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.