Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Authoritarian Right’s 1877 Project

Eric Levitz, New York Mag/Intelligency

In a recent column for The American Conservative, Helen Andrews argues that Reconstruction — that brief slice of the 19th century during which Black Southerners enjoyed extensive political rights under the aegis of Northern Republicans — was “objectively bad.” Further, she insists that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode,” as today’s mainstream historians do, “would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.” She proceeds to suggest that the conception of Reconstruction as “a noble experiment in interracial democracy” is crypto-communist agitprop.

In support of this argument, Andrews marshals two basic contentions:

Reconstruction governments were uniquely corrupt. In Andrews’s words, Southern corruption during the period was “not just a matter of a little graft here and there,” but rather constituted “the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few.”

Two of the most prominent “Reconstruction revisionists,” W.E.B. Du Bois and Eric Foner, are Marxists, she says. And both argued that Reconstruction should have redistributed more land from Confederate plantation owners to former slaves. Therefore, when historians “say that Reconstruction only failed because it was not tried hard enough, what they mean is that America did not go all the way to a 1917-style [Bolshevik] revolution.”

Andrews’s condemnation of contemporary U.S. historiography is almost refreshing for its forthrightness. Unlike some of her ideological bedfellows, Andrews is not trying to veil her wildly reactionary understanding of American racial history behind more respectable concerns; no ill-defined abstractions like “critical race theory” shroud her apologia for white Southern redemption. Yet Andrews is only candid in relative terms. In truth, her column is unrelenting in its refusal to baldly state its most incendiary implications.


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