Â That All Men are Created Equal
Of course, they meant white men with property and as for women, well, not a word.
Black Americans, free and slave, fought for both America and Britain, hedging their bets on an outcome that could include freedom for some and citizenship rights for all.
But blacks lost the bet and the next round too, as the U.S. Constitution effectively branded them as property and valued them at exactly 3/5 of a white person.
The insult was terrible but the injury was much worse: Â the 3/5 clause ensured that the slave-ocracy south would enjoy an outsize power and influence for decades to come making slavery the defining (and catastrophic) national issue.
Four of the five founders, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, owned slaves and it’s safe to say they all knew it was wrong. Â Even Jefferson, the unrepentant racist said, “We have the wolf by the ear and can neither hold him nor safely let him go.”
The Wolf Gets Loose
It may be more accurate to say that it was South Carolina who loosed the wolf upon their seceding from the Union in December 1860.
Abraham Lincoln’s position on slavery in 1860 and earlier was one even a racist could love: Â simply no extension of it to new states and territories. So called “Free Soilers” not only didn’t want black slaves, they didn’t want blacks, period.
Honest (and clever) Abe could help them out with that.
If Lincoln turned the war into a fight for freedom, it was a victory without rights for those freed.
Blacks in the south were worse off in 1920 than they were in 1850. Jim Crow laws and a form of state-sponsored slavery had reduced “free” blacks to destitution and terror. Â 3,445 blacks were lynched in the south between 1882 and 1968.
At least as slaves they had an owner with a definable financial interest, not so when they were prisoners of the state on trumped up charges across the delta.
Fulfillment of a Covenant?
It would take the assassination of America’s first catholic president to put into position the man who changed it all. Â LBJ,Â ardent segregationist, added the rights of citizenship to the fragile freedom of blacks in America.
(It was a tough time to fight for black rights. Â JamesÂ Eastland, the Mississippi senator famously said of one civil rights nominee, “Â I’d vote against Jesus Christ if he was nominated for that position.”)
Lyndon Johnson used JFK’s murder as the emotional impetus to push civil rights laws with teeth through a congress still dominated by southern racists.
It’s an astonishing and remarkable fact of history that just forty-four years after the addition of enforceable civil rights to black freedom, a black became president.
Thomas Jefferson would be surprised but Alexander Hamilton would not be.
Hamilton said, “Their natural faculties are as good as ours…the contempt we have been taught to entertain for blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded in neither reason nor in experience.”
And so the quest for equality continues.