The Civil War
As the war wound down, Lincoln was re-elected and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was passed. Tragically, the President was assassinated within a week of the war’s end and his successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a former tailor, was not up to the task of sewing the Union back together. In many ways, Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address reinforced the notion that the United States had written a “promissory note” to all its people, a note which, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, had not been cashed. As noted in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech:
One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds. (bold, mine – for emphasis!)
Indeed, 56 years after that speech Black Americans (and other marginalized populations) are still receiving bounced checks when it comes to “unalienable rights” and “the pursuit of Life, Liberty and . . . happiness.” If we look back at the end of the Civil War, examining Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the 13th Amendment’s passage, and Lincoln’s assassination followed by Andrew Johnson’s presidency, we can see branches on the tree of white supremacy sprouting out, eager to soak in stereotypes and prejudice as its sustenance, growing bigger and stronger over the last century and a half.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
Historians have long noted the brilliance of Lincoln’s public addresses. In his first Inaugural Lincoln’s plea was for reconciliation:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
That was 1861. By 1865, four years of devastating slaughter had focused Lincoln not only on victory and the abolition of slavery but also on how to knit the country back together. In the speech, Lincoln notes the cause of the war ("slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war”) but throughout the speech uses Biblical references, appealing to the spiritual side of citizens, North and South (ironically, of course, the South had often used the Bible as justification for slavery, based on the Old Testament in particular). Lincoln’s words speak for themselves:
Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In his plea not only for peace but also for reconciliation, Lincoln notes the debt owed to “the bondsman” and his “two-hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” Without outlining a specific plan for reconciliation and reconstruction (Lincoln, after all, believed he would be steering the ship of state until 1869), the President sets a tone that attempts to bring the Union back together. His assassination, of course, would change all that.
The 13th Amendment
The first of three Amendments often referred to as the “Civil War” or “Civil Rights” Amendments, the 13th explicitly outlawed slavery --- with the word “slavery” appearing in the U.S. Constitution for the first time (the Founding Fathers had scrupulously avoided using the term outright and created phrasing that danced around it!). Specifically, it said:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.
As the years went on, of course, Section 2 became a sticking point regarding Amendment 13. Crafty Southerners devised “Black Codes” --- laws that restricted the rights of African-Americans politically and economically. As the Civil War became smaller and smaller in America’s rearview mirror, the stereotypes and prejudices of white America held sway --- not just in the South, where the segregation and discrimination were blatant, but also in the North, where housing, education, and economics always favored Whites over Blacks. So, while the 13th Amendment did, indeed, abolish slavery, it did not abolish racial bias, discrimination, or hatred --- creating the world we still inhabit in 2019.
Lincoln’s Assassination & Johnson’s Ascension to the Presidency
Five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Lincoln died the following morning (April 15th) and his plans for a reasonable reconciliation with the South (which included granting civil rights to the freed slaves) died with him. Andrew Johnson, his Vice President, was also a target of an assassination plot that included attempts on the lives of Secretary of State William Seward (wounded in a conspirator’s knife attack) and Johnson (his assassin got drunk, followed by cold feet and never carried out his part of the plan). A “War Democrat,” Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate in 1864 because of his efficiency as the Military Governor of Tennessee --- his home state (he was a U.S. Senator who did not leave D.C. or the Senate when Tennessee seceded). Johnson shepherded Tennessee back into the Union as the war wound down and Lincoln, running not as a Republican but as the standard-bearer for the National Union Party and, anticipating the end of the War during his second term, believed reconciliation and reconstruction would benefit if he had a Southern Democrat on his ticket. His assassination changed the course of United States history in ways which can only be speculated.
Andrew Johnson was a former slave-owner and wanted (as Lincoln had) a rapid reinstatement of the Southern states. The Republicans in Congress broke into two factions --- the Radicals (who wanted to severely punish the South) and Moderates (who were less keen on African American citizenship or suffrage). Johnson’s initial proclamations, reinstating the state of Virginia and granting amnesty to all Southerners (except those owning $20,000 or more in property) met with support from Moderate Republicans. He also ordered that Constitutional Conventions be held in the other (former Confederate) states. As a Southerner and a Democrat, Johnson believed in States’ Rights over Federal power and foresaw that once the Union was re-united, the Southern states could determine suffrage, how freed Blacks would be “dealt with” and so on. To him, none of those issues were in the purview of the U.S. government.
Southern states quickly began enacting “Black Codes,” thinly disguised legislation to keep Blacks in quasi-bondage. The Radical Republicans quickly gained sway in the Congress and dramatically split with Johnson. Early in 1866, Congress’s attempt at passing a Civil Rights bill and extending the Freedmen’s Bureau (an agency of the United States Department of War to "direct such issues of provisions, clothing, and fuel, as he may deem needful for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees and freedmen and their wives and children." - wiki) met with opposition from Johnson (who believed these should all be state decisions) and began to expose a rift that would expand to a chasm by the end of Johnson’s term. When Johnson refused to sign the Civil Rights Bill, the Moderate Republicans broke with him and the real turmoil began. “Radical (Republican) Reconstruction” then began in earnest and Johnson and the Congress battled until he was finally impeached in early 1868.
Next Week: Reconstruction and the Rise of Jim Crow