Echoes of Reconstruction: Misusing the History of the Civil War Era in Drafting Alabama’s Constitution

Alabama State Capitol

ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog

Usually we think of the study of history as a good starting point for the drafting of new laws. This is especially true when a state adopts a new Constitution. You are likely familiar with the Framers of the United States Constitution examining precedents as far back as ancient Greece and Rome in devising our own enduring organic law. What happened, though, when a state constitutional convention looked to history as a guide to drafting a 20th Century constitution, and used the Dunning School as its source of wisdom?

William A. Dunning was a professor of history at Columbia University in New York who pioneered the academic distortion of the Reconstruction Era. Over the course of two decades, he trained a “school” of young researchers dedicated to the vindication of White Supremacy in the 19th Century South.  

Last month there were newspaper headlines about the  effort in Alabama to delete racist language from its constitution that was put in during the decades after Reconstruction in order to roll back the Reconstruction Era’s civil rights gains for African Americans. The racist language was not put in by drug store demagogues, but by scholarly lawyers who saw their work of redemption of the state from biracial governance as a task supported by history and science.  

The Reconstruction Era “color-blind” constitution was replaced in 1875 by a Redeemer constitution enforcing white control of the state government. Fear of an alliance of poor whites and African Americans during the Populist Era of the 1890s, led conservatives and the ruling Democrats to call a constitutional convention to further restrict the franchise.    

The Chairman of the fateful 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, John Knox,  famously announced to white Alabama voters that “The new Constitution eliminates the ignorant Negro vote and places the control of our government where God Almighty intended it should be — with the Anglo-Saxon race.”

I never read the chairman’s whole speech until last month, and I was surprised at how Knox used the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction to justify the new constitution.

According to Knox, the pre-Civil War United States was governed by two competing political parties, Whigs and Democrats, that ensured confidence because they were both exclusively controlled by white people. As Knox writes, while the U.S. had two competing parties in the early 1850s, conflicts did not threaten the integrity of the government because “they were white parties.” 

The advent of the Civil War disrupted what Knox lovingly called “White Supremacy” in his speech, and a multiracial party, the Republican Party of Lincoln and Grant, created a new political order. Knox said that:

“The enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment and the enfranchisement of the negro was intended…for our humiliation.” 

This is a common theme in Dunning School histories. Black people are never seen as independent political actors. They are not enfranchised for self-determination, they are enfranchised for the humiliation of the white man. Nor is there any recognition that the right to vote had been won on the battlefields of the Civil War by the soldiers of the United States Colored Troops. Blacks are almost always depicted as unthinking tools of the Republican Party by the Dunningites and their progeny.

Knox next calls the years of the bi-racial Reconstruction government “the darkest days through which our people have ever… [been] called upon to pass.” So, Reconstruction was even worse than slavery or the Civil War! 

Knox describes Reconstruction as an “utter and complete failure.” Among the crimes of the times was the effort to “take the child of the black man and place him in the public schools in the South side by side with the child of the white man.” The long night of bi-racial governance ended in 1874 when “this alien government…was overthrown by the white men of this state.” Since the end of Reconstruction, he says, “we have maintained white supremacy in this state for more than twenty-five years.”

Knox warned that African Americans in the dawning 20th Century wanted to turn back the clock to the time when nearly all Black men could vote. Instead of going back to a bi-racial system, Knox declared, the new constitution should be ratified so that the state could move into the future with power vested permanently in one race. The movement for a new constitution, he declared, had “for its sole purpose…the establishment of the supremacy of the white man in this State.”

Without the new constitution, Alabama would be open to an even worse fate than bi-racial government. “The son of the black man might,” he told his presumably horror-stricken listeners, “woo and win the daughter of the white man, and thus amalgamate the races.” Because even one drop of Black blood made a child black, “this threatened the preservation of our very civilization.”

The constitution was adopted by Alabama and remains in effect to this day, although parts are not enforceable. Dunning School history had served its purpose of bolstering white rule. 

6 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Misusing the History of the Civil War Era in Drafting Alabama’s Constitution

  1. Outstanding post and a chilling example of how powerful political elites misused and manipulated historical memory for the express purpose of bolstering white supremacy. Acknowledging this historical record and admitting our past failings in the area of racial justice is the only way we can move forward and eventually heal the deep scars of racial division that still vex us today. It is sad to see this actual history denied today by those who harken back to the “good ol’days” of the Jim Crow era. Thanks Pat.

  2. Thank you for sharing on this topic. While I have known of the Lost Cause advocates, the Dunning “school of thought” is new to me. This pernicious thought remains embedded in the beliefs and actions of some circles even today.

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