Friday, February 25, 2011

Early Civil Rights

During and after the Civil War, Republicans worked to guarantee civil rights for Black Americans. Even though “states rights” was the cry from the South, it really meant the right to slavery, Black Codes, segregation and institutional discrimination.

With the elections of 1860 and 1864, Republicans gained a firm control of the federal government.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. This more clearly defined the objective of the war and represented a major step toward total abolition of slavery. In addition, it turned foreign popular opinion in favor of the Union because both England and France had eliminated slavery in the previous decades on moral grounds.

In 1864 Republicans passed several civil rights laws. They equalized pay for soldiers in the military, be they white or black. They repealed the Fugitive Slave Law with almost unanimous opposition of northern Democrats.

The new Freedmen’s Bureau distributed medicine, food, and clothing and supervised captured Confederate lands.

The Republican party platform of 1864 called for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery completely. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, they knew that if they lost legislative power, slavery could once again be instituted.

Congress passed this 13th Amendment even before the war was over. All 118 Republicans voted for it. Of the 82 Democrats, only 19 voted to end slavery. That was merely 23%.

To commemorate the passing of this amendment, Congress (only Republican members, Democrats would not join) asked Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, a Black preacher, to deliver a sermon in the House.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 defined Blacks as U.S. citizens and promised them “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property,”

Johnson, our Democrat president, vetoed this bill, but Congress passed it over the veto.

Knowing that southerners would bring a court challenge to this bill, Republicans moved to make it permanent with the 14th Amendment.

Former Confederate Rebels were not allowed to vote unless they swore an oath of allegiance to the U.S. and an oath to respect civil rights of Black Americans; many refused and, therefore, the Republican party was the main party for several years.

The 1866 midterm election sent 2/3 Republican majority to each house and within a year, Blacks were registering to vote. Southern Republican legislatures protected voting rights, prohibited segregation, established public education, opened public transportation, State police, schools, etc. to Black Americans.

Many Blacks were elected to state legislatures. Of the first 632 Black State Representatives, all of them were Republicans. The Blacks and the Republicans were dedicated to equal, civil rights for all.

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At 8:01 AM, Anonymous Jim Rapp said...


This piece pulls me back to a period of our history that is fraught with contradictions and confusion. In my view, while the ultimate result of the war, i.e. freeing the slaves and starting Blacks on the path to relative equality in our society, was a good thing, there were few real saints in the struggle. Sadly, we humans often commit our greatest atrocities while engaged in fighting our “holiest” wars. I guess it is because we have to psyche ourselves into believing the opponent is the very expression of evil before we can bring ourselves to kill him/her.

I’m not the first to wonder what history would have concluded about Abraham Lincoln if he had lived to oversee the aftermath of the war. Before the war began, during his debates with Douglas, I believe, he had expressed the opinion that ending slavery was secondary to saving the union, and some historians argue that he only decided to issue the Emancipation Proclamation because he was convinced that doing so would increase the popularity of the war at home (in the North) and abroad. He seemed not to believe that blacks could ever function equally with whites and even spearheaded a movement to re-establish them in Liberia Africa. Lincoln was often at odds with the radical Republicans, as they called themselves, and vetoed several of their proposals. His instructions to his generals regarding treatment of the South as the war wound down was, “Let ‘em up easy.” (I smile when I think of that phrase coming, very likely, from his own childhood when he was renowned to have been a great wrestler. I learned, when wrestling with my brothers, that if I “let ‘em up easy” there was less likelihood that they would jump me again when I turned my back.)

It is my guess that if Lincoln had lived he would have pushed for a very conciliatory policy toward the Confederates and would thus have split the Republican party into warring factions. It was, even in his own time, divided among the radicals, the conservatives, and the liberals. What the fate of blacks would have been under a less vengeful treatment of Southerners I can’t even guess but probably they would not have gained the things they have ultimately gotten. Would Lincoln himself have been impeached by the radical Republicans? Very likely. Sometimes the best thing that can happen to a politician’s reputation is to get shot before his whole career has played out. Witness John Kennedy, who was reviled during his run for the Presidency and in his first years as much as Barach Obama is now, but is now quoted approvingly by Conservatives and Liberals alike. How we love dead heroes!

Thanks for an interesting and well written piece. You keep me thinking.


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