Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag During Radical Reconstruction (review)
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Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag During Radical Reconstruction. By Benjamin Ginsberg. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 219. $50.00 cloth)

It is surprising that so little has been written on Franklin J. Moses, governor of South Carolina at the height of Radical Reconstruction. A 1933 article by Robert H. Woody and a 1950 undergraduate thesis is about it, until now, when Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, has written this full-length study. Historians of Reconstruction should applaud the fact that someone has at last taken the trouble to draw scholarly attention to such an important and little-understood figure, but they should also chastise themselves for not having done it already. As worthy as the topic is, however, the book will frustrate most scholars of the period. Ginsberg situates this work as a study of an important figure of southern Jewry, which is fair enough, except that Moses was an Episcopalian whose father (but not mother) was Jewish. The claim that Moses's political opponents despised him because he was a Jew is never convincingly argued. The attacks on his political record as a Republican who embraced African Americans as political supporters and as social equals were made by New York newspapers, not his South Carolina neighbors. For conservative Southerners, it was enough to damn him that he was white and accepted black people as equals; compared to that, murdering Jesus was small beer.

Ginsberg provides a good overview of Moses's life and career as the son of a successful lawyer and judge in Sumter, a supporter of secession whose war career fizzled, a postwar newspaper editor, and then as a politician who came first to grudgingly accept and then wholeheartedly endorse black political participation. In the discussion of Moses's role in the 1868 Constitutional Convention [End Page 143] and as Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Ginsberg does a good job of explaining the importance of land policy, which Moses agitated for, and his discussion of Moses's governorship covers the finance problems which the South Carolina government faced very effectively.

Unfortunately, these strengths in no way make up for the many flaws of a book clearly written far outside the author's field. There are admittedly few good bodies of primary sources on Moses to work from, but even conceding that, this is a work with a very thin documentary base. Much of it is recapitulation of secondary literature, and not recent literature either. By ignoring most of the outstanding scholarship on Reconstruction since Foner, except sometimes to extract a fact about Moses, Ginsberg misses the opportunity to put this portrait of Moses in a meaningful context that could tell us something of interest about the man and his period. It is extraordinary, in 2010, to publish the statement, "freedmen had no education or political experience" (p.128). As disturbing, and indicative of the weakness of the book as a whole, are the plain errors of fact: Edgefield County does not border North Carolina; Rufus Sexton [sic]; "Frank S. Reynolds" for historian "John S. Reynolds"; "1867 congressional elections" (pp. 28, 91, 124, 90). Much of the text lacks clear citations to its sources, and many of the endnotes cite an entire book or article without page numbers. The press is culpable as well for letting this through. The book also has no bibliography; to my mind, a book with no bibliography can never be taken seriously as scholarship. Ginsberg and Johns Hopkins University Press have done the field of Reconstruction history a service by publishing a book that reminds us of the need for a good study of Franklin J. Moses. [End Page 144]

Bruce E. Baker

Bruce E. Baker teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of London in London, England. He is the author of What Reconstruction Meant: Historical Memory in the American South (2007) and is currently researching labor history during Reconstruction in upstate South Carolina.

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