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America at the Centennial
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Imagemap: link to IRC Credits

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 America.

The 1876 World Exposition

[Picture of Professor Miller]

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 depression ever.

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.

[Picture of Custer]

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 Universe."

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 masters."

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, scourge.

As a nation, we continue to struggle with Reconstruction's unresolved legacy, with the inheritance of the painful question of race in America.

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