The History of American (White) Exceptionalism: Chapter Seven
“Right now I’m thinking a good deal about emancipation. One of our sins was slavery, another was emancipation. It’s a paradox. In theory, emancipation was one of the glories of our democracy – and it was. But the way it was done led to tragedy, turning four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then in 1877 for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it.”
― Shelby Foote
Emancipation loosely translated means Freedom. In terms of how emancipation of American slaves was arrived at and implemented things are less clear. Emancipation was a strategy. Its purpose was to keep France and England out of the war and from establishing direct ties to the Confederate States of America. It was a plan to reduce the strength of the South and its economy by enticing the people that were literally feeding the Southern troops to escape to the North and even take up arms against their former masters. It was a direct attack on the economic advantage which gave the South its strength. All the moral arguments that the war was fought to free the slaves are dismissed when we note that no slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation outside of the rebellious states.
Emancipation was about politics. Lincoln had to maintain an alliance between his Republican Party (not to be confused with the Republican Party of the present) and Democrats (again not to be confused with Democrats today) who generally had no issue with or strongly supported slavery. Once the war ended there was the real possibility that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which was only an unchallenged Executive Order, would be reversed either by the Courts or by Congress which created the push to pass the 13th Amendment. It is interesting to note that Lincoln paid reparations to Washington D.C. slave owners of $300 per freed slave for their loyalty to the Union and offered $100 for each slave emigrating outside the United States. The 13th Amendment although easily passed by the Senate had trouble in the House and only thru selective pressures and enticements were enough Democrats persuaded to either abstain or vote for the measure and allow for passage just before the end of the Civil War. After the war, Southern states had to accept the 13th Amendment as a condition of re-admittance to the Union. The Union states that had to end slavery were Kentucky and Delaware finally ending slavery and most indentured servitude in the United States. Three years later came the 14th Amendment whose purpose was to ensure the Civil Rights of the former slaves. It took another twelve years for passage of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right of blacks to vote. That guarantee has shown great flexibility from its passage in 1870 until the present when literacy tests and poll taxes and lynchings have been replaced by redistricting, gerrymandering, different poll taxes, unequal access to polling locations and selectively restrictive voter suppression laws. Progress was being made however and we entered the age of Reconstruction.
There were two forces conspiring to help the freed slaves once denied the right to read under penalty of death in some cases, to get an education. In 1862, prior to the war, the Morrill Act was passed granting land to colleges which they could sell to finance educational activities. The early recipients of this funding were primarily state schools although Yale once held that designation. The schools were focused on practical skills like agriculture and military science as opposed to liberal arts. In 1890, a second Morrill Act was passed aimed at the former Confederate State which required then to demonstrate that race was not a criterion for admission. It was this act which gave us some of the larger predominantly black state schools in the South like Tennessee State (formerly Tennessee A&I), Alabama A&M and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical (FAMU) as legislators preferred to establish separate black institutions rather than integrate.
Well before the war in 1846, the American Missionary Association was formed with the purpose of abolishing slavery, educating blacks, promoting Christian values and promoting racial equality. They began forming camps in the South even prior to the war which included teachers and after war’s end formed over 500 schools and colleges for the freedmen including Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Lemoyne-Owen College, Dillard University and Howard University. The AMA has been mostly absorbed by the United Church of Christ which maintains some ties to those institutions until today.
On the political front. After the war, Lincoln was interested in reintegrating the South into the Union as quickly as possible. His moderate view would have left the South much as it was before the war but it was radical Republicans who insisted on rights for the freedmen and harsher punishments for the slave-holders and Confederate leaders. Lincoln’s assassination led to the ascension of Andrew Johnson who continued Lincoln’s moderate policies. The next Congressional elections saw a takeover by the radical Republicans (think of the Tea Party if they were motivated for good) who took over policy, removed former Confederates from power and enfranchised the freedmen. They were backed up by the U.S. Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the freedmen with their assimilation. Thousands of northerner’s, including teachers and missionaries, came South to assist in the effort. Named “carpetbaggers” they soon found the resistance to change from their Southern neighbors. Meanwhile, Congress passed bills to lengthen the term of the Freedmen’s Bureau and establish Civil Rights which Andrew Johnson vetoed. Congress overrode the veto making the bills law. They also impeached Johnson and the vote to remove him failed by one vote in the Senate. The relationship between the President and Congress was never repaired.
The next President, Ulysses Grant was in favor of the radical reconstruction policies and real change was being made. Most of the Confederate governments in the CFA states were dissolved and new districts formed and elections held. Many of these districts had majority black populations and in alliance with the Republican Party, there were numerous blacks elected to the House and Mississippi was the first state to elect a black Senator to represent them. In the North, support for reconstruction was dwindling as they thought the war over and the slaves free. In the South, the backlash was building and we saw significant growth of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and implementation of literacy tests, poll taxes and violence as a way to limit the power of the black vote to influence elections. Then came the Presidential Election of 1876.
Think Bush v. Gore on steroids. Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York won the popular election and over 50% of the vote. There was a dispute however in the Electoral College which Tilden led 184 to 165 over Republican Rutherford B. Hayes with 20 disputed outstanding votes. In three Southern states, both parties claimed their candidate had won. After negotiations between Republican and Democratic factions, all 20 outstanding votes were awarded to Hayes giving him the Electoral College victory and the Presidency by a single vote. You might ask why Democrats would cede the Presidency given they had the clear advantage of having the better claim having won the popular vote? It’s because they got perhaps more in negotiation than they could ever have gotten thru Congress. In the Compromise of 1877, all Federal troops were removed from the South with President Hayes completing the process shortly after the election. The South was given economic assistance to pick itself back up from the war and sympathetic Northerners soon made their way back home with no military support. Black voters were discouraged by a number of means up to and including violence. Black legislators felt betrayed and in the next elections they were relegated to things of the past. Democrats took control of the South. This would last until the 1960’s when with the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1965, sent whites scurrying to the Republican Party and as Lyndon Johnson famously quoted about hid Democratic Party, “We have lost the South for a generation”. Thus began the transformation of the Republican Party from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Trump and Cruz.
Just as Emancipation was in reality a matter of practicality and expediency. The era of black political freedom was negotiated away when convenient. For every law passed to provide rights, another was passed to dilute them. America has always been about the needs of powerful white men who as the victors were allowed to write the history to their own liking.