When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 158 years ago today, he gave us an American sacrament: a holy vision of this nation as defined by the Declaration of Independence and steeled by the blood and courage of sacrifice. Both sad and uplifting, his words were uttered upon a field of horrific carnage — the human wreckage of a Civil War that challenged the sentiments his speech solemnly heralded.
The “proposition that all men are created equal” was a grand vision of what this bitterly torn republic could yet be. It’s an ideal we have long worshiped, but we still struggle to live up to. The debates still churn today as we confront our racial divides from viewpoints that are sometimes starkly different and, at times, seemingly irreconcilable. In that respect, the Gettysburg Address remains a distant, unrealized dream.
Lincoln himself was far from perfect in many respects. A prime example would be his selection of a vice presidential running mate for the momentous 1864 wartime election, when the very cause for which the Union fought was effectively on the ballot. With an eye toward national reunification, Lincoln and the Republicans tapped Andrew Johnson for the ticket. He was a Tennessee Democrat who remained loyal to the Union, and he was seen as one way to perhaps galvanize the North and the South once the war ended.
But Johnson, who quickly ascended to the presidency upon Lincoln’s murder about a month after inauguration, was a disastrous choice. Regarded as one of our worst presidents, Johnson undercut Lincoln’s well-meaning but nebulous vision for Reconstruction and, despite the Tennessean’s wartime Union leanings, enacted policies that cemented the Confederate white power structure and fostered racial violence and oppression throughout the South.
According to Ron Chernow’s book on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the fear of renewed war throughout the broken Confederacy festered for several years after the Civil War’s formal end in 1865. The lynching and murder of Blacks continued, and Radical Republicans working in the region were also targeted. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan became a powerful specter of fear and control across the South. The former slaves were free, but they had practically nowhere to go but back into another form of bondage.
Johnson, who himself was a slave owner until 1863 despite his northern loyalties, was probably our most racist president. “This is a country for white men” he stated, “and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.” Johnson vetoed a Civil Rights Act on the grounds that, by leveling the playing field somewhat for Blacks, it discriminated against whites. (The veto was overridden.) He believed voting rights for freed slaves should be left to the states, but many southern states enacted Black Codes that denied the former slaves most basic rights. Instead of pursuing Lincoln’s vision of a nation united and equal, we saw the rise of Jim Crow laws across much of the South that kept Blacks entrenched as second-class citizens.
Johnson was anathema to the hallowed words that rang out from Gettysburg. According to Elizabeth R. Vardon of the University of Virginia, “Johnson’s strong commitment to obstructing political and civil rights for Blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well.”
As has been said by others, the Union may have won the war, but it failed to win the “peace” that followed.
But it could also be argued that Johnson was merely a symptom of a broader mindset that existed, to varying degrees, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. While abolitionism certainly became a northern cause, it was also clear that, for many people and places up north, emancipation and equality were very different things. Before the war, Black suffrage had been illegal in most northern states, with some states and territories banning Black settlers. Even after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment giving all males the vote, Black voters still confronted hurdles. After the war, interracial marriage was outlawed in several states and territories, including Nebraska in 1865 and in South Dakota in 1913. And post-war vagrancy laws were enacted in both northern and southern states to address former slaves who found themselves adrift after emancipation. For many Blacks, the war had been won but the outcome settled virtually nothing.
The racial flashpoints we see today are clear echoes, in some ways, of the same battles that we fought more than 150 years ago.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech sought to cement the resolve of this nation and to guide it toward a higher standard. His words still stand as a noble promise of what we could be. But, 158 years later, we’re still a work in progress.
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