The Central Fact Of American History

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I have long believed that what most distinguishes us from all other animals is our ability to transcend an illusory sense of now, of an eternal present, and to strive for an understanding of the forces and events that made us what we are. Such an understanding seems to me the prerequisite for all human freedom. In one of my works on slavery I refer to “a profound transformation in moral perception” that led in the eighteenth century to a growing recognition of “the full horror of a social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries.” Unfortunately, many American historians are only how beginning to grasp the true centrality of that social evil throughout the decades and even centuries that first shaped our government and what America would become.

As a college undergraduate in the late 1940s I was taught the “moonlight and magnolias” mythology of slavery, a mythology propagated by respected historians as well as by popular nonacademic books and by influential films from the time of The Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind and beyond. This mythology existed because the slaveholding South had counteracted its military defeat by winning the ideological war—or in other words, the way the twentieth-century American public understood slavery and the Civil War. The effects of this victory on our racial history are brilliantly documented by the 2001 masterpiece by my Yale colleague David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

By 1820 nearly 8.7 million slaves had departed for the New World from Africa, as opposed to the 2.6 million whites who had emigrated from Europe.

By the 1930s a strong consensus had emerged to the effect that the Civil War had little, if anything, to do with slavery. One school of thought held that the war had been waged over economic issues and resulted in the triumph of Northern capitalism. A second school argued that the war had been a needless and avertable tragedy, brought on by abolitionist fanatics and a few Southern extremists. Virtually all American whites agreed that slavery had been an inefficient, backward, and increasingly marginal institution that had contained the seeds of its own economic destruction and which would have soon ended without a war. This was the view of the nation’s leading expert on slavery in the 1920s and 1930s, the Yale professor Ulrich B. Phillips.

My very liberal-minded but self-educated parents—both of them first journalists and then productive writers of friction and nonfiction—were delighted in the mid-1930s by a new, well-written, and immensely popular survey of American history by W. E. Woodward (no relation the great C. Vann Woodward). According to his New American History, “the slave system did incalculable harm to the white people of the South, and benefited nobody but the negro, in that it served as a vast training school for African savages.”

Such views persisted well into the 1950s, even among some of the most respected white historians. As a member of Dartmouth College’s undergraduate class of 1950, I took a course in which we learned that Reconstruction had been a disaster, since hordes of carpetbaggers and scalawags had quickly corrupted the ignorant Negroes and even put them in state legislatures. The professor presented a humorous picture of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization needed, he explained, to keep the peace by scaring the highly superstitious Negroes (the white-hooded Klansmen would knock on a black family’s door and then hoot out the sounds of ghosts).

Things were not much better when I attended graduate school at Harvard from 1951 to 1953. Lecture courses on American social history, on the history of immigration to America, and on the history of religion in America, taught by world-famous professors, gave little attention to slavery, though they were excellent in other respects. The major recommended work on the course syllabuses was Ulrich B. Phillips’s deeply researched but highly racist 1918 book American Negro Slavery. One must remember that in 1954, at the time of Brown v. Board of Education and 89 years after the Thirteenth Amendment, blacks in much of the South were, as Bob Herbert recently reminded us in The New York Times, “expected to step off the sidewalk or cross to the other side of the street if whites were approaching,” while “in the national imagination, blacks were typically janitors, maids, chauffeurs or bootblacks.”