I had a history professor in college who would often conclude, after teaching some concept involving less than stellar human behavior, “And so we see again, there is nothing new under the sun.” And so we see on this Monday when headlines in America speak of racial tensions surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, along with the never-ending debates regarding the complex issues of immigration, those same problems were a part of the human landscape 150 years ago this very day.
During the middle of the Civil War in 1863, Congress passed a conscription law that would make all men between the ages of 20 to 45 liable for the draft into military service. Beginning on July 13, the application and enforcement of this measure kicked off the worst civil unrest ever seen to that point in American history. By this date of July 15, pitched battles with troops (recently diverted from fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg) were being fought in NYC.
In New York, “Windows were broken, police were pelted with rocks, reporters were assaulted, American flags were burned, and roads were shut down.” Actually, that last sentence was a news report from today, not 150 years ago. The story in 1863 involved about 120 people being killed (including the lynching of about 10 blacks), and perhaps round 2,000 wounded – mostly rioters. Buildings were burned down, including two protestant churches, an orphanage for blacks, abolitionists’ homes, and many houses and businesses of blacks as well. Public structures were ransacked, the mayor’s house set afire, and even the New York Times attacked – the mob repulsed there by the staff manning Gatling guns!
The pre-war economy of New York City was closely tied to the South – particularly the export shipping industry where cotton comprised at some points about half of all outgoing cargo. As well, the city was the point of entry for many thousands of immigrants, especially Irish and German. Contributing to the uprising was the tension surrounding the availability of working-class labor, with emotions particularly high among the impoverished Irish and dock workers. Free blacks and the Irish competed for the same jobs, and fears abounded (after the Emancipation Proclamation) that the city would be flooded with newly freed African-Americans. (Does this not sound like concerns about legalization of immigrants today?)
A provision in the draft law allowed for a $300 fee to be paid that would free a person from conscription. This was an enormous sum of money at the time, particularly for immigrants at the lower levels of society. Only the rich could afford such a payment. To the Irish particularly, this war seemed to be about abolition of slavery, and being conscripted to fight for such an event that was only going to hamper the economics of their already fragile survival … well, it was too much. And blacks became the scapegoats of this anger.
By the 16th, Federal troops had arrived and the situation was brought more under control. But in the conflagration, police superintendent John A. Kennedy was beaten to a near unconscious bloody pulp, the ugly nature of race relations in the melting pot of America exposed, and millions of dollars of property destroyed.
Then, and today, these issues are complicated. And though it is no secret to anyone who knows me that my political alliances are well to the right on the spectrum, and though I’ve been an activist in the past and may yet someday surprise everyone by a level of involvement in the future, the ultimate solutions lie more in the realm of the confluence of theology and sociology than they do in the convergence of political ideologies. Law is important and must be established and maintained for a civil society, but the crisis finds even deeper roots in the heart of man – in the consequent disharmony of man with man, due to the disunion of man from God because of sin in the human condition. It was Christ who came to bring a true and perfect unity – realized only perfectly in eternity, though possible in preliminary form even in this fallen world though union with one another in common faith in the one who died to save this lost creation. As it says in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Therein is the answer for peace, union, harmony, and true eternal life.