restricted access Reflections on the Historical Society's 2002 Conference
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28 Historically Speaking February 2003 Reflections on the Historical Society's 2002 Conference Notes on a Promising Beginning William W. Freehling I had to leave die Society's Reconstruction conference earlyin order to attend myson's graduation. Consequendy, I can only report on die first half of the conference—and on my exhilaration diat die event seemed to be achieving a promising beginning. Our program committee had hoped to break from die varieties ofpolitical correctness that I believe have inspired—and imprisoned —studies of American Reconstruction for over a century. At least until die Second World War, most historians portrayed Reconstruction in terms of a now incorrect correctness. In dieir accounts, Reconstruction featured too much governance by racial inferiors and accomplished little except spreading corruption. The misguided experiment , according to the "correctness," ended after a long period ofsuffering. Thatsourhistoriography gaveway, in the era ofMartin Luther King,Jr., to a reversed, currendy correct correctness, making Reconstruction into variations on the theme ofblack promise. Mosthistorians nowportrayReconstruction as primarily about die enlightened task ofuphfting blacks. The splendid experiment 's blackgovernors did not dominate diat much. When diéy did preside, diey spread not diat much corruption and much salutary social reform. Their promising beginning ended all too soon. To win die profession's most praise and mostprizes, one need onlylayout, more skillfully and more extensively, that road toward reconstruction, then reunion. No matter that almost everyone already knows die road's broad features. No matter diatdie trail is only die mirror opposite of the same road that almost everyone used to know. Whatever one diinks about die revised moral assumptions—which I applaud— behind die reversed perspective on the road to reconstruction and reunion, I wager diat die new road will somedaybe derided as the same old road witnessed dirough different moral lenses. Future historians will probably conclude that the obsession widi reversing moral slants inhibited the investigation oftrulyfresh trails. Our program committee tried to find papers thatwould glimpse diose potentialnew explorations. We diought it might help to compare American Reconstructionwith odier cultures' reconstruction experiences, to widen the traditional time period of American Reconstruction beyond 1864-1877, to focus harderonwhatAmericans atdie time thought dieywere reconstructing (as opposed to politicallycorrectnotions ofwhat theyshould have been seekingto reconstruct), to lookatreconstructions that were intended to transcend racial matters, and to consider reconstructions that endured beyond the collapse of racial reconstruction. Since I had somediing to do widi arranging die American sessions (and I participated in two ofdiem), I could not attend die nonAmerican sessions. But I diought many ofthe Americanist statements explored promising trails. James Farmer gave us a fresh look at Aiken, South Carolina, by expanding the inquirybeyond 1876 and beyond racial concerns . He uncovered a South partially reconstructed by Northerners who focused on problems beyond racial progress. These Yankees stayed, were accepted, and helped develop a community with a truly hybrid nordiern/soudiern accent. Mark Summers contributed a tale ofnational Reconstruction beyond obsessionwidi blacks. He told ofpartially paranoid national leaders who largely sought to reconstruct a safe white republic without another Slave Power Conspiracy. These leaders cheered the success of dieir white men's Republican Reconstruction (die one diey cared most about, not die one we diink diey should have cared most about). David Moldce-Hansen discussed reconstructions longbefore 1865, stretchingbackto die American Revolution. In a similar quest for wider perspectives, Eugene Genovese wondered how his masterprewar dieme, die slaveholders' Christian paternalism, played out after diere were no more slaveholders. That history ofpostwar southern Christianity, he thought, might teach broader lessons about how a changed ruling class generates changed ruling ideologies . In die same vein, I wondered how some of my master prewar and wartime themes about black leadership and die Border Soudi's a-southernness played out after slavery. What continuities and discontinuities might be uncovered in the personnel and tactics ofthe most successful prewar and wartime black leaders (especially fugitive slaves) and in die relationship of, say, neutralist wartime Kentucky to die main dirust of postwar southern history? Put another way, how and why did neutral Kentucky become reconstructed into a far-from-neutral southern state, and how and why do submerged leaders of an underclass become reconstructed when die nature of submersion...