How one interprets the facts surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction can greatly influences one’s view of our country. Discussion surrounding the 1619 Project have magnified the issue. No one should be surprised the winning and losing sides came up with different interpretations of the period. More surprising was the fact that, 30 years after the events, the losing side’s interpretation became the favored interpretation among politicians, journalists, historians, school administrators and teachers, and remained so for 60 years.
That interpretation insisted the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights and Reconstruction was an abomination forced on the South by unscrupulous Radical Republicans in Congress. It was first voiced by politicians like Missourian Frank Blair, the Democratic candidate for vice-president in 1868, who attacked "carpetbag Southern governments" and "a semi-barbarous race of blacks." Highly partisan journalists, like former Confederate John Newman Edwards, wrote the “rough draft” of the history of the “Lost Cause.” Before he became the editor of the St. Louis Dispatch, Edwards condemned the “remorseless persecution” of Missouri Democracy by the Radical Republicans, and raised up the James Brothers as symbols of ex-Confederates "striking back."
By the time Joseph Pulitzer became editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1879, he had become a critic of Reconstruction but did draw the line when it came to the Ku Klux Klan, editorializing, “Political murders must cease. Foolish eulogies of the lost cause by leading men must cease. Hair-splitting theories and assertions about States’ rights and the national authority must cease from Southern leaders.” Twenty years later, Pulitzer launched a journalism school at Columbia University, (perhaps as penance for his “Yellow Journalism” the previous decade) dedicated to training objective journalists and established the Pulitzer Prize to recognize the best of them. Columbia had already been training supposedly objective professional historians. Nevertheless, William Archibald Dunning and his students at Columbia were supporting the thesis in their publications that Congress had perverted American values during Reconstruction by using federal courts and troops to control state politics. The Dunning School contended segregation was necessary because freedmen had shown they were incapable of self-government and allowing them to vote had been "a serious error."
Such attitudes were used to justify Jim Crow laws in the South and came to permeate American popular culture. The film Birth of a Nation portrayed the freedmen as brutish, drew no line when it came to the Klan and adapted quotations from Professor Woodrow Wilson, an adherent of the Dunning School. “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation...until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” President Wilson praised the film and made it the first ever screened at the White House.
The curricula and textbooks at schools and colleges reflected the Dunning School. It had become so pervasive before the 1960s that historian Taylor Branch wrote that, after rioting during which two were killed after James Meredith attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi, President John F. Kennedy suggested, “I am getting the impression that my Harvard professors misled me about the fanatical northerners who tried to impose Reconstruction on the South after the Civil War. It makes me wonder whether everything I heard about the evils of Reconstruction was really true.”
As the “Second Reconstruction” proceeded, the Dunning School was rejected by revisionist historians more sympathetic to the Radical Republicans and black leaders. Curricula were revised and, so long as individual teachers did not insert their own biases, young minds were presented a more balanced approach.
The 1619 Project proposes yet another reinterpretation of the period. It started down the same road as the “Lost Cause” but has attempted to shorten that road considerably. Before it was even published, the publisher reached out to the Pulitzer Center to propose a 1619 Curriculum for schools. Growing out of the protest voices of those who believe even the Second Reconstruction has failed, the rough draft was again written by a journalist, who received a Pulitzer Prize for her effort to reframe American history by emphasizing 1619, when the first slaves arrived, rather than 1776, when the goal of equal treatment under the law was announced. I disagree with her conclusions that this goal was “false” in 1776, and the American experiment has been a failure, because it has not yet been totally realized.
The Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger endorses the project. He won the Pulitzer Prize the year before for identifying specific injustices in some of our courts and his efforts led to judicial reforms. However, he did not question our entire judicial system, nor suggest such a critique should be included in our school curriculum. But we have heard enough from politicians and journalists, including Bret Stephens, who has suggested journalists should continue writing the first rough draft of history, “not trying to have the last word on it.” Several noted historians have criticized the factual basis for the 1619 Project and others have endorsed it. Let’s wait to see what that debate yields. It took three decades after Reconstruction for a consensus interpretation to develop and it proved to be incorrect. After two years, it is too early for any school board to adopt the 1619 Project, which should make it unnecessary for the legislature to tell them they can’t.