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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reflections on Clinton's comment on Reconstruction

If you don't know what Hillary Clinton said about Lincoln and Reconstruction at the Town Hall meeting in Iowa, here's one of the more measured commentaries.  Hillary's gotten a lot of heat for her comment, and understandably so, since she was suggesting that the United States was too quick to give freed slaves the vote.  However, following Ta-Nehisi Coates' lead, some critics are unfairly associating Hillary's comments with the Dunning school, which views Reconstruction as a corrupt and unjust system of violence against the White South. The similarity between Hillary's comment and the Dunning school is entirely superficial.  Hillary was making a case for the political expediency of forgiveness, and she was aligning herself with one of the most beloved presidents in American History.

Let's start with some historical context.  Many extremely prominent abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, did not want to extend the franchise to freed slaves. Lincoln's own plan for Reconstruction would not have given the vast majority of freed slaves the vote. The most charitable interpretation of history is that Lincoln had the long-term goal of universal suffrage in view, but believed that it was impossible in the short-term. At best, he thought the franchise should be immediately extended to freed slaves who passed some educational requirement, the sort of requirement that would notoriously be (mis)applied in the Jim Crow era. Instead of Lincoln's plan, we got something very different: Radical Reconstruction guaranteed the franchise to all freedmen--with the unfortunate loophole which still denies the right to convicts--and this was enforced by a federal occupation of Southern States.

 Let that sink in: After they were defeated and economically devastated, the Southern States were occupied territories. Progressives today are well aware of the dangers that come with political occupation. It should not be controversial for a liberal to claim that the occupation of the South had a counter-productive effect on the reunification of the nation. So why is it controversial? Because in this case, the occupation was necessary to guarantee the franchise to southern freedmen. Liberties extended to the freedmen were taken away from the Southern Democrats.

 So where does that leave Clinton? When Hillary aligns herself with Lincoln's attitude towards Reconstruction, she is making a number of controversial political claims. The first is that painful compromises on crucial issues are sometimes the best way to ensure a long-term victory. This is the relevant point she wants to drive home to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders. The second point is that Lincoln was right: The franchise was extended to freed slaves too quickly, and too forcefully, in the postbellum South. She says that if the victorious North had taken a softer stance on enfranchisement, then everybody would have been much better off. We can't say there would have been no racist violence and oppression against freed slaves and their children, but it is possible that the road to recovery, justice and universal suffrage would have been smoother and more successful.  And she says a big reason we did not have a better postbellum reconstruction is that we lost Lincoln's leadership too quickly.

Clinton was talking about forgiveness--not for slavery, but for the Civil War.  If she thought the South had fought a just war for a righteous cause, she would not speak of forgiveness, for there would be nothing to forgive.  She is acknowledging that the Civil War was fought for ignoble purposes.  She does not claim punishment was unjust.  She only claims that punishment was not politically expedient.  Note also that this is not about punishment for slavery.  Though Hillary still has not supported reparations for slavery, she has not ruled them out, either; and in any case, reparations would have to be faced squarely by the nation as a whole, and not just by the South.

Let's look at the big picture.  Reconstruction had noble aims, but it was a disaster. The North lacked the vision and determination to sustain a long-term plan.  Unity was never restored. Equality was never achieved. To this day, reconstruction is still needed.  We can't blame that on the Radical Republicans, but can wonder how much better America might have been, and might be today, if things were done differently.

I expect Clinton would agree with the following: Reconstruction was justified. It was not corrupt. However, it was not executed with prudence. It led to more division, not less. It did help establish pillars for African-American communities in the South, but these gains did not produce unity for the nation or equality for the oppressed. If Lincoln hadn't been killed, he might have been able to work with Congress to produce a better plan for Reconstruction, one which required more compromise, but which had a better chance for long-term success.

Is Clinton right? I honestly don't know, but her comment does not show ignorance of basic history. It does not show her being on the wrong side of civil rights principles. What it shows is her aligning herself directly with one of the most respected and appreciated Presidents in US history, and on a question which to this day remains controversial.

The question Democrats face today is, does the United States need somebody like Lincoln, who was willing to make compromises for the sake of long-term success, or does the United States need somebody like Bernie Sanders, who relies on intransigence?