Fraser and Amer­ican Scholarship on the Black Question

By David Dreiser

Continued from left column

This crass empiricism did not always dominate U.S. schol­ar­ship. There used to be at least a counter-current of materialism that had legitimacy as in Charles Beard’s day. But, if anything, meth­odology has deteriorated since then. For instance, Kenneth Stampp has written The Era of Re­con­struc­tion, 1865-1877 (1965) as a total revision of the Dunning school. His work is excellent in many ways, but he says, “DuBois’s attempt at a full-scale re­vi­sion­ist study, Black Re­con­struc­tion (New York, 1935), is disappointing. Though rich in empirical detail, the book presents a Marxian interpretation of southern reconstruction as a pro­le­tar­ian movement that is at best naive. The Marxist his­to­ri­an James S. Allen in Re­con­struc­tion: The Battle for Democracy, 1865-1876 (New York, 1937) offers an interpretation that is more credible but equally schematic.”

It is no longer necessary to refute Marxism which is simply dismissed as naive, quaint and schematic. In spite of this I believe a thorough class analysis has been written regarding Re­con­struc­tion by Eric Foner. His Re­con­struc­tion: America’s Un­finished Rev­olu­tion 1863 -1877 (1988) is Marxist in content if not in name and meets the most strict demands of schol­ar­ship.

Who has spoken in like voice for the antebellum period? Dick felt no one has, that is no one lately. Charles Beard was accused of being a Marxist in his economic interpretation of the Constitution, but he replied that if so, then so was James Madison from whom he drew much of his “economic” view. In like manner Dick’s and my view of the period between say 1776 and 1860 is drawn very large­ly from Horace Greeley, Charles Sumner, John A. Logan (The Great Conspiracy: Its Origin and History [1885]), Henry Wilson, Benjamin Lundy (The War in Texas [1836]) and other radical Republicans and abolitionists. I submit that their penetrating analy­ses of the events of their day have never been refuted, but have been dismissed and forgotten.

Even today the abolitionists are regarded in schol­ar­ly circles with great suspicion. People com­mit­ted to a cause cannot be objective observers or com­men­ta­tors, it is said. Black scholars have large­ly tackled the issue of restoring the role of slaves and black leaders to proper perspective. A class analysis has large­ly been absent. In a sense Dick wanted to restore the views and schol­ar­ship of the radicals of those days. That is not an unworthy purpose.

A brief word about “revisionism” may be needed. Kenneth Stampp regards himself and other post-1960 liberal scholars as re­vi­sion­ists, that is compared with the Dunning school. But, Dunning a gen­era­tion before had considered himself a re­vi­sion­ist of the views of the mid-19th century. Robert Fogel might be called a new re­vi­sion­ist of the re­vi­sion­ists of the re­vi­sion­ists. I think it is better not to use the term.

I know that a lot of “Marxists” in our movement have tended to take schol­ar­ship lightly. Substituting theory for research, they generalize at the drop of a hat. However, it is not always necessary for research to be original to be used in a valid general analysis. For instance Edward Diener is a U. of Illinois scholar who wrote a commentary on U.S. history (Reinterpreting U.S. History [1975]). The book is not annotated and makes no pretense of original schol­ar­ship. His book just expresses a point of view which is an altogether legitimate practice. His view happens to be fairly conservative. Dick wanted to make reasonable use of available schol­ar­ship to express a point of view about U.S. history.

Briefly, Dick’s view was that after the invention of the cotton gin the slave system took on new life and the compromise between the planters and the merchant capitalists in the North and expressed in the U.S. Constitution fell apart. The planters wanted state power for themselves, and effectively won it with the election of Andrew Jackson. In the main, they con­trolled the presidency and Congress from then until 1860. Their power was based on a class alliance between themselves and the free farmers of the North who had similar interests on some ques­tions such as soft money and low tariffs.

This alliance operated to stunt the growth of capitalism. The power of the planters was expressed through their control of the Dem­ocrat­ic Party. The Whig “opposition” was about as effective as the Dem­ocrat­ic opposition to the Republicans today. The subservience of the Whigs gave the planters effective state power.

When the abolitionists spoke of the Slave Power they were not being inflammatory but analytical.

The Republican Party was a rev­olu­tionary party which led the nation through the Civil War to an overthrow of planter power and the ascendency of the capitalist state. The failure of that social rev­olu­tion to proceed through Re­con­struc­tion to a res­olu­tion of the land ques­tion in the South by giving land and the franchise to the freedmen set the stage for the racist nation we have inherited.

Dick would have wanted to cover a broad sweep going on to the aftermath of Re­con­struc­tion, but that is all over with his passing. But, certainly it is appropriate to finish his beginning treatment cov­er­ing the ascendency of the Slave Power.

I further believe that the best of current ac­adem­ic scholars have not told Dick’s story. They have made a major effort to reduce the blatant racism that domi­nat­ed the academies for 80 years, but in meth­od, empiricism is today more dominant in the study of history than ever before.

David Dreiser
16 April 1990

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.