Should Hillary Clinton Take a Mulligan On Lincoln and Reconstruction?

At last night’s Iowa Town Hall, an audience member asked Hillary Clinton which President inspired her most. After using humor to deflect the question away from her husband (Bill Clinton) and her former boss (Barack Obama), Clinton gave the same answer many of us would have given: Abraham Lincoln.

Americans are drawn to Lincoln for a variety of reasons—Lincoln as wartime President, Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” Lincoln as martyr—and Clinton initially captured Lincoln’s allure quite well, praising him for his leadership during the Civil War and his use of the government to serve the common good. She then veered into more perilous terrain—exploring one of American history’s great “what ifs”: What if Lincoln had lived long enough to lead the nation through the challenges of Reconstruction?

Rather than focusing on Lincoln’s vision at Gettysburg or exploring the progressive promise of the Reconstruction moment, Secretary Clinton used the nation’s memory of Lincoln to make a point about civility in politics, highlighting Lincoln’s willingness to “reconcile and forgive” and predicting that Lincoln “might possibly have brought people back together more quickly” following the Civil War. She then added, “But instead, . . . we had Reconstruction, we had the reigns of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really believe he could have very well put us on a different path.”

Various commentators panned Clinton’s response. Chris Geidner called it “Lincoln alt-history fanfic.” Jonathan Chait labeled it “Southern revisionism.” And Jamelle Bouie exclaimed: “No HRC, Reconstruction was actually good! It didn’t fail, it was destroyed!” These are fair points, and, given a mulligan, I suspect that Secretary Clinton might wish to clarify her answer, respond to these criticisms, and acknowledge the aspirations (and achievements) of Reconstruction’s forgotten leaders.

Reconstruction was a period of great constitutional transformation—one that many scholars rightly describe as America’s “Second Founding.” During this critical period, the American people ratified a series of important constitutional amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—that ended slavery, protected fundamental rights from state abuses, guaranteed equality for all, and expanded the right to vote. As America’s Second Founding turns 150, it’s worth reminding everyone—from everyday citizens to candidates for President—of the remarkable achievements of this period in our history. (That’s why my organization—Constitutional Accountability Center—is working to build a multi-year celebration of America’s Second Founding.)

And yet, while the Civil War has long held a privileged place in American public memory, Reconstruction most certainly has not. There’s little doubt that this asymmetry 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 passed along to many generations thereafter.

While the North and South were originally committed to teaching their own versions of the Civil War and its aftermath, the two sides quickly 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 and his disciples—the so-called “Dunning School.” This narrative was sympathetic to the white South and hostile to both African Americans and congressional Republicans. And during the early-to-mid twentieth century, this account littered American history textbooks with stories of vindictive Radicals, corrupt carpetbaggers, opportunistic scalawags, ignorant freedmen, and oppressed Southern whites.

One of the key Dunning School themes was (what one might call) a “But-for-Lincoln” narrative. One textbook from the 1950s captures this idea well: “There is a good chance that Lincoln—generous, patient, and with kind feelings toward the Southern states—might have been able to guide the country safely through the difficult task of Reconstruction.”

Of course, this passage—along with Clinton’s response last night—captures more than a sliver of truth. There’s little doubt that the country would have been better off with President Lincoln at the helm during Reconstruction rather than the stubborn, irredeemably racist Andrew Johnson. However, it’s not at all clear that Lincoln would have pursued a “generous” and “patient” path. While he spoke famously of “charity for all” during his Second Inaugural, Lincoln also showed a remarkable ability, throughout his life, to adapt and evolve. 

Historian Eric Foner captures this idea well, explaining, “Had he died in 1862, it would be quite easy to argue today that Lincoln would never have issued a proclamation of emancipation, enrolled black soldiers in the Union army, or advocated allowing black men to vote.” And yet he did, moved by the exigencies of war and the courage shown by countless African Americans willing to fight for their freedom. Given this track record, would the ever-evolving, morally imaginative Lincoln have remained patient, generous, and charitable in the face of growing Southern intransigence? We will never know. But what we do know is the actual constitutional legacy left behind by the forgotten leaders of Reconstruction—leaders like Thaddeus Stevens, John Bingham, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass. 

While President Johnson pursued a lenient policy towards the South and sought a “white man’s government” during Reconstruction, trailblazers like Stevens and Bingham worked to write Lincoln’s promise of “a new birth of freedom” into our Constitution. And while Johnson stood aside as the former rebels seized political control of the South and oppressed the newly freed slaves, congressional Republicans pressed ahead with a program designed to restore liberty and equality to a central place in America’s constitutional order.

Public figures like Hillary Clinton should use the 150th anniversary of this Second Founding to draw attention to the constitutional achievements of Stevens, Bingham, and their generation. While Reconstruction fell short of its full promise, its leaders deserve to be remembered alongside America’s long line of visionary reformers—from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson. And the period itself, though turbulent and violent, should be remembered for what it was—a Second Founding for our nation.

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