A critical review of “Lincoln, lies and Black folk”

First off, let me state my view on how the races/ethnicities relate to each other. Initially, all of the ethnic groups saw each other the way that the US Navy and the Marines do today, the “squids” are lazy and disorganized, the “jarheads” are not so bright, but when we're down to brass tacks, when our backs are to the wall, we're all Americans, we get our instructions from the same Commander-in-Chief and both branches serve the same country. We'll never occupy a world where there's no friction or conflict between the ethnicities, but in the Western world, in the early 1500s, that relatively comfortable situation changed with the introduction of Western technology. It went to the heads of Western white people, who began to think of themselves as Übermensch. Around 1950, the Nazis had taken the theory of the racial supermen to its logical and horrifying conclusion and the colonies that Europe acquired demanded to be free of direct Western control. Westerners began to lose the conviction that they were humanity's supermen. So, when a white person becomes a non-racist, he's not so much moving forwards to enlightenment as he is simply returning to ancient norms, which is why children are not naturally racist. Their racism has to be taught.

Lincoln was very much a man of his time and still retained a feeling that white people were essentially superior to black people. Fortunately, he also felt that Africans had suffered enormously under the boots of white Americans and that the imposition of that suffering was fundamentally immoral. Eventually, he felt near his final days that the political spectrum of his day, with white supremacists feeling that the slave system was just fine and needed no alterations, the centrist middle-of-the-roaders who felt that slave-owners should exercise responsibility and self-control (The idea of commercial regulations was still a few decades in the future) to the wild extremist abolitionists who were radical lefties.

As Lincoln's thought on the subject progressed, he found himself more and more in agreement with what the TV commenter Bill O'Reilly would call “the far left” on the subject.

As to the piece “Lincoln, lies and Black folk” (I have not, as of this writing, watched the Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln) was the Civil War fought for the benefit of the Africans who had been dragged against their will to America? Before and early in the war, Lincoln made his feelings on that subject quite clear, he wanted to preserve the Union whether the Africans were freed or not. Was the fate of the Africans then irrelevant? No, their plight touched sympathetic chords within white people in the North and as the Civil War progressed, rescuing the blacks from their fate was seen as a fine and noble cause and it inspired many Northerners to great efforts.

We deem our cause most holy,
We know we're in the right,
And twenty million freemen
Stand ready for the fight.
Our pride is fair Columbia,
No stain her beauty mars,
On her we'll raise the brave old flag
That bears the stripes and stars.

Preserving the Union was a fairly abstract goal, white people supported it, but rescuing the Africans in America from their fate as it was outlined in “Uncle Tom's Cabin” was an inspiring goal that was worth a lot of bloodshed.

What was the essential cause of the Civil War? Lincoln wisely stated:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Not sure how completely Lincoln understood the issue here (though he states the problem quite well), but America had two economies, the North was a rising industrial, capitalist power, the South was a Medieval-style, feudalistic source of raw materials. What was the essential difference between the two regions? Slavery. Without chattel slavery (Very different and far crueler than slavery in Biblical times and in South America at the same time), a feudalistic system where very few people owned lots and lots of land was simply impossible to sustain. The only way to sustain a Medieval-type system was to have people in bondage, chained to the land. So yes, without slavery, the South would have been economically indistinguishable from the North. To strike at slavery was to strike at the essentially feudal system of the South.

Did white Americans fight for “free black people”? Ultimately, yes. In order to break the feudal system of the South, the slaves had to be freed. Was that the deliberate, conscious intent of white people in the North? I suspect the Radical Republicans understood the connection at the time, but I doubt many other people truly understood that.

What was the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation? Wikipedia says that 50,000 slaves were freed immediately by the Proclamation as that was the number of black people living within the Federally-occupied areas of the states that were in rebellion when the Proclamation was issued. In the following paragraph about the Hampton Roads Peace Conference, that number had increased to 200,000 as the Conference occurred much later in the war.

This discussion led into the overarching issue of emancipation and the status of blacks in the South. Lincoln, in response to an inquiry by Stephens, indicated that opinions in Washington differed as to the "operation" of the Emancipation Proclamation, particularly after hostilities had ceased and it could no longer be considered a war measure. Some people, he said, believed that it was not operative at all; others, that it applied only to federal-occupied areas; and still others, that it applied to all of the Southern states listed in the proclamation. Seward pointed out that about two hundred thousand slaves had already been freed under the authority of the proclamation, an estimate with which Lincoln agreed. The issue of the Emancipation Proclamation's legality, Lincoln told the Confederate commissioners, would be decided by the courts after the war. Meanwhile, he reminded them, he would not retract or modify any of the proclamation.


Though "the abandonment of armed resistance to the national authority [was] the only indispensable condition to ending the war," the president made it clear that he would not "retract or modify the emancipation proclamation, nor ... return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the Acts of Congress." (emphases added)

Yes, Lincoln put the preservation of the Union first in his short list of demands, but very clearly, black emancipation was a close and very important second.

Lincoln, lies and Black folk” goes on to claim:

In 1861, when General John C. Fremont freed all slaves in the state of Missouri, Lincoln fired him. When General David Hunter freed the slaves in three states, Lincoln cancelled and reversed the order.

Yes, clearly these early attempts at emancipation were premature and occurred before Lincoln decided that freeing the slaves was a necessary precondition for ending the war. Lincoln needed the loyalty of the border states and he felt that taking away slaves before slave-holders were ready to give them up would damage the war effort, so he rhetorically concentrated on “Preserving the Union” as his announced motivation for pursuing the war. Was this the act “of a Saviour or of a Salvation Army”? Obviously not, but it was clearly the act of a politicians trying to balance competing demands, to pursue a war of liberation while asserting that liberation was not his goal at all,

Was Lincoln a “hero for the Black man”? Certainly in the long run, for African-Americans to make the progress that they have, ending slavery was a first, necessary step. I certainly don't consider their experience under American law to be much better than slavery from the end of Reconstruction until the successes of the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

No, I'm not convinced that Lincoln deserves to be stripped of the honor in which many Americans hold him. We need to look at him with open eyes, of course, and not with blind hero-worship.

1 comment:

Nathaniel said...

Yes, Lincoln had to keep Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware (often forgotten in this list of slave states) in the Union, and that necessity crimped his ideological evolution. What struck me in the movie "Lincoln" was how it personalized, for Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, the relation between the races. When I was living in Georgia in the mid-1970's, it was said that southern whites liked blacks individually more than as a group, while for northern whites it was the other way around. I think Lincoln, born in a border state evolved to like and respect blacks both as individuals and as a group. To me, Lincoln's personal development, even during the short period of the fight for the 13th amendment in the US House of Representatives, gives the film much of its dramatic unity.