Civil and Human Rights

Remembering Our Forgotten Founders

Works on Abraham Lincoln consistently top national bestseller lists – Team of Rivals, Lincoln on Leadership, even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln continues to rank in the top five movies at the box office. It is all the more fitting since tomorrow the Nation marks the 147th anniversary of the 13th Amendment and its ban on slavery – the congressional debate over which is dramatized so well in Spielberg’s film. Ratified just months after Lincoln’s assassination, the 13th Amendment served as a foundation for the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln envisioned in his Gettysburg Address.

Americans are drawn to Lincoln for a variety of reasons – Lincoln as wartime President, Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln as martyr. Indeed, rarely has so multifaceted a person inhabited the White House, and perhaps never in as perilous a time in our Nation’s history. As a result, Lincoln continues to occupy a privileged place in American public memory – and rightly so.

Nevertheless, in our collective reverence for Lincoln, we often give short shrift to the generation of leaders who succeeded him and who radically improved our Nation’s founding charter after a bloody Civil War. These forgotten Founders – Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and John Bingham, among others – shared Lincoln’s goal of securing a “new birth of freedom” for all Americans and of realizing the promise of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  Indeed, as Stevens explained near the beginning of Reconstruction, “Our Fathers had been compelled to postpone the principles of their great Declaration and wait for their full establishment until a more propitious time. That time ought to be present now.”

Concededly, our forgotten Founders were no saints. (Then again, neither was Lincoln.) However, in their personal commitments and collective aspirations, we see (more than) a bit of ourselves.  Prior to the Civil War, Stevens defended fugitive slaves in court, Sumner fought for school desegregation in Boston, and Bingham envisioned a federal Constitution that would protect the fundamental freedoms of all Americans. Of course, Stevens, Sumner, and Bingham failed to achieve many of their goals during Reconstruction. Nevertheless, in the face of Southern intransigence and unprecedented violence, they still accomplished a great deal.  In the words of Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, these leaders “ended slavery, made every person born under the flag an equal citizen, guaranteed a host of civil rights to all Americans, and extended equal political rights to black men.” As a result, many scholars have rightly described Reconstruction – and its related constitutional amendments – as a “Second Founding.”

Despite these achievements, few Americans have likely thought about Reconstruction (or its leaders) since their high school history classes – and, even then, they are as likely to remember Reconstruction as a period of Northern vengeance and national disappointment as they are as a precursor to Brown v. Board of Ed., Martin Luther King, Jr., and the achievements of the modern civil rights movement. There’s little doubt that this collective amnesia is caused, at least in part, by the messiness of the Reconstruction story itself. However, it’s also the result of larger historical forces – forces that pushed the North and South towards reconciliation in the early twentieth century and, in turn, shaped the canonical stories that we passed along to our schoolchildren for generations thereafter.

Following the Civil War, both the North and the South were committed to teaching their own version of that bloody war and its aftermath. Indeed, some states even passed laws that banned textbooks that told the other side’s story. However, between 1900 and 1910, the North and South coalesced around what Jonathan Zimmerman has called a “reconciliation narrative.” Southerners renounced slavery and secession; the North conceded that Reconstruction was unnecessary and tragic; and both the North and the South agreed that both sides had fought heroically during the Civil War. 

This consensus account of Reconstruction was supported by the scholarship of William Dunning, John Burgess, and their disciples – the so-called “Dunning School.” Their narrative was sympathetic to the white South and hostile to both African-Americans and congressional Republicans. During the early-to-mid twentieth century, this Dunning School account dominated American high school textbooks, with stories of vindictive Radicals, corrupt carpetbaggers, opportunistic scalawags, ignorant freedmen, and oppressed Southern whites. 

Although today’s textbooks are much more sympathetic to Reconstruction and its aims, one of the key Dunning School themes that still survives is what I call the “But-for-Lincoln” narrative. One early textbook summarizes it well: “There is a good chance that Lincoln – generous, patient, and with kind feelings toward the [S]outhern states – might have been able to guide the country safely through the difficult task of Reconstruction.”

Although there’s little doubt that the country would have been better off with President Lincoln at the helm, one of history’s great mysteries is how Lincoln would have approached Reconstruction. While he spoke of “charity for all” during his Second Inaugural, he also showed a remarkable ability, throughout his life, to adapt and evolve. Would Lincoln have remained patient, generous, and charitable in the face of growing Southern intransigence?  Of course, we will never know. However, it is likely that Reconstruction would have tested even Lincoln’s legendary resolve, as well as his unmatched capacity for political compromise.

Regardless, today’s textbooks still use Lincoln’s “gentleness” as a foil to the congressional Republicans’ “harshness.” Furthermore, our textbooks still describe Thaddeus Stevens – the Reconstruction leader featured most prominently – as a “Radical avenger.” Therefore, students are still left with (at least) the faint impression that Reconstruction may have turned out differently if only it were guided by a gentler, more charitable hand. Finally, even as Stevens takes on added prominence in our leading textbooks, John Bingham is still entirely ignored, and Charles Sumner is still remembered most for being caned on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks – or, as one modern textbook puts it, as “Bleeding Sumner.” These forgotten Founders deserve better.

As with many Civil War narratives, Spielberg’s film ends with Lincoln’s assassination. Here’s hoping that Spielberg’s compelling tale – with Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens – will inspire moviegoers to learn more about what happened next. The rest of Reconstruction – like the tale of Lincoln’s final months – is surely a story worthy of Spielberg.


Photo: DreamWorks/LA Times

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