Tony Kushner and the Origins of the Lost Cause

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Corey Robin flags this truly unfortunate quote from Tony Kushner:


"I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote 'noble cause,' and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

This is quite wrong. Lincoln was the first president killed in American history. He was not killed by some wide-eyed crazy, but a man advocating exactly the same cause as the white Southerners whom Kushner believes were so inhumanely brutalized:

I have ever held the South were right. The very nomination of ABRAHAM LINCOLN, four years ago, spoke plainly, war -- war upon Southern rights and institutions. His election proved it. "Await an overt act." Yes, till you are bound and plundered. What folly! The South was wise...

This country was formed for the white, not for the black man. And looking upon African Slavery from the same stand-point held by the noble framers of our constitution. I for one, have ever considered if one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us,) that God has ever bestowed upon a favored nation. Witness heretofore our wealth and power; witness their elevation and enlightenment above their race elsewhere. I have lived among it most of my life, and have seen less harsh treatment from master to man than I have beheld in the North from father to son. Yet, Heaven knows, no one would be willing to do more for the negro race than I, could I but see a way to still better their condition.

There is no daylight between John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, save that Booth, in the name of white supremacy, was willingness to countenance the killing of one man, and Davis the killing of 600,000. What followed the murder of Abraham Lincoln was not repression and inhumanity. Andrew Johnson offered terms more generous, not less:

Johnson did not deal harshly with Confederate leaders, as he had earlier indicated he would; he expanded his pardons to include those in the highest ranks of the Confederacy, including their Vice-President, Alexander H. Stephens. Since Johnson's proclamations allowed the Southern states to control the procedure and conduct of their elections in 1865, prominent former Confederate leaders were elected to the U.S. Congress (but not seated). As the President's leniency toward the South became more apparent, the former secessionists responded with more arrogance. Johnson's schism with Congress over Reconstruction widened.

The state governments installed by Johnson all passed Black Codes that gave the freedmen subordinate legal status. In response to the Black Codes and Southern recalcitrance, the Republicans prevented the secessionist states' representatives from taking their seats in Congress in the fall 1865. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, leader of the moderate Republicans and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was anxious to reach a compromise with the President. He ushered through the Congress a bill expanding the Freedman's Bureau, but Johnson vetoed it. In a second effort at compromise, Trumbull presented for Johnson's signature the first Civil Rights Bill, which sought to grant citizenship to the freedmen. Although strongly urged by moderates in Congress to sign the Civil Rights Bill, Johnson broke decisively with them by vetoing it on March 27. 

His veto message objected to the measure because it conferred citizenship on the freedmen at a time when eleven out of thirty-six states were unrepresented in the Congress, and the bill also attempted to fix, by federal law, "a perfect equality of the white and black races in every State of the Union." Johnson said it was an invasion by federal authority of the rights of the states, it had no warrant in the Constitution and was contrary to all precedents. It was a "stride toward centralization and the concentration of all legislative power in the national government." Johnson, in a letter to Gov. Thomas C. Fletcher of Missouri, had written, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."

When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.

I really liked Lincoln. But that is a bizarre, and frankly, preposterous quote.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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