May 15, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
In a recent letter we discussed the challenge of making republican government succeed in a racially plural republic, a challenge most Americans before 1860 considered insurmountable. One of the long arcs of American history since then is the growing recognition that while sustaining such a nation was daunting, all the alternatives to it were impossible. Thus, America would have to find a way to make it work as well as it could be made to work.
The beginning of this arc can be seen in Abraham Lincoln’s experience. He had become a nationally prominent politician in the 1850s, by insisting that America’s founders had meant to place the institution of slavery in the “course of ultimate extinction,” a course from which the nation must not depart. “Ultimate,” however, is an elastic term. In his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln conceded, “I do not suppose that in the most peaceful way ultimate extinction would occur in less than a hundred years at least….”
This was a reflection, among other things, of Lincoln’s estimation of American public opinion. In a country founded on the consent of the governed, it is impossible for a democratic politician peacefully to do more than he can persuade his fellow citizens to join him in doing. That Lincoln’s election was considered an intolerable provocation by the slave-holding states that seceded from the Union demonstrated just how far public opinion had to move in America before slavery could be extinguished “in the most peaceful way.” As Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, who would become vice president of the Confederate States of America, said in 1861, “Our new government is founded 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 normal condition.”
When war was forced upon him by the seceding slave-holding states, Lincoln took the occasion of the war to make the ultimate extinction of slavery much more immediate. As a measure of military necessity he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, less than two years into his first term of office, declaring that all slaves in states rebelling against the federal government were “forever free.” This was one step toward the ultimate extinction of slavery; the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting slavery throughout the nation, was the next.
Lincoln’s assassination, less than two months after the start of his second term, means that we can only speculate about the further steps he would have taken towards establishing a democracy that included freed slaves. In his last public speech, given four days before he was assassinated, Lincoln spoke favorably about readmitting Louisiana to the Union, based on its newly adopted state constitution, “giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.” For Congress to reject Louisiana’s application, Lincoln argued, would be to say to that state’s blacks, “This cup of liberty … we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.”
The previous month, at his second inaugural, Lincoln had urged Americans to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves.” It became apparent in the years after Lincoln’s death, however, that there was a profound antagonism between the goals of racial unity and sectional unity. Southern whites, defeated and humiliated, made clear that they were implacably opposed to federal policies that would guarantee blacks’ civil and voting rights. For the first years of Reconstruction the policy of the Republicans who controlled Congress was to confront and overcome this opposition. Federal troops remained stationed in the defeated states, protecting blacks’ rights and allowing legislatures with black representatives, sometimes comprising majorities, to convene.
Southern resistance, manifested in the rise of paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, forced northerners to decide whether they were prepared to commit troops and resources, to the extent and for the duration required, until southerners finally accepted former slaves as equal citizens. In the aftermath of the election of 1876, a decade after the end of the Civil War, northerners threw in the towel: Reconstruction ended with the abolition of slavery, but also with the federal government acquiescing in white southerners deciding how and whether southern blacks’ rights would be recognized. The imperative of sectional reconciliation had triumphed over the imperative of enforcing the Constitution, explicitly color-blind after the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments. As Lincoln had feared, blacks’ hopes for realizing liberty were postponed to some vague and undefined when, where, and how. It took most of the ensuing century before the Civil Rights movement impelled the nation to make its commitment to color-blind citizenship specific and immediate. A future letter will examine the democratic principle of equality in the wake of that historical watershed.