The way historians looked at the Reconstruction period after the U.S. Civil War saw a sea change over the course of the twentieth century. From beingThe way historians looked at the Reconstruction period after the U.S. Civil War saw a sea change over the course of the twentieth century. From being seen – and taught to children – as a minor period in American history, a blemish soon erased, things started shifting more and more until today, Reconstruction is broadly understood as one of the pivots of American history (though given how much politics there is around pre-collegiate history teaching, one wonders how broad the understanding really is).
The first wave to land from this tsunami was Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Published in 1935, it pre-dated the widespread reappraisals of the period encouraged by New Left-inflected historiography by three decades. The openly reactionary Dunning School, which taught that not only was Reconstruction a failure, but its failure showed the unfitness of black people for self-governance, was still very much a going concern in the 1930s. The Dunning School’s main competition at that time was “progressive” history from people like Charles and Mary Beard, who refused to look at the racial questions, or even most political questions, involved with the Civil War and Reconstruction at all, consumed as they were with subjecting everything to an analysis that boiled down to clashes of economic interest.
So in 1935, “Black Reconstruction” was a gauntlet thrown at the feet of nearly the entire American historical profession. Du Bois sought to prove that Reconstruction was the key moment of American history and that it was nearly transformative of American democracy in large part due to the action of southern black people. Doing that involved both recreating the social history of the country and examining the war, its immediate aftermath, and the individual states that underwent Reconstruction in detail. As such, the book clocks in a little over 700 pages. It includes sociological analysis, detailed accounting of military and political maneuvers, political and historiographical polemics, excerpts from song and poetry, impassioned rhetorical passages on humanity and the arc of history, and many many block quotes from politicians, historians, and other actors. In terms of history, the closest work I can think of to it is Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution. In terms of reading experience, I would compare it to “Moby-Dick.”
Du Bois’s central thesis is that black people won the Civil War for the North – largely by mounting a “general strike” i.e. mass slave escapes – and that black communities, largely composed of the recently-enslaved, built the first true worker’s democracies in the United States within the Reconstruction-era South. These were always fragile, and were ultimately destroyed by a combination of white Southern revanchist terror and the fecklessness of the Northern capitalist power structure. Not only did this doom the democratic experiment in the South, in Du Bois’s telling; it also doomed real democracy in the United States and the world as a whole, possibly for good, by robbing the world of a multiracial democracy in a world power-center that would oppose both capitalism and white supremacy at once. Instead, we got the world after 1876, when Reconstruction was foreclosed upon- imperialism, inequality, spiraling racism and class struggle, resulting in one world war and well on its way to a second by the time Du Bois finished the work.
This is a heady thesis. It’s a heady work. In the portions where Du Bois lays out his theses, the excitement is palpable. I don’t want to say things drag in the portions where he sees to proving, year by year and state by state, the genuine democratic potential of the largely black-led Reconstruction governments, and the lies that previous historiography had told about them. “Exhaustive” is the word. He leaves nothing to chance, and doesn’t claim false victories. The Gilded Age was a bad era for political corruption, and the Reconstruction governments shared in it- but not any more than any other part of American government, and probably less than white-dominated ones. Du Bois busts through generations of lies, exposing them as having been brittle from the start- my favorite is how anti-Reconstruction historians bitterly rang their hands over the debts incurred by the Reconstruction governments… as though they weren’t in charge of rebuilding a war-ravaged country and often starting the first public schools and other basic functions of governance in their respective states. This is why the antebellum (and post-Reconstruction) South was such a beaux ideal to libertarians like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard- a lack of public spending meant no public infrastructure which meant the rich were the only ones with education and the poor (and black) stayed downtrodden.
Most interesting to me are the parts where Du Bois explores the stark dynamic between the intransigence of the problems of racism and oppression, and the radicalness of the solutions brought forth. Lincoln would have been fine uniting the country without freeing the slaves, even if he ultimately wanted slavery to end- most of the Northern public felt the same way. But winning the war was impossible without freeing the slaves. Moreover, as Du Bois and other historians of Atlantic slave abolition point out, there were numerous ways to end a given slave system in ways that minimized inconvenience to the white elite. The British experimented with a number of programs involving apprenticeship, property qualifications for voting, etc. to manage the black masses in their Caribbean colonies- that endless generativity of forms that liberalism displays when presented with a population to manage. None of this would go forward in the American South. The planter class was adamant about reestablish slavery under another name, with no franchise or social escape valve for black people. Between Northern disinclination to have the results of the war overturned, and black and working class organizing, they went the only other route available- civil rights and the franchise, without the sort of hemming in you see elsewhere, and which Du Bois argues many of the freedmen probably would have accepted if it meant moving forward peacefully. Revanchism created revolution, and vice-versa, a familiar dialectic.
“Black Reconstruction” is many things. It’s a reimagining of a given era. It’s a challenge to the historians of its day (and ours!). It’s an impassioned polemic. It’s a monument- along with providing the weight of evidence needed to take on an entrenched historical belief, all of Du Bois’s accountings of the various Reconstruction governments were efforts to give due homage to honorable people and movements for democracy, ignored or defamed by history. It’s an integration of one of the most American of American stories – the Civil War, the great American myth, and Reconstruction, the great American lost hope – into a broader global history of revolution and counterrevolution. It’s something of a slog, admittedly, but well worth it for anyone who really wants to know American history. *****