Program 13: America at the Centennial/The Revolution Betrayed
Donald L. Miller, with Pauline Maier, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Virginia
Scharff, Louis P. Masur, and Douglas Brinkley
Miller: 1876 -- America celebrates its Centennial: 100 years as a
Republic, 100 years in pursuit of the promise of the Declaration of
Independence that all men are created equal.
Maier: You know, I always think of John Adams' comments that all men
are created equal -- so long as you leave women and children out of the picture. You know, what they said. With men, it was gender specific and I'm quite convinced of that.
Martin: What I like is the sense that we understand that we are engaged
in a struggle. A man named Frederick Douglas, the Constitution, the
Declaration of Independence, all the ways in which civil rights struggle is
basically about fulfilling the promise that is there. Living up to the laws of
the Constitution and all of that. I think that's really what is pivotal.
Miller: Waldo keeps talking about complicating things. I like that
because he's also talking about simplifying, explaining them clearly,
explaining that they are complicated.
Martin: Yeah, that's basically the point.
Scharff: You know, the promise is out there. It's like this really
great shining thing that everybody wants to believe in but for a really long
time there are lots of people who are not expected to participate in that.
Miller: In 1876, is America fulfilling its most fundamental promise?
Our team of historians probe this question, today, on A Biography of
The 1876 World Exposition
Miller: On May l0, l876, President Ulysses Grant traveled to
Philadelphia for an unusual birthday celebration. The United States was one
hundred years old. Nearly ten million people, one fifth of the country's
population, came to Philadelphia to celebrate the progress and prosperity of
America, even though the country was in the midst of its worst economic
New, life-transforming inventions were on display: the telephone, the
typewriter, electric lights, and the internal combustion engine. But the
centerpiece was a 700-ton Corliss steam engine, which symbolized the
Exposition's theme -- that machines were remaking America and promised to
inaugurate an age of widespread abundance.
In early July, the realities of American life intruded into the Centennial's
celebration of industrial progress. A group of feminists, led by Elizabeth Cady
Stanton and Susan B. Anthony broke into the Exposition's July 4th proceeding to
read a document they called the Woman's Declaration of Independence. These
women had supported black liberation, supported the 13th, 14th and 15th
Amendments. But they felt outraged and betrayed when the 15th Amendment, which
extended voting rights to black people, did not do the same for women.
The same day of their protest, word reached the Exposition that George
Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry had been wiped out at a place called
Little Big Horn by a band of Sioux warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy
Horse. There were immediate calls for vengeance; the Indians would have to be
dealt with violently. Grant's hopes for racial harmony didn't fare much
better. That same centennial July 4th, 13 years to the day since
Grant's victory at Vicksburg, whites in Hamburg, South Carolina tried to
prevent a group of black militia from marching in an Independence Day parade.
When the case went to court four days later, fighting broke out between black
people and a group of whites who were armed with a cannon. After the blacks
surrendered, several of their leaders were murdered in cold blood. All of the
whites were acquitted in a travesty that was called a trial. Grant sent
troops, and condemned the massacre as "bloodthirsty" and "unprovoked." But the
future solution to such outrages, he made clear, would have to depend on a
higher power than the Federal government, in his words, "the Great Ruler of the
Frederick Douglass, who had been a supporter of the President, now questioned
the nation's commitment to Lincoln's pledge of a "new birth" of freedom.
"What is your emancipation?" Douglass asked. "When you turned us loose, you
gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the
whirlwind. And most of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated
Years later, W. E. B. Du Bois offered a more measured judgement. Reconstruction
was, he said, a "splendid failure." For a promising moment, black people took a
gigantic step out of slavery, with white help, and they were then were pushed
back into the dark night of racial suppression, abandoned by almost all their
former allies. For all that was gained by courageous black people, what
Reconstruction demonstrated was that racism was a national, not a regional,
As a nation, we continue to struggle with Reconstruction's unresolved legacy,
with the inheritance of the painful question of race in America.