Hillary Clinton on Lincoln, the Civil War and Reconstruction

Last night at the Democratic Town Hall Meeting in Iowa Hillary Clinton offered up a reminder of why a solid grasp of Reconstruction is essential to our understanding of American history. While the 150th anniversary of the Civil War received a great deal of attention from historic sites, museums and a host of educational institutions, very little is being done to commemorate Reconstruction.

Clinton was asked, “Which of our previous presidents inspired you the most and why?” and answered with Abraham Lincoln. Much of the commentary that I have read today only includes her brief reference to Reconstruction, but it might be helpful to include her answer in its entirety, which touches on the war itself.

You know, I – wow, when I think about his challenges, they paled in comparison to anything we have faced or can imagine.  You know, more Americans died in the Civil War than, you know, the wars of the 20th Century put together.

So here was a man who was a real politician.  I mean, he was a great statesman, but he also understood politics.  And he had to work to put together, you know, the support he needed to be able to hold the country together during the war.

And while he was prosecuting that war to keep the Union together, he was building America, which I found just an astonishing part of his legacy.  The transcontinental rail system, land grant colleges, he was thinking about the future while in the middle of trying to decide which general he can trust to try to finish the war.

That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once, what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war?

And yet, he kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.  You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive.  And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow.  We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.  So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.

And, as I say, our challenges are nothing like what he faced, but let’s think ourselves about not only what we have to do right now, especially to get the income rising in America, especially to make college affordable, do something about student debt, keep health care growing until we get 100 percent coverage and so much else.

But let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.

It’s difficult to interpret an answer that was offered on the fly. Certainly we should resist the urge to interpret this strictly through the lens of early 20th century historiography. I am not entirely convinced, as is Ta-Nehisi Coates, that what we see here is the ghost of the Dunning School, especially given her understanding of the Civil War, which is focused entirely on Union and not emancipation.

The problem is that Clinton attempted to frame the war years without any reference to slavery and the struggle for emancipation. We would do well to remember, however, that Clinton’s framing of the war as a struggle to maintain the Union may be closer to how many Americans understood what was achieved by 1865. In other words, while many of us are still attached to a narrative of the war with emancipation as the only outcome that matters, Clinton reminds us that for many white Americans, it was a “war to keep the Union together” from beginning to end.

The problem for Clinton is that Reconstruction cannot be understood without tracking the long history of slavery and white supremacy as well as the complex process of emancipation during the war. She clearly did not want to get bogged down in the racial violence of the period, but as I stated above, I am not entirely convinced that her comments echo the Dunning School. There are too many open questions about what she meant by specific references. For example:

“We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.”

Is this a reference to ex-Confederates and the Dunning School as Coates suggests? Perhaps she meant that ex-Confederates were “defiant” and former slaves “discouraged.” I don’t know.

Let me be clear that I am not attempting to excuse Clinton as does Lincoln historian, Harold Holzer. We can all agree that this is another case of a politician butchering American history for political purposes. In this case it is wanting to highlight the virtues of a president without getting into the complexity of the history itself. At a time when as a nation we are so focused on the recent history of racial violence such a simplistic understanding of a period like Reconstruction is especially jarring and disappointing.

 

13 comments add yours

  1. I’m disappointed in some of her remarks, but we have to remember she was not giving a history lecture, she was responding on the fly to a question. I would like all of our politicians to have a better grasp of US (and world) history than many (most?) do, but this is hardly an epic gaffe (IMO).

  2. Inarticulate? Maybe. Lost Causer or Dunning School? No. This kind of sensitivity is never going to solve problems. In a few seconds it would be hard for anyone to succinctly convey the point she was making.

  3. Clearly all of this is about three sentences that are open to all sorts of interpretation. I think Coates is closer to how it sounds, but I doubt she really embraces the Dunning school’s view of things. Holzer’s efforts at spin amaze me … but then I remember it’s Harold Holzer. HRC needs better defenders.

    • I think Coates is closer to how it sounds, but I doubt she really embraces the Dunning school’s view of things.

      That is exactly the problem with Coates’s post.

  4. “The problem for Clinton is that Reconstruction cannot be understood without tracking the long history of slavery and white supremacy as well as the complex process of emancipation during the war. She clearly did not want to get bogged down in the racial violence of the period, but as I stated above, I am not entirely convinced that her comments echo the Dunning School.”

    I don’t think it’s a debate about whether or not Clinton “embraces” the Dunning School. I think it’s rather that she was taught the Dunning School and thus espouses it (unknowingly or ‘ignorantly,’ some would say). She clearly did not want to get “bogged down” because obviously her whole understanding of reconstruction and probably the civil war is “glossed over” (if she learned about the War in 20th century american schools) and that is like…the prime weapon of the Lost Cause fallacy! Glossing!!

    I attending a Virginia public school in 2007 and I was taught. very similar. stuff. Boiled down, uncomplicated versions with LOTSSS of discouraged southerner stuff [which definitely sounds Lost Causy to me. I think it’s generous, Kevin, to think she was referring to the former slaves, considering she obviously didn’t study reconstruction that in depth (WHO DOES?!?)]

    It seems like you are agreeing with Coates but getting hung up over whether or not she is actively embracing a historical narrative and I think she…is showing just how little she knows. She clearly “does not want to get bogged down in the racial violence” and that is why she is coming off as someone who doesn’t know what she’s talking about (because she doesn’t.)

    But I totally agree that this is not something that should make or break her as a viable presidential candidate.

    • I think it’s rather that she was taught the Dunning School and thus espouses it (unknowingly or ‘ignorantly,’ some would say).

      How do you know what she was taught about Reconcstruction? My whole point is that three vague sentences can be interpreted any number of ways.

      It seems like you are agreeing with Coates but getting hung up over whether or not she is actively embracing a historical narrative and I think she…is showing just how little she knows.

      I agree with Coates to the extent that I believe that Reconstruction is key to understanding the centrality of race and racial violence in American history. I disagree with how he interprets Clinton’s words, especially in light of her full response to the question.

      • “…but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

        But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.”

        You don’t think she’s (subliminally) insinuating here that reconstruction was bad and lead to further polarization in the country? And maybe if Lincoln hadn’t have been shot that wouldn’t have hasppened? Even the structure of her answer seems to suggest that.

        • Many people have speculated on how Reconstruction might have turned out had Lincoln lived. That has nothing to do with the Dunning School and has everything to do with the mythologizing of Lincoln. Reconstruction did lead to political polarization and a lot worse.

          Like I said, her comments can be interpreted in multiple ways. Finally, what I find interesting is that few people are placing those comments alongside what she said about the war years.

    • Also I don’t want to insinuate that Clinton isn’t smart because the woman went to Yale Law but I do think it does indicate how out of touch she is on the history of race relations in this country and also her sheer mainstream-ness/white breadedness which is a bigger problem for her campaign, and yes I know that’s not a fully formed concept, but maybe someone gets it.

  5. “With far less fanfare, unfortunately, I heard Hillary a few months ago declare what Lincoln truly meant to her, and how she hopes to use his example to inspirit her own presidency: it was Lincoln’s confident vision that every American should have an equal chance in the race of life. There is a historical reference that really counts! From a wicked smart candidate who may be our “last best hope” to navigate our own un-civil wars.”

    Seems objective to me…

  6. If I might be so bold….Coates mentions a “national amnesia,” which I found disturbing to say the least. Hillary’s answer was far better than you’d get from a lot of politicians, but that doesn’t stop the apparent desire to pile on. What I find somewhat like another type of amnesia is the idea that some historians and writers have which is that Lincoln’s death is apparently irrelevant, and that his serving out his second term might not have had huge and long term positive effects across the landscape. Moreover, this same group dares to propose that if anyone disagrees those in disagreement are, for lack of better terms, just wrong.

    I find this so unbelievably arrogant. Let’s just say Lincoln lives. Well that means Johnson is not President as he actually was, and therefore he almost certainly doesn’t get impeached. Going further, does the Klan rise as it does in this alternate scenario? Does the original Civil Rights Bill of 1866 get passed? Do the 14th and 15th Amendments get passed and ratified as they did? Does Grant naturally follow as President in 1868? Do we then have a Civil Rights Act of 1875? The fact is, we don’t know. We never will. We only know what actually did happen. I have often asked: if Lincoln had lived could it have been much worse? I doubt it could have. Therefore, in my opinion, there was only an upside.

    Thanks for hearing me out, especially since my response isn’t much about your post. 🙂

  7. You do know that Clinton went undercover for Marian Wright Edelman to investigate white “academies” in the South during the Civil Rights Movement? That doesn’t look like ignorance of the history of race relations in the US to me.

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