Was there a point at which American liberals consciously adopted Jacobinism, or did it just creep up on them gradually? This question was brought into rather sharp focus earlier this year when the PBS series American Experience presented an expensive two-part documentary entitled “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” The series recounted the story of Reconstruction, but with such a ferociously partisan emphasis that a Radical Republican of the 1860’s might have blushed. Normally, we need not worry too much that even learned people sometimes get their history dead wrong—don’t get me started on the demonization of the Middle Ages—but, in this show more than most, the implications for present-day policy were starkly, frighteningly obvious. The good people at PBS, together with a substantial section of liberal academe, evidently believe in their hearts that they are absolutely, infallibly right about the directions that American society should take, and they would like to see their preferences enforced with bayonets, if necessary.
The documentary repays careful watching, but the main themes that emerge can be easily summarized. The story as told is utterly free of complications or ambiguities. After the Civil War, we are told, the legal, civil, and social equality of former slaves had to be recognized and enforced, totally and immediately, without considering any possible obstacles that might arise in the form of legalities, republican or constitutional values, or the interests of the local community against those of the centralized liberal nation.
Governments elected in the Southern states were legitimate if they recognized black voting rights, even when those elections disfranchised substantial sections of the anti-Reconstruction white population (though the program ignored white disfranchisement). No matter how small the minority that a new government represented—45 percent, 15 percent—the regime was democratic if it reflected the correct social goals. These were the views presented by several leading historians of the era, including the aptly named David Blight, who condemns “the great myth of Reconstruction” that the radical regimes were in any way oppressive, however many white Southerners were excluded from the process. Extremism in the defense of The Idea overrules all lesser objections. The program devoted vast attention to the story of some freed slaves who established an armed separatist republic on a small island, from which all whites were excluded. This cult-like excrescence was presented as an heroic model of black self-determination that should have been more widely imitated.
These social goals had to be preserved by whatever armed military force might be necessary to repress the intransigent evildoers who opposed the juggernaut of historical progress. The program offered a somewhat ambiguous coverage of federal military rule in the South, at once asserting its necessity (How else are you going to govern those awful people?) and minimizing its reality (There wasn’t really a military dictatorship, and, anyway, it was just a little one). David Blight again: “It really wasn’t a genuine military occupation after 1868, in any sense of the term we’ve come to understand military occupations in the 20th century.” Well, that’s all right then. If the documentary presented the many Americans dubious about Reconstruction as anything other than servants of Satan, it was surely an oversight, which will be corrected in future editions of the program.
Were we to sit down amicably with the producers of American Experience, or the academic experts they consulted, I am confident we would not encounter a gaggle of hard-faced Stalinists. Where, then, did they find such ghastly ideas? I suspect it’s a generational thing, highly characteristic of baby boomers. Growing up during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, they imbibed harsh lessons about the duty of liberal governments to enforce racial justice no matter what the opposition, or what holes were torn in the Constitution. Projecting these values back a century, liberals see post-Civil War Southerners as the George Wallaces and Lester Maddoxes of their day and suppose that those leaders, too, would have backed down in the face of a more determined federal assault. The failure to push the first Reconstruction thus led directly to a century of segregation, lynching, and repression.
This historical analogy is thoroughly flawed, most obviously because most Northerners themselves in the 1860’s were little less committed to white supremacy than their Southern compatriots were, and few Northern states practiced anything like the equal political rights enforced by Reconstruction regimes. Inevitably, Reconstruction policies were widely seen as heavy-handed retribution against the former Confederacy rather than any form of social justice. Also, not even the most forceful federal interventions of the 1960’s involved the mass disfranchisement or political exclusion of the white South. Southern whites in 1960 were not asked to renounce their own stake in the political process but to allow blacks a share in the game.
Such caveats are lost on a generation that grew up with certain basic assumptions about the nature of justice, about the irrelevance of political processes or legal constraints that failed to advance this cause, and about the utter, sordid evil of the racist hypocrites who dared oppose the quest for progress. And that brings me to the appropriate label for the views expressed, which has to be “Jacobin.” Shortly after PBS aired the Reconstruction series, the London Review of Books published Hilary Mantel’s discussion of a new biography of Robespierre. Do these ideas sound at all familiar in the American context?
He never extended to his opponents the courtesy of believing them merely mistaken, or misinformed, or even stupid. In an emergency, such a courtesy is meaningless. . . . Robespierre deplored needless violence, but could persuade himself rather readily to see the need. Due process was too slow for his fast-moving instincts.
The book is entitled Fatal Purity, a term that can be usefully applied to Robespierre’s modern American disciples.