Hillary Clinton is taking flak today for her summary repetition of the white supremacist Dunning School of historical interpretation, which held that the attempt in the 1860s and 1870s to provide African Americans with their civil rights was a terrible imposition on the white folks of the South.
[Lincoln] 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.… 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’ll leave critiques of the Dunning School in other hands because I think they’re obvious, sadly, and Clinton should really know better. I’ll even forgo detail on the obvious point that if you’re a modern Democratic presidential aspirant asked who’s the greatest of the US presidents, your answer is Franklin Roosevelt.1 Instead I want to focus on Clinton’s counterfactual: “had [Lincoln] not been murdered”.
Clinton’s comments indicate she thinks a Lincolnian Reconstruction would have a been a more lenient thing than the one we in fact had. Oddly, in support of this view she quotes Lincoln’s first inaugural address, delivered when the war had not yet begun.
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
That is of course a plea for harmonious reunification with the South, but one issued in the hope of preventing war.
It’s more traditional to mention Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered when the war was about to end.
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
That is certainly a call for mercy, if a vague one, that appears to include in its “charity for all” anyone who “shall have borne the battle,” on whichever side.
More concretely, in 1864 Lincoln declined to sign into law the Wade-Davis Bill, which would have required that half a rebellious state’s white men take an oath of loyalty to the union, excluding from eligibility any person who had “voluntarily borne arms against the United States,” and that the voters thus enrolled must adopt a new state constitution abolishing slavery. Lincoln preferred permitting states to proceed with a smaller ratio—ten percent—of loyal white men.
The Wade-Davis pocket veto, taken together with the plea for “charity for all,” may seem to commit President Lincoln to a more pacific plan of Reconstruction than the one the radical Republicans preferred. So one might say, with Clinton, that had he not been murdered, Reconstruction might have been a milder affair.
But we cannot stop there, for Lincoln’s final speech painted a different picture of the peace in prospect.
On April 11, 1865, Lincoln tried to persuade radical Republicans to accept Louisiana’s proposed new constitution, which rested on the support of only 12,000 loyal citizens and abolished slavery, but did not grant black suffrage. Lincoln noted that the proposal did give the state legislature the power to enact black suffrage, and proposed approving it on the basis that a half loaf would be better than no bread or, in his metaphor, “Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.”
Lincoln’s remarks in favor of half-measures as steps to progress might seem to us to compromise with evil, to offer delayed and therefore denied justice. But to at least a couple of his listeners he sounded radical indeed.
“That means n—– citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” the listening John Wilkes Booth said to his companion, Lewis Powell.
That is to say, in this speech Lincoln “publicly endorsed black suffrage,” as Lou Masur says, and in response, Booth decided to kill him. Booth’s murder of Lincoln put Andrew Johnson in the presidency; Johnson did not support black suffrage, a fact which quickly became clear in his prosecution of Reconstruction.
Which is to say, Booth murdered Lincoln because Lincoln publicly supported a Reconstruction more thorough than the one that history actually gave us. Already, then, the Clinton counterfactual is in trouble.
But let’s think a step further. The plot to kill Lincoln was not a plot to kill Lincoln alone but a wider conspiracy in which Booth’s interlocutor, Powell, was to kill William Seward, Clinton’s predecessor as Secretary of State. On the night Booth went to Ford’s Theater to shoot Lincoln, Powell went to Seward’s house to kill Seward. He gained entry by beating Seward’s son Frederick severely and fracturing his skull. Wielding a bowie knife, Powell next cut the forehead of Seward’s bodyguard. The assailant then leapt upon Seward where he lay in bed and stabbed his victim repeatedly, until the wounded bodyguard and others pulled him away. The gravely wounded Seward survived the assault.
Now, in a more specific counterfactual than Clinton’s, suppose Powell succeeded and Booth failed, rather than the other way around. Suppose a wounded Lincoln survived and Seward died. The president who had just dedicated himself to progress toward black suffrage would have sustained a serious injury and lost a loyal advisor to the venomous death throes of a defeated Confederacy. The staggered Lincoln, confined perhaps to a wheelchair, could address the American public while holding Seward’s actual bloody shirt as incitement to support a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the southern states.
1In fact that is always the correct answer, no matter who you are, but that’s another story.