On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence. The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head. Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.
It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before. Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.
This drawing from 1868 remains powerful. It captures the virulent hatred of southern whites toward blacks (their former “property”) just after the South was defeated in the Civil War. Because the South had given its all in defense of slaveholding, Southern defeat, coupled with the federal government’s freeing of the slaves, triggered a rage and resentment that still boils in some segments of the white population.
During the Civil War, the free part of the nation defeated the rebel states. Beyond that, though, the free part of the nation rejected and discredited the ideas that the South’s slave-holding society had embraced. The Northern states, which controlled the federal government, warred against these ideas, defeating and ostracizing them, while protecting liberated slaves and taking numerous steps to outlaw slavery and rectify its wrongs. The world the slaveholders made, which justified black enslavement by asserting whites’ natural superiority, was lost.
A value system at odds with the principle of natural equality: this is what the rebels lost in the 1860s, and what their descendants and admirers nostalgically pine for to the extent that they identify with the Lost Cause.
Of course, some Southerners were capable of shrugging their shoulders and moving on. For most white Southerners, though, the loss was mortifying. The consequences of losing were deeply humiliating and dire. People who owned slaves had believed in their slaves’ native inferiority. This supposed inferiority was the intellectual defense relied on to make slavery conscionable.
Furthermore, the belief that whites were naturally superior boosted the egos of all white southerners, most of whom were not wealthy and did not own slaves. If all whites were superior, all were part of the master class. The Civil War shattered this preposterous notion. The federal government intervened militarily, breaking up the South’s “peculiar institution,” and declaring that blacks were equal to whites.
For more than a decade after the Civil War, the federal government engaged in an extraordinary effort to protect liberated slaves and ensure their freedom and equality. The central figure in the drawing above represents the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that ran refugee camps for slaves during the war. The Bureau existed to protect newly freed slaves, to promote their well-being by providing shelter, food, and education.
For the times, Freedmen’s Bureau was an extraordinary welfare effort, but Southerners regarded it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into their affairs. The bureau’s work went forward amid whites’ open resentment and vituperation. The freedmen were freed, but now inhabited a fearsome milieu where the threat of violence, victimization, and re-enslavement was pervasive and real. A segment of the white population became intent on denying black equality, because to accept black equality was to equate whites’ worth with that of slaves.
Change the clothes and the architecture, and the drawing could pass for an expression of the race hatred, fear, and resentment still roiling the US today. The tragedy of slavery in the States far surpassed the terrible trauma it inflicted on the enslaved population. Nor did the tragedy end when the Confederates surrendered. It was not over when every slave was free nor when slavery was formally abolished. Even when black Americans were granted equal rights on paper, it still did not end. In the 1960s, when civil rights activists ended racial segregation and battled Jim Crow, when the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act and instated other protections, mighty progress was made. And yet the tragedy of racism and racial prejudice endures.