Thursday, July 7, 2011

Struggle for Equality in Antebellum Philadelphia

Starting this year and continuing through 2015, Americans will commemorate the 150-year anniversary of one of the bleakest periods of our collective history — the four years between 1861 and 1865 that bore witness to the American Civil War.

The War Between the States saw more Americans killed in action than any conflict before or after, and left large swaths of the country’s terrain and populace devastated; it also marked a turning point in African-American history — culminating in the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865 and officially abolished slavery in the United States.

As such, the next four years will be a time for somber reflection on the collective trauma that our country endured, and a celebration of the values that prevailed on the bloody fields of Gettysburg, Bull Run and Antietam — those of unity, freedom and equality.

It all makes for a nice story; the truth, however, is more complex and less likely to fit into a convenient and heroic frame. Union northerners were not beyond reproach for playing their own role in perpetuating the institution of slavery (even the nation’s most enduring monument, the U.S. Capitol building — completed in 1826 — was built using slave labor).

Historians today are no longer obliged to see the Civil War as the noble battle for universal rights and an end to the abomination of slavery as it was once portrayed, but rather are more inclined to present it as a confrontation between two economic forces — one industrial and one agricultural — with different visions for the role of the federal government in the lives of the states. While abolition did become a component of the struggle, it was as much a political maneuver as a gesture of human rights. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, in the second year of the war, that President Abraham Lincoln made any official movement on the issue. And, even then, the Proclamation only extended to slave-holding Confederate states, while union slave states — including Maryland and Delaware — were exempted from the executive order. (Delaware’s slaves were not emancipated until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.)

History serves as a reminder that, like all conflicts of such scale, there was nothing simple about what led up to the American Civil War. This was especially true for the nation’s free Blacks, who had only recently found a voice for demanding equal status and were constantly reminded that the road to emancipation would require something more than a piece of paper and an eloquent speech. Read More