In times of great political uncertainty like today, we often look to the past to see if it is any balm or comfort. Those of us who are very troubled by today’s political landscape can be comforted that now is not the worst it has ever been. A faithful and truthful study of what came before us is the responsibility of those who compile such a record, but sadly partisan politics and spin creeps even into what is supposed to be objective fact. A period that noted Southern historian C. Vann Woodward sagaciously proclaimed had too much irony mixed in with the tragedy to be anyone’s Golden Age is front and center once again.
Eric Fonter’s 2004 book Forever Free is a study of a highly misunderstood period of American History known as Reconstruction. Most of us have been taught that it was an effort undertaken to rebuild the former Confederate States following the Civil War. It was designed to give recently freedmen and freedwomen the right to vote and to build a lasting society based on egalitarianism and racial uplift. It failed miserably, as the conventional narrative goes, whereupon white Southerners reestablished a society based on white supremacy.
The conclusion is more or less accurate, but it overlooks substantial reforms that even resentful whites couldn’t fully roll back. State-funded public schools are one legacy of Reconstruction, though from their outset they were always kept strictly segregated. Northern reformers (carpetbaggers) and their Southern compatriots (scalawags) pushed for necessary changes, but rarely with one voice. A Republican Party divided into moderates and self-proclaimed radicals rarely agreed on much.
The past doesn’t really repeat itself. That’s a particularly persistent historian’s fallacy that usually passes unchallenged by most Americans. But it is true that reform measures of any flavor always face a stiff headwind and are frequently opposed by a stultifying combination of political action and individual sentiment. These polarized times are not unique, but they are no less troubling.
The Presidential Election of 1872 was a referendum on the nation-building effort in Dixie.
[Newspaperman Horace Greeley] was certainly an odd choice as the reformers’ candidate for President. Greeley had a history of erratic judgment. Realizing that the Republicans’ split offered them a golden opportunity to repair their political fortunes, Democrats endorsed Greeley (a difficult decision, since he had spent much of his political career denouncing the Democratic Party).
Many Democratic voters could not stomach their party’s official candidate, who, at one time or another during his long career, had referred to Democrats as “murderers, adulterers, drunkards, cowards, liars, and thieves.”The difference between those times and our own is that we are not, strictly speaking, in the midst of a revolution. Wars of any lasting duration turn societies upside down. Though it would still be a stretch to proclaim, these crazy days might be better termed a period of counter-revolution. The candidacy of Donald Trump has brought to the forefront once more the disenfranchisement fears of whites wary of losing their political power. This is not a new concept, as it dates back more than a century and a half and arguably from the beginning of our country. Regardless of whether or not these anxieties are grounded in sanity, they are very real to those who fear change and progress. Perception, once again, is reality.
One-hundred years ago, a blockbuster film was released to the public. It was entitled Birth of a Nation, and despite the archaic construction and rudimentary film grammar that might bore today’s audience, it encapsulated the fears of White America. Black elected representatives forced down the throats of Southern whites were autocratic, buffoonish, incompetent tyrants. These representatives of color defiled the decorum of political civility, locking the “helpless” Caucasian minority completely out of the deliberative process of governing.
History proves this characterization as patently false, but it is a particularly persistent myth. Even in the Reconstruction South, whites kept most of the reins of power. It is true that black citizens were given the rights of franchise, but only a few Southern states like South Carolina were comprised of black majorities. If we fast-forward a century, we find in Trump supporters a severe fear of bottom rail now on top, of subjugation by those previously enslaved. Today, every black or brown person who profits from Affirmative Action or preferential treatment in some form is an easy target of white hostility.
These fault lines are carved into the American character, no matter whether they are invoked directly or by dog-whistle. Mutual trust and understanding are the only way this latter-day Apartheid will ever be set aside forever. The North failed the entire country by inaction, by withdrawing troops and resources when a weary public wanted normality.
And, even more paradoxically, the North tried to make the South into its own imagined image of perfection without doing the same for itself. A single standard that included every American was needed then, and it is needed now. Until it does, the words on parchment paper that speak about equality are merely unfulfilled rhetoric. We can do better.