Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 11: Charles Ramsdell, Lost Cause ideologist

The neo-Confederate/Lost Cause version of history was elaborated at a scholarly, "highbrow" level by the Dunning School of Southern history associated with historian William Dunning. This interpretation was the dominant or "hegemonic" interpretation of the Civil War and the antebellum and Reconstruction period during the first half of the 20th century. It was challenged by African-American historians like W.E.B DuBois and some white historians. But it took the post-World War II civil rights movement to unseat it as the predominent understanding of that period among American historians generally.

Fred Arthur Bailey recounts the career of one of the most important and influential of the Dunning School historians, Charles Ramsdell, in The Dunning School (2013), John David Smith et al, eds. He gives a good sketch of how the neo-Confederate narrative was elaborated in professional history and how it was shaped by organized political pressures and funding from conservative Southerners.

The period of 1865-1875, the decade after the war, saw a democratizing movement in the South led by white and black Republicans North and South, enforced with varying levels of enthusiasm by the federal government. Black men had their right to vote recognized, education in basic literacy and more was provided by former slaves, former slaves became free laborers and farmers, and both black citizens and white Republicans became active in Southern politics, all of which had been impossible under the slave system. The first African-American Senator was Hiram Revels of Mississippi, who took the Senate seat once held by Jefferson Davis.

Beginning in 1875, the anti-Reconstruction, anti-democracy "Redeemer" movement successfully pushed back many of the democratic gains of Reconstruction, depriving many black citizens of the vote and making the former Confederacy politically a "Solid South" supporting the Democratic Party, with the Republican Party largely eliminated in the South. "The Klan's successes" in domestic terrorism and intimidation "lead to the restoration of white rule," a laudable goal in the Redeemers' view. The Redeemers' new order promoted an ideological outlook and narrative based on the Lost Cause pseudohistory in which slavery had been benign, slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, and blacks were naturally inferior to whites.

Bailey's account of Charles Ramsdell's scholarship describes some of the major claims of the Dunning School of Lost Cause scholarship. For instance:
[Ramsdell in 1914:] "How shall we take these ten millions of shiftless, improvident, unmoral, inefficient child-men of an alien race [African-Americans] and convert them into desirable citizens? With individual exceptions, the negro population rests like a great black blight upon the industrial and social life of the South.”
{Ramsdell's] paper, “The Natural Limits of Slavery,” emphasized that though the “peculiar institution” was economically viable in the 1850s, rational men of thought should have realized that it was on the verge of destruction, that within a generation, perhaps sooner, it would have come to its inevitable end. Absent the Civil War and absent the nation-damaging Reconstruction era, inevitable emancipation would have led to reasonable “codes for the control of free negroes” that would have limited the negative effect of black citizenship and enfranchisement.
The Lost Cause narrative, even in its scholarly version, was highly ideological and deeply biased against black Americans and against whites who supported equal rights for them.

But Ransdell adopted a positivist outlook and claimed that he was doing only scientific historical research:
Throughout Reconstruction in Texas Ramsdell portrayed the postbellum decade as a violent epoch in which Texas whites, subjugated by adversaries of their own race — northern-sponsored reformers and politicians — thwarted a scheme to put the defeated slaveholders under permanent subjection to their former slaves. Though by definition the Texas scholar’s commitment to scientific history meant that he forsook the development of a discernable [sic] thesis and considered the personal interpretation of facts a violation of professional ethics, he nonetheless developed powerful themes that he assumed were no more than incontrovertible facts. With the destruction of Confederate authority, traditional southern social relationships stood near collapse, he argued. “The immediate and pressing problem was to preserve the normal balance of society, and to provide for the freedman an industrial position in that society such that agricultural interests would suffer the least possible additional shock.” Southern whites assumed that “free negro labor would be a failure and that a labor famine was imminent.” Subsequent events validated that fear, for to “the childlike negro, concerned only with the immediate present, there was no difference” between working under a labor contract “and his old condition as a slave.” The Texas scholar emphasized that, emancipated from restraint, these newly freed people abandoned their former masters, replacing obedience with “vagrancy, theft, vice and insolence”; and where “negroes had made contracts they broke them without cause, often leaving their families for their employers to feed.” [my emphasis]
This Lost Cause version of history was enforced as the official, allegedly truthful and objective, version of history by Southern legislators and what we now call Confederate "heritage" groups.

Bailey also describes Ranmdell's passion for Southern history and his extensive original research. It's important to keep in mind that even very ideological histories can sometimes present important factual material.

But the larger Lost Cause/neo-Confederate historical narrative is really pseudohistory with a heavy ideological agenda.

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