Hillary Clinton’s Reconstruction Misstep

As I’ve said before, politicians often mangle history in an effort to show how much the know, only to remind us of how much they don’t know or how willing they are to twist the story of the past to fit present needs.

Here we go again.

Last night, at a Democratic town hall, Hillary Rodham Clinton shared her understanding of Reconstruction in answering a question about which president inspired her most. She responded with Abraham Lincoln. Then she explained how Reconstruction would have been better had Lincoln lived … that is better for “southerners.”

(Someone pointed out that Clinton said “people in the South.”)

It’s clear from the context that she’s confused, because while she mentions Jim Crow and segregation, her reference to southerners/ “people in the South” points to the people who instituted those policies, and not to the freedpeople. Blacks were discouraged. Many whites were defiant.

(Note: blacks were also defiant in defending their rights, but that’s another story.)

It did not take long for people to pick up on the comment and criticize it (this link includes tape of the answer). Among those who did so was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who linked to this blog in offering his answer.

Nor did it take long for that well-renowned friend of presidents and Democratic politicians, Harold Holzer, to jump to the defense of the former senator from New York. This was not entirely unexpected: I recall how Holzer once delivered a banquet address on presidents he had known which sounded more like a talk on the presidents who were fortunate enough to have known him.

Holzer claims: “All she was saying — maybe a bit awkwardly, but, I think, sincerely and justifiably — is that a leader of Lincoln’s extraordinary abilities and patience might well have found the means of empowering formerly enslaved persons, granting them rights, and bringing the defeated white Southerners into alignment with these righteous new policies.” That’s excellent spin.

Just another day in the neighborhood.

23 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton’s Reconstruction Misstep

  1. Jeffry Burden January 26, 2016 / 11:35 am

    Is it too much to ask a former First Lady and Secretary of State to have more than a sixth-grade understanding of US history? Guess so. In her defense, it still tops the bizarre non-history coming from the other side of the aisle.

  2. OhioGuy January 26, 2016 / 11:42 am

    A lot of folks don’t understand Reconstruction, in part, because the Lost Causers were so good in misrepresenting what actually happened. Perhaps, Hillary should have down loaded Foner’s treatise on Reconstruction to her private email server. I’m fairly certain it’s not classified as Top Secret. 😉

  3. R.Mandel January 26, 2016 / 3:39 pm

    While I, admittedly, am no historian or expert on the Civil War, I do see that you are here reaching for disagreeability with Sec. Clinton who, it seems to me, thought that President Lincoln would have done his best to give ALL – ex-slave and Confederate alike a better chance at life than what DID occur. YOU put quotation marks around “southerners”. But (reading off the CNN transcript) she never said southerners at all but said “people in the south”.That would seem to mean ALL southerners- black and white alike. When you use “southerner” I believe you are implying White Southerner, racist implication included. So in fact Clinton was speaking of ALL people who lived in the southern states and believing they ALL would have been better off with the continued Presidency of Lincoln.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 3:58 pm

      Tell me the difference between “southerners” and “people in the south.” And I’m reaching for “disagreeability”? Ahem. Tell me about how all “people in the south” pushed for Jim Crow and segregation. We’re listening. Finally, read the blog for my discussion of the use of the word “southerner.”

      Someone’s reaching, and it isn’t me.

    • R.Mandel January 26, 2016 / 5:31 pm

      You are being obtuse. Clinton did not ” explain” anything (and you have edited your post since I first read it) but she made an opinion. As slave owners would not have thought of their slaves as” people(human) I don’t believe white southerners would have ever referred to those slaves as ” southerners” or “people of the south. Who said anything about pushing for Jim Crow? Please point out your definition of “southerner” as I can’t find it here readily.

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 6:35 pm

        Now you are into name-calling and avoidance, hallmarks of current political discussion. No wonder you use a masked e-mail address.

        In “editing” the post to specify what Ms. Clinton said (I guess that angers you), how has anything else changed? The only substantial comment I added was about black defiance. Do you object to that? You failed to distinguish between “southerner” and “people in the South.” I asked why this was important to you. You remain silent. Why did you duck that?

        After all, some people “offer an opinion,” but you claim that Ms. Clinton “made an opinion.” Eh? Perhaps she made a comment. But those who want to play picky word games should prepare to deal with treatment in kind.

        As for “southerner,” start here. Then read more entries in this blog. Then come back with an informed understanding of what I mean, and not just some ill-informed assumption based on your particular take of a single post. Do the work instead of calling people obtuse. Otherwise, farewell.

        Ms. Clinton deserves better.

  4. Al Mackey January 26, 2016 / 4:33 pm

    I see this more as a commentary on how little we as Americans understand Reconstruction. I noticed that at least one story critical of what she said flubbed what Reconstruction did as well.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 4:36 pm

      I tend to see this as another case of a lack of precision of terms followed by an interesting assortment of responses. I don’t know what she meant, and what she said was vague and confused enough to lead to what followed

  5. Sandi Saunders January 26, 2016 / 4:58 pm

    Maybe some historians could do Reconstruction proud in a few seconds soundbite; most of us, pols included, cannot. I think her main point remains solid. Reconstruction was not a success. It was not a “good thing” and it was deeply flawed as an undertaking. I too think it would have been better if Lincoln had lived and the ignoramus Johnson had nothing to do with it. With them having lived in Arkansas for years, I do not think either Clinton is a “Lost Causer” or falls into the “Dunning School” train of thought. They are entirely too smart AND politically savvy for that. Imperfect summation anyone could give? Absolutely. Ignorant of history or Confederate apologist? Not even a little. This kind of sensitivity is never going to solve any problem.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 5:06 pm

      The three sentences are open to all sorts of interpretation. That’s the problem.

    • OhioGuy January 26, 2016 / 6:17 pm

      IMHO, the major problem with Reconstruction was that it ended too soon and that Federal troops were withdrawn prematurely. Rutherford B. Hayes is a major villian in my historiography. Things might have been better if Lincoln had lived, but not for the reasons Hillary implied but because there would not have been the uneven enforcement in the Johnson administration followed by the more diligent and sympathetic Grant. This lack of consistency, I believe, gave the southern white supremacists the sense that the will of the North could be broken if they persisted. A more consistent enforcement of Reconstruction might have broken the back of the worst elements of the resistance. At least that’s a better stab I think at an alternative history than that proposed by Ms. Clinton.

  6. tmheaney January 26, 2016 / 5:13 pm

    Huh. I can see a completely different interpretation of Clinton’s statement. While it may indeed be that she was implying a Dunning interpretation that because Lincoln was “murdered,” Republican Radical reconstruction policies were implemented which left “people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant.” I can indeed see that as a possible interpretation of her response to the question.

    But I can also easily see an alternative interpretation that puts the emphasis on Lincoln’s political skills (or at least their absence). I think this is less the Dunning school of Reconstruction and more the Great Man school of politics. Lincoln had proven himself to be a skilled politician who could get things done with a firm hand but who had proposed a policy of “charity for all.” His absence was thus felt and Reconstruction failed because of “defiance” which resulted in the rise of Jim Crow, a defiance Lincoln might have found a way to dispel or suppress. As a politician seeking the Presidency, this could easily be exactly what she meant — that Lincoln might have forestalled the creation of the Jim Crow South.

    Of course there’s a lot of ambiguity in her words, as one would expect from a politician needing to win votes. Would we not agree that Reconstruction could have gone more smoothly if everyone, particularly white Southerners, had been “less rancorous,a little more forgiving and tolerant?” When she says “Reconstruction” led to “segregation and Jim Crow,” I immediately interpret that to mean the entire era, including “Redemption,” not just Reconstruction policies.

    Perhaps the idea that Lincoln’s political skills could have done a better job at enforcing Reconstruction by ensuring full civil liberties to the freedmen and bringing the Southern states back into the fold while satisfying the majority of southern whites is as ridiculous as the Dunning school, but that, I would assert, is what she was aiming for.

    But this all seems to be a silly tempest in a teapot. When Cruz, Trump, and Sanders give their summaries of Reconstruction, let us get together again and parse and compare their words. Until then it just sounds like we’re mad because she didn’t spend an entire hour outlining the course of events of 1865-77 which led to Jim Crow and how the imagined alternative policies a Lincoln-who-lived (probably with a lighting scar on his forehead) would have created a better world.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 26, 2016 / 5:16 pm

      Do I think she embraces the Dunning School? No. Do I think everyone’s reading into this what they want to read? Yes. It was three sloppy sentences, vulnerable to multiple interpretations, as you suggest. But I think Coates is closer to the truth as to how she sounded, precisely because what she said is so open to multiple understandings. Holzer, on the other hand, is really reaching.

      Omit the three sentences and no one’s complaining.

  7. Kevin Schwartz January 26, 2016 / 7:59 pm

    I came here from the TNC article, mainly because, honestly, I have no idea what the controversy is. I’m by no means a historian, but relatively well-acquainted with racial issues/history in the US, but I admit that reconstruction and Jim Crow are blind spots. I’m not arguing for or against, I’m simply trying to figure out a) What people believe HRC implied, 2) What people are arguing is more accurate, and 3) Why it’s controversial?

    Is it simply that her historical reading is inaccurate, or is there a larger significance with regard to her point? Any insight would be welcome.

    • Kevin Schwartz January 26, 2016 / 9:08 pm

      No need – I did some research and think I get the gist of the argument.

  8. Koch Industries for Pres, 2016! January 27, 2016 / 12:39 am

    I might opine/guess differently if had time to study Clinton’s fuller statement, but I assume we’re focusing on “people in the South”.
    My reasoning:
    – I assume Clinton spoke in 2016 “dialect”.
    – The phrase “people in the South” is mechanical, not colloquial, and is cumbersome. “Southerners” would have been more compact and smoother sounding. It appears that Clinton deliberately avoided the sense of “southerner” as expressed in “Sweet Home Alabama”: “a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”.

    So i think Clinton meant, “all Homo sapiens in the states considered ‘southern’ in Reconstruction era”.

    Disclosure regarding bias: I favor Sanders (then, possibly O’Malley).

  9. Brad January 27, 2016 / 4:47 am

    I read her statement and the only thing I can say it’s sad but shocking that she would say that. It just betrays a lack of understanding of history. Holzer I have little use for. I’m still shocked he won the Lincoln Prize.

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