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.

1913: A Beginning More Modern Than Intended

Troops marching into Washington for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)
A hundred years ago today, excitement gripped Washington, as crowds flooded the capital in anticipation of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the next day.

Wilson’s swearing-in marked an unlooked-for turn in American politics.  As an intellectual, a Democrat, and a Southerner, he promised to introduce a national tone quite different than what the US had been used to under his Republican predecessor, William Taft.  Wilson’s election was a heady coup for the Democrats, whose victory owed much to divisions within the Republican Party, which had split apart into conservative and progressive wings, aligned around Taft and Theodore Roosevelt respectively.

1913preparations

Wilson, who strove to present himself as a reformer and people’s champion, understood the value of publicity.  Preparations for his inaugural were elaborate and included a kind of triumphal procession toward Washington beginning from his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia.  Every aspect of the undertaking was heavily publicized, including the stringing of electric lights along Pennsylvania Avenue, which was breathtakingly modern at the time.

Pennsylvania Avenue strung with lights for Wilson's inauguration (Courtesy Library of Congress)

1913inauglights-level

There was just one complication Wilson hadn’t given much thought to.  His idea of political progress didn’t include the ladies, who he believed shouldn’t vote, lest they become “unsexed” and manly.  So, for months, mainly beyond his consciousness, a feminine maelstrom of discontent had been brewing.

Captains of the women's suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr))

A young college graduate named Alice Paul and her fellow activists were intent on organizing a vast suffrage parade, to take place in the capital on March 3, the day before Wilson’s inauguration, stealing his thunder and symbolically following the same route to power as he.

After three months of frantic planning, Paul and her committee had raised $14,908.06 in funds (at a time when the average yearly wage was $621), mobilized thousands of like-minded women all over the country, and laid the groundwork for a parade with floats, delegations, and an allegorical pageant to be performed on the steps of the Treasury Building.

Women en route to the suffrage parade (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Women from all over donned protest garb and walked, rode, and sailed to take part in the great Woman Suffrage Parade.  There were delegations from Europe, marchers from places like Chicago, Oklahoma, New York, and Ohio, and women from all walks of life.  They bore colorful banners and distributed lavishly expensive programs trumpeting the day’s official proceedings.

suffrageprogram

In the hours before the commencement of the parade, the capital’s streets became choked with people, as skeptical men and more than 5,000 female demonstrators and their allies arrived.

Police were unprepared to deal with the dense masses of spectators and protestors.  Authorities viewed the effort dismissively.  They had not planned to clear the streets, imagining that the sidewalks would suffice for a ladies’ parade.  The streetcars were still running, as pandemonium brewed.

Pandemonium before the suffrage parade

Finally, the streets were cleared and the parade began.  The suffragettes marched several blocks unimpeded, but gradually men began surging into the street, making it almost impossible for the women to pass.  The mood turned ugly and openly insulting.  Marchers struggled to get past the hecklers, their path reduced to a single file.  The men were emboldened by the police, who refused to protect the marchers and instead joined in their humiliation.  Helen Keller, who was among the marchers, found the experience profoundly enervating and exhausting.  Nearly 100 of the marchers were hospitalized.

The chief of police, realizing too late how he had miscalculated, called on Secretary of War Harold Stimson to send out an infantry regiment to restore order and control the crowd.  In the wake of the Congressional inquiries that followed, that police chief would lose his job.

Wilson’s arrival in town was barely noticed that day.  His inauguration, though orderly, was eclipsed by the more truly electrifying Suffrage Parade.  The bold strategies of Alice Paul and her sisters succeeded brilliantly, breathing new life into women’s quest for the vote, a goal they would finally achieve in 1920.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Good News? A Dollar Can’t Vote

LBJ signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr and others look on (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

As Election Day dawns, final tallies of money spent on the 2012 campaign are appearing.  In a country where a dollar is sometimes taken as a measure of all things, it’s worth remembering that these billions have been expended in the hope of bending the great will that collectively lies with the American people.

That’s right, fellow citizens: at the end of the campaign, it all comes down to you.  The special interests, the media, the national parties, the consultants: in the end they’re all equally powerless.  It’s up to you to get out and vote today.  Ignore the cynics: your action—no matter where you live—is an expression of power that remains awesome and singular.  No matter who has the money or how it’s spent, the voter’s mind and heart are where power lives.

So get out and exercise your power today: vote for the best men and women, and may the best of them win!

Image: Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on, from this source.