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Reconstruction Era Expert On Why Politicians Use Terms Unity And Healing


Unity and healing - two words that have been thrown around a lot lately. President-elect Biden built his campaign around those words.


JOE BIDEN: Now it's time to turn the page, as we've done throughout our history, to unite, to heal.

CHANG: And this week, as lawmakers debated whether to impeach President Trump for inciting a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, many Republicans used those same words to argue against impeachment. Here's Republican House member Ronny Jackson.


RONNY JACKSON: It is clear now more than ever that our country needs to come together. And Congress, this Congress, needs to lead by example and begin the process of healing the deep division that exist among us as Americans. The articles before us today will not accomplish that.

CHANG: In speeches on the House floor, many members of Congress quoted Abraham Lincoln. Here's Republican Whip Steve Scalise citing Lincoln's second inaugural address.


STEVE SCALISE: With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds.

CHANG: The ideas of national unity and accountability have often been in conflict with one another throughout American history. And to talk about that tension, we're joined now by Eric Foner. He's a professor of history at Columbia University. Welcome.

ERIC FONER: Yes, nice to talk to you.

CHANG: So, you know, it wasn't just Republicans this week. We heard members of both parties quoting Abraham Lincoln. I'm curious, what does that tell you about how politicians view this moment we're living in right now?

FONER: Well, primarily, it tells me that you really can't go wrong by quoting Abraham Lincoln.

CHANG: (Laughter).

FONER: However, before Lincoln spoke about healing up the nation's wounds - malice toward none, charity toward all - he also said that this war, the Civil War, was God's punishment on the nation for the evil of slavery and, that if it was necessary, to have every drop of blood drawn by the lash repaid by one drawn by the sword - that's Lincoln's words - that would still be justice. In other words, what Lincoln is saying is reconciliation needs justice to come with it. Reconciliation needs accountability. You can't just wash your hands and say, let's forget about the past and move forward with healing.

CHANG: Let's talk about that, reconciliation requires justice, and just sort of - when we think about where we are right now - an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, this bitterly divided electorate, literally members of the National Guard hunkered down inside the Capitol - does the Civil War feel like an apt reference point to you?

FONER: You know, after this speech about reconciliation, President Lincoln was assassinated a month later by a strong Confederate sympathizer. In other words, reconciliation requires two to tango. And unfortunately, in the Civil War, and particularly in the aftermath of the war in the Reconstruction era, large numbers of white southerners were not willing to accept the freed slaves as fellow citizens. They launched a campaign of violence, the Ku Klux Klan and terrorist groups like that, just as we saw the other day, willing to use violence to try to overturn democratically elected biracial governments.

CHANG: So do you feel that the Reconstruction era was an example of a failure of both reconciliation and justice?

FONER: Well, reconciliation came eventually, but there was a high cost to that. The cost was, A, ignoring what the Civil War was about, that slavery was sort of erased from the memory of the war. And secondly, Black people were not part of this reconciliation. It meant accepting the southern racial system that was put in place that we call Jim Crow. So in other words, it was a white reconciliation.

CHANG: A lot of Republicans were saying this week that impeachment would only interfere with national healing, with reconciliation. Do you believe that time has told us that accountability and unity are mutually exclusive?

FONER: Well, I mean, you know, you have a political party that has been emphasizing law and order a lot during this presidential campaign. You know, law and order seems to require that if people commit crimes of one kind or another, they ought to be punished. Impeachment is the way you punish a president. The division is here. The question is, how do you deal with people who violated the law and further exacerbated the division?

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - I mean, what do people even mean when they talk about unity? I mean, people in this country will always disagree, right? So what is unity ultimately?

FONER: Well, unity, it does not mean that everybody thinks the same or has exactly the same political outlook. Unity here would mean that people are committed to the democratic process. So, you know, those who call for unity in this case seem to be those who just want to forget about the past. And I don't think that's really the path to unity.

CHANG: Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University. Thank you so much for this conversation today.

FONER: A pleasure to talk to you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.