Reflections on the Spirit of Independence

Declaration_independenceI admit it.  I’m a bit of a history nerd.

Make that an American history nerd.  It’s difficult for me to get interested in the ancient history of Old Europe or the Greeks or the Roman Empire.  For me, it’s a matter of direct effect.  Although American society has its foundation atop the successful and advanced societies that preceded, it’s difficult for those ancient predecessors to elicit an excitement in me that overshadows the more recent authors of purely American success.

But that’s just me …

What really holds my fascination whenever I take the opportunity to reflect on our earliest American history is the foresight and fortitude demonstrated by our Founding Fathers, and the difficult and sordid compromises they made to bring to fruition a tenuous but entirely necessary experiment in Independence from tyranny.

In 1776, an eclectic collection of leaders, renown primarily within their regional communities, met for a second time in Philadelphia.  (The first Continental Congress met in 1774.)  They brought with them the depth and breadth of institutions, economics, religious beliefs, and governing philosophies prominent where they lived to Philadelphia in order to argue and decide the fate of British colonies chafing under the capricious actions of rulers residing a full ocean away.

These men were far from perfect.  Some held some views on women and slavery that many – living now – would characterize as appallingly backward or downright inhumane.  Some of them surely recognized – or at least refused to confront – their conflicted positions on the Equality of all Men, while themselves holding men in slavery.  And in the end, we like to think their better angels had no choice but to kick several very large cans of worms into the future.  These cans or worms required generations to resolve.  The biggest unresolvable issue – Slavery – eventually demanded the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands 85 years later in a civil war that threatened to tear apart a still fragile Union.

These compromises they made because they were blessed with a yearning that rendered one choice paramount to all irreconcilable differences …

Independence from England …. Freedom from oppressive rulers!

What I find most fascinating of all is that this Second Continental Congress was successful at all!

Think of the mindsets that drove a loose collection of men from geographically extended colonies with no standing army or navy; rife with regional differences; and faced with moral shortcomings that differed not just on Equality, but the actual definition of Man to slap the insolent glove of challenge across the face of the largest and strongest empire that existed on Earth at the time!

Battle_of_Guiliford_Courthouse_15_March_1781Yes, they were fallible; and perhaps they were morally weak by today’s standards.  But they were also the social and political elite, who in the end had the most to lose if the insurrection failed.  Many of them would have been hunted down and killed, and their families as well.  Their property scattered among the triumphant British generals, if the miracle of victory was not somehow accomplished.

When I read about those days in the latter stages of the 1700s, I like to think that the stronger minds that were present knew that what they were putting into motion was an imperfect solution to an unavoidable problem.  That their only choice was a somewhat soiled compromise to accomplish a greater good.

They had faith that an initial success, no matter how unlikely to succeed against a well-trained British military, would allow for growth and an abiding strength for future generations to tackle the problems they could not resolve when forming a less perfect Union.  If they did think that way, they were prescient, even if those changes came by way of dramatic sacrifice and untold sufferings.

The image that comes to me this year on Independence Day is a fanciful look back through these 238 years into that hot, stuffy room in Philadelphia.  In that moment those brave men can also see the progress, the obstacles, the conflicts, and the sacrifices that have been experienced and overcome; and what those efforts have wrought.  They can see exactly how far their not-so-little experiment has grown.

At either ends of this fantastic time tunnel, both groups stand 238 years apart and in absolute awe of each other.

Enjoy your 4th of July!


Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Jon Meacham)

Thomas Jefferson 3rd President of the United States

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President of the United States

Jon Meacham‘s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the fourth book of his I have read.

Meacham makes history easy to read for even the most casual fan of U.S. history.  His management of theme through the issues of the day and the personality of the subject helps the reader see a broader picture of a man like Thomas Jefferson.

His approach to describing in overview the important events and critical issues; developments and solutions that evolved; giving the reader the essential insights without bogging down in a load of minutia.  Meacham’s works are thoroughly footnoted, which helps the real history junkie decide where they might like to do more in-depth reading or research.

The American Revolution, and the birth of the country which followed is a favorite subject of mine.  Of particular interest is the collection of men that came together in challenging times to take a dangerous stand against England; risking life and property for Liberty; then steering a course towards constitutional government that resulted in a Republic now over two centuries old.

These men were the wealthiest, most educated, and most successful in the American colonies.  But …

These men were not perfect.  They had their flaws.  Yet they came together and created a politically complex national union out of disparate regions and competing interests in such a way that enabled growth; promoted its survival through the tests of time; and allowed it to emerge from the crucibles of several dramatic – even catastrophic – national and international crises as an even stronger nation.

George Washington appointed Jefferson  the first U.S. Secretary of State

George Washington appointed Jefferson
the first U.S. Secretary of State

Thomas Jefferson‘s contributions to the success of The Great American Experiment in the period between George Washington‘s inaugural as our first President and Jefferson own presidency (following John Adams) were – in my opinion – the most compelling .

Citizens with a casual appreciation for American history might believe that once the U.S. Constitution was ratified as the Law of the Land, the Forefathers simply finger-skimmed the honored document whenever a question of function or politics arose.  But The Constitution was but a “blueprint” with many operational and philosophical issues undefined or at the very least open to all manner of nuance and interpretation.

Thomas Jefferson was one of those flawed individuals that rose to play a prominent role in taking that constitutional blueprint and – if I can stretch an analogy – installing the wiring and plumbing that allowed the Government to relate as best as possible to the People it would govern.  It was a herculean task that required the input and at times the nastiest of opposition between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to negotiate a national vision from contending philosophies of governance.

Jefferson was a study in contradictions throughout his personal life and public service.

Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings

1.  He was a man who passionately subscribed to the concept of Individual Liberty.  He made several attempts early in his public career to advance the concept of slave emancipation in the Virginia colony.  He provided insights for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen via the Marquis de Lafayette, which became the central theme of the French Revolution; and he fought hard against John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts.

Yet he continued to own slaves; using one – Sally Hemings – as a concubine; and went so far as to maintain their offspring as slaves until they turned age 21 or until his death in 1826.

2.  As a member of Washington’s first American government, serving as its first Secretary of State, Jefferson fought aggressively with fellow Democratic-Republican James Madison to counter the Federalist’s efforts (Led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.) to create a strong national government with a singularly powerful Chief Executive.  Jefferson was fearful that such a strong centralized authority, with the prospects for close ties with Great Britain, would eventually whittle away at individual liberties.

James Madison Fellow Democratic-Republican

James Madison
Fellow Democratic-Republican

However, when he served as President himself, he found a way to expand the powers of the presidency in order to take full advantage of a French proposal to effectively double the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.

3.  Jefferson was an accomplished author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America (a list of grievances against King George III), The Declaration of Independence, and as contributor to the French Constitution.

But he wrote only one published book in his life, Notes on the State of Virginia.  And he was not much of a public speaker for such a renown politician and communicator!

Meacham’s primary theme emphasizes that in his quest for power, that he wanted for the good he felt he could accomplish, Jefferson was a practical politician.  He had his ideologies, his strongly held positions.  But Jefferson believed in “limited government” only to the extent that it was practicable.  If he thought a more expansive government was the better option in the best interests of the country (e.g. Jefferson’s quick actions to accept and ratify the Louisiana Purchase), he held no qualms about pushing the National Government’s reach and authority.

In the end, both the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans enjoyed a mixed success influencing the path of The Grand Experiment.  As bad as contentions grew in the early years of the Republic, it was clear both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were advocating what they believed was best for The Country.

One can only hope the current crop in Washington, D.C. feels the same way for all the right reasons.  They certainly give you reason to question their over-arching objectives

A very cool John Adams

A very cool John Adams

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed the opposing poles of American political thought from 1790 to 1809, when Jefferson left the presidency.  They were close friends at one point, including Jefferson’s pleasant plutonic relationship with Abigail Adams; strong allies during the colonial confrontations with Britain; friends and co-commissioners to Europe (along with Ben Franklin) for the infant U.S.; and then nasty political opposites during those formative years of the constitutional republic.

They served as consecutive Presidents, then went to their separate corners of the country after leaving office.  They eventually renewed their friendship years later with frequent letters.  And on July 4, 1826 – coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the issuance of The Declaration of Independence – within hours of each other, first John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson shook lose their mortal coils and left the rest of the work on the grand experiment to later generations of Americans.

Other interesting aspects of Thomas Jefferson learned from Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power:

  • Jefferson received his early inspiration for public life and politics at the age of 22, when he heard Patrick Henry give his treasonous Stamp Act speech in opposition to British taxation.
  • Jefferson’s term as Governor of Virginia changed his view on the use of authority.  His oft criticized indecisiveness and timidity during the British invasion of the colony in 1780 were also valuable lessons in leadership and government.

    Patrick Henry gives his Stamp Act speech

    Patrick Henry gives his
    Stamp Act speech

  • Jefferson was derisively referred to as “the negro president” by opposing Federalists, who disliked the congressional advantage Virginia and the other southern states enjoyed due to the 3/5 clause on The Constitution.
  • It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to finally confirm Thomas Jefferson as the 3rd U.S. President.  (Electoral College ties, which go to the House of Representatives, were common early in the Republic.)
  • Jefferson may have been the earliest President subject to an assassination plot (December 1804), although no overt attempt was actually made.
  • He requested just three of his accomplishments be etched upon his gravestone:  The Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, and Founder of the University of Virginia.

    Memorial marker at Jefferson's Monticello gravesite

    Memorial marker at Jefferson’s
    Monticello gravesite

  • Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter when he summoned her to France during his ambassadorship there.  By French law, as soon as she stepped foot in France Hemings was a free person.  Jefferson convinced her to return with him to America (additional evidence of their relationship) by negotiating an agreement with her that ensured eventual freedom for their offspring.
  • Philly Connection:  Jefferson leased a house from Thomas Leiper, a merchant and politician, at 274 High Street in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia when he served in the then nation’s capital as Secretary of State under George Washington.
The real John Adams

The real John Adams

Interesting Jefferson quotes …

  • Jefferson’s oft quoted words on fertilizing the Tree of Liberty was written in a letter to John Adams in comment on British criticism of U.S. instability in the wake of Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which erupted over early financial difficulties in the infant U.S.

” … what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

  • Jefferson’s famous position on the separation of Church and State came from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Ceaderbrook, Connecticut as they planned to celebrate religious liberty.

“Believing as you do that religion is a matter between Man and his God, that he owes account to no one for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions. I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

  • Jefferson loved the use of guns for hunting and sport, and recognized their importance in defending Home and Homeland.

“I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercise of the gun.”

  • Finally, Jefferson felt that  the U.S. Constitution was a worthy effort as imperfect as the brave men who declared independence in ’76.  But he was much dismayed by the lack of a bill of rights in the original version.  Still he saw hope for the good conscience of the American people.

“If they approve the proposed Convention in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in the hopes that they will amend it whenever they find it work wrong.”


As you enjoy your 4th of July holiday …

… Remember the sacrifices paid to keep this country, its citizens, its future citizens, its traditions free from tyranny and oppression.

Of course the reason we will all be enjoying the Jersey shore, our National Parks, picnics, fireworks and apple pie is the anniversary of another year of The Grand Experiment, where a collection of 13 former British colonies took the first step towards forming a government “… by the people , for the people…”.

“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty . . is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”  – George Washington

Thirteen years before Washington spoke those words in his first inaugural speech, fifty-six brave men put their names to a document – The Declaration of Independence – that gave birth to a new country at the risk of their own lives and the success of a rebellion against a powerful European ruler.  In 1776, these men dared Great Britain to defy their pledge to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

And on that very same date – exactly 50 years later – in 1826 both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third elected Presidents to serve and protect this Grand Experiment succumbed to age and died within hours of each other.  In 1831 James Monroe, the 5th U.S. President also passed away.

Today, July 3 marks the anniversary of the high-water mark of the Southern Confederacy’s failed efforts to secede from the Union and enslave African people on plantations and in commerce throughout the South.  On this day in 1863, General James Longstreet’s corps, under the command of General Robert E. Lee and led into battle by General George Pickett reached the zenith of the Confederacy’s attack on Northern soil on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  At a place known as The Angle Pickett’s Charge marked the ebb of the South’s attempt to force an end to The Civil War by threatening Northern cities and eventually the capital, Washington, D.C..

During the charge approximately 4000 Americans were killed or wounded.  The Battle of Gettysburg claimed roughly 35,000 killed and wounded.

The following day, the 87th anniversary of the signing of The Declaration of Independence, the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi under the command of Lt. General John C. Pemberton surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of Tennessee after a six-week siege of the city.  3200 Americans were killed or wounded during the siege.

The one-two punch of Gettysburg and Vicksburg formed a recognizable turning point in the American Civil War as Northern industrial might and an overwhelming population advantage formed an insurmountable barrier to future attempts by the South to force a political capitulation from the North.  And although the war dragged on for almost two more years, the South never really threatened the North again.

And finally on July 4, 1944 ….

Private First Class William K. Nakamura distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 4 July 1944, near Castellina, Italy. During a fierce firefight, Private First Class Nakamura’s platoon became pinned down by enemy machine gun fire from a concealed position. On his own initiative, Private First Class Nakamura crawled 20 yards toward the hostile nest with fire from the enemy machine gun barely missing him. Reaching a point 15 yards from the position, he quickly raised himself to a kneeling position and threw four hand grenades, killing or wounding at least three of the enemy soldiers. The enemy weapon silenced, Private First Class Nakamura crawled back to his platoon, which was able to continue its advance as a result of his courageous action.

Later, his company was ordered to withdraw from the crest of a hill so that a mortar barrage could be placed on the ridge. On his own initiative, Private First Class Nakamura remained in position to cover his comrades’ withdrawal. While moving toward the safety of a wooded draw, his platoon became pinned down by deadly machine gun fire. Crawling to a point from which he could fire on the enemy position, Private First Class Nakamura quickly and accurately fired his weapon to pin down the enemy machine gunners. His platoon was then able to withdraw to safety without further casualties. Private First Class Nakamura was killed during this heroic stand. Private First Class Nakamura’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army.

Private First Class Nakamura was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

And so, as you enjoy your holiday, your friends, your family … REMEMBER what it has meant to those who have sacrificed for all of us!

On Bravery, Honor and Commitment at Gettysburg

My eldest son and I just spent a day-and-a-half exploring the Battlefield at Gettysburg, PA.  This was a very typical Guys Weekend, doing the things we enjoy or simply find interesting and provocative.  We spent Saturday in Washington, D.C. witnessing the Phillies lose to the Nationals on our first visit to Nationals Park.  On Sunday we drove out to Gettysburg.

Historic-type excursions were not something we did much when the kids were young.  It’s difficult to justify dragging three children through an age-old battlefield when you’re the only one who finds it “interesting and provocative”.  The kids and the wife get bored; you feel rushed and more than a tad selfish; and it ends up not being a very enjoyable time for anyone.  Yet I was embarrassed by the fact that I had never visited Gettysburg, despite living in Pennsylvania my entire life.

Recently Mike Jr. started reading up on Civil War history; something I did somewhat intensely around 10 years ago.  Suddenly we had a new and fascinating subject on which we could talk and share opinions, insights, and information.  A few months ago, we agreed to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park together.

George Gordon Meade

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest land battle ever fought on the North American continent.  Fought during the Civil War, it was a major turning point in Abraham Lincoln’s heroic efforts to preserve the Union of the United States.  Over 165,000 men converged on Gettysburg in late June 1863 in a dance of movement and counter-movement with which both armies were well acquainted.

Although there were no plans to engage at Gettysburg (Jubal Early‘s Confederates had raided and left Gettysburg days earlier.), the vagaries of war, where many men under different commands spread out over a wide area, resulted in a dramatic confrontation that lasted three days.  All that was needed to set off the conflagration was the rumor that Gettysburg had a supply of shoes, a cherished commodity for the often shoeless men of the Southern Armies.

General George Gordon Meade led the Union’s Army of the Potomac despite having been promoted from his Corps command to replace General Joe Hooker just three days before the battle.

The combined engagements were the bloodiest of the Civil War.  Over 7000 men were killed, over 33,000 wounded.  And almost 11,000 were listed as missing or captured.  Yet despite fighting that surrounded a well established town of 2400 people, only one civilian was killed.  Mary Virginia Wade died when a stray shot ripped through the door of her sister’s house.

When we arrived at the National Park, we headed out to visit the sites of the first day’s battles, all the while reliving scenes from the well-known historically based movie Gettysburg.  When you begin to get an overview of the battleground, you begin to realize the size and scope of the event.  Those of us without military experience fail to appreciate how much ground is involved in a major military engagement.  The depth and breadth of space required to accommodate major armies is truly impressive.

George E. Pickett

But the true magnitude of what occurred in Gettysburg in that hot, humid July in 1863 does not hit home until you visit the sites of fighting that occurred on Day 2 and Day 3.

Since we were saving the bulk of the Day 2 fighting (particularly Little Round Top and Devils’ Den) for our second day, we decided to take the walking tour of Pickett’s Charge (also known as Longstreet’s Charge), as provided by a National Parks Ranger.  If you ever have the opportunity, this is a great way to get both an overview of events as well as insights into the small individual feats and personal stories that underscore the drama.

As we stood on Cemetery Ridge looking west towards Seminary Ridge you suddenly realize the difficulty of that final charge made by elements of Longstreet‘s First Corps (Pickett in charge with Andrews’ and Pettigrew’s Divisions).  Across roughly a mile of wide open ground, exposed to artillery and then musket fire along the entire route.

Nowhere to hide, few places to take cover, against Union forces behind low reinforced battlements on high ground with undisputed command of the field and unobstructed fields of fire.  The dedication, courage and sense of honor necessary to march into that Field of Death is – simply put – unimaginable!

James Longstreet

Regardless of your views on the Confederate struggle, you cannot help but be awestruck by the bravery demonstrated that day by those wearing the ragtag uniforms of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee.

At times I have found myself embroiled in heated discussion about the legitimacy of the South’s struggle. Not from the viewpoint of defending slavery, but in trying to place into perspective the role of everyday Southern farmers, artisans, college students, and back woods folk who did not own slaves themselves, but believed they were fighting to define their Right to Self-Determination.  Their allegiance was to their State as their Country at a time when the U.S. of A. was still trying to define itself as a Country of States.

Too many people want to boil it down to the preservation of slavery as the only motive behind The Civil War.  But that’s an over-simplification.  There were other issues at stake …  a strong centralized government vs. a weaker national presence in favor of strong, independent States; the economic interests of the agrarian South (slavery) in the face of a more populous, industrialized North; the Right of individual States to come and go as they chose, depending on their agreement with National policies and actions; and the State Nullification of Federal Laws when States disagreed or were disadvantaged by said laws.

Both sides in the conflict were pushed to war by fiery speeches and political posturing that portrayed “the other side” as threats to the existence of the other.  In the end, it was mostly the common man who paid the price on blood-soaked fields defending their homelands or in not-so-distant sister States.

Our second day was spent on a paid two-hour car tour led by an elderly gentleman named John Everude.  For a reasonable $65 (not including tip) we received an interesting and enthusiastic overview of the entire three-day battle as well as events leading up to the largest land battle on American soil.  This is well worth the price should you ever decide to visit Gettysburg.  (Reservations must be made at least three days prior to your visit.)

We spent the rest of the day exploring the sites of the Day 2 battles at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard.  We visited the site of the 20th Maine‘s heroic stand and bayonet charge down Little Round Top as made famous in the aforementioned movie, Gettysburg.

Joshua Chamberlain

When you walk and gaze upon a terrain broken by boulders the size of cars piled atop and massed together in the low-lying Slaughter Pen and along the heights of Devil’s Den, you acquire an appreciation for the hardships both sides faced as they struggled to control the far left segment of the Union line, as it was attacked by Longstreet’s Corps.

Mike and I marveled at the terrain held by the Joshua Chamberlain‘s 20th Maine and over which it executed its bayonet charge against John Bell Hood‘s 15th Alabama Regiment.  You cannot imagine how the 15th charged up that rugged hill, let alone how the 20th Maine could possibly have charged down it!

It’s only when you walk this ground that you realize it’s impossible to comprehend the Bravery needed to Honor one’s Commitment to Country and to comrades.  Yet these men did it to the ultimate betterment of us as a People and as a Country.

Friday musings …

  • The pictures and stories out of the Pacific Rim this morning are both frightening and awe-inspiring.  Nature in its most primal form is downright overwhelming.  Hopefully the people of Japan, familiar with and prepared for deep earth violence, will not suffer huge losses; will get all the necessary assistance they will need from the international community; and will bounce back quickly. 
  • Been checking in with my brother, who lives in Long Beach, CA, on the progress of the tsunami.  Was a bit apoplectic when he texted me saying he was sitting in the parking lot of the marina!  Fortunately at the time he had a few hours to kill before the lot might become a lake.      
  • Made The Philadelphia Inquirer Letters to the Editor on Wednesday with a message about Lincoln’s struggle with slavery.  Always nice to see one’s name in print!
  • Courtesy of Kim, who e-mailed me on the above letter … If you haven’t discovered The New York Times series Disunion, a day-by-day accounting of the news and reportings on The Civil War and the months building to Fort Sumter, you should check it out.  Any history nut would LOVE this retrospective.  I just started trying to catchup with the series that started in October, and already I’m hopelessly hooked!
  • Another neat website, stumbled upon via the NYT Disunion series, is this for the Architect of the Capitol.  The site provides virtual tours of D.C. buildings, a commemoration of Lincoln, and education on the National Hall’s collection of statuary.
  • The crocuses are popping through the chilly soil and our Phillies tickets arrived in the mail!  Spring must be right around the corner!!
  • My oldest son, a Millersville University student, sent me a Facebook message in semi-jest that he was going to bill his mother and me for the added costs on his future tuition because we supported Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s new governor, who announced significant reduction in education subsidies for the next state budget cycle.  Of course being the good liberal my son is, he neglected to mention that the only reason his recent college costs had been mitigated is the fact that education in the state had been subsidized by the stimulus packages granted by the federal government.  Since that financing is no longer available, Pennsylvania education subsidies are simply returning to 2008 levels.  My no-jest response was that he could deduct the costs from his drum corps bill, which was in the thousands for the three years he competed. 
  • By the way, he’s currently vacationing in Punta Cana.  And I’m sitting here … in chilly, wet Pennsylvania! 
  • After my recent rant about my inability to enjoy no boundaries, no limits jazz, I found it quite possible to enjoy Yusef Lateef’s album, Eastern Sounds.  Of course it did have a bit more in structure and boundaries than did Wynston Marsalis.

On this date in 1875 …

… President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875

This tends to surprise many people, even those who can refer to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, maybe even the Act of 1957.  But it’s a bit of a shock that Civil Rights was the topic of an act of Congress only ten years after the end of The Civil War.  Yet political and legal battles would be waged for almost another century before full civil rights law was established.   

The 1875 Act was written in an attempt to provide equal access to public accommodations such as restaurants, trains, theatres, etc.  The reason why so many have problems recognizing the earliest civil rights law was that it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1883.  Its rejection by the country’s highest court was based on the law’s lack of standing within the context of the 13th and 14th Amendments.  Fact is, in its eight-year existence the 1875 Act was rarely – if ever – enforced anyway. 

What is most telling to me, is the realization as early as the 1870s that only reliance upon national law held any potential for mitigating the heinous treatment of African-Americans, both pre-Civil War freemen and newly liberated slaves.  And that despite this realization, it would take another 89 years before full civil rights legislation was enacted.      

In 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 provided voting rights to black Americans in a way that was ineffectual in increasing their political power.  Then-Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson is touted with the tricky political accomplishment of both progressing the measure through Congress, while at the same time ensuring the bill’s evisceration by assigning it to a Judiciary Committee run by anti-civil rights Senator James Eastland (MS).  The bill’s eventual passage also had to survive the longest lasting Senate filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond, who railed on about nothing in particular for 24 hours, 18 minutes.      

It would not be until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that full civil rights to women as well as blacks would be institutionalized.  Oddly enough, the Act of 1964 was signed into law by the very same, now-President Lyndon Baines Johnson, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

Was slavery the only issue in U.S. Civil War?

The following was written as a letter to the editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer in response to several letters (See fifth letter down.) in the past week or so protesting commemorations of The Civil War as “glorifications” of slavery (i.e. commemorations in the southern U.S.).

I really do not understand all the sudden angst over observances related to the American Civil War.  I do not understand the insistence on framing the war totally within the context of slavery.  Anyone, who has taken the time to study the development of the American experiment through the 18th and 19th centuries and the origins of the hostilities that broke out in 1861, recognizes that slavery was not the only issue that defined the war.   

The American republic had many more issues before it than the horrors of slavery.  The questions of states rights, the strength of a centralized federal government, the interests of agrarian vs. industrialized economies, even the success of a Lincoln-led administration were all factors of immense national interest at stake.  As such, both the North and the South had legitimate vital interests in the conflict that went beyond the insidious practice of slavery. 

Slavery as the only issue related to the war does not explain Lincoln’s own admission that he would have resolved the conflict – if he could – without freeing a single slave.  It also does not account for the fact that hundreds of thousands of poor, non-slave owning Southerners fought willingly against the overwhelming advantages of the North.  The fact is that hundreds of thousands died in that war with no stake on the issue of slavery.  Many of them unemployed immigrants fighting for the North just for money to survive in a new world. 

There is no reason to restrict “glorification” of a preeminent event in American history solely to the issue of slavery.  To do so dismisses so much more that can be learned about how the United States stayed a united nation and the experiment continued on its epic journey.  

Mike —-

 All the angst seems motivated by the fact that the wrong people – Southerners – might want to commemorate an event that was also crucial to the history and development of that region.  Not to mention the fact that hundreds of thousands died there also, many of them dirt-poor farmers who did not own and could not afford slaves.

This is so much more about Liberal guilt over American history than it is any attempt to put that event into its proper historical context.