I recently read a report of a professor who declared that he had come sadly to the conclusion that the Founding Fathers had been all wrong in the government they created. I don’t remember the name or place of this professor. Whether he had ever contributed anything to scholarly knowledge was not stated, but is doubtful. He probably suffers from Trump Derangement Syndrome. His credentials for this judgment on our American forebears are that he has “taught American government for 40 years.” We are so accustomed now to the media promoting the supposed “expert” opinions of supposed “experts,” especially in regard to history, that we pass over these things without noticing how ridiculous they are. The Founders had experience of large agricultural and mercantile enterprises, of state and continental government, of war, and in some cases of diplomacy, not to mention genuine learning that is seldom found today, especially among professors. Who is this person that anyone should notice his opinion much less consider it newsworthy?
When it comes to rewriting history to suit one’s personal preferences, this fellow is farm team compared to a a professor named Guelzo. Southerners are used to irrational hatred directed against us in the guise of fake history. It happens most of the time, but Guelzo is a gold medalist in this endeavour. He has recently produced a notorious video claiming to be about “Reconstruction.” The video is apparently sponsored by the Battlefield Trust organisation. Odd. How did such a thing happen? Surely the Trust has more important things to do than to promote nonsense which has nothing to do with the great battlefields of the War between the States and that many or most of its supporters repudiate.
To summarise Guelzo’s version of history: The North won the war but the white South won Reconstruction. The North should have continued Reconstruction until Southerners were forced to accept racial equality. The land of Southern whites should have been given to the freed slaves, who together with Northerners made the South prosperous during Reconstruction. But the Northerners left so the South reverted to racism and impoverished backwardness from the lack of Northern benevolence and enterprise. If Reconstruction had only lasted longer, the South would have been forced to become egalitarian and prosperous.
I note that Guelzo has a Master of Divinity degree. Perhaps that helps explain why he thinks his sermons impart historical knowledge. In fact, his “Reconstruction” never touches the plain earth of history at any point---it is all opinion, not understanding. And a malicious set of opinions based on false assumptions.
The biggest false assumption is that the North and the U.S. government invaded and conquered the South and subjected it to military occupation in order to achieve racial equality for black Americans. Thus that Northern actions were always wise and benevolent and Southern actions were always evil and incompetent. This is a common self-righteous assumption that supports the myth of America’s unique goodness, but it is wholly false. The number of Northerners who would have risked their lives to achieve racial equality could have assembled in a small room.
No Northerner before 1860 ever proposed any serious plan to achieve emancipation (much less equality), although many were free in their condemnation of Southern sins. Lincoln said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power, which he did not, and that Northerners would be exactly like Southerners if they had been in the same situation. He declared himself willing to protect slavery where it already existed in perpetuity, but declared that he must have his tariff revenue.
Surely there must have been something other than self-sacrificing goodness that kept together the varied interests that sustained the Northern war effort ? General Sherman’s brother, Senator Sherman, declared that establishing the national banking system was a more important goal than freeing the slaves. In Guelzo’s formulation, Northern politics is never about interests, like every other politics in human history, but only about noble mission.
Most Northern States, including Lincoln’s Illinois, had laws forbidding the residence of free black people and severely restricting the lives of the small number who were there. During the war the Black Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois refused to accept as residents even a handful of freed black refugees. The governor of Illinois said that his people would not accept them and the governor Massachusetts said they would be happier in the South.
These are the people who conducted a war for equality for black Americans? In fact, the Northern people and soldiers were as “racist” as Southerners. Arguably more so, because Southerners were accustomed to living peacefully among black people. There was no significant number of black Americans outside of the South until World War I when many migrated into Northern discrimination. As serious historians are now noticing, Southern black people died in huge numbers from the destruction of resources and abuse by Northern soldiers.
Our “ leading authority” says that Southern land should have been confiscated and given to the black folk. Indeed, a lot of Southern land did change hands during Reconstruction, not to the freed people but to Northerners, in whose hands it remains today. Had there been any Reconstruction generosity to black Americans there were millions of acres of vacant land in the West---free to any white immigrant and to Northern railroad and mining corporations, but not an acre for freedmen. One of the chief motivations of the war and Reconstruction was to keep black people in the South and out of the North and West.
In sum, Reconstruction did nothing for black Americans except to make them voters, mobilise them to terrorise whites, and create hostility between the races that had not existed before. Like Southern white people they were left in poverty that lasted for generations.
The most preposterous of all the imaginary factors of Guelzo’s Reconstruction scenario is that Reconstruction, through Northern enterprise, made the South prosperous. I do not think there is or ever has been any historian of any political stripe who believes this. The primary Northern activity in Reconstruction was looting what was left of the South’s great antebellum wealth that had already been devastated by the war of conquest. The story of Reconstruction is not racial equality, it is corruption---corruption for personal enrichment that was a main activity of Republican politicians and fat cats and reached right into Grant’s White House.
In fact, Northerners ended Reconstruction when they became disgusted with near universal corruption and with the failure of the black people to turn themselves into industrious New Englanders. Guelzo is not interested in politics, but how could Reconstruction have been continued when even its proponents were turning against it. In the 1868 presidential election Grant had a hard time defeating Horatio Seymour, antiwar and anti-Reconstruction Democratic candidate. He probably would have lost without the disenfranchisement of Southern white men, the corralled votes of Southern blacks, and military control of the polling.
Other things that do not interest Guelzo but that stood in the way of continuing Reconstruction: democracy (majority rule) and the limits of revolutionary deconstruction provided by Constitutional government.
If we look at Guelzo’s website, (which interestingly is a .com rather than a .edu or a .org), we find a declaration by a person you have never heard of that Guelzo has for two decades “been at the forefront of Civil War era scholarship.” Further, he is “the leading authority on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Lincoln,” and also a major authority on the Founding Fathers. The leading authority.
After a lifetime of study, I am a little bit of an authority on the 19th century United States. I am interested in and have studied a lot of other history, but I am by no means an “authority” on any of it. What a prodigy Professor Guelzo must be!
In fact, he dispenses not history but his own unanchored opinions on matters of great importance. His opinions are fashionable among the many who have a preference for an interpretation that damns Southerners and postulates an imaginary Northern crusade for racial equality. These opinions are not based on historical learning but are a product of crusading zeal. Guelzo is not a major historical authority but a media celebrity---someone who is well known for being well-known.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews