““A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858, speech to Republican Illinois State Convention delegates at 8PM.
This quote is drawn from one of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, surpassed only by the Gettysburg Address in November 1863 and the Second Inaugural in March 1865. It is also the most prophetic pronouncement ever given by America’s greatest President, perhaps by any American President. As he predicted, the “House” of America could not continue so divided as it had become since 1783, when it had won its independence. Not until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, did the official division of the House end.
However, the course of American history since 1865 demonstrates that the political, social, and economic roots of division are still deeply embedded in the fabric of American culture and society. Racism and class divisions cannot be erased by any law or whole gaggle of laws, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act or any subsequent legislation.
From its beginning, the United States institutionalized racism in its constitution. For the next 76 years it remained there with the official acceptance of African slavery within the very fabric of the nation’s foundation. The agitation and bitterness and roiling dissension it gradually caused among the regions, North and South, East and West, as the nation overran the southern half of North America was never far below the surface. The North resented it and proceeded to eliminate slavery from its states, while the South became more and more anchored in its dependence on its “peculiar institution”.
As new territories and states were added, the rivalry to maintain a precarious balance between “free soil” and “slave soil” became increasingly ideological and theological. The outworking of this animosity became more and more hostile and violent until, in 1854, Kansas Territory erupted in a full-blown rehearsal for the coming Civil War. The hatred spilled over into Congress on May 22, 1856, when hate- and rage-filled South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks almost killed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate by caning him as the Senator was giving a speech denouncing South Carolina Senator Butler’s role in the violence in Kansas. Sumner was in critical condition before Brooks was disarmed and forcibly dragged out. He was fully six months in convalescence.
The 1860 Presidential race was focused on one issue – slavery and its spread throughout the country. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1854 had opened the door for slavery to infiltrate the hitherto Free States. For a majority of northern voters, this was a bridge too far. The Republican Presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, was the only candidate clearly committed to ending the spread of slavery. So far gone were things that the Southern State electoral authorities refused to even put Lincoln’s name on the ballot, falsely labeling him a flaming abolitionist.
Many of the slave states said that if Lincoln were elected they would secede. Despite all the anti-democratic actions, the hate-language, and the hand-wringing and dire warnings of northern Democrats over Lincoln’s “radicalism” threatening to dismantle the country, northern voters, thoroughly disgusted with the Southern domination of the Executive and the Courts, elected Lincoln in every free state, giving him victory in the Electoral College despite his illegal exclusion from the ballot in the South.
Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861 in Washington, after having had to travel through slave-state Maryland incognito under multiple death threats. By that point, seven slave-states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America on February 8, 1861. By April, the “Confederacy” would encompass eleven states.
The Civil War which erupted with the Confederate bombardment on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861 would last until May 26, 1865. In human terms, there were 750 000 military deaths, more than all American military deaths in the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined. There is no reliable number given for civilian deaths by “collateral damage”, but we can be sure that the total dead, military and civilian, were well over a million in four years of horrendous carnage. The total population of the US in 1861 was 18.5 million in the North, 5.5 million whites and 3.5 million slaves in the South, and 2.5 million 0.5 million slaves in the border states for a total of about 31 million.
As the war dragged on with an every higher “butcher’s bill” piling up, Lincoln became morally convinced and religiously convicted that it would not end until “every drop of blood shed by the (slave-plantation and workshop) Overseer’s lash” had been paid for by the blood of the free population of both North and South. He had come to see the war as an expiation for all the unresolved sins and failures of the Founding Fathers in not dealing with the most glaring violations of the solemnly affirmed foundational values right at the start.
Who’s to say that Lincoln was not right? His plan for the post-war was framed around justice and reconciliation to ensure the South would not be driven to desperation and into further retrenchment in resentment and bitterness by a vengeful and triumphant North. Tragically for his family and his country, his noble life was cut short by a southern-sympathizing big-name actor and ideological fanatic named John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865 as the President was relaxing with his wife taking in a light comedy at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. His vision for national reconciliation and the cleansing of the nation’s racist sins so it could move into the future in a new and more generous spirit died with him.
The administration which ensued was governed by the revenge-minded Republican-controlled Congress. The South was treated like a beaten foe. When “Reconstruction” ended in 1877 and northern troops withdrew, the North’s financiers, industrialists, and commercial exploiters were happy to reap huge fiscal benefits from the South and ignore the violations of human and constitutional rights as the old white dominance by white supremacists returned to power. The newly emancipated Blacks were reduced to virtual serfdom as the northern business plutocrats quickly reverted to “business as usual”, choosing to look the other way as African Americans were systematically cheated and deprived of the rights that had been recognized as theirs by law and Constitution.[i]
Thus, while Lincoln had sought to set right the failures of the Revolution and had understood that the war had been the result of those failures, he believed that, at the same time, it had given the country a second chance, an opportunity for “a new birth of freedom” as he put it in his Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest political speeches of all time. With his assassination, the dead President’s charitable magnanimity evaporated in the red-fury which followed. The opportunity was wasted and the Revolutionary reset of the Civil War failed to take.
Thus we are left with the long, suffering road to today. The American Revolution remains incomplete. The bitter fruit of the Sins of the Fathers are still being visited on a nation still embroiled at its tortured heart. The original racist infection festers and has metastasized in numerous tendrils of intolerance. Unhappily, some of the most ardent and bitter rival factions claim that they stand for the true values of the God Lincoln had come to believe was intimately concerned with bringing America through its great crisis. Lincoln had aimed to guide America into a true and final understanding of its place in the world as a beacon of hope and liberty and true equality among all its peoples from all their origins. It would be fair to say that Mr. Lincoln would be very hard-pressed to recognize much of his vision still living among significant portions of the zealots now calling themselves “true American patriots”.
[i] One might be forgiven for seeing similarities with how whole global regions have been treated by American and Western capitalists since World War 2.