Addressing Our Imperfect History

What is the best way for a nation or a society to reconcile its imperfect history with its desire to do better in the future?  Is it to attack, disparage, or try to forget its history, or is it to build upon it?

Abraham Lincoln had an idea which we can apply to this question … unless we toss him out, too.

As the Civil War raged on the battlefield, a debate raged in Congress and in Northern society over reconstruction: if the Union forces prevailed, how should the Federal government then go about bringing the rebellious states back into the Union?  Some wanted to punish the South; others, including Lincoln, wanted a more lenient policy, perhaps best summed up in these words from his Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all”.

Already in December 1863, Lincoln included in his Annual Message to Congress – the equivalent of our day’s State of the Union Address – a “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction”.  By this time, the Union forces were in control of significant portions of a few Confederate states.

Under Lincoln’s plan, if in any state ten percent of the number of people who voted in the 1860 election would now take an oath of allegiance to the United States and pledge to pursue the emancipation of that state’s slaves, then its state government could be reconstituted.  With the exception of high-ranking Confederate army officers and government officials, all citizens of the state would be granted a full pardon and would have their private property protected, except for their slaves.  Over the next year, fully functioning Unionist governments were reconstituted under Lincoln’s plan in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

The Radical Republicans in Congress, however, strongly objected to this so-called ten-percent plan, considering it too lenient.  In the summer of 1864, they passed their own reconstruction bill (the Wade-Davis Bill), which stipulated that a majority – fifty percent, not ten percent – had to take an oath of allegiance, and an “iron-clad oath” at that.  This meant that they had to swear or affirm that they had never voluntarily taken up arms against the United States nor otherwise supported the Confederacy.

Lincoln refused to sign this bill, much to the displeasure of the Radicals, and therefore it did not take effect as Congress had recessed in the meantime (a “pocket veto”).  He explained his reasoning: it was “inflexibly committed to [a] single plan of restoration”, and he also did not wish to “set aside the already adopted and installed governments in Arkansas and Louisiana”.

The following spring, General Lee surrendered to General Grant on Palm Sunday, April 9.  Two days later, a large crowd gathered on the White House lawn to celebrate.  Lincoln gave a speech – what turned out to be his last public address – to explain how he thought we should go about reuniting our divided nation.  He mentioned his ten-percent plan, noting how a new government had been established in Louisiana to which objections were now being raised:

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, [and] adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man.  Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.  These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state – committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants – and they ask the nations recognition, and it’s assistance to make good their committal.

Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them.  We in effect say to the white men “You are worthless, or worse – we will neither help you, nor be helped by you.”  To the blacks we say “This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how.”  If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it.

If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true.  We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success.  The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end.  Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them?  Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it? …

I repeat the question.  “Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining or by discarding her new State Government?”

And I repeat my question: What is the best way for a nation or a society to reconcile its imperfect history with its desire to do better in the future?  Is it to attack, disparage, or try to forget its history, or is it to build upon it?  Is it to sustain it or discard it?  Is it to hatch the egg or smash it?

Despite all its imperfections, the United States of America was and is a remarkable and unique government in the history of the world.  It was admittedly an experiment – an audacious attempt to create a more democratic form of government than any that existed at that time – an experiment which very easily could have failed.  Are not those who risked their lives to conceive and carry out the experiment deserving of our remembrance and admiration for what they accomplished?  Without them, this nation would never have existed.  This does not mean that we condone all that they believed or did, but neither should we judge them strictly according to our own standards and our own context.

The great nation born in 1776 was far from perfect; the Founders themselves were painfully aware of that.  The Civil War gave us an opportunity, to quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for a “new birth of freedom” which would be a significant improvement.  If the “new birth” was still less than perfect, would that have been a reason to reject it?  Or was it another building block upon which to continue to build in the future?

When others who came before us took steps – giant, important steps –, but we wish that they would have, or could have, taken even greater steps, how should we respond?  Should we disparage their efforts as not having gone far enough, or should we remember and honor them for what they did accomplish, and then take a further step ourselves from where they have already brought us?  Should we smash the egg … or hatch it?

Kevin J. Wood

August 8, 2020