The Battle for Equality

Two recent books grapple with Reconstruction-era constitutional change in the US, and equality as an American ideal

Illustration by German-born American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, often considered to be the “Father of the American Cartoon”. Image obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

We are living in a crisis of inequality. The twenty-six richest people on the planet currently own as much private net wealth as the poorest half of the human population. Our inequality problem—endemic to capitalism but intensified after decades of ascendant neoliberalism—is both relative and absolute. Steep imbalances exist between richer and poorer nations, but also within wealthy societies. In the United States, the three richest individuals now own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent, or over 150 million people.

Over the past decade, concerns about inequality have spearheaded critiques of the prevailing economic order across the globe. Recent protests from Lebanon and France to Ecuador and Chile underscore the breach between the rich and the rest. Corbynism and La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) have attempted to convert discontent over the issue into electoral gains.

In the United States, the “99%” slogan of Occupy Wall Street, the best-selling books of Thomas Piketty, and the social movement politics of Bernie Sanders (who called inequality “the great moral issue of our time”) all spotlight the planetary gap between rich and poor. Although focusing on differences in individual wealth can obscure the more critical points of difference between classes, the world’s deepening material divide has in many ways come to define the twenty-first century’s struggle against corporate capitalism.

The dilemma of wealth inequality in the US is nothing new, and appeals to its inverse and antidote, equality, have long characterized American political culture. The US was founded by a small group of wealthy white (and in most cases slaveholding) men who declared that “all men are created equal.” Appropriated by slaveholders and abolitionists alike, and famously wielded by politicians from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln, disputes over the meaning of Thomas Jefferson’s aforementioned phrase magnified throughout the antebellum period.

The Civil War, which acquired new and radical dimensions following the overthrow of the nation’s largest concentration of property (enslaved people), was capped with a “constitutional revolution” that would frame the impending struggle over social parity. The “regime change” wrought by secession and war led eventually to the ascendancy of the Radical Republicans and the lawful abolition of slavery, the definition of citizenship, granting equal protection under the law, and the enfranchisement of all male citizens.

The word “equality” was ubiquitous but imprecise in the post-Civil War United States. Democrats infused it with assumptions of white supremacy; Republicans typically supported a broader definition that stopped abruptly at civic rights.

As wartime political coalitions unraveled, the consciousness and horizons of workers broadened, and countless of them demanded that “equality” be promoted within economic as well as social and political spheres. Freedpeople in the South, as well as a handful white reformers, called for the redistribution of land. Women pressed for gender equality.

Indeed, the war had produced a variety of newfound collectivist impulses, borne from the hardships of the industrial economy and new ideas about liberation gleaned from the emancipation of black slaves. Clashes over equality gained new urgency during the Gilded Age, as working people confronted the oppressive realities of industrial capitalism and reformers wondered how to square unprecedented capital aggregation and material disparity with the equitable professions of political democracy.

Antislavery activists, mass politics, and, ultimately, the federal courts would all play a central roles in this contest. Eric Foner’s new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, examines the process by which a political party, the Republicans, successfully exploited a vital opening to employ the full legal apparatus of the state in the service of its vision of equality. Through the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, Foner maintains that the war era antislavery coalition was able to “re-found” the nation by transforming a locally based legal culture into “one committed, at least ostensibly, to the equality of all Americans.”

In surveying the dramatic and highly contingent developments of the Reconstruction Amendments, Foner illustrates how notions of equality guided the sweep of the Radical Republican project. Emancipation, for example, was unique to world history in not only its size and scope, but also in its lack of monetary compensation to slaveholders and its implied prohibition of any involuntary colonization of former slaves. These advances were shaped not only by decades of antislavery activism, but also in-the-moment intraparty insurgents. For instance, the threat of anti-administration leftists running John C. Frémont for president in 1864 on a platform calling for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery and establishing “absolute equality before the law” influenced the speed of Lincoln’s movement toward the Thirteenth Amendment.

Subsequent amendments procured birthright citizenship, itself a repudiation of white nationalism, as well as the inclusion of black men within the political community. In breaking the “federal consensus,” or the idea that the state had little power to attack institutions or protect citizens, the national government became for the first time what abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner termed a “custodian of freedom.”

Though earthshattering in consequence, the amendments were nonetheless imperfect. The aims of equality within the landmark legal changes remain in need of continuous elaboration and redefinition. The Thirteenth Amendment did not define “involuntary servitude,” thus permitting assorted systems of semi-free labour and allowing provisions for convict labour which morphed into “slavery by another name,” skewed by race and class. The Fourteenth Amendment ignored the status of Native Americans and left the door open for rights violations by private individuals. The Fifteenth Amendment allowed for voter disenfranchisement so long as new voter restrictions were not expressly based on race. Yet, as Foner reminds, such ambiguities are not merely impediments. They also create radical possibilities, laying the groundwork for future rights struggles.

The fact that laws—even supremely transformational ones—did not provide equality as many citizens understood it gave rise to a host of egalitarian-oriented social movements. Charles Postel’s Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 explores the key questions and contradictions of these campaigns. He argues that the Civil War engendered unprecedented collective action, leading to a series of “cooperative decades” characterized by a proliferation of class, trade, and rights-aligned leagues, unions, lodges, assemblies, and societies. In doing so, Postel delves into how postwar wage earners engaged ideas about equality in the face of accelerating Gilded Age imbalances. He asserts that “the great social movements of the time reflected an understanding that without equality there could be no freedom, and without solidarity there could be no equality.” Ultimately, however, claims to equality inspired, but conflicting claims hindered, the solidarity and long-term success of the era’s working-class crusades.

Postel examines the politics of inequality through a series of case studies. Viewing monopoly as an expression of class inequality, and pursuing the regulation of railroads in order to combat it, the Grangers, an organization of farmers formed in the late 1860s, became a formidable opponent of corporate power. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) saw the most extensive women’s organization in US history attempt to tame unbridled capitalism through a multisided attack on legal and social inequality that ranged from prohibition and women’s suffrage to public health and prison reform. The Knights of Labour made interracial and gender inclusive attempts to equalize relations not only between capital and labour, but between wage earners of different occupations, skills, and positions. Their counterclaims reverberated even as elites justified the growing divide between have and have-not through new popularizations of race science, xenophobia, and social theories, including Social Darwinism and the Horatio Alger myth, devised to affirm hierarchies of class, race, and gender.

These were not local and decentralized resistances. Rather, Grange societies, the WCTU, and the Knights of Labour—organizational precursors to the Populist moment of 1892—were all heavily bureaucratic projects that used public institutions and wielded state and federal power in their attempts to stem rising corporate power. Although they opposed “class legislation” of laws and policies that favored corporate interests, as well as “special privileges” provided by the government to private firms, reformers also typically endorsed governmental expansion predicated on expenaded democracy (women’s suffrage, farmer associationism, organized labour) designed to offset private power.

Like the contested notions of “freedom” addressed by Foner, American notions of “equality” had long been varied and open-ended.

The nascent Republican Party had framed its brand of mass politics as an instrument of equality and a fundamentally leveling counterweight—if a bourgeois one—to the oligarchical Slave Power. It was, as William Seward maintained, “a party of one idea… the idea of equality—the equality of all men before human tribunals and human laws.”

Early Republican leaders mostly envisioned an ever-expanding republic of (often explicitly white) small-scale capitalism and independent producerism dependent on the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Each upwardly mobile worker would be able to transcend wage work, become an owner either of land or productive means, and thus attain genuine economic and political independence. This democratic ideal, which Seward claimed was rooted in “the divine law of equality,” expanded racially with wartime emancipation and the enlistment of black soldiers. Its avowal of socioeconomic liberty was what Abraham Lincoln referred to variously as “an open and fair chance,” “equal privileges in the race or life,” and the “right to rise.”

However, the realities of industrial capitalism and permanent wage labour exploded the free labour chimera. Extreme asymmetry in political, social, and economic power rendered fictitious the idea of worker mobility predicated only on thrift and toil, fueling postwar cooperative movements. Addressing the “crisis of equality” that shattered the cross-class Unionist coalition of antislavery wage earners, small farmers and urban capitalists, labour historian David Montgomery detailed how workers demanded economic rights “beyond [legal] equality.” These demands included shorter workdays, higher wages, corporate regulation, and, at times, decommodification and worker control of production.

Dissident workers fractured over equality’s meaning and how best to achieve it. Despite this, reformist proponents of equality of opportunity, including land reformer and 1886 New York City mayoral candidate Henry George, railed against those they saw as advocating a stronger equality of condition: Marxists, revolutionary socialists, and anarchists. Socialists fired back that well-meaning reformers such as George failed to attend to the exploitation inherent within capitalist production. To George’s socialist critics, a world without worker-controlled means of production retained the essence of exploitation. Moreover, any reform or regulatory achievement would remain vulnerable to fast-shifting (and owner-commanded) political winds.

Both Foner and Postel demonstrate how pro-business, anti-worker courts came to re-fashion the original intent of the Reconstruction Amendments toward “corporate equality” and “equal protections” for property. Although African American rights groups, such as John Mercer Langston’s Brotherhood of Liberty, sought to defend the legacy of the Second Founding, and economically-levelling movements pushed back against corporate takeover of the courts, the largely-Republican Supreme Court was critical of the long retreat from Reconstruction.

As the Court grew populated by justices with backgrounds in corporate law but no connection to the antislavery movement, judicial interpretation increasingly flaunted racial justice, preserved federalist tradition, accommodated big business, and prioritized the protection of private property over the rights of the individual. The Slaughter-House Cases (1873), Munn v. Illinois (1877), Pace v. Alabama (1883), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) all involved the gradual conversion of the Fourteenth Amendment from a writ designed to protect the rights of freedpeople to one concerned primarily with “corporate rights” and upholding Jim Crow segregation on the premise of “separate but equal” race neutrality. Slowly but surely, Postel contends, capitalist influence fashioned even the era’s most thoroughly democratic measure into a legal cudgel in the service of capital and racially-segmented labour force.

This juristic mutation away from black civil rights and toward the protection of what Lincoln-appointed Justice Stephen J. Field endorsed as “the rights of private property” demonstrates the importance of political power expressed through the judicial sphere. More critically, it betrays the limitations of both electoralism and legalism as solutions to inequality.

The Reconstruction Amendments failed to create what Liberal Republican Lyman Trumbull endorsed as “perfect equality” because laws are not only crafted, but also interpreted, through existing power relations. A legal system so reliant on precedent favours tradition, ensuring that current laws are also rooted in the prejudices of the past. In any society of exorbitant unevenness in wealth and ownership, used to perpetuate hierarchies of race and gender, laws are cardinally prejudiced. As Postel and Foner divulge, highly-capitalized proponents of inequality are often capable of turning the very legal weapons created in the pursuit of equity back on working people in the service of anti-egalitarian counteroffensives.

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865, entitled “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Repairing the Union”. The caption reads (Johnson): Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!! (Lincoln): A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended!

Legal interpretations from on high reinforced the American system of apartheid and racial caste, which class-based reform movements increasingly regarded as insurmountable. Each of the Gilded Age egalitarian vehicles Postel outlines came to either ignore questions of racial equality or appeal directly to white solidarity. Ultimately, the “dilemma” was not only the persistent inequality wrought by corporate capitalism, but the struggle of how to transcend divisions of race, gender, ethnicity, and region, in the pursuit of a more egalitarian vision. In other words, the problem of the equality drive was that it was propelled in no small part by the hope for federal policies that would protect white workers from what dominant political and social institutions promoted as the “degrading” effects of African American emancipation on white labour.

As such, the largest movements for labour, farmer, and women’s rights were accompanied by the destruction of equality for, among others, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and black people. The Grangers leveraged their power to turn back the civil rights gains of Reconstruction and ultimately embraced white sectional reconciliation. The WCTU embraced white supremacists, combined anti-alcohol campaigns with rank nativism, and used prohibition as a means of owner supervision and middle-class social control.

Although white members alleged that the history of slavery, war, and emancipation gave black people claim to both the citizenship and inclusion in the circle of labour denied to the Chinese, the Knights of Labour nevertheless sidestepped racial questions, made alliances with New South segregationists, and openly courted white supremacists. Postel seemingly agrees with Alexander Saxton and other scholars in that the leaders of these reform groups endeavored—and mostly failed—to perform a balancing act between exploiting whiteness and simultaneously maintaining influence among African Americans. This tactical tightrope speaks to the difficulties of forging and sustaining reformist coalitions while facing not only an onslaught of ruling class opposition from without, but an array of both situational and culturally-conditioned racial, gender, and regional prejudices from within.

Naturally, both Foner and Postel are deeply conscious of the current political moment. Though neither author explicitly connects inequality to the neoliberal consensus, they both tease at the ongoing dangers of corporate capitalism and address the present wave of resurgent white nationalism. Foner admonishes Donald Trump’s rhetorical attacks on birthright citizenship (which is plainly written into the Constitution) and avows that the Reconstruction Amendments can in fact be “reinvigorated as a weapon against inequalities.” Postel, who is most concerned with movements and how questions of equality become unmoored from issues of racial justice, concedes that inequality remains “our gaping social and political wound” and urges expanded notions of equality to meet the crisis. To him, the promise of the cooperative decades reveals how intersecting movements of workers of various cultural and social backgrounds have the capacity to establish “synergies of mutual reinforcement.” Fusion movements, whether of black lives, sexual assault, immigrant rights, or environmental justice, must overcome what Postel terms “the problem of association”, or how to pursue multiple interconnected divergent claims to equality when faced with the prevailing systems of social hierarchy and corporate power.

Both books contain a host of general lessons for the Left. Equality illustrates the importance of claims to equality while reminding that those claims must be anchored in far-reaching notions of solidarity. The critical lesson of Postel’s work is that shared oppression—in this case the exploitation of industrial capitalism—produces striking examples of working-class unity that nonetheless too often fails to transcend immediate, tactical and temporary relations. Like past radicals, we must more effectively address the issue of producing a more permanent, adaptable, and intersecting class-based politics that is broad enough to win power and defend itself institutionally while also centering the specific oppressions of workers faced with extra-material coercions. In reiterating the primacy of solidarity, Postel’s narrative recalls that oppressions—sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and xenophobia, as well as racism and classism—mutually constitute one another. To eliminate one form we must upend them all.

The Second Founding, meanwhile, speaks to the abiding power of activists and common people to shape constitutional change. As Foner argues, equitable laws are not only the byproducts of revolutionary action; they can also be in some sense revolutionary. Activism from below molded Reconstruction into a period of “popular constitutionalism.” Though white violence and political reaction pushed back even basic gains of civic equality, Americans since have sought to stretch and thicken the amendments in order to enlarge definitions of equality.

Yet Foner’s narrative also betrays the necessity but insufficiency of constitutional writ. Expressions of what Gramsci described as political society, laws are not only sources of social and material conditions, but also mechanisms of control that are responses to and derivatives of those conditions. Regulations, statutes, and even constitutional amendments are only as just and as permanent as the political regimes elected or appointed to interpret and enforce them. Permanent egalitarian change might necessarily involve electoral strategies, federal laws, and complex state and organizational bureaucracies, but it must not center on them. An ongoing class-based movement politics, especially among the most impoverished and exploited sections of workers, must flow through the construction and permanence of working-class institutions. And its success requires that working people continue to—as they surely will—engage and expand the very definitions of equality, democracy, and, most especially, freedom.

Taken together, these works highlight both the radical possibilities of popular organization from below and of the impact of mass politics on constitution-making. But their lessons provide an implicit warning regarding the profound shortcomings of civic equality and legalism in a capitalist society.

“Liberty has been won,” Charles Sumner declared following the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. “The battle for equality is still pending.” Indeed, Radical claims to equality during the Civil War era helped destroy the chattel bondage of Sumner’s reference and mobilized legions of Americans toward economic reform. But the enduring lesson of those movements is that the political equality which Sumner pursued has proven wholly inadequate in combating material inequality, much less challenging the capitalist system. The battle for socialism—and a system “beyond equality”—is still pending.

Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history and political science at Albany State University.