A Less Than Perfect Union

I have been reading Ron Chernow’s biography of General Ulysses S. Grant.  It is a slow read—I am just over half-way through with some 400 pages to go. 

It is 1865 and Lee has surrendered at Appomattox Court House.  In Washington that April, Grant is greeted as a hero, and President Lincoln invites the general and his wife Julia to accompany him and the president’s wife Mary to the theater.  Grant politely declines.  He and Julia are weary of the public attention and board a train bound for their home in Burlington, New Jersey.  That evening at Ford’s Theater, John Wilkes Booth, a racist Confederate-sympathizer and mediocre stage-actor, shoots Lincoln in the back of the head.  Grant learns of the shooting before his train reaches Burlington, and by the time Grant returns to Washington the next morning, Lincoln is dead.

But the war is not over when Andrew Johnson is sworn in as President.  Near Raleigh, Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army surrenders to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, but Confederate resistance continues in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Arkansas.

With Congress in recess, President Johnson begins to implement “reconstruction” by presidential proclamation, but his goal is not reconstruction but instead restoration of rule by the white former slave-owning class.  The President believes in white supremacy: “This is a country for white men and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”

Before the end of 1865, segregation is born in the South.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery, but slavery is replaced by violent oppression of the black population.  In May 1866, white vigilantes in Memphis burn black homes, schools and churches in the name of “white man’s government,” killing 48 blacks and injuring 70 more.  In July, a white mob backed up by local police attacks blacks in New Orleans, killing 34.  Grant becomes convinced that the presence of federal troops is necessary to ensure the security of blacks in the South.  That summer, Confederate veterans in Tennessee form the Ku Klux Klan.

The Radical Republicans in Congress pass the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship of former slaves by declaring “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”—what we are now calling “birthright citizenship.”  Opposed by President Johnson and rejected by southern states, the Fourteenth Amendment is eventually ratified in 1868.

It is an exercise in creative dissonance to be reading this history of the nation’s divisions 150 years ago while living in a new era of division, a time when the occupant of the White House would not be fit to wipe Lincoln’s boots let alone lead the Union he loved and fought for.

Today, when too often a black life does not seem to matter, we have a president who sees “fine people” in a violent white mob in Charlottesville.  We have a president who defines the country by the size of its wall and not by the strength of its bedrock principles.  It is a president and a new Republican party who define the country by exclusion and by the notion that we are not a big enough country for immigrants.  They would find America’s greatness not in its ideas about freedom and refuge but in its power to arrest, separate, incarcerate and deport.

Today’s president is not as vocal—or as honest—as Andrew Johnson was in espousing white supremacy, but he seems to hold immigrants in the same regard as Johnson held former slaves.  The promise of the Fourteenth Amendment is “ridiculous” and “has to end.”  He is a (get-over-it) “Nationalist” (okay?) and proud of it.  It is a nationalism that needs an excludable other to exist.  If he could get away with it, I think he would exclude blacks (but he is satisfied with his party’s voter suppression strategy).  In this president’s mind, though, immigrants are excludable, and he has said (or Tweeted) as much.

In Senate races, the mid-term election results vindicate this president’s view of the country, while in the House a different view has prevailed.  Reconstruction may be possible.

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