Because of a need to forge millions of disparate peoples into a coherent country, history was simplified: the North won that war and subsequently freed and emancipated former slaves, before readmitting states of the conquered Confederacy back into the Union. This is all the post-bellum history that gets talked about. But echoes of the ante-bellum South still dog US politics today.
But recently, a Maine-based journalist, Heather Cox Richardson, has chosen the opening of the trial as a cue to revisit some little-known, shoddy US history in her daily Letter from an American who are black feel American society still does not offer them a level playing field and equal rights. What follows below is a verbatim and unedited transcript from her writings. It’s long (over 2000 words) and seen entirely from a US perspective. But the read, and the $5 monthly sub, are both worth it for those who track the huge influence exercised on politics elsewhere.
Letter from an American, March 26th-28th 2021 by Heather Cox Richardson
On March 25th, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia signed a 95-page law designed to suppress the vote in the state where voters chose two Democratic senators in 2020, making it possible for Democrats to enact their agenda. Among other things, the new law strips power from the Republican secretary of state who stood up to Trump’s demand that he change the 2020 voting results. The law also makes it a crime to give water or food to people waiting in line to vote.
The Georgia law is eye-popping, but it is only one of more than 250 measures in 43 states designed to keep Republicans in power no matter what voters want.
This is the only story from today because it is the only story historians will note from this era: Did Americans defend their democracy or did they fall to oligarchy?
The answer to this question right now depends on the Senate filibuster. Democrats are trying to fight state laws suppressing the vote with a federal law called the For the People Act, which protects voting, ends partisan gerrymandering, and keeps dark money out of elections.
The For the People Act, passed by the House of Representatives, is now going to the Senate. There, Republicans will try to kill it with the filibuster, which enables an entrenched minority to stop popular legislation by threatening to hold the floor talking so that the Senate cannot vote. If Republicans block this measure, the extraordinary state laws designed to guarantee that Democrats can never win another election will stay in effect, and America as a whole will look much like the Jim Crow South, with democracy replaced by a one-party state.
Democrats are talking about reforming the filibuster to keep Republicans from blocking the For the People Act.
They have been reluctant to get rid of the filibuster, but today President Joe Biden suggested he would be open to changing the rule that permits Republicans to stop legislation by simply indicating opposition. Republicans are abusing the filibuster, he says, and he indicated he would be open to its reform.
The story today is not about coronavirus vaccines, or border solutions, or economic recovery, because all of those things depended on the election of Joe Biden. If the Republicans get their way, no matter how popular Democrats are, they will never again get to direct the government.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed his state’s new voter suppression law last night in a carefully staged photo op. As journalist Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out, Kemp sat at a polished table, with six white men around him, under a painting of the Callaway Plantation on which more than 100 Black people had been enslaved. As the men bore witness to the signing, Representative Park Cannon, a Black female lawmaker, was arrested and dragged away from the governor’s office.
A scene that conjures up a lot of history.
Voting was on the table in March 1858, too. Then, the U.S. Senate fought over how the new territory of Kansas would be admitted to the Union. The majority of voters in the territory wanted it to be free, but a minority of proslavery Democrats had taken control of the territory’s government and written a constitution that would make human enslavement the fundamental law in the state. The fight over whether this minority, or the majority that wanted the territory free, would control Kansas burned back east, to Congress.
In the Senate, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond, who rejected “as ridiculously absurd” the idea that “all men are born equal,” rose to speak on the subject. He defended the rule of the proslavery minority in Kansas, and told anti-slavery northerners how the world really worked. Hammond laid out a new vision for the United States of America.
He explained to his Senate colleagues just how wealthy the South’s system of human enslavement had made the region, then explained that the “harmonious… and prosperous” system worked precisely because a few wealthy men ruled over a larger class with “a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Hammond explained that in the South, those workers were Black slaves, but the North had such a class, too: they were “your whole hireling class of manual laborers.”
These distinctions had crucial political importance, he explained, “Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than ‘an army with banners,’ and could combine, where would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided… by the quiet process of the ballot-box.”
Hammond believed the South’s system must spread to Kansas and the West regardless of what settlers there wanted because it was the only acceptable way to organize society. Two years later, Hammond would be one of those working to establish the Confederate States of America, “founded,” in the words of their vice president, Alexander Stephens, upon the “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth… that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln recognized that if Americans accepted the principle that some men were better than others, and permitted southern Democrats to spread that principle by dominating the government, they had lost democracy. “I should like to know, if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares … are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop?” he asked.
Led by Abraham Lincoln, Republicans rejected the slaveholders’ unequal view of the world as a radical reworking of the nation’s founding principles. They stood firm on the Declaration of Independence.
When southerners fought to destroy the government rather than accept the idea of human equality, Lincoln reminded Americans just how fragile our democracy is. At Gettysburg in November 1863, he rededicated the nation to the principles of the Declaration and called upon his audience “to be dedicated… to the great task remaining before us… 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.”
The United States defeated the Confederacy, outlawed human enslavement except as punishment for crime, declared Black Americans citizens, and in 1867, with the Military Reconstruction Act, began to establish impartial suffrage. The Military Reconstruction Act, wrote Maine politician James G. Blaine in 1893, “changed the political history of the United States.”
Today, as I looked at the photograph of Governor Kemp signing that bill, I wondered just how much. Since the Civil War, voter suppression in America has had a unique cast.
The Civil War brought two great innovations to the United States that would mix together to shape our politics from 1865 onward:
First, the Republicans under Abraham Lincoln created our first national system of taxation, including the income tax. For the first time in our history, having a say in society meant having a say in how other people’s money was spent. Second, the Republicans gave Black Americans a say in society.
They added the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing human enslavement except as punishment for crime and, when white southerners refused to rebuild the southern states with their free Black neighbors, in March 1867 passed the Military Reconstruction Act. This landmark law permitted Black men in the South to vote for delegates to write new state constitutions. The new constitutions confirmed the right of Black men to vote.
Most former Confederates wanted no part of this new system. They tried to stop voters from ratifying the new constitutions by dressing up in white sheets as the ghosts of dead southern soldiers, terrorizing Black voters and the white men who were willing to rebuild the South on these new terms to keep them from the polls. They organized as the Ku Klux Klan, saying they were “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” intended “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States… [and] to aid and assist in the execution of all constitutional laws.” But by this they meant the Constitution before the war and the Thirteenth Amendment: candidates for admission to the Ku Klux Klan had to oppose “Negro equality both social and political” and favor “a white man’s government.”
The bloody attempts of the Ku Klux Klan to suppress voting didn’t work. The new constitutions went into effect, and in 1868 the former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union with Black male suffrage. In that year’s election, Georgia voters put 33 Black Georgians into the state’s general assembly, only to have the white legislators expel them on the grounds that the Georgia state constitution did not explicitly permit Black men to hold office.
The Republican Congress refused to seat Georgia’s representatives that year—that’s the “remanded to military occupation” you sometimes hear about– and wrote the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right of formerly enslaved people to vote and, by extension, to hold office. The amendment prohibits a state from denying the right of citizens to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
So white southerners determined to prevent Black participation in society turned to a new tactic. Rather than opposing Black voting on racial grounds—although they certainly did oppose Black rights on these grounds—they complained that the new Black voters, fresh from their impoverished lives as slaves, were using their votes to redistribute wealth.
To illustrate their point, they turned to South Carolina, where between 1867 and 1876, a majority of South Carolina’s elected officials were African American. To rebuild the shattered state, the legislature levied new taxes on land, although before the war taxes had mostly fallen on the personal property owned by professionals, bankers, and merchants. The legislature then used state funds to build schools, hospitals, and other public services, and bought land for resale to settlers—usually freedpeople—at low prices.
White South Carolinians complained that members of the legislature, most of whom were professionals with property who had usually been free before the war, were lazy, ignorant field hands using public services to redistribute wealth.
Fears of workers destroying society grew potent in early 1871, when American newspaper headlines blasted the story of the Paris Commune. From March through May, in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, French Communards took control of Paris. Americans read stories of a workers’ government that seemed to attack civilization itself: burning buildings, killing politicians, corrupting women, and confiscating property. Americans worried that workers at home might have similar ideas: in italics, Scribner’s Monthly warned readers that “the interference of ignorant labor with politics is dangerous to society.”
Building on this fear, in May 1871, a so-called taxpayers’ convention met in Columbia, South Carolina. A reporter claimed that South Carolina was “a typical Southern state” victimized by lazy “semi-barbarian” Black voters who were electing leaders to redistribute wealth. “Upon these people not only political rights have been conferred, but they have absolute political supremacy,” he said. The New York Daily Tribune, which had previously championed Black rights, wrote “the most intelligent, the influential, the educated, the really useful men of the South, deprived of all political power,… [are] taxed and swindled… by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen.”
The South Carolina Taxpayers’ Convention uncovered no misuse of state funds and disbanded with only a call for frugality in government, but it had embedded into politics the idea that Black voters were using the government to redistribute wealth. The South was “prostrate” under “Black rule,” reporters claimed. In the election of 1876, southern Democrats set out to “redeem” the South from this economic misrule by keeping Black Americans from the polls.
Over the next decades, white southerners worked to silence the voices of Black Americans in politics, and in 1890, fourteen southern congressmen wrote a book to explain to their northern colleagues why Democrats had to control the South. Why the Solid South? or Reconstruction and its Results insisted that Black voters who had supported the Republicans after the Civil War had used their votes to pervert the government by using it to give themselves services paid for with white tax dollars.
Later that year, a new constitution in Mississippi started the process of making sure Black people could not vote by requiring educational tests, poll taxes, or a grandfather who had voted, effectively getting rid of Black voting.
Eight years later, there was still enough Black voting in North Carolina and enough class solidarity with poor whites that voters in Wilmington elected a coalition government of Black Republicans and white Populists. White Democrats agreed that the coalition had won fairly, but about 2000 of them nonetheless armed themselves to “reform” the city government. They issued a “White Declaration of Independence” and said they would “never again be ruled, by men of African origin.” It was time, they said, “for the intelligent citizens of this community owning 95% of the property and paying taxes in proportion, to end the rule by Negroes.”
As they forced the elected officials out of office and took their places, the new Democratic mayor claimed “there was no intimidation used,” but as many as 300 African Americans died in the Wilmington coup.
The Civil War began the process of linking the political power of people of color to a redistribution of wealth, and this rhetoric has haunted us ever since. When Ronald Reagan talked about the “Welfare Queen (a Black woman who stole tax dollars through social services fraud), when tea partiers called our first Black president a “socialist,” when Trump voters claimed to be reacting to “economic anxiety,” they were calling on a long history. Today, Republicans talk about “election integrity,” but their end game is the same as that of the former Confederates after the war: to keep Black and Brown Americans away from the polls to make sure the government does not spend tax dollars on public services.