The wholesale reinterpretation of history around a left-wing narrative about race, which the 1619 Project is trying to accomplish for the rest of the American story, was first trialed on the history of Reconstruction. For most of the 20th century, Reconstruction was seen as a squalid and shameful coda to the Civil War when Northern Radicals and carpetbaggers enacted their wildest fantasies of humiliation and spoliation on a prostrate South. Starting in the 1960s, a group of revisionist historians began arguing that Reconstruction had actually been a noble experiment in interracial democracy, too quickly abandoned. It is noteworthy that this line started being touted only after the last people with firsthand memories of Reconstruction had died.
The ur-text of this revisionist school is W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), now reissued in a deluxe edition by the Library of America. In his introduction, Du Bois promises a straightforward history, differing from its predecessors only in that “I am going to tell this story as though Negroes were ordinary human beings.” In fact the book is much more than that, a bold attempt to apply a Marxist framework to the Civil War period, from the “general strike” of labor that supposedly crippled the Confederate war effort to the “counterrevolution of 1876” that overthrew the Reconstruction governments’ “dictatorship of labor.”
Black Reconstruction is not the sort of book any scholar would want as the foundation of a new interpretive school. Du Bois was no historian. He consulted only limited sources and did no original archival research, an omission that “disturbed many scholars, several of whom dyspeptically noted the author’s generous foundation support,” according to his biographer David Levering Lewis. The germ of the project was a dispute Du Bois had with the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. They commissioned an entry on black history from him, which he withdrew when they asked him to delete some excessively rosy passages on Reconstruction. Obviously the Britannica editors wanted a racially progressive spin on history, or they would not have gone to Du Bois. But there is a line between creative reinterpretation and outright fantasy, and in their professional opinion, Du Bois had crossed it.
There is no point beating around the bush: The version of Reconstruction history that Du Bois presents is based on motivated reasoning and tendentious distortions of the evidence. That is why it is so disturbing that this school is now the conventional wisdom. With no tools other than repetition and vehemence, these brazen innovators succeeded in getting their misrepresentations enthroned as orthodoxy and the commonsense histories of yesterday not just superseded but slandered as racist.
To begin with a simple example, Du Bois attempts to refute one of the major accusations against the Reconstruction state legislatures, that they were profligate and corrupt. “The increase of debts under the Reconstruction regime was not large… There can be no possible proof that all of this increased indebtedness represented theft; nor is there any adequate reason for believing that most of it did… There is nothing on the face of the figures that proves unusual theft.”
Perhaps the figures do not prove theft but they certainly suggest it. Between 1868 and 1872, the South Carolina legislature appropriated $200,000 for furniture; when auditors examined the State House in 1877, only $17,715 worth of furniture (in original prices) was found; in 1890, the whole House chamber was refurbished for $3,061. Expenditure on champagne and whiskey for the Columbia State House was $125,000 in a single year, equivalent to about $1.5 million today. Other states, such as Louisiana, saw tenfold increases in their budgets relative to prewar averages. Du Bois suggests this money might have been “spent carefully and honestly upon legitimate and necessary matters of restoration and government.” No one at the time was so naïve.