(December 25, 2018) In Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel Timeline a trio of anthropologists travel back to medieval France. After arriving they discover that some of their period research was erroneous. When an interviewer asked Crichton about this he replied:
. . . all history is contemporary history. That is, every generation remakes the past into some form that suits the present time. But this means that all our understanding of history, like all our understanding of science, is provisional. It’s likely to change. It does change.
Consequently, after the civil rights movement of the 1960s the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction shifted toward a demonization of white Southerners. By extrapolating the interpretations of historians such as James McPherson and Eric Foner, today’s culture portrays Southern whites as obsessed with physically abusing slaves in the antebellum era and terrorizing the freedman for decades after Appomattox. While we cannot travel back in time to test such portrayals, we may get a more accurate picture by comparing the modern viewpoints to the narratives of earlier historians.
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Frustrated by the increasingly benevolent portrayals of Castro’s Cuba, for example, Yale professor Carlos Eire who escaped the regime as a boy in the early 1960s put it this way: “Show me history untouched by memoirs and you show me lies. . . Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.” To be sure, all earlier narratives cannot be taken at face value. Biased authors are not restricted to any time period. However, respected historians of an earlier era worked in an environment where recollections of the War and Reconstruction were at least powerful echoes and sometimes even living memories.
Consider David Herbert Donald who was an emeritus history professor at Harvard until his death in 2009. Donald was born in Mississippi in 1920. As a boy he may have known some seniors who lived through the War and many more that could remember Reconstruction. He was undeniably aware of the state’s poverty that lasted at least a century after Appomattox.
Yet, by his own admission, Professor Donald was not biased in favor of the South. He cited slavery as the main cause of the war and condemned the region’s protracted racism. He was unaware if he had any Confederate ancestors. His paternal grandfather moved to the state from Vermont after the War in order to teach school for the Freedmen’s Bureau. “Grandad was,” said Professor Donald, “a proud abolitionist” before and during the War.
Nonetheless, Donald perceptively criticized Eric Foner’s now dominant Reconstruction textbook when it was released thirty years ago. Foner’s text, he noted, “overidealized the black community.” Additionally, he correctly mentioned that Foner’s book was “so lacking in sympathy for all Southern whites that their problems receive[d] none of the thoughtful analysis and sympathetic understanding . . . [given] . . . to issues that confronted blacks.” Finally he observed that Foner’s “Readers will not understand that most ex-Confederates were not involved in lynchings, terrorism, and Ku Klux Klan vigilantism . . . to which [Foner] devotes so much attention. Instead they lived hardscrabble lives, attempting to restore a region devastated by war.”
Since Donald’s remarks don’t conform to the currently dominant viewpoints, readers may search Google in vain to find the quotes.* Moreover, our culture would likely label as racist anyone with lesser status who might make similar points. Yet Donald’s opinions seem valid. Consider, for example, that only last moth the New York Times published an Op-Ed by two academic historians advocating a National Park Service Memorial to Reconstruction, which completely ignored the experience of white Southerners except as oppressors of freed blacks.
*Book Review Digest (Hackensack, N.J.: H. W. Wilson, 1988), 572