No one can understand the present without knowing the past. It’s as simple as that. We all are born ignorant in the midst of an ongoing story, a long chain of causes and effects. It is the job of historians to bring us up to date.
No one has ever done that better than Claude G. Bowers, whose book "The Tragic Era" recounts in great detail the counterrevolution that took place between Abraham Lincoln’s death and 1876. Some historians have referred to this period as America’s French Revolution. It is known as Reconstruction.
That counterrevolution, which killed the old republic established by the Constitution, created modern America, a centralized government dominated by industrialists and financiers. All the ills of modern America, including a disdain for the Constitution, an imperialist foreign policy and modern racism, came out of Reconstruction.
Bowers was born in Indiana and was a Jeffersonian Democrat, a popular historian and an ambassador to Spain and Chile. He tells his story with the skill of a novelist, but it is important to note that he tells it from a Northern point of view. He brings to life historical figures who are largely just names to most of us — men like the malevolent Thaddeus Stevens, the idealist Charles Sumner and President Andrew Johnson, a much-maligned but extraordinarily brave defender of the Constitution.
Readers will see that lies and slander, ideological fanaticism, an outrageously biased press and massive corruption are nothing new on the American political scene. The current Bush administration is almost Sunday schoolish compared with the Radical Republicans of that era and the Grant administration.
"The Tragic Era" was published in 1929, before the pall of political correctness descended on the country. Bowers spares no one. Today his book has been called a racist scholarly work, but in reading it, I failed to see any evidence of racism. He believed that former slaves were not ready for the vote, most of them being illiterate, and events proved him correct. Under today’s political correctness, one does not tell the truth if anyone finds it offensive.
Stevens spelled out the plan for Reconstruction, which was passed over the vetoes of President Johnson: Disenfranchise most of the white Southerners, give the vote to former slaves, make sure they vote Republican, and the party could safely do what it pleased as long as it pleased. What it pleased to do was rob the South. The list of crimes committed by the carpetbagger governments backed up by federal soldiers is appalling. These scoundrels pitted black against white by telling former slaves that not voting Republican would mean a return to slavery and promising them that land would be confiscated and given to them. Land was confiscated all right, by raising taxes higher than the impoverish whites could afford to pay, but it was not given to the former slaves.
The racial bitterness of this period is still with us, though thankfully to a lesser degree. When martial law and carpetbagger rule were finally ended, segregation and a hatred for the Republican Party were the results.
Honest Northerners had learned the truth and were disgusted by the corruption. The Republican Party, taken over by industrialists and financiers, no longer needed either the South or the black vote. Both were unceremoniously dumped by the Republican Party. Both remained impoverished for decades.
Today, in my judgment, both major parties are the parties of big business and financiers. The middle and lower classes of Americans are unrepresented.
It’s too bad that most Americans today don’t have the sand in their craw that their ancestors had in the 19th century. People fought back in those days. One lady in the Farm Belt famously said, "We have to raise less corn and more hell." Out of the turmoil of that day came both progressive politics and the American unions. So far, Americans seem asleep, but they might wake up at any moment.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.