“The Absolute Equality of All Men before the Law, the Only True Basis of Reconstruction” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Delivered in the Northern town of Oberlin, Ohio, William M. Dickson's speech on the course he believed the tentatively reunified United States should take in the wake of the bitter years of the Civil War reflects the key challenges with which Northern leaders and thinkers then grappled. Dickson, a Cincinnati Republican with personal ties to former president Abraham Lincoln, had shown himself willing to support racial equality through his leadership of a local African American volunteer unit during the Civil War. After the war, he continued to speak out in favor of the restructuring of US policies to bring about true racial equality across the North and South. Dickson argues that the key to achieving this goal is assuring African Americans the right to vote, thus giving freedmen a say in the operations of new Southern state governments and granting them equality before the law.

Summary Overview

Delivered in the Northern town of Oberlin, Ohio, William M. Dickson's speech on the course he believed the tentatively reunified United States should take in the wake of the bitter years of the Civil War reflects the key challenges with which Northern leaders and thinkers then grappled. Dickson, a Cincinnati Republican with personal ties to former president Abraham Lincoln, had shown himself willing to support racial equality through his leadership of a local African American volunteer unit during the Civil War. After the war, he continued to speak out in favor of the restructuring of US policies to bring about true racial equality across the North and South. Dickson argues that the key to achieving this goal is assuring African Americans the right to vote, thus giving freedmen a say in the operations of new Southern state governments and granting them equality before the law.

Defining Moment

On October 10, 1865, Ohio voters went to the polls to select a new governor. During the recently ended Civil War, Ohio had been a battleground of public opinion as the home both of fervent Republican and Union support and of the Northern Democratic “Copperhead” movement led by Ohio statesman Clement Vallandigham. Vallandigham's virulent anti-Lincoln and antiwar speeches had earned him the hatred of the pro-Union majority, but he remained a key voice for Southern sympathy in the North even after he was banished to the Confederacy as punishment for his antiwar activities. Ohio Democrats nominated Vallandigham in absentia for the office of governor in 1863, but he was defeated by a National Union Party candidate put forward by a coalition of Republicans and pro-war Democrats. However, the 1865 gubernatorial campaign took place in the immediate postwar era; the coalition Union Party again put forward a candidate against a Democratic contender, former Union officer George W. Morgan, but the issues at hand had changed. Union victory had practically proved the value of fighting the Civil War. Yet Reconstruction loomed ahead.

By this time, Andrew Johnson–a Tennessee native and War Democrat–had become president following Lincoln's assassination. Johnson's plan for Reconstruction was a relatively mild one that showed little interest in securing civil rights for the millions of recently freed African Americans in the South. Although Johnson did require states of the former Confederacy to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which barred slavery, his policies did not allow for the involvement of freedmen in the rebuilding of state governments. However, in Congress's eyes, no state had formally won readmission to the Union under Johnson's plan. Leaders across the Union and former Confederacy debated the question of whether Southern states should honor their war debts. In late 1865, neither the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing birthright citizenship regardless of race, nor the Fifteenth Amendment, affirming black male suffrage, had yet been proposed.

At the time of Dickson's speech and the Ohio gubernatorial election, therefore, the status of Reconstructed America was far from settled. Opinions regarding African American rights were especially diverse, even within political parties. Supporters of the Radical Republican wing in the US Congress wished to ensure that freedmen enjoyed true political, social, and economic equality, even as more conservative politicians, including both candidates for Ohio's governorship, opposed the extension of voting rights to African Americans. For, although Northern states had abolished slavery before the Civil War, racism and racial discrimination remained widespread across the region. Dickson's arguments were thus made in an environment of great debate and disagreement over what kind of nation the United States was–and what kind of nation it would be in future.

Author Biography

William M. Dickson was a prominent Republican lawyer and judge from the border city of Cincinnati, Ohio. His wife was a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Dickson corresponded with Lincoln both about personal matters and about the political climate in Ohio during the 1860 presidential campaign. As the Civil War raged in the fall of 1862, Union Army leaders asked Dickson to organize the hundreds of African American conscripts who had been set to constructing fortifications to protect the city from a feared Confederate attack, despite a ban on African American enlistment in the military. Before Dickson took command, local officials ordered the arrest of the lawbreakers, and white police treated the black conscripts harshly. Dickson, however, reversed the policy by forming two volunteer regiments and, in a then-unheard-of, but highly successful move, allowed this Black Brigade of Cincinnati to be run by African American officers. His leadership enhanced his reputation, and Dickson remained a local activist for racial equality after the war's end.

When the Civil War officially ended in April 1865, the nation's attention turned toward the vexing questions of how to reunify the sundered nation and “reconstruct” the states of the former Confederacy. While this address on Reconstruction was delivered by William M. Dickson (a lawyer, judge, and informal advisor to President Lincoln) at Oberlin College in December 1865, it is included here as an example of the national debate about the central questions of the early Reconstruction period: how to readmit the former Confederate states to the Union and whether to extend suffrage to the emancipated slaves. Barnum also spoke publicly in support of “Negro suffrage” in May 1865. While Dickson turned out to have been overly optimistic in some of his predictions, these excerpts from his speech reflect a moment in US history when the answers to profound questions about government and citizenship were not entirely clear.

Document Analysis

Coming at a time of national uncertainty about the shape of the United States to come, Dickson's speech essentially rejects the more modest reforms supported by President Johnson, Democrats, and conservative Republicans in favor of the sweeping reorganization of American society called for by the Radical Republicans. At the same time, it calls on Ohio's voters to reject the Democratic candidate for governor and the weight of wartime policies that he carried as that party's representative. Dickson is clear that the choice was vital to creating a unified nation that could endure the test of time; despite the Civil War's end, he argues, “our work is only half done; reconstruction remains.”

Dickson dedicates much of his speech to decrying the Democratic Party's history of Southern sympathies and arguing that the election of a Democratic candidate would threaten the achievements made during the war. In rejecting Copperhead candidate Clement Valladingham in 1863, Dickson tells his listeners, Ohio voters had helped assure that the division of the country would not endure. Again lending their electoral support to the Unionist candidate would, therefore, propel the nation toward a lasting reunification that guaranteed the end of Confederate influence and the beginning of a society based on racial equality.

Equally, Dickson argues that Reconstruction must require the former Confederacy to accept the new order. A sign of this acceptance would be the expansion of civil rights to the freedmen, who comprised half of the South's overall population and without whose consistent support, Dickson believes, the Union could not have prevailed. Johnson's program, Dickson maintains, is good enough, but certainly could have been better. Just as the Constitution provides for the equality of members of differing religious or national groups, it could and should assure racial equality across the nation. Its very successes, Dickson argues, showed the flaws in contemporary arguments for racial segregation.

Key to this goal was the expansion of suffrage to freedmen. Former Confederates had already swallowed the abolition of slavery and could certainly stand another bitter pill in the form of black suffrage. Although Dickson acknowledges the arguments against this proposal, especially the freedmen's lack of education, he argues that this state should not use this as an excuse to deny the vote. “Freedom is the school in which freemen are to be taught, and the ballot-box is a wonderful educator,” he declares. Expanding liberties, Dickson claims, costs those who already have them nothing and give those lacking them a great and necessary benefit, which would in turn contribute to the political, economic, and moral betterment of the society at large.

Essential Themes

By calling for “absolute equality,” Dickson proposes a bold move away from centuries of institutionalized discrimination in favor of expanded universal liberty. These arguments did not find immediate favor with all Americans. The candidate whom his speech supported, Union gubernatorial nominee Jacob D. Cox, had far different viewpoints, including opposition to African American suffrage and support for the creation of a large, segregated region of the South, to which all freedmen could settle and exclusively control political and economic affairs. Although nearly all political leaders of the day agreed that Cox's plan was impractical, his inferred support for white supremacy and racial segregation reflected the opinions of a majority of Ohioans, let alone former Confederates. Whereas Dickson believed the vote would help ensure African American freedom, Cox believed that it would exacerbate racial tensions and ultimately lead to conflicts that would be incredibly damaging to African Americans. In this sense, Dickson's pro-equality statements represented a minority viewpoint.

Yet other holders of that minority viewpoint managed to gain control of the federal government for a time. In reaction to restrictive laws passed in some former Confederate states, Radical Republicans established military governments that, in conjunction with the Freedmen's Bureau, ratified amendments and created policies supporting racial equality across the South. The Freedmen's Bureau educated former slaves, registered them to vote, and oversaw measures to allow them to transition toward economic independence. With African American voters at the polls, South Carolina elected a majority black state legislature, and both Mississippi and South Carolina sent black representatives to the US Congress.

Dickson's arguments against the Democratic Party reflect a more widely held political viewpoint. Republicans of all stripes and Unionists alike agreed that the restoration of Democratic leaders to state governments carried the threat of undoing the difficult work of the war. This prediction proved, to a degree, a prescient one. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern white leaders embarked on political campaigns to effectively bar African American suffrage and restore Democratic state governments. These governments passed laws that restricted black civil rights, established legal segregation, and forced many Southern African Americans into a condition little better than enslavement.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Brown, William Wells. The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity. Boston: Lee, 1867. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
  • Sawrey, Robert D. Dubious Victory: The Reconstruction Debate in Ohio. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992. Print.
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