The Dream of Emancipation

Thomas Nast, "Emancipation: The Past and the Future," colored wood engraving, 1865 (Library Company of Philadelphia).
All the fervent hopes associated with the end of American slavery animate this colored engraving of Thomas Nast’s “Emancipation: The Past and the Future,” published in 1865.

Better than pages upon pages of tracts and editorials, this vivid artwork expresses the moral convictions and sentiments that led Americans of 150 years ago to get rid of slavery, and, beyond that, to envision a society in which all people would equally enjoy certain basic rights.

Freeing the slaves was one thing: it was quite another for white America to embrace a vision of political equality that would extend to Americans of another color.  Yet this northern Americans did right after the Civil War (1861-65), amending the Constitution to secure positive legal equality for former slaves and all persons of color.  Proponents of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—which abolished slavery, promised citizens equal protection under the law, and extended voting rights to blacks—believed that these measures would guarantee the liberty of former slaves and their descendants, opening the way for their sharing in the blessings of prosperity and peace.

In that sense, the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, passed between 1865 and 1870, represent the high-water mark of nineteenth-century America’s quest for racial equality.  That quest, which had begun in earnest in the 1830s, was an essentially moral and intellectual movement, a movement that a generation of writers, moralists, orators, newspaper publishers, and outspoken clergymen advanced.  For many decades they labored hopelessly and alone.  Abolitionists were marginal and dangerous figures.  Politicians wanted nothing to do with their cause.  Statesmen were uniformly loathe to disturb slavery: it was essential to the US economy; therefore, it was far better to let it be.

Only the abolitionists persistently and inconveniently refused to be silent.  For decades, their cause, their dream of banishing slavery once and for all, was a fringe movement, something entertained only in truly radical minds.  Those who demanded abolition were literally playing with fire, and sometimes the fire found them, as when their offices were burned, or when their efforts to keep the courts from returning fugitives slaves to their masters caused riots.

The belief that slavery had to end and that, once it did, the only proper course was to recognize black Americans as citizens, gradually gained some political traction, though it remained a minority view.  Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would not rest until they had expunged slavery from the Constitution and enshrined the principle of racial equality in its place.  After the war, Northerners succeeded in amending the Constitution as they did only because the South was relatively disenfranchised and in a state of social and economic disarray.

The amendments were right, but they remained radical: like many of our nation’s founding principles, the Reconstruction amendments spelled out an ideal, one that has proved elusive, for decades more inspirational than real.

But the dream of it, the dream of racial inclusion and equality: that dream has made all the difference, both during Reconstruction and subsequently.  The Americans who struggled, 150 years ago, to codify this radical vision and make it more real were the forerunners of modern civil-rights heroes like Martin Luther King.  That dream continues to inspire all people of conscience to practice mutual respect, and to be true to the radical principle of equality that ennobles us all.

Item: from the collections of  The Library Company of Philadelphia.
Click the print to enlarge it.

Nast’s drawing telescopes all the horrifying aspects of slavery.  At left, the capture and abduction of Africans from their native lands; the break-up of their families; their sale on the auction block to American owners;
the powerlessness of male and female slaves in the face of their owners’ will;
their forced labor, the fruits of which now belonged to their owner;
and the absence of any recourse except to the ear of God,
to end the injustices and torment of being enslaved.
Only Liberty (at the top of the print) could dispel these grave moral and social sins.
Nast imagined a future in which newly freed people would enjoy everyday blessings,
such as (at right) having intact families, sending their children to school,
being paid wages for labor performed,
and owning something themselves instead of being owned.

Hello, February

Ice skating; The Lincoln Memorial in the background, Washington, DC (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be.  I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.

Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode.  Continue reading

American Beauty: The Inauguration as Medium and Message

President Obama taking the oath of office as his family looks on (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch.  The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time.  Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry.  The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.

The inaugural was held on the west front of the Capitol (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed.  Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities.  Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.

The president listening to the inaugural proceedings (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony.  George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City.  Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.

A vast crowd came to the National Mall to take part in the 2013 inauguration (Photograph from PBS television coverage)

Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song.  In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural  last Monday.

The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine.  From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar.  At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.

1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Photograph of PBS coverage)Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today.  The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams.  The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.

Beyonce leaving the inauguration, where she performed the national anthem (Photograph of PBS coverage)Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory.  Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.

2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.

Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings.  Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged.  In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.

Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people.  Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain?  At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.

3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern.  Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national  prosperity will follow.

President Obama delivering his inaugural address (Photograph from PBS coverage)Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today.  President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein.  It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean?  For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish.  Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry.  When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.

4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.

The Capitol as seen from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2013 (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life.  David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise.  We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these.  But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government?  Are these the interests that need protecting?  American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not.  The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive.  As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.

5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.

 The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion.  Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military.  The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party.  The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.

The president looks back on the Inaugural crowd (Photograph of PBS coverage)