Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Rehnquist, 1877, Reconstruction and Bush v. Gore 2004

In my class, not an original idea, one of my major themes is how current politics flavor how we view historical events and forces. Reconstruction puts the point on this theme more than any other.

A primer: Reconstruction is the period of time after the US Civil War, 1865-1877, whereby the 13-15th amendments abolishing slavery and establishing civil rights for black males were passed. The traditional narrative went something like this; near the end of the Civil War Republican President Lincoln wanted dearly to leniently assimilate the defeated South back into the union, something that would be easy because he never officially recognized the secession of the Confederacy. After the assassination this lenient policy was continued by Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's Vice and a Democrat, who valiantly tried to defend Lincoln's policies but was thwarted by the Radical Republicans in Congress. These radicals are the bad boy's in the traditional historiography, allying with the Northern "carpetbagger," who went south for profit and power, "scalawag," southern opportunists, and "ignorant" emancipated slaves who were taken advantage by the former to oppress the southern nation. The good guy's are the Democrats who "redeem" the south by organizing the Klan.

This narrative was upset by radical black historian WEB Dubois and civil rights era historians such as Eric Foner. The new narrative, to simplify, embraces the advance of this period politically, economically, and socially. No longer was Reconstruction seen as a tragedy for white southerners but it was now seen as a time when the state got involved in social welfare, political rights, at least for men, and equality for all, including poor whites. The issue of the Klan is also taken up by the latter historiography, seeing it for what it was, a one way fight for white power, as opposed to the redemption that it is presented as, in the infamous Birth of a Nation (the great liberal Woodrow Wilson's favorite film) and in the traditional view of reconstruction.

In an effort to say, see we were not the only cheaters Chief Justice Rehnquist explains the history of the Compromise of 1877 that ended the Reconstruction period in his latest book. What is miraculous about this book according to Eric Foner is Rehnquist's ignorance of or blatant disregard to the last 100 years of scholarship that has discredited the old racist view of Reconstruction.

I guess I don't know what is worse? A Chief Justice that doesn't know the non-racist history or a country that is so ignorant that they don't at least call him on it?

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