In his 2005 book, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898, historian Edward Blum shows how Christians in U.S. northern states in the late 19th century abandoned the project of helping former slaves in order to reconcile with white southerners. Many historians in the past have focused on the Cult of the Lost Cause and the South in general as the location where a latent white supremacy would emerge in the form of Jim Crow. Blum’s work analyzes the way in which religious northerners were equally as culpable for “reforging” a “white republic” in the years following the Civil War.
According to Blum, many of these religious northerners eschewed their prior commitments to anti-slavery in order to reconcile with southerners. Famed New York pastor Henry Ward Beecher advocated throughout the war for abolition, but at the war’s conclusion shifted his tune from advocating for former slaves to advocating for reconciliation of the North and South. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, likewise shifted her rhetoric towards reconciliation between the two sides of the war.
The late 19th century also witnessed the rise of Dwight Moody and a budding evangelical movement. As Blum explains, Moody’s evangelical style sought to generalize wartime experiences in ways that blurred the lines between those who fought for the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union. For Moody, the cross was higher than both the Confederacy and the Union. In essence, spiritual matters were more important than the conflicts of this world.
As the century progressed, Blum highlights how other factors brought white northern and southern interests together. A yellow fever epidemic in 1878 in the southern states led to northern relief efforts among white southerners in far greater numbers than relief efforts among black southerners.
While anti-slavery societies and abolitionists had made slavery the moral agenda of the antebellum period, the rise of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union led to a new moral crusade against alcohol. Addressing the needs of recently freed slaves took a backseat to other moral problems that found support in both the North and South.
Lastly, the Spanish-American War also garnered support from the North and South, as both sought to relieve the Spanish of their control of Cuba and the Philippines.
Blum’s story is not only compelling; it is chilling. In the aftermath of immense national conflict, those who emerged the victors did not seek justice, but rather a cheap reconciliation, the effects of which we may still feel today. Addressing the problem of race was pushed aside in support of national unity. Indeed both the North and the South in Blum’s narrative were flawed, but both chose to ignore addressing their flaws in favor of reconciling with one another.
Readers may have heard that this is an election year, and a fairly heated one at that. I do not intend to presume a victor, but I do intend to raise the question: “How will we reforge our republic after Nov. 8?” Certainly there will be a victor and nearly half of the country will be enthusiastic about the new president, while the other half will have to contend with four years of someone they vehemently disdain. How will America approach reconciliation in the months and years following this election?
Reconciliation is certainly something that should be a much sought after goal in the wake of this election, but we cannot prioritize reconciliation without first committing to the difficult work of addressing the flaws that have been unearthed in this election cycle. The issues of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, Islamophobia and a slew of other problems are not issues on which we can agree to disagree. These are issues that must be addressed in our society as well as our churches. They cannot be neglected for the convenience of a cheap reconciliation.