Apparently several historians and journalists are upset by Hillary Clinton’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War at last night’s CNN’s Democratic candidate’s town hall meeting. Here is what she said about Lincoln in response to an audience member who asked her to say something about the POTUS who has inspired her the most:
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.
I have highlighted the section of her remarks that led some pundits to squeal.
Holy crap, this Clinton answer on Lincoln went totally off the rails into Southern revisionism. Too much rancor because he was killed…
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) January 26, 2016
Have to think that was her mid-century education on Lincoln and Reconstruction popping up. Amazing how durable that can be.
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) January 26, 2016
No HRC, Reconstruction was actually good! It didn’t fail, it was destroyed!
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) January 26, 2016
Frankly, I was quite impressed with Hillary’s understanding of Lincoln. She understood the challenges that he faced as POTUS during a Civil War. She knew that his presidency was not just about the Civil War. Her references to the railroads and land-grant colleges were excellent. She was aware of his problems with Union generals. Her references to reconciliation and forgiveness captured the spirit of the Second Inaugural. How many presidential candidates could summon this kind of historical knowledge off the top of their heads?
Of course she did imply that Reconstruction was a problem. People like Chait and Bouie are correct to note that Radical Reconstruction in the South had positive results for the former slaves. If Hillary was referring to the policies of Republican Reconstruction, then she was wrong to imply that it had negative consequences for Blacks.
On the other hand, she could have been simply referencing the “Era of Reconstruction,” a period that covers the entire period in U.S. History from 1865-1877. This is normally how American History textbooks cover the period. This “era” saw Republican policies that brought human and civil rights to those who were enslaved. You had the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. But this era ended tragically for African American as white redemption won the day, leading to Jim Crow and segregation. From a curriculum standpoint, all of this–the good and the bad–are covered under the so-called “Era of Reconstruction.”
Did Hillary make a mistake by lumping Republican Reconstruction with Jim Crow and segregation? Probably. But I don’t think it was enough to merit the outrage I am seeing among historians and the references to Hillary invoking the Dunning School.
If liberal commentators want to find the real problem with Hillary’s statement they should consider the fact that if Lincoln had lived the union might have come together much sooner, but I am not sure we would have had a period of Reconstruction that benefited former slaves in the way that it did. Lincoln’s so-called “Ten percent plan” made it pretty easy for the South to return to the Union without addressing the plight of the former slaves.