Monday, December 1, 2008

Emancipation Part 1: Prologue

I read constantly -- its part of what I do for a living, as a transactional attorney. I also do a fair amount of study outside of the office, of the Bible, and of current events. But every now and then, in the evening, I need to unwind my mind, so I often have at least one book going that has nothing to do with all of the other research i am doing -- I call it my "fun" reading, or my "escapist" reading. Something i read for pure enjoyment. Invariably its nonfiction, and its usually about history of some sort.

In the aftermath of the November elections, I was a little depressed, so I sought out some reading about politics that I thought would be uplifting. So I cracked open Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals," an incredibly well written account of the life of Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the men in presidential cabinet. I recommend it highly.

But something struck me about Lincoln and his approach to the issue that split the country apart in his day -- slavery. The seeds sown in our nation's early days still haunt us today, and in light of the ground breaking event that the election of Barak Obama as the first African American President, Lincoln's apporach to the issue of the eradication of slavery and the concept that folks of all races should be accepted in society as equals is compelling.

Much of this focuses around Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. I believe that this event marked the major turning point in the way our country dealt with issues of race. It would take over a hundred years to set in, but Lincoln's wisdom led the way.

I want to talk about this in some detail. It will take several installments of my version of a "blog" to accomplish, but I think it merits a look back.

This look back is partially inspired by modern scholarship that tries to claim that Lincoln really didn't care to eliminate slavery at all, and was actually a virulent racist. All he cared to do was to fight to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was, in the eyes of these scholars, an elaborate ruse to try to inspire a slave rebellion in the South during the Civil War.

There is some merit to the kinds of things modern day critics of Lincoln bring up about his views about race. Many point to Lincoln's personal views about blacks. Even when arguing against slavery in the famous debates he had with Stephen Douglas, when Douglas accused Lincoln of leaning towards racial equality, Lincoln back pedaled and said that he had "no purpose to introduce political and social equality" between blacks and whites, and that "physical differences" between the races would "probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality."

A racist viewpoint? Yes, especially when considered in the light of today's society. But unlike most of his contemporaries, who viewed blacks as inferior in every respect, Lincoln disagreed. In the very next sentence after the last section of the debate quoted above, Lincoln went on to say "Notwithstanding all this . . . there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence . . . I agree that [Stephen] Douglas, he is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps in moral and intellectual endowment. 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 every living man."

While even this advocacy reeks of condescension when considered in the light of modern sensibilities, most historians note that Lincoln's view that African Americans were "equal" at all was a very radical position for that time. Note the only unequivocal statement in the previous quote regarding differences between the races is "color."

I would argue that Lincoln's prejudices were a product of his time. But what is also important to note is that Lincoln was a man who admitted when he was wrong, and learned from his mistakes. I intend to show that as Lincoln developed his ideas that eventually coalesced in the Emancipation Proclamation, he changed his mind about the African race, and came to view them not just as eligible for freedom, but complete equality.

Another stumbling block for modern historians is Lincoln's vow to preserve the Union, even if it meant keeping slavery legal in the rebel states.

This was a cornerstone of his platform for the Presidency. But it also reflects a Lincoln's understanding of Constitutional principle.

The Constitution as originally ratified impliedly recognized that slavery was legal. In Lincoln's mind, this meant that there was only two ways to eradicate slavery -- the individual state government could declare it illegal, as the northern states had done, or the Constitution needed an amendment banning slavery.

Modern scholars point to this interpretation as showing weakness on Lincoln's part. This was not new. The radical abolitionists of Lincoln's day wanted an immediate end to slavery, and they were impatient with the Lincoln Administration's willingness to compromise to avoid civil war.

But if you really look at Lincoln's concept of what slavery meant to the nation at that time, you see that his views are well founded in history and a compassionate view towards eliminating slavery. For example, in a speech given in 1954 to oppose the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed slavery to spread to the new territories west of the Mississippi, Lincoln looked back to the ratification of the Constitution, and pointed out "the plain unmistakable spirit of that age towards slavery was hostility to the principle, and toleration only by necessity" because slavery was already an integral part of much of American society. Lincoln noted that the word "slave" or "slavery" never appeared in the Constitution, opining that the Framers were indirect about it, in the same way that a man who is ill might try and hide his affliction. While others argued for "popular sovereignty," (the ability of a state or territory to vote in favor of slavery), Lincoln looked back to words of the Declaration of Independence. "No m an is good enough to govern another man without his consent." Lincoln took this argument to its logical conclusion. Negroes were men, and should not be governed by another without his consent. Slavery was therefore wrong in principle, and the law needed to be changed. But Lincoln was willing to allow for the law to change of its own accord where slavery already existed and was Constitutionally protected

This sounds to many today like a cop-out, but Lincoln was a master politician, and knew that a compromise viewpoint might prevent the war, preserve the union, and eventually allow for the legal change that would have ended slavery. Eventually, the 13th Amendment needed to be ratified to officially end slavery in the country, even after the Civil War was over. But it becomes clear that Lincoln was trying to be expedient and pragmatic, rather than having any sympathy with the concept of slavery.

And as I hope to show in the next few "episodes" of this look at the Emancipation Proclamation, he also came to change his mind about the legality of slavery.

No comments: