Okay, you win… All men are created equal.
Make no mistake; slavery was the reason for the American Civil War. Although Southerners tried to distance themselves from slavery after the war and pretend they had been secret abolitionists all along, they proudly embraced slavery at the beginning.
For example, Mississippi’s declaration of secession clearly and coldly stated:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery --- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization... There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”Ⓐ
For the first couple of years of war, the federal government couldn’t decide how to approach slavery. The abolitionists pointed out that since slavery was at the root of the nation’s disunity, fighting slavery would help restore the union. Early in the war, antislavery generals such as John C. Fremont (who had run and lost as the Republican candidate for president in 1856) unilaterally freed any and all slaves belonging to rebels without waiting for direction from Washington.
Lincoln countermanded these orders out of political expediency. Most Americans would rally to support flag and country against the rebels, but were less enthusiastic about laying down their lives to elevate Negroes up to the level of white men. However, as the war dragged on, Lincoln began to see the abolitionists’ point. With the war becoming so bloody, bitter and endless, it seemed like a better idea to attack the way of life that had started it all. This would also put the war on a solid moral footing and boost morale. As federal soldiers penetrated into rebel territory, they began to see for themselves the brutality of slavery. It became less of an abstraction, and more of them became willing to see it uprooted and destroyed.
Lincoln made no secret of his personal dislike for slavery, but he knew that his ability to free the slaves would be limited by the constitutional powers of the Executive branch and by the political need to avoid antagonizing conservative factions which supported the Union but had no quarrel with slavery. Throughout much of 1862, Lincoln tried to get the remaining slave states to voluntarily let their slaves go in exchange for bags of cash. No one accepted the offer.① So peaceful emancipation wasn’t going to happen, but other ways soon turned up. Benjamin Butler, a political general of the Union army② who would prove himself dangerously incompetent in battle but invaluably clever in lawyering, came up with a temporary workaround in the field. Since the Confederates used the manual labor of slaves to support their war effort, he seized them all as contraband of war. Soon, all the refugee slaves churned up by the war became “contrabands”
-- free to come and go as they pleased.
Taking this one step farther, Lincoln decided his war powers as commander-in-chief allowed him to strike a blow against the warmaking capabilities of the enemy by freeing any slaves held by the rebels. He waited for a Union victory on the battlefield to give him a position of strength, and when that didn’t come, he settled for the next best thing, an indecisive draw that left the rebel army too battered to cause him much trouble for a while -- at Antietam in September 1862. Lincoln then issued his Emancipation Proclamation, an ultimatum giving the South one more chance to lay down their arms or else he would free all their slaves. They didn’t give in, so he followed through in January 1863.
There’s some confusion over how many slaves were actually set free by the Emancipation Proclamation. The cynical view is that it freed none at all, since it only applied to the rebellious states, beyond Lincoln’s reach, while leaving slavery untouched in the states that remained as part of the United States; however, from a practical standpoint, it laid a firm legal foundation for nationwide abolition. The President had no authority to seize private property in law-abiding states like Maryland and Kentucky, so he did no such thing, but the area under rebellion was fair game. And while the Proclamation freed no slaves in the Confederacy right away, it did solve the problem about what to do with African Americans who either escaped to federal lines or lived in freshly reconquered territory. Earlier in the war, slaves were still slaves; runaways were seized and returned to their owners; field hands were kept on a tight leash. Under the Emancipation Proclamation, however, all residents were legally free whenever the federal army arrived and asserted its authority. For example, one of the most popular African-American holidays, Juneteenth, celebrates June 19, 1865, the day two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, when federal forces finally showed up in Galveston, Texas, and informed the slaves that they had already been set free a long time ago but their owners had for some reason forgotten to tell them. Similarly, April 5, the day in 1865 when Richmond Virginia fell to federal troops, was long celebrate by African-Americans in that city as Emancipation Day, a day of festive parades.
Whenever federal troops secured a large enough area of rebel territory, Lincoln assembled local Unionists into loyal state governments. This happened first in Virginia. The mountainous northwest of Virginia had fewer slaves and less incentive to rebel, so in April 1861, as soon as it became apparent that the eastern lowland Virginia was going to vote to secede, the Unionist delegates (one-third of the total) left the state capital and set up a rival state government under federal protection in the northern part of the state. Eventually, most of this territory was turned into its own state (West Virginia) because these people were sick of being bossed around by the lowland plantation masters who ran Virginia. A new free state would also boost the number of votes in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, which was going to be a close vote even without the Deep South on hand to vote against it.
By the time Lincoln was inaugurated into his second term of office on March 4, 1865, the war was almost over; slavery was well on its way to being officially and irretrievably abolished by constitutional amendment and Lincoln was looking ahead to the rebuilding and reconciliation.
A few days later, Lincoln spoke to a crowd outside the White House, detailing the plans in the works for bringing Louisiana back into the Union. Lincoln preferred not to dwell on the legal nitpick of whether Louisiana had ever really been out of Union; he only wanted the citizens to swear allegiance to the Union, abolish slavery and consider bringing educated blacks into the governing process. That would be enough to restore good relations between the state and federal governments.
In the crowd listening to the speech was the renowned actor and occasional Confederate spy John Wilkes Booth, who was furious with what he heard.
“That means nigger citizenship,” Booth said to his companion. “That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Booth had already gathered a small circle of Confederate sympathizers and paroled prisoners of war in a Washington rooming house. They had been halfheartedly planning to kidnap President Lincoln and trade him for Confederate prisoners, but now the war was ending, leaving them high and dry, so they had to come up with a new plan: assassination. Booth took the task of killing Lincoln, while two other conspirators were assigned to kill the vice-president and secretary of state. Abraham Lincoln seems to be the only American president assassinated by a conspiracy. The other presidential assassinations are generally agreed to be the work of unstable individuals working alone. The Lincoln assassination demonstrates just how difficult a conspiracy can be. Of the three hitmen sent out on the fateful night of April 15, 1865 to kill the top men in government, one succeeded, one tried but failed, and one gave up and didn’t even try. He went out and got drunk instead.
When the war finally ended, ten reconquered states were put under military control until all the rebellious elements in the government could be neutralized and replaced by loyal Unionists. Reconstruction lasted a couple of years under control of the President, first Lincoln, then Lincoln’s vice-president and successor Andrew Johnson. Originally a Democratic Senator from the rebellious state of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson, had stuck with the Union and had been given the vice-presidency to curry favor with other Southern unionists; however, it soon became obvious that Johnson preferred to reconcile with the former Confederates rather than protect the freed slaves.
The Radical Republicans who ran Congress would not abandon the African Americans who had showed loyalty to the Union nor would they readily return power to the former rebels. After a couple of years of arguing about it, Congress asserted its dominance and found an excuse to impeach President Johnson, although, in the end, the Senate failed by one vote to convict and remove him; however, President Johnson was powerless after this and just waited out the rest of his term. To put more teeth into their policies, Congress pushed through two more constitutional Amendments (the 14th and 15th) in 1868/1870 which granted citizenship and full civil rights to the former slaves and gave the federal government the authority to enforce equal rights in the states.
For the next several years, savage guerrilla warfare raged across the South as former slaveowners tried to keep the former slaves from exercising their new civil rights. In some counties, more people died violently during Reconstruction than during the Civil War. Overall, somewhere between 3,500 and 20,000 black Americans died in lynchings, bushwhackings, urban riots and outright battles against white supremacist militias in the backcountry. Federal troops tried to stop the violence, but were too few and scattered.
The most notorious of the post-war terrorists were the Ku Klux Klan, white-hooded white supremacists bullying the former slaves with nocturnal whippings, arson, murders and mutilations. While introducing a bill to Congress to outlaw the Ku Klux Klan, Benjamin Butler, former bad general but now Senator from Massachusetts, was rumored to have roused support by passing around the bloodstained shirt of a whipped Carpetbagger on the floor of the Senate. Hence “waving the bloody shirt” became a cheap emotional trick to get everyone riled up.③
After a full decade of post-war mayhem, Americans were sick of dealing with problems in the South and wanted it all just to go away. The chance to put it all behind them came during the 1876 election when the Electoral College deadlocked; irregularities in several states left it too closely divided to pick a president. The choice was thrown into the House of Representatives where southern Democrats struck a deal with moderate Republicans. They would give the disputed votes and the presidency to the Republican Rutherford Hayes; in exchange, the Republicans would pull federal troops out of the South in 1877 and let the former Confederacy do whatever it wanted to its ex-slaves.
So-called “Redeemer” governments quickly took over the South and rewrote state constitutions to stop the former slaves from voting. Because that was so obviously illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Redeemers had to come up with a plausible cover story. Under the guise of promoting good citizenship they forced potential voters to jump through as many hoops as possible: tests of their literacy or knowledge of the constitution, payment of a poll tax, and so forth. Then, to prevent these new laws from equally reducing white participation in government, the Redeemers invented the grandfather clause, exempting any citizens from these new barriers if their grandfather had been a voter.
This legal trickery was only half the fight. Masked vigilantes killed or beat any blacks who showed too much resistance to the new way of doing things. Actually, it took very little resistance – often none at all – to attract the attention of death squads. As so many dictators and terrorists have learned throughout history, arbitrary terrorism is the most terrifying of all. The potential victims quickly learn how helpless they really are.
The shifting tide of Reconstruction shows clearly in the size of the Congressional black caucus. When black voters and candidates were protected by federal troops, African-American representation in Congress rose to a peak in the 44th Congress, 1875–1877, with 7 in the House and one in the Senate. Numbers fell quickly and steadily after federal troops withdrew. After 1891, there was only 1 black member of Congress for the next decade. Between 1901 and 1929, not a single African-American sat in the US Congress. Even after the first new one was elected (from Chicago), a second member wasn’t elected until 1945 (from New York City). Black political strength didn’t get back to reconstruction levels until the 91st Congress, 1969, with 10 in the House and one in the Senate.
- Matthew White
① Much later, when it became obvious which way history was heading, the Unionist state governments of Maryland (November 1864), Missouri and Tennessee (January 1865 for both) broke down and voluntarily abolished slavery before the federal government did it for them. Because at this point in the war this was the only nonnegotiable condition required for full acceptance as a state again, Tennessee managed to slip back into the Union without a transition through Reconstruction. ② Political generals are peculiar to early democracies like Rome and the US. For most of its history, the United States rejected large, permanent national armies and relied instead on state militia to fight its big wars. When the states cranked up their militias to put down the southern rebellion, there weren’t enough unemployed trained officers to go around, so state governments usually offered command to whatever local big shots were handy. Ambitious politicians eagerly snapped up these opportunities to add “war hero” to their resumes. It took a couple of years to weed out the incompetents and promote the more capable. The Confederacy, on the other hand, didn’t have this problem because all the southern officers in the US army resigned and went south to command their states’ militias right from the start, spreading the trained officers more widely throughout the army. This may be one reason Confederates outfought the federals early in the war. ③ The battle for the post-war South certainly enriched America’s political vocabulary. To the ex-Confederates, any outsider who arrived from the North was a Carpetbagger, carrying a cheap tote bag made of recycled carpets for hauling away his loot, while any political enemy who lived there already was a Scallywag. Originally slang for a puny and useless animal, the term Scallywag was first applied during the war to anti-war Southerners who refused to enlist in the army, then to any white southerners who cooperated with the occupying Yankees. Ⓐ Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens also declared:
[Concerning the idea that all men are created equal:] “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”
Confederate General Robert E. Lee is often held up as an example of an anti-slavery southerner, but the best evidence offered is this letter to his wife, in which he never went any farther than declaring slavery a necessary evil that would never go away until God decides:
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influences of Christianity than from the storm and tempest of fiery controversy. This influence, though slow, is sure. … While we see the course of the final abolition of human slavery is still onward, and give it the aid of our prayers, let us leave the progress as well as the results in the hands of Him who, chooses to work by slow influences, and with whom a thousand years are but as a single day.” (1856, letter to Mrs. Lee)
Compare this to Abraham Lincoln, who expressed unreserved hatred of slavery about the same time:
“You know I dislike slavery.… I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils…. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border…. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty— to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. (1855, letter to Joshua Speed)