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john david smith 12 chapter One Reconstruction Historiography An Overview john david smith In 1901 Woodrow Wilson, then teaching political science at Prince­ ton University, commented that after thirty years, the time was ripe to study the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War, “not as partisans, but as historians.” Although Reconstruction still remained an incendiary subject for many Americans, “like a banked fire, still hot and fiery within,” historians nonetheless were up to the task. Reconstruction was “a period too little studied as yet,” Wilson noted, but one that could “be judged fairly enough, with but a little tolerance, breadth, and moderation added to the just modicum of knowledge.” The topic was essential, he insisted, for understanding constitutional change between 1860 and 1876 but, more importantly, for grasping the implications for American life in the twentieth century . “The national government which came out of Reconstruction was not the national government which went into it.”1 The following year David Yancey Thomas, a Kentuckian then working on his doctorate at Columbia University, surveyed what he termed “The South and Her History.” Paraphrasing one of his professors, John W. Burgess, the Tennessee-born, German-educated founder and dean of Columbia’s School of Political Science, Thomas wrote that because the North won the Civil War, northerners were entitled to write the history of the antebellum period. Burgess reasoned that generally, “the victor can and will be more lit12 Reconstruction Historiography 13 eral, generous, and sympathetic than the vanquished.” Conversely, Thomas explained, “the history of reconstruction must be written by Southerners, who were the ultimate victors in that life-and-death struggle.” Thomas went on to explain that Reconstruction constituted one of the most attractive areas of research for his generation of graduate students. “The scientific spirit of the universities,” he wrote, “has largely divested them of inherited passions and prejudices , and they are going at the task of writing history with a simple desire to discover and tell the truth.” He cited as an example James W. Garner’s revised Columbia doctoral dissertation, published as The Reconstruction of Mississippi (1901), which was welcomed by reviewers North and South. “Doctors’ theses dealing with such subjects are appearing every year,” Thomas explained.2 In 1908, Thomas praised Peter Joseph Hamilton’s The Reconstruction Period: The History of North America, stating that “it is refreshing to find at last a southern historian who has the courage to say that slavery was the cause of the war. It is still more refreshing to find one who does not burden his pages with recriminations, hurling back at those who love to dwell on the enormities of slavery and the heinousness of secession a double return for the immorality and criminality of reconstruction. However, this is already growing rare.”3 Eighteen years later, however, Thomas set forth his own view of Reconstruction in chauvinistic terms. After recounting Reconstruction ’s overthrow in Arkansas, he wrote that “the nightmare of carpet-bag rule was over and Arkansas breathed the air of freedom once more.”4 Thomas’s point underscores the correctness of Wilson’s observation: post–Civil War writings on Reconstruction smacked of intense partisanship. Maine’s James G. Blaine, one of the leading Republican politicians of the period, best exemplifies the northern perspective. In Twenty Years of Congress (1893), Blaine unabashedly blamed white southerners during Reconstruction for failing to show good faith toward the freedman, refusing to guarantee him “the inherent rights of human nature,” and thereby alienating northerners. Blaine took pains to condemn the Black Codes of the various former Confederate states, laws that he believed whites passed in order to restore john david smith 14 slavery “in a modified form.” This “objectionable and cruel legislation ” signified a slap in the face to the “liberal and magnanimous tenders of sympathy from the National Administration.” Blaine also criticized Andrew Johnson’s lenient policies toward the former Confederate states. The president, Blaine asserted, “quietly ignored the facts of secession, the crime of rebellion, the ruthless sundering of Constitutional bonds which these States had attempted.” Blaine charged Johnson with ignoring “the immense losses both of life and property which they had inflicted upon the Nation, and gave no consideration to the suffering which they had causelessly brought upon the people.” “History and just judgment of mankind will vindicate the wisdom and the righteousness of the Republican policy,” he stated, “and that vindication will always carry the condemnation of Andrew Johnson.”5 Blaine praised the Republicans for restoring the Union on...


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