During the second half of the 19th century, the arc of the universe continued to bend toward justice. As it bent through turbulent times, including the steady march toward the War between the States, the firing on Fort Sumter (1861), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Appomattox (1865), and, then, within five years, three amendments to the Constitution, the arc of justice was tested.
Passage of the 13th Amendment raised neither eyebrows nor hackles in 1865. Its clarity and expansion of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (published January 1, 1863) forbade slavery in the United States. It was the first of a series of constitutional exclamation points following the Civil War.
Not so with the 14th Amendment (1868). Stretching back to the early 19th century there emerged a coalition of abolitionists drawn from diverse social groups. The movement included people from North and South, black and white, male and female, all who found common cause in hope of justice and the removal of the injustice of slavery. By the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the coalition was showing wear.
The abolitionist movement was a raft that gave passage to passionate women into the center of civic debate. They learned skills of organization, oratory and leadership. Soon the pure light of justice that shone on slavery was dispersed by the prism of injustices that systemically gave privileges to men over women, whites over people of color, and captains of industry and property owners over the working class.
Yes, the arc of justice was tested once the goal to end of slavery was achieved.
The testing came when the purists’ goal of the abolition of slavery came face-to-face with the less-obvious injustice of the subjugation of women, regardless of their race or social status. The irony is that many of the purists in pursuit of the abolition of slavery were women. Their high ideals of restoring the dignity of all humans exposed an entrenched chauvinism that deprived them — women in pursuit of liberty and justice for all — of their own voices in matters of education, business and politics.
With the 14th Amendment, the lines of justice and injustice were redrawn. The 14th Amendment is the first place in the Constitution where gender is inserted. While addressing the voting rights of freed slaves, the amendment stated, When the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, with Lucretia Mott, was the force behind Seneca Falls. She stepped out of the shadows of her husband, Henry Stanton, a leading abolitionist and, as far as history is concerned, overshadowed him.
After Seneca Falls, the magnetism of Elizabeth Caddy Stanton drew in Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Anthony, like Stanton, believed the pursuit of justice for all could not be mortgaged for justice for some. Stone was eager to compromise — because she had hoped that women’s suffrage would soon be a constitutional reality.
The acrimony between Stanton and Stone spawned by two views of the urgency of women’s suffrage is a metaphor for all future fallings out, both political and ideological.
The arc of the universe that bends toward justice falls on the side of Stone. She believed that justice for all would prevail. It did, but not for 52 years, when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. At the same time, the moral demand for the courage of one’s convictions falls on the side of Stanton. The pursuit of justice always resists compromise. It is a conundrum; it will be always.
With the dawn of the 20th century the arc of the universe continued to bend toward justice. The implications of the end of slavery shaped a nation’s character. The shaping continues.
What came next was civil rights, a more generic understanding of liberty and justice for all.
Next week: the rainbow of civil rights
Richard F. Wilson is the Columbus Roberts professor of Christianity, and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion at Mercer University.