A Review: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution

March 29, 2008

A Review


America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877


Eric Foner

Review by R.E. Prindle

Eric Foner

     Foner’s Reconstruction was originally published in 1988 some twenty years ago.  Some water has passed under the bridge since then.  For instance genetic advances have been startling.  The role of biology in the various species of Homo Sapiens is becoming more apparent and clear.  The question is now not one of prejudice but of science, of knowing.  One imagines that Mr. Foner would have or should have incorporated these discoveries into his study.  One might say that the study of history has been profoundly affected by the new findings.

     Mr. Foner takes the old sentimental view of the race, or species rather, problem in the United States.  While we may all agree that slavery is an evil that should never be tolerated in a society or be begun by one, slavery has nevertheless been ever present , even endemic, in human society for many thousands of years down to the present.  Slavery has been practiced in every society on every continent, there are no innocents.  There were slave cities in China at the beginning of WWII and there are those who say that current labor conditions in China differ not at all from slavery.  Indeed there are tens of thousands of women and children serving as sex slaves on every continent at the present.  Nothing is done about sex slavery, in fact, there is little or no publicity or protest.

      Granting then that slavery is and has been endemic to human society, there is no reason to consider White slave owners in the South of the United States as worse than any other slave owners whether we are revolted at the concept of slavery or not.  And, I might point out, not everyone is.  As slave owners in Africa, for instance, had the right of life, death and mutilation over their slaves and the US slave owners didn’t it is clear that US slave owning was much more humane than the African.  That’s not an awful lot to be proud of but, as I say, the issue of slavery in the world and in the US is not a dead letter yet.  The future looks more bleak than promising.

     While not unique, slavery in the US was characterized by one race or species being paramount and the other subordinate.  A peculuarity of US slavery is that the slaves were classed as a sort of farm animal.  I think it clear that we are dealing with two different Homo Sapiens species one of which is more highly evolved than the other.  As the African was first evolved as all agree it would follow that the first evolved, the African, would be a predecessor to following more highly evolved human species.  Thus the problem shifts from merely freeing equals to what to do with the less highly evolved species.  That has been the central problem of Reconstruction past and present.

     The reading of the human genome has proven the ongoing evolution of the human species to be true.  The scientific fact or reality runs counter to human inner wishful thinking, at least White inner wishful thinking, that desires all Men to be equal.  The majority prefer wishful thinking to reality.  Reality must assert itself over wishful thinking however.

     The myth that powerful White people went to Africa and ripped these poor defenseless Africans forcefully from their soil is also false.  The slaves were legally sold by their chiefs to the Whites.  It is erroneous to think that Whites were ever the uncontested lords of Africa.  Until the introduction of modern firearms human physical realities were paramount and the Africans were physical equals.  Europeans by no means have ever had a physical advantage.  With the development of modern arms, military tactics and discipline Europeans developed a clear advantage over the mentally limited Africans.  Still Europeans never had the will or were able to dictate to Africans in the manner that slave owners could dictate to their slaves.

     The ability to command only came into existence briefly in the last quarter or so of the nineteenth century.  African resistance movements began after this brief window opened and closed.

     Whatever conception the average person has of Euroean-African relationships is certainly erroneous.

     Now, the Africans who came out of the jungles to be taken to the United States were primitive beyond belief while all concepts of civilization as practiced in the United States were foreign to them  The transition was no different than entering a parallel universe.

     Indeed as Foner points out when the former slaves were encouraged to return to Africa, the return to the jungles after having been elevated by White civilization was no longer possible for them.  The nation of Liberia created for them was not more enticing than discrimination against them in the United States.  Those who could quickly returned from Liberia to conditions in the Reconstruction South.

     The Southern planter who bought these slaves may perhaps be forgiven because he believed that he was dealing with a superior form of farm animal but a lower form of humanity- something between a cross of ape and human.  I do not say this is true only that it was believed.  As near as I can tell this was a common belief.  Indeed, I know of no early African explorer who believed differently.

     One has only to compare National Geographic photos of Africans from the twenties with current pictures to see that contact with Western civilization has worked a mremarkable transformation in the appearance of the of the African.

     While African slavery began toward the end of the seventeenth century in the US importation was the heaviest from 1790 to 1860.  A large number of Africans entered the country as slaves, albeit illegally, between 1810 and 1860.  Thus at the beginning of the Civil War a fairly large number of Africans had had little time to become acclimated to civilization at the time of emancipation.  Thus there were a fair number of literal savages that the North attempted to elevate over Southern Whites during Reconstruction.

     Mr. Foner does not seem to take into account the impossibility of near savages and Africans who had been in slavery for actual generations becoming citizens capable of governing a heterogeneous population  in a system that was completely foreign to their experience in Africa overnight if at all.  This is to make no adverse reflections on the Africans as people.  You might just as well take a homeless person from the streets and make him President of the United States.

     The number of Africans in the South were almost equal to the Whites.  In South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi the Africans were actually in the majority.   Thus as Southern society disintegrated and the full weight of Northern bigots was thrown behind the Africans in order to subjugate the Whites there was a real recipe for trouble.

     Nor was White society North or South all that developed in 1860 compared to that of today.  Universal education was far from a fact with compulsary schooling still in the future.  The University system was miniscule compared to the enormous industry of today.  Illiteracy in fact was quite high North or South.  Northern laborers in fact thought of themselves as wage slaves less well off even than the Southern Africans and this is too close to the truth to be lightly dismissed.  Small White children were forced to work in mines, for instance, at wages that would have shamed an ogre let alone should have shamed an ‘enlightened industrialist.’  If that wasn’t child slavery then no African was ever a slave in the US.

     So for the North to be condemnatory of the South was hypocrisy of the highest order.  It is all in how you characterize yourself compared to the other fellow.  Nevertheless there were different intellectual approaches to reality.

     Mr. Foner, who is an Israeli citizen, has little to feel superior about himself.  While Mr. Foner expresses great sympathy for the African while condemning Southern Whites, the Israeli solution to the Arab problem in Palestine makes one’s eyebrows rise, while they wish to expel recent Black African immigrants from the country so as not to pollute White Israelis.  While condemning segregation in the South one can’t help but notice that Mr. Foner’s own Israelis have built a fence between Israelis and Arabs and allow no Arabs on their side.  The Arabs are even Semites of the same human species as the Israelis and yet the Israelis call the Palestinians sub-human worthy of extermination.

     The Israelis just pound their cousins to death too.  I don’t even want to got into the detestable state of Lebanon.  I suppose my question is from whence this moral superiority of Mr. Foner and his Israelis arises.  His fellows even have terrorist camps like the ADL, AJC and SPLC that they run on American soil itself in order to control American opinion.

     US race relations have never been anything like relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians or even between them and us.  Thus while I’m sure that Mr. Foner has done quite a bit of research, at least as indicated by his footnotes, I’m not sure his vision is so unclouded as to make an accurate assessment of the facts.  One feels what’s sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander in Mr. Foner’s book and with his Israelis as well.

     I’m happy that Mr. Foner has made a lucrative home for himself here in the US with a darn good paying prestigious job in the University industry.  I don’t quarrel with his scholarship, such as it is, but I think his interpretation is a trifle suspect.

4 Responses to “A Review: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”

  1. Sven Doover Says:

    Is that supposed to be a (more or less objective) review on Eric Foner’s book, or your personal discussion on issues of Israel, Foner’s background, and your disagreement with Foner addressing the “lost cause”?
    According to your final two paragraphs, a German historian will never provide good essays on the history of the Jewish people; an Egyptian historian will never be very good in Babylonian or Hethitian historiography; and a Italian historian will never produce anything worth reading on the Carthago empire.
    I believe that Foner’s “attacks” on the Southern Slaveholder might derive from the fact that the United States are founded (in theory at least) on the assumption that “all men are created equal (…) endowed with certain unalienable rights” and that the, Social Darwinism affected and Bloody Shirt waving, historiography of the Dunning School is more than incorrect. Thus his claims on Southern slaveholders seem to be comprehensible.

  2. reprindle Says:

    Sven: Thanks for your attentive comments. Thoughtful readers are always appreciated.

    Historiography and historiographical attitudes are always in a state of flux. I don’t think any one is either all right or all wrong. The Dunning school has its points just as the Du Bois school has its. But, behind every historian’s scholarship are his assumptions.

    The bssis for historical assumptions was changed quite emphatically, I believe, by 9/11. The historical assumptions of the Revolutionary period (1789-2001) were made irrelevant. Even the evolutionary model was rendered invalid by genetic discoveries as evidenced by the recent flap over James Watson’s remarks anent the equality of the Homo Sapiens species.

    The assumption of the Founding Fathers that all Homo Sapiens are created equal has been invalidated not only by the emergence of evolutionary theory a hundred years more or less after the Fathers made their assumption but by more recent scientific discoveries. That Homo Sapiens are not the same has been proven beyond a shadow of doubt although the consequences are not yet clear. However the New Abolitionist Party which is composed of Liberals, Afro-Americans and Jews is calling for the destruction of ‘Whiteness’ on the planet by any means necessary. It would seem that your problem is how to reconcile this program with any discrimination toward Blacks and Jews or Jews towards Palestinians.

    Even though Foner’s book was written in 1988 and this is twenty years later so his views on discrimination may have been altered a little, I doubt they have been altered much.

    My point was that Foner is in the position of the pot calling the kettle black. I am opposed to slavery of any sort and yet slavery is being widely practiced at the present time with very few objections from any quarter. Certainly not from Foner. So slavery isn’t an issue.

    Foner’s subtitle is America’s Unfinished Revolution. This implies the notion tha Foner is putting his shoulder to the wheel to finish Reconstruction. That is to say to create ‘equality’ between Blacks and Whites in the United States. A lack of equality is usually taken to mean that ‘White Skin Privilege’ denies equality to Blacks and that is the meaning Foner puts on it. So I take it that he is caling me names from an assumed superior position. I’m sure Foner would be opposed to the proposal for a fence on the US-Mexican border.

    Therefore there is a profound hypocrisy in an Israeli citizen who believes Arabs are sub-human and builds an enormously high and long fence to divide ‘them’ form ‘those’ criticizing the American situation at the same time. I find it difficult to take him seriously. Surely, you can see that.

    So my point is that an Olympian attitude condemning the existence of ‘apartheid’ wherever it exists would be more appropriate than a superior, consdescending viewpoint condemning whoever it is that he is condemning.

    I agree that ‘America’s Unfinished Revolution’ is coming to a head today but I don’t think a New Abolitionist genocidal policy against Whites is a suitable approach to resolution. You may have a different view but I probably wouldn’t find myself too sympathetic to it.

    In answer to your question can one people write a good history of another people, I haven’t found it so. The limitations of one’s own national education doesn’t permit a very profound understanding of another’s. That’s what I’ve found anyway.

  3. SvenDoover Says:

    You say “The limitations of one’s own national education doesn’t permit a very profound understanding of another’s.” Still you take the liberty to critisize Forner/Israel. Isn’t that quite paradox?

    Please don’t take it personal but is there a chance that you are a little bit anti-semite (and i mean it in the anti-jewish way)? If yes, I fear that there is no way that I could bring any argument that you would find acceptable and traceable.

    I am sorry to say this.. but this is the way it is. I would like it if it wasn’t, but unfortunatelly it is the way it is!

  4. reprindle Says:

    Sven: I don’t think it’s a paradox no. In order to truly understand another’s national or religious education one has to be brought up in it from the beginning to be able to interpret its nuances accurately and deeply. As a historian one has to do the best one can. I read and study. As unpleasant as it may be for you I am not uninformed. That also is the way it is.

    I was not brought up Jewish so that while I can objectively see how Jews respond to issues and their results I can’t necessarily plumb the motivations completely anymore than Foner who has been brought up Jewish is fully qualified to interpret Northern and Southern motivations. Even so I cannot guage the motivations of a Southerner with precision because I have not experienced the education.

    It gets down to the familial level. The people next door did explicable things. So no paradox.

    You can use the old canard anti-Semite if you like, I would expect you to. It’s a good thing to fall back on rather than deal with the issues. However in this multi-cultural society of ours Judaism or the Israeli nationality is a separate entity with separate goals and wishes. If you wish to deny that please do. I will reserve my opinion of anyone so obtuse as to do so.

    One cannot understand American history without being aware of the roles of the country’s cultural constituents. I’ll leave at that. Appreciate the comment.

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