David Frum

01.25.13

The Best - And Worst - Post-Civil War Presidential Speeches on Race

The other night on Twitter I spent some time expounding one of the most under-appreciated state papers of the 19th century: James A. Garfield's 1881 Inaugural address, one of the very most forceful statements in favor of racial political equality between the Civil War and the civil rights era.

The elevation of the negro race from slavery to the full rights of citizenship is the most important political change we have known since the adoption of the Constitution of 1787. NO thoughtful man can fail to appreciate its beneficent effect upon our institutions and people. It has freed us from the perpetual danger of war and dissolution. It has added immensely to the moral and industrial forces of our people. It has liberated the master as well as the slave from a relation which wronged and enfeebled both. It has surrendered to their own guardianship the manhood of more than 5,000,000 people, and has opened to each one of them a career of freedom and usefulness. It has given new inspiration to the power of self-help in both races by making labor more honorable to the one and more necessary to the other. The influence of this force will grow greater and bear richer fruit with the coming years.

No doubt this great change has caused serious disturbance to our Southern communities. This is to be deplored, though it was perhaps unavoidable. But those who resisted the change should remember that under our institutions there was no middle ground for the negro race between slavery and equal citizenship. There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.

In the spirit of equal time, here's now a corresponding acknowledgement of one of the worst incidents of presidential racialism over that same 1860-1960 century: Theodore Roosevelt's annual message to Congress in December 1906. WIth an eye to a possible run for a third time in 1908, for which he sought Southern support, Roosevelt spoke at length about lynching in a way that suggested that the real blame for these rampages fell on black Americans.

Every colored man should realize that the worst enemy of his race is the negro criminal, and above all the negro criminal who commits the dreadful crime of rape; and it should be felt as in the highest degree an offense against the whole country, and against the colored race in particular, for a colored man to fail to help the officers of the law in hunting down with all possible earnestness and zeal every such infamous offender.

That's the historical record too, the part that tends to be omitted from so-called presidential history.