Reconstruction and Indecision

Reconstruction and Indecision

I never met a colleague in the teaching of a college history course who expected to learn very much from grading a batch of blue books. Yet an untidy pile of essays on my desk—essays designed to persuade me that my students knew something about the Reconstruction period—has just offered me a glimpse into the divided mind of white America. One expects a certain consistency in outlook from a Southern white — or a Negro—and usually gets it. But what I saw reflected in these tests (written by Border/Northern students) was a curious confusion which goes to the very sources of commitment and judgment in the Negro problem. Not that my students were passive or uninterested — nor even disinterested. In fact, they crowded forward with crisp judgment, and they knew their history well enough. But they were on both sides of the question at once, and as I read, it was hard not to guess that their divided mind is a general one, and perhaps I understand now why this thing is so hard.

“Who made mistakes, where, and why?” they were asked, after several sessions and considerable reading in the Reconstruction era. “Reconstruction was too harsh on the prostrate South,” they almost invariably began, reflecting here the classic interpretation for which William A. Dunning’s Reconstruction: Political and Economic (1907) may stand as the scholarly, and Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929) as the popularized prototype. These histories blamed an unsatisfactory Reconstruction on the very idea of a forced alteration of Southern social arrangements.


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