Reconstruction Era Expert On Why Politicians Use Terms Unity And Healing

Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, Political rhetoric



NPR's Ailsa Chang talks with Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University, about what people mean when they talk about unity and healing during a moment of national division.


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.

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