Blogs > Jim Loewen > Reconstruction: The Sixth Myth

Jan 29, 2016

Reconstruction: The Sixth Myth

tags: Civil War,Reconstruction

    Earlier this week, the Washington Post printed my newest contribution to their ongoing "Five Myths about ..." series, "Five Myths about Reconstruction." I wrote it because the United States is entering the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction.

            My previous battles with Washington Post editing have been draconian. So this time I prepared: I sent them six myths. In the history of the world, the Post had never printed six myths — it is, after all, a "five myth" series — but I figured the editor was sure to bloody up at least one myth so it could no longer remain standing.

            I was right. The myth that perished in the process was: "Abraham Lincoln would have disapproved of Reconstruction." Here it is, in its original form:

            Some textbooks used today in high schools North and South still portray Reconstruction as a time when "vindictive Radicals" in Congress who were "bitter against the Southern rebels" and "wanted to punish white Southerners," took control of Reconstruction away from Andrew Johnson, who was just trying to follow Abraham Lincoln's dictum, "With malice toward none." The quoted words come from the 2005 edition of A History of the United States, "by" Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress, and Brooks Mather Kelley, former Archivist at Yale.

            Of course, no one can say for sure what President Lincoln would have done, had he survived. But in his last two public speeches, he put himself on record as favoring the key "Radical" demand. Walking through Richmond on April 4, 1865, the day after U.S. troops had taken it, Lincoln drew an enormous crowd of excited spectators, mostly African American. "[A]s long as I live," he told them, "no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic." A week later, he repeated these sentiments from the White House balcony. In this audience was John Wilkes Booth, who snarled to his companion, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make." So it seems likely that Lincoln would have supported the 14th amendment, calling for equal rights, and the 15th, calling for voting rights.

This political cartoon from Puck shows the stereotypical view of Reconstruction that some textbooks and Hillary Clinton still espouse.

            Although it was on my "top five" myths list, my WaPo editor demurred on two grounds. First, he did not think that I had rebutted the myth effectively. After my last sentence above, he wrote: "Does it necessarily follow, though, that [Lincoln] would have supported the methods the Radical Republicans used in order to implement those amendments?"

            I inferred that the editor still suffered from the very myth that he was editing — that during Reconstruction, "vindictive Radicals" were "punishing" the "defeated South." (Of course, black Southerners were hardly defeated. Neither were Unionist Southerners, and there were a lot of them, not just in West Virginia but also the Ozarks, the Piney Woods in Mississippi, Appalachia, indeed, all over the South, even in Richmond, its capital.)

            The main policies that Radical Republicans foisted on "the South" were free and fair elections that allowed adult males to vote without regard to race. From the standpoint of white supremacy, that was indeed vindictive. White supremacy was at something of a low ebb, however, owing in part to the military prowess shown by some 200,000 African Americans during the Civil War. So, to my editor's question I replied:

            ? What methods? Requiring Southern states to let African Americans vote as a condition of reconstituting their governments? Well, note the foregoing quotes by A.L.

I also conceded, "We cannot know, of course," since Booth had ended Lincoln's presidency. But I did not think I had to prove that Lincoln would have supported black enfranchisement, only that the assertion he would have disapproved of it was unfounded.

            My editor had a second criticism of my alleged myth: he didn't think that anyone still believed it, other than Boorstin and Kelley, the authors of one old-fashioned textbook. And both of them were dead!

            It turns out that Daniel Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley did not write "their textbook" when they were alive, either, as I got Kelley to admit back in July of 2006. That's why I had placed quotation marks around "by" in my original draft. Since it does not depend upon its "authors," A History of the United States came out again in 2005, with all prior copyright dates expunged, to look younger. It remains in print, though we can hope that Pearson/Prentice-Hall may now give it the euthanasia it has so long deserved.

            So I added this sentence: “The American Pageant, likewise, has Johnson ‘agreeing with Lincoln’ about Reconstruction policy.”

            Still, my editor was not convinced. "Is there another example," he wrote, "of someone suggesting Lincoln would have opposed Reconstruction that we can add here?" I didn't have a truly current example at my fingertips, so we went to press without this myth.

            The next day (Monday, January 25, 2015), in the Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton supplied the example. She repeated the myth about Lincoln and Reconstruction:

            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.


Actually, Andrew Johnson forgave the white Confederate elite for seceding. He tolerated, even encouraged their newly formed state governments when they reinstated white supremacy in the form of vicious "Black Codes." He did not "rancorously" require them to let African Americans vote, own property, etc. The result? Ex-Confederates concluded that they had a green light to impose serfdom upon African Americans. Presidential Reconstruction emboldened ex-Confederates to contest Congressional Reconstruction, which they did by violence and fraud until finally they ended it in 1876-77.

            Clinton is not to blame for having learned the old Dunning School myths about Reconstruction. They were taught to her in about 1962. She also doubtless imbibed them from Profiles in Courage, "by" John F. Kennedy. She is to blame for not having taken time to question the mythology she absorbed in her youth. Whoever wrote Boorstin and Kelley's textbook, along with whoever wrote The American Pageant, are to blame for repeating these canards half a century later. And Boorstin, Kelley, and the "authors" of The American Pageant, David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas A. Bailey, are to blame for not writing or even reading "their" books, to see if they still tell old myths about Reconstruction.  

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