Thomas Nast’s cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly at Thanksgiving 1869, captured the hope of some Americans for the post-war era. Guests around the table for “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving” were a model of human diversity, including a native American and a freedman. At the center were values of universal suffrage and self-government that bound them together despite any other differences. Heroes portrayed on the wall were Washington, Lincoln and the new President US Grant.
Not everyone viewed that prospect with hope. Their resistance would destroy this vision of openness and equality, replacing it with a brutal white nationalist regime we’re still struggling to replace. How did they do it? How did the proponents of a white supremacist mythology prevail in the struggle to define America’s future? What can we learn from their success?
First, proponents of a new white supremacist mythology gained control of the threat landscape through the successful, and largely unchallenged use of force. A brutal and largely forgotten massacre in the small town of Camilla, Georgia in 1868 epitomizes the playbook run by white supremacists all over the country as they gained power. Failure of the government and opponents of their regime to punish their terror, or impose fears of their own, gave white supremacists the breathing room to assemble the rest of their order.
Second, they gained the control or acquiescence of the country’s most powerful financial levers. Only when Northern industrialists came to see their interests aligned with the former slaveholders were white supremacists able to gain necessary cover for their terror campaign. This alignment proved critical as railroad barons, fearing what the rise of an honest democratic government might mean for them, aided Southern planters in getting US Attorney General Thomas Ackerman fired in 1871.
Third, a global zeitgeist in favor of white supremacy was emerging in the 1860s’ after the British government took direct control over India. At the same time, readers were aggressively misunderstanding Darwin’s new Origin of Species, to manufacture a scientific justification for white rule. Swimming against a wider global tide of white supremacy would have been difficult, though it was never impossible.
Finally, artists completed the picture, filling in the cultural justifications that would let Americans lull their conscience to sleep. With force clearing the way so that few alterative voices could be heard and money providing incentives and logistics for spreading their message, poets, writers and amateur “scientists” cemented the last elements of a white supremacist mythology into place. No one did more to define a new unity of white Americans than the lauded, Lincoln-loving poet Walt Whitman. And no one contributed more to cap off the achievements of the new white nationalist order than the early film genius, DW Griffith.
This history offers a blueprint for a new national mythology. There was no shortage of promising material available during Reconstruction from which a powerful, just and hopeful new mythology might have emerged. Whoever wins our new struggle for the future will dominate the threat landscape, leverage the power of commerce toward their goals, and cement their gains in place with moving cultural artifacts which will elevate and mythologize what they won through grubbier methods.