The Pervasiveness of Reconstruction Mythology

Yesterday I caught an interesting program on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” which featured Frank J. Williams and Howard University historian, Edna C. Medford discussing Lincoln’s legacy.  I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point early on in the broadcast the two guests discussed Reconstruction and the political in-roads made by African Americans in southern state legislatures.  Williams made it a point to emphasize that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write or had no training for the demands of political governance.  This is a very sensitive point that was emphasized by white Southern “Redeemers” who worked vigorously to overturn Reconstruction governments and reimpose white supremacy.  Recent scholarship has successfully challenged this important narrative thread of the Lost Cause.  Historians such as Eric Foner have documented the wide range of legislation that benefited both poor black as well as white Southerners.  On the other hand there it is indisputable that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write.

Professor Medford immediately countered by pointing out that white men had been voting, regardless of their capacity to read and/or write, since the 1830s.  By the 1830s qualifications such as property had been overturned as the country continued to push west and in turn challenged traditional notions of privilege.  Most white men were eligible to vote and just about all presidential electors were chosen directly by the people.  With this in mind it is curious to me that we continue to feel the need to point out that blacks were illiterate at a time when literacy ceased to be a factor in determining the suffrage as well as the right to run for office.  We tend to think of the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s as an important step in the evolution of American democracy so why do we continue to feel a need to point out that recently-freed slaves could not read or write?

3 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Feb 2, 2009

    Could it be that one of the commentators is a professionally-trained historian and one is not?

    That wouldn’t be the single cause, of course, but I expect we’ll hear a great deal from self-styled Lincoln experts that will cause us to cringe.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2009

      That’s one way to look at it, although Frank Williams seems to me to be a pretty smart guy. Still, it is probably the case that professionally trained historians are more than likely to place the Civil War/Reconstruction into a broader context when analyzing certain questions.

      It could also be the case that Medford’s race had something to do with it. Actually, I had the sense of this during the show itself. As Williams was making his point Medford was itching to respond and it seems to me the tone of her response was defined as much by race as by her professional training. Hope that makes sense.

  • Brooks Simpson Feb 2, 2009

    It does. But it may also be that her race informed her professional training in terms of identity.

    In truth, it must have been an even more uncomfortable moment than you describe, because Medford’s worked with Williams before, as well as with Harold Holzer. There’s an interesting network at work there, for various reasons.

    I don’t think you would agree with Frank on a number of things. Let’s leave it at that.

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