What happens when our study of history becomes a casualty of identity politics?
The oft-narrated American story of slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and segregation contains some important puzzles that are not easily resolved. Why were white Northerners, many of whom were indifferent or downright hostile to the rights of blacks, willing to fight a long, lethal war against slavery? Why, in the aftermath of that war, did white Northerners support constitutional amendments extending legal equality and voting rights to former slaves—but then allow Southern states to nullify most of those rights for nearly a century?
One way of answering these questions is to highlight race as the central factor. White Northerners (such a narrative would go), though racially prejudiced, cared most of all about preserving the Union, and in that effort were for a time able to rise above prejudice in the service of a greater cause. But after the Union was saved, their commitment to racial equality gradually faded. Their accustomed prejudice and indifference reasserted themselves, leaving the Southern states free to violate the rights of blacks.
Forrest A. Nabors tells the long story of slavery and its aftermath in a different way. For Nabors, and for the 19th century lawmakers whose arguments he features in From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction , the central story is a protracted, high-stakes contest between two radically opposed regime types: oligarchy (“the Slave Power”) versus republicanism, the regime established by the Founders, which presupposed natural and legal equality.
Nabors, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alaska, takes as his starting point Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy as a regime “in which a rich minority rules for the advantage of the rich minority and in which the people composing that political society are ranked.” Slavery as practiced in the United States was in this sense an extreme version of oligarchy, of rule by the few for the sake of the few.
When Republicans in the U.S. Congress spoke of slavery as an oligarchy in this political sense, Nabors argues, they meant not only the rule of white over black in the South, but more broadly and fundamentally a regime in which “a few rich whites ruled over the many, both white and black,” and in which disadvantaged, non-slaveholding whites were oppressed and degraded along with black slaves. The central meaning of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, according to Nabors and the Reconstruction Republicans to whom he gives voice, was to rescue the Founders’ regime from a slave-powered oligarchical counterrevolution, and restore it to its original republicanism, grounded in the principles of natural equality and majority rule.
From this perspective, every white citizen, North or South, who did not belong to the wealthy, powerful slaveholding elite had a direct personal and political interest in resisting the Slave Power. Accordingly, the book spends relatively little space on slavery’s oppression of the slave, which it treats as well-known and undisputed, and instead emphasizes slavery’s injustice to supposedly free and equal non-slaveholding white citizens. It features a searing indictment of slavery as a fundamentally anti-republican institution in every sphere: political power, distribution of wealth, civil liberties and legal process, educational practice, and personal character. Nabors makes a strong case, for instance, that slave states’ chronic underinvestment in public education resulted not only from slaveholders’ stinginess with their money, but also because they pursued a conscious policy of keeping poor white Southerners ignorant as a tool of political control.
From Nabors’ oligarchy-versus-republicanism perspective, it ceases to be mysterious why non-slaveholding white citizens would passionately hate slavery enough to fight a lethal war against it. Indeed some non-slaveholding white Southerners were noted for their hatred of slavery, such as a North Carolinian he mentions, Hinton Helper, whose The Impending Crisis (1857), an indictment of slavery for its oppression of white citizens, was taken up by Northern Republicans. For Helper and many others, the Slave Power’s effect on non-slaveholding whites was its principal injustice. Indeed, as Nabors points out, Helper himself “hated blacks as much as he hated slavery,” and after the war joined the ranks of the segregationists.
In this sense, From Oligarchy to Republicanism provides a compelling answer to one puzzle (why so many free whites hated slavery) even as it raises another: Why was it so difficult for disadvantaged whites and blacks, both of whom were victims of the Slave Power oligarchy, to make common cause against it?
That is where historical narratives that center on race and racism are compelling. White Americans’ prejudice toward blacks and other non-European races, these would say, was powerful enough to inhibit, in most cases, interracial coalitions against a common oppressor. Nabors, though, would not put racism and the struggle against it at the center of the story of Reconstruction. Through most of the book, he submerges the theme of race. It does come in at the end, where he describes in detail the horrific violence against blacks in the post-Reconstruction South. His approach is not to deny the significance of race and racism, but instead to treat racism as the fruit and consequence of oligarchy, which as a political regime requires and fosters a social order of inequality and ranks.
We should stop treating racism “as an uncaused primary cause and as a universally acceptable explanation for many phenomena,” writes Nabors. He adds: “Historically, the rise of the antebellum oligarchy in the South preceded the emergence of second-class citizenship for black Americans, and the sequential order suggests a causal link.” In short, for Nabors, political oligarchy grounded on slavery is the primary cause of that second-class citizenship. Racism was one of its consequences, one particular instrument among others by which that oligarchy maintained its control.
Every oligarchy takes care to divide the various subordinated groups against one another. Nabors struggles at times to account for the failure of poor whites and recently emancipated blacks to discover and act upon a common republican interest after the war. “In light of the noisy, vituperative, and pathetic demands for republican liberty in antebellum times by ruled Southern whites and their representatives,” he writes, “it is surprising, almost incomprehensible, that they refrained from unifying with the freedmen, at the price of risking the loss of their own liberty for which they had so long clamored.”
His explanation for the savage anti-black violence after the war is that disadvantaged white Southerners, oppressed by slavery, mistakenly identified the slave rather than the slaveholder as the agent of their injury: “Stripped of their republican liberty, the common people of the South viewed slaves and their ruling masters as coordinate parts of the machinery that humiliatingly crushed them.”
Nabors documents at length Republicans’ descriptions of their aims—before, during, and after the war—as restorationist rather than revolutionary: to “reconstruct” the American republic in the form intended by its Founders, grounded in natural right, equality under the law, and majority rule. On this view, “The Fourteenth Amendment was not a revolution in the idea of republicanism or republican citizenship” but “a revolution in federal enforcement” of the Founders’ original republican vision. (Emphasis in original.) The author appears to share this view of the nature and purposes of Reconstruction. It was the Slave Power oligarchy, not the Republicans, who had “revolutionized” the regime bequeathed by the Founders.
In my view, this restorationist account of Emancipation and Reconstruction is persuasive in some respects and unpersuasive in others. But Nabors presents convincing evidence that the Republican leaders themselves understood what they were doing in these terms. One of the strengths of From Oligarchy to Republicanism is that it gives extended voice to many now-forgotten Reconstruction-era Republicans such as Senator Henry Wilson (R-Mass.), Representative Martin Welker (R-Oh.), Representative Godlove Orth (R-Ind.), and Senator John Hale (R-N.H.); and to Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass.), who is remembered more for what happened to him (a brutal assault by a slave-state congressman on the floor of the Senate) than for the cast of his thinking.
Sumner has acquired a historical reputation as an insufferable moralist even among those who acknowledge his principled opposition to slavery and racial discrimination. (Nabors analyzes at length Sumner’s Senate speech of February 5 and 6, 1866, on the meaning of American republicanism, where he comes across as more thoughtful and less moralistic than he is usually portrayed.)
Abraham Lincoln appears in the narrative as a historical actor, but Nabors does not delve deeply into what he wrote and said. This is probably appropriate. Lincoln has long been the subject of such intense attention that it pushes other thoughtful Republicans to the background. Nor does Nabors discuss in detail the arguments of Reconstruction’s critics. It would be interesting, as a future project, to widen the ideological range of the narrative, and to compare Lincoln’s thought with that of the Republicans featured here.
Nabors’ presentation of Reconstruction as restoring the Founders’ original republican vision implicitly contrasts with Eric Foner’s 1988 book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Was Reconstruction a return to established republican principles, or the first act of an “unfinished revolution” toward the promise of a flourishing multiracial democracy? I would suggest that both frames are persuasive in different respects. Nabors is convincing about the degree to which “the Slave Power” skewed political power, wealth, legal rights, and educational opportunity for white citizens in ways sharply opposed to the kind of republic that the Founders aimed to create.
But what Republicans actually did during the Civil War and Reconstruction—emancipate millions of enslaved persons of African descent, immediately and without compensation to owners, then grant them citizenship and voting rights—was a revolutionary act. Many of the most prominent among the Founders, as Nabors points out, regarded slavery as a violation of natural right and hoped for the eventual disappearance of the institution. But in practice they were unable or unwilling to take effective steps to prevent its numerical and geographic expansion.
Thomas Jefferson denounced slavery both for its violation of natural rights and its corrupting effects on republican character. But for Jefferson slavery could be abolished only if the former enslaved race were colonized to some other part of the world; he could not imagine a flourishing multiracial republic encompassing both former slaves and former slave owners. Abraham Lincoln, too, originally supported colonization—though only if it was voluntary, and Lincoln never made colonization a precondition for taking action against slavery as Jefferson did. It was black Americans’ willingness to fight for the Union during the war that ultimately persuaded Lincoln that a multiracial republic was possible.
Most of the Reconstruction Republicans who supported unconditional emancipation, citizenship, and the franchise for freed slaves during and after the war had vociferously denied any such intention before the war. Nabors may be right that they saw themselves as restoring the Founders’ republican vision. But ultimately it took revolutionary actions to do so. In my judgment, Republicans accomplished a greater and more radical work than their minds could comprehend. And yes, the work remains an unfinished one.
In the wake of last summer’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville—a march whose pretext was the removal of a Confederate monument—Forrest Nabors’ book is a timely reminder of the full range of anti-republican institutions that the Confederacy fought a war to try to perpetuate.