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American History, the Civil War and Reconstruction Case Study

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Updated: Apr 28th, 2021

What do you think are the most important messages conveyed by President Lincoln in his 1) First Inaugural Address and 2) Second Inaugural Address?

Explain why you believe these to be the most important messages in these two speeches given the context of the time in which they were delivered (1861 and 1865).

President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural addresses—one during his first inauguration on the brink of the Civil War and one during his second inauguration four years later, when the war was at a close—were important indications of the most challenging issues for the American nation at the time. In fact, the use of the word “nation” in this context may not be accurate. Foner notes that in his first inaugural address, Lincoln did not use the word “nation” at all (although he said “National Constitution” three times), while he used the word “union” 20 times. Two years later, in another famous speech known as the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln referred to the “nation” five times without mentioning “union” even once. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln used both “union” (four times) and “nation” (three times). Through these speeches, an important shift can be seen from regarding the country as a collection of independent states brought together by common goals and shared values (a union) to regarding it as “a unified political entity” (a nation), as Foner explains. Reflecting on the main points and words of Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses provides a valuable perspective not only on what Lincoln thought were the most important issues to tackle as the war was about to begin and as it was about to end but also on what the president proposed to pursue. In this context, his first inaugural address can be seen as a call for the South to avoid civil war, as opposed to a call upon the North to start one, and the second inaugural address can be seen as a declaration of the need for reconciliation between the North and the South, as opposed to a triumphant celebration of the Union.

In 1861, Lincoln thought that his duty as president was to assure the Confederacy, whose president had been inaugurated two weeks earlier, that the North did not want a war and would not start one. Indeed, this is the main theme of the entire address, as Lincoln was mainly addressing himself to the South. He even stated that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exist[ed].” Furthermore, President Lincoln dedicated a large portion of his address to the U.S. Constitution, noting that it did not expressly state whether Congress could prohibit slavery or whether it was protected. Lincoln did acknowledge that the matter of slavery constituted a “substantial dispute” between the two parts of the country, and that the dispute was of an ethical nature, as one part of the country thought slavery was right and the other thought it was wrong. However, President Lincoln asserted that the government was unwilling to take up arms, as he said, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen [in the southern states], and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” Lincoln definitively declared that the states should not be enemies. Four years later in his second inaugural address, after many bloody fights in which Americans ruthlessly killed one another and as the victory of the North was close and expected, Lincoln did not celebrate but rather delivered a sad message. The nation had been at war, and Lincoln recognized that the most daunting problem was “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and prepare to rebuild a single country again. Similarly, upon the completion of the war, as noted in the documentary Reconstruction—The Second Civil War, Lincoln primarily emphasized the difficulties of reconstructing the nation rather than expressing a celebration of victory.

Imagine you are a U.S. Senator from Illinois in 1865. In a short editorial written for Illionois’ major newspaper, explain to your constituents why you support full equality OR the gradual acquisition of rights for African Americans.

Be sure to explain your position based on the context of the time and address not only the presumed benefits of your position, but also the potential consequences of it.

The ends of wars are often difficult beginnings, a fact that can be seen with special vividness in the case of civil wars. While it can be challenging for two countries to return to peaceful coexistence and collaboration after the citizens of the two have been shedding each another’s blood on the battlefield, it is a great number of times more challenging for people who are meant to be one nation and who must become citizens of a single country. Upon witnessing a cruel confrontation, we will have to learn to reconcile and reconstruct our nation if we are to continue down the road of history as the United States of America. However, the process of reconstruction will not only bind us to repair what has been broken and restore what has been disrupted but will also place before us difficult choices of what to do with the freedoms for which we have fought. We fought for the right purpose, and we have achieved the abolition of the inhumane institution of slavery, but it was clear from the very beginning many years ago that we would eventually face the need to make hard decisions about how freedom should be delivered to slaves, and now is the time to make those decisions. Indeed, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude by our National Constitution, definitive as it has been made with the Thirteenth Amendment, is not the end of the conversation but the beginning. Slaves are no longer slaves, but the question persists—how do we ensure that they have the proper opportunities to exercise their freedom?

I can generally regard the major dispute on slavery among my fellow-countrymen today as a choice between two options: full equality and the gradual acquisition of rights. The former means that people of color are provided with the same rights and freedoms as white Americans. The latter option suggests that rights and freedoms are provided in portions, without immediately making former slaves equal to white Americans from the perspective of the law. We have heard many arguments from the supporters of the gradual acquisition of rights, as they have said that people who have been deprived of all rights and are mostly illiterate cannot so rapidly step on the path of freedom and intelligence, for this will be a threat to them as well as the citizens of the United States. We have heard that becoming a part of democratic society requires preparation and familiarization with the most important legal and ethical principles supported by our Constitution. We have heard that full equality, even if it is proclaimed, will not be realized because negroes remain unequal to white people in this country in many ways. However, I want to draw the attention of all the good gentlemen who are against full equality to the notion of opportunity and its connection to equality. Most certainly, it will take a great effort to make former slaves a part of American society that enjoys the equal privileges and immunities of all American citizens, but what is needed now—and what I support as a United States Senator—is equal opportunity. It is necessary to declare that there will be no separate or unequal laws for people of color and white people. Before we continue working toward bringing former slaves the true freedoms that every human being deserves by the right of birth, we need to establish that they are essentially equal to us, which I believe is a self-evident statement and for which I can imagine no decent or reasonable objection.

Why did the federal government pull out of the affairs of the southern states in 1877? Was this the right decision? Provide at least two examples.

Politics can be seen as a matter of negotiations and bargains. There are always groups that pursue different interests, and they need to compromise in order to make agreements and decide on a shared course of action. In fact, politicians can rarely purely comply with clear principles because they often have to make concessions. A remarkable example of such a concession in American history is the bargain of 1877, which marked the end of the Reconstruction Era. Under an unwritten agreement, the federal government, which at that time was controlled by the Republicans, agreed to loosen its control over the South and remove the last federal troops from these states (or to be more precise, to order them “to stop guarding the state houses in Louisiana and South Carolina, allowing Democratic claimants to become governor,” according to Foner). Under the same agreement, a person from Tennessee was appointed to the position of postmaster general, which was a much more powerful position in the 19th century than it is today, having the power to promote the interests of the southern states in the construction of a new railroad. The other party, the southern Democrats, pledged to improve the equality situation with former slaves in the South.

The reason for the agreement was a controversy surrounding the presidential election that unfolded in the previous year. The Republican and Democratic candidates received approximately the same number of votes, and each candidate claimed the intention of becoming the president of the United States. To maintain their rule, the Republicans offered this deal to the Democrats who demanded privileges in exchange for a concession. The exact conditions of the deal, however, remain obscure because the agreement was unwritten, and it can be assumed that a large number of terms were discussed in person behind closed doors without generating any documentation. The decision of the Republicans to “avoid further intervention in local [southern] affairs,” as Foner describes the general sense of the agreement, was justified by the fact that further claims of the Democrats to extend their influence on the federal government were a threat to the achievements of Reconstruction, as there were still many people among southern Democrats who wanted to repeal the policies imposed on them by the Republicans of the victorious North. Such a situation might have led to a new deterioration of the relationship between the southern and the northern states. However, it should not be disregarded that many people, primarily African-American members of the Republican Party, felt betrayed by this bargain and felt as if they were “sold.” Therefore, the bargain brought the benefit of continuing the rule of the Republican North, but at the same time, it was seen as a cruel act by many people. The deal remains controversial today, and not all of the conditions were followed; indeed, according to Foner, “the triumphant southern Democrats failed to live up to their pledge to recognize blacks as equal citizens.” Nonetheless, the bargain was an effective political decision that allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to become the next president of the United States.

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