nutshell, in a very brief summary, that view saw reconstruction after the Civil War as the lowest point. The low point in the whole saga of American democracy. According to this point of view, which is not taught in schools anymore I don’t think, but is still widely accepted by people who were educated maybe a generation ago, President Lincoln, at the end of the Civil War, just before he was assassinated, wanted to bring the defeated South back into the Union in a lenient and quick manner.

He was assassinated, his policy was continued allegedly by his success, Andrew Johnson. Johnson was thwarted in his effort to reunite the nation by some of the villains of the piece, the radical Republicans in Congress. Either because of his hatred for the South or from another point of view, the desire to fasten the grip of Northern capitalism on the South. These radicals took over Congress, overturned Johnson’s policy, and instituted what we call radical reconstruction based on black suffrage, based on giving black men the right to vote.

Because black people, according to this view, are inherently incapable of intelligently exercising political rights, there followed an orgy of corruption and misgovernment in the South. Presided over by carpet baggers, that is Northerners who went down to the South to reap the spoils of office, and scalawags, who were white Southerners who cooperated with these governments.

Blacks, although it was called black reconstruction before Dubois, they really were not actors, they were more manipulated by others. They were more childlike, and these whites manipulated them in order to get into power. Eventually, groups like the Ku Klux Klan decided enough was enough and overthrew these governments and restored what was politely called home rule, or what we should really call white supremacy, in the Southern states.

What are the politics of this view? This interpretation had an amazing longevity. Historians make their living overturning what previous historians have done. That’s our job, we’re always trying to prove the guy who came before us as wrong. To remain the accepted view of a period of American history for 50 or 70 years, is unheard of. There’s no other era of American history where the same view was dominant in 1900 as in 1960, let’s say.

Impossible. This was true of reconstruction. Why? Because this view of reconstruction was congruent with the racial system of the United States in the Jim Crow era, until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Because what were the lessons of that old view? One, it was a mistake to give black men the right to vote. Reconstruction proved that black men are not capable of voting because they misused the vote. Therefore, any effort to give African Americans back their right to vote, which was taken away around 1900, would just lead to another reconstruction. The alleged horrors of reconstruction were always invoked when efforts were made to expand or restore political democracy, that is to say, in the South.

The history is not taught that way any more. Foner is one of the major figures in that change.

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