What is Freedom ? The 14th Amendment

14-amendment

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am going to be traveling today for a get together tonight celebrating the life of one of my friends in North Carolina. The man who passed away, “New York Mike” was one of the people who brought me into their lives in Emerald Isle when I was stationed away from my wife, and still dealing with terrible depression and other symptoms of PTSD. Mike was great, and he will be missed. When one of my other friends let me know, I was stunned. At the same time I am glad that he was a part of my life, and that he will not suffer anymore. It is good to have friends who care, and I am blessed to have many.

So today I am basically re-running an older post about the 14th Amendment from my Civil War text.

Have a great day and please be safe.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The situation for newly emancipated blacks in the South continued to deteriorate as the governors appointed by President Johnson supervised elections, which elected new governors, and all-white legislatures composed chiefly of former Confederate leaders. Freedom may have been achieved, but the question as to what it meant was still to be decided, “What is freedom?” James A. Garfield later asked. “Is it the bare privilege of not being chained?… If this is all, then freedom is a bitter mockery, a cruel delusion.” [1] The attitude of the newly elected legislatures and the new governors toward emancipated blacks was shown by Mississippi’s new governor, Benjamin G. Humphreys, a former Confederate general who was pardoned by Andrew Johnson in order to take office. In his message to the legislature Humphreys declared:

“Under the pressure of federal bayonets, urged on by the misdirected sympathies of the world, the people of Mississippi have abolished the institution of slavery. The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever. To be free does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to social or political equality with the white man.”  [2]

Johnson’s continued defiance of Congress alienated him from the Republican majority who passed legislation over Johnson’s veto to give black men the right to vote and hold office, and to overturn the white only elections which had propelled so many ex-Confederates into political power. Over Johnson’s opposition Congress took power over Reconstruction and “Constitutional amendments were passed, the laws for racial equality were passed, and the black man began to vote and to hold office.” [3] Congress passed measures in 1867 that mandated that the new constitutions written in the South provide for “universal suffrage and for the temporary political disqualification of many ex-Confederates.” [4]  As such many of the men elected to office in 1865 were removed from power, including Governor Humphreys who was deposed in 1868.

These measures helped elect bi-racial legislatures in the South, which for the first time enacted a series of progressive reforms including the creation of public schools. “The creation of tax-supported public school systems in every state of the South stood as one of Reconstruction’s most enduring accomplishments.” [5] By 1875 approximately half of all children in the South, white and black were in school. While the public schools were usually segregated and higher education in tradition White colleges was restricted, the thirst for education became a hallmark of free African Americans across the county. In response to discrimination black colleges and universities opened the doors of higher education to many blacks.  Sadly, the White Democrat majorities that came to power in Southern states after Reconstruction rapidly defunded the public primary school systems that were created during Reconstruction.  Within a few years spending for on public education for white as well black children dropped to abysmal levels, especially for African American children, an imbalance made even worse by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson which codified the separate but equal systems.

They also ratified the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments, but these governments, composed of Southern Unionists, Northern Republicans and newly freed blacks were “elicited scorn from the former Confederates and from the South’s political class in general.” [6] Seen as an alien presence by most Southerners the Republican governments in the South faced political as well as violent opposition from defiant Southerners.

The Fourteenth Amendment was of particular importance for it overturned the Dred Scott decision, which had denied citizenship to blacks. Johnson opposed the amendment and worked against its passage by campaigning for men who would oppose it in the 1866 elections. His efforts earned him the opposition of former supporters including the influential New York Herald declared that Johnson “forgets that we have passed through a fiery ordeal of a mighty revolution, and the pre-existing order of things is gone and can return no more.” [7]

Johnson signed the Amendment but never recanted his views on the inferiority of non-white races. In his final message to Congress he wrote that even “if a state constitution gave Negroes the right to vote, “it is well-known that a large portion of the electorate in all the States, if not a majority of them, do not believe in or accept the political equality of Indians, Mongolians, or Negroes with the race to which they belong.” [8]

When passed by Congress the amendment was a watershed that would set Constitutional precedent for future laws. These would include giving both women and Native Americans women the right to vote. It would also be used by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended the use of “separate but equal” and overturned many other Jim Crow laws. It helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and most recently was the basis of the Supreme Court decision in Obergfell v. Hodges, which give homosexuals the right to marry. Section one of the amendment read:

“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. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” [9]

Even so, for most white Southerners “freedom for African Americans was not the same as freedom for whites, as while whites might grant the black man freedom, they had no intention of allowing him the same legal rights as white men.” [10] As soon as planters returned to their lands they “sought to impose on blacks their definition of freedom. In contrast to African Americans’ understanding of freedom as a open ended ideal based on equality and autonomy, white southerners clung to the antebellum view that freedom meant mastery and hierarchy; it was a privilege, not a universal right, a judicial status, not a promise of equality.”  [11] In their systematic efforts to deny true freedom for African Americans these Southerners ensured that blacks would remain a lesser order of citizen, enduring poverty, discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement for the next century.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Foner A Short History of Reconstruction p.30

[2] Ibid. Lord The Past that Would Not Die pp.11-12

[3] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War p.54

[4] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.162

[6] Perman, Michael Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.451

[7] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.121

[8] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.232

[9] _____________ The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv 29 June 2015

[10] Ibid. Carpenter Sword and Olive Branch p.93

[11] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.92

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, laws and legislation, Political Commentary

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