James Madison called it America's " original sin."" Chattel slavery. Its horrors, Thomas Jefferson prophesied, would bring down a wrath of biblical proportions. ''Indeed,'' Jefferson wrote, ''I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.''
In 1861, the day of reckoning came. The Southern states' determination to establish '''their independent slave republic'' led to four years of war, 1.5 million casualties, including at least 620,000 deaths, and 20 percent of Southern white males wiped off the face of the earth.
In his second inaugural address, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln agonized that the carnage of this war was God's punishment for ''all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil.'' Over time the road to atonement revealed itself: In addition to civil war, there would be the Emancipation Proclamation, three separate constitutional amendments - one that abolished slavery, another that defined citizenship, and the other that protected the right to vote - and, finally, the Freedmen's Bureau, with its mandate to provide land and education. Redemption for the country's ''sin,'' therefore, would require not just the end of slavery but also the recognition of full citizenship for African Americans, the right to vote, an economic basis to ensure freedom, and high-quality schools to break the generational chains of enforced ignorance and subjugation.
America was at the crossroads between its slaveholding past and the possibility of a truly inclusive, vibrant democracy. Thee four-year war, played out on battlefield on an unimaginable scale, had left the United States reeling. Beyond the enormous loss of life to contend with, more than one million disabled ex-soldiers were adrift, not to mention the widows seeking support from a rickety and virtually non-existent veterans' pension system. The mangles sinews of commerce only added to the despair, with railroad tracks torn apart: fields fallow, hardened, and barren: and bridges that had once defied the physics of uncrossable rivers now destroyed. And then this: Millions of black people who had been treated as no more than mere property were now demanding their full rights of citizenship. To face these challenges and make this nation anew required a special brand of political leadership.
Could the slaughter of more than six hundred thousand men, the reduction of cities of smoldering rubble, and casualties totaling nearly 5 percent of the U.S population provoke America's come-to-Jesus moment? Could white Americans override ''the continuing repugnance, even dread'' of living among black people as equals, as citizens and not property? In the process of rebuilding after the Civil War, would political leaders have the clarity, humanity, and resolve to move the United States away from the racialized policies that had brought the nation to the edge of apocalypse?
Initially, it appeared so. Even before the war ended, in late 1863 and early 1864, Rep. James M. Ashley (R-OH) and Senator John Henderson (D-MO) introduced in Congress a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment was, in important ways, revolutionary. Immediately, it moved responsibility for enforcement and protection of civil rights from the states to the federal government and sent a strong, powerful signal that citizens were first and foremost U.S citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment was also corrective and an antidote for a Constitution whose slave-owning drafters, like Thomas Jefferson, were overwhelmingly concerned with states' rights. Finally, the amendment sought to give real meaning to ''we hold there truths to be self-evident'' by banning not just government-sponsored but also private agreements that exposed blacks to extralegal violence and widespread discrimination in housing, education, and employment. As then-congressman James A Garfield remarked, the Thirteenth Amendment was designed to do significantly more than ''confer the bare privilege of not being chained.''
That momentum toward real freedom and democracy, however, soon enough hit a wall - - one that would be more than any statesman was equipped to overcome. Indeed, for all the saintedness of his legacy as the Great Emancipator, Lincoln himself had neither the clarity, the humanity, not the resolve necessary to fix what was so fundamentally broken. Nor did his successor. And as Reconstruction wore on, the U.S Supreme Court also stepped in to halt the progress that so many had hoped and worked for.
Lincoln had shown his hand early in the war. Heavily influenced by two of his intellectual heroes - - Thomas Jefferson, who advocated expulsion of blacks from the United States in order to save the nation: and Kentuckian Henry Clay, who had established the American Colonization Society, which had moved thousands of free blacks into what is now Liberia --- Lincoln soon laid out his own resettlement plans. He had selected Chiriqui, a resource-poor area in what is now Panama, to be the new home for millions of African Americans. Lincoln just had to convince them to leave. In August 1862, he lectured five black leaders whom he had summoned to the White House that is was their duty, given what their people had done to the United States, to accept the exodus to South America, telling them, ''But for your race among us there could not be war.'' As to just how and why ''your race'' came to be ''among us,'' Lincoln conveniently ignored.
His framing of the issue not only absolved plantation owners and their political allies of responsibility for launching this war, but it also signaled the power of racism over patriotism. Lincoln's anger in 1862 was directed at blacks who fully supported the Union and did not want to leave the United States of America. Many, indeed, would exclaim that, despite slavery and enforced poverty, ''We will work, pray, live, and, if need be, die for the Union,'' Nevertheless, he cast them as the enemy for wickedly dividing ''us'' instead of defining as traitors those who had fired on Fort Sumner and worked feverishly to get the British and French to join in the attack to destroy the United States.
From this perspective flowed Lincoln's lack of clarity about the purpose and cause of war. While the president, and then his successor, Andrew Johnson, insisted that thepast four years had been all about preserving the Union, the Confederacy operated under no such illusions. Confederate States of America (CSA) vice president Alexander H. Stephens remarked, ''What did we go to war for, but to protect our property?'' This was a war about slavery. About a region's determination to keep millions of black people in bondage from generation to generation. Mississippi's Articles of Secession stated unequivocally, ''Our position is thoroughly identified with the with the institution of slavery...Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.'' In fact, two thirds of the wealthiest Americans at the time ''lived in the slaveholding South.'' Eighty-one percent of South Carolina's wealth was directly tied to owning human beings. It is no wonder, then, that South Carolina was willing to do whatever it took, including firing the first shot in the bloodiest war in U.S history to be free from Washington, which had stopped the spread of slavery to the West, refused to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, and, with the admission of new free-soil states to the Union prior to 1861, set up the numerical domination of the South in Congress. When the Confederacy declared that the ''first duty of the Souther states'' was ''self-preservation.'' what it meant was the preservation of slavery.
To cast the war as something else, as Lincoln did, to shroud that hard, cold reality under the cloak of ''preserving the Union'' would not and could not address the root causes of the war and the toll that centuries of slavery had wrought. And that failure of clarity led to a failure of humanity. Frederick Douglas later charged that in '' the hurry and confusion of the hour, and the eagerness to have the Union restored, there was more care for the sublime superstructure of the republic than for the solid foundation upon which it alone could be upheld '' -- the full rights of the formerly enslaved people.
Millions of enslaved people and their ancestors had built the enormous wealth of the United States; indeed, in 1860, 80 percent of the nation's gross national product was tied to slavery. Yet, in return for nearly 250 years of toil, African Americans had received nothing but rape, whippings, murder, the dismemberment of families, and forced subjugation, illiteracy, and abject poverty. The quest to break the chains was clear. As black residents in Tennessee explained in January 1865:
We claim freedom, as our natural right, and ask that in harmony and co-operation with the nation at large, you should cut up by the roots the system of slavery, which is not only a wrong to us, but the source of all the evil which at present afflicts the State. For slavery, corrupt itself, corrupted nearly all, also, around it, so that it has influenced nearly all the slave States to rebel against the Federal Government, in order to set up a government of pirates under which slavery might be perpetrated.
The drive to be free meant that 179,000 soldiers, 10 percent of the Union Army, (and an additional 19,000 in the Navy) were African Americans. Humanity, therefore, cried out to honor the sacrifice and heroism of tens of thousands of black men who had gallantly fought the nation's enemy. That military service had to carry with it, they believed, citizenship rights and the dignity that comes from no longer being defined as property or legally inferior.
To be truly reborn this way, the United States would have had to overcome not just a Southern but also a national disdain for African Americans. In New York City, for example, during the 1863 Draft Riots:
Black men and women were attacked, but the rioters singled out the men for special violence. On the waterfront, they hanged William Jones and then burned his body. White dock workers also beat and nearly drowned Charles Jackson, and they beat Jeremiah Robinson to death and threw his body in the river. Rioters also made a sport of mutilating the black men's bodies, sometimes sexually. A group of white men and boys mortally attacked black sailor William Williams - jumping on his chest, plunging a knife into him, smashing his body with stones - while a crowd of men, women, and children watched. None intervened, and when the mob was done with Williams, they cheered, pledging ''vengeance on every nigger in New York."
This violence was simply the most overt, virulent expression of a stream of anti-black sentiment that conscribed the lives of both the free and the enslaved. Every state admitted to the Union since 1819, starting with Maine, embedded in their constitutions discrimination against blacks, especially the denial of the right to vote. In addition, only Massachusetts did not exclude African Americans from juries; and many states, from California to Ohio, prohibited blacks from testifying in court against someone who was white.
The glint of promise that had come as the war ended required an absolute resolve to do what it would take to recognize four million newly emancipated people as people, as citizens. A key element was ensuring that the rebels would not and could not assume power in the newly reconstructed United States of America. Yet, as the Confederacy's defeat loomed near, Lincoln had already signaled he would go easy on the rebel leaders. His plan for rebuilding the nation required only that the secessionist states adopt the Thirteenth Amendment and have 10 percent of eligible voters (white propertied males) swear loyalty to the United States. That was it. Under Lincoln's plan, 90 percent of the power in the state could still openly dream of full-blown insurrection and consider themselves anything by loyal to the United States of America.
As one South Carolinian explained in 1865, the Yankees had left him '' one inestimable privilege...and that was to hate 'em.'' '' I get up at half past four in the morning,'' he said, ''and sit up till twelve midnight, to hate 'em.'' The liberator reported that in South Carolina, ''there are very many who . . . do not disguise the . . . undiminished hatred of the Union.'' The visceral contempt, however, extended far beyond the Yankees to encompass the formerly enslaved. One official stationed in the now-defeated South noted, '' Wherever I go - - the street, the shop, the house, or the steamboat - - - I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the Negro as possessing any rights at all.'' He further explained how murder, rape, and robbery, in this Kafkaesque world, were not seen as crimes at all so long as whites were the perpetrators and blacks the victims. Given this poisonous atmosphere, he warned, '' The people boast that when they get freedmen affairs in their own hands, to use their own classic expression, 'the niggers will catch hell.'' ''
To stop this descent into the cauldrons of racial hate, African Americans had to have access to the ballot box. The reasoning was simple. As long as blacks were disenfranchised, white politicians could continue to ignore or, even worse, trample on African Americans and suffer absolutely no electoral consequences for doing so. The moment that blacks had the vote, however, elected officials risked being ousted for spewing anti-black rhetoric and promoting racially discriminatory policies. But, in 1865, that was not to be. Suffrage was a glaring, fatal omission in the president's visions for Reconstruction - although one that was consistent with the position Lincoln had taken early in his political career when he ''insist [ed] that he did not favor Negroes voting, or, '' for that matter, ''Negroes serving on juries, or holding public office, or intermarrying with whites,''