The current issue of The London Review of Books arrived this morning. So far I’ve picked at Francis Stonor Saunders’ essay on her father’s suitcase (been there myself) and James Lomax’s Diary of trying to get into and out of Turkmenistan (somewhere between dystopia and corrupt farce). So much more to come …
What stopped me in my tracks were the first thirteen paragraphs of Randall Kennedy’s review of Eric Foner’s Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (2019). This part of the review is, quite frankly, as neat a summary of how the United States failed to cope with its racial problem over a critical century.
From now on I shall cite, as I never have recognised before, this horrible truth:
The leaders of the Confederacy, explicitly repudiating Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that ‘all men are created equal,’ had committed themselves to racial hierarchy. ‘Our new government ... rests,’ the Confederate vice president, Alexander Stephens, observed, ‘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.’
Kennedy then continues to explain who and how Lincoln failed to address that essential issue — because he couldn’t. He didn’t have the power, even as Commander-in-Chief to end slavery — except as a war measure, and in the territories controlled by the Confederacy. Hence the Emancipation Proclamation:
contained no criticism of slavery and did not free all slaves; the legal status of at least 800,000 slaves was not affected. The proclamation did not free those held in bondage in the four slave states that remained loyal to the Union: Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland. Nor did it free the slaves in certain Southern territories already under Union control.
Then comes a pointed comparison:
The proclamation announced that freedmen would now be allowed to join the United States military. Many enlisted. By the end of the Civil War 180,000 had served – about a fifth of the country’s black male population aged between 18 and 45. In the Revolutionary War of 1775-83, when the 13 American colonies sought to secede from Britain, most African Americans who took up arms did so on behalf of King George III (having been promised emancipation for doing so). By contrast, in the Civil War, the overwhelming majority who took up arms fought for the United States (the Confederacy having stubbornly resisted proposals to arm slaves until the very eve of its collapse).
That balances, for me, the jokey treatment given Farmer George in Hamilton.
After that we are into the topic of Foner’s book: reconstruction, how it was misconceived, how it was wholly subverted, and how it was negated. Starting with:
Although Lincoln planned to readmit the Confederate states into the Union quickly, on generous terms, he also seemed open to granting the vote to some black men – ‘the very intelligent and ... those who serve our cause as soldiers’. When the actor John Wilkes Booth heard that remark he warned: ‘That means nigger citizenship! Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.’ Three days later, on Good Friday, Booth made good on his threat, shooting Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.
Got that chaps? Lincoln’s notion of emancipation was severely limited. But then, again, the whole electoral system of the United States was, and remains, a restricted franchise. As long as large sections of the populace are denied equal and free opportunity to vote, ‘democracy’ is not complete. Gerrymandering? Inaccessible polling stations? Restrictions on voter registration? They are all there, to this day.
Moreover Wilkes Booth delivered:
Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was a fierce racist who militantly opposed giving African Americans an equal legal status to whites. He supported the ending of slavery but wanted blacks to be confined to a subordinate caste. That is one of the reasons Radicals in the Republican Party – Lincoln’s party – despised Johnson, who was a Democrat, and attempted to remove him from office by impeachment.
Reconstruction was under attack from the outset. There was never a consensus on its legitimacy, and in the end it sank under the weight of racism, indifference, fatigue, administrative weakness, economic depression, the ebbing of idealism, and the toll exacted by terrorism, as its enemies resorted to rape, mutilation, beating and murder to intimidate blacks and their white allies. […]
By 1877 every Southern state had been ‘redeemed’ – that is, was under the control of people who aimed to reimpose the norms of white supremacy. Enemies of Reconstruction removed blacks as a factor in politics and consigned them to a degraded position within a rigid pigmentocracy. The constitutional amendments survived untouched. But, at least with respect to racial matters, they were narrowly construed, if not ignored altogether. By 1900 Reconstruction had been demolished, an experiment almost wholly repudiated.
It has taken the work of Foner (says Kennedy) and his followers, to reconstruct Reconstruction. He emphasises the positives of the three Constitutional amendments that changed the United States:
The Thirteenth Amendment ordered emancipation without compensation and was the first occasion on which the constitution expanded the power of the federal government, creating ‘a new fundamental right to personal freedom, applicable to all persons in the United States regardless of race, gender, class or citizenship status’. Few countries, Foner observes, ‘and certainly none with as large a slave population, have experienced so radical a form of abolition’. The Fourteenth Amendment’s creation of birthright citizenship, he writes, represents ‘an eloquent statement about the nature of American society, a powerful force for assimilation ... and a repudiation of a long history of racism’. […]
The Fifteenth Amendment bars states and the federal government from using race as a criterion for voting.
Here am I, reclining and meditating on this review.
In truth, I cannot believe that the intentions of the Reconstruction Amendments have yet been properly applied.
issued one of the most consequential rulings in a generation in a case called Shelby county v Holder. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get changes cleared by the federal government before they went into effect.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision. The power of the Voting Rights Act was in the design that the supreme court gutted – discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they harmed voters. The law placed the burden of proof on government officials to prove why the changes they were seeking were not discriminatory. Now, voters who are discriminated against now bear the burden of proving they are disenfranchised.
Immediately after the decision, Republican lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina – two states previously covered by the law – moved to enact new voter ID laws and other restrictions. A federal court would later strike down the North Carolina law, writing it was designed to target African Americans “with almost surgical precision”.
Clearly nothing will change as long as Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, remains a prime arbiter.
A good, thoughtful and provocative review. A major issue.