As America’s partisan divide becomes ever wider, deeper, and angrier, many Americans from both red and blue tribes are increasingly worried about the possibility of a new civil war. Jeremi Suri, a professor of Public Affairs and History at the University of Texas at Austin, says that these worries are in a sense misplaced “because the Civil War never fully ended. Its lingering embers have burst into flames at various times, including our own.”
Suri gained his scholarly reputation writing books contemporary politics and foreign policy, but the events of recent years, starting with Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016, led him to cast his frame of historical reference back to the Civil War of 1861-65 and its aftermath. The roots of the rage behind the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, in his view, go back to the cataclysmic conflict of the nineteenth century and resistance to the postwar Reconstruction of the defeated South. Through a deep analysis of key individuals during that period, as well as events including President Andrew Johnson’s 1868 declaration of amnesty for Confederates and the disputed presidential election of 1876, he finds parallels and precedents for the rhetoric and actions that run through much of today’s politics.
Reconstruction’s end brought a halt to efforts by Republican presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant to create a more racially inclusive democracy. The unfinished work of that second Founding continues to this day, and continues to meet with similar resistance to what was seen in the nineteenth century, including widespread claims of election fraud and a growing willingness to use violence to attain political ends. This podcast discussion also touches on present-day battles over how to teach American history as well as what Suri’s study of the nineteenth century suggests about possible twenty-first-century reforms to remedy flaws in the design of our constitutional structure.
Jeremi Suri: We need institutions that can, with legitimacy, make claims as to what is a fair election and what isn’t. With the collapse of any kind of mainstream news, we don’t have an authoritative way of affirming that, and I’d like to see us develop more of that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to welcome Jeremi Suri to the podcast.
Jeremi is an old comrade from struggling graduate student days, so I can say that I knew him when. But he is now Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs and Professor of Public Affairs and History at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s been at Texas, I think, since 2011, and prior to that he spent a decade on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. So welcome, Jeremi!
Jeremi Suri: Thank you, Geoff, for having me on your wonderful podcast.
Geoff Kabaservice: I appreciate you being here. You are the author of eleven books on foreign policy and public affairs, and your most recent appears this month, which is to say October 2022. And it is titled Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy. Congratulations on this great new book.
Jeremi Suri: Well, thank you so much, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should also add that you are a prolific contributor to the public discourse, including not only your books but your writings for virtually all of the media outlets that most people have ever heard of and quite a few they haven’t; multiple radio and TV appearances; and your weekly podcast, This is Democracy, which I myself have had the privilege of joining.
Jeremi Suri: And we hope to have you on again soon, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you. One of the more endearing features of that podcast is the weekly poem written and recited by your son, Zachary. How is he doing?
Jeremi Suri: He is doing very well. He’s applying to colleges right now. He’s a senior in high school and he’s struggling with trying to figure out what the future of our country’s going to be and how he can find a place for himself in it.
Geoff Kabaservice: That is a struggle that confronts a lot of young people nowadays, I think.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: Jeremi, you actually had a quote on your website which I found quite interesting and appealing. You said: “I am a child of the global transformations that remade societies in the last century — war, migration, nation-building, and mobility through higher education. All of my research, writing and teaching seeks to explain these transformations.” And you go on to say that “My scholarship is therefore an extended inquiry into the workings of power at local and international levels, and the interactions across these levels.” Can you tell me something about your background and why this is the way that you have sort of framed your own writing and scholarship?
Jeremi Suri: It’s a great question. So my father is an immigrant from India. He came in 1965 with the Immigration Reform Act of that time. He came from an India that was going through some really, really difficult economic conditions that we could hardly imagine in the United States. And my mother is the child of Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States who fled pogroms in Russia.
And that history’s always been with me, Geoff. From the earliest memories that I have, I’ve been interested in trying to figure out what happened in those societies, why my parents came and met at the Roseland dance hall in New York City. And I think it’s not only shaped who I am, it’s shaped the ways I view the world, the ways I think about our country. The United States made my family possible. It made the survival of my family possible. It made the wonderful life I live as a scholar wonderful and possible. And trying to explain how we’ve come to where we are, flaws and benefits, and how we go forward has always been central to my identity.
Geoff Kabaservice: I believe the Roseland Ballroom has closed down now, to many people’s lamentations.
Jeremi Suri: It has indeed. And so now when I mention that story to students, they have no idea what I’m referring to.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, alas. So where did you grow up?
Jeremi Suri: I grew up in New York City. I went to public schools in New York City. I was fortunate enough to get admitted to one of the magnet public schools, Stuyvesant High School. And my parents were working-class people — they didn’t have any money — but I was able to get a good education in New York. And I had some wonderful teachers. I had some horrible teachers, but I also had some wonderful teachers. And then I was fortunate to get a fellowship to go to Stanford University as an undergraduate. I could not have gone if I didn’t have financial aid.
Geoff Kabaservice: I happen to remember that you went to Stanford because you were kind enough to provide me with an introduction a long time ago to David Kennedy, who I think was one of your professors there.
Jeremi Suri: He was my advisor. I just had dinner with him recently. He’s going strong in his early eighties. And he taught me early on, Geoff, that serious history based on deep research can also be well-written for a broad public. I never considered being a historian who only writes for historians, because my models, the figures that I’ve revered, have always been those who did the most serious research but always wrote for a broader audience.
Geoff Kabaservice: He is a great person and a great historian, and he definitely has taken that approach himself. And you went to Ohio… Did you go there to study with John Gaddis?
Jeremi Suri: I did. So when I was finishing my undergraduate work at Stanford, I happened to get connected with John Gaddis, who at that point was a professor at Ohio University and also a visiting professor at Oxford. And I had a visiting period at Oxford as well, and that’s how we overlapped. And he invited me to Ohio University to see if this graduate school thing was something I wanted to do. And so I went and did my master’s there.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, and then on to Yale?
Jeremi Suri: Then I was following you, Geoff, that I had to connect. And like you, I had the great fortune of getting to know Gaddis Smith and to work with Paul Kennedy and so many other luminary figures. But it wasn’t that they were luminaries that made a difference for me. It was that they were people who believed history could change the world and, again, could be written for a larger audience. And so I was drawn to that and so shaped by some of the same people who shaped you and your fantastic writings.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh, thank you. And yeah, I remember those teachings with John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy very fondly. We had a great seminar with Paul Kennedy and Bruce Russett where we were comparing the historians’ and the political scientists’ approaches to the world, which I still draw upon for a lot of my own work.
Jeremi Suri: And I think you and I, as much as we respect political scientists, I think it was obvious we knew which side of that we were on.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, this is true. Something about our own graduate work as well is that although we worked in very different fields, we were both studying the 1960s. And the work you did on your dissertation, I believe, led to your first book, which is Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente.
We were going to grad school at the time of the ’90s culture wars. And to me, it was only natural to study the 1960s because that was where the seeds of those culture wars were planted. And although I’m not much of a believer in cycles of history, one can’t help but notice that there are 30-year cycles that sometimes recur in American history. Because the 1930s was a very politically active decade, as was the 1960s. The 1990s picked up where the 1960s left off. And here we are in yet another culture war in 2022.
Jeremi Suri: I agree. And I think your podcast’s namesake, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of course came up with this enduring concept of “The Vital Center,” and it was his father who spoke of cycles of American history. And I agree with you. That’s maybe a too rigid way to think about things, but we do have these patterns. And to me, what you and I experienced in the 1990s in that culture war was a way in which the prior culture war of the ’60s was being refought.
And I feel like we’re refighting it. You’ve written about this, of course, so well. We are refighting those wars today. And that definitely inspired my first book/dissertation, Power and Protest, and much of my other work — and to some extent even this current book that goes back to the years after the Civil War. I think the point is that prior battles, they don’t go away. They remain part of our scar tissue as we go forward.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, and very rarely are there complete victories. And some of these battles get refought and the understanding of the past gets relitigated.
Jeremi Suri: Exactly. That’s why the stakes are so large. I mean, it seems like we’re debating curriculum in high school. That’s usually not something that’s exciting for people. But the stakes are pretty large because it defines how we think about ourselves in the current moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sure these are subjects we’ll come back to. But given that you’ve studied a lot of foreign affairs — that Henry Kissinger, for example, has been one of the central figures in a lot of your scholarship — but that in any case a lot of your work has focused on the twentieth century, why did you decide that you wanted to write about the Civil War and its aftermath?
Jeremi Suri: Because of the last six years. So just as I was drawn to the ’60s, just as you were in the 1990s, I was drawn to this period because of what at first seemed to me to be a smattering of resonances. And the more I looked into it… As any research project develops, it starts as an article and a thought piece and an idea. And the more I looked into it the more parallels, the more resonances, the more connections I saw.
One of the things that became so clear to me was that some of the rhetoric we see today is the rhetoric of the 1860s and ’70s and ’80s — it’s from the opposite party. It’s the Republican Party using the Democratic Party rhetoric of the 1870s, the arguments about fraud in elections, how fraud is deployed as a weapon in denying certain groups the right to vote, questioning results. This is vintage 1874, 1876, 1878.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree, and I highly recommend your book. Like I said, not only is it beautifully written, but it’s really thought-provoking. I never was a student of the nineteenth century in America, but I feel like I absorbed a lot of information about the Civil War just in the course of growing up and being an American. It’s something that we all seem to know something about. And of course, I had family trips to Civil War battlefields, and I in fact think that one of the great American novels is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Civil War in some sense is always with us. But it was still a little bit startling to read one of the first sentences in your book, which is that “Worries about a new civil war in America are misplaced because the Civil War” — that is with capital letters — “never fully ended. Its lingering embers have burst into flames at various times, including our own.” When did you come to feel that?
Jeremi Suri: About halfway through the research. I went in thinking that there were, as I said, some references, some connections. The original book proposal was going to cover a number of other periods. And the more deeply I went into the research — I mean, this is what we do as historians; we immerse ourselves in the sources — the more it felt like we were refighting those issues. And in a way that isn’t new; it’s recontextualized. But I think fundamentally the question at the end of the Civil War, with the end of slavery, is: How are 4 million former non-citizens now going to be integrated into our society in areas where their integration will give them enormous power by virtue of their presence?
And I think at the center of our politics today is the same question: How are groups that have traditionally not been in power — that are grabbing, claiming, making a case for power — how are they going to be integrated in our society? And the battle lines look very similar. One side wants a more narrow definition of democracy, one side wants a wider definition of democracy. And that’s where we are today.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should say for podcast listeners what this book is not. It is not a political science approach to the question of civil war and whether America is on the verge of civil war. That’s something you leave to them.
Jeremi Suri: Right. And I think, honestly, it’s a little silly to think that there’s going to be another Antietam or Gettysburg. It’s not that we’re going to start another war. It’s, again, that the elements, the conflicts from the past, are becoming sharper. But they haven’t gone away.
Geoff Kabaservice: And one of the figures with whom you lead off the book is this guy, I think his name is Kevin Seefried…
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …who was one of the January 6th rioters in the Capitol, who was very prominently photographed carrying a big Confederate flag. And it turned out that Kevin Seefried was there, with his son, from Sussex County, Delaware, which is a pretty rural agricultural area. He definitely was a sort of representative figure of a lot of the left-behind parts of the country that voted for Trump. And him carrying that flag is, on the one hand, kind of a strange image because he’s from Delaware, which was not a Confederate state; it was a slave state but it did not fight on the side of the Confederacy, although individual Delawareans did. You do mention that there’s a chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy in that county called the Delaware Grays who’ve made a lot of news by putting up Confederate memorials and the like.
But nonetheless, the Confederate flag is kind of an image that people who have no connection whatsoever to the Confederacy have seized on as way of giving the middle finger to what they see as the elite in America. And that was certainly present at January 6th. But it cannot help but connect to the darker history of the United States and the Confederacy.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. And that’s coupled, as you know so well Geoff, with other iconography and artifacts from the Civil War era, most horrifyingly the construction of a gallows on the lawn in front of the Capitol. And we have an image of that in the book. I’m sure many of your listeners have seen that image.
When I talked to my friends from Germany — I was just at a meeting with a delegation of German leaders in the United States — they don’t understand this. They’ve dealt with their own even greater ghosts and horrors from their past. But the fact that people would build a model concentration camp somewhere as a political statement — even their farthest of right parties don’t consider doing this. They might deny that ever happened.
But to valorize the idea of lynching, and then to advocate the lynching of the Republican vice president, as they did on that day — you can’t help but think there is a direct and intentional connection to this earlier era.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was struck by another sentence early on in which you wrote: “As I looked back at the history I had studied, I realized that I had underappreciated the longstanding domestic forces of destruction and exclusion. Alongside the growth and development of American democracy, the country had remained mired in unresolved debates about who should have power and who should not.”
Jeremi Suri: And I think this connects to your work on the Republican Party, right? I mean, there was a time when the Republican Party, the party of [John] Lindsay in New York and others, was a party that actually embraced perhaps the most inclusive vision. And I think, as you show, it’s the desire for power — not some major utopian or dystopian vision — the desire for power that moves people in a very different direction. And I think that’s what we’ve seen now in these old experiences, these old tropes, these old paradigms — they become deployable weapons for those who are seeking, like a Newt Gingrich, to narrow the range of democracy and seize power, quite literally, for themselves.
Geoff Kabaservice: What I like so much about your book is that although you do set up kind of a polemical framework in the first chapter, you do conclude with some actual policy prescriptions (which is unusual and interesting for work of history), what comes in between is a very detailed and pretty nuanced history of the two decades after Appomattox, where you don’t hit the reader over the head with parallels to the present age. But these parallels cannot help but jump out because anyone who’s paid attention to what’s going on in the last six years, as well as the Republican Party’s transformation over the past several decades, will see these parallels very clearly. And although you also don’t say this, it really seems that what you are doing is retelling an American tragedy…
Jeremi Suri: Yes. I feel that way, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: …which is the failure of America to build upon the foundations that it laid down after the Civil War, in some ways, that would’ve created a multiracial, much more equal American democracy.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. And I think, by the way, that’s a Burkean argument, if I might say so. It’s not a radical argument at all. It’s actually that there was new bedrock being laid, as you put it, at the end of the Civil War. And we didn’t finish the job.
And I think this now connects to the work I’ve done in the foreign policy space. It’s a classic case of winning the war and losing the peace, which happens all the time. It’s particularly the most American way of fighting wars, because by nature we see conflict as the irregular, the exceptional. And so when we reach some point where we feel we have accomplished whatever it is we think we’re accomplishing, we want to move on.
And this is the story of Northern Republicans after the Civil War. It’s not that they didn’t care about enforcing the law. It’s that they didn’t feel they had to fight to do that anymore. And that gives an advantage to the losers on the battlefield if they continue to resist away from the battlefield.
Geoff Kabaservice: I had a guest on my podcast a few months ago, John Avlon, who’s probably best known as a CNN commentator. But he wrote what I thought was a really interesting historical exploration called Lincoln and the Fight for Peace, where he tries to envision what Lincoln might have done, if he had lived, in terms of bringing equality to the South as well as trying to reintegrate it back into the United States. But of course, Lincoln lived merely a matter of days after Appomattox and Lee’s surrender there, and so therefore we can’t really know what would’ve happened under Lincoln. But as it was, the first part of the tragedy was that Lincoln’s vice president, who succeeded him in office, was Andrew Johnson, who was almost wholly against the Lincoln vision of how to bring about peace in the Civil War.
Jeremi Suri: Precisely, and he also had inordinate power. I didn’t realize this, Geoff, until I did the research… I should have known this. At that time, Congress did not sit in session between April and December. And so Lincoln is of course assassinated in April of 1865, Johnson takes over and is virtual dictator with full war powers until December. And he does not share Lincoln’s vision of a reformed South in any way. He accepts the end of slavery but thinks nothing more needs to be done. He wants to protect the power of not just white elites but small-scale shop owners and others — he was a tailor himself — those who were what the Germans would call Middelstadt, the white Middelstadt in the South…
And perhaps most significant of all for where this goes, his vision is of locking out any of the changes that even the most moderate Republicans are seeking. And it’s ironic, because he is elected on what is ostensibly the Republican Party ticket. It’s a real problem of succession that our system has. And we then get three years of conflict between him and Congress and an effort to impeach him, which succeeds, but then the conviction fails and he remains in office.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, my sister actually lives relatively close to where Johnson came from in Tennessee. He was, I think, a tailor in Greenville, which is one of the older towns in the state. And that part of Tennessee historically was not pro-Confederacy. It’s a hilly part of the state. And although there were slaves — I think Johnson owned a few — there was none of the plantation economy that existed into the Civil War period in the west and central parts of Tennessee. So Johnson was against slavery, but in other respects he was kind of a Copperhead Democrat, really.
Jeremi Suri: That’s exactly right. And in fact, the last thing he wanted — and I don’t think he’s unique in thinking this way — the last thing he wanted was for those who were not as wealthy as the plantation elite that he hated, in places like Virginia… But those who were, again, struggling white families, the last thing he wanted was for them to be challenged by newly free black families that could operate in the same economic and social space.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s something that’s very easy for historians looking back to say, “This is what the people in power should have done.” And I always have been resistant to that because I think we here should not extend the condescension of the immediate era to posterity. In terms, though, of missed opportunities, do you think that Grant in hindsight was too lenient to Lee and his surrendering Confederate forces at Appomattox?
Jeremi Suri: Well, I think at Appomattox, Grant did not have much of a choice. He wanted to end the war and he was hoping that Lee would help him. And if you read Grant’s memoir — which is still one of the great memoirs, one of the great works of literature in American history actually…
Geoff Kabaservice: Agreed.
Jeremi Suri: …you can sense his frustration with Lee. He was expecting that Lee would help more. Lee, of course, lays down his arms, goes back to his farm, but Lee doesn’t actually sell the peace in the South. He tells Grant famously, “Your army will have to run over the South three times.” And of course, the Union’s not prepared to do that. Soldiers want to go home, they want to go back to their families. I think the missed opportunity is less at Appomattox, it’s in what happens in the months and years after that.
The biggest missed opportunity is the prosecution of those who committed treason. I don’t think ordinary soldiers should have been prosecuted, but the Confederate leaders, especially some of those I profile who tried to go to Mexico and joined a foreign army and then come back — and in the case of Alexander Watkins Terrell, one of the figures I discussed, he comes back and actually writes the voting laws in Texas after joining a foreign army and seceding — I think the non-prosecution of those who broke the law in positions of high authority, that creates a space for them to continue to pursue their illegal aims.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did there used to be, or is there still, a building at the University of Texas named after Terrell, who was one of the regents?
Jeremi Suri: I believe it’s still named after him, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: How about that. You wrote that the Terrell’s election laws, which essentially restricted the primaries to only white voters, have continued to have an impact and a legacy in Texas in the twenty-first century.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. Texas is a rapidly growing state — Austin is just one example of this — but yet it’s a state with very, very low turnout. And there’s very low turnout because there’s a long tradition of making it hard for people to vote. I’ll just give you one obvious example. You must register to vote in Texas one month before the election: October 11th this year. Geoff, this won’t surprise you… On October 20th, every fall semester if there’s an election, I have 20 to 25 undergraduates who come to me and say they want to register to vote, and I have to tell them they can’t. Now, some people will say, “Well, they should plan farther ahead.” Do you know an 18-year-old who plans a month in advance for anything? And this is not a mistake. Many other states run perfectly safe elections with same-day registration, day-before registration. Now you don’t even have to register, but when you had to register to buy a gun in Texas you could register and get it within 24 hours. But yet somehow we need a month for people to be prepared to vote.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, it’s interesting… In your book, you mentioned that 50,000 white Southerners, maybe more, went into exile after the conclusion of the Civil War. And there are some, in hindsight, somewhat farcical episodes like Confederate officers offering their services to the Emperor Maximilian, who ruled over Mexico after his installation by France’s Emperor Napoleon III. It’s all rather strange. But what this leads up to is your really being very critical of an episode most Americans know nothing about, which was Andrew Johnson’s Christmas Day 1868 presidential proclamation — a forerunner to an executive order — in which he offered full pardon and amnesty for all who participated directly or indirectly in the Confederacy.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: Tell me why this is so important.
Jeremi Suri: Well, it’s crucial because it allows them to come back and go into elected office. It violates the very intention of the Constitution, which is that if you proved yourself unwilling and unable to defend the Constitution, you should never be near public office. This is the oath that every military officer takes. These are the only words written into the Constitution that you must say if you are elected president: that you will defend the Constitution of the United States. And, in a sense, our highest crime in our democracy is showing you can’t, won’t, and will not do that.
And these men had done that. They had, in some cases, twice — three times if they went to serve for Maximilian. And then they get a clean slate. They get to come back. But of course, the former slaves don’t get a clean slate. You can see their slavery in their skin. And so that allows space for the bad guys to do all the things that they do. The equivalent is giving a blanket amnesty to all murderers and saying, “Okay, go back out on the street.” I mean, who would support something like that?
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s a term that isn’t very often used called “lustration.” And I’m probably going to mess this up, but I do believe it was actually used in Eastern Europe, for example, after World War II, where people who had been high Nazi officials were simply not allowed back into public life. And it seems that would’ve been the appropriate course in the United States as well.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. You do not, in a democracy, have a right to elected office. There are conditions. And I think that would’ve been sufficient and it would’ve made a strong moral statement. To use the example of Germany, the Germans to this day have a law against Nazis in government. And I think that’s appropriate, right? There are certain lines you cross — and they’re not always on the right, they might be on the left sometimes too — but there are certain lines you don’t cross for the basic rules of democracy.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your portrait of the early Republican Party is not wholly flattering; it’s a mixed bag. You write that the GOP, essentially, when it started was a regional organization appealing to white men in Northern states who feared they were losing control of their lives to growing immigrant communities, on the one hand, and the slave owners on the other. I was fascinated by that quote you found from the November 1856 Springfield Republican newspaper, where it said that the party appealed to “the great middling-interest class… They form the very heart of the nation, as opposed to the two extremes of aristocracy and ignorance.”
Of course I’m always looking for anything that has to do with moderation and the middling sorts. But the point is that these were people who were up-and-comers, often part of the professional classes; not very open, I suppose, to what we would now think of as diversity, in the sense that they were very suspicious of non-Protestants. And in some sense, you write, they were the mirror image of the Confederates because in both cases these were people who were motivated by fears of declining status. And this was the motivation for the Republican Party when it started.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. And again, your podcast is so appropriately named after Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but I think one of the other figures who exerts such a positive influence on our scholarship, yours and mine, is Richard Hofstadter, of course. And Hofstadter’s point about status anxiety, I think… You know, it was rejected by historians for a long time. I think our generation, Geoff, yours and mine, has actually brought it back to the center. I hope so, because I think it’s so powerful, for good and for bad.
Abraham Lincoln is exactly this. I mean, what really bothers him about the movement toward the expansion of slavery is that it jeopardizes exactly what he sees as the source of economic opportunity for men like him: white men who are poor, who have no land and have no slaves. They need an opportunity, they need a space, they need a party. And he sees that voice being crowded out. The Whigs don’t defend that. And of course, the Democrats are moving to the expansion of slavery, which he feels will erode the middle. And that’s why he joins and helps create the Republican Party.
Geoff Kabaservice: Very much so. When was it… It might have been eight years ago that I wrote a review in The New Republic of Heather Cox Richardson’s book To Make Men Free. And I was kind of critical about it, probably more so than I would be now. Sorry, Heather, apologies if you’re listening. I’m in a much better head space now than I was then. But I did think it was kind of unfair that she was saying that today’s Republican Party is essentially like the antebellum Democratic Party, and specific figures who were representing the top 1% and believe that the rest of the population needed to be kept in subjection. I think that was going a little bit too far. But nonetheless, she’s kind of true that there’s been this oscillation in American history — again, the kind of cyclical process — where the Republican Party starts being kind of on the side of progress and equality, and counter-reactions happen and it moves back toward defense of the wealthy and the establishment. And that’s kind of the cycle that you’re depicting in your book as well.
Jeremi Suri: I agree, and I think it’s a tension within the party that’s there from the start. But I think it’s clear that at its best moments, the Republican Party is the party that is not of the super-wealthy, even though sometimes they will support the Republican Party. But it’s exactly of what Lincoln called “the penniless beginners.” I love that phrase. He uses it time and again. The penniless beginners who want to work hard — they don’t want anything for free — but they want a chance. They want a chance. And the Republican vision, Lincoln’s vision, includes public universities for that reason, where any hardworking young lad can go and learn the agricultural sciences and read Shakespeare and maybe read law and move his or her way forward. That’s the Republican Party at its best. And boy oh boy — I know you share this — I wish the Republican Party of today would come back to that. It’s such a powerful image and it needs a voice in our society.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, I agree. The Republican-dominated Congress in a sense went to war with President Andrew Johnson and passed or created the Reconstruction of the American South against his wishes and also against his presidential actions. Can you talk about how that happened and what the elements of Reconstruction were, and the ways in which the Congress actually in a sense took power to impose the Reconstruction on the South?
Jeremi Suri: Well, the first thing that the Republican Congress… And it’s important to remind everyone, the Republican Congress was totally dominated by Republicans after the war; Democrats were not brought back into Congress initially, so they had two-thirds in the Senate, which is unthinkable in a modern context. The first thing they did was limit the power of the Supreme Court. It’s actually very interesting… They wanted to take this away from the Court. The Court had been very conservative and dominated by Southerners until Lincoln’s presidency. The Court is changed by Republicans to allow Lincoln to make more appointments. The jurisdiction is changed. At times, there are actually ten justices under Lincoln’s presidency.
But then when new slots open up, Congress does not allow Johnson to appoint, so they keep the Court out of his grasp. And then they pass legislation that he vetoes: legislation for civil rights, legislation for enforcement. They override his vetoes. And then when he refuses to enforce through the executive branch, Congress actually stipulates that Ulysses Grant as the commander-in-chief of American forces, as the supreme command of American armed forces, that he will implement. They create, under the Reconstruction Acts, different military districts in the South, and Grant is in charge of all the districts. And then different generals like Sheridan and Sherman are placed in charge. And quite literally, the U.S. Army, the Union Army, will go in and create its own military courts to supersede the local courts that refuse to enforce the law.
So the early enforcement of civil rights laws, the early enforcement of even the 13th and 14th Amendments, comes through the arm of military courts overseen by General Grant, not by President Johnson. General Grant is reporting to Congress. This is in part why Andrew Johnson wants to remove the Secretary of War. Stanton, who is Secretary of War, is the one who Grant reports to. Johnson wants to remove the Secretary of War so he has his own Secretary of War in there who will not enforce these laws. It resonates with some recent events we’ve struggled with.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m guessing, though, that when you started this research you didn’t think that you would end up writing a paean to the United States Army taking power away from the United States president to impose order and law on part of the country.
Jeremi Suri: No. Actually, first of all, I have to confess that I didn’t understand the details of this. It gets very complicated. It’s not the way we think about separation of powers, certainly. But secondly, as I say in the book, it’s dangerous. In many ways, Congress is empowering the military to disobey the president, and that is a dangerous precedent. I don’t think we want to fall into that. And again, I worry today that on January 6th and other days, we also relied on perhaps a similar process.
Geoff Kabaservice: You’re right that Johnson was the first commander-in-chief to work against the government that he led — which is kind of fascinating, really.
Jeremi Suri: And I think he was explicit about that. He believed that he didn’t have to do what Congress said he needed to do, and he actively sought to undermine Congress. I can’t find a case of a prior president who did that. Andrew Jackson, of course, had his issues with Congress, but he believed, even in his worst days with Henry Clay and others, that he was leading the government, not that he was undermining the government. Johnson was, in a sense, trying to eliminate the “Deep State,” even though there wasn’t much of a deep state.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s also interesting in your book that you use terms that today don’t quite mean the same thing, which is “radical Republicans” and “moderate Republicans.”
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: The radical Republicans, in this case, were the ones who wanted a thorough-going Reconstruction of the South, and who also generally had been on the side of abolition before the Civil War. And the moderates are moderates, they’re more cautious. They want equality for African-Americans if possible, but they also don’t really want another Civil War. But more than that, they seem to not want to rock the boat too much. Moderates don’t come off all that well here.
Jeremi Suri: No, it’s true. One figure, for example, is Lyman Trumbull, who is a towering figure from Illinois — in many ways a highly respectable figure. He’s a man of unimpeachable integrity. He is someone who is a strong and consistent supporter of the Union cause in the war. But he does not want a great deal of federal enforcement in the South because he wants to move on from the war. And he knows his constituents, especially in Illinois, have suffered greatly, and the opportunity for their growth and improvement in their lives is Westward activity, not Southern activity. So the moderates are not apologizing for the bad behavior of former Confederates, but they don’t want to devote the resources and energies of the federal government to that issue when there are other issues they care more about.
Geoff Kabaservice: You wrote that “To Republicans intent on expanding democracy and removing a president who defied their authority, the moderates had become apologists for the worst of white supremacy.” And what the moderates really don’t want to do, in this situation, is impeach Johnson if this means replacing him with Senator Benjamin Wade, who would’ve been the next in line.
Jeremi Suri: Correct. Benjamin Wade was from Ohio. He had been governor and now he was senator and Senate pro-tem, which at that time meant he would take over as president under the succession procedures of the time. And he was a true radical in the sense that he wanted African-Americans to be voting in the North as well as the South. It’s important that the moderate Republican position was that African-Americans should vote in the South, because they’d vote Republican there, but they shouldn’t necessarily vote in the North — because, again, these were senators elected under a system in which African-Americans couldn’t vote in most Northern states. They didn’t want to actually bring all those voters in.
Geoff Kabaservice: And to make things more complicated, there also were liberal Republicans there — Carl Schurz being a representative example — who during the Grant presidency opposed continued federal intervention in the South.
Jeremi Suri: Right. The liberal Republicans… I think a better way to think of them is they’re really Democrats who want to renounce the negative baggage of the Democratic Party. They don’t just want to end Reconstruction, they want to empower former Confederates in the South, because that’s the constituency they’re appealing to. So you might think of them even as Dixiecrats. As Dixiecrats move from the Democratic Party, these are Democrats who move left in a certain way. Carl Schurz is an exception, though, because he was a Republican. He was actually a supporter of Lincoln’s, very prominent among German immigrant groups in the United States. But he was not a fan of civil rights.
Geoff Kabaservice: No, that’s true. And again, this is a very suggestive parallel with more modern times. These Democrats who you’re describing — as well as the liberal Republicans, but particularly the Southern Democrats — “criticized U.S. government intervention in their region,” you write. “But they still wanted resources from the U.S. Treasury. They demanded extensive federal subsidies to help white communities improve their conditions. Claims about ‘states’ rights’ were really calls for more public resources, not less, but without federal conditions attached. Then as now, the loudest critics of ‘big government’ were often the recipients of the most benefits.”
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. I think in the period that I cover in the book, in the 1870s in particular, there really aren’t small-government people. They’re all for big government. They want government to do more. They want the federal government to make investments. And that makes sense to me, Geoff, because they’re dealing with the aftermath of war, all of the destruction. And the biggest single possible investor is the federal government. In many of these states, the federal government owns more land than anyone else. And so it’s really not small government versus big government, it’s government for whom. And that’s how I think of our politics today, too.
Geoff Kabaservice: The 1876 presidential election was one of the most consequential in United States history —although, again, most people would be hard-pressed to tell who was running on which side and what was at stake. But can you explain about why this election mattered so much?
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. This is really the first election when you don’t have a Lincoln or a Grant running for the Republicans, so it’s sort of like when there are no more Roosevelts left for the Democratic Party later on. And so it’s a real transition. Rutherford B. Hayes, the really well-regarded former governor and Union veteran from Ohio, is the Republican candidate. And Samuel Tilden, who’s very highly regarded as governor of New York, is the Democratic candidate. Many of your listeners will probably know Tilden as the person who actually broke the back of Tammany in New York. He was the figure who really… Actually, not Tammany, but Boss Tweed. Excuse me, Boss Tweed. Tammany’s later. He broke the back of Boss Tweed’s group in New York. And he was a real reformer of politics in New York City. But he was also very close to Democrats who were very strong in New York who believed that they made money and that their future was hinged to the continuation of King Cotton in the South.
I remind people that most of the wealth you see in New York, with these beautiful late nineteenth-century buildings — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library — the names on those are often names of people who made money working with cotton and other Southern plantation money. They were the financiers for that in New York City. So there’s a strong connection to the South here.
Tilden runs on basically no more Union intervention in the South, let the Southern states just go their way. He doesn’t want to reverse things, but he doesn’t want to do anything new. And Hayes wants to gently continue the process of pursuing reform and Reconstruction in the South. In this election, Tilden wins the popular vote. He wins by about 300,000 to 400,000 more votes — which is a lot, actually, in an electorate where I think it’s four million who vote for Hayes, four and a half or 4.4 million who vote for Tilden.
But the problem is the Electoral College. It’s not clear who’s won a key number of states — that were what we today call battleground states — that determine who has the requisite number of votes the majority needed. Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina each report two different sets of electors, and different countings produce different results in those states. It depends if you throw out some ballots that you think are not appropriate, you include some. And then of course there’s the vote denial in all of those states. Many of those states have, like Florida, they have a Republican governor who’s lost this election but is still governor after the November election. And so you have this question as to who really won the election. Tilden needs only one of those electoral votes, but all three states are certified by their Republican governors as Republican states with Republican votes for Hayes.
And so Hayes wins in the Electoral College — or so it seems — by one. Now, it’s important to say that there were legitimate claims in each of these three states either way. I repeat in the book what C. Vann Woodward, the great historian of the South and the person who first really investigated this, what he concluded now 50 years ago, which I think is still right: there’s no way of knowing. There’s just no way of knowing. But this is not one side making it up. It’s very important to say that. They’re not pretending that there were votes that weren’t there. There’s a dispute over which votes counted, which votes were legitimate, which ones were double-votes and which ones were not, who didn’t vote… It’s really hard to know who won in these states.
So there’s a serious dispute, and we go until early March of 1877 without a president of the United States. Inauguration Day is going to be in March. And it requires a compromise, a compromise that involves a commission, that involves Supreme Court justices. In the end, it’s a compromise made by Southern Democrats who had some Whig connections — so we might call them moderate Southern Democrats — and some moderate Northern Republicans — especially those around Hayes, John Sherman, William Thorns, Sherman’s brother and others — that the Southerners, the Democrats will recognize that Hayes has won. But in return, Hayes will provide them the support they want and will withdraw Union forces, U.S. Army forces, from the South. And that’s often treated as the end of Reconstruction.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interestingly enough — I had forgotten this — but the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, passed a resolution after the election denying that Hayes was elected to the office that he held. They aren’t denying that he holds the office, but they are denying that he was elected to that office.
Jeremi Suri: And they called him repeatedly “His Fraudulency.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Good term. And they were extremely recalcitrant in their dealings with him. And you ask, on their behalf, “How could Democrats reconcile with someone they believed stole power from them?”
Jeremi Suri: Yeah, yeah. That’s the problem. And Hayes never really gets through that. He tries to reach out and do what we would want him to do, to build bridges, but there’s no way really to do that. And repeatedly there are efforts to what we would today call “shut down the government,” to not pass basic appropriations bills, to try to harm his agenda, to prevent him from moving forward. That is eventually how we get the Posse Comitatus Act, which is actually forced upon him as part of a military appropriations bill. The Posse Comitatus Act is a pledge not to use the U.S. Army to enforce the law in the United States, just as they wanted. So Hayes has a terrible time. And the thing Hayes doesn’t do, because it’s not his skill set, is try to find some way to appeal over their heads. He’s not very good at that. And so he becomes a prisoner of congressional opposition.
Geoff Kabaservice: And the fate of his successor, James Garfield, is in some ways worse. Garfield is the last Republican to really try to bring equality to the races in the South. And he’s shot by a disgruntled office-seeker on a totally different issue, which eventually in the next administration leads to civil service reform. But you’re right that his death really marked the end of Republican efforts to build an inclusive, multiracial democracy in America.
Jeremi Suri: That’s right. Because after Garfield — who by the way was really trying, and we have no idea what he would’ve done, because he never really got beyond the problems of trying to appoint people to office. And he was killed, was shot and then had this long, terrible ordeal where he finally dies after being, quite frankly, mistreated by his doctors…
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, there’s actually a little note there on the side of meritocracy, because Garfield was treated by the best-connected doctors, not necessarily the most skilled or knowledgeable.
Jeremi Suri: That’s my argument, yes. If you look at it, he’s treated by the most respected doctors coming out of the Civil War. But there were many young doctors in the United States who understood germ theory. The problem for Garfield is when he’s shot in Washington, D.C. before he boards a train, multiple doctors stick their hands into the wound to try to pull the bullet out. And he actually dies of the infections from these dirty hands in a train station going into his body. It’s a long infection and death, and he’s mistreated repeatedly and misdiagnosed. But younger doctors, who had less status but had been educated in germ theory which was pioneered in Europe, knew exactly what was going on and tried to tell his doctor, who refused to listen. So it’s a terrible tragedy. But he was the last president to really try to deal with these issues.
He’s replaced by Chester Arthur, who had no business… Chester Arthur was a former collector of the New York Custom House. He was only put on the ballot as a gift to, an attempt to appease the New York faction of the Republican Party that didn’t like Garfield, another Ohio Republican. And Chester Arthur is sick himself, unable to do much. And then we get Grover Cleveland, the first Democratic president elected since the Civil War, thereafter. And the country, the executive, turns away from these issues. In essence, the Democratic local governments in the South that are pursuing what will soon become called Jim Crow, they’re just not paid attention to by the federal government anymore.
Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of things come through in this account, one of which is that there are always going to be forces in this country that will try to seek to suppress their opponents’ voters — and they will do this in the name of democracy. Humans are capable of almost any rationalization. And the claims of electoral fraud will be raised whenever it is felt that too many of the wrong kind of people are voting.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. I think that’s, unfortunately, as American as apple pie, and we need to be attentive to that. And that is why we need institutions that can, with legitimacy, make claims as to what is a fair election and what isn’t. We all know our elections are actually quite fair now. But with the collapse of any kind of mainstream news, we don’t have an authoritative way of affirming that. And I’d like to see us develop more of that work toward that, perhaps what many other countries have: a federal election agency that really does this work.
Geoff Kabaservice: I have to admit, I did not think that in my lifetime I would see a return of an endemic problem in this period, which is violence used to intimidate at the ballot box and in the process of politics more generally, as well as an attempt to manipulate the outcomes of elections by determining what votes got counted rather than what votes were cast.
Jeremi Suri: Yes, and I agree with you. I did not predict that even five years ago. And it’s stunning, but I think one of the values of this project, one of the values of this book, is showing us the roots of this. Because I think many of these techniques were developed after the Civil War. Again, the point that needs to be made is that when the people you wanted to exclude were already excluded — because they were slaves — you didn’t have to do this. Once they had claims on power, then you had to find new ways to keep them out of power. And bullying was certainly one of them, paramilitary violence. And I think what the book shows is that paramilitary violence is often highly organized. It looks unorganized, but it’s often highly organized. We’re learning about that in our own time now.
Geoff Kabaservice: And actually it succeeds on a surprising number of occasions as well.
Jeremi Suri: It does. Bullying works. That’s why probably the oldest form of political coercion is to bully people. The leader of Russia is trying to do that with the rest of the world right now. It works. It shapes how people think. It frightens people. And those who are newly part of a democracy — either immigrants, minorities, others — they are most susceptible to that, of course.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course what we saw in 2020, and its aftermath especially, was that the American democratic and constitutional structure is actually quite rickety. It’s built on all kinds of unworkable arrangements. It really lacks clarity. There is no uniformity in many of its processes. And the fact that we are now trying to bring clarity to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 suggests something about the work that needs to be done to actually reform our constitutional system.
Jeremi Suri: Absolutely. And again, I’m a Burkean, as I think you are too. And my view is that what Burke taught us is that rapid breakneck change is dangerous, but also status quo commitments are dangerous as well. You need slow-evolving institutions. That’s the Burkean wisdom, which I think is what our founders had as well, even though some of them had preceded Burke. Nonetheless, this notion that you would have a slowly evolving set of institutions. And we have not participated in that process. We have not encouraged that process in at least a generation or two. Well, some of this happens after World War II — you’ve written about this — and then a lot of it gets stymied. And we need that now. Again, I’m not arguing for overturning, rewriting… I’m not for a new constitutional convention. I’m not for any of that. But I am for looking long and hard at some of the key pillars — these rickety pillars, as you put it — and finding ways to reinforce them. And reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887 is a good place to start.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you, late in the book, write a sentence that I think I would’ve objected to if it had come at the beginning of the book. But by the end of the book, I felt like it was earned. And you write: “Black Lives Matter is the 21st-century echo of the Union Leagues, the Freedman’s Bureau, and African-American Republican organizations across the old Confederacy. Donald Trump and QAnon are 21st-century replays of Andrew Johnson and the Ku Klux Klan — red hats this time, born of older white hoods.” Now, I’m sure a lot of people are going to object to that. But I think what you’re saying is not literally that Donald Trump and QAnon are Andrew Johnson and the Ku Klux Klan, but that, again, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.
Jeremi Suri: Precisely, that we’re seeing a similar divide. And this is not to say that everything Black Lives Matter does or advocates for is correct in my view. But it is to say that it’s an effort to organize those who feel themselves more and more being excluded from participation in our democracy, in the ways in which the Union Leagues and others did that. And it is to say that on the other side, there is a deployment, a weaponization, of these anti-democratic racist elements of our democracy — which are not the whole democracy at all. But they’re being weaponized and deployed to exclude certain people — even to exclude people who were formerly Republicans (in the case of Trump and QAnon) themselves, people like you, Geoff. That’s part of what’s being done. And so it is a weaponization of our history. And I think that’s why we study history, most of all. It’s not that in studying history, you and I are wiser and can make better policy. I wish that were true. I don’t think it’s true. But I think it’s that we can see the flaws, and as patriots we can try to work to change those flaws in the design structure of our constitutional house.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you conclude your book with five major proposals, so to speak, to try to redress some of these flaws. And the first of them is that we need a very ambitious change to voting.
Jeremi Suri: Yes. I think we need a constitutional amendment that every citizen above the age of 18, if we wanted to start there — my son would say it should be above the age of 16, that’s another story — has a right to vote. And it should be like free speech. I’m a near-absolutist on free speech. And my view is it’s appropriate, it’s one of the best things in our democracy, that there’s a presumption against any censorship. If you want to censor someone’s speech in this country, you’ve got to work really hard to prove you have legal reason to do that. It should be the same thing for voting.
And most democracies have that. We have the opposite now. Voting is in the hands of states, and states can create all kinds of reasons. By the way, not only Republicans do that. Now Democrats do too. New York City, New York State — I know this from having grown up there — does all kinds of things to make it hard for certain people to vote, just as Texas makes it hard. We need a constitutional right to vote, just like our right to free speech.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your second proposal is for major changes in elections and our election system.
Jeremi Suri: Right. I mean, the Electoral College is just part of this right now. And of course all your listeners are familiar with the problems with Electoral College that obviously go back to 1876. They go back to 1800, of course, with Jefferson and Aaron Burr. But they’re particularly bad now because of the disparity between a Wyoming and a California or Texas. And what it means is that we get someone selected as president who doesn’t really represent the country as a whole. This has happened four of the last six times in our presidential elections. This is a real problem. And that person then gets to choose Supreme Court justices and all these other things.
And our elections are hard to follow. Our elections are messy. We have questions as to who is certifying. We have volunteers doing a lot of the work who are now being intimidated. I think we need to invest in running professional elections, with a professional group of people, with professional regulations from the federal government. Many other societies do this. India, for example, has a very highly regarded… As politicized as India is — it’s at least as politicized as the U.S. — they have a very highly regarded central election agency. I think we should have that.
Geoff Kabaservice: You believe that there need to be changes in representation as well.
Jeremi Suri: Right. This is the point about gerrymandering. This is the point about having citizens choose their leaders rather than leaders choose their citizens. And a lot has been written on this; I recapitulate a little bit of it in the book. Gerrymandering is as old as our republic, but it’s gotten so much worse — on both sides —because of technology, and because of the inspiration that comes from after the Civil War when this becomes a normal way of thinking about politics. We need to reverse that. I think we should have nonpartisan (as some states do) panels created to try to create the most fair districts with the most diversity. We should have as many 51-49 districts as possible.
Geoff Kabaservice: You write that there needs to be a change to the process of presidential succession.
Jeremi Suri: Right. Well, this is something I came to entirely from the research, Geoff, and I don’t know anyone else who’s argued this way; I might be completely off-base. But it strikes me, when we get to Lincoln’s presidency, that he United States had not had a presidential assassination. It’s one of the reasons it’s so easy for Booth to do this. Lincoln, as violent as the Civil War was, he didn’t think anyone would try to kill the president. And then from Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to 1901 — 35, 36 years — we have three presidential assassinations. And the first two are terrible successions: two people completely unprepared, unsuited for the office. Congress is not available to help. I mean, it’s a real problem. And they both succeed early in the term, so they get three-plus years.
I believe we should have a system where the vice president takes over, but then in the next election year — so if it’s the first year of the presidency, the end of the second year — there’s an early election. Because the problem really is that Johnson and Arthur are in office far too long, no one’s ever elected them, and there’s really no way to remove them.
The impeachment process is broken. I can’t imagine a time anytime soon when we will remove a president through impeachment and conviction. So if someone is there illegitimately — either because of a resignation or a death or, God forbid, a mental issue, which could happen — then there should be a way to have an election sooner rather than later.
Geoff Kabaservice: And finally, you feel that there needs to be some kind of new appeal to hearts and minds.
Jeremi Suri: Yes. And this is making a case for historians — making a case for you and me, Geoff. Every one of our books ends that way, right? I mean, look, this is true for most historians, but at least for you and me, we’re patriots who love our country. We love our country, and we love our country so much that we want our country to see how it could be better. And you only get better by, of course, teaching the great things you’ve done, but also studying the limitations, the places you’ve been off-base. And we have to use that to persuade people, in an idealistic way, that we can be better — not to try to cover up these issues. And I think that can be appealing. I think that’s actually what students want. They don’t want people who hate their country, but they want people who love their country and want to make it better. And we can all be part of that.
Now I’m going to get a little hokey, but I think that’s actually what motivates immigrants who come to a country and are mistreated yet go and fight for that country — because they believe in its possibility of being better for them after the war. And it certainly was for my Jewish relatives, who were in a very anti-Semitic America before World War II. It’s not that anti-Semitism went away, but their work in World War II helped to expose and improve not just countries abroad but at home when they came back. And we had some long, hard thinking as Americans about our own anti-Semitic history, and we’re a different country. Our universities are different, as a concept. Yale would not have had more than a handful of Jews right before World War II, and it becomes an institution that in many ways is open to some of the greatest Jewish talent thereafter.
Geoff Kabaservice: It is. I listen to a lot of podcasts, including many that I don’t agree with at all. And occasionally I listen to a podcast by your University of Texas colleague, Peniel Joseph, who’s also written a book recently called The Third Reconstruction.
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: I don’t believe that Black Lives Matter amounted to a Third Reconstruction, and I don’t believe that the Republican legislative attempt to dictate what goes on in terms of discussion over Critical Racial Theory and other racial concepts amounts to a ban on teaching about black history. But I do agree that there are real debates that are going on over the teaching of history that often fail to find a middle ground.
Another podcast that I want to recommend to one and all is your podcast with Jill Lepore. And she made what I thought was such an interesting comment, which is that America’s history contains atrocities and yet also contains moments of real inspiration and glory. And yet to actually say that as a historian is to say, “On the one hand, on the other hand.” And that’s a kind of despised moderation which is being squeezed out of our politics and also, she thinks — and I agree — out of our teaching and out of the academy.
So here’s the question: How do you actually teach in a way that allows Americans to come to terms with their past as an “aspiring but imperfect” democracy?
Jeremi Suri: I was just going to say, Geoff, I think you’re spot on. And I think Jill did say this very well on our podcast. I was kind of surprised, actually. Here’s what I think… I think we need those who are fortunate enough to be in positions of respectability, those who get to write — as you do, right — those who get to be scribblers, as you and I do, to be advocating for this and to be modeling this.
I think one of the reasons our history teaching has become so narrow is not just because of the political pressure, but people don’t know better. They don’t have other models. And I’ve always tried to teach in the way we’ve described. I don’t know if I’ve always done it well, but I rarely have students who don’t want that. There are always some students complaining about something, but as a whole, this is why I think it’s hearts and minds. That’s a compelling story, because most people can see the beauty and possibility of our country, and also its severe limitations. And so I want to model that. I think we need more people modeling that, is I guess what I’m saying.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and I talked more than a year ago as you were writing a long piece that was published as “How Elite Universities Have Promoted Destructive Republican Leaders.”
Jeremi Suri: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I’ve thought about that piece a lot, because recently I’ve actually tried writing about Ron DeSantis. And I think that I actually had Ron DeSantis in some sections that I taught. He wasn’t enrolled in my actual sections, but I would take over for some graduate students who didn’t want to teach the evening sections, and those are the ones that were full of athletes, because of course they were practicing during the daytime. And there were some real tensions even then between the grad students, who leaned pretty far left, and the athletes, who didn’t. But I think it was actually more than just political disagreements. It was also that a lot of the athletes were, like DeSantis, from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, and kind of traditional public education or Catholic parochial education. And they felt looked down on by their wealthier classmates, as well as by the grad students and the faculty to some extent. They were really kind of alienated yet privileged young men, by virtue of the education and the credentialing that they were getting.
And you wrote about people who were like that, who are now sort of populist leaders in the Republican Party. And you specifically had in mind people like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and of course one could add to that list Elise Stefanik or Tom Cotton. These are all up-and-comers in the Republican Party, and yet they have these sort of elite educational backgrounds. And you kind of write that essentially they were just using these universities as networking opportunities and sort of credentialing factories. And I think that’s true, but I also think there are some resentments that they still carry against the elite class. And I think this is part of what makes them populist warriors, and maybe a little dangerous.
And this is a perspective that they bring to the teaching of race and our racial history in the classroom. So Ron DeSantis has passed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which hasn’t yet found its test in reality in terms of what teachers can and can’t teach. But this theoretically, at least, will also extend to the teaching of American history as well as race at the university level in the public university system.
Jeremi Suri: Sure, sure.
Geoff Kabaservice: And what happens in Florida tends to happen in Texas, so this is going to come to visit your doorstep. And I just wonder what your perspective is on all of this.
Jeremi Suri: It’s a great question. Back to your really thoughtful reflections on the university element of this… I’m sure they pick up some resentments for being different. I’m sure DeSantis felt that way at Yale. I can see that. At times, I felt a little bit that way at Stanford also, as the child of immigrants from a working-class background, and everyone in my dorm was driving a BMW; I couldn’t afford even to get a driver’s license in New York. So I certainly felt some of that. But what’s striking to me is — in the case of a Josh Hawley, a Ted Cruz — how they use their elite education to boost themselves.
Geoff Kabaservice: Let me parenthetically add here that one of Josh Hawley’s mentors and great assists, particularly in getting his Theodore Roosevelt biography published, was David Kennedy.
Jeremi Suri: Correct. And I feel like Josh and I have been in many of the same places. He’s just a few years younger than I am. He had the same advisor at Stanford, and then he was at Yale when we were at Yale also. And so they used these institutions — and these institutions used them, I think, actually — to succeed, to boost, to get ahead. And really what I’m concerned with is not just the resentment they have. Why haven’t these institutions been better at teaching ethics and a sense of true public service? That’s what they’re about. That’s what they should be about. I think we value, and we should take ownership of this, as universities are being too much about success and not about bettering society.
And that’s kind of my answer to the other part of your question. I do see wokeness, of course, at universities and things like that, but I actually think the problem is we’re too preprofessional. I think if we want to really go after higher ed, I’m going to go the Allan Bloom route and say the problem is “the closing of the American mind” from the closing of actual deep inquiry, and the emphasis upon professionalization. The most popular majors across private and public universities now are majors like business and economics, and that’s fine if that’s really what people are interested in. But I’m not sure that’s why. At Yale, history had been the queen discipline for so long. And it’s not because you don’t have great teaching of history there; it’s because of the preprofessional interests that many, many students have.
I think that the “Stop WOKE” teaching act and things like that, I think they’re actually terribly counterproductive. They will be difficult for myself and other teachers to deal with. But what they actually do is they make those subjects more interesting for students, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: The lure of the forbidden…
Jeremi Suri: Yeah. I mean, the truth is, right, it would be a boon for you or for me if Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis condemned one of our books. Please do! So I think what we have to worry about more than anything else is not the efforts to politicize these issues by politicians, it’s actually getting the best teachers in the classroom prepared with the best modeling. I do a lot of work with high school teachers, and I try to model for them and help them think about: What is the way to do just what you and I are talking about? How can we teach the glorious cause of the Union Army in the Civil War and the horrors of what also occurred at the same time?
Geoff Kabaservice: I would give the next-to-last word to Carl Schurz, since we mentioned him not-so-positively earlier. He’s well known, of course, for that saying: “My country, right or wrong: if right to be kept right, and if wrong to be set right.”
Jeremi Suri: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: And at the end of your book, you say that the reckoning that we need requires a willingness to learn more openly about our history, identify our inherited flaws, and work to repair them.
Jeremi Suri: Yes. I believe that. And that comes out of the Jewish tradition, if I might say: l’dor v’dor, which is that from generation to generation we want to leave things a little bit better. And how do we leave things a little bit better? We try to figure out where there are places — this is what every Jewish family talks about just this time of year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — what are the things we can do just a little bit better so that the next generation can live just a little bit better?
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Jeremi Suri, g’mar chatima tova. Thank you so much for joining me and congratulations to you on Civil War by Other Means.
Jeremi Suri: Geoff, thank you. This was a wonderful conversation and I love your podcast. Thank you for having me on.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thanks, Jeremi. And thank you all for listening to The Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.