Voice from the Commonwealth
Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." - Samuel Adams

Saturday, April 13, 2002

A good deal of the rhetoric that I hear from the Reparations crowd is aimed at deconstructing Lincoln and the reasons for the Civil War. I find this repugnant on a few levels. For one, I find any attempt at distorting and willfully misinterpreting history in order for it fit a particular argument to be proof that an argument is too weak to stand on its own. Secondly it diminishes the people and events and the true message that we can get from an accurate portrayal.

In today's world we are supposed to view the thoughts actions and policies of Abraham Lincoln as somehow racist. If the pre-1862 Lincoln were alive today and not allowed access to the accumulated thought and learning of the past 140 years, then yes he would be backwards and, in the eyes of the average politically correct standard, racist. This argument is, however, about as valid as calling Albert Einstein ignorant because he couldn't code C+. The people closest to Lincoln and the events of his life would be best able to judge his character. Frederick Douglass had early reservations about the intentions of Lincoln and believed that he was no different that the others who came before. After following the words and actions of the man and meeting with him Douglass revised his impression. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation he said of Lincoln: "the how and the man of our redemption had somehow met in the person of Abraham Lincoln." After meeting with the President he said that Lincoln was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely who in no single instance reminded me of te difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color." If Lincoln was not against slavery why were the voices from the Southern Democrats so shrill in their denunciations of his plans to abolish slavery? Are we to believe that everyone is lying, because that would make the events and people fit into the version of history that the deconstructionists would have us follow?

Lincoln's second Inaugural Address is one of the most telling peices of thought offered by the President. When he wrote it it was not necessarily a reflection of popular sentiment. With victory immenent (Lee was to surrender 5 weeks later) the people of the North did not want to be told that they were paying in blood for the evil that they had allowed in their midst. They came to hear of the end of the war, triumph after a long struggle, instead they were told of the work that was left to be done. This was not aimed to boost the President's ratings (as there were none), it reflected the truth that he come to understand in the preceeding years of bloodshed. But he stood before a crowd of people (his killer watching from the gallery to his rear) and laid bare the uncomfortable truth. He stared directly at the evil face of slavery and made clear that every American must do the same before healing could come.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The voices of dissent will dredge up the tired quote from the Lincoln-Douglass debates as definitive proof of Lincoln's racism. These people will then deflect any questions you may have about whether he ever spoke similar words before or after this singular set of events. They will lecture you on how untruthful and deceptive he was if you ask them what his thoughts were on what he said. They will then try to sell you on the fact that Lincoln was a racist because he supported colonization of the freed slaves.

These arguments could be case studies in the selective use of history. Before accepting the hand selected quotes I suggest you take the time to fully acquaint yourself with the whole of the debates. These debates stand out as one of the greatest series of debates in our history. They can be found here (this is also a must site for political history and any type of litereary reference)

As for the support Lincoln had given colonization, before just accepting that he was for it, and therefore racist, please ask what reasons he had for supporting the measure. It was not only his nor was it a proposal put forth only by the 'white power structure'. A number of black leaders supported the measure. For the same reasons it had been put forth from the beginning (since the early debates of the Continental Congress) men on both sides bevlieved that if there was complete emancipation it would be impossible for the two to live happily together. How could the freed slaves live happily among the people that had enslaved them? Why would they want to? How could former slave-owners be trusted to treat freed slaves equally? I don't think this is an invalid or racist line of questioning. 140+ years later it is easy to say well we know how they should have handled it. But when faced with the reality people will have a different reaction (for all of Europe's talk of multiculturalism and racial harmony why is it that ther is racial tension throughout the Continent? Why is there now a backlash against pro-immigration governments?). It is easy to pass judgement on the motives of the already dead, but put yourself in their place and time before doing so and you will gain new perspective on the difficulties of picking the utopian solution. And if the politicians from Jefferson to Lincoln who at one time or another proposed colonization porposed it for racist reasons they would not have supported the building of a colony that would be protected supported educated and cared for until self-sufficiency was attained. They would have taken the Stalinist approach and relocated them to a desolate place with no hope of survival. When the experiment in colonization failed, Lincoln sent the already stretched thin navy to retrieve the colonizers, tabled the measure and never spoke of it again.

As a point of pride, I learned my Lincoln at the foot of Stephen B. Oates while at the University of Massachussets. And I will take his teachings and lifelong analysis of the man over any pundit or special interest attack dog. Somewhere I have a paper I wrote in dissent of my Antrhopolgy Professor's (Helan Page) use of the Douglass Debate quote in her junior year writing class, titled Racism. To her credit she openly debated it with me and accepted that she had used it out of the more extensive and rich context that was Lincoln and his times.

I will save a look at the causes of the Civil war for later.

< email | 4/13/2002 01:47:00 AM | link

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