Human Rights - Initial contradictions



For the first century of its existence the United States, despite the language of the Declaration of Independence, did not advocate policies to effect human rights changes in other countries. Until 1865 the country faced a serious problem: no matter how eloquent Jefferson's pronunciation that all men are created equal, slavery remained a contentious domestic matter, indicating quite clearly that some men were not as equal as others. Slaves were considered property, not individuals, and the Supreme Court endorsed this idea with the Dred Scott decision in 1857. A resolution came only through a bloody, four-year civil war. Notwithstanding a northern victory and aggressive efforts by Radical Republicans in Congress to reform the South in the late 1860s and 1870s, the states of the South moved shortly after those years to impose a system of economic and political control over African Americans through sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation. The pattern of the southern states' actions received national ratification when the Supreme Court yet again provided its imprimatur for racist practices. This time the Court's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896 allowed for separate and decidedly unequal (despite pretenses) facilities for blacks and whites.

Meanwhile, Asian immigrants trying to enter the United States on the West Coast received a vastly different reception than the Europeans entering the nation through Ellis Island over three thousand miles to the east. Conditions on San Francisco Bay's Angel Island, where they were held pending review of their status, were deplorable, and more and more Chinese were barred from entering the United States after 1882. Finally, in the West, Indian tribes were forced off their lands to accommodate an onrush of white settlers to the region.

In short, human rights did not constitute a force in American diplomacy prior to 1913. The nation's struggle with slavery, the mistreatment of Asian immigrants, the efforts to relocate, if not eradicate, Indians, and the national proscription on women participating in the political process meant that the nation had far too many serious problems of its own to address. In addition, the nation had not reached the level of international prominence it would later achieve. The entrance of Woodrow Wilson into the White House, coupled with the outbreak of World War I, changed all that.



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