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The Struggle for Equality in America

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America faced a multitude of challenges and tensions in terms of achieving full-fledged democracy at the end of the 1800s. Unstable government, an unfair economy, and a divided population were among the most prominent challenges and tensions. In order to see how these circumstances hindered America from achieving full-fledged democracy, we first must define democracy itself. Democracy is the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves (Cambridge). In order to achieve freedom and equality, America had to face political, social and economic challenges and tensions.

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Reconstruction was a time of political conflict and of drastic changes in the newly formed American government. At this time, the American government was not a system based on the belief in freedom and equality between people in many ways. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, newly inaugurated President Johnson was unable to provide the nation with unbiased leadership, or deal effectively and efficiently with Congress (Hewitt and Lawson 455). His racism prevented him from acknowledging the demands for civil rights, and his inflexibility prevented him to communicate effectively with Congress. In 1865, Johnson put into effect his Reconstruction plan, which offered white southerners “amnesty and pardon by swearing their loyalty to the U.S. Constitution” (Hewitt and Lawson 456). Johnson’s policies threatened to diminish African-American rights and conditions back to those comparable to slavery. Black Codes, sharecropping, and segregation made this easy to do. His policies were allowing the former Confederates to reclaim political power in the South, and because of this, Congress overruled Johnson’s plan and proceeded to pass new laws and amendments to the Constitution. These laws and amendments guaranteed African-Americans civil rights and gave only black men the right to vote. For the first time, African-Americans were gaining small amounts of freedom and equality. Congress also dismissed representatives from former Confederate states, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and wrote the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which extended citizenship rights to African-Americans and guaranteed them equal protection. The Civil Rights Act was the first major bill to become law over presidential veto, showing the inability of the South’s white leaders to accept the reality of emancipation, and making it clear that this was not a government based on freedom and equality.

An economy that is democratic is one that provides equal opportunity. During this time period, the American economy followed laissez faire philosophy, meaning there was hardly any government involvement, resulting in income inequalities and unequal treatment because of the absence of government regulation. During the Gilded Age, a small elite monopolized society’s most valued resources. This meant wealth was concentrated within a small, elite group whose exercise of political power was contradictory with democracy. Among the members of this elite group was a philanthropist named Andrew Carnegie. Also the founder of the Carnegie Steel Company, he constantly preached philanthropic ideals. A “Letter from a Workman” thanked Andrew Carnegie for the free gifts he had given to the people at the expense of his slaves, “Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves,” (Letter from “A Workman” to the National Labor Tribune). It served as a sarcastic critique of Carnegie and his unfair philanthropic values while also proving the small group of elite should not be in control of the economy. Political bosses and machines had enormous influence over the government of urban cities. They were corrupt, controlled tax rates, controlled prices and business, and stole millions from taxpayers using fraud and over-inflation. Unskilled urban workers as well as women, immigrants, and children did not share in any economic gain or benefits. They lived in poverty and in dangerous working conditions. Income inequality resulted in poverty, violent labor strikes, racism, and corrupt politics (Hewitt and Lawson 552). Working class poverty and unhappiness has been and still remains, a fundamental justification for government to be involved in social and economic affairs. It is clear that under these circumstances, freedom and equal opportunity in the workplace did not exist.

During this time period, the population of America itself was incredibly divided. White supremacy and racism were common attitudes among Americans, and not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did Northern views changed. Many believed blacks deserved equal legal rights and protections. In the South however, white supremacists formed social and political groups that disagreed. For example, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was an organization formed in 1865 to enforce prewar racial norms (Hewitt and Lawson 469). Members of the KKK consistently used threats and violence to intimidate blacks and white republicans. A freedman from South Carolina ― Elias Hill―appeared before congress to tell of the horrors he witnessed perpetrated by the Klan. In his testimony, he stated that the Klansmen, “broke open the door and attacked his wife, and I heard her screaming and mourning [moaning]… At last I heard them have [rape] her in the yard” (Hill). This organization also attempted to restrict blacks’ labor and activity, by passing various Black Codes. In section 3 of the Mississippi Black Code, it states that, “any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony” (Mississippi Black Code 476). This section of the code strips the right to freedom and equal opportunity from all African Americans. It is apparent that groups like these did not promote freedom and equality in all people, but instead spread terror among them. Another division in the population was in the ideologies of North and the South. The culture in the North was determined mostly by life in the cities, while the culture in the South was determined by the upper-class plantation farmers and their families. Northerners were predominantly Republican, while Southerners were predominantly Democrat. Debate of the Freedmen’s Bureau further solidified the positions on both sides. Republican Northerners were in favor of the Freedmen’s Bureau because they wanted to aid Southern blacks in making the transition to freedom. Democratic Southerners opposed the Freedmen’s Bureau because of the expensive social welfare program. These differences combined deepened the divide already between the opposing sides, and made it clear that both sides were seen unequal and prejudiced.

America faced many difficult challenges and tensions in terms of reaching full-fledged democracy. Political, economic, and social issues continued to impact America’s democracy 100 years after declaring its independence. There was conflict in government, prejudice in the economy, and a severely split population. Not until there is a system of government put in place with the belief in freedom and equality between people will it finally be on the path to full-fledged democracy.   

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