Wikipedia Book Burning

I once attempted to correct a Wikipedia article by citing Robert Selph Henry’s 1938 The Story of Reconstruction. The change was automatically rejected by software explaining the book was an unacceptable source. Next, I changed the article’s mistake by citing Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: The Unfinished Revolution, which was published fifty years later.

Born in 1889, Henry grew up in Nashville. His parents lived through Reconstruction. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1911 where his professors knew people who had lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction.* Henry added graduate work at Queens College in Cambridge. He was a lawyer until becoming a leading railroad industry executive. He wrote at least four American history books and a similar number on other topics.Three are still in print.


Modern critics accuse Henry of being ill informed about Reconstruction’s impact on African Americans. Nonetheless, his sources include a good representation of what was available in the 1930s including:

Booker T. Washington: Up From Slavery
John R. Lynch: The Facts of Reconstruction
A. A. Taylor: The Negro in the Reconstruction of Virginia
Carter Woodson: The Negro in our History
W.E.B. DuBois: Black Reconstruction in America

In contrast, Foner was born in 1943 in New York City and educated at Columbia where it is unlikely he knew anyone who had lived through Reconstruction.* He came of age during the 1960s Civil Rights Era, which influenced his choice of The Unfinished Revolution as his book’s subtitle.

Aside from racial matters, however, Foner’s book includes almost nothing about other “unfinished”—meaning 20th century—aspects of Reconstruction. For example, he ignores lingering Southern poverty. Yet, two-thirds of Southern tenant farmers where whites as late as 1940. According to a report prepared for President Franklin Roosevelt the white tenant farmers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.” When the General Motors CEO reduced his pay  by $160,000 during the Great Depression, the cut was more than all of the income taxes paid by Mississippians in the same year. Even in 1960 eight of the ten poorest states were former Rebel states.

Foner’s 600-page book mentions Union veterans pensions only twice, even though it represented over 40% of the federal budget in the early 1890s. He does not explain that payments did not stop growing until 1921, which was fifty-six years after the war had ended. Nor does he mention that by 1917 the pensions had already exceeded twice the amount of the combined Civil War spending of the federal government and all of the Northern state governments. Finally he seems to be unaware that the taxes former Rebels paid to help fund the pensions were a penalty that would basically have been reparations had the Confederacy been an independent defeated foe.

Given the site’s popularity, banning a book from Wikipedia is equivalent to burning the book. Although Wikipedia may properly challenge opinions in Henry’s book, there is no justification for reflexively rejecting the facts it reveals while automatically accepting Foner’s. A fact is a fact whether it is written in Henry’s book or Foner’s. For those who only want citations from primary sources, then neither Henry nor Foner’s books  should be accepted, but Wikipedia does not require primary sources.

*Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all. — Carlos Eire


My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated



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