The Authoritarian Right’s 1877 Project

This was fine, conservatives explain. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

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In a recent column for The American Conservative, Helen Andrews argues that Reconstruction — that brief slice of the 19th century during which Black Southerners enjoyed extensive political rights under the aegis of Northern Republicans — was “objectively bad.” Further, she insists that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode,” as today’s mainstream historians do, “would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so.” She proceeds to suggest that the conception of Reconstruction as “a noble experiment in interracial democracy” is crypto-communist agitprop.

In support of this argument, Andrews marshals two basic contentions:

• Reconstruction governments were uniquely corrupt. In Andrews’s words, Southern corruption during the period was “not just a matter of a little graft here and there,” but rather constituted “the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few.”

• Two of the most prominent “Reconstruction revisionists,” W.E.B. Du Bois and Eric Foner, are Marxists, she says. And both argued that Reconstruction should have redistributed more land from Confederate plantation owners to former slaves. Therefore, when historians “say that Reconstruction only failed because it was not tried hard enough, what they mean is that America did not go all the way to a 1917-style [Bolshevik] revolution.”

Andrews’s condemnation of contemporary U.S. historiography is almost refreshing for its forthrightness. Unlike some of her ideological bedfellows, Andrews is not trying to veil her wildly reactionary understanding of American racial history behind more respectable concerns; no ill-defined abstractions like “critical race theory” shroud her apologia for white Southern redemption. Yet Andrews is only candid in relative terms. In truth, her column is unrelenting in its refusal to baldly state its most incendiary implications.

Her account of Reconstruction-era corruption is a case in point. Andrews devotes much of her piece to reciting the period’s most notorious instances of graft and rentierism, from the South Carolina State House’s exorbitant liquor budget to the ring of would-be railroad barons who sucked millions of dollars out of North Carolina’s state legislature, only to exhaust taxpayers’ funds on speculative endeavors before completing a single track. But the existence of widespread corruption during Reconstruction is not in dispute. In his seminal “revisionist” account of the period, Foner writes, “Corruption may be ubiquitous in American history, but it thrived in the Reconstruction South because of the specific circumstances of Republican rule.” The question that separates revisionists like Foner from Redemption apologists like Andrews is not whether corruption was rampant during Reconstruction but why this was the case.

Foner attributes the phenomenon largely to the postbellum South’s inherent economic difficulties and political underdevelopment. War left much of the region’s economy in literal ruins. Restoring prosperity required rapid development in general and railroad infrastructure in particular. With private capital reluctant to invest large sums in the South, the burden of financing industrialization fell on state governments. Officials in those governments often had few economic prospects outside of office, in part because of wartime devastation, and extraordinary opportunities for soliciting bribes, as corporations and communities vied for state aid. Given this context, postwar corruption was liable to be extensive, even in the absence of Reconstruction’s democratizing reforms. In support of this view, revisionists note that southern Democrats (i.e., Reconstruction’s opponents) engaged in no small amount of corruption themselves. In fact, the legislation that transferred millions from North Carolina taxpayers to railroad fraudsters, which Andrews righteously condemns, was co-authored by former Confederates.

By contrast, the Dunning School — the dominant school of thought on Reconstruction for most of the 20th century and the one that Andrews implicitly champions — attributes postbellum corruption to Black enfranchisement specifically. In this view, the formerly enslaved simply were not prepared for the rigors of self-government. As voters, freed Blacks’ ignorance left them vulnerable to the depredations of demagogues; as legislators, their lack of civic virtue lent itself to corruption.

Andrews never frankly endorses this argument. But her column is premised upon it. The existence of corruption during Reconstruction cannot render the project “objectively bad” unless one stipulates that a less corrupt political order would have flourished in its absence. If Andrews does not believe that the restoration of white-supremacist rule in the postbellum South would have been preferable to Reconstruction — and/or that its ultimate restoration in 1877 was a form of progress — then her column makes little sense.

And Andrews does wink at these views. At one point, she laments Reconstruction as “a time of school commissioners who signed their names with an X,” a tacit reference to democratizing measures that made it possible for illiterates to hold public office. At another, she contends that Reconstruction bore a resemblance to “the postcolonial regimes that arose in Africa in the 1960s,” in that both were ruinous yet still elicit a “how-dare-you reaction” from “defenders who insist that any more gradual path would have been an unspeakable moral enormity.”

Nevertheless, Andrews never spells out her affirmative case for that “more gradual path.” She catalogues Reconstruction’s sins and failures but does not weigh them against those of Jim Crow rule. She laments the South Carolina legislature’s outsize furniture budget but does not explain why she believes this was a greater affront to republican government than Black disenfranchisement.

Andrews’s reluctance to describe and defend her preferred alternative to Reconstruction is understandable. Doing so would require an explicit expression of contempt for Black Americans’ political rights (among respectable conservatives, decorum dictates that such contempt be implied, not averred). It would also be difficult to defend white redemption on Andrews’s own terms. After all, “the complete subordination of every level of government to the personal enrichment of a few” would make a fitting description of both the Confederate regime that preceded Reconstruction and the Jim Crow one that supplanted it.

Andrews condemns Reconstruction-era governments for squandering hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars. And she implies that such plunder derived from the excessively rapid democratization of the South, which enabled the political participation of the indigent and illiterate. And yet, when the South was dominated by the region’s wealthiest and best-educated denizens — which is to say, throughout the antebellum period, when the planter elite ran the show — its rulers sacrificed exponentially greater sums of collective wealth on the altar of their own enrichment. On the eve of the American Revolution, the per capita GDP of the South, in inflation-adjusted terms, was $3,100 per year. In New England, that figure was $1,832. Despite this head start, by the onset of the Civil War, the South had forfeited its superior prosperity; in 1860, Southern per capita GDP was $4,000 compared to New England’s $5,337.

The South’s relative poverty, persistent into the present day, is not an artifact of Northern tyranny or any other external menace. Rather, it is largely the byproduct of a planter elite that forbade the region from modernizing during the first decades of the industrial revolution. Antebellum Southern elites opposed state and federal investment in education, infrastructure, and agricultural improvement, depriving the region of human and physical capital. They discouraged migration to the South out of fear that inflows of free laborers would depress slave prices and dilute their local power. In sum, as the Republican economist Karl Smith put it in 2019, the antebellum South’s “slash-and-burn economy, dominated by a rent-seeking elite, trapped the South in poverty.”

Thus, by delaying the region’s development, pre-Reconstruction Southern governments effectively cost the South many trillions of dollars in wealth, all for the sake of maximizing the capacity of a small minority to profit off of enslaving and breeding human beings. Then these governments led their region into a catastrophic war in the name of exporting their low-growth, high-atrocity economic model to the Western United States.

It is difficult to see how a reasonable person could find this record less corrupt and contemptible than that of the Reconstruction-era governments. Especially since the latter made real progress in rectifying the former’s failures through the establishment of public schools and the construction of hospitals, roads, bridges, railroads, and myriad other forms of modernizing infrastructure. The alternative to Reconstruction in the Civil War’s wake was to hand power back to the planter elite, which had sacrificed development to the higher good of crimes against humanity. Andrews implicitly favors this alternative but declines to tell us why.

Andrews’s second charge against today’s Reconstruction historiography — that it is rooted less in established facts than in communist propaganda — is scarcely worth dignifying with a counterargument. For one thing, while Foner and Du Bois do indeed belong to the Marxist tradition, there are many, many prominent “revisionist” historians who aren’t fellow travelers. More critically, contra Andrews, there is nothing particularly “Soviet” about the idea that Reconstruction should have involved more “land redistribution.” The notion that true political enfranchisement requires a modicum of economic autonomy — such as the yeoman farmer achieves through land ownership — is Jeffersonian, not Leninist. And the idea that those who improve the land through their labor have a stronger right to its ownership than despotic enslavers is as Lockean as it is Marxist. The fact that Andrews derides the “expropriation” of plantation owners by former slaves raises questions about her own theory of what constitutes justice in the realm of property rights.

Finally, Andrews’s initial justification for her red-baiting is patently ridiculous. Her contention that the “only possible reason for lionizing this traumatic episode would be if you had an ulterior political reason to do so” is a difficult sentence to comprehend if one accepts the existence and humanity of Black Americans. Can Andrews really not think of any possible reason why a non-Leninist might lionize a period in which the great mass of Black Southerners secured political power for the first time?

In any case, the political dispute that shadows contemporary debates over Reconstruction doesn’t concern the desirability of Bolshevism so much as that of popular democracy. I can’t speak to Andrews’s personal motivations. So it may well be a coincidence that she is reviving rationalizations for Black disenfranchisement at a time when the Republican Party is subverting election administration and working to entrench racial inequality in political representation. But there is certainly an affinity between conservative arguments against Reconstruction and the movement’s contemporary justifications for gerrymandering and election subversion. In both instances, the right invokes the irresponsibility of Black voters and corruption of Black officials to legitimate anti-majoritarian forms of governance. When Donald Trump sought to discredit the integrity of the 2020 election’s results, he concentrated his allegations of impropriety on heavily Black urban centers such Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta — even though Republicans lost far more ground in affluent white suburbs. In 2018, the Republican speaker of the Wisconsin state Assembly justified his party’s decision to transfer various authorities away from the incoming Democratic governor on the grounds that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have [won] a clear majority.”

In recent years, conservatives have accused liberals of embracing a moralistic revisionist history that privileges ideological dogma and political expediency above nuance and historical accuracy. In arguing that Reconstruction was “objectively bad,” Andrews ably demonstrates that on this matter, as on so many others, the right practices what it preaches against.

Her column is everything that Republicans have denounced “The 1619 Project” for being. And while the latter was a mere magazine issue, the right’s burgeoning “1877 Project” threatens to become something far more sinister.

The Authoritarian Right’s 1877 Project