Do you remember how, back in April 2008, we posted an analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation? It was called “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves…”: The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation,” and it referred to the famous Lincoln-Greeley exchange:
In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.
In our effort to explain why Lincoln’s statement is not disgustingly pro-slavery but revolutionary in its essence, we said this:
Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.
You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)
We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.
It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.
When we wrote that, we deliberately tried to think of the most exaggerated, not remotely possible scenario we could—a U.S. president saying s/he would use nuclear weapons on the Middle East.
But Republican presidential candidate Trump has yanked this scenario into the realm of the possible. He has in fact made our outlandish scenario look modest by saying he would bomb not just ISIS-held areas of the Middle East, but our allies and friends in Europe. Here is the relevant part of his interview with Chris Matthews:
Donald Trump: “First of all, you don’t want to say take everything off the table because you would be a bad negotiator if you do that.”
Chris Matthews: “Just nuclear?”
DT: “Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time that it could be used? Possibly.”
CM: “The problem is when you say that, the whole world heard that. David Cameron heard that in Britain, the Japanese where we bombed them in ’45 heard it. They are hearing a guy running for President of the United States talking about maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”
DT: “Then why are we are making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?”
CM: “Because of the old mutually assured destruction, which Reagan hated and tried to get rid of.”
DT: “I was against Iraq, I would be the last one to use the nuclear weapons because that’s sort of like the end of the ball game.”
CM: “Can you tell the Middle East we’re not using nuclear weapons?”
DT: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”
CM: “How about Europe? We won’t use in Europe?”
DT: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”
CM: “You’re going to use it in Europe?”
DT: “No! I don’t think so. But…”
CM: “Just say it, say ‘I’m not going to use a nuclear weapon in Europe’.”
DT: “I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes – but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”
And thus we have it: an American presidential front-runner, if not an actual president, saying he would use nuclear weapons on Europe. Lincoln’s statement that he would end slavery to win the war now takes second-place in the list of astonishing political statements made by presidents and/or presidential contenders. If we jinxed this by making the analogy, and by using the very words “on the table” that Trump used, believe us, we’re sorry.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
We were delighted to find this article on the History News Network: “There are words scholars should no longer use to describe slavery and the Civil War”, by Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University. You need to go read it yourself, and not just because it affirms our decision here at the HP to refuse to use the word “slave” (see Why I don’t talk about black slaves in America). It’s important because we all know that terminology is the best weapon in any fight. Are people who oppose abortion anti-choice or pro-life? The first is negative, the second positive. Establishing the labels “right to life” and “pro-life” was the smartest thing anti-abortion advocates ever did, because those subjective labels skewed the public perception of what was being debated and what was at stake.
Labels created today go down in history and do the same thing: they shape how we think about past events. Let’s let Dr. Landis take over from here:
…We no longer call the Civil War “The War Between the States,” nor do we refer to women’s rights activists as “suffragettes,” nor do we call African-Americans “Negroes.” Language has changed before, and I propose that it should change again.
Legal historian Paul Finkelman (Albany Law) has made a compelling case against the label “compromise” to describe the legislative packages that avoided disunion in the antebellum era. …Instead of the “Compromise of 1850,” which implies that both North and South gave and received equally in the bargains over slavery, the legislation should be called the “Appeasement of 1850.” Appeasement more accurately describes the uneven nature of the agreement. In 1849 and 1850, white Southerners in Congress made demands and issued threats concerning the spread and protection of slavery, and, as in 1820 and 1833, Northerners acquiesced: the slave states obtained almost everything they demanded, including an obnoxious Fugitive Slave Law, enlarged Texas border, payment of Texas debts, potential spread of slavery into new western territories, the protection of the slave trade in Washington, DC, and the renunciation of congressional authority over slavery. The free states, in turn, received almost nothing (California was permitted to enter as a free state, but residents had already voted against slavery). Hardly a compromise!
Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.
This excerpt reveals how powerful language that has been handed down for hundreds of years can be. Landis also advocates dropping “the Union” because this upholds the Confederate claim that the United States ceased to exist during the Civil War.
There are many words and phrases that were carefully crafted to shape perception that we use unthinkingly today: reservation, the opening of the West, Japanese internment camps, inner city, Gilded Age, carpetbagger, housing projects, robber baron, etc. Some are euphemisms (reservation, opening), some have become joke terms that imply that the people or issue in question a) weren’t that bad and b) don’t matter anymore because they have forever disappeared from our society when they haven’t (Gilded Age, robber baron). Some are vicious insults created by racists frantic at the notion that someone might help black people (carpetbagger). Others originally meant “poor, dangerous black people” and now are utterly meaningless (inner city, housing project). And don’t get us started on the meaningless parasite that “community” has become.
If you read the HP, you know we’re all about truth defeating myth, so we welcome the movement to speak accurately and honestly and fearlessly about our history, and we urge you to make your own changes and take back your history and your present-day reality.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
No need to do much more than to point you to James Loewen’s frank article: Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy?
But we will go ahead and also point you to our own posts on this topic: Amazing Fact: The Civil War was fought over slavery, What made the north and south different before the Civil War?, and Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war.
The Confederate States of America were founded with the sole purpose of perpetuating black slavery. There is nothing heroic in that. The men who created the Confederacy did not care about states’ rights—they had repeatedly demanded that states’ rights be trampled by forcing northern states that had abolished slavery to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, by going into territories and voting that they enter the Union as slave states even though they were not residents of that territory, by terrorizing residents who wanted to vote anti-slavery, and by taking enslaved people into free states and forcing the free state residents to endure that slavery.
Soldiers of the Confederacy were not heroes. The old argument that most of them were poor and were not slaveholders is meaningless: they fought to protect their land and their governments, which meant protecting the slave system and the slave aristocracy that governed their land. If they won the war, those poor, non-slaveholding soldiers would have allowed slavery to keep going. They knew that. You can’t cherry-pick motives and focus on the heartwarming “they fought to keep their families safe” motive and ignore the chilling “the soldiers didn’t care if black Americans were enslaved as long as they kept their land” motive.
Secession was not allowed in the Constitution. There is no place in it that makes secession legal. So founding the Confederacy was the most anti-American action in our history.
It’s high time we became as tough on Confederacy worship as the Confederates were on America, democracy, and states’ rights.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.
The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history, including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:
Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…
Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.
Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.
We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.
(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Welcome to the follow-up on our post on the retraction made by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, of its 1863 editorial blasting the Gettysburg Address. In it we will look at the entire editorial of Tuesday, November 24, 1863 that the modern paper has retracted, and which is famous for its panning of the Gettysburg Address as “silly remarks”.
It’s odd that no one—including ourselves, when we first included the paper’s remarks in our post on the Address—took a look at the full editorial. It’s not just another example of people expecting Lincoln to speak longer than he did. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union had a much bigger chip on its shoulder. Let’s read through it:
“A Voice from the Dead
We have read the oration of Mr. Everett. We have read the little speeches of President Lincoln, as reported for and published in his party press, and we have read the remarks of the Hon. Secretary of State, Wm. H. Seward, all delivered on the occasion of dedicating the National Cemetery, a plot of ground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg in the memorable strife which occurred there between the forces of the Federal Government and the troops of the Confederacy of seceded States.”
—…”published in his party press”? Immediately you see two red flags that tell you the paper is anti-Lincoln. (1) they did not send a reporter to the ceremony to hear the speeches live, most likely (2) to avoid seeming to be part of the “party press”. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union was in fact staunchly Democratic, opposed to Lincoln and his “unnecessary” war to end slavery.
“To say of Mr. Everett’s oration that it rose to the height which the occasion demanded, or to say of the President’s remarks that they fell below our expectations, would be alike false. Neither the orator nor the jester surprised or deceived us. Whatever may be Mr. Everett’s failings he does not lack sense – whatever may be the President’s virtues, he does not possess sense. Mr. Everett failed as an orator, because the occasion was a mockery, and he knew it, and the President succeeded, because he acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.”
—Yes, the writers are Democrats. President Lincoln is a “jester” without sense, and the occasion of burying the dead at Gettysburg, or, really, the occasion of paying tribute to them, is a mockery. The whole dedication of the burying ground was just a PR stunt for Lincoln.
“We can readily conceive that the thousands who went there went as mourners, to view the burial place of their dead, to consecrate, so far as human agency could, the ground in which the slain heroes of the nation, standing in relationship to them of fathers, husbands, brothers, or connected by even remoter ties of marriage or consanguinity, were to be interred. To them the occasion was solemn; with them the motive was honest, earnest and honorable. But how was it with the chief actors in the pageant, who had no dead buried, or to be buried there; from none of whose loins had sprung a solitary hero, living or dead, of this war which was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims?
They stood there, upon that ground, not with hearts stricken with grief or elated by ideas of true glory, but coldly calculating the political advantages which might be derived from the solemn ceremonies of the dedication.”
–It’s odd that the editorial here mimics the language of the Address so clearly in its first sentence up to “heroes of the nation”. Was it unconscious, or is it more mockery by the editorialists? Here they say the bereaved who gathered at Gettysburg because they lost loved ones were honorable, because their motive was honest, But the “chief actors in the pageant”—Lincoln and Everett—were hypocritical in their fake mourning because a) they had not lost anyone in the war, and b) the war itself is unjust, “begotten of their fanaticism and ruled by their whims”. Fanaticism over what, you might ask? They’re coming to that.
“We will not include in this category of heartless men the orator of the day; but evidently he was paralyzed by the knowledge that he was surrounded by unfeeling, mercenary men, ready to sacrifice their country and the liberties of their countrymen for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth. His oration was therefore cold, insipid, unworthy the occasion and the man.”
—This passage refers to Everett, former Senator from Massachusetts, who is basically good somehow (he was anti-slavery, which should not have appealed to Democrats at the time) but trapped in a lie—trying to dignify a war orchestrated by Lincoln and his party “for the base purpose of retaining power and accumulating wealth.”
“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 be no more repeated or thought of.
But the Secretary of State is a man of note. He it was who first fulminated the doctrine of the irrepressible conflict; and on the battle field and burial ground of Gettysburg he did not hesitate to re-open the bleeding wound, and proclaim anew the fearful doctrine that we are fighting all these bloody battles, which have drenched our land in gore, to upset the Constitution, emancipate the negro and bind the white man in the chains of despotism.”
—The first paragraph is the one everyone reads and quotes. But it is the second that really twists the knife. Did Everett somehow really say that the U.S. was fighting the war “to upset the Constitution”? Yes—because he said the U.S. was fighting to emancipate enslaved black Americans, which could only be done by enslaving white men “in the chains of despotism.” This was the standard proslavery argument: that freeing enslaved black Americans meant taking away white people’s right to rule. The Constitution did not uphold slavery in 1863; neither did it reject it. Slavery is the dark matter of the document, making sense of other statements about rights to property and voter representation. But the paper, like all proslavery Democrats, chose to say that ending slavery was unconstitutional.
“On that ground which should have been sacred from the pollution of politics, even the highest magnate in the land, next to the President himself, did not hesitate to proclaim the political policy and fixed purpose of the administration; a policy which if adhered to will require more ground than Gettysburg to hold our dead, and which must end in the ruin of the nation. The dead of Gettysburg will speak from their tombs; they will raise their voices against this great wickedness and implore our rulers to discard from their councils the folly which is destroying us, and return to the wise doctrines of the Fathers, to the pleadings of Christianity, to the compromises of the Constitution, which can alone save us. Let our rulers hearken to the dead, if they will not to the living – for from every tomb which covers a dead soldier, if they listen attentively they will hear a solemn sound invoking them to renounce partisanship for patriotism, and to save the country from the misery and desolation which, under their present policy, is inevitable.”
—The editorialists make good on their resolve not to even talk about Lincoln’s Address—they are still hammering on Everett. Astoundingly, the writers say that the dead of Gettysburg—including the Union dead—will cry out from their graves to stop the war and continue slavery (“the compromises of the Constitution”). To put proslavery words in the mouths of men who died to end slavery and force the Confederate states back into a free union is beyond contemptible. If anyone desecrated the memory of the dead, it was the editorial writers of the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, not Edward Everett. If anyone was pushing partisanship ahead of patriotism, it was the writers. And if anyone was causing undue misery and desolation, it was the writers of the editorial who defamed the Union dead and pushed for the return of slavery.
We see now why the present day Patriot-News of Harrisburg sticks to the tiny, isolated paragraph about Lincoln, and makes a clearly untrue (or uninformed) excuse for the editorial by saying its writers were “under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time”. No one was drunk, but they were certainly under the influence of partisanship. We still applaud the present-day paper for its retraction, but we wish it weren’t so partial, because that makes it a fillip, an interesting but unimportant “fascinating fact” that is quickly forgotten. If the paper had retracted its treasonous proslavery statements more lasting good would have been done.
The devoted reader of the HP will remember our close-reading of the Gettysburg Address, which ended with this description of some of the reactions of members of the press to President Lincoln’s confusingly short speech:
“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.”
We had to laugh at these no-thanks responses, and we idly wondered if the authors of these critiques ever came to regret them, given how justly famous the Address became. Well, our question is answered by the news that the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA has retracted its criticism (made when the paper was called the Harrisburg Patriot and Union).
The November 14 statement says:
“Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.
“We write today in reconsideration of ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ delivered by then-President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the greatest conflict seen on American soil. Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words ‘silly remarks,’ deserving ‘a veil of oblivion,’ apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.
“In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance, then or now, could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.
“The world will little note nor long remember our emendation of this institution’s record – but we must do as conscience demands:
“In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”
We at the HP think the imitation of the language of the Address, and the parallel brevity of the retraction, are a fitting tribute to the speech the paper once dismissed.
We also think this act is not just symbolic. The willingness, maturity of thought, and courage to reconsider one’s own history are often lacking in this world; worse, there are many who celebrate mistakes of judgment as independent thinking and “maverick” insight. And there are always those who will never admit error, and never apologize for distorting the truth and the historical record.
The men who wrote and edited the 1863 blast against Lincoln were not trying to distort the truth, but they were led by their prejudices to dismiss a powerful speech out of hand. They also had a view of the war that is entirely overlooked, and surprising to us today—more on that next post.
Next: “…this war was begotten of their fanaticism and has been ruled by their whims”—the Harrisburg Patriot and Union hated far more than just the Gettysburg Address!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.
We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.
Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”
Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.
There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.
Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.
The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and 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. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.
We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.
So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.
These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
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?”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 5 so far )
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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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 latest 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 minority of 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.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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