American conservatives have rightly viewed the post-Civil War Reconstruction period as a tragic era rife with corruption, scandal, mismanagement, and unconstitutional uses of power at both the state and federal level. Unfortunately, many have also been deceived by a leftist narrative of Reconstruction as a flawed but ultimately virtuous project, and this has distorted their view of the entirety of American history.

During Reconstruction, radical leaders of the Republican Party orchestrated a process by which the post-Civil War United States was transformed, rather than remade as it had been. Under the influence of these radicals, the Constitution ceased to be the anchor of the federal republic, and dangerous utopian ideals of “equality,” political centralization, and mass democracy that had been incubated in the beer halls and socialist clubs of central Europe crossed the Atlantic and took root on American shores. European revolutionary “Red Republicans” like Carl Schurz found common cause with American-bred reformists Thad Stevens, Benjamin Wade, Charles Sumner, Schuyler Colfax, and Henry Winter Davis, all leaders of the radical faction of the Republican Party. These discontented souls thought America needed to be remade in righteousness, by eliminating the slavery-tainted Southern influence on U.S. government.

Abraham Lincoln’s pithy 1863 Gettysburg Address allowed the Radical Republicans to carry out their revolution under the false premise that they were continuing the work of the American Founders. Its 272 words provided the intellectual basis for what passes as establishment conservatism today: namely that the U.S. exists not as a people and a land but as a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The idea of a “proposition nation” served as the origination point for a strange transition in the American conservative tradition. Conservatives would no longer be hidebound to defend traditional order or “well-constructed institutions,” which were the terms Edmund Burke used to define the basis of traditional conservatism. Burke’s ancient constitutions, which for centuries had guarded the liberties of the Anglo-American tradition, would be supplanted by a metaphysical “higher law” of American egalitarianism, as articulated by Lincoln’s future Secretary of State William Henry Seward. To the modern conservatives who subscribe to this position, both the antebellum and postbellum South—as the peculiar other in American history—represent a departure from real “Americanism,” the deviation from their belief that America’s founding principle was that all men are created equal.

Thus equality, and not tradition or even the Constitution, became the foundation of what should be termed “social justice conservatism.” This type of conservatism has been masquerading as true American conservatism for the last 30 years. The success of social justice conservatism was made possible almost entirely due to the efforts of the historians who have distorted the origins of the Republican Party and the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

For example, the social justice conservative online journalist and author Jarrett Stepman wrote in his recent tome The War on History:

This was what the Civil War was about. This four-year conflict was ultimately over whether the central tenets of the Declaration of Independence were true, or false. Thus, the Gettysburg Address is the perfect summation of a generation of debate over slavery and the nature of the Union.

The social justice conservative historian Forrest Nabors follows a similar line in his book From Oligarchy to Republicanism: The Great Task of Reconstruction (2017). The modern American, he says, “schooled from birth as they are in the general idea of equality,” would view the politics of the antebellum South as a relic of “another continent in a far-distant age.”

Nabors goes on to surmise, “At their first encounter with the ruling class of the Antebellum South, the same Americans who proudly wave the Confederate flag today would likely feel their American blood boil, hoist the Stars and Stripes, and reach for their guns.” After such a meeting, these Southerners would likely take a sledgehammer to the Confederate monuments they so proudly defend, Nabors writes.

Compare Nabors’ view to that of a German-born Union officer described in Confederate General Richard Taylor’s memoir, Destruction and Reconstruction. Taylor, son of President Zachary Taylor, wrote of this unnamed German who attempted to comfort him after the Civil War that U.S. Southerners “would speedily recognize our ignorance and errors, especially about slavery and the rights of States, and rejoice in the results of the war.”

Taylor writes that he responded to the German that he appreciated his sentiments and “apologized meekly for [his] ignorance.” After all, Taylor said, because his ancestors had emigrated from England to Virginia in 1608, they had “no time to transmit to me correct ideas of the duties of American citizenship.” Taylor then sarcastically remarked that his grandfather, “commanding the 9th Virginia regiment in our Revolutionary army, had assisted in the defeat and capture of the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, and I lamented that he had not, by association with these worthies, enlightened his understanding.” The German simply smiled and told Taylor he would help him if requested.

This arrogant German seemed more civil than the “offensive brute—a foreigner of some mongrel sort” Ambrose Bierce encountered as a fellow Union prisoner during the war, but neither immigrant seemed to be able to avoid voicing their opinion on Southern society. Bierce admired his Southern enemies more than he did his foreign comrade. He praised the culture and refinement of his Southern captors but bemoaned that his alien companion had “just sufficient command of our tongue to show that he could not control his own.”

What should be clear is that Nabors and other social justice conservatives have adopted the imperial rhetoric of these foreign revolutionaries and have made their reformist agenda the so-called conservative cause of the 21st century. To modern social justice conservatives, the Radical Republicans and their socialist European companions are the good guys. But social justice conservatives are nothing more than the Girondists in a culture war that will ultimately consume them. None will be spared the guillotine.

Yet, perhaps the more important issue for these social justice conservatives, at least in the last two decades, has been a mission to salvage the reputation of the Republican Party. Social justice conservative historians such as Allen Guelzo at Princeton University have developed a cottage industry around the myth that the Republican Party has been the force for good since its inception in 1854.

In a recent online video for PragerU, Guelzo argued that Reconstruction should have been a “glorious chapter in America’s story” but instead it became a “shameful one,” in which Republicans missed an opportunity to remake the South. Had he been in charge, he would have directed “a real occupation…until a new political generation grew up in the South which learned a newer lesson about race and rights than white supremacy.” The Guelzo plan would have included a program of land confiscation and redistribution to former slaves, and economic diversification to rescue the South from backwardness. Knowingly or not, Guelzo was channeling the views of those postbellum Radical Republicans, Charles Sumner and Thad Stevens, who had both insisted that the South needed to be fearfully punished for her sins.

And it doesn’t stop with professional historians. Pseudo-intellectual pundit and social justice conservative Dinesh D’Souza has wrongly argued that no Republican ever owned a slave while championing the Republican Party as the real home for American values and institutions. D’Souza has called the Republicans the party of history’s “nice guys,” only to insist that they should really be following Lincoln’s example of violence. When someone asked him after a speech how he would respond to Antifa thugs, D’Souza invoked Lincoln’s urban crackdowns during the Civil War, suggesting that such strong measures were the only way to oppose the “racist” goons in the antebellum and postbellum Democrat Party. He may have a point on Antifa. However, Lincoln started a war that led to the deaths of nearly a million American soldiers and thousands of civilians, both black and white. That is the real legacy of the Republican Party, but to D’Souza, these deaths were the necessary cost of a righteous cause, the original Constitution—and historical accuracy—be damned.

Unfortunately, Guelzo, Nabors, and D’Souza are not alone. They have simply echoed a growing chorus of social justice conservative voices who see the Civil War and Reconstruction as a righteous cause fulfilling a romantic destiny of liberty and equality. Republican strategist Karl Rove has openly called Confederate soldiers “the enemy” and bemoaned the supposed failures of Reconstruction. Newt Gingrich, the GOP establishment historian turned politician, championed “the combination of white Republicans and African Americans that sustained the Reconstruction of the South along…democratic lines….” Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—neither an historian nor an intellectual heavyweight—distorts the history of the Civil War in his book Legends and Lies: The Civil War. He claims Lincoln was motivated by a belief that slavery violated “the constitutional declaration [sic] that ‘all men are created equal.’” This is no more than the language of the left—Howard Zinn through a Fox News filter. What are these TV pundit conservatives seeking to conserve? Apparently, neither the original federal republic, nor Burke’s “ancient constitutions” of the Founders.

Barack Obama’s insistence during his first inaugural address in 2009 that his administration would continue the process of “recreating America” might as well have been written by the establishment social justice conservative intellectuals entrenched in America’s so-called conservative think tanks.

The real victors of the rise to prominence of the social justice conservatives’ narrative are Eric Foner and the progressive movement. Social justice conservatives like Guelzo and Nabors have adopted Foner’s myopic view of the Civil War and Reconstruction. To Foner, both cataclysmic events were always about race, equality, and democracy. They represented an “unfinished revolution”—a phrase that titled his seminal work on Reconstruction— but also represented a “second founding.”

This is the key idea: Foner correctly argues that the rump Congress led by radicals in the Republican Party rewrote the Constitution during Reconstruction and recreated America in the process. Social justice conservatives who give lip service to Constitutional originalism, while concurrently praising the radical transformation of America in the immediate postbellum period, are merely digging their own graves. The paradox should be easily identifiable, but it seems establishment social justice conservatives do not have the capacity to understand that you cannot praise the original Constitution, the American Founders, or early American federalism, localism, and decentralization, while concurrently hitching your wagon to Abraham Lincoln and the Radicals of the 1860s Republican Party, which was by no means traditionally conservative.

There was an older historical interpretation of Reconstruction, by Columbia University professor William A. Dunning, who described overzealous Northern reformers who had little understanding of Southern political or social institutions. Dunning’s view focused on sweeping political, economic, diplomatic, and constitutional changes that were far more comprehensive than the simple nod to “white supremacy” which animates Foner’s view. The insights of the Dunning school have simply been reinterpreted through the lens of race, due to the efforts of Foner himself, as well as his mentor, communist thinker W. E. B. Du Bois.

Regardless, the progressive legislative agenda in the late 19th century was hamstrung by references to the dark days of corruption during Reconstruction, so much so that some American conservatives believed that the dangerous ideals of American progressivism had been thoroughly discredited. However, after a shift in historical interpretation following World War II, Reconstruction became an enabling narrative for the 1960s cultural revolution. World War II allowed progressives to attach the triumph of liberal democracy in Europe, and the liberation of concentration camps in Eastern Europe, to the cultural shifts taking place at home. The South became America’s Nazi Germany, and Reconstruction’s Radical Republicans the Allied forces. Foner and Du Bois indirectly led this conceptual shift. Would either be considered conservative?

American conservatives must understand that by praising the Reconstruction Republican Party they are indirectly conceding the field. There can be no American conservative consensus while a progressive view of history that stretches back to the Civil War and Reconstruction is mislabeled and repackaged as “conservatism,” and that is what these social justice conservatives have unwittingly accomplished. Richard Weaver wrote in his book, Southern Tradition at Bay, “The Old South may indeed be a hall hung with splendid tapestries in which no one would care to live; but from them we can learn something of how to live.”

(Correction: The third paragraph of the original version of this article incorrectly cited the year of the Gettysburg address as 1864, rather than 1863.)