Close-reading the Gettysburg Address

Posted on March 21, 2013. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery | Tags: , |

It shouldn’t be necessary to parse such a short text to fully comprehend its meaning; it shouldn’t even really be possible. But the Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by President Abraham Lincoln, packs a great deal of meaning into a very few words, and the fact that some of its phrases have become iconic, used liberally in everyday society, has actually blurred some of their meaning.  Let’s go through it, attempting to be as concise as the author was, but knowing we will fail [this article is many times longer than his speech]:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

—Yes, the first five words may be the most well-known; there’s probably no American alive today over the age of 5 who hasn’t heard those words, usually used in jest, or presented as impenetrable. It’s the one archaic rhetorical flourish Lincoln included. “Score” means 20, so the number is four times 20 plus seven, or 87 years ago. In 1863, that was, of course, 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was written and signed.

The important thing about that number and that date is how recent it was; just 87 years ago there had been no United States. Adults in the crowd at Gettysburg had heard their parents’ stories about colonial days, and the Revolutionary War. Their grandparents might never have known independence. So the nation brought forth so recently, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, possessed all the vulnerability of youth. It was not a powerful entity that could be counted on to withstand a civil war, particularly one that amassed casualties such as those at the Battle of Gettysburg.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

—The point is reiterated: can the U.S. survive the war? But Lincoln’s real question is about the precarious state of world affairs that the U.S. Civil War represented. The U.S. was founded as a nation dedicated to liberty for all. The Confederacy that fought the war was fighting for slavery, the opposite of liberty, and there seemed to be a real possibility that other nations, primarily England and France, would join the war on the Confederate side. If the Union lost the war, the only attempt at real democracy, personal liberty, and equality on Earth would be no more, and there might never be another. The U.S. had the best chance at making it work; if the U.S. failed, who could succeed? The worst fears of the Founders and of all patriotic Americans were realized in this war, and in losses like the ones at Gettysburg.

“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

—This was a recent battlefield. The bodies were cleared away, but the landscape was devastated by three days of cannon and gunfire. This photo was taken during the battle:

The soldiers are awash in fields and surrounded by trees. Here is a photo from the day of the Address:

Yes, it’s now November instead of July, but the ground being completely stripped of vegetation is not the result of the onset of winter, and the lack of a single tree speaks volumes about the ferocity of the battle. There is a tree stump taken from the battlefield at Spotsylvania on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC that is all that’s left of a tall tree that was shot away to nothing by rifle fire during the fighting.

Gettysburg’s trees must have suffered the same fate. Under that stripped-bare ground many men from both sides were already hastily buried. There was a strong need on the part of the families of the dead, who could not travel to Pennsylvania to find and retrieve their bodies, to find some way to set this battlefield aside as sacred ground.

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

—You can make the battlefield into a cemetery, but that action is not what makes the field sacred. It is the unselfish sacrifice of the dead, who fought to keep democracy and liberty alive in the world, that makes the land sacred—not just the land of the cemetery, but all lands of the United States. They are buried now in the cemetery, but they will live forever in the memory of the nation.

“It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

—The “unfinished work” the soldiers were doing is the work of keeping democracy alive as well as the nation.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—“

—“The last full measure of devotion” must be one of the most powerful ways to say “they gave their lives” ever conceived of. The men buried here did not just die for a cause, they died because their faith in liberty was so devout that they put the life of their nation above their own lives.

“—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

—We tend to think that the last phrase, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, must have appeared somewhere before this, in the Constitution or some Revolutionary War speech. It’s surprising that it had not. This was Lincoln’s own description, and it is simple and powerful. This final statement in the Address is far from a gentle benediction. It is a steely resolve to continue the fighting, continue the bloodshed, allow more men to die, and to dedicate more cemeteries to the war dead in order to guarantee that the United States will not perish and take freedom along with it. We “highly resolve” to continue the work of this war, knowing that it will not be easy and success is not assured.

Delivering this final line, the president sat down. People in the audience were surprised. They had expected a longer speech—something more along the lines of the “translation” we’ve just provided, something more didactic that pounded points home over and over, and expressed its patriotism in more familiar, jingoistic language. Some felt insulted, and the press reviews were mixed: The Chicago Times said “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwattery [sic] remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the President of the United States.” The local Harrisburg Patriot and Union said “…we pass over the silly remarks of the President: for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”

Part of the problem was that the elder statesman of Massachusetts politics, Edward Everett, had spoken for over two hours in a much more conventional way before Lincoln. Technically, Everett was right to speak longer, as he was on the program to deliver an “oration” while the president was listed as giving only “dedicatory remarks”. It was an age of very long speeches, and the longer the speech, the more seriously the speaker was taken.

But there were many people who realized they had just heard an historic speech. We’ll close with the opinion of the reporter from the Providence Daily Journal who felt the same way we do today after he heard Lincoln speak: “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made…. It is often said that the hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute speech. But could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those few words of the President?”

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Lincoln CK

Posted on November 9, 2012. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , |

With all the hype about the movie, we thought we’d add this (forgive the ad that comes first): Lincoln

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Lincoln Log-rolling

Posted on February 12, 2009. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , |

It’s Lincoln’s birthday, and I’m deep in writing a paper, so I will note the day with a little log-rolling: you can find my articles on Lincoln and his true heroism, virtue, and belief in equality at these locations:

First of my four-part series on Lincoln: Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, slavery, and racism

Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln Rebuttal: Who Black People Hate

Read and enjoy and remember President Lincoln with gratitude today!

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Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on January 2, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War | Tags: , , , |

It was with trepidation that I tuned in to my local NPR station today to hear the show On Point’s discussion of the EP, passed January 1, 1863. The host Tom Ashbrook opened the show with the usual uninformed spiel about whether the EP and Lincoln himself were good or bad, praiseworthy or contemptible.

But Ashbrook was saved from himself by his guests, particularly Edna Greene Medford of Howard University, and the hour was spent truly and accurately assessing and appreciating the EP and the man behind it. Dr. Medford gave listeners a valuable analysis of the EP and Lincoln’s goals in writing it, as well as the political and legal considerations that hampered him from achieving all he would have wanted (he would have to do so with the 13th Amendment).

My only small quarrel with Dr. Medford was that she said the EP only freed enslaved people in the Confederacy because it was about property, and only in the Confederacy were people held as property. This is not the real heart of the matter. As I point out in my series on the EP, Lincoln could not free enslaved people in the North because there weren’t any, and he could not free enslaved people in the border states because that would have caused them to join the Confederacy, and because slavery was not illegal in the U.S. He could only free people enslaved in the Confederacy. 

Each state in the North had made slavery illegal, so there were state laws in place to stop slavery, but there was no federal law prohibiting slavery in the nation. So if Lincoln freed enslaved people in the border states, still technically part of the U.S., he would not have any force of law to back that up with; it would have been a wartime-only action that would have been quickly overturned once the war ended and slavery was still legal in the U.S.

So Lincoln realized he had to first outlaw slavery in the Confederacy, just to prove once and for all that if the Confederacy was defeated it would not be allowed to keep slavery when it returned to the U.S., then he had to get a Constitutional Amendment passed banning slavery in all of the U.S. Only this way would the abolition of slavery be permanent and safe from legal challenges that it was just a wartime measure.

The On Point guests seemed to say that the EP was just a wartime measure meant to hurt the Confederacy’s ability to make war, but it was so much more than that. All Americans are right to celebrate the EP, on its anniversary and every day.

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Lincoln rebuttal: who black people hate

Posted on May 3, 2008. Filed under: Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , |

I noticed on my blog stats page that someone had clicked into my series of posts on Lincoln and slavery from a site called “Stuff Black People Hate”, which is either the precursor or follower of the site “Stuff White People Love.” I clicked the link to the site and there, posted on March 27, 2008, was an article about how vile Lincoln was and why black Americans hate him.

It’s good to know that my series on Lincoln was timely.

The post quotes one of Lincoln’s 1858 Senate race speeches, in which he talks about how he will never let inferior Negroes mix with whites. Then, it quotes an 1865 speech in which Lincoln says he wishes that only those black Americans who served in the Union army could have the vote.

Both quotes are used to prove Lincoln’s racism in the most dishonest way. First, yes indeed, Lincoln was flailing during that Senate race, battling with his own racism. He wanted the grand ideal of equality for all, but was totally unequipped mentally to bring it about.

You could use that quote to lambast Lincoln’s racism–IF that was the end of the story. But, unlike most people then and now, Lincoln’s attitude toward race changed pretty radically over a pretty short period of time. Five years after that 1858 speech, he had fought hard to get Congress to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in war zones permanently and setting the legal stage for abolition. Seven years after that 1858 speech, he convinced the Congress and the people to abolish slavery in the U.S., driving the Thirteenth Amendment through a skeptical Congress and nation.

In 1865, his musings on allowing only intelligent or veteran black Americans to vote can be viewed as racist–unless you know something about American history. At that point, no black Americans could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment would not come into existence until 1870. So Lincoln is saying that even though black Americans are not yet allowed to vote, those who served their country in war should be allowed to.

Having pushed through the EP and the Thirteenth Amendment in just two years, Lincoln was likely waiting to include the right to vote for black Americans until his Reconstruction plan began.

So once again I’m gravely unconvinced by the same old misinformed and tired arguments against Lincoln. Yes, he began as a racist. But he didn’t end that way. To insist on slandering him is only to insist on spreading the myth that American freedom and principles mean nothing. They only mean nothing when we ignore them.

If black—and white—Americans want to hate someone, how about Bing Crosby? I saw “Holiday Inn” on TV the other night. In it, Crosby runs an inn open only on holidays. For Lincoln’s birthday, the inn was set up like a plantation, with all the whites in black face, including Bing, who sang a song in “negro dialect” while his blonde girlfriend, with her hair sticking straight up in her role as “pickaninny”, rolled her eyes and also sang about “ol fadder Abraham” (after complaining, while her blackface was put on, that she had thought she was going to get to look pretty).  This was in 1942.  It was perhaps the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on television, or anywhere else. Sometimes the 20th century looks worse than the 19th.

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Lincoln: Hero, not villain; truth, not myth

Posted on May 1, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.

 

With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]

 

So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.

 

And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.

 

But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]

 

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

 

Truth:  It was, and deliberately so.

 

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.

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Truth v. Myth: The Emancipation Proclamation was not useless

Posted on April 26, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

In part 2 of my series on Lincoln and slavery, we address the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ever since I was a kid, I have read that the Emancipation Proclamation was a sham. It only freed a fraction of enslaved people, and only freed them where the federal government had no power to enforce it,  and therefore had no real power or purpose. It was an empty gesture by a president who was pro-slavery. Let’s set that straight right now. 

The main problem people have with the EP today is that it only freed enslaved people in areas that were rebelling (in the Confederacy), and not in areas of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops, and not in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland that were slaveholding but not part of the Confederacy. As one of Lincoln’s witty critics at the London Times put it in 1863 put it, “Where he has no power Mr. Lincoln will set the negroes free; where he retains power he will consider them as slaves.” Abolitionists then and most people today wish Lincoln had freed all slaves in the Proclamation, and don’t understand why he wrote what he did instead.

People have also been discouraged by Lincoln’s moves to overturn and rescind orders some Union generals sent out once they occupied a Confederate area that freed enslaved people in that area. Why would he do that?

Because he knew that if slavery was going to be abolished in the United States, it was going to have to be made illegal. That sounds a little redundant. But it’s the heart and soul of Lincoln’s actions and planning and his eventual Proclamation. Slavery was still legal in the United States during the Civil War (until 1863). The northern states had passed emancipation laws, but there was no federal law outlawing slavery (it seemed a moot point with slavery already outlawed on the state level). Lincoln realized that if army officers or even he himself, the president, sent out orders freeing enslaved people during the war, once the war was over, those newly freed people would have absolutely no legal protection from being re-enslaved. Because slavery would still be legal in the United States, even if the Confederacy was beaten. And until 1863, many people in the U.S. and the Confederacy figured that if the Union won the war, and the Confederate states returned to the Union, they would be allowed to keep slavery (but not be allowed to expand it into the west). Some people thought this would be temporary, others thought it would be permanent.

It’s hard for us to picture this now, because we know slavery was abolished by and during the war. But that’s only because of Lincoln’s Proclamation. Before he published a draft of the EP in August 1862, slavery was still on the table, and very much alive as an option.

So Lincoln rescinded those orders his generals sent out, because he knew they would have no legal power if the war ended and slavery was not abolished. If a general freed enslaved people, and then those people were successfully forced back into slavery, it would damage any future attempt to abolish slavery in general.

Lincoln also knew that whatever he did to end slavery would come in for powerful court challenges, as people fought it, and that Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney would be more than eager to strike down a Lincoln law against slavery. Ever since Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus (which allows people to know what they are being arrested for, and guarantees them a speedy court trial by jury) during the war, Taney had hated Lincoln. Lincoln knew that Taney would be ready to attack any attempt to end slavery that Lincoln tried to push.

Therefore, Lincoln knew that he could not go with “the satisfaction of a ‘spirit’ overriding the law… not the exercise of [his] will rather than reason,” as Guelzo puts it. [Guelzo 5]

Whatever Lincoln did to end slavery had to be fully legal, stand up in court, and have the buy-in of the American people, whom he would have liked to have vote on any such measure.

His first plan was the Delaware Plan. Delaware was one of the four neutral Border states. Lincoln was fearful that a Union general would go into one of these Border states and start freeing enslaved people, enraging slaveholders and driving all of the Border states into the Confederacy. (If Maryland left the Union, Washington, DC itself would be located inside the Confederacy.)  Before that could happen, Lincoln tried to get the neutral, slaveholding Border states to give up slavery in return for a cash compensation. He called representatives from those states to Washington to make them the offer, infuriating abolitionists who hated the idea of slaveholders getting a reward for giving up their enslaved people.

If the Border states would give up slavery peacefully, it would destroy the Confederacy’s chances of getting them to leave the Union, and it would make it much easier for Lincoln to abolish slavery legally in the U.S., because then no state actually in the U.S. would be slaveholding. Then, if the Confederacy lost the war and had to come back into the Union, it would have to give up slavery because slavery would be illegal in the U.S.

But the Border states would not go for the Delaware Plan. Delaware slaveholders were not ready to give up slaveholding, and state papers cast doubt and mockery on the government’s promise to pay $900,000 to slaveholders for giving up their enslaved people. [Ibid. 92] The other reason for the rejection of the Delaware Plan was that many Americans realized that for the first time, an American president was making moves to eradicate slavery. “The great, transcendent fact is, that for the first time… we have the recommendation from the presidential chair of the abolition of slavery…” said the Daily National Republican on March 10, 1862. The debate was no longer about how to contain slavery or where it would be allowed, but about getting rid of it, forever.

Lincoln was, at this point, still adamant about shipping the black Americans who were freed by the Delaware Plan “back” to Africa. This was not about racism. It was a cold, hard assessment of the facts, of what enslaving one group of people because of their race does to both the enslaved and enslaving races. “You and we are different races,” said Lincoln, “[and] your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. [But] even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. [This is] a fact with which we have to deal.” In this, Lincoln was prescient, for we are still working, 144 years later, on getting all white Americans to place black Americans “on an equality.”

Lincoln figured black Americans would be happy to leave a place and a people that had enslaved them so bitterly. “I do not know how much attachment you may have toward our race,” he said. “It does not strike me that you have the greatest reason to love [us].” [Ibid. 142] Lincoln said these things to a committee of black American leaders he called to the White House to discuss colonization of formerly enslaved people. (The first time any president had invited black leaders to a White House conference.) These men bravely stood up to Lincoln and told him they did not want to leave their own country, but work in it and have the benefits of it. Lincoln, doubtful, clung to colonization, but only voluntary colonization. He never planned to have black Americans forcibly shipped to Africa.

We are irritated and disappointed to hear Lincoln talk about colonization, but the one silver lining in it is that it shows how serious he was about ending slavery. He felt he had to have a plan in place to remove all the people he was determined to free from slavery.  That plan was the EP.

When it became clear that there was no way the Delaware Plan was going to be accepted, in any shape or form, Lincoln might have given up. He might have just hoped that the war would end slavery by itself, that if the Confederacy was defeated, slavery would soon be abolished in the South. He could have been like the Founders and looked ahead to distant, better times. But instead he moved ahead with what he felt was his only remaining option to end slavery: using the war powers given to the president by the Constitution.

He would write an emancipation proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the Confederacy. It would be in the same vein as the Confiscation Acts that allowed Union soldiers to take food, weapons, horses, or any other thing from the Confederate army or civilian public that was helping the Confederate war effort. Under the Confiscation Act, enslaved people had been considered property and labor that helped the Confederate war effort, and had therefore been “seized” by Union generals.

But unlike the Confiscation Act, the EP would be eternally binding. Lincoln knew that the Confiscation Act would not be binding if the war ended and slavery had not been repealed. The Confiscation Act could only free enslaved people during a war, when they were part of a war effort. If the war ends and slavery still exists, those people are returned to slavery.

So his Emancipation Proclamation, unlike the Confiscation Act, would free enslaved people in the Confederacy, not until the war was over, but forever. We tend to miss that word—and henceforward shall be free. From this time forward. By abolishing slavery in the states in rebellion, Lincoln was saying that once the war was won by the Union, and the southern states in rebellion returned to the Union, they would have to return without slavery. Most of the country would be free because northern states had individual anti-slavery laws and the southern states were banned from holding slaves by the EP.

The only problem would then be the border states and the west. The border states were slave states, and the west was technically open to slavery. To fix this, and end slavery in the United States completely and permanently, Lincoln would present an amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery on the national rather than individual state level. This would be the Thirteenth Amendment, passed in December 1865.

For now, in 1863, the goal was to ensure that the Confederate states returned to the Union as free states after a Union victory in the war. That’s what the EP did. Read on for the details by clicking below.

Next post: Confiscation v. Emancipation

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Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war

Posted on April 20, 2008. Filed under: Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Final post of my series showing how slavery caused the Civil War, and we start with secession.

 

The whole south didn’t leave at once. It was the seven states of the lower south—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—that seceded almost instantaneously after they heard Lincoln won the election. South Carolina went out on December 20, 1860, and the rest followed by February 1, 1861.

 

But the other slaveholding states, most notably the powerhouses of North Carolina and Virginia, did not secede with them, and indeed seemed likely to stay in the Union. The lower south had to get those key states, as well as all the other slaveholding states, out of the Union and into the Confederacy.

 

So the lower south states sent out secession commissioners to those states. And here we come, once again, to the real truth of secession and war. Because while the seceding states publicly framed their reasons for leaving the Union in political terms (states’ rights), privately, they stated quite clearly that they were seceding to keep their slaves.

 

Secession commissioners were sent out from the lower south to the slaveholding states that had not seceded, with orders to convince those states to join the Confederacy. These commissioners gave impassioned speeches to the people and their state governments, and wrote to key state government officials, imploring them to join the Confederacy. Charles Dew unearthed and studied these speeches and letters, and wrote the invaluable book Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War about them. Dew found that “what is most striking about them is their amazing openness and frankness. [They are] white Southerners talking to fellow Southerners with no need to hold back out of deference to outside sensibilities. These men infused their speeches and letters with …a powerful ‘Let’s cut to the chase’ analysis that reveals, better than any other source I know, what was really driving the Deep South states toward disunion.” [Dew 21]

 

And what was driving secession? Fear of losing slavery. Plain and simple. The secessionist commissioners went to the men of the south and said, We are seceding to protect slavery. If you want to protect slavery, you must secede.

 

And was slavery worth seceding over? Well, it was if you didn’t want your daughters to be raped and murdered by black men, according to the secession commissioners. They harped on the usual strings of race fear: black people will be our equals, black people will make our laws, we’ll have to eat in restaurants with black people, our children will be forced to marry black people, and we all know that black people are savages who can never be anything but savages, so all of those things are worse than death.

 

William Harris, commissioner to Georgia, put the choice before the south squarely in the context of preserving slavery: “[Either] this new union with Lincoln Black Republicans and free negroes, without slavery; or, slavery under our old constitutional bond of union, without Lincoln Black Republicans, or free negroes, either, to molest us.” [Dew 29] 

 

 

Jacob Thompson, sent to persuade North Carolina, said Lincoln’s election put power in the hands of “a majority trained from infancy to hate our people and their institutions,” who would soon be saying that “slavery is overthrown.” Judge Alexander Handy, commissioner to Maryland, stated that “The first act of the black republican party will be to exclude slavery from all the Territories, the District [of Columbia], the arsenals and forts, by the action of the federal government. That would be a recognition that slavery is a sin… The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” [Dew, 33]

 

All of the quotes here are repulsive, but they have to be aired so we can know the truth, which is that the lower south seceded strictly over slavery, and convinced many people in the other slaveholding states to do the same.

 

Dew asks an important question at the end of his book: “Did these men really believe these things? Did they honestly think that secession was necessary in order to stay the frenzied hand of the Republican abolitionist, preserve racial purity and racial supremacy, and save their women and children from rape and slaughter at the hands of “half-civilized Africans”? They made these statements, and used the appropriate code words, too many times in too many places with too much fervor and raw emotion to leave much room for doubt. They knew these things in the marrow of their bones, and they destroyed a political union because of what they believed and what they foresaw.” [Dew, 80]

 

So it was indeed slavery that caused the Civil War. The two-party system broke down under the strain of dealing with slavery in the new territories of the United States, first with the parties becoming more regional than national, then with the Whigs dissolving and the Democrats splitting. The Republican party was formed with the express intent of keeping slavery out of the west, and once they were in office, the south believed the Republicans would eradicate all slavery, everywhere in the country, and so the south seceded, and the Civil War began.

 

So it was slavery indeed that caused the Civil War. The Union was not immediately fighting to end slavery, that would come later in the war. But it was always fighting to curb slavery, to keep it in an ever-smaller part of the nation as that nation expanded. The war wasn’t about tarriffs or states’ rights. It was about slavery.

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Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery

Posted on April 16, 2008. Filed under: American history, Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

Supporting myth: Lincoln was okay with slavery, and he declared war.

“Proof” of myth: Slavery wasn’t ended until after the war, because Lincoln couldn’t do it earlier because the North would have stopped fighting, and wouldn’t do it because he was pro-slavery.

The Civil War was fought over slavery. That’s just all there is to it.

I didn’t grow up hearing this. When I was in K-12, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I got the old saw that the Civil War was fought because the North and South were just so darn different. The South was agricultural and rural, while the North was industrialized and urban. The North wanted tarriffs on imports, while the South didn’t. Their stands on banking, railroad subsidies, and other economic matters were what made the North and South so dangerously different. Slavery was just a side issue, really a small part of southern life, and one to which northerners were completely indifferent.

It never occurred to me, as a youth, to wonder how differering positions on banking could drive a nation to Civil War. Could opposing ideas on where to place the intercontinental railroad really divide a nation? But the textbooks I was given (and this was in a northern state) rushed me right past that to the start of the war and the issue of states’ rights.

This argument says that southern states seceded not to protect slavery, but to stand up for their constitutionally given rights to chart their own internal course, without interference from Congress. The southern states resisted efforts by the federal government to limit state power, goes the argument, and they did so for the benefit of all states, north and south. The federal government was violating the Constitution and threatening democracy, and the liberty-loving southern states could not live with this. They seceded, thus preserving their states’ rights. And the Constitution says they could.

Well, as you know from my About page essay, this whole package was still being pushed very recently by the K-12 publishers. And in fact, someone I know who is 73 gave me the same story recently. Slavery didn’t cause that war, he said; northerners didn’t care, there was no difference between northern and southern boys fighting, and the whole war was a shame. This man’s grandfather fought for the Union. Yet this man is ashamed of the whole thing, because he was fed the same amazing pack of lies about the Civil War that I was; lies that damage America today.

This is the first in a series of posts, because the myth of the Civil War is so big and so insidious. Next time, I’ll begin to show how slavery drove the nation to war. And before I’m done, the unforgivable and obvious lie applied to Lincoln–that he was proslavery–will be demolished.

Next: what did make North and South so different?

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