Exactly 150 years ago this week, just a few months after its founding, The Nation published a scathing article denouncing the racism endemic in the United States, including in the North, immediately after the Civil War. “The One Humanity,” from the issue dated October 26, 1865, was unsigned, like almost all Nation articles until World War I, but research indicates that it was written by a white Bible-and-classics scholar named Tayler Lewis. Withering in its indictment of the hatred of black Americans that Lewis argued existed in the minds of even the most steadfast partisans of progress and equality, the essay is disturbing to read today, not least because Lewis was specifically directing his arguments to well-meaning, well-off, white liberals who formed much of The Nation’s readership back then—as they, quite frankly, still do today.
Six months after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the postwar order in the United States was uncertain, the spoils of the war still up for grabs. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat whom Lincoln had only asked to be his vice president so as to present a front of unity in the 1864 presidential election, was indicating a willingness to accelerate the Southern states’ reentry to the Union, with no protections for the formerly enslaved. He and his associates were eager to ensure that black Americans would have no constructive role in the social or political life of the country, and that their economic exploitation, whether described as slavery or not, would continue apace.
This is what Lewis was referring to in the opening line of “The One Humanity,” when he wrote: “The phrase which is now used as a rallying cry by the Democratic party, ‘that this is a white man’s country,’ and which they are seeking to embody in their policy towards the South, expresses the very lowest conception of government.”
Implicit in such a claim, Lewis held, was “the greatest and most practical question now before this nation,” since racism was the fundamental impediment between the idealism of the American democracy and its realization.
We boast of having gone beyond others in social and political science, but we have come at last to a place where the claim is to be most solemnly tested. This question of race is put before us as a stone of stumbling, or a rock of exaltation. It is for the rising or the falling of our Israel.…
Over and over again, in every form but one, have we set forth the principle of human equality before the law. We have boasted of our land as the free home of all races. We have insulted other nations in the vehemence of our declamation. And now are we brought face to face with a question that will test it all. We are reluctant to concede to the African what we boast of giving to others—what we almost force upon others presenting no higher claims, apparently, of intellectual or of moral worth.
Most fascinating is not Lewis’s diagnosis of the problem, or even his analysis of its cause, but his description of its reach. Offering an argument radical even among abolitionists at the time, Lewis wrote that racism was not simply present in the minds of slave-owners and and other outright oppressors; it existed even—sometimes, especially—among those with good intentions.