On the evening of 11 April 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Washington about black suffrage. The Civil War had been over for a week. Lincoln had already walked the streets of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, taking in the devastation at first hand. ‘The only people who showed themselves were negroes,’ the radical senator Charles Sumner noted. The president had been thinking about what would happen after the war since 1862, when his generals began to seize swathes of Confederate territory, but had stubbornly resisted the idea that emancipated slaves would have to be given the vote to consolidate their freedom. Perhaps what he saw in Richmond changed his mind: the eerie absence of the city’s white inhabitants confirmed what Sumner saw as ‘the utter impossibility of any organisation which is not founded on the votes of negroes’. When Lincoln spoke from the White House balcony a week later, he was characteristically cautious. He didn’t advocate universal suffrage for blacks and suggested that the vote might only be ‘conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers’. For some in the audience, this was more than enough. ‘That means nigger citizenship,’ John Wilkes Booth told his companions. Three nights later, he followed the president to Ford’s Theatre and shot him in the head.
On the morning of 11 April, Lincoln met privately with General Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts. The subject of the meeting went unreported for nearly 20 years. That morning Lincoln admitted that he was ‘troubled about the negroes’ after emancipation. According to Butler, he worried that the 150,000 blacks of the Union army would fight their former masters if denied an equal place in Southern society. Lincoln’s instinct was to ‘export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves’. Butler had the perfect plan. Why not send 50,000 black troops to dig a canal across the Panamanian isthmus? Butler would lead the mission, and Congress could provide money to relocate the soldiers and their families in ‘a United States colony … which will hold its own against all comers, and be contented and happy’. America would have its highway between the oceans, and blacks would have a permanent home where they might enjoy freedom without white recrimination. ‘There is meat in that suggestion, General,’ Lincoln supposedly told Butler.
Butler’s story used to be widely accepted. These days, virtually every historian dismisses it. Lincoln’s staunchest defenders insist that he never seriously entertained removing blacks, that his public statements about colonisation in the 1850s and early 1860s were a diversionary tactic intended to persuade a prejudiced public to accept emancipation. More critical historians concede Lincoln’s enthusiasm for colonisation schemes, but argue that his views advanced in the war’s last years, and that his belated endorsement of limited black suffrage demonstrates how much he had ‘grown’ in the White House. Eric Foner has become the leading exponent of the second point of view, and The Fiery Trial is a sustained argument for Lincoln’s growth into greatness. Foner consigns Butler’s claims to an endnote and assures us that ‘most historians doubt the reliability of Butler’s recollection.’
As the United States enters its long commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, Lincoln’s interest in black removal presents an awkward problem. The standard story of his achievement is as clear as it is reassuring: he freed the slaves, enabling the republic to escape from its founding sin and renewing the promise that ‘all men are created equal.’ When he died, racist Southerners prevented black citizenship with a sweeping system of segregation that endured for a century. In The Fiery Trial, Lincoln moves, haltingly but inexorably, towards a glimpse of black citizenship that is occluded by an assassin’s bullet. But Butler’s renegade recollection is not the only reason to resist the pull of this narrative. What if Lincoln himself was an advocate of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine? What if the vision of black belonging forged by radical abolitionists was fatally undermined by Northern enthusiasm for black removal?
Before he went to Washington as president-elect in 1861, Lincoln had spent virtually his entire life in Indiana and Illinois, the heartland of free labour. Slaves were excluded from the Midwest by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; free blacks were deterred by popular prejudice and, eventually, by a series of restrictive Black Laws. In 1834, when Lincoln began his political career in the Illinois state legislature, slavery was a topic best avoided. Between 1790 and 1830, even as the Northern states embraced gradual abolition, the number of slaves in the United States increased from 700,000 to two million. The old consensus, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, that slavery was an unfortunate and dwindling inheritance from the colonial period, could no longer be squared with reality. Black and white abolitionists attacked the South with a new vehemence and demanded immediate emancipation; slaveholders rebranded the system as a positive good rather than a necessary evil.
Most Northerners had little appetite for a fight with the South: militant abolitionists were shouted down, roughed up and – in several cases – murdered by white mobs throughout the North. Lincoln set his course between the ‘extremes’ of abolitionism and anarchy. He combined his duties in the state assembly with a burgeoning law practice and waited for an opportunity on the national political stage. When it arrived in 1846, in the form of election to the House of Representatives on the Whig ticket, the timing was dreadful. President James K. Polk, a Democrat, had just declared war on Mexico. Along with many other Whigs, Lincoln denounced Polk, incurring the charge of disloyalty to the troops. Then the Whig Party confirmed its meretriciousness by nominating Zachary Taylor, a returning general, as its presidential candidate for 1848. Lincoln campaigned for Taylor, a Louisiana slaveholder, but was passed over for an appointment when Taylor captured the White House. With little to show for his time in the capital, he returned to Illinois.
Lincoln’s retreat coincided with the realignment in American politics that enabled him to become a national figure. The American victory over Mexico had reopened an old controversy about how to square territorial expansion with slavery. In 1820, a debate over the admission of Missouri had almost undone the Union. It was resolved by a territorial compromise: a line was plotted westwards from the southern border of Missouri, dividing the continent into a slave-holding south and a free north. The compromise held for decades, but the admission of new territories after the Mexican War – including California, which straddled the Missouri line – set off another crisis. Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay of Kentucky, proposed to keep the Union intact by trading a free California for slave states elsewhere in the southwest and by tightening the laws forcing Northern states to return escaped slaves to the South. But in the summer of 1850 Clay left Washington, despairing of his ability to steer the bargain through Congress. The legislative triumph went instead to Stephen Douglas, a politician from Illinois who, though four years younger than Lincoln, had already gained the national prominence he craved.
In 1854, as the government debated the admission of Nebraska, Douglas persuaded Congress to abandon the Missouri line in favour of ‘popular sovereignty’: the residents of a federal territory, rather than politicians in Washington, should decide whether that territory entered the Union as a slave or free state. Lincoln, setting himself in opposition to Douglas, gambled on a strident alternative: slavery should be guaranteed within its existing bounds but not allowed in any new territories. His advocacy of this policy should have prevented Lincoln from becoming a national candidate, but both the Whig and Democratic Parties were buckling, unable to agree whether to allow new slave states. The Whigs quickly disintegrated, and the Midwest became the cradle of a new party dedicated to free labour. Lincoln cannily defined the Republican message in terms of his differences with Douglas. As they debated with each other before huge crowds in Illinois, their feints and blows became a national drama. Douglas insisted that slavery was not a moral question and that the democratic process should prevail over abstract principles. He saw no harm in applying popular sovereignty to the remainder of the West, and reminded audiences that the climate of the Northern states and territories couldn’t sustain agriculture of the sort that depended on slavery. Lincoln scorned Douglas for his amoral view of slavery and rejected his argument about climate. In Lincoln’s nightmares, slavery would eventually creep northwards and destroy the liberties of whites as well as blacks.
Their most dramatic dispute concerned the Declaration of Independence. Since the 1780s, the guarantee that ‘all men are created equal’ had haunted both sides of the debate. Defenders of slavery could hardly admit the principle, yet to argue that blacks were not ‘men’ offended scientific and religious orthodoxy. Critics believed that slavery was incompatible with the nation’s founding creed but struggled with the Declaration’s apparent promise that blacks should have the same political and social privileges as white people. As they followed each other around Illinois in the 1850s, Lincoln and Douglas reprised this old debate. Douglas bluntly announced that the line ‘all men are created equal’ had been intended by the Founders to apply only to whites; Lincoln told audiences they should ‘re-adopt’ the Declaration of Independence. Douglas held that the Declaration could not be applied selectively: either blacks were inferior to whites, in which case slavery was justified, or ‘the negro ought to be on a social equality with your wives and daughters.’ Lincoln replied that, while blacks were equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they might be inferior to whites ‘in moral and intellectual endowment’.
Lincoln couldn’t accept social and political equality between the races, but he needed the moral authority of the Declaration of Independence for his attacks on slavery. Colonisation resolved his dilemma. ‘What I most desire,’ he told an Illinois audience in 1858, ‘would be the separation of the white and black races.’ To modern ears, this is plainly racist. But for many anti-slavery ‘moderates’ in 19th-century America, a black nation beyond America’s borders seemed to solve all their problems: blacks could be equal to whites, providing they went somewhere else. Since 1820, the American Colonisation Society (ACS) had offered black Americans passage to the colony of Liberia. Only a few thousand went, but the society had considerable support from white ‘moderates’ and members of the political elite. (Both James Madison and Henry Clay served as its president.) When the Republican Party platform was fashioned in the 1850s, colonisation became a central plank. Lincoln was an enthusiastic supporter of the Illinois branch of the ACS, addressing its annual meeting at least twice. In 1851, ACS members in neighbouring Indiana inserted a commitment to colonisation in the state constitution. When he reached the White House, Lincoln appointed James Mitchell, the leader of the Indiana colonisation movement, as commissioner for emigration. Mitchell’s report to the Indiana legislature in 1852 captured the appeal of black removal to conscientious Republicans: ‘All men are created free and equal. But a separate and independent subsistence for the great families of men is clearly marked out by the Divine Ruler.’
Lincoln’s unlikely gamble – that a politician could rise to national power by taking a stand against the extension of slavery – was vindicated during the 1860 presidential election. The Democrats were unable to unite around their candidate, Douglas, and Lincoln won all but three of the 183 electoral college votes in the 18 free states. He failed to carry a single county in the 15 slave states but, thanks to the demographic supremacy of the North, he won the election anyway. Many slaveholders concluded that their votes had become irrelevant, and seven states seceded from the Union before Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861. The new president was keen to find a compromise: in his first days in office he sent the states a draft constitutional amendment guaranteeing the status of slavery where it already existed. But he would not budge on his opposition to new slave states. When the fighting started a few weeks later, another four slave states joined the Confederacy. Barely a month after his inaugural address, Lincoln led a diminished Union into war with its new neighbour.
His first priority was to retain the four slave states bordering the Confederacy that had not yet bolted. (The combined population of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware was 2.6 million, equivalent to nearly half of that of the rebel states.) If the Confederacy could be subdued in a single campaign, the Union might avoid a social revolution. But from the first skirmishes, blacks crossed the lines and took refuge with the Union army. Should Lincoln’s generals return slaves to their owners, as federal law required? In May 1861, Butler declined the request of a Confederate commander for the return of three escaped slaves. When informed that he was in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler politely replied that the Act ‘did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be’. Butler said he would return the slaves if his Confederate counterpart swore allegiance to the United States, which ended the conversation. Lincoln initially thought he could win the war without encouraging runaways or arming slaves but the disastrous showing of Union forces on the battlefield during the summer of 1861 suggested otherwise. In July, Congress passed a resolution insisting that the war was being fought for union rather than abolition; in August, it passed a bill allowing the federal government to confiscate any slaves fighting in the Confederate army, even those who belonged to residents of the border states. Lincoln signed it into law with trepidation.
As the Northern public edged towards accepting a war against slavery, Lincoln worked to avert the prospect of a massive free black population when the fighting was over. In March 1861 he instructed the American minister to Guatemala to secure land for a colony of black settlers. Shortly afterwards he began a long involvement with a financier, Ambrose Thompson, who claimed to have discovered coal deposits at Chiriquí in the Panamanian isthmus, and who proposed that free blacks could work the mines there and forge their own state. Colonisation schemes were explored for the Caribbean, Central America, Africa and the American West. Congress voted $600,000 to be used for black removal – equivalent to nearly 1 per cent of the national budget for 1861 – and Lincoln attached colonisation to virtually every prospective scheme for emancipation.
Foner catalogues the problems that beset these schemes. Foreign governments were reluctant to allow a black colony on their territory. The Guatemalans asked Lincoln’s minister why the United States didn’t resettle the blacks in its own western lands, a question which, the minister told his superiors in Washington, ‘I found very difficult to answer.’ Unscrupulous businessmen hungrily eyed the vast appropriations for black removal; one described them as ‘the carcass over which the turkey buzzards are gathered together’. The financier Bernard Kock agreed to transport 5000 freed slaves from Virginia to a free-labour colony on Ile à Vache, off the coast of Haiti, for which he expected to receive $250,000. In April 1863, Kock’s associates recruited an initial party of 450 for the venture. (Some of the freed people later claimed that they had been promised passage to Washington, not Haiti, and a personal audience with Lincoln.) When they reached the Caribbean, the colonists discovered that Kock had spent the first instalment of federal cash on leg-irons and stocks rather than houses – he was promptly thrown off the island. Lincoln sent a ship to evacuate the ragged survivors in February 1864.
Republicans flirted with the idea of deportation, but the first principle of colonisation was that blacks should be its greatest beneficiaries. Lincoln’s lieutenants in the Senate tried to win support among African Americans by linking colonisation to the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened the Great Plains to white farmers and freed slaves. Republican senators promised ‘homesteads for white men in the temperate zone’; colonisation would provide ‘homesteads for black men in the tropics’. That summer Lincoln tried out his arguments on a delegation of free black leaders visiting the White House. Blacks were ‘suffering the greatest wrong inflicted on any people’, he said. Whites, meanwhile, were ‘cutting one another’s throats’ because of blacks. ‘But for your race among us,’ he insisted, ‘there could not be war.’ Since ‘we suffer on each side,’ it would be ‘better for us both, therefore, to be separated’. Central America, with its tropical climate and its ‘rich coal mines’, could host a successful black nation. Lincoln acknowledged that free blacks had fought to establish a foothold in American society but believed despite this that: ‘For the sake of your race you should sacrifice something of your present comfort.’ To conclude that colonisation was not in their own interest would be ‘an extremely selfish view’.
The Republicans promised that the first ships would leave for Panama in the autumn of 1862, and although hundreds of volunteers – perhaps thousands – seriously considered the government’s offer, most blacks responded with disdain. Frederick Douglass, who edited a Washington newspaper, deplored Lincoln’s ‘contempt for negroes and his canting hypocrisy’. Whenever the government claimed they were getting a positive response, newspapers in Washington and Maryland were flooded with angry letters insisting that blacks were unanimous against removal. But colonisation remained central to Lincoln’s plans for limited emancipation. It was mentioned in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 and was a major element in Lincoln’s annual message that December. As the plans for Chiriquí and Ile à Vache advanced, black removal seemed likely to play a significant role in the war’s conclusive phase.
Then, on 1 January 1863, Lincoln carried out his threat to grant freedom to slaves in the rebel states. Although the immediate effects of the Emancipation Proclamation were limited – it didn’t apply to the border states, or to the populous areas of the Confederacy already occupied by Union armies – it confirmed two huge shifts in Lincoln’s thinking: that the war could be won only by disrupting slavery and that the Confederates would never accept a gradual dismantling of the slave system. The proclamation made no reference to black removal, which prompts Foner to propose a third break with the past: from January 1863 until his death two years later, Lincoln ‘no longer envisioned large-scale colonisation’.
At first glance, this seems a convenient argument rather than a persuasive one. The preliminary version of the proclamation encouraged Confederate states to free their slaves gradually – with 1900 as a final deadline for abolition – and to take advantage of a federal colonising programme. Lincoln clearly decided the final version should adopt a more punitive stance, though very few slaves were actually emancipated by the order (perhaps 50,000 out of a total of 3.9 million). The federal government, meanwhile, continued its colonising experiments: Ile à Vache, the only plan to make it beyond the drawing board, received its first colonists nearly four months after Lincoln signed the proclamation. But Foner insists that Lincoln’s public references to colonisation petered out during 1863, and that a stream of prominent black visitors to the White House – Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany – ‘seemed to soften the prejudices with which he had grown up’. In the last two years of his life, Foner concludes, the president ‘began to imagine an inter-racial future for the United States’.
Earlier this year, an archival find undermined this soothing view. Phillip Magness and Sebastian Page discovered new evidence that Lincoln continued to support colonisation schemes in 1863 and 1864.(Or, as the Daily Mail put it, ‘Abraham Lincoln “tried to deport slaves” to British colonies.’) The evidence for this lay in the National Archives at Kew, an ocean away from the Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress on which Foner mostly depends. Lord Lyons, the British ambassador to the United States, had been summoned to the White House in January 1863 to discuss ‘the emigration of coloured people from this country to British colonies’. Lincoln knew that British planters in the Caribbean and Central America were searching for labour. Perhaps the ‘contrabands’ – the refugee slaves – of the Civil War could supply this need and transform the fledgling colonies of British Honduras and Guiana. The proposals were eventually signed by Lincoln in the summer of 1863: British agents would recruit from the contraband camps around Washington and transport the ex-slaves to Central America. So at the time when, according to Foner, Lincoln was undergoing a racial epiphany, his administration was outsourcing colonisation to Britain.
Magness and Page attribute the slow progress of the colonisation schemes to infighting among Lincoln’s subordinates. James Mitchell was passionately committed to the project, and his personal access to Lincoln frustrated key figures in the cabinet. William Seward, the secretary of state, opposed colonisation and held it up; John Usher, the interior secretary, claimed authority over the emigration bureau and felt undermined by Mitchell; Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war, coveted black manpower for the Union armies. All three worked against Mitchell and the British, delaying removal as black enlistment in the Union army gathered pace. This wasn’t a deportation effort: as usual, colonisation recruiters looked for volunteers rather than conscripts for the British plantations. But this evidence casts considerable doubt on the ‘inter-racial future’ that Lincoln supposedly imagined in 1863.
Lincoln’s views of the abilities of blacks – like those of the Northern public – were affected by the feats of black volunteers on the battlefield. Foner approvingly cites the observation of the reformer and magazine editor Orestes Brownson, who wrote in January 1864 that ‘the government, by arming the negroes, has made them our countrymen.’ If military service was a litmus test for citizenship, black soldiers had won the argument for integration rather than removal. But Lincoln proved an exasperating partner for advocates of political equality. Radicals were unhappy that in Lincoln’s blueprints for reconstruction, leniency towards former Confederates seemed to be inversely related to justice for freed slaves. The president proposed that a state could rejoin the Union once 10 per cent of its (white) voters had sworn a loyalty oath. Although former slaveholders would have to respect emancipation, Lincoln told them that they had merely to tweak their labour systems to suit the ‘present condition’ of blacks as ‘a labouring, landless and homeless class’. To the president’s critics, this language implied that a lopsided and dependent relationship between blacks and whites would remain. In Louisiana, which had long sustained a small but influential free black community, a constitutional convention of April 1864 removed black rights that had existed before secession. Even the moderates in Congress rounded on Lincoln, and both House and Senate demanded that a majority of voters in a Confederate state should confirm their rejection of slavery and secession before that state could be readmitted to the Union. Brownson, meanwhile, told his readers that although the president ‘is, perhaps, in abstract theory, an anti-slavery man’, he ‘has done as little for emancipation as he possibly could’. (This assessment doesn’t appear in The Fiery Trial.)
Foner’s account of Lincoln’s last two years in office reinforces the conventional view of the president’s political greatness: he focused heroically on securing emancipation and shrewdly postponed discussion of what political rights freed people would gain. As one Republican senator put it in November 1863, Lincoln’s course had to be ‘radical enough to destroy slavery, conservative enough to save the nation’. But at some point the federal government would have to decide either to enfranchise southern blacks and to defend their rights (by force, if necessary), or to abandon them to the rule of their former masters under the auspices of states’ rights. Virtually all Lincoln’s words and actions in his final two years led towards the second outcome. Had Lincoln argued for universal black suffrage after the war – or even, as he suggested in his speech of April 1865, suffrage for black veterans and the ‘very intelligent’ – he would have confronted determined opponents whose ideas about racial separation had been fortified by his own remarks on the matter.
He would also have faced a continued enthusiasm for colonisation. Foner insists that the American public gave up on the notion after the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet it persisted even in radical circles. When Lincoln’s Caribbean and Central American proposals stalled, Republicans suggested racial separation within the borders of the United States. In February 1864, Senator James Lane of Kansas, a friend of the president, proposed a black state in the southern part of Texas with ‘four million good citizens’. A year later, as the House of Representatives worked to enshrine abolition in the Constitution with the 13th Amendment, Republicans and Democrats revived the idea of far-flung homelands for the freed slaves: ‘Tropical regions are not the home of the white man,’ William Kelley of Pennsylvania declared, but ‘the negro … will carry our arms and our flag triumphantly over that (to us) pestilential region.’ James Patterson of New Hampshire found a classical precedent: ‘I doubt not, sir, they will wander to other shores; but like Aeneas and his companions they will carry with them the elements of a civilisation in which other lands and future ages will rejoice.’ If freed blacks remained within the United States, Patterson prophesied, they would meet the same fate as the ‘proud but fading people’ who had originally occupied the continent.
Even Union generals embraced colonisation. Jacob Cox, who had served with General Sherman in the Atlanta campaign, was tapped by Republicans in Ohio for the gubernatorial nomination in the spring of 1865. Asked to clarify his views on suffrage, Cox insisted that white prejudice meant that the most talented freedmen would face ‘a vain struggle for the empty name of being lawyers without briefs, or merchants without trade’. His alternative was a black state stretching from South Carolina to Florida. A strip of coastal land would be confiscated from its Confederate owners, blacks and whites would be invited (but not compelled) to switch places, and freed people would enjoy full political rights under an American territorial government. The Civil War persuaded Cox that even people of the same race found it hard to sustain a ‘homogeneous’ nation. The Saxons and Normans had taken ‘four centuries of sanguinary warfare’ before their differences were dissolved in a mixing of blood, but the restored United States could not afford the wait. A black state within the nation’s boundaries would give ‘to the black man political rights and franchises without onerous terms’.
Cox’s view seems to have been inspired by one of the more celebrated episodes of the war’s last months. In January 1865, Sherman redistributed a thin ribbon of Confederate land on the South Carolina and Georgia coast to freed slaves and gave the new owners surplus horses from his army. This experiment inspired the phrase ‘forty acres and a mule’; and since later reconstruction plans offered neither land nor livestock to freed slaves, historians have usually spoken admiringly of Sherman’s efforts. To Cox, though, Sherman had supplied a promising template for racial separation. When Cox introduced his plan on the campaign trail that summer, he received messages of support from many Republicans. One of his staunchest allies was Sherman, who told an audience in Indianapolis in July 1865 that blacks should be enfranchised and admitted to Congress only if they agreed to be ‘colonised in Florida’. Radicals were horrified, however, and some withdrew their support from Cox. But in his private correspondence, the general reassured his friends that his plans for racial separation reflected a common feeling among Union soldiers, who were ‘almost unanimous against the extension of the suffrage’. In November, Cox won by a landslide.
Did Lincoln tell Butler that there was ‘meat’ in the plan to have 50,000 black soldiers dig the Panama Canal? Although we usually think of an isthmian canal as an obsession of the 1890s, it was already a talking point in Washington as the war ended. Moreover, an enthusiasm for colonisation clearly survived the defeat of the Confederacy, especially among Republicans who faced the challenge of substantiating black freedom after the South’s surrender. (In 1868, the New York Times told its readers that the US should annex Cuba and deport the entire black population to the island.) Foner is right that Lincoln’s plans for black removal produced paltry results. Beyond those 450 unlucky souls who sailed for Ile à Vache in 1863, the emigration office had little to show for its toil. But the goal of colonisation was never solely the removal of black people from the United States. It spared liberal whites from thinking about the ‘inter-racial future’ that would follow abolition. When the war delivered four million slaves to freedom, there was virtually no foundation on which to base black claims to citizenship. Hence the continuing appeal of racial removal, even among ‘moderate’ whites in the 1870s and 1880s, and the pitched battles of Reconstruction that followed Lincoln’s death.
Foner is sensibly coy about the most tantalising counterfactual in American history. If Lincoln had survived past 1865, would he have forced white Southerners ‘to acknowledge the rights of the former slaves’? Or, in the face of violent rejectionism from ex-Confederates, would he have ‘relegated the freed people to quasi-freedom under the domination of their former masters’? Most of Foner’s readers will dismiss the possibility that the Great Emancipator would ever have abandoned black Americans. But one theme that quietly emerges from the book is Lincoln’s sustained reluctance to mobilise the full power of the federal government against its most recalcitrant citizens. This may seem an odd observation. It’s a truism that the Civil War created modern America and resolved the long battle over whether the national government had the right to impose its will on the states. Lincoln, though, was painfully eager to rebuild the nation with minimal damage to the prejudices of the rebels. This put him at odds with the Radical Republicans, who wrested control over Reconstruction from Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Like Lincoln, Johnson was in favour of the speedy readmission of Confederate states and opposed to the redistribution of Southern land to freed people. Unlike Lincoln, he was a supremely clumsy politician who paid little attention to the sensitivities of black Americans or the radicals in Congress. The 14th and 15th Amendments, which established federal guarantees of citizenship, equal protection and suffrage, were the product of this conflict between a regressive executive and an incensed legislature. Johnson inadvertently helped the radicals find their voice and frame Washington’s duty to black Americans with a startling clarity.
After Congress voted overwhelmingly in 1867 to reorganise the South under military government (overriding Johnson’s veto), angry Southerners complained that their traditional liberties had been crushed by federal power: this was occupation by a marauding state that bore little resemblance to the government envisaged by the Founders. Charles Sumner met this charge head on. ‘Call it imperialism, if you please,’ he told an audience in New York. ‘It is simply the imperialism of the Declaration of Independence, with all its promises fulfilled.’ Unfortunately for the four million people who emerged from the war with nothing but freedom, the Northern willingness to sustain this imperialism was short-lived. The limitless intransigence of Southern racists might have exhausted even the most sincere defenders of black rights, but the Northern preoccupation with colonisation had severed abolition from integration. When black Americans declared that they were going nowhere, they discovered that racial equality was as alien to the North as to the South.