In the wake of the recent controversy over Confederate statues in the South, Americans have become more interested in the long and complex history of the Civil War. One era of history Americans have had a hard time grappling with is the Reconstruction era after the South’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.
Both Northerners and Southerners interpreted the Reconstruction era similarly throughout the course of the 20th century. Interestingly, the mainstream interpretation of Reconstruction throughout the 20th century shares a great deal with the ideology of the neo-Confederates today. In this version of the Reconstruction story, Northern carpetbaggers plundered the South, installed “Negro rule,” and exploited the South’s resources. This interpretation of the Reconstruction era is often called the “misrule myth” in historical circles.
The main reason for the spread of the “misrule myth” across 20th century American education has to do with the book The Tragic Era by the Democrat Claude Bowers. While there’s some validity to Bowers’s work, most historians today say Bowers was primarily motivated to write his version of the Reconstruction to shame Republicans.
Another possible explanation for the wide diffusion of the “misrule myth” could be due to what’s known as the “Dunning School.” Headquartered at Columbia University, this school of historians was headed by the prominent Professor William Dunning. It’s strange for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around the fact that Northerners were actually responsible for giving the North’s “misrule myth” even more credibility.
In our own day and age, our perceptions of the Reconstruction are diametrically opposed to what 20th century Americans would have been taught. Most mainstream education nowadays teaches that the Northerners who went into the South were on a mission to spread Unionism. In this version of history, carpetbaggers were driven by a moral desire to enforce the 14th Amendment in Southern society.
Looking at these two myths of the motives behind Reconstruction should help us better appreciate the true grey areas of history. Pulitzer Prize winner Edwin Milton Yoder Junior recently argued that both of these “myths” of the Reconstruction era show the relativity of all historical interpretation. One of the best ways Americans can start to understand the complex truths of this important era, Yoder says, is to stop applying our modern standards of morality onto the past.