By Tom Mackaman in the USA:
Understanding Lincoln: An interview with historian Allen Guelzo
3 April 2013
Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He is the author of numerous books, including Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America and Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Guelzo spoke with Tom Mackaman of the World Socialist Web Site in his office at Gettysburg College on a Saturday morning in March. A large academic conference was being held that weekend at the college entitled “The Future of Civil War History.” Gettysburg, in southeastern Pennsylvania, was the location of the bloodiest battle in the Civil War, and the city’s college is now one of the leading centers in the study of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln.
During the period addressed in this interview, the late antebellum and the Civil War, American capitalism and its political representatives, led by Lincoln, played a revolutionary role, confronting the reactionary leadership of the American South and its system of slave labor. Within a decade of the end of the Civil War the class struggle between the triumphant capitalist order and the working class had supplanted the earlier struggle between “free labor” and slavery as the decisive issue in American history.
Tom Mackaman: How did you come about your interest in Lincoln and the Civil War?
Allen Guelzo: I suppose the interest in Lincoln and the Civil War really is a long-term one that grows out of a certain boyhood interest and fascination with the man. But I didn’t really get deeply involved in Lincoln Studies until the mid-1990s. Because my PhD had been in the history of American philosophy, I was writing a book on the idea of freedom of the will and determinism in American thought. I knew that Lincoln had had some things to say on the subject, so I looked them up, ended up writing a paper about them, got invited to read it at the Abraham Lincoln Association meeting, and once my hand was in the Lincoln cookie jar I couldn’t get it out. A publisher approached me about writing a book on Lincoln. One thing led to another and, well, here I am.
TM: Which was the first book?
AG: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, with a title borrowed shamelessly from Walt Whitman.
TM: You have been at work on Lincoln, the Civil War, and the emancipation of the slaves for a number of years now. How have your thoughts on these subjects evolved?
AG: Well, I don’t know actually that they have changed all that much. In general the outline that I have had in my mind of Lincoln as a character and a thinker has been pretty stable. And it really grows out of a moment in Charles Sellers’ book The Market Revolution in 1991, when, in describing the role of lawyers as the “shock troops of capitalism”, it struck me how very much Lincoln looked exactly like what Sellers was describing. That was reinforced when I read John Ashworth’s first volume on the capitalist transformation of America, and once again this description of the role of lawyers just seemed so remarkably close to Lincoln that it made me pursue this notion of Lincoln as your archetypal Whig, bourgeois, middle class cultural figure. And that in large measure is what I’ve been working from ever since.
TM: Could you explain what you mean by that a little bit more?
AG: Lincoln is, both culturally and in terms of his economic thinking, firmly and immovably located in the center of what we can call liberal democratic thought in the 19th century. He is very much market oriented, with tremendous confidence in the power of a capitalist society to transform for the better, and he believes in opening the possibilities of that society to as many as possible. To him, that’s what’s coterminous with liberty. If you have to put him in company, he would belong with John Stuart Mill, whom he seriously admired. Shortly before he was assassinated, Lincoln was asked by a journalist what books had been most influential for him. One of the two books he indicated is Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Put him in that context of the upwardly aspiring bourgeoisie—that’s Lincoln.
Lincoln is someone who has fled from romantic agrarianism, the kind of agricultural subsistence economy that his father was a participant in and a good example of. Lincoln regarded that world with distaste and left it as soon as he turned 21. He never looks back, and moves at once into the world of the cash economy, cash wages, investment, and business, and that’s where he lives for the rest of his life. He fails twice actually at being in business, but undeterred by that he shifts over to becoming a lawyer, and that’s when he becomes part of the “shock troops of capitalism” that Sellers talks about.
TM: In his law practice he did extensive business with railroad concerns, did he not?
AG: That was his single most lucrative client. Lincoln’s law practice is a very extensive one, and it runs all the way from big railroad cases down to $2.50 trespass cases. But what is remarkable about his law practice is that it’s overwhelmingly a civil practice—only about 15 percent of his overall cases were criminal cases. And the preponderance of that civil practice was debt collection. He was, so to speak, a repo man. He was either collecting or enforcing collection. And he was a big friend of the railroads. He even served briefly as a lobbyist. If you’d asked anybody in central Illinois in the late 1850s who Abraham Lincoln was, they probably would have said, “Oh, that railroad lawyer.”
One aspect of that railroad practice stands out: in 1856, Lincoln wrote a very extensive memorandum about evicting squatters from railroad land. That was a hot-button issue, because the lands that the Illinois Central was constructed upon were originally federally owned public lands, and many of them had been squatted upon over the years by people who were firmly convinced that they possessed preemption rights. In other words, they believed they had the right of first refusal if the land was ever to be disposed of by the government. Lincoln’s memorandum pulls out all the legal floorboards from under them and authorizes the Illinois Central Railroad to proceed to eviction without any restraint.
TM: Lincoln was an attorney for the railroads. But in other contexts, in certain quotes, did he not privilege labor?
AG: He does indeed talk about labor having priority over capital, which many people mistake as a statement of the labor theory of value. But he’s actually not talking about any labor theory there. What he’s doing is objecting to a labor relationship that said that capital has to give orders to labor, that laborers are so ignorant and so stupid—and of course what he’s primarily talking about here are slave laborers—that the only way any kind of productive work will happen is if capital—meaning slave owners—gives them direction. That he objected to, because that impugned the agency of the self-motivated laborer in a capitalist economy. But it’s the agency of the laborer, not any imputation to the value of the laborers’ product, that Lincoln is describing.
He’s actually responding to James Henry Hammond’s famous “Mudsill” speech of 1858 which Lincoln thought was profoundly offensive for re-introducing the notion of status: status meaning that certain people were born a certain way, and they were always going to be that way, so the only way you’ll make them work is if you flog them. That was what Lincoln was objecting to.
TM: What do you make of the concept of the “free labor ideology,” a concept that is associated with the work of the historian Eric Foner?
AG: Foner wrote the book— Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Men —in 1970, based on his doctoral dissertation under Richard Hofstadter. And it’s a very, very, good book. In fact it’s hard to put a finger on a book that better explicates the free labor ideology of the Republicans—and of Lincoln in the bargain. Some close seconds to that are Heather Richardson’s The Greatest Nation of the Earth, which is not specifically about Lincoln but is about the broader free labor/free wage commitments of the Republicans, and a very good chapter on Lincoln in Daniel Walker Howe’s Political Culture of the American Whigs.
TM: Could you explain the way Lincoln’s career as an attorney in this period influenced his thinking on slavery?
AG: To Lincoln, slavery undercut the free labor outlook on the world because it denied advancement and self-improvement. For Lincoln, the great attraction of any economic regime was the degree to which it permitted accumulation and self-promotion. He once described the ideal system as being one where the penniless beginner starts out working for somebody else, accumulates capital on his own by dint of savings, goes into business for himself, and then eventually becomes so successful that he hires others, who in turn continue the cycle. And he spoke of that as being the order of things in a society of equals. For him, the very notion of equality is a matter of equality of openness, aspiration, and opportunity.
This is what he says in 1859 at the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair (and bear in mind that he is saying this only a year after one of the most severe financial depressions in the 19th century):
Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, “Lay it not too much to heart.” Let them adopt the maxim, “Better luck next time”; and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.
The only reason people do not succeed in a capitalist environment is because they are improvident, they are lazy, they are good for nothing, or they experience some incredible turn of bad luck—that’s why “better luck next time.”
That may seem like vanishingly small consolation to people who’ve just come through a depression, but for Lincoln, that kind of hardship paled beside slavery. Slavery says that there is a category of people that can never be allowed to rise, that cannot improve themselves no matter how hard they try because they will always be slaves. It’s very much the classic disjuncture between the Enlightenment and feudalism. Feudalism talks about people being born with status, and everyone comes into this world equipped with a status. This status is either free or slave, serf or nobility, elect or damned, whatever. For the Enlightenment people come into this world armed with rights, and the ideal political system is the system that allows them to realize those rights, to use those rights in the freest and most natural fashion possible.
TM: Is this what you have in mind when you refer to Lincoln as the last Enlightenment figure in American history?
AG: Exactly. This is why I call him our last Enlightenment politician. Or at least the last one who is securely and virtually exclusively located within that mentality.
TM: Lincoln once said that he did not have a political thought that did not flow—
AG: From the Declaration of Independence …
TM: … Could you talk about the relationship between Lincoln and the American Revolution, and Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence in particular?
AG: He loves—and he’s not exaggerating—the Declaration of Independence. When he talks at Gettysburg about the country being founded on a proposition, that’s what he means, and specifically that all men are created equal. What does he mean by equal though? He means equality of aspiration. He spoke those words about never having had a political thought which did not flow from the Declaration in February of 1861, outside Independence Hall. He believed that what the Founders meant, what the Declaration of Independence meant, was that everybody in the race of life ought to get a fair start and a fair chance. That was the star by which he navigated, and the best example he could offer to anybody was his own life.
TM: The rail splitter.
AG: Sure. Here’s someone who had come up from grinding backwoods poverty and by dint of his own effort, intelligence, and gifts, had risen to more than a modicum of success. Not only success in financial terms but success socially. In every respect he was his own confirmation of his theories. Anyone who impugned free labor and the free labor ideology was really attacking him personally.
TM: Considering further Lincoln’s own intellectual formation, much has been made of his facility with Shakespeare and the Old Testament. What other influences were there? Did he read Melville, did he read Hawthorne?
AG: Not likely. He had no taste for fiction. He said once that he tried to start Ivanhoe but only got halfway through it—which may replicate the experience of many undergraduates and high school students today. But that in itself is something of a statement. He read precious little fiction. He loved poetry, though. But it was, significantly, not romantic poetry that he cottoned up to. He did like Byron, but the poets he admired the most were very much poets of the Enlightenment. He loved Pope and quoted him often from memory. He loved Burns, who is a transitional figure between the Enlightenment and romanticism.
In terms of other things that he reads, he reads political economy. He read most of the major treatises that flowed downstream from Adam Smith. He’s read McCulloch, Henry Carey, and Francis Wayland. One observer said that on political economy he was great, that there was no one better than Lincoln.
He also had some scientific interest in geology. John Hay, his secretary, was surprised to discover he had some interest in philology and the origins of language. He never explains why he is interested in those, but he would always surprise people by what he knew. One Canadian journalist who visited in him 1864 was taken aback when Lincoln launched into a long “dissertation” on comparative points of British and American law.
That’s particularly surprising because in another context Lincoln professed to know nothing about international law. But Lincoln habitually would tell people he was totally ignorant of a subject which in fact he was quite well versed in, because then they would underestimate him, and when they underestimated him they would fall into his trap. Leonard Swett once said that anybody who mistook Lincoln for a simple man would soon end up with his back in a ditch.
TM: The film Lincoln depicts this moment in which Lincoln makes a major decision by discussing Euclid’s principles of mathematics. Is there some basis to this in fact?
AG: Yes, he did read Euclid. It appealed to what one of his law partners referred to as Lincoln’s passion for “mathematical exactness.” Lincoln was not eloquent in the usual 19th century way, certainly not in the romantic way. He was not a man of frothing at the mouth or shaking his fist in a dramatic way. Lincoln was logic, and when he got the hook in your mouth he would pull you in no matter how much line was involved. One observer of the Lincoln-Douglas debates said that if you listened to Lincoln and Douglas for five minutes, you would go with Douglas. If you listened to them for an hour you always went with Lincoln.
I thought the film was 90 percent on the mark, which given the way Hollywood usually does history is saying something. I thought that it got with reasonable accuracy a lot of Lincoln’s character, the characters of the main protagonists, and the overall debate over the 13th Amendment. The acting and screenwriting were especially well done. I remember thinking afterwards that all the time I’d been watching the movie I had never thought that Daniel Day-Lewis was acting, because what he portrayed seemed so close to my own mental image of what Lincoln must have been like.
TM: Lincoln remains such a popular figure. What explains his hold on our fascination and our affection? If we were to consider him only as an attorney for the railroads, as a bourgeois politician, perhaps this would be difficult to explain?
AG: For several reasons. First, as a leader, he is a combination of the virtues of democratic leadership—as opposed to, say, aristocratic leadership, which honors valor, physical prowess, and dominance. Democratic leadership is more about perseverance, self-limitation, and humility. What we see in Lincoln is a collection of the virtues we think are most important in a democratic leadership.
Secondly, he really did preside successfully over this incredibly critical moment we call the Civil War. He did keep the union together, he did defeat the Confederacy. Anyone who sits down for a moment to think about what the alternative would have looked like—a successful breakaway Confederacy—and how that would have flowed downstream has to be with impressed with what Lincoln was able to save us from. There is in the end no intrinsic reason why the Southern Confederacy should not have achieved its independence. And if they had, that would have had serious implications for the later role the North American continent plays in world affairs. Imagine a North American continent as divided politically and economically as South America. This would take the United States off the table as a major world player, and then what would you do with the history of the 20th century?
But I think Lincoln is also important in a third way—and this may be of interest to your readers. I come back to the old Werner Sombart question—“Why there is no socialism in America?” There have been any number of answers. I wonder out loud whether one reason there is no socialism in America is because of Lincoln.
In the American context Lincoln imparted to liberal democracy a sense of nobility and purpose that it has not always had in other contexts. He makes democracy something transcendent, and especially at Gettysburg where he talks about the nation having this new birth of freedom. He ratchets the horizons of liberal democracy right up past the spires of Cologne Cathedral and he makes it this glowing attractive ideal that people are willing to make these tremendous sacrifices to protect. Because at the end of the day this is what the Civil War is about—it’s about the preservation of liberal democracy. In the 1860s the United States was the last Enlightenment experiment that was still standing. What you had in the climate of mid-19th century Europe was the renaissance of romantic aristocracy …
TM: He refers to this in the Gettysburg Address…
AG: Yes, that’s really what he’s talking about. This war is a test whether this nation or any other nation so conceived can long endure. Is democracy self-destructive? Are the aristocrats right? That the only way you’ll ever have order in society is to let them run things? That you cannot put rule into the hands of ordinary people because they’ll botch it from selfishness, egotism, and stupidity? The Civil War becomes this demonstrator model for aristocrats to say, “See what happens when you let ordinary people govern.” The romantic contempt of the American experiment, whether that contempt comes from a Heinrich Heine, from an Otto Von Bismarck…
TM: Or from the Southern elite…
AG: Exactly. This is what Lincoln saw in the Southern elite—a defection from Enlightenment bourgeois politics toward aristocratic rule. And I think there’s really some substance there. Because if you look at someone like Bismarck, for instance, the Prussian Junkers are not great aristocrats. They are the squirearchy. They are very similar in complexion and structure to the plantation aristocracy of the Old South. No surprise then that Bismarck sees in the Confederacy something that he admires, that he applauds. Lincoln saw himself arrayed against that.
Lincoln sees American democracy as a last stand, what he calls the last, best hope. And if this goes down, we may so discredit the whole notion of democracy that no one will ever want to go this way again, and so this is the test. It’s a test of whether or not we’ll have this new birth of freedom, if we’ll finally shuck off these last husks of aristocracy and move forward in the direction of democracy. That for him is the vital issue.
People today often want to separate slavery, and say that Lincoln was interested in preserving the union and not in destroying slavery. No, that gets it exactly wrong. The two are as knotted together as a rope, because the only union worth preserving is a union that has abjured slavery. So for Lincoln to get rid of slavery is to purge America of the aristocratic poison. He once said that slavery was the one retrograde institution that was poisoning the American republic, keeping the American republic from realizing its full potential.
TM: What do you make of the criticism of Lincoln the historical figure from the standpoint of identity politics, or, more recently, similar criticism over Lincoln the film?
AG: There has been a current that wants to reject the image of Lincoln as the Emancipator by questioning whether or not he emancipated the slaves. It has had some long innings. Some of it goes back to Marx’s comment on the Gotha Program, that the proletariat has to emancipate itself, that it cannot look to some other agency to do so. That image of self-emancipation certainly has a role to play in W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in 1930, because Du Bois will say we can’t really talk about emancipation unless it’s self-emancipation. Du Bois is picturing race as the replacement for class. And this gets popularized in the writing of people like Vincent Harding, Lerone Bennett, Barbara Field, and any number of people writing today—some of whom have probably never read Du Bois, much less Marx.
Lincoln does drop comments that can be taken out of their historical context. For instance the most widely cited statement about race is the one he makes at the fourth debate at Charleston, Illinois. He says:
I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together.
People like Bennett focus on this and say, Lincoln was really just another garden variety racist. What they do not see is what Lincoln follows that comment with. He says:
there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.… he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color—perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; but in the right to eat the bread without leave of anybody else which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man….
That must have made every white supremacist in the crowd gasp.
I think, on the whole, given that the environment of the US in the middle of the 19th century is so white supremacist in its assumptions, Lincoln is actually quite remarkable for standing apart from that. But the decontextualized quote provides fodder for people to say that Lincoln was really not on our side.
This is aided and abetted by Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay in The American Political Tradition in which he refers to the Emancipation Proclamation as having “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” What Hofstadter meant is that here is the man capable of writing the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, but when it comes to the Emancipation Proclamation it’s as flat as a pancake. Why? Hofstadter’s conclusion is that Lincoln was just insincere about it. And even Marx noted that the language in the Emancipation Proclamation was dull. He compared it to a summons sent by one county lawyer to another. Again, they quote Marx out of context, because then he goes on to say something very laudatory.
Put these together and you have people saying Lincoln wasn’t the Great Emancipator and he wasn’t sincere, and so on and so forth. I think that this is thoroughly, absurdly, off-base. It’s off-base because of the historical process. They really don’t understand the rules of the ground game in 1861 and 1862. One black power activist in the 1960s wrote, “Why didn’t Lincoln free the slaves altogether? Why didn’t he just wake up one morning and say, I’m going to free all the slaves?” Well, he’s not the Czar of all the Russians. He’s the president of the United States, and legally he’s allowed to do certain things, and that’s not one of them. He has to work within the process.
TM: Concretely, for example, there’s the argument that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, that the slaves freed themselves in the Civil War.
AG: That’s to misuse the word freedom. Slaves free themselves by running away, but they free themselves de facto, but not de jure. A slave that runs away is still a runaway, just like a convict who escapes from prison is not free; he’s an escapee, and can be picked up and arrested and incarcerated. In the Civil War you have many runaways, but there has to be something more than that. You have to have the application of law. That is what Lincoln provides in the Emancipation Proclamation. It is the legal statement of the freedom of about 3 million slaves.
TM: It’s also the case that the large number of runaways in the Civil War was made possible by the presence of the Union Army in the South …
AG: Which is also acting as an instrument of Lincoln’s policy. So ask the slaves themselves how they were freed, and they will say, “Lincoln’s proclamation.” The testimony of freed people before the joint committee on reconstruction—about how they became free is uniform. They were well aware that the Fugitive Slave Laws and Constitutional provisions for the rendition of slaves were still in force. The position of runaways remained perilous. The Emancipation Proclamation resolved that.
One other way to look at this is to say, “What if George McClellan had won the presidency in 1864, defeating Lincoln?” He would have immediately begun negotiations with the Confederacy. And it is difficult for me to imagine that those negotiations would have not involved some sort of provision for rendition. After all, the treaty ending the Revolutionary War with Great Britain and the treaty ending the War of 1812 with Great Britain both involved the rendition of runaway slaves. Absent the Emancipation Proclamation, that could have happened again.
TM: There’s a conjoined argument, and that is that the Civil War really didn’t accomplish anything at all in light of the implementation of Jim Crow…
AG: That’s rubbish.
TM: To bring us up to the present, I was somewhat surprised that there was not more commemoration, more celebration, of the anniversary of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation…
AG: I was surprised too.
TM: What do you make of that?
AG: Part of this goes back to the reputation the Emancipation Proclamation has had attached to it by people like Hofstadter. That line—that it had no more “moral grandeur than a bill of lading”—I encounter at so many levels and in so many places. And, yes, the Proclamation does lack the rhetorical force of the Gettysburg Address. But it is a legal document; it’s got work to do.
And yet I will say this. Just yesterday, I heard a gentleman from the Henry Ford Museum who said that 200,000 people came to see a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation borrowed from the National Archives. I think we underestimate the power that the Proclamation in fact still has.
On the other hand, we made an overture to the White House, trying to solicit their interest for something on January 1, the 150th anniversary. They blew us off. They just weren’t interested. They were in reelection mode and that trumped any interest in Lincoln and the Proclamation. I thought that was really, really, weird. You would think that the first African American president would leap at the opportunity. But no. Absolutely nothing.
TM: I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with the symbolic appeal to equality that the Emancipation Proclamation makes in the context of mounting social distress and deepening economic crisis. How do you explain it?
AG: I really don’t know. Maybe part of it is identity politics. Maybe they’re just thinking about practical, nuts and bolts things and uninterested in history. I mean, the guy is from Chicago. Somehow the idea of a celebration for the Emancipation Proclamation just got nixed.
Falsifying the American Civil War: Doris Kearns Goodwin at Gettysburg: here.
On November 15, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman led a 60,000 soldier Union army from the recently captured city of Atlanta deep through the heart of the state of Georgia, resulting in the seizure of the port city of Savannah on December 21. In the March to the Sea, as the campaign became known, the Union army fed itself off the land, destroyed infrastructure and liberated tens of thousands of slaves, in the process delivering a deathblow to the slaveholders’ rebellion. The American Civil War would be over within four months: here.
With the approach of the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, followed less than a week later by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, attention is once again focused on the US Civil War, and on the president who led the military and political struggle that ended with the abolition of slavery: here.
For most history buffs, the Civil War’s sesquicentennial ends on Thursday. That day in 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox. Most historians, though, acknowledge that the war’s most ambitious aim—full equality for black citizens—took many more years to accomplish, and even continues. But in his new book, After Appomattox, historian Gregory P. Downs makes a far bolder claim. Appomattox hardly ended the war: A full-scale military occupation continued for at least another five years, and without it, slavery may have persisted far longer than it did. Almost 100,000 Army soldiers remained in the South through the end of 1865, Downs meticulously documents, with up to 20,000 troops stationed there until 1871: here.
- Letter From Abraham Lincoln (goldenorangewrites.wordpress.com)
- Abraham Lincoln and the British labour movement (dearkitty1.wordpress.com)
- The 8 Amazing Habits of Abraham Lincoln (successify.net)
- Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a powerful second act (dnaindia.com)
- VIDEO: Life as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator (bbc.co.uk)
- Historian: Americans Don’t Understand Meaning Behind Gettysburg Address (freebeacon.com)
- Local historians agree: Lincoln nailed the essence of America (star-telegram.com)
The Mason Missile
The E-newsletter of
John Oliver Mason
July 28, 2013
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
The first week of July commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, where is early July 1-3, 1863, the Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee fought Union forces under General George G. Meade, which ended in defeat for the Confederates and was the turning point of the Civil War.
The period 2009 to today has been the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and I was afraid the event would start nostalgia for the “lost cause,” especially after the election of our first African-American President. From the end of the Civil War, the history of the event was altered to be a war among brothers, and the Confederacy was recast as a “noble cause,” a conflict for “states rights” against an oppressive federal government- and slavery had nothing to do with it. The Civil War, among southerners, was called the “War of Northern Aggression,” and the term was used as early as last year by Jim Porter, President of the National Rifle Association.
Slavery had nothing to do with secession? Here is an excerpt from the Texas Ordinance of Secession, ratified by the Secession Convention in February 2, 1861: “She (Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits–a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy…
“The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretenses and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slave-holding States.”
Here is the Secession Ordinance of Georgia, January 29, 1861: “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.”
The ordinance complained about the new Republican party as “admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state…While the subordination and the political and social inequality of the African race was fully conceded by all, it was plainly apparent that slavery would soon disappear from what are now the non-slave-holding States of the original thirteen.”
Finally, here is the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, issued in December 24, 1860: “We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
” For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”
So, this is the “noble cause,” the right to own and keep other human beings as slaves, livestock. This has been the basis of “states' rights,” the code word for maintaining supposed privileges based on skin color.
This went on after the Civil War; Andrew Johnson, who became President after the murder of Lincoln, had a reputation of hating the planter aristocracy that led the South into secession; but he hated Black people even worse, and he allowed the former Confederate states to implement “Black Codes” to control the newly freed slaves, who, although physically liberated from slavery, had no economic base to protect themselves, no land of their own to build farms on. The Black Codes of South Carolina, for instance, prohibited Blacks from possessing firearms, making and selling liquor, entering the state without possessing a bond of “good behavior,” prohibiting them from selling farm products without the permission of the white employer. The codes used “vagrancy laws” as an excuse for sheriffs to imprison Blacks and send them into hard labor, and to “hire them out” to private employers- slavery in another form. Is this what the South is commemorating?
(You can read about Andrew Johnson, ranked by historians of the US Presidency as among the worst Presidents, in the biography Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed. Gordon-Reed writes of the time, during Lincoln’s second inauguration, when Johnson comes across Frederick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist; “The first expression that came to his face,” Gordon-Reed quotes Douglass writing, “and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late; it was useless to close the door when all within has been seen.” Douglass came to the conclusion that “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is not friend of our race.”)
These issues haunt us through to this day, even after the Civil Rights movement of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties. African-Americans were elected to positions of power in this country, including the South, but the racist feelings did not remain dormant; they were given new code words like “welfare queen,” “urban crime,” “racial quotas,” and “war on drugs.” Nixon, Reagan, and lesser Republican politicians afterwards utilized these subliminal, racially-triggering phrases. Read the posters at Tea Party rallies, with insulting racist images of Obama on them; look at the efforts in state legislatures to pass “voter ID” laws, that target students, minorities, and seniors, constituencies that mainly vote Democratic.
Such efforts to limit voting by unacceptable persons gained momentum after the US Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, voided Section Four of the Voting Rights Act, implemented to protect the right to vote for minorities. The purpose of the act was for the federal government to approve or veto changes in voting laws that would discriminate against minorities. After that, Texas, North Carolina, and other states reintroduced voter ID bills in their legislatures.
In its ruling, the Court noted, “Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, ‘(v)oter turnout and registration rates’ in covered jurisdictions ‘now approach parity. Blatant discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office in unprecedented levels.’…The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.” The Court acts like racial discrimination and prejudice no longer exist. But it does, as I pointed out earlier.
The voter ID laws are the brainchild of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of state legislators and corporations formed to promote bills in legislatures that benefit corporations, such as “tort reform” bills to protect corporations from lawsuits; anti-immigrant bills that would incarcerate undocumented persons in privately-owned prisons, such as those owned by ALEC donor Corrections Corporation of America (CA); bills that would inhibit a state government's ability to tax or regulate corporations, in the name of the “free market”, thereby forcing state and municipal governments to lay off employees; “right to work” (for less) bills that would limit unions’ ability to organize and support favorable candidates for office; and the “stand your ground” law, like the one in Florida, which George Zimmerman invoked after killing Trayvon Martin.
(By the way-Let us take up the case of Marissa Alexander, an African-American Florida woman who fired a warning shot at her abusive husband. She invoked the “stand you ground” defense, but the judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison. Laws like “stand your ground” were designed to be discriminatory, and the Justice Department has begun to look into this. Let us do what we can for Ms. Alexander’s defense, and take these laws off the books.)
On a more positive, personal note- My 56th birthday comes up on August 1, and that puts me one year into the City of Philadelphia's DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan) plan. After three years more working in the City records Department, I will retire with a pension, a bonus, and money from the Deferred Compensation plan. After I retire, I’ll have more time to devote to afflicting the comfortable oppressors and comforting the afflicted, to let them know their affliction is not inevitable. The right to a safe, dignified retirement has come through the efforts of trade unionists over the years. (Hint, hint!)
Also-On August 4, I will be interviewed for my writing work over FoMerlot Entertainment, one of the programs over the internet radio site Blog Talk Radio. The site for the show is http://www.blogtalkradio.com/fomerlot. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
I have an unknown post mortem cdv of a standing abe Lincoln . need an expert to guide me in this most historical discovery.
I hope an expert on this reads your comment. I myself am not one, unfortunately 🙂
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