In 1915, 50 years after the end of the Civil War,
D.W. Griffith, released his epic film Birth of a Nation. The greatest
blockbuster of the silent era, Birth of a Nation was seen by an
estimated 200 million Americans by 1946.
Based on a novel by a Baptist preacher named Thomas Dixon,
the film painted Reconstruction, the period following the Civil
War, as a time when vengeful former slaves, opportunistic white
scalawags, and corrupt Yankee carpetbaggers plundered and oppressed
the former Confederacy until respectable white Southerners rose
up and restored order. A "scalawag" was a southern white
who supported the Republican Party; a "carpetbagger"
was a northern-born Republican who had migrated to the South.
The film depicted a vindictive northern Congressman (modeled
on the Pennsylvania Republican Thaddeus Stevens)and a power-hungry mulatto eager to marry the Congressman's daughter.
The film's hero is an aristocratic Confederate veteran who joins
the Ku Klux Klan and at the film's climax rescues the woman from
armed freedmen. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly described
the film as "history written with lightning."
During the 20th century, far more Americans probably learned
about Reconstruction from Hollywood rather than from history books
or lectures. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind
depicted Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to overturn the
South's "natural" order by giving political power former
Even though the Confederacy lost the Civil War, it succeeded,
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in winning
the ideological war that determined how Americans viewed the Civil
War era. For much of the 20th century, the dominant view
of Reconstruction, repeated in many high school and college textbooks,
was that it was a period of "bayonet rule," during which vindictive
northern carpetbaggers and their white and black puppets engaged
in an orgy of corruption and misrule. According to this view,
a courageous President Johnson, seeking to carry out Lincoln's
policy of reconciliation, was confronted by a hostile Congress
trying to punish the defeated South.
In recent years, this interpretation of Reconstruction has
been thoroughly dismantled. It is now clear that Reconstruction
was a failed, but admirable, attempt to adjust to the realities
of emancipation: To guarantee the civil and political rights of
former slaves and forge a more just society out of the ruins of slavery. President Johnson's reconstruction policy, far from being a continuation of Lincoln's, was steadfastly opposed to protecting the rights of African Americans.
Reconstruction was the most daring experiment in American history.
It represented an attempt to transform the institutions and patterns
of social relations of the Old South. It gave black Americans
in the South their first taste of political power. Out of Reconstruction
came constitutional amendments that extended citizenship and voting
rights to African Americans. This era also witnessed the federal
government's first efforts to create social welfare programs.
In the end, Reconstruction failed to establish a less racially
divided society. Its failure doomed the South to decades of relative
economic underdevelopment and ensured that the South would be
dominated by a single political party. It also left the entire
country with the unfinished task of achieving full economic and
political equality for the descendants of slaves.
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