Debating the causes of the Civil War

Posted on November 7, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , |

The last post in our consideration of Michael Woods’ article, “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians), takes us to a conclusion of sorts about Civil War scholarship in this century. (Read it quickly; very soon it will be displaced by election result analysis!)

It seems the story of almost every historical field in the past few decades is one of adding complexity to the existing analysis. For the topic of causes of the Civil War, this means complicating our understanding of northern and southern attitudes toward slavery, and rehabilitating the idea that slavery was, indeed, the cause of the war. Slavery was behind the tariff debates, the westward expansion debates, the states’ rights debates, and the debates over industrializing the economy, immigration, monetary policy, and just about everything else one can think of.

This does not mean that abolition, the morality of slavery, or the rights of black people were always discussed in these debates. Slavery was not always discussed in its own context—that is, in the context of an argument about whether it was morally right or morally wrong to enslave human beings.  Slavery was often discussed as an economic, social, or political concept; a system that influenced other systems. Its human face, the actual condition of enslaved people, would not take center stage on a regular basis until the 1850s, and even on the eve of the war over slavery the situation of slaves was not as popular a topic for many Americans as the situations of white people living with black enslavement.

But that minority of Americans who focused on the  moral wrong of slavery grew to become the majority population during the war, and even after the failure/sabotaging of Reconstruction, it was never acceptable to question whether slavery had been right or wrong; the stance that slavery was a moral good, once a safe stance to take in public, became the last resort of racists who hid behind white sheets and terror societies.

Looking into recent scholarship on the Civil War is rewarding, as it shows that new understandings can come into view even for the most exhaustively studied topics.

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Slavery: tough on white Americans

Posted on October 30, 2012. Filed under: Civil War, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Michael Woods’ article  “What Twenty-First-Century Historians have said about the Causes of Disunion: A Civil War Sesquicentennial Review of the Recent Literature”, in the lastest issue of the Journal of American History (published by the Organization of American Historians). Here we look at ways today’s historians are approaching the convoluted politics of race and slavery in the U.S. before the Civil War, and the insights into the many reasons why white antislaveryites opposed slavery—many of which were about protecting their own interests.

How was slavery a threat to white Americans, as they saw it? Here are the bullets:

  • Slavery as a threat to white jobs: Remember our distinction between abolitionists, who believed slavery was a moral wrong, and antislaveryites, whose problem with slavery was that it took jobs from white Americans and threatened our democratic political system. Antislaveryites did not want slave labor spreading through the country, taking jobs away from the white laboring classes and giving a fractional minorityof white slaveholders far more power than they were due in Washington. This takes us to point 2—
  • Slavery as a threat to republicanism: If a handful of plutocrat southern slaveholders controlled most of the U.S. economy through the labor of their enslaved people, they would become “too big to fail” in Congress, and their demands would dictate U.S. policy. This was a threat to republican liberty that was not fantasy, as the south, though the smaller section, lost very few battles in Washington, and often had the federal government bending over backward to placate it. So slavery was a threat to the poor white worker and the white nation as a whole. Sectional conflicts like Bleeding Kansas can be read as “a struggle to secure the political liberties of whites” —the whites who voted to make Kansas a free state, who were threatened literally and figuratively by proslaveryites who killed settlers and overrode the antislavery constitution of the territory to present their proslavery constitution to the proslavery president James Buchanan, who accepted it. [Woods 432]
  • Slavery as a threat to white liberty: the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest and latest move of the slave power to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. If the Fugitive Slave Law was all about black slaves, why was it fining, jailing, and threatening free whites? Why did it seem to focus on attacking the liberties of northern white citizens as much as it did on preventing black Americans from gaining liberty? It was just another example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government.
  • Slavery as a perverting force on white nature: northerners who read about the inhuman abuses slaveholders inflicted on black Americans, and read proslavery politicians’ own forceful defenses of violence against the enslaved, and read about or saw for themselves the aristocratic lifestyle of major slaveholders, were disgusted at what slaveholding seemed to do to white nature. Slaveholders were not tough, hardworking, honest men, as whites were supposed to be, but lazy and corrupted by power, living lives of ease that made them effeminate and shallow. Slavery had led to the development of a chivalric code that emphasized violence in defense of one’s honor, but no exertions of body or spirit in any other direction. And, as we’ve seen, slaveholding had led wealthy slaveholders to pervert American democracy itself to protect and extend their twisted way of life. Antislavery emotion in the north often called on its followers to counter this perversion of whiteness, and the free soil, free labor ideology (of free, honest, hardworking, muscular farmers) was a direct counterpart to the depraved planter.
  • Slavery as a wedge into the white race: this is directly related to the point above. Rich white slaveholders had long prevented poor southern whites from rising up against their oligarchy by focusing on race instead of class. Don’t focus on how unequal you are to us in every respect, they told poor whites; focus on how superior we all are to blacks. Even the poorest, least educated white man is better than a black man. Focusing the poor white majority on racial solidarity rather than class inequality preserved the unequal social and political system in the south and shored up slavery. Since the vast majority of white southerners did not hold slaves, and had nothing in common with slaveholders, how was it that they were willing to fight a war for slavery? This question has been asked by Confederate apologists for over a century, and had a featured role in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. The answer, that poor white southerners wouldn’t have fought to defend slavery, is used to “prove” the point that the war was not fought over slavery and that southerners were fighting for states’ rights. But the real answer is that poor whites fought the war for many reasons, but one was because rich whites asked them to, and fought alongside them, in a living illustration of the bond of race. Poor southerners, like any human beings, were not about to allow “foreigners” from the north invade their homes and farms without raising a finger to stop them simply because those poor southerners didn’t hold slaves. Poor southerners fought to protect their lands and families. But during and especially after the war, rich southerners put a gloss on that that made the war about whites joining together to fight for white superiority. The horrid backlash against southern blacks after the war sprang in large part from poor whites’ fury at having their racial superiority taken from them, and to prevent blacks from achieving true equality with them. So the white racial “bonding” over slavery was seen by northern whites as another perversion of white identity brought on by slaveholders.

We see from this survey one of the main points of recent scholarship: bringing slavery back to its central role in provoking the Civil War. In the latter part of the 20th century, slavery was de-emphasized as a cause of war, in part because studies focusing on northern racism came to the fore at that time, and the logic ran that if everyone was racist then slavery couldn’t have started the war. This point of view had been popular with southerners since 1865, as they went about the business of recasting the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. It caught on with a new generation of non-white scholars who felt white historians gave the north too much credit in saying it fought the war over slavery. This was a necessary correction to the super-noble representation of northern feeling popular in the north since 1863. But as research continues, we begin to see a more complete and complex picture of the truth: slavery was the only issue leading to war, but not just because of its immorality—as Woods points out, “Some forty years ago, Larry Gara urged historians to make a ‘crucial distinction’ between self-interested opposition to slaveholder power and moral opposition to slavery as an oppressive institution.” [Woods 431] But whether you were against slavery because it was cruel or because you felt it robbed you of a job, slavery was your issue going into the war, and, as Woods points out, few people were so black-and-white about the issue. People felt a range of sometimes contradictory emotions about slavery, and those feeling grew and changed during the war. Recognizing human complexity in any field is crucial to truly understanding it.

Next time: still fighting over slavery

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Taxation = Slavery

Posted on August 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Economics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

As always, when history is being made in the present, or the present is clearly marked in a historical cycle, we delve into it here on the HP.

In this case, it is the debate in Congress over whether to raise the debt ceiling or default. The main sticking point has been the refusal of a sizable minority of Republicans, mostly belonging to the Tea Party faction, to allow the federal government to collect tax revenue. This group demands tax breaks for the wealthy, including corporations, and the maintenance of tax loopholes that allow millions of dollars of tax revenue to go uncollected.

This is not the place to go into the details of their platform, or the response by moderate Republicans and Democrats. Here, the issue is the extreme instransigence of the Republican minority on the issue of taxation. It has become, to them, a crime for the government to raise taxes or even to collect taxes. To them, there is no compromise on taxation: you are either for it (and therefore un-American) or against it. Again, we’ll leave aside for this post the historical fallacy of anti-tax advocates calling themselves “Tea Party”; read about that here. For now, we’ll focus on the black-and-white issue they have turned taxation into. It’s hard to think of a time when Congress was so completely divided, so unwilling and unable to compromise on an issue; when you look back at our history, only one comparable time comes up—the slavery debates of the late 1850s.

You could not compromise on slavery during those Congresses. You were for it or against it, and this divide worked its way into many other, seemingly unrelated issues, and the uncompromisable issue of slavery could not be resolved. Congress could no longer function to govern the country, and civil war ensued at the 1860 election.

Today, Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on taxation is quite similar to those Congress’ refusal to accept compromise on slavery. But there are two key differences: first, the American people were becoming just as divided over slavery as their representatives; second, slavery really is an issue you can’t seriously compromise on.

Americans in the 1850s didn’t want to fight a war over slavery, but they were rapidly becoming more polarized over it. Even those who didn’t particularly want abolition for morality’s sake blamed slavery for all of America’s ills, and would have gotten rid of it for economic or political reasons. Their representatives’ furor over slavery was not out of line, then, with Americans’ feelings about slavery. It does not seem accurate to make that claim today. Many Tea Party Congress members have said their constituents contacted them to say it’s okay to raise taxes to avoid default, but those members refused to do so out of principle. The extreme polarization in Congress today does not really have its roots in how Americans are feeling.

And taxation is not slavery. It’s not a black-and-white, moral issue that no one can take a moderate stance on. The government raises taxes in order to provide services. It’s a very simple and fundamental tenet of government. We have representation to our government to decide what services and how much taxation, not to stop the collection of tax revenue.

The taxation issue is part of a larger move to reduce the federal government to a negative function: the federal government will not provide social services (no Medicare, Social Security, Head Start, etc.), will not regulate business (protect the environment, police Wall Street, etc.), will not really legislate (instead, Constitutional Amendments will be put in place to handle social issues), amd will not extend civil rights to immigrants, gay people, etc. All it would do under this plan, apparently, is fund wars.

No one really wants to live in that world. It is undemocratic, and unself-sustaining. This experiment with such negative chaos is a dangerous one. The first experiment ended in civil war; it remains to be seen where we are headed in the next 20 years.

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Black Confederates, slavery, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

Posted on April 13, 2011. Filed under: Civil War | Tags: , , , |

Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.

The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.

Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:

“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast.  I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”

I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.

On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.

Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).

Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”

And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.

If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?

No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.

But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one  of them.

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Consequences of the Mexican War

Posted on January 25, 2011. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Part the last of our series on interesting facets of the Mexican War concludes with the 1848 peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the United States full ownership of Texas, with its western border at the Rio Grande, and the modern States of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, almost all of Arizona, Colorado, and part of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming (the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would be acquired through the 1853 Gadsden Purchase). In return, Mexico received a little over $18 million in compensation and forgiveness of $3.25 million owed by Mexico to the U.S.

Immense as the territories ceded by Mexico were, there were a number of U.S. Senators who urged Congress to take advantage of Mexico’s internal political chaos and force it to also give up its states of Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas, in today’s northeastern Mexico. This would have extended the U.S. hundreds of miles beyond Texas’ current southern border. Partly because there was growing opposition to the war in the U.S. (Illinois Rep. Abraham Lincoln was opposed), and partly because the parts of Mexico that the U.S. had so long desired, particularly California, were already handed over, Congress declined to pursue the war any longer, and this plan was dropped.

The Mexican Cession was at once a great acquisition for the U.S. and the end of the U.S. as it had been. The new lands made the slavery debate impossible to resolve through political compromise. The 1820 Missouri Compromise would have allowed slavery in New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern half of California, but not in Colorado, Utah, Kansas, or Wyoming. But anti-slavery Americans were not about to let California, the greatest prize of them all, the one that held out the most promise to small farmers and free labor, become a slave state (since a state could not be half-free, half-slave, California ran the risk of becoming a full slave state). Pro-slavery Americans knew that New Mexico and Arizona were not lands that lent themselves to plantation farming, and determined more fiercely than ever to have California, and the farmland that would become Kansas, too.

Free-Soil, free-labor, anti-slavery, and abolitionist Americans said now was the time to contain slavery altogether—to see the new territories not in the context of the north-south line of the Missouri Compromise, but as The West, a new entity that was not bound by the north-south politics or agreements of the eastern states. Keep slavery out of The West, they said, and keep it contained in the southern states until slave states were so outnumbered by free states, and slavery such an anomaly in the country, that slavery itself would die out.

Pro-slavery Americans had been ready for this fight for years. The nation had expanded along the Missouri Compromise line for nearly 30 years, it was the law of the land, there was no reason to change it, and any anti-slavery agitation in The West would be illegal, and punishable by law.

The problems the Mexican Cession caused would have to be quickly hammered out in the Compromise of 1850, a five-part piece of legislation that tried to create true compromise between anti- and pro-slavery Americans, not along purely geographical lines, but more philosophically. Slavery was not banned in the West (1), but California would enter the Union as a free state, end of story (2). Each of the remaining  western territories that wanted to become a state would decide on its own whether to come in as slave or free: popular sovereignty let the people in the territory vote on their status before applying for statehood (3). The Fugitive Slave Act was introduced, which allowed slaveholders to violate the personal liberty laws in free states (4), and slavery would remain a feature in the capital, Washington, DC (5).

This Compromise would be short-lived. As settlers poured into all regions of the Cession, the stakes became higher and higher on both sides of the slavery issue. Pro-slavery Americans needed numbers; they couldn’t allow slavery to be restricted to the existing southern states or their needs would never be met in Congress, where free-state Representatives and Senators would far outnumber slave. Anti-slavery Americans also needed numbers, to reduce slavery to a regional curiosity of a small number of states, rendered economically useless. The battles over how western states would come into the Union led to vote-rigging, where people from outside a territory would pour in when it came time to vote slave or free, making a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The violence that ensued in these situations was made legendary in Bloody Kansas.

In short, the Mexican War was most important both for expanding the U.S. and for hastening the coming of the Civil War. Both events made the nation greater, one geographically, one morally. It was a dress-rehearsal for the Civil War in that so many men who fought together in the Mexican War fought against each other in the Civil War, including both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. And it nearly completed the U.S. conquest of the continent between Canada and what was left of Mexico (the last bits settled in the Gadsden Purchase). The discovery of gold in California the year after the war ended spurred not only Californian settlement but the western rush of pioneers that dominated American demographics until the end of the 19th century. It also left the United States as the undisputed great power of the western hemisphere—a great deal of impact for a war that is often skipped over as students of U.S. history move from the Revolutionary War directly to the Civil War.

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: really looking for Lincoln?

Posted on December 18, 2009. Filed under: Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery | Tags: , , , , , , |

I was dismayed by the Gates program shown on PBS this week. Clearly Prof. Gates does not read my blog.

“Looking for Lincoln” is a multi-episode show about Gates’ search for “the real Lincoln.” Unfortunately, he succumbs to a powerful myth from the start—that Lincoln was an incorrigible racist who never stopped being racist and never wanted to free enslaved black Americans even though he believed slavery was wrong.

I was excited by the open of the show, which promised that Gates would indeed find Lincoln to be as, even more, amazing than he had previously thought. But a doubt about the level of the discourse was raised when Gates was discussing William Herndon’s biography of Lincoln. Herndon, a friend of Lincoln, decided to write a biography after Lincoln’s death, and so wrote to everyone he could think of who knew Lincoln before he was president, asking them for details and stories. One of the letters claimed Lincoln had visited prostitutes. Throughout this section, photos of Lincoln were overlayed with writing: summaries in one font, actual quotes from the letters in cursive. When prostitutes were mentioned, over Lincoln’s face were the words DESIROUS… HE ASKED WHERE HE could get some. Yes, this documentary was purporting to show that in the 1830s Lincoln used the 21st-century phrase “get some” to refer to sex, and that he actually wrote someone to ask where he could get some (sex with prostitutes).

I’m sure the editors had a few laughs over this, thinking it was funny. But the red flag went up for me: this program was not fully believable.

Around 25 minutes in, the Lincoln-Douglas debates come up, and with them discussion of Lincoln’s views on race. And here, in a program supposedly dedicated to myth-busting, myth took over. David Blight, a historian, talked about Lincoln’s statement in one of the debates that there was a physical difference between black and white people that would keep them from ever living in equality, and Lincoln was happy for whites to occupy the superior role. “That shows Lincoln as a white supremacist,” Blight stated.

Any real historian who has studied Lincoln and the debates knows that at this point, Lincoln was very divided (see my post on his position on race at the time and how he overcame his own racism). He knew racism was wrong, but he was not comfortable with full desegregated equality. He was a racist. But unlike most people, then and now, he was irritated by his own racism, his own inability to rise to the ideal of racial  justice, and he continued to wrestle with his racism until he conquered it.

That’s what’s missing from any claim that Lincoln was a permanent white supremacist that is based on his statements in the Douglas debates: he changed. It would be like someone quoting you on how babies are made when you were 10 years old  and then claiming that’s still what you believed at 30. When I was a teenager I, like most straight people, was homophobic—it’s how I was raised. I’m not homophobic anymore. So if someone quoted the 17 year-old me on gay people and used that to state that I am a homophobe now, it would be inaccurate.

So all statements about Lincoln’s racism that are based on what he said in 1858 are unfair and dishonest in the extreme, because Lincoln was a racist in 1858 but was not one by 1863—a remarkably rapid transformation. Frederick Douglass recognized Lincoln’s change from racist to non-racist; so many people today refuse to.

Blight even claims that maybe we have to just accept Lincoln’s “permanent” racism because of Lincoln’s time. “He grew up with the standard white prejudices about race of the early 19th century,” Blight says. This is beyond lame, first because Lincoln shook off those prejudices, and second because in the same program the white abolitionists of the time are praised. Either white people in the early 19th century were incapable of accepting racial equality or they were not.

Blight goes on to add, “He was not an abolitionist. He did not like radical change.” This about the man who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation (which did, indeed, free the enslaved Americans—see “The Emancipation Proclamation was not useless”) and set in motion not only that extremely radical change but was planning, at his death, to push voting rights for black Americans.

Again, this shows that all the negative statements about Lincoln as a racist make sense only if you refuse to see his comments in 1858 as transitional. When you realize that Lincoln changed between 1858 and 1863, they do not make sense.

The show continues down this path of stating that the stance Lincoln had on race in 1858 was forever his stance on race by talking with Lerone Bennett, Jr, a man who has made and staked his reputation on Lincoln-hating. Bennett cannot forgive Lincoln for supporting and even pushing the plan to have black Americans freed from slavery and convinced to go “back home” to Africa.

This stance is a little odd. Lincoln “only” wanted to end slavery and then allow voluntary colonization. Name the president before Lincoln who wanted to end slavery. I can’t think of one. Even if that was all Lincoln wanted, to free enslaved people and send them away to Africa, that’s a radical, massive change in American law and society in 1860.

But that isn’t, of course, all Lincoln wanted. Yes, he originally was very keen on sending black Americans “back” to Africa. He didn’t see how black Americans could live with the whites who had enslaved them. He predicted unending violence between the races, and a very hard time getting white Americans to treat black Americans equally. And he was right. We have struggled for equality, there has been violence, and there are many black Americans who completely agree with Lincoln that they will never be treated equally. So these seem like statements of fact rather than racism. Would Bennett describe black Americans who feel this way as having a “core belief that the races were not equal,” as he describes Lincoln?

But once Lincoln met with black leaders at the White House, to which he invited them, for the first time in American history, and heard them explain that they would never, ever leave their country, he let the colonization plan go. And that’s when he turned his full attention to emancipation and reconstruction.

When Gates asks Bennett why it’s so important to him to bust myths about Lincoln—so inaccurate a statement as to make one gasp—Bennett replies that “You can’t defend Abraham Lincoln without defending slavery.” Blight chimes in, adding that “In order to remember the redemptive, progressive Lincoln, we have to forget what he said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates about racial inequality. Remembering is always about forgetting.”

Again, the basic illogic here is that Blight describes Lincoln as progressive while stating that he was a permanent racist. Again: Lincoln started out racist and changed. He progressed. He redeemed himself by shaking off racism. We don’t need to forget what he said in the debates, it’s crucial that we remember it, to see that Lincoln changed, and therefore we can change, and racism can be overcome. Lincoln is a hero because he changed, not because he was a saint. That’s worth remembering.

Gates then visits a U.S. history class in Chicago taught by Kyle Westbrook, who is also dedicated to “myth-busting” Lincoln. The proof is that his students make these statements: “He was not that radical.” “He stayed on the fence.” “Before this class I thought he was a great person. Now I know he was blatantly racist.” “I was bamboozled (into thinking he was a hero).”

Westbrook himself says he knocks Lincoln off his pedestal, though he then backtracks to say he sometimes puts him back up there. This is never explained. Here again students are taught that the man who wrote the EP and then demanded that it be put to public referendum by putting it before Congress rather than issuing it as an executive order, so that white Americans could validate racial justice, was “not that radical”, a “blatant racist,” and “on the fence.”

As part 1 draws to a close, Gates states that he has “chipped away a little at some of the marble and granite” of Lincoln’s legacy. What’s so odd is that Gates has talked before the end of the show about Lincoln’s political astuteness, his ability to learn from others, even those he opposes, and to grow. Yet neither Gates nor his guests can see or grant any ability of Lincoln’s to grow emotionally and intellectually from racism to equality. That, apparently, is just not possible.

And that stance is the myth that seems will never be busted about Lincoln. You would think that by  now, 200 years after his birth in 1809, we would be doing better.

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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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Time to retire “people of color”?

Posted on June 16, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

I was reading Lacy Ford’s fantastic article “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838″ and had reached page 116 where Ford discusses how slaveholding American southerners began to sour on the idea of sending black Americans “back” to Africa because the slaveholders felt that it was really a plan to end slavery rather than a plan to get freed black people out of the country and “whiten” it. I found this statement:

“As the Georgia legislature later explained, whatever support the [colonizers] initially enjoyed in the lower South resulted ‘from the general impression in the Southern states’ that its object ‘was limited to removal’ of the ‘free people of color and their descendants and [not slaves].”

What phrase leaps out at you? “People of color.” This phrase was being used in 1827 by slaveholders as a euphemism for formerly enslaved black people.

I was under the impression that “people of color” was a 21st-century phrase (hey, my specialty is the 1600s; I’m not up on everything). But now we see it has a long and ugly history, just like every other word used for black Americans, from Negro to the other n-word to darky and even colored.

In fact, “black” seems to be the least-baggaged term used to describe black Americans.

The real problem with “people of color” is that it makes it so that black people are the only people on Earth who have a race. If a black person has “color,” that implies that a white person does not. Therefore race remains a stigma, something white people are free of. All other people are raced, but white people just are. It’s as if whiteness was the norm and all other people have been tainted with a color.

“People of color” reminds me of a conversation I heard years ago. Someone described another person as having an “ethnic name.” To which the other person replied, “What name isn’t an ethnic name?” That is, what name is not from a geographic place? Jones is an ethnic name. Mitchell is an ethnic name. All names are ethnic.

And all people have race. We are all people of color. To cleanse white people of race by referring to black people (and sometimes Asian or Latino people) as people of color is to say, “Normal people are white, but other people are colored.”

White is a race. It’s even a color. Everyone has a race, everyone has an ethnicity. Whites are not magically free of racial markers or racial history. For too many centuries white people have been tempted to see themselves as distinct from people of other races. But they’re not. We’re all colored and we’re all people, and it may be time to retire yet another term that seems to contradict that.

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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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