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Understanding the America presided over by Obama (2)

By John Moyibi Amoda
WHAT is not so clearly understood is the significance of pragmatic and moral ambivalence in racial policy in the United States.

Such ambivalence has served to inhibit pursuing any policy to its full implications. The policy of White supremacy, in the period from the Constitutional Convention to the Civil War, is inescapably obvious. But the hidden counterpoint is nicely illustrated in the opinions of the Attorney General in the James Monroe administration, an officer who could hardly have considered denying White supremacy.

Congress had long before prohibited Black militia, and administrative rules prohibited Black service in the standing forces. But in the War of 1812, Captain Perry’s crews could not be filled without arming Blacks. “Veterans” of the war were entitled (apparently by Congressional act) to land bounties on the public domain.

The question for the Attorney General was whether this promise extended to Blacks. Since the Attorney General found that Congress had no more intended black men in the standing forces than in the militia-which latter was explicitly proscribed-it, it would have been consistent to deny their claims. In fact, however, he took note of the fact that the men had been in the service, and he ruled that they were legally entitled to the land bounties.

Virginia adopted legislation requiring that free Black seamen, coming into port from other jurisdictions, should be jailed until their ships were ready to depart. The Attorney General ruled this is an unconstitutional act in violation of the federal government’s plenary rights under the treaty power. The seaman’s ruling is understandable since many of the merchant seamen were British subjects on British vessels, at a time when a contrary ruling might have produced diplomatic problems.

But why should an Attorney General-in the last administration of the Virginia dynasty have been so scrupulous about a land promise made nine or ten years before?

Anti-slavery politics raises equally complex issues. Very few people were ready for aggressive action to eliminate Southern slavery. Moreover, it is evident that the Black man was not a welcome member of Northern society in the slavery years. But it is also clear that there was much practical resistance to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

There was then no Department of Justice, nor any other very extensive federal law-enforcement mechanism. Hence, the Fugitive Slave Act could not be effectively enforced without the cooperation of the states. Some states, however, adopted “personal-liberty laws” which forbade judges and sheriffs to assist slave catchers, granted Black fugitives the right to trial by jury, and sometimes required prosecutors to stand as counsel for such fugitives.

Presumably, such legislation would not have been likely without fairly wide public support. Moreover, such support probably was more than symbolic. This would seem the natural implication of cases such as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue”, an episode in which students of Oberlin College in an early display of direct action forcibly interferred with the slave catchers who had arrested certain persons for return to the South in 1859.

The resultant trial, in Cleveland, produced an outpouring of public support for the rescuers, with the leading members of the town’s bar acting as their counsel.

The ambivalence hypothesis gains credibility if we notice that the people of the same states (Ohio for one) were divided about the Civil War, gave some support to Copperheads during the war, refused to approve the Fifteenth Amendment, and (as late as 1912) rejected a proposal to delete the word “White” from the state constitutional prescription of those entitled to vote.

Just as ambivalence obstructed the full fruition of White supremacy when that was public policy, so it obstructed the fruition of equality when that became public policy. This ambivalence is quite acute in the reconstruction experiences.
Reconstruction was really a low-grade undeclared civil war following the official Civil War. It did not take place in either a social or a technological vacuum.

The parties to that war were the majority of the White Southerners against the freed Blacks and some indeterminate proportion of White Southern allies. But the decisive variable had to be sustained intervention from the North, made operational through the federal role. As William A. Dunning wrote:

“The maintenance of order was but a negative function … ; [the] positive and most characteristic duty was that of creating in each state … a political people. Having given to such a people a definite existence, [military government] was furthermore to communicate to it the initial impulse toward the organisation of a government for itself, and then to retire into the background, maintaining an attitude of benevolent support until Congress should decree that the new structure could stand alone”(1965, 176).

Moreover, Reconstruction was meant to be (and required for its fulfillment) what we would now call “planned economic and social development”. An administrative agency, known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was supposed to facilitate the development of schools, necessary to provide a quick rise in literacy.

It was also supposed to resettle the freed population, aid them in securing land which they might develop as independent farmers-which would have called for breaking up plantations-and also in securing seed, tools, and animals to do the farm work. From the point of view of Black office holding, Reconstruction had some effect


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