Edward J. Blum. Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. x + 356 pp. ISBN 0-8071-3052-4. Reviewed by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill for the Journal of Southern Religion.
Observing the drift of American culture during the 1880s, Albion Tourgee, an abolitionist and keen observer of southern life, grumbled that “our literature has become not only Southern in type but distinctly Confederate in sympathy.”(1) He understood sooner than many of his contemporaries that white southerners had lost the war but were winning the peace. He also knew what this development would mean for the nation's future. Any prospects for racial justice in the United States were stillborn as long as the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived in the South and white southerners retained a de facto veto over the country's racial policies. More broadly, campaigns for social justice had to either accommodate the reactionary politics that prevailed in the South or attempt to overcome them. National reconciliation on such terms effectively foreclosed many potentially progressive paths for American society for at least three-quarters of a century.
|"Blum insists that the failure of Reconstruction should be traced to American religious institutions and values."|
Since the turn of the twentieth century, historians have struggled to explain why the opportunities of Reconstruction were squandered. Most of the earliest scholarship, written by white southerners or sympathetic white northerners, openly applauded the eventual terms of national reconciliation and dismissed Reconstruction as a misguided, even criminal policy. By the Twenties, the first generation of black professional historians offered a cogent counter-interpretation, pointing to the constructive policies adopted by Reconstruction era governments in the South and the rapid progress that freed people made toward bettering themselves. But not even the revisionist brilliance of W. E. B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction could dislodge conventional wisdom about the purported travesty of Reconstruction.(2) Eventually, historians who were inspired in part by the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1960s, substantially rewrote the history of Reconstruction, insisting that the failure of Reconstruction was that the policy toward the South had been too timid, not too radical. They traced Americans' lack of imagination and resolve to the ferocity of white southern resistance, the ephemeral commitment of the Republican Party and many white northerners to securing an equitable peace, and the grip of nineteenth-century laissez faire ideology that precluded an investment in the war ravaged South or its former slaves. More recently, Nina Silber emphasized the role that nineteenth-century notions about gender played in dictating the terms and meaning of sectional reconciliation.(3) And David Blight charted the unequal contest between champions of interregional comity and the defenders of the Civil War's more radical and egalitarian aspirations.(4)
Regrettably, the role of religious institutions, leaders, and thought in postbellum national reconciliation has received much less attention. Whereas some of the best recent scholarship on antebellum America has explored the role of religion in the sectional crisis, most recent work on the post-Civil War era makes only obligatory nods to the importance of religion before moving on to politics, economics, or other topics. Seminal scholarship has been written on the blossoming of black churches after the Civil War and the retrenchment within white southern denominations. Especially notable is Daniel Stowell's excellent Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877, which traces the competing northern, white southern, and black southern religious visions for the Reconstruction South.(5) Yet even Stowell's study retains a regional focus and consequently much about religion, race, and nationalism during the late nineteenth century falls outside of its field of view.
Edward J. Blum's Reforging the White Republic is an ambitiously conceived book that does much more than explain how white southerners won the postbellum peace. Blum insists that the failure of Reconstruction should be traced to American religious institutions and values. Situating his work at the interstices of recent scholarship on historical memory, nationalism, and cultural history, he convincingly argues that an amalgam of “whiteness, godliness, and American nationalism” came to define not only postwar Protestantism but also the United States. With obvious regret, Blum traces “how whites claimed a new national solidarity at the expense of racial reform, how ministers and politicians marshaled religious and white supremacist rhetoric in order to wield social power, and how imperialism wrapped itself in sacred cloth” (19).
Blum, like Stowell, discerns three competing visions – white northern, white southern, and African American – for the postwar South. White northerners could take satisfaction in their decisive victory over the slaveholder's republic, but they were deeply conflicted over the terms of both ecclesiastical and political reunion. Substantial numbers of white northerners envisioned a new national compact in which racial egalitarianism and a generous, reform-minded Protestantism would remove the stain of slavery and secession. Whereas some scholars have stressed the ideological shortcomings of the radical cause, Blum offers a vigorous defense of those northern missionaries and teachers who labored to create a bi-racial “beloved community” in the South. Rather than lingering on the shortcomings of the radical vision, he highlights instead the role that some of the nation's leading clerics played in shifting the North's “moral imperative from racial liberation toward sectional reunion” (86). If Blum is not entirely clear as to why northern advocates of reconciliation became ascendant by the early 1870s, he does demonstrate how pervasive “religious narratives, ideas, and metaphors” of reconciliation were during the period. At the same time, he makes clear why many northern religious thinkers, who were deeply invested in partisan politics, often tacked in the face of shifting political winds.
While white northerners were embracing a creed of national forgiveness, white southerners held tenaciously to the central tenets of their pre-war faith. The collapse of the southern nation did not prompt whites to abandon their conviction that God had a transcendent purpose for them. Rather than interpret Appomattox as evidence of God's wrath, many white southerners concluded that they were latter day Israelites of the Old Testament and that God had used the ungodly to chasten his chosen people. In the wake of defeat and abolition, Robert Lewis Dabney and other white southern divines reassured their flocks that they had no reason to question the moral foundations of their region or their defense of white racial privilege. White southerners re-asserted their submission to the divine order that would eventually deliver them. At a time when northern Protestant opinion about the goals and methods of national reconciliation were being rapidly revised, the spiritual certainty of white southerners served them well.
For African Americans, the Civil War and emancipation demonstrated that the divine providence of history had worked (and might work again in the future) to elevate the African peoples. Emancipation made a mockery of proslavery claims that God had endorsed slavery and also anticipated some profound, imminent, and millennial transformation in the status of black people. Rather than a tactical sleight of hand dictated by wartime exigencies (as many white southerners claimed), emancipation, blacks insisted, was a redemptive act through which God wrought national regeneration. That the United States was a nation with a millennial destiny, and that blacks had a providential role to play in that future, was apparent to most black commentators. Yet not even the most poignant invocations of wartime radicalism and black millennialism could drown out the growing chorus of white reconciliationists.
The prospects for an integrated, egalitarian nation were effectively ended by the early 1880s. According to Blum, Dwight Moody's interdenominational revivalism, which discouraged social activism and depoliticized the Civil War, “acted as a bridge between the white North and the white South” (145). Then, when a yellow fever epidemic struck the South in 1878, northern Protestants responded with an outpouring of charity and renewed appeals for national reunion. Accelerating this drift toward white racial reunion was the expansion of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which, Blum contends, was “uninterested in creating a nation of freedom and equality” (207) and instead pursued a program of white gender and racial nationalism. Subsequently, a potent mix of evangelical Protestantism and imperialism overwhelmed any lingering commitment that most white northern ministers may have had toward racial equality. Indeed, the racist ideology that undergirded foreign missions was inimical to any commitment to racial justice within the United States. By the time that the United States went to war against Spain in 1898, “whites of the North and whites of the South” clasped hands as brethren and embarked on an international campaign to dominate foreign peoples of color. (243) Racial nationalism was triumphant and the radical egalitarianism of the 1860s was seldom recalled and even less frequently acted upon. As Blum concludes, “the reforging of the white republic was complete” (249).
Among the many strengths of Reforging the White Republic is its breadth of research and interpretive vision. Employing an expansive understanding of how religion influenced public debate, Blum draws upon magazines, political cartoons, and travel guides as well as sermons and religious publications. When discussing the reconciliationist stance of the Reconstruction era, for example, Blum moves easily from Henry Beecher's sermons of reunion to his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe's accounts of her experiences in Florida, which led her to revise her ideas about both white and black southerners. In this and other instances, Blum's capacious approach acknowledges the extent to which Protestant ideals and rhetoric informed all realms of public life and debate during the late nineteenth century. At the same time, Blum displays an equally keen eye for the significance that his argument holds for many longstanding historiographical concerns. More than a work of impressive original research, Reforging the White Republic is a valuable synthesis that pulls together topics that religious, cultural, political, and social historians have treated separately in recent years, such as the contested historical memory of the Civil War, the evolution of American nationalism, and the shifting focus of religious reform.
Befitting an ambitious and cogent work, there is much to savor, ponder, and argue with in Blum's book. Before Reforging the White Republic becomes the standard account, scholars should test several assumptions that undergird Blum's argument. First, the doctrinal beliefs of many of the figures in this book often recede from view. In places, it is difficult to discern which, if any, theological concerns influenced the attitudes of either church leaders or the public. Blum, for example, downplays the significance of the persisting sectional divisions that developed before the Civil War and continued to divide many Protestant denominations well into the twentieth century. Instead, Blum emphasizes broad currents of shared opinion that northern and southern Presbyterians, Methodists, and others shared. But Blum seems to allow the momentum of his argument about the forging of a Protestant “white republic” to lead him to exaggerate the unity that prevailed among competing and fractious denominations. Subsequent scholars will perform a valuable service if they restore a measure of denominational particularity to Blum's argument.
I am also struck by the short shrift that Blum gives to the reconciliation impulse. Like David Blight, who presents sectional reconciliation as a tacit surrender of the war's loftiest aims, Blum depicts religious reconciliationists as craven in their haste to surrender black rights in the name of racial reunification. As regrettable as were the eventual terms of sectional reconciliation, was there no principled position that combined an appeal for national reconciliation with the spirit of Christian charity? Did not a similar spirit of charity and humility that informed Abraham Lincoln's remarkable Second Inaugural Address also inform the shifting ideas about reconciliation among many white northerners?
Second, Blum is curiously silent about the continuing influence of providentialism in the post-Civil War era. Americans' penchant for providential readings of history had far-reaching implications that historians of the late nineteenth century have not adequately appreciated. Along with often recounted political, economic, and racial divisions, fundamentally different providential interpretations of the Civil War and emancipation divided whites and blacks. Stated simply, the grip of Protestant certainty in the providential unfolding of history precluded Americans, white and black, from reaching any shared understanding of the place of the United States in God's plans. Just as providentialism augmented cultural division before the Civil War, so too it perpetuated division afterwards. Presumably, Blum might have pointed to the continued influence of white Protestant providentalism as another element in the ideology of the reforged white republic of the late nineteenth century.
Perhaps the absence of any discussion of post-war providentalism from Reforging the White Republic is a consequence of Blum's underlying narrative of declension. Blum contends that a potent vision of racial egalitarianism informed northern white Protestantism at the close of the Civil War. But this line of argument begs the question of just how committed white northern clerics were to egalitarianism and racial equality as either political ends or as a matter of faith. If Mark Noll is right, there is reason to doubt the depth of the commitment of many white Protestants. Noll has suggested that Protestant providentialism, which was already badly compromised by racial nationalism during the antebellum era, impeded Americans from solving the conundrum of slavery and then later strait-jacketed late nineteenth-century theologians who confronted, among other things, industrialization, Biblical criticism, and evolutionary science. To this list of failings, I suggest that we add the obstacle that Protestant providentialism posed to black and white Americans forging any idea of a shared national identity or purpose.
Reforging the White Republic is a welcome and important contribution to the scholarship on race, religion, Reconstruction, and nationalism in nineteenth century America. Distinguished by its craftsmanship, eloquence, and interpretive ambitions, this book announces the arrival of a gifted young scholar whose future work I eagerly await.
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
1. Albion W. Tourgee, "The South as a Field for Fiction," Forum 6 (1888-1889): 406-407.
2. W. E. B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in an Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1935).
3. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1993).
4.David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
5.Daniel W. Stowell, Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
© 1998-2005 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5253