Originally published on forbes.com on July 7, 2013.
This was a very special Fourth of July and I felt lucky to be celebrating it in a small Pennsylvania town, which for a few days 150 years ago was the site of the largest military engagement in the history of North America. It is the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but what happened in Gettysburg 150 years ago would be part of the fulfillment of the principles of the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ....
The Constitution that was ratified over a decade later did not follow through on the idea of human equality:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
This contradiction caused a lot of arguing. Finally, they thought, the Supreme Court settled it:
A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State, and were not numbered among its "people or citizens."
The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race treat them as persons whom it was morally lawfully to deal in as articles of property and to hold as slaves.
Every citizen has a right to take with him into the Territory any article of property which the Constitution of the United States recognises as property.
Scott v. Sandford - 60 U.S. 393 (1856)
The contradiction remains, but frankly most people were not all that troubled by it. There were very few people in the North who believed in racial equality. A lot of the objection to the extension of slavery had to do with the concern that it made things hard for free labor. That small minority that thought slavery was immoral had a disproportionate impact, though. They are mentioned by South Carolina as one of the primary reasons justifying secession:
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
Texas was even more clear about it:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
Lost Cause advocates will argue quite rightly that few fighting for the Union wanted to be fighting for racial equality. It just ended up working out that way. Lincoln's explanation in the Second Inaugural is perhaps the best:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
The Army of Northern Virginia in retreat and never to attempt a Northern invasion again was not the only big news on the Fourth of July in 1863. The correspondence between the Fourth and Gettysburg was chance, if there be such a thing as chance. Not so Vicksburg. John Pemberton thought that surrender of the Gibraltar of the Mississippi might make for more generous terms. The surrender ended a long siege and may have been of more significance than Gettysburg.
I wonder if there is anybody who took the trouble to be in both places for part of the day this year. That would be something. There are a group of people who call themselves real-timers who try to be at significant points in the sesquicentennial at the exact time they occurred 150 years ago. My covivant is convinced that there is only one real timer, somebody she knows pretty well, particularly after I could not find any of them at Gettysburg. I know my friend from Antietam, George, was planning to be at Vicksburg, so I just have to assume that is where the rest were.
I've been thinking a lot about the significance of place and time and when I think about this Fourth of July, I can't help but remember a story told by someone alive in 1863 but far from both key locations. This is supposed to have happened in Virginia City, Nevada on July 4, 1863:
All the vast eastern front of Mount Davidson, over- looking the city, put on such a funereal gloom that only the nearness and solidity of the mountain made its outlines even faintly distinguishable from the dead blackness of the heavens they rested against. This unaccustomed sight turned all eyes toward the mountain; and as they looked, a little tongue of rich golden flame was seen waving and quivering in the heart of the midnight, away up on the extreme summit! In a few minutes the streets were packed with people, gazing with hardly an uttered word, at the one brilliant mote in the brooding world of darkness. It flicked like a candle-flame, and looked no larger; but with such a background it was wonderfully bright, small as it was. It was the flag!—though no one suspected it at first, it seemed so like a supernatural visitor of some kind—a mysterious messenger of good tidings, some were fain to believe. It was the nation's emblem transfigured by the departing rays of a sun that was entirely palled from view; and on no other object did the glory fall, in all the broad panorama of mountain ranges and deserts. Not even upon the staff of the flag—for that, a needle in the distance at any time, was now untouched by the light and undistinguishable in the gloom. For a whole hour the weird visitor winked and burned in its lofty solitude, and still the thousands of uplifted eyes watched it with fascinated interest. How the people were wrought up! The superstition grew apace that this was a mystic courier come with great news from the war—the poetry of the idea excusing and commending it—and on it spread, from heart to heart, from lip to lip and from street to street, till there was a general impulse to have out the military and welcome the bright waif with a salvo of artillery!
And all that time one sorely tried man, the telegraph operator sworn to official secrecy, had to lock his lips and chain his tongue with a silence that was like to rend them; for he, and he only, of all the speculating multitude, knew the great things this sinking sun had seen that day in the east—Vicksburg fallen, and the Union arms victorious at Gettysburg!
But for the journalistic monopoly that forbade the slightest revealment of eastern news till a day after its publication in the California papers, the glorified flag on Mount Davidson would have been saluted and re-saluted, that memorable evening, as long as there was a charge of powder to thunder with; the city would have been illuminated, and every man that had any respect for himself would have got drunk,—as was the custom of the country on all occasions of public moment. Even at this distant day I cannot think of this needlessly marred supreme opportunity without regret. What a time we might have had!
That's Mark Twain.
I had been hoping to push this out on the Fourth of July and to do something memorable to commemorate it. The reality is that I spent the Fourth of July sitting in my hotel room writing about the Second of July. For the life of me, I can't figure out how real reporters do it. It's like being a one armed paper-hanger.
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