During the Iowa Democratic Town Hall Debate on Monday, Jan. 25, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was asked which past president inspired her most. After some playful banter with the moderator, Clinton apologized to both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, because the president that inspired her most was Abraham Lincoln. She goes on to explain that Lincoln inspires her most, because although he was struggling to preserve the Union during the Civil War, he was also thinking about the future of the United States, citing the transcontinental railroad and land grant colleges. Clinton finishes with the assumption that had Lincoln not been assassinated, the state of the country following the war would have been less rancorous and Reconstruction would have been more tolerant, peacefully bringing people back together more quickly.
Clinton's answer was perfect in a political sense. In a time of partisan conflict, voters would love to know that she is inspired by a president who was able to ensure a strong future for the United States while attempting to settle sectional differences. However, her answer is a little less historically perfect, primarily when she refers to Reconstruction. Clinton suggests that Reconstruction, which historians consider to be a failure, would have succeeded under the leadership of Lincoln because he would have been more tolerant towards the defeated South. Under this assumption, it is suggested that the failure of Reconstruction was the result of intolerant Radical Republicans forcing too much change in the South, which included citizenship and voting rights for the newly freed slaves. Unbeknownst to Clinton, this opinion of Reconstruction was the creation of white supremacist historians in the early 20th century, and unfortunately, their ideas have continued into the 21st century.
The white supremacist historiography of Reconstruction is referred to as the Dunning School of Reconstruction. These ideas were expressed by historian William A. Dunning and political scientist John W. Burgess at Columbia University in the early 20th century. Dunning and Burgess argued that the failure of Reconstruction was a result of "negro incapacity." They believed the free blacks were incapable of holding the rights given to them by the government, and this created a backlash in the South. The scholarship of the Dunning School was famously portrayed in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915. This film portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a savior of the white civilization from the blacks. The film was lauded for its cinematic innovations and the general white public embraced this version of Reconstruction.
Since then, generations of historians of scholars have worked to overturn the racist interpretation of Reconstruction, but it is evident with Hillary Clinton's answer that Reconstruction is still largely misunderstood. Reconstruction is rightly labeled a failure, or as W.E.B. Dubois called it a"splendid failure," but not for the reasons some still believe. It is still common to assume that the Radical Republicans were motivated by their hatred of the South, and overturned the lenient policies of Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson. In reality, the interracial democracy that Reconstruction attempted to create was overturned by a violent racist reaction from the racist South, and the North capitulated. However, like Dubois says, Reconstruction was a splendid failure. It witnessed the creation of black religious, educational, and political institutions, and produced the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
Reconstruction is one of the most misunderstood topics in American history and is also very much a part of current events. Issues regarding race relations cannot be resolved without the proper understanding how they unfolded during the Reconstruction era.