It’s been 160 years since Americans were this polarized. In 2023 we are again in a pitched battle about voting rights, equality and equal protection. One hundred and sixty years ago the question of what we should do with the newly freed slaves needed to be decided after the nation had nearly destroyed itself during the Civil War.
Most Americans did not know that during the Civil War President Lincoln and his attorney general had been working to resolve the “black problem” (newly freed slaves and free people of color) by trying to get them to emigrate back to Africa.
In 1864, war angry Northern Republicans wanted to punish Southern Democratic as insurrectionists for starting and carrying out the Civil War. Bitter and defeated Southern Democrats wanted to maintain the status quo of slavery and hold onto white supremacy and political power.
In 2023, angry Democrats want to punish Republicans insurrectionists and traitors who participated in the January 6th capital riot. Defeated and bitter Republicans want to maintain the status quo of a defeated Republican president and hold onto white supremacy and political power by making voting difficult for minorities.
It seems America is looking into a historical mirror image of its politics.
One hundred and sixty years ago an unlikely group presented the blueprint for moving the nation forward out of the abyss of annihilation. The group were Creole men of color from New Orleans.
In 1864 one thousand Creole men sent two representatives, Arnold Bertonneau and J.B. Roudanez to meet with Lincoln and petition the President and Congress for voting rights for all newly freed slaves before the end of the Civil War.
Why were Creoles able to lead on these issues? Before 1803, Louisiana was a French and Spanish speaking colony, and the customs and culture of the unique Latin society created there remained intact for almost two generations after the purchase. Creoles had been raised in a non-Anglo society which included liberal manumission (freeing of slaves) laws at its heart. Creoles were predominately Catholic, a religion that promoted the doctrine of one human race, not enforcing standing in society based on race. Most importantly Creoles were used to cooperating and clashing with their white kin before the Louisiana Territory was Anglicized.
After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Andrew Johnson, called the “Accidental President,” took over. Johnson was a Pro-Slavery Unionist. Johnson pardoned every Confederate soldier and sympathizer who approached him. He filled important positions in military districts established to run the South with former Confederates and Southern sympathizers. He voted against the Freedman Bureau and any legislation designed to help or protect newly freed slaves.
Those pardoned by Johnson were able to serve in government and regain property seized during the war. Because of Johnson’s mismanagement, former Confederates and Southern sympathizers were allowed to run amok in the South. Thousands of newly freed slaves were murdered, raped, tortured, arrested and disappeared with no prosecution and no legal recourse because, at the time, newly freed slaves were not citizens.
Johnson’s actions after the war so infuriated Northern Republicans that he radicalized a group of legislators. These “Radical Republicans” attempted to impeach Johnson and legislated the use of Army troops to protect the rights of former slaves in the South; an 8-year period called Reconstruction.
In March 1864 the Petition for voting rights for newly freed slaves was unsuccessfully presented to Lincoln and Congress by the Creole of New Orleans. Voting rights would be granted by the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870.
But later in 1864, in a seminal speech to politicians like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Creole Arnold Bertonneau created the blueprint for the 14th amendment in a speech where he stated “all men stand equal before the law”—the 14h amendment equal protection clause.
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment forces states to provide equal protection of the laws. And Section 3 of the Amendment states: “No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”
Section 3 was created by Republicans to correct a wrong perpetrated by Johnson’s pardons and to appease Northern Republicans who wanted the Confederates and Confederate sympathizers punished for their participation in the Civil War, which many considered an insurrection against the United States.
Many Radical Republicans wanted a 30-year ban to prevent former Confederates and Confederate sympathizers from running for or holding public office. Section 3 was prophetic, as today it is being used to try to stop former President Donald Trump from running for office after he incited the Jan 6th insurrection of the Capitol.
Looking back, after the Civil War we made a huge mistake when we allowed insurrectionists and Confederate sympathizers to avoid punishment and rejoin civilized society. This threw the country into a social, economic, and racial malaise that continues today. Today we have the opportunity to correct a historical wrong by adequately punishing the insurrectionists and traitors that are again threatening our society.
We have made a good start by punishing the traitors who participated in the storming of the capitol on January 6th, now we must finish the job by punishing those who gave “aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.” This includes banning all politicians involved in the insurrection from running or serving in public office.