Academic scholarship regarding U.S. history has gone through several phases. After the failure of Reconstruction, scholarship went through a very reactionary period. Beginning in the 1890’s, William Dunning of Columbia and a host of his students spread the view that Reconstruction was the shame of U.S. history and represented military despotism, the evil of “Africanization,” and unrestrained corruption against which a noble but defeated South tried to defend itself. Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929) was the most influential work of this ilk.
Ulrich Phillips presented a view of slavery as relatively benign. Slaves were well treated and well fed, and the system was productive. Justin Smith presented a view of the Mexican War in which the arrogant Mexicans were totally to blame. These reactionary and pro-Southern views of U.S. history dominated the academies and formed the basis for the teaching of U.S. history in high schools and universities for decades following.
The Civil War was regarded as some terrible mistake in which the issue of slavery was minor. Abolitionists had been self-seeking rabble-rousers whose comments on slavery and the politics of their day can be ignored. The defamation of the radical Republicans, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, etc., as power mad psychotics became a cottage industry.
Even in those days there were other voices. In 1913 John R. Lynch, former slave and later congressman from Mississippi, wrote The Facts of Reconstruction in which he tried to tell some truth, but his excellent work was lost in a sea of racist “scholarship.” A few words from the introduction to a reprint of his book are instructive:
“These scholars contended that the Reconstruction governments in the South were controlled by base, power-hungry carpetbaggers and scalawags who cynically used the newly enfranchised blacks to gain power and to sustain their debauchery in office. Without the votes of naive and illiterate Negroes, who were easily led to the polls to vote the Radical ticket, these scoundrels would never have had an opportunity in any of the states to plunder the public treasuries and incite blacks against whites, according to the Dunning-school historians.
“Therefore the fundamental mistake in the Radical or congressional plan of Reconstruction was the enfranchisement of the freedmen. Happily, however, according to the established version of the story, during the mid-1870’s decent whites in both sections of the nation rose in indignation over the spoliation of the Southern states, and through the heroic efforts of local Democrats the Radical Republican regimes were overthrown and good government restored.”
After 1960 a new wind blew in the colleges and a number of honest scholars began to chip away at the mountain of pro-Southern reactionary propaganda that still dominated. C. Vann Woodward, Eugene D. Genovese and James M. McPherson are prominent. Other outstanding names are Kenneth Stampp, George Fredrickson and Herbert Gutman, not to mention John Hope Franklin, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Henrietta Buckmaster, and other black scholars.
So what is missing? Hasn’t everything been straightened out? I don’t believe so. Let’s take the issue of the nature of slavery. In 1974 a Harvard scholar, Robert Fogel, wrote Time On the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a study of slavery based on “cliometrics” which is a computerized technique of examining statistical data. Fogel concluded that slave labor was more efficient than free labor and hence more productive. The slaves were well off and better fed than free workers in the North. Fogel has written a new work in 1989 expanding on this theme. C. Vann Woodward has reviewed Fogel’s new book and seems at a loss to know how to criticize it even if he seems uncomfortable with Fogel’s conclusions.
In the meantime, Fogel and his new toy, cliometrics, are the rage in academic circles and a new generation of scholars using the technique are collecting their PhDs at Harvard and are fanning out around the country. I asked a Harvard history student if the slaves’ own view of slavery might not paint a different picture of how well off they were. Patiently he explained to me that the slaves’ stories were largely taken down by abolitionists, and of course nothing they wrote can be believed! How, one might ask, could the words of slaves hold up to data manipulated by a computer? One might also ask in studying the Holocaust if it would be permissible to consider the recollections of the survivors, whose views would obviously be biased, or only the views of the guards and administrators who ran the camps?
Thirty years of new scholarship haven’t had much effect on the views of history taught in our schools, although there has been some correction. For instance, students of Mexican history at Stanford U. are now taught that the Mexican War was started with an unprovoked attack by U.S. forces ordered by President Polk. Well, that’s true, but it is not enough. What were the class forces that caused the Mexican War? The new scholars not only fail to answer such questions, but consider such a question improper.
The best academic scholars are committed to a view of history that regards any kind of economic determinism as quaint. History is regarded basically as narrative. There was no bourgeois revolution in England. The French Revolution had many causes, but it was not a clash between class forces. The view that struggles between classes is a determining factor in history is Marxist fantasy. In fact in the sense that Marx meant, there are no classes.