From the opposite ends of American history has come impressive evidence of white racism, of both its antiquity and its intensity. Winthrop D. Jordan in White Over Black (1968) unearthed its origins in Elizabethan England and sixteenth-century Europe and traced its growth as the functional rationale of white supremacy and American identity down to 1812. The Kerner Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968) spelled out the disastrous consequences in the violence and riots of contemporary America. But what of the period between? Was there not, as legend has it, an interlude of virtue in the mid-nineteenth century when white Americans, inspired by the antislavery crusade, put aside their racism, rededicated themselves to their ideals of equality, and waged a heroic war for freedom and a temporarily successful campaign for racial equality? Or was the crusade itself corrupted and frustrated by a sickness endemic among the crusaders?
Answers to these questions are obscured by time and propaganda, by vested interests of racial and national pride. For one thing, the justification of the bloodiest war in our history, the sacrifice of 600,000 lives—more than the number of Americans killed in two world wars—is at stake. Answers will be slow in coming and may never be clear. From time to time, however, additional insights are provided by historians, even when they have other purposes and problems in mind.
One exceptionally illuminating source is Eileen S. Kraditor’s study of the abolitionists’ strategy and tactics, The Means and Ends of American Abolitionism. To her surprise she came out with a new and favorable revision of the prevailing interpretation of William Lloyd Garrison. She began with the received opinions, presented most recently in two able biographies of Garrison, one by John L. Thomas and the other by Walter M. Merrill, both published in 1963. As she says, whatever respect they inspire for their subject is “more than balanced by the conviction that he was bullheaded, arrogant, vindictive, and incredibly blind to some obvious truths.” For more than a generation it has been standard practice, even among the most strongly pro-abolitionist historians, to protect the reputation of the movement by disavowing Garrison’s importance or centrality in it. Dwight L. Dumond, for example, though an ardent champion of abolitionists, puts Garrison down as “insufferably arrogant” and (in italics) “a man of distinctly narrow limitations among the giants of the antislavery movement.”
Miss Kraditor does not contend that Garrison was a typical abolitionist or that he represented majority opinion on antislavery strategy. Nor does she deny his personal idiosyncracies and foibles (though she does put in a timid and not too convincing claim for his sense of humor). But she is “struck by the logical consistency of his thought on all subjects,” granted his principles, with which she finds herself usually in agreement. She admits that he changed his opinions from time to time but holds that “the changes themselves represented a logical development.” Though she does not use the terms, she sees Garrison as the “hedgehog” (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense) among the “foxes,” the man who “knows one big thing.” His big thing was that abolitionism was a radical and not a reform movement, that slavery, and the racial dogmas that justified it so thoroughly, permeated American society and government, North as well as South, that the eradication of the institution and its ideological defenses—and the racism of the latter was as important to him as slavery—was a root-and-branch operation. On that he never equivocated.
Garrison’s abolitionist opponents were reformers, not radicals. They believed in constitutional means and political strategy. They professed to be “realists” and sought to attract moderates rather than repel them by extremism and “extraneous” issues. They believed that American society, government, and institutions were fundamentally sound and that once the alien institution of slavery was removed, all would be well. Hence they were appalled at Garrison’s intransigent denunciation of the Constitution as “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell” which “should be immediately annulled.” They deplored his demand for disunion, along with sundry “extraneous” demands such as no government, no church, and no party. Moderates believed him capable of following to its conclusion “every corollary, and every corollary of every corollary of a syllogism.” To them there were limits to logic.
To the incorrigible radical, logic has few limits. Slavery was a sin and that was that, and the only thing to do about sin was to stop sinning. Now. As for the impracticability of his demands, his answer was that politics was the art of the possible, and that his role was agitation, the art of the desirable. To ask the agitator to trim his demands for the sake of expediency was to miss the point. Garrison’s ends were much too radical for political and parliamentary means. In his opinion American society was not fundamentally sound but thoroughly corrupt, top to bottom. Down with it, root and branch. He would not trim, he would not compromise, he would not vote for corrupt politicians nor support corrupt governments and churches, and he would not temper his means to his ends.
The old Liberator will find more unqualified admirers on the contemporary scene than he would have a few years ago. But even the most hot-gospel root-and-brancher of today will have difficulties with Garrison’s rhetoric and premises. As Miss Kraditor says, “The key to Garrison’s ideology is perfectionism.” He believed implicitly in the perfectibility of man. Modern man does not. Or if he does he should have his head examined. Modern libertarians will also balk at his puritanical rigidity on morals and stimulants, all the way down to and including a cup of tea. There are numerous other difficulties, including (“I will not equivocate, I will not excuse”) those “personal idiosyncracies.” W.L.G. was a strange and difficult man.
But modern radicals will also find his abolitionist opponents hard to take in their stride. Contending that anything so evil as slavery deserved serious consideration of practical means for its elimination, they were ready to compromise with imperfection to gain their ends. Striking poses of perfectionism was not enough. As Eric Foner observes in a recent article, the antislavery men who controlled the Free Soil Party in 1852 “realized that in a society characterized by an all but universal belief in white supremacy, no political party could function effectively which included a call for equal rights (for blacks) in its national platform.” The movement that eventually democratized antislavery sentiment and made it respectable was not Garrison’s movement, for he abhorred racism as much as he did slavery. But the successful antislavery movement embraced anti-Negro followers and their prejudices and triumphed over slavery in the name of white supremacy.
Miss Kraditor appears to believe that history in a measure vindicated Garrison. After all, as she points out, it did take a revolution, a war, and a repudiation of the old Constitution, as well as some drastic shaking up of other institutions to abolish slavery. She goes further to speculate on what might have happened had the abolition movement “not weakened the moral focus of its propaganda and accepted the compromises dictated by political expediency.”
That is a legitimate subject for speculation. It is all the more interesting since recent investigations of white American attitudes toward slavery and race policy make such speculation more profitable and informed than it might otherwise have been. One such study is on the Antebellum Northwest (Middle West), the Great Plains, and Far West; a second treats New England and the Middle Atlantic states; a third deals with the Middle West during the Civil War, and two others take up the period of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Several years ago Leon Litwack opened up this field with a stimulating survey. North of Slavery (1961). The new studies get down to the particulars and the in-fighting. Only on this level is it possible to appreciate fully what the opponents of slavery and race prejudice were really up against in planning their strategy and tactics. Only thus can one assess the wisdom and the chances of success that the various policies might have had and test the claim of historical vindication for Garrison.
The thesis of Eugene H. Berwanger’s The Frontier Against Slavery is that “prejudice against Negroes was a factor in the development of antislavery feeling in the ante-bellum United States.” His study “concentrates on the ever shifting frontier regions which became free states or territories by 1860” but which were threatened at some time with the legalization of slavery. This latest investigation of “frontier influences” offers cold comfort to Frederick Jackson Turner’s hypothesis that the frontier experience was a major source and an ever rejuvenating stimulus of the democratic impulse in American life—if democracy and American life included Negro people. Without explicitly making the comparisons suggested, Berwanger lends less support to Turner’s thesis than to Tocqueville’s observation in 1835 that “the prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states which have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so important as in those states where servitude never has been known.”
Pro-slavery men kept up their fight for legalizing bondage in the Old Northwest until the 1830s, but by 1811 antislavery and anti-Negro forces of the Indiana territorial legislature had passed laws preventing Negroes from testifying in court against whites, excluding them from militia duty, and barring them from voting. Ohio in 1807 excluded Negroes from residence in the state unless they posted a $500 bond for good behavior. In 1813 Illinois ordered every incoming free Negro to leave the territory under a penalty of 39 lashes repeated every fifteen days until he left. The chief argument against slavery was that it would eventually produce a free Negro population. By the early 1830s all three states had adopted “almost identical statute restrictions against free Negroes.” Michigan and Iowa followed suit in their turn, and Wisconsin joined them in voting down Negro suffrage by large majorities. Anti-Negro activity intensified in the 1840s and 1850s, when Illinois and Indiana wrote harsh free Negro exclusion provisions into their Constitutions. John A. Logan of Illinois, future radical Republican leader, was the author of “the most severe anti-Negro measure passed by a free state.”
The peak of the anti-Negro movement in the Middle West coincided with the height of agitation over the slavery-expansion issue, but Mr. Berwanger’s evidence indicates that the real concern was not so much over the expansion of slavery as the migration of Negroes. David Wilmot, author of the famous “Proviso” excluding slavery from new territories avowed his object was to “preserve to free labor…of my own race and own color” those new lands. Horace Greeley declared that the unoccupied West “shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race.” Owen Lovejoy, congressman from the “most abolitionized” district of Illinois and brother of the martyred abolitionist Elijah, denounced the idea of Negro equality. Joshua Giddings, zealous antislavery congressman from Ohio, pronounced Negroes “not the equal of white men,” and Benjamin F. Wade, another congressman of the same state and same persuasion, called Washington “a Nigger ridden place.” Lyman Trumbull, Illinois Republican leader and a close friend of Lincoln, declared that “We, the Republican Party, are a white man’s party.” And Lincoln himself was on record as being “in favor of the race to which I belong having the supreme position.”
The region that inspired these obsessions and phobias against Negro people never had a black population in this era exceeding one percent of the total. Yet the attitudes and laws developed in the Middle West became the models for new territories farther westward as Midwesterners followed the frontier to the Pacific. As Mr. Berwanger says, “these pioneers pushed westward with an increased determination to keep the Negro, free or slave, out of the new lands.”
Before 1848 Californians are said to have “accepted Negroes as equal individuals” and intermarried with them, but this situation quickly changed with the arrival of great numbers of Americans the following year. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of California in 1849 voted without opposition and without debate to adopt the same constitutional restrictions on free Negroes in their fundamental laws that were found in the Middle West. A measure excluding free Negroes from the territory entirely was defeated only because of fear that this would delay congressional action on statehood. Californians voted down slavery, but an informed citizen said that “not one in ten cares a button for its abolition…all they look at is their own position; they must themselves swing the pick, and they won’t swing it by the side of Negro slaves.” The state legislature swiftly debarred blacks from testifying against whites in court and from intermarriage with whites, while local authorities segregated them. In 1857, the state prison director shipped black inmates of the prisons to New Orleans, where they were sold into slavery.
The Pacific Northwest in its turn duplicated the laws and racial customs of the Old Northwest and was settled in considerable measure from that region. The territorial legislature of Oregon subjected Negroes who refused to leave to periodic floggings and later substituted apprenticeship to white men. The constitutional convention for statehood in 1857 rapidly approved laws excluding Negroes from the militia and the polls. A popular referendum rejected slavery by a majority of 5,000, but approved exclusion of free Negroes from the state by a majority of 7,500 (8,640 to 1,081). “Slavery and the Negro,” it seems, “to the average farmer, were one and the same.” Congress admitted Oregon in 1857, the only free state with a Negro exclusion clause in its original constitution ever admitted. “Oregon is a land for the white man,” said the Oregon Weekly Times. “Refusing the toleration of Negroes in our midst as slaves, we rightly and for yet stronger reasons, prohibit them from coming among us as free Negro vagabonds.”
“Bleeding Kansas” was the cause célèbre among Eastern antislavery radicals in the mid-1850s, but a census of 1856 showed that 83 percent of Kansas settlers had lived in the Old Northwest, or in Iowa, Kentucky, or Missouri. Mr. Berwanger shows that “a large group of settlers was more anti-Negro than antislavery.” The population was of course divided politically and sometimes militarily between the proslavery and antislavery factions. But even among the latter, except for a minority in the area of Lawrence, reliable evidence shows that “anti-Negro sentiment was overwhelming among the antislavery settlers.” A referendum which the proslavery people boycotted and which was confined to the antislavery population polled 1,287 for and 453 against excluding free Negroes from the territory. Thus three out of every four antislavery Kansans approved Negro exclusion. The antislavery heroes of the Western plains to whom Boston abolitionists were shipping “Beecher’s Bibles” were also limiting suffrage, office holding, and militia service to white men. They were evidently more anti-Negro than they were antislavery. The same was true of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nebraska, which repeated the old story of discrimination, but with the added absurdity of having so few Negroes in their borders about whom to quarrel. With only 59 live Negroes in their territory to prove it, Mormons resolved that the race was inferior even “in the next world.” Nebraska had only 67 Negroes in 1860, yet Negro exclusion had been a hot issue in 1859.
The modesty and thoroughness of Mr. Berwanger’s scholarship is indicated by his admission that “the exact extent of racial prejudice as a factor encouraging the limitation of slavery is indeterminable.” But he adds cogently that “if 79.5 per cent of the people of Illinois, Indiana, Oregon and Kansas voted to exclude the free Negro simply because of their prejudice, surely this antipathy influenced their decisions to support the nonextension of slavery.” And surely any fair-minded reader will concede that he has a point there.
All writers on Midwestern attitudes toward slavery and the Negro point out that these attitudes may be partially accounted for by the considerable migration of non-slaveholding Southern yeomen into that region. What then of the attitudes in the Middle Atlantic and New England states, where the number of Southern migrants was negligible? In a less ambitious study than the previous one, limited to the decade of the 1830s and entitled Powder Keg, Northern Opposition to the Antislavery Movement, Lorman Ratner treats the Northern states omitted by Berwanger, those of the Northeast.
It is not difficult to establish that in the period concerned the great majority of people in the Northeast despised or opposed abolitionists and were hostile or indifferent to the antislavery cause. Mr. Ratner undertakes to go further, however, and explain why they had those attitudes. What he actually does is to tell us why they said they opposed the movement. What they said is of interest even if it does not explain. For example, two great theologians, Charles Grandison Finney and William Ellery Channing, and Noah Porter, President of Yale College, agreed that abolishing slavery would aggravate the race problem. Two powerful clergymen, Lyman Beecher and Horace Bushnell, were afraid that it would place Negroes on an equal basis with whites. James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, and Francis Wayland, clergyman and authority on ethics, feared that free Negroes would be the prey of demagogues and subvert the state. Seth Luther and George Henry Evans, labor spokesmen, feared that abolition would result in unfair competition for white labor.
Everybody had reasons, all kinds of reasons, logical and frivolous reasons, informed and superficial reasons. Among churchmen the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Unitarians, Catholics all took positions “that placed the majority of their clerical leaders in opposition to the antislavery movement.” This does not mean that these churches were necessarily dominated by proslavery men. Indeed, opponents of abolition were often opponents of slavery as well. They might deplore slavery but deplore abolition more and abolitionists even more than that. The commonest reason given by churchmen when speaking for their churches was that abolition would disrupt their institutions by dividing the members—which it undoubtedly would in most instances.
All the Northeastern states had abolished or taken steps for the gradual abolition of slavery within their own borders by 1804, but racial discrimination, segregation, and injustice still flourished and often proliferated in those regions. Only the five states with the most insignificant numbers of blacks, all in New England, permitted them to vote. New York had property qualifications that withheld the ballot from them. Massachusetts outlawed intermarriage and for a while tightened segregation, and the other states followed much the same policy. The Pennsylvanian legislature formally refused the Negro the vote in 1837 and at the same time seriously debated, though did not pass, an exclusion bill of the western type to prevent free Negroes from entering the state. Northeasterners of high and low status flaunted race prejudice openly. Negroes lived a thoroughly segregated existence, set apart in church, school, public services, and society, excluded from politics and handicapped in the courts of justice. They constituted, with few exceptions, a despised and ostracized caste.
Mr. Ratner is probably right that the “romantic image of the South” created by Northern novelists of the 1830s (analyzed by William R. Taylor in Cavalier and Yankee, 1961) fostered “northern respect and admiration, even pride in that region.” This attitude toward the South doubtless affected Northern attitudes toward slavery and the Negro. As the sectional crisis intensified in the 1850s, however, the romantic image faded and the South, not the Negro, came to be regarded as the real menace to the North. Yet the North entered the Civil War as part of a slave republic to defend a Constitution that guaranteed slave property, led by a party with a platform pledged to protect slavery where it existed, and headed by a President who declared in his inaugural address that he had “no lawful right” and “no inclination” to interfere with slavery in the South. Congress followed this up three months after the war started with virtually unanimous resolutions viewing with horror any suggestion of permitting the war to interfere with “established institutions of those States.”
Within a short time, however, the North did interfere with slavery on a large scale, and less than two years after the initial disavowals of abolition the Union was formally committed to freedom as a war aim and later, so one historian has maintained, to the far more revolutionary war aim of racial equality. By these commitments a power struggle with the negative aim of preventing secession was metamorphosed into a war of ideologies, a moral crusade with divinely sanctioned ends. Exalted by the crusading spirit, many Union participants, especially in retrospect, hallowed their cause with a “common glory” and sanctified it as a holy war. Thus the American Civil War entered into legend and history with an aura of sanctity that few wars in history have enjoyed. The extent to which Union policies and attitudes toward the Negro justified this view of the war is subject to searching investigation by V. Jacque Voegeli in Free But Not Equal. He focuses his study on the Middle West, but his findings have wider import and deserve respectful attention.
Convincing evidence supports the conclusion that the outbreak of the Civil War actually “increased the virulence of midwestern racism.” For the war opened the prospect of an inundation of the North by fugitive or liberated Negroes. Thus the fears that motivated so much opposition to the expansion of slavery were now revived and intensified by the threatened abolition of slavery. Congressmen and editors gave full voice to these fears of “free Negroism” or “Africanization,” fears of an invasion of blacks who would “fill the jails and poorhouses, compete with white labor, and degrade society.” Ohioans were not prepared to “mix up four millions of blacks with their sons and daughters.” The Chicago Times predicted that emancipation would flood the North with “two or three million semi-savages.” Lincoln’s own state, where the constitution and statutes already barred further Negro settlement, endorsed new Negro exclusion measures in a referendum of June, 1862, by a vote of two to one.
The urgent question for the politicians was framed by a correspondent of Senator Ben Wade: “If we are to have no more slave states what the devil are we to do with the surplus niggers?” Lyman Trumbull, speaking for the West as a whole and for Illinois in particular, told the Senate that, “Our people want nothing to do with the Negro” and that there was “A very great aversion…against having free Negroes living among us.” Salmon P. Chase urged General Ben Butler “to see that the blacks of the North will slide Southward, and leave no question to quarrel about.” Others held out the hope that after slavery was abolished freedmen would want to stay in the South and Northern Negroes would actually prefer to live there. Hoping to placate Northern fears, Republicans made Negro deportation and colonization abroad the official policy of the party and “openly avowed in Congress that deportation was designed partly to keep the freedmen out of the North.” President Lincoln was a strong advocate of the policy. In view of Lincoln’s keen instinct for the practical and possible, it is hard to believe his advocacy was other than political in motivation. Defending his Emancipation Proclamation before it was issued, the President deprecated the threat of Negro migration and said that the freedmen would be more likely to remain in the South. If not, he promised to try deportation and asked the provocative question, “cannot the North decide for itself whether to receive them?” That is, to resort to exclusion measures such as his own state of Illinois had.
The backlash to emancipation was frightening. Republicans suffered a disastrous defeat at the polls in the fall of 1862. Lincoln thought his Proclamation had “done about as much harm as good.” The Illinois legislature adopted a resolution denouncing it and debated enforcement of the state exclusion law with “thirty-nine lashes on the bare back.” Anti-Negro violence erupted in Toledo, Chicago, Peoria, and Cincinnati. At New Albany, Indiana, guards were stationed at ferries to prevent Negroes from landing and a regiment of Indiana troops threatened to fire on Negroes and keep them from crossing the Ohio. Republican party leaders repeatedly disavowed intentions of permitting or encouraging Negro migration or tolerating Negro equality. The charge that “our volunteers are periling their lives to make the niggers equal” was denounced by the Indianapolis Journal as “a monstrous and villainous lie.”
Deeds rather than words were required of the Republicans. The old clichés and promises were not enough. Everyone knew that hundreds of thousands of idle and helpless refugee freedmen were piling up behind the Federal firing line in the South. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, seeing the need for labor in the North, blundered into shipping hundreds of blacks into Illinois, and then retreated hastily when his action touched off a violent explosion of resentment. Lincoln’s experiment with deportation and colonization of blacks in the Caribbean proved a failure. He began arming Negroes in spite of his “fear that in a few weeks the arms would be in the hands of the rebels,” but the army could absorb only a fraction of the refugees. In March, 1863, Lincoln placed the problem in the hands of General Lorenzo Thomas, a rather hapless old functionary.
Speaking to Union troops in Louisiana the following month, “with full authority from the President,” Thomas said of the refugees, “They are coming in upon us in such numbers that some provision must be made for them. You cannot send them North. You all know the prejudices of the Northern people….” The policy decided upon, said the General, was deliberately to contain the Negroes in the South, put them to work on “the multitude of deserted plantations” he pointed to “along the river.” The hope was to make them self-supporting, but at any rate to keep them down South. Mr. Voegeli concludes that the policy “effectually sealed the vast majority of them in the region,” and that “the political motive was crucial” in the determination of the containment policy.
Northern racial phobias and “apprehensions of a black invasion” cooled somewhat after the policy of containment was publicized and its effectiveness became apparent. War service of the Negroes, their demands for justice, and their horrible persecution in the New York City riots gained some sympathy for them. The war then became “a limited crusade” in the eyes of many, “a struggle for God, mankind, liberty and Union.” Combining “a mixture of idealism and vengefulness, innocence and arrogance” the limited crusaders saw the war as “a battle for cultural supremacy…the final confrontation of Puritan and Cavalier,” in which “Southern vices…were to be supplanted by Northern virtues—industrialism, democracy, equality, prosperity, ingenuity, intelligence, and unselfish nationalism.”
Several years ago this reviewer advanced the thesis that in this crusade phase a “third war aim,” the boldly revolutionary aim of racial equality, was almost surreptitiously added by the radicals to those of Union and Freedom. It was a qualified suggestion, later retracted. Mr. Voegeli effectively attacks the original suggestion. I think he is right and I was wrong. Of course, some influential Northerners did want to make equality a war aim, and the postwar civil rights acts and Constitutional amendments can be read as evidence of their success. But as I said at the time, “legal commitments overreached moral persuasion,” and the Union “fought the war on borrowed moral capital” and then repudiated the debt. It was nevertheless misleading to equate Equality with the commitments to Union and Freedom, and Mr. Voegeli is right in saying “there is no reason to believe that full equality for Negroes ever became one of their war aims.” He is also right that there was “some bold talk…but little action,” that “only a few of the innumerable extra-legal devices which drew the color line in the Midwest were discarded during the war,” that “on the whole, these changes scarcely scratched the surface of white supremacy, and that “in most places Negroes remained fundamentally as before—victims of discrimination,…of social ostracism, and of economic subordination.”
Light on racist attitudes and responses to emancipation and postwar reconstruction is promised by Forrest G. Wood’s Black Scare. He succeeds in collecting a vast amount of racist sentiment on these subjects, but is not so successful in analyzing its significance in close historical context as some of the preceding authors. His treatment of emancipation does not measure up to Voegeli’s, and he adds little to what others have said about attitudes toward Negro troops. He makes much of the issue of miscegenation in the North, but his tone is strident and heavily remonstrative. He is surely right that racism became rife in the postwar South, though this scarcely comes as a surprise. One of his puzzling generalizations is that “the end of the war was a momentous turning point for the race issue in the United States.” His own evidence does not support this. Later on he writes, “Signs that the race issue was losing political importance appeared as early as March, 1867.” It is true that Congress passed the Radical Reconstruction Act in that month, but a declining importance of the race issue is hardly indicated by the terrible defeat the Radicals suffered at the polls in the 1867 elections. Nor is it suggested by the fact that all but seven non-Southern states excluded Negroes from the polls by law after Congress had forced Negro suffrage on all the Southern states. Nor can declining racism explain why the voters of Kansas, Ohio, and Minnesota in referendums held in 1867, and the voters of Michigan in 1868, overwhelmingly rejected Negro suffrage.
Sincerity of Union purpose in Reconstruction may also be tested by Federal race policy in the South, and on this subject a revisionary work of superior quality is William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather, a study of General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen’s Bureau. It soon became apparent that Radical Reconstruction did not mean abandonment of the containment policy. Mr. Voegeli pointed out that an amendment to the Freedmen’s Bureau bill sensibly providing for the organized dispersion of freedmen to jobs in the North was defeated in the Senate, where Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts called it “entirely untenable,” and Senator Henry Wilson of the same state feared it would have “a bad influence.” General Howard’s mission was to solve the problem of freedmen within the South. All agreed then and still agree now that the one-armed “Christian General” was by all odds the best man for the job. He was given wide powers and a bill authorizing him to distribute “abandoned and confiscate land” to freedmen.
The freedmen never got the promised land to have and hold. It was taken away from them and returned to the planters, and General Howard painfully and personally presided over the restitution. It is one of the stranger ironies of historiography that for a hundred years the Freedmen’s Bureau has been pictured by both its friends and its foes as an instrument of radical policy. Actually it was skillfully employed by President Andrew Johnson with the compliance of Howard to subvert radical purposes and advance conservative ends. On the complaint by influential whites, the General eventually removed virtually every subordinate who sought to fulfill the original mission of the Bureau and help the Freedmen. “The Freedmen’s Bureau had not stopped the delivery of the Negro labor force into the hands of Johnson’s planters and businessmen allies,” writes Mr. McFeely. “On the contrary, it was used by the President to accomplish this purpose.” In less skillful hands this important revision of history might have taken the tone of strident cynicism and exposure. Fortunately Mr. McFeely has the subtlety and grace to make his story “not an exposé of a knave, but rather a record of naiveté and misunderstanding.” Thus he is able to grasp not only the tragedy of the freedmen, but the tragedy of General Howard as well, and to see both as the failure of America.
The findings of these revisionists might help with Miss Kraditor’s speculations about Garrison’s vindication by history and about what might have happened had abolitionists remained faithful to Garrison’s ideals. History supports Garrison’s dogma that “reform” was not enough, that to be effective the eradication of slavery had to be root-and-branch, that the racist ideology supporting it thoroughly permeated the whole country, and that abolishing slavery in alliance with racists and without eradicating their ideology would be an empty victory. To grant that agitation is “the art of the desirable” is to concede Garrison much. But when Garrison put aside his pacifism and many of his principles to support the Union cause and the Constitution on the ground that “death and hell had seceded,” he shifted from agitation to politics, “the art of the possible.” Of that art he was wholly innocent. The greatest artist of the possible in his time was now in charge, and Lincoln knew in his bones that unless he fought that war with the support of racists and in the name of white supremacy it would be his lost cause and not Jefferson Davis’s.
To return finally to the questions raised at the beginning of this essay, some of the answers still seem rather elusive and ambiguous. After an excursion through revisionary historical literature, however, it seems harder than ever to locate precisely that legendary “interlude of virtue” when Americans renounced their racism and rededicated themselves to their ideals of equality. The present seems depressingly continuous with the past. And now that the old policy of “containment” no longer holds, now that the fears of an inundation by Negro migrants from the South that obsessed the North of the 1860s have materialized a century later, the continuity of plantation and ghetto is borne in upon us. It also seems rather more difficult than it was before to be confident in justifying the sacrifice of those 600,000 lives. It was a crusade to be sure, but a “limited” one, and it does appear to have been corrupted and frustrated all along by an old sickness endemic among the crusaders.
February 27, 1969