Historical Context: Birth of a Nation
by Steven Mintz
In 1915, fifty years after the end of the Civil War, D.W. Griffith released his epic film Birth of a Nation. The greatest blockbuster of the silent era, Birth of a Nation was seen by an estimated 200 million Americans by 1946.
Based on a novel by a Baptist preacher named Thomas Dixon, the film painted Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, as a time when vengeful former enslaved people, opportunistic White scalawags, and corrupt Yankee carpetbaggers plundered and oppressed the former Confederacy until respectable White southerners rose up and restored order. A “scalawag” was a White southerner who supported the Republican Party; a “carpetbagger” was a northern-born Republican who had migrated to the South.
The film depicted a vindictive northern Congressman, modeled on a Pennsylvania Republican member of Congress, Thaddeus Stevens, and a power-hungry mulatto eager to marry the Congressman’s daughter. The film’s hero is an aristocratic Confederate veteran who joins the Ku Klux Klan and at the film’s climax rescues the woman from armed freedmen. President Woodrow Wilson reportedly described the film as “history written with lightning.”
During the twentieth century, far more Americans probably learned about Reconstruction from Hollywood rather than from history books or lectures. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind depicted Reconstruction as a misguided attempt to overturn the South’s “natural” order by giving political power to former enslaved people.
Even though the Confederacy lost the Civil War it succeeded, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in winning the ideological war that determined how Americans viewed the Civil War era. For much of the twentieth century, the dominant view of Reconstruction, repeated in many high school and college textbooks, was that it was a period of “bayonet rule,” when vindictive northern carpetbaggers and their White and Black puppets engaged in an orgy of corruption and misrule. According to this view, a courageous President Andrew Johnson, seeking to carry out Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation, was confronted by a hostile Congress trying to punish the defeated South.
In recent years, this interpretation of Reconstruction has been thoroughly dismantled. It is now clear that Reconstruction was a failed, but admirable attempt to adjust to the realities of emancipation: To guarantee the civil and political rights of former enslaved people and forge a more just society out of the ruins of slavery. President Johnson’s policy, far from being a continuation of Lincoln’s, was steadfastly opposed to protecting the rights of African Americans.
Reconstruction was the most daring experiment in American history. It represented an attempt to transform the institutions and patterns of social relations of the Old South. It gave Black Americans in the South their first taste of political power. Out of Reconstruction came constitutional amendments that extended citizenship and voting rights to African Americans. This era also witnessed the federal government’s first efforts to create social welfare programs. In the end, Reconstruction failed to establish a less racially divided society. Its failure doomed the South to decades of relative economic underdevelopment and ensured that the South would be dominated by a single political party. It also left the entire country with the unfinished task of achieving full economic and political equality to the descendants of enslaved people.