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Colors: A Polemic

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

By 1868 the American War Secretary Edward Stanton had positioned himself behind his desk under armed guard in the War Department, congress was positioning itself to impeach the President and President Andrew Johnson positioned himself behind the American Army in defense of what he considered a coup d’état by the radical Republican congress. Many in congress even believed Johnson was no better than the President of the former confederacy, Jefferson Davis himself.

For four years (1861-1865) the United States, founded on the principle that all men are created equal, finally wrestled with the contradiction unsolved by its Revolution almost a century earlier: African slavery. The Southern States felt their representative power was threatened by the election of President Abraham Lincoln, a candidate who at the time did not advocate for abolishing slavery in the South but favored halting the spread of the “peculiar institution” to new territories. The disagreement over the election of “King Abraham Africanus I”, and the dispute over the spread of slavery, boiled over into a conflict that killed more Americans than every other American war combined. Now the task remained of Reconstruction, an effort to rebuild the rebellious south and the question of what would happen to the millions of freed African slaves. For the rebelling southerners an end to the hostilities was one thing, but citizenship and voting rights for their former property was something else. “The old rebel spirit will not only revive, but it will make itself felt,” wrote the Republican Governor of Mississippi Adelbert Ames. “It will roam over the land, thirsty for revenge...the war is not yet over.”

General Philip Sheridan during the Civil War. Although an ally of Reconstruction Sheridan was less tolerant when it came to Native American policy and is famous for coining the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

Reconstruction performed the perverted happily ever after to the dismal bloodbath that was the American Civil War. It served as the fantasy of carnage complete as well as the quiet concern of the true challenge that more keen observers knew lay ahead. There was some serious progress made during the early years of the project, mostly due to the persistence of free blacks and the moral courage of Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant who oversaw the military details of Reconstruction. During Johnson’s four years, when military governors controlled much of the post-war organizing in the South, General Philip Sheridan removed the corrupt governor of Louisiana, desegregated the streetcars of New Orleans and ordered the mayors of Louisiana and Texas to recruit at least half of their police force from former Union soldiers, meaning at least some black troops. Before being fired by the president, General Pope even allowed blacks to serve on juries. The Radical Republican congress took huge steps toward black citizenship and suffrage as well as protection from organizations like the newly formed Ku Klux Klan. However for the last nine months of his presidency, as well as for the remainder of Reconstruction (through 1876), Johnson and his party made sure to hamper any effort at progress, fighting tooth and nail to prevent a successful Reconstruction from becoming a reality. The president replaced more progressive military governors with conservative ones, he refused to act in the face of racial violence in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, and he ultimately fired the pro-Reconstruction Stanton while being openly hostile to racial equality. “This country is for white men,” said Johnson. “And by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” By the election of 1872, the then president Ulysses S. Grant felt “it would have been better never to have made the sacrifice of blood and treasure to save the Union than to have the Democratic Party come to power now and sacrifice by the ballot what the bayonet seemed to have accomplished.” Throughout the war Johnson had been an ardent supporter of the Union. He called seceding Southerners “traitors”, a courageous stance to take in his home state of Tennessee, and was the only Senator from a secession state to retain his seat. As a Democrat, this made him appealing to the Republicans and helped put him on the ballot as Vice President with Lincoln in 1864. Johnson’s obstructionist attitude really begs the question of why he would not want to see through the progress made by the Civil War.

Andrew Johnson was always impeccably dressed but his speech was more often less polished. When he was giving his inauguration speech to the Senate as Vice President it was said he was belligerently drunk. President Lincoln thought it was best he didn't speak outside.

The answer is tragically simple. Andrew Johnson, along with many of the former rebels and Democrats, believed that their race was more important than their country; or even democracy itself when it really came down to it. If freed blacks were able to govern and govern well, their theory of racial inequality would be wrong, and with that they'd lose their superiority. “If there is one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois. “It was good Negro government.” The men and women who obstructed Reconstruction were willing to put the color of their skin before the colors of their flag. When it comes to doing the right thing there are principles that go beyond national loyalty. However pigmentation has never qualified as one of those transcendent moral principles, especially if one were to call themselves patriots. Being a citizen of the United States is not a title predicated on ethnicity or race. It’s based on a belief in a series of ideals written in our Constitution and lived out in the legendary true stories of those striving for liberty. To betray those ideals for the sake of pseudo science is by definition un-American. Unfortunately this is idea of race over country is not relegated to the trash bin of history. It has survived well into the twenty-first century. The most extreme example of this is of course the usual Rat Pack of White Supremacists whose loyalty to race is so transparent and extreme they’re not worth focusing on here. However there are more subtle examples, the more serious ones that hide behind the red, white and blue to revive the grey and return the United States to some antebellum pipe dream; a legacy started long ago. “I have so often heard expressions,” remarked Phil Sheridan in 1874. “That the new rebellion was to be fought under stars and stripes and in the north as well as the south - that the mistake made in 1861 was to have had their own flag.” Taking this into consideration, it is no coincidence a man like Donald Trump was elected to the presidency of the United States after eight years of the nations first black president. Trump’s most dedicated supporters are the biggest flag wavers this side of the Atlantic. However they stand by a man who is a self-proclaimed nationalist, kept blacks and mutilated veterans from owning property in his buildings and very clearly took the side of another country. That country of course being Russia. For those on the far right there is something special about Russia. Vladimir Putin prides himself on the idea of a mythical historical memory of Christian white males carving out an icy utopian empire, in contrast to the supposed “feminine” western ideals of democracy and equality. To its credit most of the west has tried to wipe off the smut of the 19th century while Russia bathes in it, establishing itself on the ideas of inequality, historical myth and white supremacy. Putin has made Russia the last refuge of the Wests worst demons. He wants to be seen as a man who can do what he wants to whoever he wants. He poses for photos of riding shirtless on a majestic steed like a low budget Viagra commercial, daring you to be man enough to join him. For Trump and his most ardent supporters, old white men, he is an appealing image. It’s why the president insists on inviting Putin to the G-7 summit, and clings to him like a eunuch. It is why we see shirts at the president’s rallies that read “I’d rather be a Russian than Democrat,” and why over 35% of Republicans had a “very favorable” view of Putin in 2016 and ultimately why they support the ultimate illusion of manhood, Donald Trump himself. That being said, one must consider that many of the president’s supporters don’t care if his policies will hurt them in the end. As long as he supports the color of their skin, and keep their illusion of virility alive, they’ll willing donate any democratic organ, however vital.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. Prone to numerous misconceptions over the years, Grant was a considered a notorious alcoholic, however after temporarily resigning his military post in the mid 1850s he seldom drank.

During the decades following the Civil War many of the more tolerant and observant participants understood this racial incentive. President Grant even wrote of this in his annual address to Congress in 1874:

Under existing conditions the Negro votes the Republican ticket because he knows his friends are of that party. Many a good citizen votes the opposite not because [he] agrees with the principles of state which separate party, but because, generally, he is opposed to Negro rule. This is a most delusive cry. Treat the Negro as a citizen and a voter - as he is, and must remain - and soon parties will be divided, not on the color line, but on principle

Grant was one of the few Americans in politics that understood the power of race when it came to progress. “The present difficulty in bringing all parts of the United States to a happy unity and love of country grows out of the prejudice of color,” he said in 1869. “The prejudice is a senseless one, but it exists.” However even Grant underestimated the level to which many racists, even within his own party were willing to go to prevent the success of black Americans. By the time Reconstruction came to an end many radicals considered the war over, fatigue set in, and then like now, many people believed the issue of race equality had been solved. It still surprises me, as I’m sure it surprises others, the fanatic nature in which people carry out their political will when it comes to racism. Logic tells us the concept of racism is too silly and the predication too stupid to sacrifice so much for, because it is grounded firmly in emotion and compulsion rather than sense or reason. That doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous, and it doesn’t make its power any less real. Grant was right, it is senseless, which is why ex-Confederate leaders spent the last decades of their life attempting to subvert their original ideological basis of the Civil War with their "Lost Cause" narrative. Too frequently fanaticism outruns logic. It is with this zealous strength ISIS burns people alive and pushes gay men off buildings for the crime of their love. It’s with the same energy Christians slaughtered Cathars in Southern France and the same instinct in which Russian Cossacks carried out pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe. It’s this same sensation, which led to the massacre at Fort Pillow in 1864 and at The Crater three months later. Racism holds that level of power. Now, like then, the prejudice of color has the capability to kill our democracy. It shouldn’t be surprising to any student of history, that fanatical beliefs can cause anyone to do anything, no matter how stupid or heinous. When it comes to these particular crimes against civilization, I think we can find the causes (and hopefully some solutions) in the Civil War and Reconstruction; a time when blatant racism shaped policy and Americans were more willing to show their true colors, not behind false ones and through which true patriots emerged.

Sources: - Trump, black housing discrimination

- Trump, Veteran housing discrimination

- Mueller quote

Grant by Ron Chernow (2017). Penguin Group

The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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