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Race in America: parallels between the 1860s, 1960s, and today [extract]

The American Civil War remains deeply embedded in our national identity. Its legacy can be observed through modern politics—from the Civil Rights Movement to #TakeAKnee. In the following extract from The War That Forged a Nation, acclaimed historian James M. McPherson discusses the relationship between the Civil War and race relations in American history.

The civil rights movement eclipsed the centennial observations during the first half of the 1960s. Those were the years of sit-ins and freedom rides in the South, of Southern political leaders vowing what they called “massive resistance” to national laws and court decisions, of federal marshals and troops trying to protect civil rights demonstrators, of conflict and violence, of the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and began his “I have a dream” speech with the words “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.” These were also the years of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which derived their constitutional bases from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments adopted a century earlier. The creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau by the federal government in 1865, to aid the transition of four million former slaves to freedom, was the first large-scale intervention by the government in the field of social welfare.

These parallels between the 1960s and 1860s, and the roots of events in my own time in events of exactly a century earlier, propelled me to become a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction. I became convinced that I could not fully understand the issues of my own time unless I learned about their roots in the era of the Civil War: slavery and its abolition; the conflict between North and South; the struggle between state sovereignty and the federal government; the role of government in social change and resistance to both government and social change. Those issues are as salient and controversial today as they were in the 1960s, not to mention the 1860s.

Southern novelist William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”  Image credit: Author William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten via US Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2015 we [had] an African American president of the United States, which would not have been possible without the civil rights movement of a half century ago, which in turn would not have been possible without the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Many of the issues over which the Civil War was fought still resonate today: matters of race and citizenship; regional rivalries; the relative powers and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments. The first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which among other things conferred American citizenship on anyone born in the United States, has become controversial today because of concern about illegal immigration. As the Southern novelist William Faulkner once said: “The past is not dead; it is not even past.”

Let us take a closer look at some of those aspects of the Civil War that are neither dead nor past. At first glance, it appeared that Northern victory in the war resolved two fundamental, festering issues that had been left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776 that had given birth to the nation: first, whether this fragile republican experiment called the United States would survive as one nation, indivisible; and second, whether that nation would continue to endure half slave and half free. Both of these issues had remained open questions until 1865. Many Americans in the early decades of the country’s history feared that the nation might break apart; many European conservatives predicted its demise; some Americans had advocated the right of secession and periodically threatened to invoke it; eleven states did invoke it in 1861. But since 1865 no state or region has seriously threatened secession. To be sure, some fringe groups assert the theoretical right of secession, but none has really tried to carry it out. That question seems settled.

By the 1850s the United States, which had been founded on a charter that declared all men created equal with an equal title to liberty, had become the largest slaveholding country in the world, making a mockery of this country’s professions of freedom and equal rights. Lincoln and many other antislavery leaders pulled no punches in their denunciations of both the “injustice” and “hypocrisy” of these professions. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, that particular “monstrous injustice” and “hypocrisy” has existed no more. Yet the legacy of slavery in the form of racial discrimination and prejudice long plagued the United States, and has not entirely disappeared a century and a half later.

In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 “United States” was a plural noun: The United States have a republican form of government. Since 1865 “United States” is a singular noun: The United States is a world power. The North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by creating a nation. This transformation can be traced in Lincoln’s most important wartime addresses. His first inaugural address, in 1861, contained the word “Union” twenty times and the word “nation” not once. In Lincoln’s first message to Congress, on 4 July 1861, he used the word “Union” thirty-two times and “nation” only three times. In his famous public letter to Horace Greeley of 22 August 1862, concerning slavery and the war, Lincoln spoke of the Union eight times and the nation not at all. But in the brief Gettysburg Address fifteen months later, he did not refer to the Union at all but used the word “nation” five times. And in the second inaugural address, looking back over the trauma of the past four years, Lincoln spoke of one side seeking to dissolve the Union in 1861 and the other side accepting the challenge of war to preserve the “nation.”

Featured image credit:  “Battle of Antietam” color lithograph, circa 1888. Published by  Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers. Restored by Michel Vuijlsteke. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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