Hillary Clinton and the Perils of Reconstruction History

by Allan Branstiter

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I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t watched a Democratic debate/town hall/forum in several months because 1) no one can bury a primary campaign in plain sight better than Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, 2) life, 3) my heart belongs to Bernie Sanders, and 4) they’re boring. Who knows . . . maybe after Sanders wins Iowa and New Hampshire these things will liven up a little bit. I must be doing something wrong because 3.2 million people tuned in to CNN to watch this high-octane slog-fest unfold—making it the highest rated town hall (not debate) ever. Nevertheless, a candidate said something at last Monday’s Iowa town hall on CNN that almost makes me wish I had been watching.

In 2008, Barack Obama once said that his favorite book at the moment was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a critically-acclaimed history of how Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet overcame political divisions and saved the nation. Obama’s use of Lincoln as model was safe and supported his argument that he would unify the country behind the cause of “Hope,” “Change,” and “Yes We Can!” Citing Lincoln also undermined Clinton’s argument that Obama was too idealistic and naive to be an effective president. Team of Rivals simultaneously gave Obama an historical precedent as the “Believer-in-Chief,” embedded his campaign within a centuries-old narrative of racial justice, and sold a ton of Democrats a book that they never got around to reading. Running for POTUS 101: Cite Lincoln because it’s safe, hopeful, and patriotic.

Last Monday, when asked which president she admires the most, Hillary Clinton answered “Abraham Lincoln.” Safe answer, boring answer . . . you’d think. But leave it to Clinton to fumble the ball on a Lincoln. Starting out, Clinton’s conjuring of Lincoln’s memory wasn’t bad. Heck, it even contained a well-known Lincoln quote:

“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 an eye on the future. And he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.”

Then she to a very old and very troubling interpretation of race and Reconstruction:

“You know, he was willing to reconcile and forgive and I don’t know what our country might have been like if had he not been murdered. But I bet that it might have been a lot less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that it might have possibly back together more quickly, but instead 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.”

Keep in mind that this is a Democratic candidate for President of the United States in 2016, not Donald Trump of the fake “River of Blood” Civil War monument. This isn’t even your crazy Uncle Gary who gets all his historical knowledge from cable television and Bill O’Reilly’s assassination porn. This is Hillary Clinton, Yale alumni, former U.S. Senator from New York, and former U.S. Secretary of State treading dangerously close to a neo-Confederate understanding of American history. So where does this come from and why is what she said troubling?

By arguing that Lincoln’s death opened the door to unreasonably harsh Reconstruction policy that served only to antagonize white Southerners hearkens back to an antiquated, debunked, and (frankly) white supremacist historical interpretation called the Dunning School. William Dunning, a professor of history at Columbia University during the turn of the 20th Century, argued that Reconstruction was a “tragic era” caused by a conspiracy of vindictive and intolerant Northerners who manipulated uneducated African American men and women into action against their former masters. To Dunningites, Reconstruction was a betrayal of Lincoln’s moderate stance towards the defeated Confederacy, as well as a tyrannical overreach of federal power.

In the end, Dunningites justified the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the violent overthrow of biracial state governments as an understandable reaction to Reconstruction. Ironically, they blamed the codification of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s as a necessary corrective to the intolerance of the left’s social justice agenda. Like Clinton, they argued that if radical Republicans and supporters of racial equality had only “been a lot less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant” the separation of the races wouldn’t have been necessary.

This interpretation became the dominant narrative of the Civil War era during the 30th Century. Anyone over the age of 50 probably learned it as fact during middle and high school. The Dunning School inspired and continues to inspire a nostalgic view of the South. Gone With the Wind (1939) is probably the most famous portrait of the values of the Dunning School; however, it was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) that captured the romantic potential of the interpretation and led to the appearance of the Second Ku Klux Klan.

Undoubtedly Clinton opposes all things racist and related to the Klan or neo-Confederate ideology, and I’m not arguing that she’s a racist apologist by any means. Even D.W. Griffith had the best of intentions when he made Birth of a Nation. In fact, he went so far as to include included this placard in his film right before his section regarding Reconstruction:

What follows this well-meaning placard qualifying the heroic portrayal of the Klan and the savagery of the rapine black and mulatto field hand an objective but benign historical fact? Why, a quote from none other than then President Woodrow Wilson that in the face of liberal tyranny and racial disorder, “white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” Such is the contradictory history of race in America.

Again, let’s make it clear—I do not believe Clinton is supporting the political ambitions of the Klan, nor does she harbor ill will towards nonwhite races (God forgive those who venture to condemn liberals as *a hush descends upon the room* racists). What I will argue is that Clinton’s privilege as white elite continues to inform her understanding of the past’s relevance to today.

It’s not like an alternative understanding of Reconstruction is so new that she could not be expected to know about it—W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) is 81-years-old and while mainstream academic historians have undermined the Dunning School convincingly for half a century. What we now know is that Lincoln’s death may have lessened the acerbic nature of Reconstruction politics in Washington, DC, but white Southerners would have still obstructed any attempts to extend the full rights of citizens to African Americans. As historian Eric Foner argues, “today, scholars believe that if the era was ‘tragic,’ it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.” What prevented a quick and harmonious reconciliation after the Civil War wasn’t the inflexibility of radicals or the victimization of white Southerners, but the unwillingness of white supremacists to accept the legitimacy of black civil rights.

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During Reconstruction, conservatives (Northern and Southern, black and white) argued that radicals needed to show more forbearance towards those who sought to limit the freedom of former slaves, Native Americans, and Chinese immigrants. They supported so-called “Black Codes” that stole black children from their parents and forced into “apprenticeships” under white planters. They denied blacks the ability to relocate in order to find higher wages and better working condition. White conservatives also chaffed when black legislators argued that the practice of leasing black prisoners was unconstitutional. To Reconstruction-era conservatives, these acts of racial injustice were a moderate and forgiving compromise that would maintain the racial status quo, while paving the way towards national reconciliation.

On January 22, 2016, a self-identified white “moderate” called into the Diane Rehm Show and said that while he never thought he’d ever vote for Donald Trump, the “changing demographics” of the country were turning him into a supporter. Showing the forbearance advocated by “respectable” people, the journalists on the show that day commented that the man sounded “so reasonable” and that his ideological moderation implied that he was (and by extension Trump’s supporters) primarily motivated by factors other than race and a perceived loss of white privilege.

I bring up this final point because it served as a fascinating moment when “moderation” bridged the divide between a man who fears a brown take-over of America and several white liberal members of the press. This sense of unity is made possible by a failure to reject antiquated and racially apologetic understandings of the past. While made in passing and without malice, Clinton’s misconceptions about American history allow racial discrimination to hide beneath a guise of well-meaning liberal white folk and their emphasis on unity, reconciliation, and respectability. What suffers is true justice—whether it be economic, gendered, or racial justice.

To the unaware, she sounds so reasonable and moderate. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once stated, “the idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.” One might include those who find their words sprinting ahead of their understanding of history, as well.

PS—Evidently a ton of people going nuts about whether or not the question “Which of our previous Presidents have inspired you the most?” was a plant. Nuts, I tell you.

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