The fallout continued today following off-the-cuff remarks by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Town Hall Meeting in Iowa sponsored by CNN. See here, here, here, here, and here.
Secretary Clinton’s Senior Spokesperson, Ms. Karen Finney, released a clarification of her remarks that itself drew more questions.
The clarification said, “Her point was that we might have gotten to a better place under Lincoln’s leadership. What we needed after the Civil War was equality, justice, and reconciliation. Instead we saw the federal government abandon Reconstruction before real change took hold, which ultimately led to a disgraceful era of Jim Crow. And as she talks about frequently, too many injustices remain today. Attempts to suppress voting rights go back to racist efforts against Reconstruction, and in fighting for voting rights and equality today we are continuing a long struggle that still has to be fought and won in our own generation.”
My point with all of this is to highlight the vast misunderstanding Americans in general have regarding Reconstruction. The clarification itself shows a fundamental misconception regarding Reconstruction in claiming the Federal government abandoned it before real change took hold. Much of the criticism from journalist sources betrays more misunderstandings.
I don’t blame Secretary Clinton or her staff. I blame the misconceptions on the pernicious effects of racist historians like William A. Dunning and his acolytes, such as E. Merton Coulter, combined with novelists such as Margaret Mitchell and the deliberate distortions of groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Confederate Veterans, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. These folks constructed a mythical version of Reconstruction and the effects of that construct linger to this day.
As the historian John Hope Franklin wrote, “Thanks to the fictional accounts of reconstruction by novelists and the near-fictional accounts by influential writers in other categories, the many misconceptions and distortions regarding the period are tenaciously persistent.” [John Hope Franklin,Reconstruction: After the Civil War, p. 194] What was true in 1961, when he wrote those words, is true today to a very large extent. What Americans in general believe they know about Reconstruction simply isn’t true. Historians since the 1950s and 1960s have been trying to overcome these misconceptions, but they remain. They are part of the popular imagination, and only by people making an effort to educate themselves can it be overcome.
I applaud Secretary Clinton’s effort to try to talk about Reconstruction, because it’s far more important than people realize. But she definitely would profit from some education on the subject.