[Note: This item comes from friend Gary Rimar. DLH]
Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party
Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.
By Doug Muder
Aug 11 2014
Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:
• How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
• One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders have been thinking, as an even larger percentage of their citizens died, as their cities burned, and as the accumulated wealth of generations crumbled? Where was their urge to end this on any terms, rather than wait for complete destruction?
The first question took some work, but yielded readily to patient googling. I wrote up the answer in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“.
The second turned out to be much deeper than I expected, and set off a reading project that has eaten an enormous amount of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations.) Along the way, I came to see how I (along with just about everyone I know) have misunderstood large chunks of American history, and how that misunderstanding clouds our perception of what is happening today.
Who really won the Civil War? The first hint at how deep the second mystery ran came from the biographyJefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper. In 1865, not only was Davis not agonizing over how to end the destruction, he wanted to keep it going longer. He disapproved of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and when U. S. troops finally captured him, he was on his way to Texas, where an intact army might continue the war.
That sounded crazy until I read about Reconstruction. In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.
And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.
Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.” I think that would have gotten my attention.
It wasn’t just that Confederates wanted to continue the war. They did continue it, and they ultimately prevailed. They weren’t crazy, they were just stubborn.