You can certainly make the case that America lost its way many times throughout its history and I won’t disagree. From the moment they broke their first pact with the Native Americans to their prospering from the work of slaves, the declaration of Manifest Destiny saying that God intended for it to have every piece of land from sea to sea with all the people in-between be damned. The shaping of its borders, not desirous of Mexico because it, “had too many Mexicans,” and Japanese Internment.
John C. Calhoun, the South Carolinian legislative forefather of Lindsay Graham said, “ I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race — the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped — the Portuguese at least to some extent — and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.”
But there was a moment when America had a chance to do better… and chose not. The Civil War was ended and the slaves had been freed; some took a little longer to get the word (Texas) until the cotton crop was harvested that was a minor missed opportunity compared to The Compromise of 1877.
The freedmen were still being discriminated against. They couldn’t attend white schools but did have their own. Before the end of the Civil War; Black institutions of higher learning rose up beginning with The Institute of Higher Learning in Cheney, PA followed by Lincoln University and Wilberforce University. Not really colleges but a beginning. After the war, often with the aid of white religious societies, black colleges rose up including Fisk, Morehouse, and Howard. The freed slaves began to vote, and in the deepest part of the South began to send elected black representatives to Congress and sit in State Legislatures. Led by Mississippi and Florida, Reconstruction was flourishing to a degree and America seemed to be on a path which might one day resemble equality.
That didn’t mean the newfound prosperity of black folk (relative to slavery anything was prosperous) wasn’t upsetting to the Southern whites who’d seen their entire way of life upended. The only thing that allowed black people to vote, farm on their own lands, and worship in their own churches, was the unwanted presence of Federal Troops protecting the new status quo.
In 1876, a disputed Presidential Election left Republicans and Democrats trying to determine which Party would seat the next President. In what seems like a role reversal for those not up on their history, The Republicans, formed partly with the goal of abolishing slavery, appeared to have lost. Short just one Electoral Vote short of victory with two states votes in dispute and winners of the Popular Vote. It seemed a foregone conclusion they would ultimately prevail. The Democrats, strongest in the South and the Party the Klan called home; allowed the Republicans to claim victory on one condition. The removal of Federal Troops from the South.
This ushered in the era of Jim Crow and all the previous gains of black people were immediately wiped out. In 1878, that Republican President, Rutherford B. Hayes, signed into law the Posse Comitatus Act, ensuring Federal Troops could never again be used in that manner on U.S. soil, protecting black citizens. With its adoption of The Compromise of 1877, followed up by Posse Comitatus slamming the door. America consciously and irrevocably declared its lack of conscience and choice down the path of white supremacy. Democrats began a reign of terror which included voter suppression enforced by lynchings, Jim Crow, segregation (which was always part of the program) and more. Republicans, who still call themselves, “The Party of Lincoln,” looked the other way at best. Cheerfully enacting some of the same programs of voter suppression and gerrymandering which they continue to this day.
Perhaps America will find itself back on track one day? With the recent implementation of Muslim Bans, separation of families at the border, Census questions designed to hurt minorities, and an uptick in segregated schools. It doesn’t look like it will be soon.