The Unfinished Work

Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I think he meant that circumstances change over time, but today’s issues sound like past issues.

My wife and I recently returned from a nine-day tour of Civil War sites. Our trip included the battlefields of Manassas (Bull Run), Fredericksburg, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Gettysburg. Antietam is still the bloodiest one-day battle in American history, where close to 25,000 died. Gettysburg is the deadliest three-day battle in American history, where over 40,000 soldiers lost their lives. By comparison, 2,500 American soldiers died on D-Day. We don’t know the total number of soldiers’ deaths in the Civil War, but educated guesses range from 620,000 to 850,000, almost more than the total deaths from all the other wars America has fought in. And if you look at total casualties in the Civil War (those killed, wounded, captured, and missing), estimates soar to 1.5 million. So taking the lower estimate of deaths of 620,000, those deaths equaled two percent of the entire population of the United States at the time. Proportionately, that would equal six million based on today’s population.

Sadly, I wonder if those deaths were somewhat in vain. The significant Civil War issues of slavery, equality, and state rights existed among the Founding Fathers and continue today, despite a civil war fought to decide them.

Let’s look at each issue of slavery, equality, and states rights and see how much progress we have made over the past two hundred years.

Slavery

America’s great paradox is how a nation founded on the principle of “all men are created equal” could allow slavery to continue for almost a hundred years. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words in the Declaration of Independence, is perhaps the most outstanding example of that paradox. He wrote those hallowed words and produced other important documents urging the end of slavery, yet in 1800, he counted as family eleven free whites and 93 enslaved people, two of whom were his own children. In 1772, Jefferson owned about 200 enslaved people, making Jefferson the second-largest slaveholder in his county.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention from several states wanted slavery abolished. But it became clear that if slavery remained an issue, the states would never agree on a new form of government. So, to ensure getting a new constitution, the delegates kicked the slavery issue down the road. We are all familiar with the infamous compromise in the Constitution for determining a state’s number of representatives in Congress. Northern states didn’t want to count enslaved people since they were merely property. Southern states wanted them counted to prevent disproportionate representation favoring the North. The convention ultimately agreed to count each black as three-fifths of a person.

Many Constitutional delegates opposed slavery on moral grounds but saw no practical way of ending it. And so, for the next 50 years, led by political leaders such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun, the country entered a series of compromises that kept the country together but delayed the ultimate resolution of the slavery issue. But as those willing to compromise died, the country became more polarized—similar to today’s politics.

In a four-way race, Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 with less than 40 percent of the vote. Although morally against slavery, he thought the Constitution prevented him from abolishing slavery in the states where it already existed. And so, his initial goal as President was to preserve the Union and prevent the spread of slavery into newly-created states.

He traveled by train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., for his first inauguration. But as he neared Baltimore, an undercover Pinkerton detective discovered a plot to kill the President before he could take office. A similar scheme took place recently when, on January 6, 2022, rioters stormed the Capitol to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as our new President. President Lincoln disguised himself, changed routes, and snuck into the Capitol to avoid the plot. How ironic that the President had to employ methods used by the Underground Railroad to evade his pursuers.  

In Lincoln’s first inaugural address, he tried one last time to appease the Southern states: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He then hoped the “better angels of our nature” would realize the value and importance of preserving the Union.

But his words fell on deaf ears. The day after his address, the South demanded federal troops evacuate all federal facilities in the South. Then, a few weeks later, the South fired on Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began. 

The end of the war brought with it the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” But a close reading of the language reveals a loophole. The prohibition against slavery does not apply to anyone convicted of a crime.

The documentary 13th[i] argues the government has effectively continued slavery by “law and order” policies that have disproportionately incarcerated people of color. Here is a clip from the film that compiles “13 truths” supporting the movie’s premise:

Although slavery does not exist in the same form as before the Civil War, if you are a felon, an abused spouse, or a young person trapped in human trafficking, you would consider yourself enslaved.

Equality

Most of the country’s early leaders, even those who opposed slavery, did not consider blacks equal to whites. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments of both mind and body.” In his autobiography, Jefferson wrote: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than these people are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”

Abraham Lincoln had a similar opinion. During one of his debates with Stephen Douglas, he said:

“I am not now, nor ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not now, nor ever been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. And I will say, in addition to this, there is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will ever forbid the two races from living on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they remain together, there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Thankfully, Lincoln’s opinion started to change when he became more familiar with black individuals such as Frederick Douglass. Still, his statement in the Douglass debate was typical of the feelings of most whites at the time.

After the assassination of President Lincoln and the failure of Reconstruction, states began passing laws that became known as Jim Crow laws. And segregation became the rule, especially in the South. But it was more than just where you could sit on a bus or what drinking fountain you used. States in the North as well as the South, and even the federal government, instigated laws, policies, and practices that discriminated against people of color in housing, lending, employment, voting, education, and employment.

In the film, A Raisin in the Sun,[ii] Walter Lee Younger (played by Sidney Portier) and his family have lived in the same small Chicago apartment for years. Then, using part of an insurance payment, Younger’s mother buys a small home in a predominantly white neighborhood. In this scene, the head of the HOA of their new community offers to buy their new house from them, asking the Youngers, “Wouldn’t you be happier living with your own kind?”

A hundred years after the Civil War, people of color were still fighting for equality. Finally, in the 1960s, laws began to change, but not until after years of demonstrations, marches, and protests.

States Rights

The Founding Fathers constantly battled over what the new federal government should look like. Washington, Adams, and Hamilton argued that a strong central government was necessary if the states were to be united. They used the ineffective Articles of Confederation as Exhibit A to their arguments. Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe saw it differently. A strong federal government would most assuredly lead to another monarchy like the one from which the colonies had just declared independence. Therefore, Jefferson considered all domestic policy off-limits to the federal government. He equated the federal government to a “foreign power” that had no authority to legislate for the states. Thus, only the states, not Washington, D.C., had the power to regulate slavery in the existing states. To help firm up Jefferson’s position, Madison, when authoring the Bill of Rights, included the ninth one—that the states retained all powers other than those specifically delegated to the federal government.

Based on that principle, the Southern states saw no prohibition to their secession from the Union. And even after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, the states still claimed the power to discriminate. In this scene from Selma,[iii] the state of Alabama is determined to prevent any change in their Jim Crow society:

We continue to battle over states’ rights. Thus, for example, many states have passed new laws on abortion that are in direct contravention of the constitutional standard of Roe v. Wade. We have states passing more restrictive voting laws, which depending on what side of the argument you are on, either prevent people of color from voting or preserve fair elections. And you have the governor of Texas “at war” with the President of the United States over immigration.

At Gettysburg, we stood where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address, commemorating a portion of the battlefield as our first national cemetery. Despite anyone’s political beliefs, the words are profound and inspiring. I close with the final part of that address:

“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we can take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Whether we prefer a strong federal government or preserving power to the states, all can agree that slavery, in whatever form, must be abolished. And equality of opportunity should be our nation’s standard, regardless of one’s skin color. So let’s take Lincoln’s challenge and finish that work.


[i] 13th:

  • Production Companies: Forward Movement, Kandoo Films, and Netflix
  • Director: Ava DuVernay
  • Screenwriters: Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay
  • Starring: Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, and Cory Booker
  • Release date: October 7, 2016

[ii] Raisin in the Sun:

  • Production Company: Columbia Pictures
  • Director: Daniel Petrie
  • Screenwriter: Lorraine Hansberry
  • Starring: Sidney Portier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Lee
  • Release date: May 18, 1961

[iii] Selma:

  • Production Companies: Pathé, Harpo Films, and Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Ava DuVernay
  • Screenwriter: Paul Webb
  • Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Oprah Winfrey
  • Release date: January 9, 2015

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