Some History of Racial Issues in the US

Public revulsion at the killings of George Floyd and other Blacks has led many people to challenge accepted accounts of our history reflected in symbols such as Confederate flags, statues, and names of military bases, educational institutions, and sports teams.

Many organizations, including universities, are taking a much more serious look at institutionalized racism in the US than in the past.  Some schools plan to address racial injustice in the coming academic year and the books described in this post are particularly relevant.

If schools and faculty want to suggest helpful readings, these books would be particularly valuable.  Even if students aren’t given required or recommended reading assignments about the subject, faculty may want to read these books themselves to better inform themselves in preparation for difficult conversations in the fall.

Some faculty may want to assign this short post to illustrate the complexity of these issues.  It includes brief sketches of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, who initiated real progress, but were imperfect – as we all are – and inevitably functioned within the prevailing norms of their times.  Indeed, these books provide fascinating portrayals of these norms and how they evolved, and the books help us understand people in the context of their times.

It’s particularly important to help white students understand this history.  This can be a challenge for contemporary whites who don’t see the connection between this history and life today.  In particular, some whites may feel innocent – and, indeed, may feel victimized by Black Lives Matter and similar movements – because their ancestors didn’t own slaves or discriminate, and contemporary whites don’t feel prejudiced.  White libertarian columnist Megan McArdle wrote an excellent article describing how unconscious affinity bias leads to discrimination that harms Blacks in many ways.  It includes the following:

I say “we” even though my personal ancestors never, as far as I can determine, enslaved anyone or even set foot in the South.  But I am a U.S. citizen, and the United States legalized slavery, even to the extent of helping some whites pursue runaways into free territory.  “We,” as a nation, did that.  They, as a people, suffered.

All modern Americans inherit a legacy stained by that suffering.  But black Americans also inherit the suffering, which did not end when slavery was abolished.  It went on and on, through the legal strictures of Jim Crow and through rampant private discrimination, which still unfortunately continues in diminished form.

Many common beliefs about history are inaccurate.  I’m not an historian, but the perspectives in the books described below provide plausible corrections of some popular misconceptions.

The Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention was a particularly significant event because it enshrined slavery in our founding document.

It’s also just a fascinating story.  I recommend Plain, Honest Men:  The Making of the American Constitution by Professor Richard Beeman, which provides a gripping narrative of the events in Philadelphia in the hot summer of 1787.

We often assume that events in history were inevitable.  In fact, the convention was a touch-and-go affair.  It was not at all certain that the convention would take off, lead to agreement, or produce a document that ultimately would be adopted.

For one thing, the convention was supposed to merely revise the Articles of Confederation, not write a whole new constitution.  It was not clear that the convention would get under way at all as delegates trickled in well after it was supposed to start.  The delegates were deadlocked for most of the summer.  They finally reached agreement in part because time and patience were running out.  Some delegates left in disgust before the convention ended and others didn’t sign the document.  The Federalist Papers were political pamphlets to promote ratification, which was far from certain when the delegates signed the Constitution. The Federalist Papers were not originally intended as grand political theory or legislative history, as people often view them these days.  (Considering the delegates’ extremely divergent views, this raises serious questions about the jurisprudential theory of “original intent,” but that’s a story for another day.)

The book details the debates about most provisions in the Constitution.  We take many specific provisions for granted but the delegates considered many other ideas.

The convention grappled with fundamental issues that we struggle with to this day.  The relative power of the federal and state governments was a huge issue.  And the conflicts over slavery were critical.  We would not have the Constitution if the delegates hadn’t reached a compromise over slavery.

The delegates included well-known figures such as George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, though their roles were quite different than modern images of them.  Hamilton has received a lot of attention lately because of the hit musical.  (Spoiler alert: the lyrics include “get to yes.”)  But he had little influence in the convention, in part because he proposed a highly centralized government, which clearly was a non-starter.

Did you know that Connecticut delegates were unsung heroes, who valiantly tried to mediate compromises and ultimately were successful at times?

PFOI Carrie Menkel-Meadow provides an excellent analysis of the process in Negotiating the American Constitution (1787-1789) Coalitions, Process Rules, and Compromises.

Slavery, The Civil War, and Reconstruction

The Constitution’s compromise over slavery delayed the reckoning for the decades leading up to and following the Civil War.  The following books are very instructive – and good reads.

The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner, who received the Pulitzer Prize for this book.

The Impeachers:  The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation by Brenda Wineapple.

Grant by Ron Chernow.

Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Updated Edition) by Eric Foner.

Abraham Lincoln

The modern, highly distorted, image of Lincoln is as a leader who fought hard to end slavery throughout the country.  The reality is much more complex as he came to that position only toward the end of his life.  The Fiery Trial places the evolution of his views in historical context of evolving attitudes in society, particularly in the North.

Lincoln was a decent, shrewd, moderate politician, not an ardent abolitionist.  He was sympathetic to the plight of Blacks but, for most of his life, he did not imagine freeing slaves and having them live as US citizens.  Indeed, for a time, he supported a movement for emigration of Blacks to Africa – an idea that would horrify us today.

He had mixed success in his political career, and the Republicans nominated him to run for president in 1860 as a compromise candidate because the other candidates had alienated various factions within the party.  Many people assumed that he would not be re-elected in 1864 because the war had bogged down, but Union victories in Georgia under General William Tecumseh Sherman turned the election around.

The Emancipation Proclamation is widely misunderstood, as many people assume that it freed all the slaves.  In fact, it was a carefully-crafted political and military order designed to help end the war.  It was limited to slaves in the Confederacy and didn’t include slaves in four border states.  It enabled the Union to confiscate Southern property (i.e., the slaves) and have them fight in the Union Army.  Lincoln gave the Confederacy several months warning that he might issue this order in the hope that this would stimulate negotiation to end the war and free the slaves (possibly with compensation to slaveholders).  He wasn’t sure he had the legal authority to issue this order and wanted the country to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment to remove any doubt about the illegality of slavery.

Andrew Johnson

Johnson was an accidental president, elevated to the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated.  He was a Democrat but the Republicans nominated him to be their vice presidential candidate to help win the 1864 election as a politician from Tennessee, a border state.  He opposed secession but was a vicious white supremacist.

Shortly before Lincoln’s death, Lincoln anticipated Union victory and was planning for reconciliation between North and South.  When Johnson became president, he also planned for reconciliation but was prepared for the South to continue much as it had before the War.  His reconstruction policies were very lenient for Southerners, many of whom continued to oppress  former slaves, and he provided little protection for the former slaves.

Massacres in 1866, particularly in New Orleans and Memphis, radicalized Northerners, which led to major victories by the “Radical Republicans” in the midterm elections that year.  These Republicans wanted vigorous reconstruction efforts and protection of former slaves.  This led to ongoing struggles with Johnson, which were the underlying motives behind his impeachment.  The Impeachers describes the fascinating twists and turns of the impeachment battles in which he avoided conviction by one vote.

Johnson emboldened white supremacist Southerners to resist Reconstruction.  If Lincoln had not been assassinated, our racial history probably would have been very different.  Lincoln was a mediator at heart and presumably would have insisted on protecting former slaves while also trying to help white Southerners to rebuild their society.

Ulysses S. Grant

Grant was an unlikely hero.  He was a kind, gullible fellow who was mostly a failure for the first 40 years of his life.  He struggled with alcoholism and lived in poverty, sometimes being homeless.  He grew up in a family of fervent abolitionists but fell madly in love with a woman from a family of fervent white supremacists who owned slaves.  Mr. Chernow’s account of the two families provides a fascinating illustration of the competing norms of the time.

For a while, Grant owned one or more slaves – a “gift” from his father-in-law.  Grant was mocked by local whites for working in the field alongside the slaves.  He emancipated a slave, even though he was poor and could have used the money from selling him.

His fortunes changed with the outbreak of the Civil War.  He had gone to West Point and fought in the Mexican-American War.  When Southern states seceded, he was outraged by the treason of their leaders, and soon he was asked to train volunteers to fight for the Union.

He had a rocky rise through the military ranks and eventually was promoted because of his smart and bold leadership, in contrast with the timidity of many Union generals.  He had a good intuitive understanding of military strategy, which led to some dramatic battlefield successes, though he also made some serious mistakes.  Lincoln was very impressed by him and made him supreme commander, with enthusiastic support from Congress and the Northern public.  After the war, many in the South admired him for his generosity to Robert E. Lee’s defeated army.

In 1868, he was “drafted” to run for president to succeed the unpopular Johnson.  As president, Grant took Reconstruction seriously and he pursued the Ku Klux Klan, which flourished under Johnson, killing and terrorizing Blacks and their white supporters.  Using the army and prosecutors from a newly-established Department of Justice, Grant brought the KKK mostly under control by 1872.  He easily won re-election but Democrats won control of the House of Representatives in 1874 in the wake of an economic depression.  This limited Grant’s ability to vigorously pursue Reconstruction.

He was sympathetic to Native Americans, though he was unable to develop better relations because of the continuing westward expansion of white settlers and public outrage about newspaper reports of “Custer’s Last Stand.”


Professor Foner’s work is part of the movement by historians to correct racist characterizations of Reconstruction by the “Dunning School,” which prevailed in the first several decades of the 20th Century.  It was not merely an academic school of thought.  It was a movement to legitimize white supremacy.  Wikipedia provides this quotation of a British historian summarizing its premises:

All agreed that black suffrage had been a political blunder and that the Republican state governments in the South that rested upon black votes had been corrupt, extravagant, unrepresentative, and oppressive.  The sympathies of the “Dunningite” historians lay with the white Southerners who resisted Congressional Reconstruction: whites who, organizing under the banner of the Conservative or Democratic Party, used legal opposition and extralegal violence to oust the Republicans from state power.

Prof. Foner provides a rich account of how the end of slavery and granting of civil and voting rights to freed slaves radically changed American society, especially in the South.  Reconstruction was part of a complete transformation of American society involving larger economic, political, social, and technological changes.  Freed slaves were “free labor,” requiring revolutionary new relationships between former slaves and plantation owners and other employers.  Reconstruction was problematic in various ways, but it provided an important transition for Blacks and American society generally.

Slaves generally were prohibited from being educated, so the federal Freedmen’s Bureau organized schools for freed slaves.  The Bureau helped them to get the necessities of life and get jobs, and its agents also mediated with the planters, advocated for freed slaves in court, and sometimes protected them from whites.

In a relatively short time, Blacks (including both former slaves and those who previously were free) developed strong communities of their own and some were elected to political office.

Reconstruction ended in 1877 as part of a political compromise.  The outcome of the presidential election was highly contested, and Democrats acquiesced to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for withdrawal of federal troops from the South.  This effectively ended Reconstruction, leaving Southern white supremacists free to terrorize and subjugate Blacks in every aspect of life.

Tragically, our racial history still haunts us to this day.  This post is an annotated bibliography of other books describing our racial history.

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