The publication of these essays on southern character and its tragic history, from Civil War to the abandoned civil rights efforts of Reconstruction could not have converged more significantly with its time when the volume first appeared in the 1960s. Even as Woodward reflected on reconstruction, drawing out why it failed to substantively change the condition of southern blacks, a new movement had begun on the ground. Woodward is a moderate, holding loyalty to the South without being defensive (in the manner of I’ll Take my Stand), and writing to urge justice and reconciliation in race relations.Three of the essays concern the failure of reconstruction and of civil rights, with Woodward charting emancipation and enfranchisement as political motives for the Union throughout the conflict, darkly concluding that the chief reason northerners pushed through the amendments that, in the count of one, two, three, transformed millions of slaves into millions of voters, was to prevent the defeated aristocracy from triumphing at the ballot-box instead of on the battlefield. The other major theme is southern identity and the South’s role to play in the United States. Woodward sees the southern states occupying a unique role in the American experiment. The United States in 1960 had never known anything but victory; every problem, every foe, it hitherto conquered through force of arms, or new inventions; for it, history was something that happened to other people. This put the nation in great danger of engaging in catastrophic mistakes like preventive wars. The south, however, had experienced history; had known defeat and occupation. It could offer to America a humbling perspective. The south’s view was used as a check on American hubris in literature before; in one essay Woodward demonstrates how various northern authors, including John Quincy Adams’ grandson Henry Adams, employed southern characters to shine a spotlight on the rest of the nation’s sins. Although most of the book is dated by now, including the comparison between the Cold War and the feud between abolitionists and slavers, encountering a white southern voice from the 1960s arguing for civil rights is a breath of fresh air considering the usual Civil Rights narrative casts white southerners as villains.
The Burden of Southern History
© 1960, 1968, 1970 C. Vann Wordward
Louisiana State University Press