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A History Blog by W. E. Skidmore II

Archive for April, 2013

Slowly but Surely

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Hi everyone,

My paper is coming along…slowly.  This week I have added my summary of Du Bois and introduction to my first section (Revisionist).  Du Bois was very difficult to summarize, mostly because this work covers several topics and does not have a clear thesis.  Nevertheless, I have attempted to outline his major arguments.  If you think I should add or take away anything from this section, please let me know.

This is a direct continuation from from last section.


I also want to provide a brief overview of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (which I will expand on throughout this essay).[1]  It is difficult to summarize Black Reconstruction because it covers such a broad range of topics.  Nevertheless, this works has three overarching arguments, which I will expand on throughout this work.  First, blacks were central agents in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  During the Civil War, for example, African Americans went on a “general strike.”  “It was a strike,” Du Bois writes, “on a general basis against the conditions of work.  It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people.  They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.”[2]  Du Bois is clearly ascribing agency to African Americans and bringing them to the forefront of the Civil War and Reconstruction narratives, which is a continuous theme throughout his work.

The second argument Du Bois makes suggests that labor and property were the central issues at the heart of Reconstruction.  For Du Bois, the question of who would work for whom, and under what conditions fueled the hostilities between whites and blacks in the South.  “The emancipation of man,” Du Bois opines, “is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.”[3]  Using a Marxian approach, Du Bois places Reconstruction and emancipation within the larger history of labor, the worldwide struggle between the owners and workers.  He even titled two of his chapters “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina” (chapter 10) and “Counter Revolution of Property” (chapter 14).

Finally, Du Bois argues that Reconstruction was a “splendid failure.”  Du Bois sheds light on the paradox of the working class’s failure to unite against rich elite planters in the South.  Instead, poor whites “clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, not unity of poor against rich, or of worker against exploiter.”[4]  Northern labor parties never accepted freedpeople, while white southern elites prevented the white and black working classes from joining forces.  Put in a different light, the failure of Reconstruction was the failure of biracial democracy.  “The attempt to make black men American citizens was in certain sense all a failure,” Du Bois comments, “but a splendid failure.”[5]  It was a “splendid failure,” because the defeats (Black Codes and sharecropping) encountered by freedpeople outweighed the achievements (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and black education) of Reconstruction.

Revisionist scholars first returned to W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in the 1960s.  This generation of scholars argued, among many things, that the “negro rule” was a myth (southern whites still held the majority in state legislatures, Alexander Stephens was back in the House of Representatives by 1873), Reconstruction provided education and political participation to freedpeople, and helped the South transition from slave to wage labor.  Like Du Bois, Revisionists paid greater attention to African Americans’ collective efforts to achieve autonomy and unity.  Although these historians were aware of the conflicts within black communities, they overlooked such divisions in order to demonstrate the “agency” and power of freedpeople.  In other words, Revisionists, like Du Bois, set out to prove that African Americans had agency in both emancipation and Reconstruction.  Joel Williamson’s After Slavery (1965), Kenneth Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction (1967), and Robert Cruden’s The Negro in Reconstruction (1969) are three representative works from this generation of historians.[6]


[1] Although the Dunning School dominated the historiographical field, African-American scholars were not silent.  Goaded by works such as Bower’s Tragic Era, Du Bois secured a five thousand dollar grant from the Rosenwald Fund and a supplementary grant from the Carnegie Corporation to write Black Reconstruction.  In 1935, Du Bois published his masterpiece, which sold a modest 1,984 copies in 1938.  White historians of Reconstruction, however, argued that this lengthy monograph’s “temper is as bad as the sources” (Craven Review, 535).  For reviews of Du Bois’ work see: Avery Craven, Review of Black Reconstruction, in The American Journal of Sociology, 41 (January 1936), 535-536; Merton Coulter, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Georgia Historical Quarterly, 20 (March 1936), 95; Arthur Cole, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 23 (September 1936), 278-280; and Benjamin Kendrick, Review of Black Reconstruction, in Southern Review, 1 (Winter 1936), 540-550.  Despite the harsh and biased reviews, Du Bois’ study was replete with insight and revolutionary ideas (which scholars noticed three decades later) such as slavery was the fundamental cause of the Civil War, freedpeople were agents in emancipation and Reconstruction, and issues of property and labor were central to the conflicts over Reconstruction.  It is also important to note that although Black Reconstruction was never reviewed in American Historical Review and most scholars agree that Black Reconstruction was “largely ignored by the historical profession until the 1960s” (Foner, Nothing But Freedom), some scholars such as David Levering Lewis have argued that historians did not ignore this work.  See David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Holt, 2000), chapter 10.  For sales of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, see Leon Litwack and Kenneth Stampp, Reconstruction: An Anthology of Revisionist Writings (Baton Rough: Louisiana Press, 1969), 428-430.

[2] W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1935), 67.

[3] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 16.

[4] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 130.

[5] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 708.

[6] Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969)


Introduction to Essay

Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Hi everyone,

Here is the introduction to my final essay.  As we move towards the end of the semester, I will start posting sections of my essay on this blog. Feedback is welcomed (on anything).

For this week, I worked on writing the introduction and thesis, while also outlining which books I will review in this work (See footnote 4):

“The Splendid Failure of Reconstruction Historiography”

            In July 1940, Howard Beale published a provocative essay in the American Historical Review where he called for a sweeping reassessment of American Reconstruction.  More specifically, Beale posed the question, “Is it not time that we studied the history of Reconstruction without first assuming, at least subconsciously, that carpetbaggers and Southern white Republicans were wicked, that Negroes were illiterate incompetents, and that the whole white South owes a debt of gratitude to the restorers of white supremacy?”[1]  This question struck at the heart of many basic assumptions of the Dunning School’s understanding of Reconstruction.[2]  Outside of attacking Dunning and his followers, Beale’s essay also drew heavily on a work that many contemporary historians disregarded: W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (1935).  “In describing the Negro’s role,” Beale wrote, “Du Bois has presented a mass of material, formerly ignored, that every future historian must reckon with.”[3]  Beale’s essay correctly assumed that scholars for the next several decades would have to wrestle with questions first posited by Du Bois, especially on issues such as labor relations and black agency during the American Civil War and Reconstruction.

As a scholar, activist, leader of pan-Africanism, and the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois was a towering figure in modern American society.  Until the late 1950s, however, the historical profession largely dismissed Black Reconstruction as serious scholarship.  In fact, this work was never reviewed in the American Historical Review, the profession’s leading journal.  As the Civil Rights Movement gained traction in the United States, however, scholars returned to Du Bois’ study with a new appreciation.  Using his work as a springboard, revisionist historians overturned the Dunning School’s interpretations by placing African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction narrative.  This historiographical essay will trace the influence that W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction had on subsequent generations of historians.  In light of the large corpus of Reconstruction literature, this essay will only review a small representative sample of monographs from three generations of scholars (revisionists, post-revisionists, and modern scholars).[4]  My intention is to understand how Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction has shaped the historiographical field of Reconstruction since the 1960s.

Before continuing, it is important to establish two things.  First, I want to highlight the basic underpinnings of the Dunning School of Reconstruction.  From 1900 to 1950, William Archibald Dunning and his followers established the mainstream narrative of Reconstruction.  Dunning historians often described this period as the “nadir of national disgrace.”[5]  In the Tragic Era (1929), Claude Bowers, for instance, portrayed Reconstruction as a “tragic era” (hence the title) where the “Constitution was treated as a doormat” and southern whites were “put to torture by rugged northern conspirators” (such as Thaddeus Stevens). Bowers, in short, provides a stunning indictment of “Republican rule” in the “black and bloody drama” of Southern Reconstruction.[6]  Other Dunning scholars also illustrated Reconstruction in a similar vein.  They blamed Radical Republicans, northern carpetbaggers, southern scalawags, and freedpeople for the devastating socioeconomic turmoil of the period, while praising white southerners for restoring order to the South (“redemption”).

Second, I want to provide a brief overview of W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (which I will expand on throughout this essay).

My next move is to provide a brief overview of Du Bois’ work and then continue with assessing the the revisionist generation of Reconstruction.  For this, I will examine three work in the next section (outside of Du Bois):

Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967)

Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965)

Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969)


[1] Howard K. Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” American Historical Review, 45 (July 1940): 808.

[2] For Dunning School accounts on Reconstruction see:  William A. Dunning, Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907); Walter Fleming, The Sequel of Appomattox (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919); Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1929); E. Merton Coulter, The South During Reconstruction 1865-1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947).

[3] Although Beale criticized Du Bois for distorting his work in order to “mold facts into a Marxian pattern,” he praised Du Bois for his “race and social philosophy,” which “gave Black Reconstruction freshness.” See Beale, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” 809.

[4] Kenneth Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction 1865-1877 (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction 1861-1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Robert Cruden, The Negro in Reconstruction (New York: Prentice Hall Publishing, 1969); Leon Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1980); Jonathan Wiener, Social Origins of the New South: Alabama 1860-1885 (Baton Rogue: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988); Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2008); Dylan Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Michael Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South, (New York: Ivan R. Dee Publishers, 2008).

[5] Dunning scholars have often described this phase in American history as the “Tragic Era,” “The Age of Hate,” “The Dreadful Decade,” and “The Blackout of Honest Government.”  William A. Dunning, The American Nation: A History; Reconstruction Political and Economic 1865-1877 (New York: Harper Book, 1907), 281.

[6] Claude Bowers, The Tragic Era, vi.