Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner will be in Hartford this week to discuss the lasting impact of the Civil War on the present day. The topic of his new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, may seem like dusty history, but it offers important clues to the fate of our country.
Foner has spoken frequently on the subject of financial reparations for slavery, a hot-button issue for many today. Five Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the idea of some form of reparations, but polls show that it is not widely popular.
The Rev. Hosea Easton was one of the earliest voices for healing and redeeming our society through what he called true emancipation. He tackled reconstruction and reparations in 1837, prior to the Civil War and three decades before the subjects were widely contemplated. Easton was the first pastor of Talcott Street Congregational Church, Hartford’s first African American church. He had been a freedom fighter since childhood, and later became a speaker, writer and organizer.
Easton’s most famous written work was A treatise on the intellectual character, and civil and political condition of the colored people of the United States and the prejudice exercised towards them. Published in March 1837, it argued that atonement was required to repair the physical, mental, and economic damage inflicted on the millions who had been enslaved.
“Immediate abolition, embraces the idea of an entire reversal of the system of slavery,” he wrote. “The work of emancipation is not complete when it only cuts off some of the most prominent limbs of slavery, such as destroying the despotic power of the master.” This simply “leaves the poor man who is half dead [without] any healing remedy for the bruises and wounds.”
Real emancipation, he contended, requires “that the emancipated must be placed back where slavery found them, and restore to them all that slavery has taken away from them. Merely to cease beating the colored people, and leave them in their gore and call it emancipation, is nonsense.”
As we know, emancipation as proclaimed by President Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863 neither reversed nor repaired the incalculable injuries of the deadly, degrading system that victimized more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans and made an entire class of white men wealthy.
Is it too late to consider a “healing remedy” for African Americans now through reparations? Hosea Easton would agree the clock has not run out. The foundation of the U.S. economic system is faulty, full of dangerous cracks. The house was built long ago, but we live in it now. It must be repaired, for everyone’s sake.
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer whose work appears at ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com. Eric Foner will speak at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford on Sept. 12 at 5:45 p.m.