Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America

Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America

by Philip A. Klinkner, Rogers M. Smith

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226443393
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/28/1999
Edition description: 1
Pages: 426
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Philip A. Klinkner is an associate professor of government at Hamilton College.

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Read an Excerpt

The Unsteady March

The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America
By Philip A. Klinkner Rogers M. Smith

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1999 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-44341-6


Chapter One

"Bolted with the Lock of a Hundred Keys"

The Era of Slavery, 1619–1860

In 1676, exactly one hundred years before the British American colonists would declare their independence, blacks bound to servitude for life joined landless whites in an effort to overthrow what they felt to be a repressive colonial regime in Jamestown, Virginia. They were led by a rebellious and bold gentry leader, Nathaniel Bacon, whose death from the "bloody flux" (probably dysentery) soon brought the insurgency to an ignominious close. Still, for a time colonial blacks and whites stood shoulder to shoulder in a struggle for greater opportunities. But Americans today do not celebrate Bacon's Rebellion as a milestone of interracial cooperation. Perhaps that is because its story is all too revealing of the sources, consequences, and limits of racial unity in our nation.

Nathaniel Bacon did not welcome blacks to his cause out of any commitment to racial equality. He originally formed his force to conquer the surrounding native tribes, even friendly ones, and take their lands for former indentured servants who had served their time and wanted farms. Bacon added black servants to his corps of poor whites only when he found he also had to fight William Berkeley, the colonial governor. Berkeley thought arming the Jamestown "rabble" too dangerous to be allowed. After Bacon's death, the Virginia government reacted to this spectacle of interracial servant solidarity by slowly eliminating white indentured servitude and expanding the then-new institution of black chattel slavery.

The pattern thus etched—increased white acceptance of blacks as fellow contributors to a common cause during a military struggle, followed by a long period during which whites instead consolidated racial advantages at the expense of blacks—is, quite simply, the pattern of American life through most of U.S. history. This chapter shows the politics responsible for this pattern at work not only in Bacon's Rebellion but in the entire American antebellum period, from 1619 to 1860. From 1619 to 1775, white Americans developed a racial hierarchy based upon black slavery. The ideology and the crisis of the Revolutionary War underlined this hierarchy and led to the abolition of slavery in the North, its weakening in the South, and the extension of at least some of the basic rights of citizenship to free blacks in many parts of the country. Yet after the military crisis and ideological fervor of the Revolution passed, white Americans soon began to build their new nation by reinforcing their racial hierarchies, as slavery was strengthened in the South, native tribes were displaced or destroyed, and the rights of free blacks restricted throughout the land.

Slavery did not spring fully grown onto American soil when the first Africans were brought to the Jamestown colony in 1619. It appears that these Africans came not as slaves but as indentured servants who were held to labor for only a finite period of time. Moreover, black and white indentured servants were treated relatively equally at first. As late as 1651, black indentured servants who had completed their term of service were given land on an equal basis with whites of the same status. Blacks also seem to have possessed some political rights, which in a few areas included the right to vote in local elections and the right to testify in court against whites.

By 1640, however, at least some blacks were being held as slaves in Virginia, and throughout the colonies the status of white and black indentured servants increasingly diverged. More and more, blacks were forced into a lifetime of labor, which was passed on to their children. Once established, the institution of slavery spread rapidly throughout the colonies in the ensuing decades, spurred on by the increasing demand for labor, the declining number of white indentured servants, and the growth of racist beliefs that Africans were uniquely qualified to serve as chattel slaves for white colonists.

As slavery grew, so did its repressiveness. Blacks lost most of the rights they had possessed as indentured servants. The fear of slave revolts and of racial mixing led whites to enact harsh and punitive slave codes to ensure the stability of the slave system and to maintain the supremacy of whites over blacks. The slave codes varied from colony to colony. In the South, where slaves were most numerous and white fears of revolt most acute, the codes were elaborate and brutal. In the North, where slaves were fewer and less important to the economy, they were somewhat more lenient. In general, the codes denied slaves the right to marry, to own property, to own weapons, and to defend themselves against whites. They forbade slaves from meeting and traveling outside of the supervision of their masters. The codes also established especially harsh penalties for slaves who committed crimes, particularly those attempting escape or rebellion. African American slaves, in short, did not possess basic rights of life, liberty, or property to any meaningful extent.

The small number of colonial free blacks also saw their status increasingly degraded by new laws. They had to go through burdensome procedures to prove their free status and they, too, could not own many types of property. Free blacks also had to endure higher taxes and more severe criminal punishments than whites. In 1715, North Carolina began what would become nearly three hundred years of fluctuation in black voting rights by moving to disfranchise free blacks. It would restore free black voting, subject to property qualifications, in 1734. But South Carolina also disfranchised blacks in 1716, Virginia did so in 1723, and they did not waver.

By the middle of the 1700s, slavery was widespread, prominent, and widely accepted in the American colonies. There was no hiding from it: between 1680 and 1750, blacks, the overwhelming proportion of whom were slaves, grew from 4.6 percent of the population to over 20 percent. In the southern colonies, they went from 5.7 percent to nearly 40 percent of the population.

And few whites sought to hide from it. To the extent that they thought twice about the institution, most white colonists saw nothing wrong with slavery, be it on humanitarian, religious, or ideological grounds. This was true in the North as well as the South. According to John Jay, the "great majority" of Northerners accepted slavery and "very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it."

Yet doubts were far from unthinkable. Some did criticize slavery vigorously. Led by the Quakers, these early opponents of slavery acted most often out of religious concerns. Others, however, criticized slavery for less noble purposes, such as a fear of slave revolts or worries that slaves would undercut economic opportunities for white workers. Whatever their motivations, those who condemned slavery in this era were, in the words of one historian, "like fireflies in the night," able only to highlight briefly, but not to dispel, the surrounding gloom.

The coming of the American Revolution changed all this. "Almost overnight, it seemed," states historian Peter Kolchin, "an institution that had long been taken for granted came under intense scrutiny and debate." In response to their perceived abuse by the English government, the colonists increasingly articulated a philosophy of natural rights positing that all humans are born free and equal, and that they possess inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. To be sure, the revolutionaries also portrayed Americans as a special "chosen people" with a providential mission to advance the cause of liberty; but they still described that cause as not only America's but also the "cause of all mankind." The colonists saw British taxes and regulations as denying them basic liberties and, therefore, they believed that they had a right and a duty to rebel against such tyranny.

In addition to putting the colonists on a collision course with the English government, the idea of natural rights had profound implications for slavery. Taken at its word, the philosophy of natural rights fundamentally contradicted the "peculiar institution." Antislavery advocates, who had previously relied mostly upon religious arguments, now began to stress slavery's violation of natural rights. In 1764, James Otis offered one of the first explicit criticisms of slavery on these grounds, stating, "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.... It is a clear truth that those who everyday barter away other men's liberty, will soon care little for their own."

The example of Crispus Attucks starkly juxtaposed the colonists' fight for liberty and their treatment of blacks. On March 5, 1770, a scuffle broke out between several colonists and the British troops who were stationed in Boston to enforce the hated British taxes. A mob led by Attucks, a former slave, soon gathered and forced the soldiers back to their barracks. Attucks and the mob then marched on the Custom House and confronted a lone British sentry, accusing him of attacking a civilian and pelting him with snowballs and pieces of ice. Captain Thomas Preston and a squad of seven additional soldiers soon joined the sentry, loaded their weapons, and took aim at the crowd. As many began to back away, Attucks helped to steady them. According to one account, "'Don't be afraid,' Attucks cried. They dare not fire.'" In the words of an eyewitness, Attucks, who was wielding a club, "threw himself in, and made a blow at the officer; I saw the officer try to ward off the stroke; whether he struck him or not I do not know; [Attucks] then turned around, and struck the grenadier's gun at the captain's right hand, and immediately fell in with his club, and knocked his gun away and struck him over the head; the blow came either on the soldier's cheek or hat. [At tucks] held the bayonet with his left hand and twitched it and cried, kill the dogs, knock them over. This was the general cry; the people then crowded in." As the mob moved forward, the redcoats opened fire, killing Attucks first and then three others.

Many white colonists acknowledged the irony of the fact that a black man was thus the first martyr of the American Revolution. In the words of historian John Hope Franklin, "It was a remarkable thing, the colonists reasoned, to have their fight for freedom waged by one who was not as free as they."

Spurred, in part, by Attucks's death, antislavery advocates increasingly hammered at the contradiction between the colonists criticism of English tyranny and their own toleration of slavery. In 1774, the Reverend Nathaniel Niles of Newbury, Massachusetts preached to his congregation, "Would we enjoy liberty? Then we must grant it to others. For shame, let us either cease to enslave our fellow men, or else, let us cease to complain of those that would enslave us." The English were also quick to point out the hypocrisy of the colonists. In the words of Samuel Johnson, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Blacks themselves, both slave and free, vocally condemned the gap between the white colonists' natural rights rhetoric and the reality of slavery. As early as 1766, blacks paraded through the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, shouting, "Liberty!" In 1773, four Massachusetts slaves circulated a petition asking to be returned to Africa, stating, "We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them." The following year, "A Son of Africa" published a petition arguing, "Are not your hearts also hard, when you hold men in slavery who are entitled to liberty by law of nature, equal as yourselves? If it be so, pray, sir, pull the beam out of thine own eyes, that you may see clearly to pull the mote out of thy brother's eye; and when the eyes of your understanding are opened, then will you see clearly between your case and Great Britain, and that of the Africans. We all came from one Father, and He, by the law of nature, gave every thing that was made, equally alike to every man richly to enjoy."

Prodded by such appeals, Massachusetts courts began to strike blows against slavery. They allowed slaves and their advocates to bring a growing number of successful freedom suits in the decade before the Revolution. But these cases were decided on very narrow grounds, and they failed to undermine the legal basis of slavery. Other states placed limits on the slave trade, including Rhode Island, which declared that "those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves, should be willing to extend personal liberty to others." In 1774, the First Continental Congress voted to end the importation of slaves, though this step resulted as much from the general call for nonimportation of all goods as a means to retaliate against the British as from humanitarian motives.

The first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 heightened the ideological intensity of the colonists. As the war unfolded, it became increasingly hard to justify the mounting sacrifices entailed when the purpose was merely the reduction of taxes on imported goods. In turn, more and more colonists came to understand the Revolution as an all-encompassing struggle for freedom and liberty against tyranny. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are create equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," he eloquently summarized what had come to be the purpose of the Revolution.

As the colonists increasingly portrayed the Revolution in such strongly ideological terms, their contradictory treatment of blacks became more pressing and the pace of antislavery sentiment quickened. Blacks remained often in the forefront in making this connection. In 1777, in a petition to the Massachusetts Assembly, "A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of slavery" expressed

their Astonishment that It have Never Bin Considered that Every Principle from which Amarica has Acted in the Cours of their unhappy Dificultes with Great Briton Pleads Stronger than A thousand arguments in favours of your patinas they therfor humble Beseech your honours to give this petion its due weight & consideration & cause an act of the Legislatur to be past Wherby they may be Restored to the Enjoyments of that which is the Naturel Right of all men—and their Children who wher Born in this Land of Liberty may not be heald as Slaves after they arive at the age of twenty one years so may the Inhabitance of this Stats No longer chargeable with the inconsistancy of acting themselves the part which they condem and oppose in others Be prospered in their present Glorious struggle for Liberty and have those Blessing to them, &c.

White colonists made similar arguments. In 1775, Thomas Paine argued, "How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes ... and now are threatened with the same. And while other evils are confessed, and bewailed, why not this especially, and publicly; than which no other vice ... has brought so much guilt on the land?"

Thomas Jefferson made one of the most important attempts to link the Revolutionary cause with antislavery. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he lodged the following indictment against King George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.... Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative [veto] for supressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Unsteady March by Philip A. Klinkner Rogers M. Smith Copyright © 1999 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction: The Unsteady March
One: "Bolted with the Lock of a Hundred Keys"
The Era of Slavery, 1619-1860
Two: "Thenceforward, and Forever Free"
The Civil War, 1860-1865
Three: "The Negro Has Got as Much as He Ought to Have"
Reconstruction and the Second Retreat, 1865-1908
Four: "The Color Line"
Jim Crow America, 1908-1938
Five: "Deutschland and Dixieland"
Antifascism and the Emergence of Civil Rights, 1938-1941
Six: "Double V: Victory Abroad, Victory at Home"
World War II
Seven: "Hearts and Minds"
The Cold War and Civil Rights, 1946-1954
Eight: "There Comes a Time"
The Civil Rights Revolution, 1954-1968
Nine: "Benign Neglect?"
Post-Civil Rights America, 1968-1998
Conclusion: Shall We Overcome?
Notes
Index

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