The Slatest

Hey Politicians, Stop Saying Lincoln Was a Unifying Leader

Hillary Clinton is taking some criticism for what some are calling historical revisionism in an answer she gave at Monday night’s town hall about why Abraham Lincoln is the president that inspires her most. After praise for Lincoln’s vision and political gifts, she said:

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.

The answer seems to imply that Reconstruction was a mistake, or at least that white Southerners’ resentment of it was justified. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie tweeted, Clinton’s answer “reflects an older consensus that is still in public view.” As the historian Eric Foner wrote last year, that view held that during Reconstruction, “radical Republicans in Congress, bent on punishing defeated Confederates, established corrupt Southern governments presided over by carpetbaggers (unscrupulous Northerners who ventured south to reap the spoils of office), scalawags (Southern whites who supported the new regimes) and freed African-Americans, unfit to exercise democratic rights.”

Today, scholars, particularly liberal-leaning ones, are more likely to argue, Foner says, that “if the era was ‘tragic,’ it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because it failed.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait chalked Clinton’s answer up to “her mid-century education on Lincoln and Reconstruction.”

It is strange to suggest that “people in the South,” which seems in the context of this answer to refer mainly to white people, would have been less discouraged and defiant under the continued presidency of Lincoln—not exactly a popular figure in the defeated Confederacy.

A similar view of Lincoln was evident in President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this month*:

It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.

As Politico’s Ben Weyl noted, a president whose “election literally caused a civil war” was an interesting choice for an example of a unifying figure. Yes, Lincoln bridged America’s political divides, but through force of arms during a long and bloody war, not through his political gifts.

More than any particular perspective on this historical period, Clinton’s and Obama’s comments likely just reflect a tendency to view politics in the past as less rancorous than today, and forget that now-revered historical figures could be as polarizing in their time as today’s leaders, if not—as in the case of Lincoln—much more so.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary. 

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2016: This post originally misstated when Obama delivered this year’s State of the Union address. It was earlier this month, not last week.