Memory  /  Debunk

Hillary Clinton Goes Back to the Dunning School

How do you diagnose the problem of racism in America without understanding its actual history?
James E. Taylor/Library of Congress

Last night Hillary Clinton was asked what president inspired her the most. She offered up Abraham Lincoln, gave a boilerplate reason why, and then said this:

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.

Clinton, whether she knows it or not, is retelling a racist—though popular—version of American history which held sway in this country until relatively recently.  Sometimes going under the handle of “The Dunning School,” and other times going under the “Lost Cause” label, the basic idea is that Reconstruction was a mistake brought about by vengeful Northern radicals. The result was a savage and corrupt government which in turn left former Confederates, as Clinton puts, it “discouraged and defiant.”

A sample of the genre is offered here by historian Ulrich Phillips:

Lincoln in his plan of reconstruction had shown unexpected magnanimity; the Republican party, discarding that obnoxious name, had officially styled itself merely Unionist; and the Northern Democrats, although outvoted, were still a friendly force to be reckoned upon … With Johnson then on Lincoln's path “back to normalcy”, Southern hearts were lightened only to sink again when radicals in Congress, calling themselves Republicans once more, overslaughed the Presidential programme and set events in train which seemed to make "the Africanization of the South" inescapable. To most of the whites, doubtless, the prospect showed no gleam of hope.
Notably absent from it is the fact that Lincoln was killed by a white supremacist, that Johnson was a white supremacist who tried to curtail virtually all rights black people enjoyed, that the “hope” of white Southerners lay in the pillage of black labor, that this was accomplished through a century-long campaign of domestic terrorism, and that for most of that history the federal government looked the other way, while state and local governments were complicit.