Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of New York University Law School and served at the New York Public Service Commission as staff counsel and then administrative law judge (1977-97).
He is the author of eight books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine (1973), Children of the Dragon, and The Case for Rational Optimism (2009).
Robinson is a professional coin dealer and writes The Rational Optimist blog. He is married to the poet Therese Broderick and has a daughter, Elizabeth.
Eric Foner on the race issue: Reconstruction and now
By Frank S. Robinson
"The past is not dead. It's not even past."
— William Faulkner
Eric Foner is a leading American historian, appearing at the New York State Writers Institute's Albany Book Festival. Reminding me of that Faulkner line, Foner spoke of history — and its interpretation — shaping current politics and culture.
America was a slave society for a lot longer than not. This was not confined to the South, but colored everything. And we're still dealing with the fallout.
Foner focused on the Reconstruction period following the Civil War (1865-77), which he feels transformed America. Despite being seen as falling short in its aim to normalize the situation of African-Americans.
Foner said that from around 1900 to the '60s, the received view of Reconstruction (the "Dunning School") was negative, deeming the "Radical Republicans" misguided in seeking black equality, even villainous. (Embodied in the 1915 film, "Birth of a Nation.") This fit with the racial dispensation which had come to prevail.
Photo credit: Daniella Zalcman
I remember imbibing that viewpoint myself: "carpetbaggers" was a term of opprobrium for Northerners who went South in the reform effort, meddling where they had no business; the radicals' leading figure, Thaddeus Stevens, a fanatical monster; President Johnson, who fought them, lionized; the one Republican Senator who opposed his impeachment considered heroic. (He was even one of JFK's Profiles in Courage.) I was unreflectively somewhat racist myself in youth. Only with deeper reading of history, and raised consciousness, was that picture inverted.*
Foner calls Reconstruction our "second founding," making the Constitution what it had never before been; a "regime change." The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th established birthright citizenship, and equal protection of the laws; the 15th gave non-white males the vote. This swept away the pre-war legal paradigm, exemplified by the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, in which non-whites were not just second-class citizens, they couldn't be citizens, with any rights, at all.
"A new birth of freedom," said Lincoln at Gettysburg, prefiguring this.
But Southern whites fought back, with violent guerrilla warfare, led by the KKK. President Grant crushed them militarily. But once he left office, the troops were withdrawn, enabling whites to recapture political control, imposing the Jim Crow regime to keep blacks "in their place," sanctioned by various judicial decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, and enforced with the terrorism of barbaric lynchings in which almost the whole white Southern population was complicit. (Foner attributed this story partly to the desire for national reconciliation, with Southerners not held to account for their treason.)
I see the Republicans of the 1860s as having represented an advanced humanism utterly astonishing for their time. After all, the ex-slaves were very alien, coming from a condition of abject degradation, viewed almost universally as biologically and morally inferior. How did those Republicans rise above that to embrace them as fellow citizens?
I asked Foner this question. He said a big factor was the heroic service of many blacks as Union soldiers, refuting ancient stereotypes. This helped in building an ethos of true democratic egalitarianism.
How tragic that today's Republicans have gone radical in the opposite direction.
Foner appeared again later, in conversation with leading Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, talking about Confederate monuments. They put the subject in a larger context of "iconoclasm," with action against statues venting societal transformation — as with monuments to Soviet "heroes" — and the Taliban's dynamiting the giant Bamiyan Buddha figures.
It was pointed out that most Confederate monuments were erected not right after the war but during Jim Crow's consolidation, as one more way to show blacks where they stood. It wasn't just about heritage and history, but who gets to choose what to honor, and why. Foner noted that Tennessee has more memorials to General Nathan Bedford Forrest — the "homicidal maniac" who founded the Klan — than Andrew Jackson.
The statues also reflect Southern whites' romanticization of "The Lost Cause" as a noble one, a battle for "state rights" and indeed "Liberty (!)" — slavery swept under the rug. Holzer expressed amazement at the emotional power this still packs. Southern whites really see their pride and honor somehow at stake. Thus the removal of statues has often provoked violence.
But secession was not a noble cause, it was a vile one. A rebellion against the ideals America actually stands for (or should). The war was not about "liberty" but its opposite, slavery — no slavery, no war. The discussants quoted Robert E. Lee himself saying there should be no monuments to Confederate leaders, because it was not the South's finest hour.
* I grew to consider Johnson our worst president — until Trump, who's off the charts.