Some Recent Reading (August 2016)

I do a lot of reading for the blog. You see a great deal of it in the period documents quoted extensively in just about every post. I also read full-length books by modern historians, which appear less frequently as such but always inform my writing. Now and then I even get my hands on journal articles. Astonishingly enough, a history blogger frequently reads history. Often, I have read that history very slowly. Historians can produce excellent prose, but most do not. The job is to communicate information and analysis rather than to have one on the edge of one’s seat with suspense. We all know everybody died at the end. I mostly muddle through, though I possess sufficient quantities of boringness that now and then a book really does grab me.

The past three books have gone rather differently. I developed a system. Did you know they divide books into chapters? I have ignored these things for ages, just reading until I get tired of it and moving on. This produced considerably inconsistency. Sometimes I would read for an hour or two, sometimes ten minutes. Over time I got the sense that often I made no progress through books, which served as a disincentive to continue. Three books back, I decided to try what I do for this blog. You’ve no doubt noticed that I have a preferred length for blog posts. Ideally, they run for about one idea and 300-500 words. I hit the one idea mark rarely, but the words much more consistently. I usually end up between 500 and 600. Wordy nineteenth century authors work against me. Then I stop, most of the time. I often could write more, and sometimes bank a few days ahead, but it feels like a good balance between the willingness of readers to push on in a conventionally short form medium like a blog and my own endurance. I feel done, but not exhausted, when I finish. I have settled on using chapters as a similar benchmark. If I finish a chapter a day, I have done my duty to research and can move on or continue as I like. Gentle Readers, your author has reached the third grade at last.

That dazzlingly complex routine has pushed me along through James Huston’s Calculating the Value of the Union. A genuine slavery scholar recommended it to me. Huston, despite his protests, writes very little new. The South had a massive investment in slave property with which it would not lightly part. What distinguishes his work comes more in the remarkably thoroughness of it. He has economic graphs and charts upon charts, which he carefully walks through in prose sections. Huston approaches the question as an economic historian to an almost maddening degree at points, insisting always on an emphasis in property rights and varying conceptions of them. In other words, antebellum white Southerners considered people an acceptable form of property. At times it verges on recreating the strange theory that great political disputes come down to men discoursing politely in high society, but he pulls from quite crossing the line. As such, Huston wrote a good book that I hesitate to recommend. It features far more numbers than people and discusses almost everything at a highly abstracted level. But if you like that kind of thing, or just love economic graphs, Huston has one hell of a book for you.

From Huston I went to an essay collection: Contesting Slavery: The Politics of Bondage and Freedom in the New American Nation, edited by Matthew Mason and John Craig Hammond. You never know quite what to expect with these, as each chapter comes from a different author and addresses a different topic. I picked it up because I enjoyed Mason’s Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic, which argues persuasively that slavery constituted an important political issue long before either its otherwise anomalous appearance in the Missouri Crisis or the arrival of immediate abolitionism with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s. Mason’s book ends with at Missouri. The essays in Contesting Slavery reach from the 1750s to the 1840s, connecting the antislavery defeat in 1820 with the rise of militant abolitionism in the 30s and the re-emergence of more political antislavery in the 1840s. That puts Garrison and company in a much-needed context.

Along the way I also learned much more about the presence of early slave systems in the Old Southwest, which at least complicates the traditional understanding (which I have shared) that the founders simply chose not to bar slavery from the Lower South west of the Appalachians and so it came. Quite the opposite. Slavery already existed on the ground, if not on the scale that it soon would, and westerners of sometimes doubtful loyalty insisted upon it as the price for their allegiance. The weak federal government of the late eighteenth century had little power to either force them into line or enforce a slavery prohibition even had the will existed, though the will also did not exist.

Every essay has worthwhile things to learn; I heartily recommend the collection.

Which brought me to Eric Foner’s dissertation-turned book: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. I came warily to this book. I respect Foner tremendously as a historian, but his first book came out before my parents left high school and covers ground where you would expect subsequent scholars to frequently tread. I might pick up badly outdated ideas, or just see the original version of thought that has become so standard it appears everywhere; old news either way. I feared in vain. I have no doubt that some points of Foner’s have seen revision, but except for the dated language -Foner often refers to “the Negro” and “the race issue”- and a larger focus on direct political action than one would probably have now, it felt contemporary. Nor did Foner simply talk about ideology, though he organizes his chapters around ideological analysis and only does a chronological narrative within them. Rather Foner gave a relatively detailed account of just how the Republican party formed, warts and all. I saw him call it a book about how to build a political party a few years ago, via youtube, and it really is. The last few chapters even include some trailers for his more famous work on Reconstruction in the limits of Free Labor thought. If you want to understand Lincoln’s party before Lincoln led it, you do yourself a disservice not to get a copy.

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Reading William Dunning

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume

Reconstruction scholarship had hit the news this week, with Hillary Clinton giving her questionable take on the matter. Others have written well on her poor understanding of the era and her decision that, finding herself in a hole, she had best try for China. I don’t propose to retread that ground. The customary recitation of the historiography of Reconstruction might do in its stead; it must lurk in any discussion of the topic just as the historiography of every subject does. I will probably indulge eventually, but today I have in mind something off to one side of that.

Back in fifth grade, during the fall of 1991, I read an American history textbook cover to cover. My teacher suggested it. (Thank you, Mrs. Taylor.) Between its pale blue covers I learned a great deal of history for the first time, Reconstruction included. I still remember the sepia-toned drawing of three men with bags over their heads, members of the Ku Klux Klan. My textbook told me that they used costumes to frighten freedmen away from the polls. The book might have mentioned violence as well, but if so I don’t recall it appearing to any prominent extent. I read about scalawags and carpetbaggers. These had something to do with a thing called Reconstruction, which radical republicans launched to punish the South for the Civil War. My book didn’t tell me that in as many words that Reconstruction deserved opposition and we should cheer its failure, but did make it very clear that black Americans lacked the education and character to participate in government. We had it hard in the Bush years; you had to put things together yourself. I didn’t know then and would not know for more than a decade thereafter that I’d just gotten a dose of the Dunning School. Most everyone still gets plenty of them, hence the ritual condemnations whenever Reconstruction comes up.

I make it my habit, partly as a prophylactic, to read good history before bad. As I’ve yet to undertake a serious study of Reconstruction, until now I’ve opted out of reading anything by William Archibald Dunning, his students, and fellow travelers. Today I made an exception when a lengthy article by the man himself came across my twitter feed. Why not let Dunning speak for himself? I can only scratch the surface of even the article without making this post tediously long or once again making an extended departure from Kansas, but it deserves a look all the same.

Dunning makes no bones about his position, laying it out in the opening paragraphs:

the completion of the reconstruction showed the following situation: (1) the negroes were in the enjoyment of equal political rights with the whites; (2) the Republican party was in vigorous life in all the Southern states, and in firm control of many of them; and (3) the negroes exercised an influence in political affairs out of all relation to their intelligence or property, and, since so many of the whites were disfranchised, excessive even in proportion to their numbers. At the present day, in the same states, the negroes enjoy practically no political rights; the Republican party is but the shadow of a name; and the influence of the negroes in political affairs is nil.

You could hand this list to Eric Foner or any other modern historian of Reconstruction and see them nod along with the facts, save the highlighted portion. From that axiom, all the rest that makes the Dunning School so notorious follows.

Dunning concerns himself often with the political interests of the Republican party in sustaining Reconstruction. He avoids calling partisan interest the chief objective of the undertaking by so narrow a margin as to almost say the opposite in plain terms:

by the time the process was complete, a very important, if not the most important part had been played by the desire and the purpose to secure to the Republican party the permanent control of several Southern states in which hitherto such a political organization had been unknown. This last motive had a plausible and widely accepted justification in the view that the rights of the negro and the “results of the war” in general would be secure only if the national government should remain indefinitely in Republican hands, and that therefore the strengthening of the party was a primary dictate of patriotism.

One can’t quite argue with the facts here either. A Republican government would hardly seek to redeem the cause of the movement which it just defeated. As most southern whites understood Republicans and freedom for black Americans as both utterly inimical to their interests, they would hardly vote the party of Lincoln handy majorities. They just spent four years engaged in a tremendous war where they spent blood, much of it their own, and treasure to save slavery, save white supremacy, and prevent so much as the possibility of a southern wing of the Republican Party. Consequently, any Republican party in the South must depend on black votes for its support.

If this makes the Republicans less than disinterested, altruistic paragons of virtue then we might as well ask if the majority of white Southerners did better. Dunning takes white supremacy for granted, to the point of understanding it as an interest which whites pursued out of conscious partisanship. This would leave him, at best, declaring a plague on both houses. It turns out that human beings don’t comport themselves with perfect virtue. Who knew?

Dunning makes it clear that white supremacy decided things. He considered black Americans too stupid and ignorant to competently manage politics. He doesn’t quite say that they couldn’t manage even basic freedom, but Dunning clearly had some doubts on the subject. However, he argues that Southern whites had more than racial animus informing them. They tried, if at gunpoint, black governance:

The extravagance and corruption of the state administration had become so intolerable to the whites that questionable means of terminating it were admitted by even the most honorable without question.

Dunning spends page after page on the precise mechanics of how to disenfranchise, most of them clearly amused by the ingenuity they involved. Yet he offers only this single line on the famous corruption that helped justify rolling back black freedom. We must take his word for it.

We must also take his word that violence played only a small part. Dunning admits to lynchings, and wrote in their heyday, but paints violence as the exception rather than the rule:

There was relatively little “Ku-Kluxing” or open violence, but in countless ways the negroes were impressed with the idea that there would be peril for them in voting. […] But if a party of white men, with ropes conspicuous on their saddlebows, rode up to a polling place and announced that hanging would begin in fifteen minutes, though without any more definite reference to anybody, and a group of blacks who had assembled to vote heard the remark and promptly disappeared […] Or if an untraceable rumor that trouble was impending over the blacks was followed by the mysterious appearance of bodies of horsemen on the roads at midnight, firing guns and yelling at nobody in particular, votes again were lost

If we bend over backwards on Dunning’s behalf, we might allow him a technical point. We ought to distinguish between intimidation and violence. We should not go further and treat intimidation as innocuous or, as Dunning might like us to, pretend that black Americans heard only empty threats. They could count the lives lost, the scars left, and see who hung from trees just as well as any white person. A threat might very well remain a threat only when they complied. While some whites might have made idle threats, the record argues very strongly that most spoke in deadly earnest. No one could know with confidence until hazarding it at peril of one’s life whether one had a band of blowhards or the local Klavern just looking for an excuse. The distinction between violence carried out and violence merely threatened thus, at the point when one would have to make the decision, proves fleeting.

All of this led to what Dunning considered the natural conclusion:

The negroes, though numerically much in excess of the whites, were very definitely demoralized by the aggressiveness and unanimity of the latter, and in the ultimate test of race strength the weaker gave way.

The corruption might matter, though Dunning could as well have looked at his own New Jersey or Tammany Hall just across the Hudson for examples of that, but ultimately the whites won. Thus we know for a fact that the superior race prevailed. Winners win and losers lose. Had blacks really deserved equality, they would have raped and murdered their way to it just as the whites did. The fact that whites imagined black men as rapists and murderers nearly by definition and arrayed themselves to combat these simultaneously inferior and remarkably puissant foes brings us to one of the inevitable paradoxes of white supremacy: an inferior race which requires such heroic measures to keep in its place hardly seems very inferior.

Dunning goes on, charting the restoration of white supremacy up to the time of writing. Toward the end he expresses his relief that at last, politics have advanced to the point where white Southerners need not apologize or make excuses for their actions. They can cheerfully state their business honestly and in the open:

the stronger faction, headed by Mr. Tillman, promptly took the ground that South Carolina must have a “white man’s government,” and put into effect the new Mississippi plan. A constitutional amendment was adopted in 1895 which applied the “understanding clause” for two years, and after that required of every elector either the ability to read and write or the ownership of property to the amount of three hundred dollars. In the convention which framed this amendment, the sentiment of the whites revealed very clearly, not only through its content, but especially through the frank and emphatic form in which it was expressed, that the aspirations of the negro to equality in political rights would never again receive the faintest recognition.

I don’t know that I can do Dunning’s enthusiasm for the trend the justice it deserves. Dunning never makes his disinterested academic act entirely convincing, but one can almost hear the fanfare sounding in his mind when reading this. He spends paragraph on paragraph, page after page, detailing how white Americans took back from black Americans almost everything they briefly gained. Though Dunning denied the violence, he proudly recounts the trickery, fraud, and legal sophistry deployed over the course of a generation and change to reduce black Americans from at least within sight of political equality to a state near to slavery.

In the end, Dunning unites the past and present:

the ultimate root of the trouble in the South had been, not the institution of slavery, but the coexistence in one society of two races so distinct in characteristics as to render coalescence impossible; that slavery had been a models vivendi through which social life was possible; and that, after its disappearance, its place must be taken by some set of conditions which, if more humane and beneficent in accidents, must in essence express the same fact of racial inequality. The progress in the acceptance of this idea in the North has measured the progress in the South of the undoing of reconstruction. In view of the questions which have been raised by our lately established relations with other races, it seems most improbable that the historian will soon, or ever, have to record a reversal of the conditions which this process has established.

We have come far, if not near so far as we like to tell ourselves. I needn’t delve further back than a few days to find arguments that would make Dunning smile.

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

The Face of Racism Today

We have this stereotype of a racist in white America. The racist, almost always male, embodies just about every trope that we associate with poor white Americans. He comes to us unkempt, wrapped in a Confederate Battle Flag and a white sheet, or a brown shirt and an armband. He nearly always speaks with a southern accent. Such people do exist, just as people who speak with the same accent and fight for racial justice exist. So too to people bearing the totems of success. I’ll have a bit more to say about these upmarket racists tomorrow, but wanted to highlight something I’ve just seen over at Salon.

They had the good sense to ask Eric Foner what he thought about racism in modern America and my sort-of professor had this insight well worth remembering:

The problems of black Americans today, putting aside this terrible event, are rooted in history, but are also rooted in the present. The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo who had been putting blacks into subprime mortgage, until they lost their homes in 2008. It’s the people who will not hire a black person. It’s the people who will not hire a person when they see he has a black-sounding name [on his résumé]. In other words, the point of studying history is to understand its link to the present — but it’s not to displace the problems of the present. It’s not to say this is rooted in history and the slaveowners are responsible for whatever the problem is today.

Our preoccupation with linking things we find disreputable, at least in public, with the trappings of poverty and ignorance both obscures the good work done by good people born in the nation’s most stereotyped region or who didn’t go to elite universities and blinds us to the sophisticated, white collar assaults on the lives of black Americans. We too easily pretend that class has nothing to do with race, ignoring that white Americans have long ensured black Americans remain disproportionately poor. If we condemn racism but do nothing to remedy the economics deprivations and still-extant barriers that drive it, have we done anything at all?

Slavery served as a system of racial control, but enslavers invented race to justify their economic exploitation and bring into solidarity with them poor whites who did not benefit financially from it like the great planters did. We have ended slavery, at least de jure, but the exploitation lives on. Neither removing some flags nor our applauding of the removal will do change that.

Taking an online course

Today I learned, via Kevin Levin, that Columbia is offering an online course in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Eric Foner will teach it. One can audit for free. Eric Foner! Free!

Sold!

I have never done this online course thing before. I don’t know if I’ll care for it or what it will entail, aside watching videos, reading, and taking quizzes. But trying shall cost me nothing and I might gain much. I don’t anticipate that it will slow the pace of blogging, but it may. If so, I’ll try to give advance notice. I like to keep regular about these things.