Memory  /  Debunk

What The Atlantic Got Wrong About Reconstruction

In 1901, a series of articles took a dim view of the era, and of the idea that all Americans ought to participate in the democratic process.

The last time The Atlantic decided to reckon with Reconstruction in a sustained way, its editor touted “a series of scholarly, unpartisan studies of the Reconstruction Period” as “the most important group of papers” it would publish in 1901.

That was true, as far as it went. The collection of essays assembled by Bliss Perry, the literature professor who had recently taken the magazine’s reins, was a tribute to the editor’s craft. The contributors were evenly split between northerners and southerners, and included Democrats and Republicans, participants and historians, professors and politicians. One had been a Confederate colonel, another a Union captain. The prose was as vivid as the perspectives seemed varied.

Yet “The Reconstruction Papers,” as they were billed, were equally an indictment of the journalistic conceit of balance. Perry prided himself on the diversity of the voices he featured in his magazine. “It is not to be expected that they will agree with one another,” he once wrote. “Perhaps they will not even, in successive articles, agree with themselves.” That was a noble vision, but the forum he convened fell well short of the ideal. Despite their disagreements, on the most crucial points, the authors of his Reconstruction studies shared the common views of the elite class to which nearly all of them belonged—and much of what they wrote was both morally and factually indefensible.

The first essay came from Perry’s old Princeton colleague Woodrow Wilson—or “My dear Wilson,” as Perry addressed him. Wilson, then a prominent political scientist, focused on the constitutional legacies of the era—he believed Congress had overstepped its role by protecting civil rights—but slipped in a broad critique of the enterprise. “The negroes were exalted; the states were misgoverned and looted in their name,” he wrote, until “the whites who were real citizens got control again.”

“It’s pretty much the plot of The Birth of a Nation,” Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University, told me. She meant that literally. D. W. Griffith’s flamboyantly racist film adapted quotes from the future president’s monumental A History of the American People, in which he expanded on the story he’d sketched in The Atlantic.

The last essay in the collection came from William A. Dunning, a Columbia University historian. The work of his students—who became known as the Dunning School—would promote the view that Black people were incapable of governing themselves, and that Reconstruction had been a colossal error. Dunning portrayed the end of Reconstruction as a reversion to the natural order, with Jim Crow enforcing “the same fact of racial inequality” that slavery had once encoded.