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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 128


This is the grave of Claude Bowers.

Born in 1878 in Westfield, Indiana, Bowers became a journalist in Terre Haute as a young man. Self-taught, Bowers never went to college but devoured any book he could find. He rose in this world, becoming an editorial writer for the New York World in 1923 and then a political columnist for the New York Journal in 1931. He began writing history as well. That history was racist, reflecting Bowers’ personal beliefs about African-Americans. He became an important figure in the rising school of thought that the Civil War was an unjust invasion of the South by a capitalist North and that Reconstruction was a great horror upon the land. Although not an academic, he was very much in the Dunning School that dominated the scholarly interpretation of this critical period in American history that has been discredited but still lives on in the Oval Office today. Bowers’ major theme was the glories of the early Democratic Party and the perfidy of its competitors–the Federalists, the Whigs, and the Republicans. He wrote Party Battles of the Jacksonian Period in 1922 and Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America in 1925. Both books saw the early Democrats–Jackson and Jefferson–as heroes against the elite inclinations of Hamilton and Clay.

Even worse, his 1929 book The Tragic Era described the horrors of Reconstruction on the good white Democrats of the South. This book took the Dunning School and made it nationally popular. He argued that a corrupt Republican Party had not only engaged in widespread graft in the North during Reconstruction (not untrue though it was entirely bipartisan wherever Democrats held power) but had despoiled the South in doing so by creating a black government repressing white democracy (extraordinarily untrue). These books all sold very well, making him one of the day’s most popular history writers. Outside of Thomas Dixon’s The Klansman and D.W. Griffith’s film adaption of Dixon, Birth of a Nation, no single cultural production of the early twentieth century did more to center the Dunning School in American thought than Bowers’ book. Said Eric Foner, in a quick profile of the Dunning School:

Reconstruction refers to the period, generally dated from 1865 to 1877, during which the nation’s laws and Constitution were rewritten to guarantee the basic rights of the former slaves, and biracial governments came to power throughout the defeated Confederacy. For decades, these years were widely seen as the nadir in the saga of American democracy. According to this view, Radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights. The heroes of the story were the self-styled Redeemers, who restored white supremacy to the South.

This portrait, which received scholarly expression in the early-20th-century works of William A. Dunning and his students at Columbia University, was popularized by the 1915 film “Birth of A Nation” and by Claude Bowers’s 1929 best-selling history, “The Tragic Era.” It provided an intellectual foundation for the system of segregation and black disenfranchisement that followed Reconstruction. Any effort to restore the rights of Southern blacks, it implied, would lead to a repeat of the alleged horrors of Reconstruction.

Bowers lionized not only Abraham Lincoln (who in this vision of the 1860s was hated by the evil radicals and was the South’s savior, which is reflected in the first minutes of Birth of a Nation), but also Andrew Johnson, who he claimed “fought the greatest battle for constitutional liberty and for the preservation of our institutions ever waged by an Executive…seeking honestly to carry out the conciliatory and wise policy of Lincoln.” He had expressed these ideas long before he wrote his influential histories. As early as 1905, he gave a speech to the Indiana Sons of Veterans that repeated Lost Cause reconciliationist bromides about the war ultimately having pulled the white men of the nation together, saying that white southerners were wrong during the war but right during Reconstruction. Johnson was a figure that bridged his two political heroes–Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. That all of these figures were grotesquely racist was a virtue, not a demerit. Southern universities repeatedly asked Bowers to give their commencement addresses, which pleased him to no end. Finally, here was someone telling the “true” history of Reconstruction and the necessary Redemption of lynching, segregation, and violent suppression of black suffrage. The only real criticism Bowers received, even from professional historians, were from black scholars such as Carter Woodson and it’s not as if he cared about that, or possibly even knew about it. The white academy and white politicians loved this stuff.

Through all of this, Bowers also became a somewhat important figure in the Democratic Party. He ran for Congress from Indiana in 1904 against an entrenched Republican. He lost but this did not hurt him in the internal dynamics of the party. His consistently pro-Democratic editorial writing made him popular with his fellow Democrats and he gave a key speech at the 1928 Democratic National Convention.

Bowers might have just been another Dunning-esque Democratic Party hack if it wasn’t for one thing–Franklin Delano Roosevelt loved his books. He was so influenced by Bowers’ opinions on Jefferson that he lobbied for the building of the Jefferson Memorial, which to be fair, is a lovely piece of architecture. He loved Bowers so much that he named him ambassador to Spain in 1933. This was somewhat interesting in that Bowers was like many old-time Democratic elites who were highly uncomfortable with the New Deal. Yet although he privately disliked the New Deal, he never openly criticized Roosevelt. He served in Spain for 6 years. That meant we had this racist newspaper editor as the US representative to the nation during the Spanish Civil War. But he believed that the Spanish Republic was modeled after the United States and he hoped it would succeed. His appointment was political, but he was a true believer in the idea. Thus he opposed Franco. He wrote to Roosevelt constantly, urging him to do something to help the Republic, which FDR was not willing to do and which contributed to the rise of a general war in Europe a few years later. After his time in Spain, Roosevelt named his as ambassador to Chile in 1939. He stayed there until 1953, an almost unheard of time in a single location. Here, he continued pushing his ideas of peaceful democratic government that was a bulwark against both fascism and communism, which meant he was a good early Cold Warrior in Latin America. In 1954, he published his memoirs on his time in Spain, which were highly critical of Franco and fascism.

Ultimately, Bowers’ historical writings are a lot more important than his time as a diplomat. His horrible ideas about race and politics are precisely what we are fighting against today, being produced in the aftermath of the creation of Jim Crow and the core group of Confederate monuments. Toward the end of his life, the historical interpretation of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction was in the early stages of changing, but Bowers retained his beliefs to the end of his life. Bowers died of leukemia in 1958.

Claude Bowers is buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery, Terre Haute, Indiana.

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