Claude Bowers on Reconstruction, racism, and the problems of our times.
Monday March 6, 2006
Last night, for no reason I could have named, I found on my shelves Claude Bowers’ book about the reconstruction era, The Tragic Era, that I have carried around for years but never yet read.
Friends, my suspicion is that this is what we might call a benevolent set-up. First Joseph on Lincoln and the Civil War, now Bowers on how the victory was hijacked. Yes?
Well you have already seen that the subject matter is highly relevant to your current political crisis.
Joseph, are you available again?
I never said I was going away; it was important that you get some work done besides this, though.
All right, I see that. Do you want me to read Claude Bowers’ book before we talk further?
Why don’t you talk to Bowers?
Hadn’t thought of it. Good idea. Mr. Bowers, I take it that you are part of this benevolent conspiracy?[slight pause, probably more to do with my wanting to be sure I had a fish on the line than anything else.]
Indeed I am. Although you naturally experience this as if you were the center of it, others experience it as if they were. From our point of view it is an association of minds and souls who care about the great experiment and are willing and anxious to use anyone who is of similar mind.
Mr. Lincoln – I suppose it was Mr. Lincoln – said America isn’t really about America as a country as much as it is about America as a breaker of trails for the world. I took that to mean that if it ceased to do so, its place in history might be past instead of present. I mean, we might fail, in which case the spirit of the times would have no further use for us.
History generally isn’t quite so black and white. Things usually continue after the curtain falls, and it can always rise again. Think of England in the 1780s. It had slid quite a way, or the colonies couldn’t have found an opportune moment to break free. It is true that England was never invaded, but it was definitely defeated, and surrounded by states more or less hostile. And within another decade or so it was to be fighting for its life. And yet arguably its very greatest moments were still ahead – and by that I mean not its leadership role in the coalition victories of the world wars, but its leadership in stitching together the world through its efforts at empire and trade. England could be heavy-handed, but it was rarely ineffective. So – America might lose its leadership position; it might lose its military and its economic supremacy, it might cease to be a magnet for the world’s finest scientific minds – and still recover. But nations like any coherent being – like machines such as cars or airplanes, for that matter, though you don’t quite see that yet (and how I would have scouted that idea when I was in a body!) – have souls. That is, they have a coherent organizing principle. They are a unit in a way. I am not going to stay to go into the metaphysics of it, but if you find the statement too much to believe, treat it as metaphor. Nations have souls, and in the sense that everyday language means, they can lose their souls. But what is lost can be found, hence this project.
I can see that this is probably the ideal time for me to talk to you – big surprise! – because what I know of you is so slight. I know that you were Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Spain in the 1930s and tried to help the Spanish Republic against the fascists. I know you were a scholar and the author of several books, and that you died in I think it was 1958. And I know that I have carried your book The Tragic Era with me through innumerable moves since whenever I acquired it – which may have been in my senior year in college – and never read it, and “found” it on my shelves last night and something said “now.”
The art of listening to coincidence and accident is the art of following suggestion, as you know and all your Monroe Institute friends soon learn. Tell me what you want to know, before I tell you what we want to tell you. Or rather we could rephrase that this way – in your interaction with me, that which needs to be said will surface – and will be said.
Your book is considered to be “discredited” by accepted historical authorities because of its racism and its assumption of the necessary inequality of the races. I take it that you were a southerner and I know that you were a Democrat. As of this morning I have read the last chapter and first chapter of the book, and so I can’t yet judge for myself. So, a good time to ask – were you a racist, are your arguments racist, and if so to either, how much can you have to offer us?
No offense taken. You are asking two questions that overlap but also contradict each other, somewhat. One might be a racist and make arguments that were not; one might not be a racist and make arguments that were. As you should well know, we when in bodies are not as conscious nor as consistent as might be desired! Nor – in bodies – are we the units we think we are. If you have Joseph Smallwood communicating with you throughout a lifetime and you do not know it, and you have someone of contradictory opinions and feelings and tendencies also within you (as it appears to you) and also silently communicating – are you a unit or a newsroom? It is a matter of how one looks at it.
It is a mistake to think that a book is judged primarily by its truth. More often it is judged by its value as a tool or a weapon. My book was published in 1929, at the height of an intolerant era – but that speaks more to why it could be published than why it was published. In other words, I made my arguments out of conviction and the times were not so far out of alignment as to make it impossible for me to get a hearing. That is not the same thing as saying that I wrote it hoping for the approval of the Ku Klux Klan.
That said, I deny that it is a racist statement to say that black slaves a year out of slavery were ready for the ballot. The Romans didn’t do it for freedmen, and while we were far more humane than the Romans, nonetheless they did have a point. Let us speak of this here – before you read the body of the book – to put this one question out of the way. It requires thought, not prejudice, on your part.
I ask you to make some assumptions about me as we think together. The first is that a man who favored the Spanish Republicans is not a fascist! I was a liberal for my times – and whose times should I be judged by?
Second, I was not a racist in the sense of believing that negroes (or any other race) were genetically (that is, by nature) inferior to white people.
Third, you must grant as an assumption that I was as sincere as you, as interested in truth, as sickened by corruption, until evidence proves otherwise. This is minimal fairness.
That is enough to begin with. If you concede me these, you will make enough space that you can hear me.
Do you suppose that slavery is good for one’s character? And do you think that a culture deliberately inculcating enforced ignorance, dependence, servility, fosters the makings of good citizenship? Obviously, it does not. But then, do these wronged people, once freed by an outside force, necessarily possess the wherewithal to be good citizens? Do they know how to work and support themselves? Do they know how to vote intelligently? Can they even read? After generations in which they have been treated as property – often bred like animals, literally – years in which marriage and kinship ties were utterly disregarded by those who owned them – are they now by some magical wand to be instantly transformed into people with the morals and habits and inherited tendencies of the descendants of Europeans? It is impossible!
Lincoln knew that and he knew it was going to be a thorny problem to deal with.
Hear me well. In 1865 it was evident to one and all that there was no going back to slavery. Perhaps mixed in with the anguish of defeat and the total loss of what they had had, southerners did in fact sometimes breathe a sigh of relief that at least that incubus had been removed, however badly. And there must have been many and many a one who silently cried out against the folly of the slave-owners who had resisted all schemes of compensated emancipation and had thereby brought the whole region to ruin. But repentant or unrepentant, resigned or intractable, in mid-1865 there was not a man, woman or child on the face of the earth who thought that slavery as it had been would ever be reestablished in the American republic.
Slavery was dead. So was colonization. Who was going to pay to transport four million black men, women and children overseas, and where were they to go, and who was to force them to do so, when they clearly did not want to go? Lincoln had thought of colonization, too, hoping that it was the answer to the problem.
The problem is nearly invisible to you because you are on the far side of its working out. I remind you: English-speaking societies were race-based in a way you would unhesitatingly call racist. There was no model for a racially mixed society in the English world, even though of course there was plenty of inter-breeding going on “unbeknown to ourselves,” as Mr. Lincoln’s joke would have it. Even the admixture of Spanish or Italian blood to English blood was somewhat outré in England. The colonies originally thought themselves somewhat daring in accepting German colonies, at first; and they had difficulty accommodating other nations except as individuals. If a society hesitates to accept the French creoles of Louisiana as equal and deserving members of the commonwealth, how much trouble will it have accepting Mexicans – who are only part European, part other races, or Indians, wholly (they thought) non-European – let alone, then, four million descendants of Africans!
It required an expansion of vision greater than you can easily imagine. It envisioned creating a society for which they saw no good precedent. The color-blind Arab world they did not regard as a fit model. Of past African civilizations, they had no knowledge, no idea. They would have scouted the idea entirely, out of hand.
And so – there they were. It was 1865, the slaves had been freed, and now in some or another way blacks and whites were to be forced to live together. The white society had no feeling of equality with a people who were ignorant and had no traditions in common with them. This had less to do with racism than you think! It had to do with other things as well, that are rarely expressed.
1) The white southerners heard the northerners talk of equality and took that to mean that they were to be reduced to the level of freed slaves – for they noticed that the white northerners were not welcoming the freed slaves to come live with them in the north, and they saw that they themselves were not in charge of their own destiny.
2) The slaves had no education, no means of support, no accumulated capital, no professions of course, and relatively few skills. No, this certainly was not the fault of the people who had been deprived of all this – but it was the condition, and that condition was not to be talked away, any more than you can talk away the condition of the homeless on your city streets.
3) Neither former slaves nor former owners nor the greatest number, white inhabitants who were not former slave owners, had any model of a society in which whites and blacks lived together on terms of equality. You have not achieved it yet, 150 years later! How could it have been achieved overnight in 1865? But it might have had a better chance if the real difficulties had been expressed and addressed, and in a spirit of conciliation and thoughtful goodwill rather than revenge and malignity. And this of course is why they killed Lincoln, to prevent him from using his immense prestige to accomplish reconciliation as best he could. He had no magical wand either, but he had thought upon the problem, and that put him far ahead of those whose idea of thought was actually a mere venting and stoking and execution of hatred.
So you see, I deny the accusation of racism. I accept the accusation that I stated the plain facts.
Thank you. I think I should stop for now, as it has been an hour and a half. (8:30)
(12:45) Well, Mr. Bowers, your chapter two on Andrew Johnson was very interesting and the most favorable portrait of him I have ever read, by far. And he seems to have shared Joseph Smallwood’s idealization of the common worker and smallholder. But your chapter three, “With Chase Among The Ruins,” makes a very mixed impression. On the one hand, an interesting portrait of slick, conniving Salmon P. Chase, who Lincoln put on the court mostly to get his vote for certain wartime measures – can’t remember offhand which – that were sure to come before the Supreme Court sooner or later. Chase seems to have been a slimy article, for sure, and certainly his intolerance and narrow-sightedness is clear enough in this picture, given that we can trust the picture as drawn.
But it is precisely in your approving quotation of contemporary mimicry and ridicule of the speech of the freed slaves that you leave yourself open to interpretations of racism. How would you like your pronunciation mocked? It is cruel, and your selection of evidence cuts two ways. On the one hand the difficulties are made clear. On the other hand, you show no side of the issues but that of the white southern society. A reader coming to your book new to the subject might think that no one favored negro franchise but corrupt politicians; and that no negro (soldiers, say) could possibly have advanced to the point of deserving it; or that black as well as white might justly fear powerlessness and seek to have the vote to protect themselves even if they couldn’t spell CAT.
It is true, the swaggering injustice of occupying troops and the crude indiscipline of suddenly freed ex-slaves must have created a situation barely tolerable – but did those proud southern women you are so protective of ever do anything to make the situation better? And did the Black Codes enacted by southern legislatures give no cause for legitimate suspicion among even well-meaning northerners who didn’t want to see the old slave-ocracy stay in power? Serious questions, Mr. Bowers.
Serious questions, and it is just such questions as this that ought to be posed and exchanged more often in public. Mostly, though, people form sides and talk past one another. As you in your day are doing, of course, and Caesar or Socrates in theirs.
You will remember, please, that my book was not created ex nihilo and did not exist in a vacuum. It was an attempt – perhaps in places an injudicious attempt, I admit, in places intemperate – to set forth the facts to a generation that had been fed on the lies of the victorious plunderer. And by that I mean not the Union army but the carpetbaggers and scalawags who rode to power on the bayonets of that army. I set out to correct a generation of lies – two generations, really, and I had no intent to present a fair and balanced picture. Perhaps I should have done so, but perhaps that would have required a different temperament, which might have resulted in no book at all.
My mimicking – or, rather, quoting the mimicking – of freed negroes you find offensive, and I understand that your generation finds any such mimicry offensive. We did not. And if there was a certain ridicule there – well, there deserved to be! One might say, almost, there needed to be! For if one did not laugh – as Mr. Lincoln used to say – one would die.
Possibly there were negro soldiers who would not have disgraced the vote. Let us say definitely. The point remains: the overwhelming majority of freed negro men were not in any way ready for the franchise and their northern sponsors knew it. What is worse, many northern sponsors of negro suffrage did so because they knew the former slaves were incapable of exercising the franchise. They delighted in their imagining the humiliation of the former white ruling class.
Yes, we always see this. “They did evil, so we will do evil to them; they deserve it.”
Nonetheless it is true that the freed blacks also needed something to protect them, and if it wasn’t going to be white northern troops forever, what could it be?
Your argument is typical of the well-meaning; it is precisely what was used as cover by those whose intent was not construction but pillage.
But how do you respond to it?
Ultimately two incompatible peoples will co-exist on terms they each find at least tolerable, and those terms will alter as the circumstances alter.
Did not see that happen under slavery, exactly – and there was no sign of slavery disappearing right up into secession. It was only secession and defeat that ended slavery.
Now here you hit upon an interesting and undeveloped point. Slavery – it may be argued – artificially caused the situation, prevented the situation from being resolved, and made the eventual end as terrible as it was. I am not, my friend, an apologist for slavery!
If not for slavery we never would have had four millions of negroes in the heart of southern society. They would no more have been allowed to partake in the great experiment than you welcome Haitians in your day. That is number one.
Number Two, slavery prevented any gradual readjustment of social relations, because the first necessity was profit, the second safety, and the third did not exist. Because of slavery, the negroes already in the country did not participate in a gradual elevation of their condition – accumulating capital and wealth, acquiring literacy and even learning, lessening the very real differences between the races.
And of course Number Three, slavery caused the war, for there was no way to get rid of it and the former path of isolating it and letting it die out had been abandoned.
However – once remove slavery from the equation and you now have a situation concerning the same two peoples, living cheek by jowl, in some ways knowing each other almost too well, and in other ways misunderstanding and mistrusting each other deeply. They have to find a way to live together, and – given the circumstances, wherever one side had had all the advantages and the other the disadvantages – either the natural result would be that the whites would write the rules, or the unnatural result would be that the blacks, or the blacks and northern whites. The theoretical best result – black and white working together to produce a mutually tolerable result – was possible only theoretically. For one thing there were the radical Republicans. For another, there was the Union army. And for an all important third, there was the first deadly sin – Pride.
Southern dragon ladies.
To be crude about it, yes. Mothers instilling hatred in their children, and pride, and contempt, is not pretty and it will at some point be paid for.
So your argument is that if left to themselves, black and white southerners would have found a modus vivendi?
They did anyway. Left alone they might have found one far more favorable to both. That is my argument.
Your argument, though, reads strangely in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.
Did they not readjust things?
Only when the federal government stepped in and greatly expanded federal regulation of states as an unwanted side-effect.
Unwanted – again, by the well-meaning. But very much desired by others, who mouthed pieties – and profited. And in any case, the civil rights legislation came in response to what amounted to a people’s demand that the social terms be readjusted. The federal government did not lead, but followed. Let people change their hearts – let them change their boundaries of what they will accept – and no government will long stand in their way.
Okay. I’m tired again, so enough for now. (1:40)