Posted on December 13, 2021

Reconstruction Revisionism

Helen Andrews, American Conservative, December 11, 2021

The wholesale reinterpretation of history around a left-wing narrative about race, which the 1619 Project is trying to accomplish for the rest of the American story, was first trialed on the history of Reconstruction. For most of the 20th century, Reconstruction was seen as a squalid and shameful coda to the Civil War when Northern Radicals and carpetbaggers enacted their wildest fantasies of humiliation and spoliation on a prostrate South. Starting in the 1960s, a group of revisionist historians began arguing that Reconstruction had actually been a noble experiment in interracial democracy, too quickly abandoned. It is noteworthy that this line started being touted only after the last people with firsthand memories of Reconstruction had died.

The ur-text of this revisionist school is W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), now reissued in a deluxe edition by the Library of America. {snip}

{snip} Du Bois was no historian. He consulted only limited sources and did no original archival research {snip}

{snip} The version of Reconstruction history that Du Bois presents is based on motivated reasoning and tendentious distortions of the evidence. {snip}

To begin with a simple example, Du Bois attempts to refute one of the major accusations against the Reconstruction state legislatures, that they were profligate and corrupt. {snip}

Perhaps the figures do not prove theft but they certainly suggest it. Between 1868 and 1872, the South Carolina legislature appropriated $200,000 for furniture; when auditors examined the State House in 1877, only $17,715 worth of furniture (in original prices) was found; in 1890, the whole House chamber was refurbished for $3,061. Expenditure on champagne and whiskey for the Columbia State House was $125,000 in a single year, equivalent to about $1.5 million today. Other states, such as Louisiana, saw tenfold increases in their budgets relative to prewar averages. Du Bois suggests this money might have been “spent carefully and honestly upon legitimate and necessary matters of restoration and government.” {snip}

When he does acknowledge that corruption occurred, Du Bois draws a false equivalence between carpetbag governments and their corrupt northern contemporaries, which included urban machines like Tammany Hall. The absurdity of this comparison can be easily illustrated: During the years of Reconstruction, Tammany-controlled New York saw the opening of Central Park and Prospect Park and groundbreaking on the Brooklyn Bridge, three all-time marvels of urban engineering. North Carolina, by contrast, spent tens of millions of dollars on railroads that were never built. {snip}

If budget numbers are not eloquent enough, we also have the testimony of thousands of Southerners in books, diaries, and letters describing legislators who openly sold their votes for cash and judges who refused to convict thieves who were caught red-handed unless the victim paid the going rate for justice. Du Bois discounts this eyewitness evidence as worthless. {snip}

This is how all Reconstruction revisionists must treat primary sources, as so many lies and delusions. {snip} When Southerners write over and over that undisciplined “militias” of armed freedmen made them feel unsafe, drilling in the middle of the street and intimidating local Democrats confident in their immunity from legal consequences, it may be that these fears were partly motivated by racial prejudice. But Du Bois is glib to write off all the evidence this way. In Gaston County, North Carolina, the Union League came to town and, soon after, 28 white farmers had their barns burned down in a single week, leaving the victims destitute and near starvation. {snip}


The plain truth is that Reconstruction was bad, objectively bad. It was a time of school commissioners who signed their names with an X, tax collectors who pocketed huge sums for private use, tinpot tyrants who had citizens court-martialed and sent to the Dry Tortugas for the crime of insulting the Republican Party. The only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.


Reconstruction has been called a piece of the 20th century that fell into the 19th. It certainly bears a resemblance to the postcolonial regimes that arose in Africa in the 1960s, both in the ruin that followed and in the how-dare-you reaction of defenders who insist that any more gradual path would have been an unspeakable moral enormity. Recently we have seen a push to do for the last 400 years what Du Bois and his heirs did for Reconstruction: rewrite history so that good is bad, heroes are villains, and the solution to every problem no matter the circumstances is to give money and power to racial minorities. If that push succeeds, it may equally be said in the future that Reconstruction historiography was a piece of the 21st century that fell into the 20th.