More on Reconstruction and its Rollback

Eric Foner is perhaps the leading current historian of the Reconstruction period.  Here is what he has to say about its rollback:

"For the nation as a whole, the collapse of Reconstruction was a tragedy that greatly affected the course of its future development.  If racism contributed to the undoing of Reconstruction, by the same token Reconstruction's demise and the emergence of blacks as a disenfranchised class of dependent laborers greatly facilitated racism's further spread, until by the early twentieth century it had become more deeply embedded in the nation's culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our entire history." - Eric Foner, Reconstruction, America 's Unfinished Revolution (Harper & Row, 1988), p. 604.

But a very different view of Reconstruction and its aftermath prevailed in the South during the closing decades of the 19th century and much of the 20th century. Historians of the influential " Dunning School " viewed Reconstruction as a time of unparalleled corruption, when Northern "carpetbaggers," Southern "scalawags" and Radical Republicans lined their own pockets and pursued their political fortunes in the South by exploiting the gullibility of the child-like and ignorant freedmen.  The collapse of Reconstruction restored good order to the South.  

Negative views of Reconstruction dominated school textbooks in both the North and the South until the Civil Rights Movement.    For instance, early editions of Thomas A. Bailey's The American Pageant, one of the most popular textbooks for US history AP courses, described Reconstruction in these terms:

"The sudden thrusting of the ballot unto the hands of the ex-slaves, between 1867 and 1870, set the stage for stark tragedy. As might have been foreseen, it was a blunder hardly less serious than thrusting overnight freedom upon them. Wholesale liberation was probably unavoidable, given the feverish conditions created by war. But wholesale suffrage was avoidable, except insofar as the Radicals found it necessary for their own ends, both selfish and idealistic.

"The bewildered Negroes were poorly prepared for their new responsibilities as citizens and voters. Democracy is a delicate mechanism, which requires education and information. Yet about nine-tenths of the 700,000 adult Negro males were illiterate. When registering, many did not know their ages; and boys of sixteen signed the rolls. Some of these voters could not even give their last name, if indeed they had any. Bob, Quash, Christmas, Scipio, Nebuchadnezzar would take any surname that popped into their heads, often that of " massa ." Sometimes they chose more wisely than they knew. On the voting lists of Charleston , South Carolina , there were forty-six George Washingtons and sixty-three Abraham LincoIns.

"The tale would be amusing were it not so pathetic and tragic....While these pitiable practices were going on, thousands of the ablest Southern whites were being denied the vote, either by act of Congress or by the new state constitutions....

"Goaded to desperation, once-decent Southern whites resorted to savage measures against Negro-carpetbag control. A number of secret organizations blossomed forth, the most notorious of which was the Ku Klux Klan, founded in Tennessee in 1866. Besheeted night riders, their horses' hoofs muffled, would hammer on the cabin door of a politically ambitious Negro. In ghoulish tones one thirsty horseman would demand a bucket of water, pour it into a rubber attachment under pretense of drinking, smack his lips, and declare that this was the first water he had tasted since he was killed at the battle of Shiloh. If fright did not produce the desired effect, force was employed.

"Such tomfoolery and terror proved partially effective. Many Negroes and carpetbaggers, quick to take a hint, were scared away from the polls. But those stubborn souls who persisted in their forward ways were flogged, mutilated, or even murdered." - Thomas A. Bailey, The American Pageant (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966), pp. 475-478. 


How would you describe Thomas Bailey's view of Reconstruction?

How does the US history textbook used in your school portray the period of Reconstruction?

Have you seen the films "Birth of a Nation" or "Gone with the Wind"?  How do you think they helped shape attitudes about the Civil War and Reconstruction?