Early in April 1865 Charles Coffin, a correspondent for the, Boston Journal, witnessed an extraordinary occurrence. Having reported on the Civil War from the earliest days, he had observed many sigificant events, from the First Battle of Bull Run four years earlier hrough Grant's final campaign in Virginia in 1865. Now he was present at the capture of Richmond and the arrival of President Abraham Lincoln in the fallen Confederate capital. Coffin recounted:
No carriage was to be had, so the President, leading his son, walked to General Weitzels' headquarters-Jeff Davis's mansion.... The walk was long and the President halted a moment to rest.
"May de good Lord bless you, President Linkum!" said an old Negro, removing his hat and bowing, with tears of joy rolling down his cheeks.
The President removed his own hat and bowed in silence. It was a bow which upset the forms, laws, customs, and ceremonies of centuries of slavery.
So ended the Civil War. Of course, it would be a few more days before Robert E. Lee's final surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. And monthsmore of dislocation, followed by years of bitter Reconstruction and decades of hatefulness between victor and vanquished. But in this brief moment, in the crumbling, burning remnants of the Confederate capital, the heart and symbol of the ruined Confederate Cause, the war came to a close. Hundreds of thousands were dead. A large part of the country was in ruins, smol-dering. A deep sense of regional mistrust and racial hatred would sunder America for decades. But here, as the tall, somber president bowed to a former slave, the war was crystalized in aneternal moment of reconciliation: the doomed Lincoln, symbol of the Union, worn down by the years and the losses, slow to name slavery as the enemy but indomitable in his will to ultimately destroy it, and an aged slave, bent by years of relentless labor, glorying in the first flush of freedom.
"We have the wolf by the ears," an aging Thomas Jefferson had written to a friend forty-five years earlier. "And we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self preservation in the other." Jefferson's "wolf" was, of course, slavery. And this big, bad wolf had been banging at America's door almost since the arrival of the English in America. It huffed and puffed and nearly blew the house down.
The United States was born out of a revolutionary idea that Jefferson (1743-1826) expressed eloquently in his Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These notions, along with the very radical statement that governments could rule only by the consent of the governed, formed the basis of the Great American Contradiction: How could a nation so constituted, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and supposedly founded on the cornerstone of "liberty for all," maintain a system that enslaved other human beings? It was this contradiction-this Great Divide-that eventually split the country in two.
Only about one quarter of the people in the slave states kept slaves. And of the five and a half million whites living in the slave states in 1860, only forty-six thousand held more than twenty slaves. But to understand fully the Civil War, this Great Divide-this American Contradiction-must be understood. Its roots were deep, planted about the same time that the first English colonists were learning how to plant tobacco in Virginia.
Who Brought Slavery to America?
George Washington did it. Patrick "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" Henry did it. Thomas "All Men Are Created Equal" Jefferson did it. George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, on which the American Bill of Rights was based, was against it but did it anyway. Even good old Benjamin Franklin did it. In fact, many of America's Founding Fathers did it. They bought, kept, bred, and sold human beings.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 to debate the great issues facing a struggling, infant nation, seventeen of these Founding Fathers collectively held about fourteen hundred slaves. George Mason, John Rutledge, and George Washington were three of the largest slaveholders in America. Most of Washington's slaves actually belonged to his wife, Martha Custis Washington; they had belonged to her first husband. This is the part of Washington's story that gets left out when children learn the tale of the cherry tree. The moral subtext: Telling lies is wrong; keeping people in chains isn't so bad.
Slavery was as American as apple pie. It was a well-established American institution in the thirteen original colonies long before Washington, Patrick Henry, Franklin, and Jefferson were born, but it threatened to tip the great American ship of state from the republic's very beginnings. Both Washington and Jefferson expressed deep reservations about the practice of slavery and its future in America. Nevertheless, neither of them fretted sufficiently about human bondage on their plantations to do much about it. Granted, Washington reed his slaves in his will. Jefferson, who seems to have been brilliant about everything but his finances, couldn't afford that luxury for most of his slaves. He had to rely on the kindness of creditors to let five of his favored slaves have their freedom.
Of course, America had no monopoly on slavery. The institution was as old as civilization itself. Throughout human history, slavery has taken on many guises, and few civilizations have been built without some form of servitude. In his prize-winning book, Freedom, Orlando Patterson wrote, "Slaveholding and trading existed among the earliest and most primitive of peoples. The archaeological evidence reveals that slaves were among the first items of trade within, and between, the primitive Germans and Celts, and the institution was an established part of life, though never of major significance, in primitive China, Japan and the prehistoric Near East."