2013 is a round-number anniversary for many things. It is the 50th anniversary of both Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the Kennedy assassination. We are 4o years removed from the start of the Watergate Hearings. In the month of January specifically, we are 150 years removed from the Emancipation Proclamation. For as much we would like to think that slavery is ancient history, 150 years is practically yesterday in terms of historical time.
As someone who teaches history to 11th graders, many of my students have been told conflicting stories about Abraham Lincoln and his views on slavery by the time they have me. One teacher might have told them that Lincoln freed the slaves. Another teacher said that he didn’t give a damn about the slaves. Somewhere along the line kids seem to learn that Lincoln owned slaves, was part black himself or both.
Lincoln is one my favorite historical figures and no I have not seen the Lincoln movie yet, although anything with Daniel Day Lewis is worth watching. He was an extraordinarily complex man (Lincoln was) which helps account for our confusion on what he stood for. As president, few men have combined the characteristics of both politician and leader as completely as Lincoln.
A politician does things that are expedient with an eye to enhancing his own power or that of his party’s. A leader believes in a certain just, but largely unpopular, course of action and tries to shepherd the country towards the same point of view. Bill Clinton (about whom I have written) was a great politician but not a great leader. My favorite American, John Quincy Adams, was a great leader but a poor politician. Lincoln combined the best of both worlds. Only the Roosevelts come close to touching him in presidents possessing both political and leadership skills.
If Lincoln’s views on slavery confound many school teachers and students today, imagine how maddening it was for people of his era. The mark of a good politician is that we are still unclear on what his course was 150 years later. This can be attributed to a simple human fact that we overlook about Lincoln: he, like most humans, changed his mind. His views on slavery evolved throughout the war, as did his policies.
Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley a year into the Civil War in August 1862:
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing,” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save Slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy Slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union, and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
This is why many people say that Lincoln didn’t care about the slaves. For the first part of the war Lincoln had a singular objective of preserving the Union. His views on slavery had always been ambivalent. A part of him felt it was morally repugnant and a barrier to free enterprise. Another part of him felt it was not his place to interfere in the business of other white men. And yet another part of him viewed blacks in general as a problem, which is why he was a major supporter of African-American colonization of Africa before the war. Naturally, he held the common assumption of the time that whites were superior to blacks.
Yet, as the war dragged on, Lincoln started to believe there might be practical reasons to abolish slavery. During the time Lincoln wrote this letter, general Ulysses S. Grant was working on conquering the Mississippi River, a major part of the Union war strategy. Grant observed that slaves in the area believed that the Union Army meant freedom and would walk off the plantations into the protective arms of union blue. Many generals sent them back, sometimes at gunpoint, but Grant saw a practical use for taking in the enslaved people who yearned for freedom. By doing the grunt work of an army, all of the cleaning, cooking, trench-digging and other back-breaking tasks it entails, the freedmen would free up Union soldiers to do actual fighting. At the same time it drained the labor power of the south and gave the Union the moral high-ground in the eyes of Britain, who was debating on whether or not to help the Confederacy.
While he was composing his letter to Greeley, Lincoln was also drafting an Emancipation Proclamation. It would be an executive order and a tight legal document freeing all slaves held in rebel territories. It did not free slaves in Confederate areas captured by the Union army, nor did it free slaves in the border states (slave states who were loyal to the Union). For Lincoln, it was mostly a matter of military strategy. He would co-opt the labor force of the south to the benefit of the Union Army. In so doing, Lincoln was taking the third option he outlined to Horace Greeley by “freeing some (slaves) and leaving others alone.”
Yet, neither Greeley nor the rest of the country knew what Lincoln had in store. Lincoln needed to announce his Emancipation Proclamation at the right time. The war had been going badly so far. The Union general, George McClellan, was not the fighting general Lincoln needed. Instead of fighting, McClellan was mired in endless preparations for his very large and well provisioned army. And he was getting his ass handed to him by Robert E. Lee at every turn. Lincoln could not have announced the Proclamation at such a time lest it look like a desperation move on the part of the north. Lincoln needed to wait until after a Union victory to proclaim his new policy on slavery.
That victory came a month after the Greeley letter at a Maryland creek known as Antietam, the bloodiest single day in American history. Even though McClellan failed to destroy Lee’s army when he had him on the ropes, McClellan scored a costly but technical victory. Lincoln then announced that an Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in rebel territory would take effect on New Years’ Day, 1863.
And so it did, probably the most important and hallowed executive order in American history. For all of the talk of Lincoln’s practicality and indifference towards slavery there was something inherently symbolic about the Emancipation Proclamation. It was written in strict legalese with none of the rhetorical flourishes and soaring perorations for which Lincoln is known. Lincoln wanted it to be so legally airtight that there was no mistaking that slavery will never exist in Confederate-held territory again, providing the north won the war. The finality of it was striking.
Furthermore, it hinted at the future of both slavery and Lincoln’s views on slavery. Once slavery is gone in most of the south, how will it ever survive in the rest of the country? It was just a matter of time before the institution of slavery completely folded everywhere. This also presaged Lincoln’s turn. As he saw blacks willing to join the army to fight and die for the Union he began to respect the black race more and more. First he let them join the army but collect less pay than white soldiers. Then he lobbied to equalize pay for black soldiers. He refused to exchange prisoners with the south because they refused to release black prisoners, who they considered “contraband”. Because of this, Lincoln was blamed by northerners for the suffering of Union POWs at Andersonville. He began to take unpopular stances because he was starting to see blacks as true equals to whites.
A year after he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln would give the Gettysburg Address. It would be there, on the battleground that ended up deciding the war, where Lincoln infused the war with new purpose. Not only was this war to save the Union and therefore democracy as a viable form of government, but democracy must be infused with a “new birth of freedom” if it is to survive. In other words, the war would be about bringing an end to slavery as much as it was to preserve the union, since both would be required to save democracy around the world. Most of the western world had established monarchies who believed democracy was a weak form of government that would eventually implode in the United States. To many, the Civil War was the implosion of democracy proving to the world the folly of the American experiment. Lincoln was determined not to have this happen.
This announcement cost Lincoln dearly politically, sealing his fate as a one-term president. The interminable bloodshed of civil war had soured the country on Lincoln’s leadership. Quite simply, white people in the north did not want to support a war to free slaves. Lincoln took a dangerous political stand for the sake of being a leader.
The election of 1864 would pit Lincoln against his old general George McClellan who considered Lincoln his inferior. McClellan was a war hero and a victim ever since Lincoln fired him. McClellan’s promise of a negotiated peace with Lee sounded good to a country bled white by mechanized war. Lincoln knew he was going to lose badly.
However, the Union Army captured the Mississippi when Vicksburg surrendered to Grant. His protege William Tecumseh Sherman was making his way to the south’s most populous city: Atlanta. A few weeks before the election Sherman took Atlanta. The end of the war was in sight and Lincoln ended up winning at the polls because of it. It turned out northerners would prefer to extend the war just a little longer if it meant freeing all slaves,
This is where Lincoln confuses us. The same presidency that started with a policy of indifference towards slavery gambled everything on ending it. Lincoln simply changed his mind, first by seeing how slaves helped the Union Army after they left the plantations, then after seeing blacks fighting for the cause of the Union. It is a poetic change of mind. Thanks to Lincoln’s confidence in the Union Army, it is a gamble that paid off politically.
By the time of his second inaugural speech Lincoln was a changed man. The conciliatory tone he adopted towards the south in his first inaugural address was gone as far as slavery was concerned. He now claimed that the Civil War was God’s punishment for the evil of slavery, giving a context to all of the death of the previous 4 years. When the 13th Amendment was finally ratified ending slavery once and for all, Lincoln signed his name to it even though the president’s signature was not required for passage. This is a far cry from the equivocal Lincoln of the Greeley letter.
It is important to teach the whole Lincoln for many reasons. First, it answers the question of how people can say that Lincoln both freed and didn’t free the slaves. Second, it shows that people we idolize can change their minds when confronted by new evidence. It teaches the lesson that we don’t need to be wedded to an idea. Finally, it shows that taking a stand can pay off and being out of step with your contemporaries just means you’re ahead of the moral curve.
Obama has been fond of symbolic comparisons to Lincoln. His biggest challenge within the party was a seasoned Senator from New York who was thought a shoe-in for the nomination. And just like Lincoln did for Seward, Obama appointed Hilary as Secretary of State. Just like Lincoln, Obama was an upstart from Illinois. He appointed a “team of rivals” who all had more experience than him and believed they could probably do the job of president better.
Unfortunately, I fear symbolism is the only thing Obama has in common with Lincoln. Obama has not taken many risky stands. The ones he has taken, like a public option for healthcare, he quickly shied away from when the political heat became too much. He is more Clinton, less Quincy Adams and even less an FDR or Lincoln.
Maybe his second term will be different. We never got to find out what Lincoln’s second term would have looked like thanks to John Wilkes Booth. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been such a hero if he was allowed to handle Reconstruction after the war.
Maybe he wouldn’t have been but Lincoln is still a worthy person to take as a role model for Obama and the rest of us.