In 1876 the nation held a grand exposition in
Philadelphia marking the nation’s one-hundredth
birthday of independence (the date that had
been “four score and seven years” from Lincoln’s
Gettysburg Address). Th e nation obviously had
much to celebrate. It had emerged from a bloody
confl ict that had called into question its contin-
ued existence as a single entity. Th e Th irteenth
Amendment had ended slavery, and the Four-
teenth Amendment had defi ned citizenship so
that it now included African Americans. At least
on paper, the South had been “reconstructed.”
Just seven years earlier, the fi rst transcontinental
railroad line had been completed, and the Exposi-
tion featured an exhibition by Alexander Graham
Bell of the telephone. Th e nation was harnessing
the power of the steam engine and would soon
take its place among the world’s greatest powers.
Americans looked back on the previous decade
and a half with a sense of wonder. Th e nation had
been tested and had emerged victorious, but it
remained deeply divided by issues of race, however
much they were (at least for most whites) fading
into the background. Although an ad hoc com-
mission had resolved the matter, the election that
surrounded the centennial celebrations revealed
that there were still fl aws in the Electoral College
system of selecting the president. As troops were
scheduled to leave the South, many African Amer-
icans rightfully remained fearful for their lives and
property, and in another 20 years the U.S. Supreme
Court would offi cially announce a policy of racial
segregation justifi ed by the doctrine of “separate
but equal.”
Th e Background
Th e Civil War and Reconstruction periods did not
materialize out of nowhere. African Americans
had been imported into North America since 1619.
However well the Founders build a trifurcated sys-
tem of government in 1787, they chose to leave the
institution of slavery in place. Th ey permitted the
continuing importation of slaves (although they
did not use the word) for 20 years, they required
the return of fugitive slaves, and they even counted
slaves as three-fi fths of a person for purposes of
representation in the U.S. House of Representa-
tives. Many blithely hoped that slavery would die
a fairly natural death as it was already doing in
Northern states that did not have large plantations
cultivating cotton, rice, and tobacco. In any event,
the delegates meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 had
more immediate problems to address including
the division of powers among the three branches
of the national government and the proper mix of
state and national powers.
Many of America’s most illustrious founders
are on record as denouncing slavery as at best
a necessary evil. Th omas Jeff erson confessed to
waking up in the middle of the night in fear of
the punishment of a just God on such an insti-
tution. Having slaves, he would say, was like
holding a wolf by the ears, and so it proved to
be. For the most part, however, these framers
regarded slavery as a state issue, and the system
of federalism that they devised and implemented
allowed existing states to set their own policies
with regard to it.
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