Dear Secretary Clinton

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I see in my news feed that you participated in a CNN town hall meeting in Iowa for Democratic Party presidential candidates and were asked which of our past presidents inspired you the most. Your answer was Abraham Lincoln, and you talked about the challenges he faced while trying to win the Civil War. You also talked about his assassination and its effect on the postwar United States. Here is where it looks like you stumbled.

As an Independent, I don’t vote in primaries; however, I do make sure I vote in the general election. Now, I should make it clear that this issue will have zero effect on whether or not I decide to vote for you if you are the nominee of your party. I’ve looked at a number of stories about what you said [See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here]

Here’s what you said: “Sorry President Obama, sorry Bill — Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln. You know, I, um, wow. When I think about his challenges, they pale in comparison to anything we have faced or can imagine. You know, more Americans died in the Civil War than, you know, the wars of the 20th Century put together. So here was a man who was a real politician.  I mean, he was a great statesman, but he also understood politics.  And he had to work to put together, you know, the support he needed to be able to hold the country together during the war, and while he was prosecuting the war to keep America together, he was building America, which I find just an astonishing part of his legacy.  The transcontinental rail system, land grant colleges, he was thinking about the future while in the middle of trying to decide which general he can trust to try to finish the war.  That’s what I mean, when you’ve got to do a lot of things at once, what could be more overwhelming than trying to wage and win a civil war? And yet, he kept his eye on the future and he also tried to keep summoning up the better angels of our nature.  You know, he 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. And, as I say, our challenges are nothing like what he faced, but let’s think ourselves about not only what we have to do right now, especially to get the income rising in America, especially to make college affordable, do something about student debt, keep health care growing until we get 100 percent coverage and so much else. But 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’m going to pass by your inadvertent misstatement in saying Lincoln’s challenges pale in comparison to what we face today. I think it’s obvious you meant what we face today pales in comparison to what Lincoln faced. I’ll also leave alone the implication that Lincoln could solve any problem. He was, after all, a man who made just as many mistakes as anyone else. For those of us with an interest in Civil War and Reconstruction history, your statement shouts for clarification. What did you mean in your off-the-cuff remark about Reconstruction? To which “people of the South” were you referring? Were you talking about white southerners? African-American southerners? What do you remember about what you were taught concerning Reconstruction? How do you think Lincoln would have handled Reconstruction differently? What do you think about the Radical Republicans? What do you think about Carpetbaggers? Realize we would have had a reconstruction whether Lincoln lived or not. We would still have been faced with the same basic issue of what to do with the emancipated African-Americans. We would still have been faced with the same basic question of how to protect their rights and integrate them into what had been white society. White southerners would still have violently resisted this integration. How would Lincoln have handled that situation?

I don’t ask these questions to try to trip you up. I ask because I’m sincerely curious about what you were taught regarding Reconstruction, because my speculation is you haven’t read much about that time period since you graduated from college. My interest here is in how Reconstruction was taught and how Americans as a whole [mis]understand that time period.

Why is it important? I think we can’t fully understand our racial problems of today if we don’t understand Reconstruction. I think if you do any reading between your campaign events and preparation, your time would be well spent learning about this time period, but don’t ask another politician. Never get your history from a politician. 🙂

Good luck in the campaign.

With all my best.

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2 comments

  1. It has occurred to me that if she did not take a Civil War and Reconstruction course in college, she might well have no formal education on the period, beyond what Illinois requires of high school students.

    1. I assume she at least took a US History survey course in college, and she probably took a Constitutional Law class that discussed the Reconstruction Amendments and probably a little background on Reconstruction as part of it.

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