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Ron DeSantis... and the Lost Cause

Last week, we noted that the state of Florida has come up with Black history standards that, among other things, try to pin some of the moral blame for slavery on African slavers, instruct teachers to point out that slavery was sometimes beneficial for slaves, and insist on the inclusion of Black misdeeds during race riots and other uprisings.

We did not hit Ron DeSantis quite as hard as we could have for those standards (though reader M.S. in Canton did some of that work for us). The reason we did not scorch some Florida earth is that we weren't 100% sure exactly what the relationship between DeSantis and the standards was. Sure, he instigated the project. But was he actually OK with the end result? It did not seem quite apropos to hammer him until we were sure about his views.

As of this weekend, that semi-ambiguity is resolved. During his campaign events, the Governor was asked several times about the new standards. And he's made clear he likes what he sees. He insisted that the standards are rooted in the evidence, and that Florida's history courses are "probably going to show some of the folks that eventually parlayed, you know, being a blacksmith into, into doing things later in life."

Meanwhile, many Republican pundits have expressed shock and outrage that many people find the Florida standards to be shocking and outrageous. To give one example, here's what professional talking head Scott Jennings had to say:

This is a completely made-up deal. I looked at the standards. I even looked at an analysis of the standards in every instance where the word slavery or slave was used.

I even read the statement of the African-American scholars that wrote the standards, not Ron DeSantis, but the scholars. Everybody involved in this says this is completely a fabricated issue. And yet look how quickly Kamala Harris jumped on it.

So, the fact that this is her best moment, a fabricated matter, is pretty ridiculous, in my opinion.

Admittedly, Jennings is not the sharpest ax in the shed. Still, these remarks are pretty characteristic of what's been coming out of the right-wing mediasphere this week.

In view of this, and given that we just happen to have a history Ph.D. on staff, we thought we'd do a more thorough job of laying out the historical background here, and building on what M.S. in Canton wrote. Before we get to that, however, let us just put to rest two intellectually dishonest claims being advanced by DeSantis, Jennings, et al. First, historical evidence is messy stuff. It always points in ten different directions, and one can always summon up some evidence in service of whatever claim one wants to make. (Z) knew a professor who, as a demonstration, would "prove," with compelling evidence, that Theodore Roosevelt was actually a Muslim. The point that professor was making is that a historian has a duty not to "the evidence" but to "the weight of the evidence." And anyone who has studied American slavery knows that "Hey! They picked up some useful skills!" grossly misrepresents the overall story the evidence tells.

Second, we have no idea which people were behind the new Black history standards. Both DeSantis and Jennings allude to the involvement of Black "experts," and we assume that's true, especially since appointing some carefully chosen Black contributors is exactly the kind of thing DeSantis (or his underlings) would do to give the whole venture a veneer of legitimacy. But there's no way of knowing exactly what the contributions of those Black individuals were. Further, it is entirely possible for Black people to do mediocre Black history, for working-class people to do mediocre labor history, for women to do mediocre gender history, for Europeans to do mediocre European history, etc. (Z), for his dissertation, once interviewed a Black Civil War reenactor who dressed as a Confederate and said he would have no issue if slavery was re-established. That is a Black voice, but it obviously does not speak for any meaningful community of scholars, Black or otherwise.

And now, the history. In the lead-up to the Civil War, there was absolutely no question in the minds of Southerners (or of Northerners) about what the South was fighting for, namely slavery. The "peculiar institution" was deeply enmeshed in the Southern way of life, not only its economy, but its social system, its culture, its worldview, everything. Most of the Confederate states issued "declarations of causes" that made clear they were fighting to protect the slave system. However, the evidence that is usually used to make this point, because it is so clear and compact, is the "Cornerstone Speech" delivered by Confederate VP Alexander Stephens on March 21, 1861. The key passages:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact...

Our new government['s] corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Roughly 100% of white Southerners would have seen Stephens' ideas as obvious, albeit eloquently stated.

Just a shade over 4 years after that speech was delivered, Robert E. Lee surrendered, which marked the effective end of the Confederacy. With the Thirteenth Amendment having been passed by Congress just a couple of months prior to the surrender, it also marked the effective end of slavery. At the same time, it inaugurated a period of uncertainty for white Southerners. The most immediate question was which insurrectionists would be punished for their crimes, and how? Very few would be, but the Southerners did not know that in mid-1865. The medium-term question was how the Southern states would be re-incorporated into the Union, and indeed, whether they would be reinstated as equals.

It is here that the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War had its genesis. In a nutshell, it was very necessary to emphasize the positive qualities of the Confederacy, or at least the qualities that would resonate with Northerners of the mid-19th century—the great Robert E. Lee, the brave Confederate soldiers, people fighting for hearth and home, etc. At the same time, it was necessary to utterly downplay the negative parts of the story, particularly slavery. Lost Cause writers quickly got to work making the case that slavery had virtually nothing to do with the War, that it was a mere footnote. Among those who made that argument, in a forceful manner, was one Alexander Stephens. He wrote a very verbose, and somewhat hard to read, two-volume work in the late 1860s entitled A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States; Its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results. As you can gather from the title, the now-former Confederate VP had somehow discovered that the real cause of the Civil War was disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution.

These Southern propagandists did their job very, very well. Over the course of a couple of generations, in both North and South, the Lost Cause became the predominant understanding of the Civil War. It would remain that way for close to a hundred years. And in a dynamic that brings to mind the old John Ford film quote—"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"—the trends that began in the late 1860s were eventually taken to extremes. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart and a few others were promoted from "hero" to "demigod." And, as to slavery, it was no longer enough to pretend that the institution was a mere footnote that should be ignored. No, eventually the argument was that the slave system was, in effect, a charitable endeavor undertaken by whites for the betterment of their less fortunate Black brothers.

You can see this basic presentation of slavery all over early-20th-century pop culture, most obviously Gone with the Wind. But it was also at the heart of academic scholarship on slavery. For decades, the definitive work on slavery was American Negro Slavery, by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. The main thesis of the book:

The slaveholding regime kept money scarce, population sparse and land values accordingly low; it restricted the opportunities of many men of both races, and it kept many of the natural resources of the Southern country neglected. But it kept the main body of labor controlled, provisioned and mobile. Above all it maintained order and a notable degree of harmony in a community where confusion worse confounded would not have been far to seek. Plantation slavery had in strictly business aspects at least as many drawbacks as it had attractions. But in the large it was less a business than a life; it made fewer fortunes than it made men.

Some aspects of the book are on the mark, not the least of which is that the slave system grew less profitable over time. Still, American Negro Slavery is predominantly an apologia for the white, Southern slave-owning class.

So, this is the historical tradition that DeSantis, Jennings, et al. are channelling. Not just the early Lost Cause stuff, but the really icky "actually, slavery wasn't so bad" era of the early 20th century (an era that, not coincidentally, witnessed the resurgence of the KKK).

It is certainly possible that the right-wingers whose knickers are in a twist don't really know the history here. That's common, of course. The proper thing to do, when one inadvertently blunders into a dark corner of the past, is to say "Oops! Sorry!" (Z) had a student once who made a joke about writing essays, observing that "work will make you free." When (Z) took the student aside and explained where that comes from (the entrance of Auschwitz), the student was mortified and deeply apologetic. This is not what is happening with the Florida standards.

And really, we seriously doubt that the right-wingers are in the dark when it comes to their "What could possibly be offensive about this?" song and dance. We particularly doubt it in the case of DeSantis, who has a degree in history and has written books on the subject. The fact is that whether it's the Lost Cause version of Black history or it's the Florida version, there are still two key things going on. The first is the white apologia, which is not terribly admirable, but is the less harmful of the two. The second is that, by downplaying the racial sins of the past, one implicitly argues that there's no need to make amends today.

This comports nicely with large elements of the modern conservative political project, from weakening Affirmative Action to gerrymandering away majority-Black districts to gutting the Voting Rights Act to kvetching about "welfare queens" to faux outrage about reparations payments (which are never going to happen). This is how the minority party keeps its hold on power—ironically, by keeping minorities under their thumbs. It was true 150 years ago, and it's true today. The "Huh? There's nothing to see here!" shtick is just a dog whistle that makes a fundamentally racist argument socially acceptable. Put another way, DeSantis & Co. are gaslighting in their response to all of this, which is something worth knowing when deciding where to invest one's vote. (Z)

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