Monday, July 7, 2008

I Just Don't Get It. . .

Americans are a freedom-loving people. Of this, there can be no doubt. Truly, we love liberty, independence. . .freedom. We celebrate freedom. Jubiliantly. Just this past Saturday, for example, thousands upon thousands of patriots gathered at the Antietam Battlefield to celebrate the 4th of July at our annual Salute to Independence despite the warnings of thunderstorms and the ominous dark clouds that were rolling in. . .Freedom is cherished, it is loved, and it is celebrated.
With this in mind, I simply cannot understand why there are so many--too many--people who during my programs cannot help to disguise their anger with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Now, to those among my readers who somehow feel that I "bash" the South in my posts, please note that I did not say it is just Southern visitors that bristle and voice their complaints when I discuss the Proclamation. No, I hear it from visitors from all over the United States: North, South, East, and West.
Here are just a few of the comments I have received just within the past week. "Why do you insist on saying that slavery was the cause of the war? It was all about the rights of the Southerners to form their own country." "Lincoln didn't care a lick about slaves; he was the greatest murderer in United States history." "Not a single person was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation." "If Lincoln would have just let the South go, slavery would have ended and the South would have come back into the Union peacefully in the 1890s." (This came from the same visitor who claimed that slavery had nothing to do with secession, so why then would the South have come back to the Union after slavery ended?) And it just went on and on. . .This past week, the comments and complaints about the Proclamation have been especially pronounced.
We never acknowledge such ridiculous assertions that Lincoln was America's "greatest murderer" with any kind of response. We usually just say something to the effect of, "Well, the war has been over for more than fourteen decades and yet here we are still discussing and debating it, which, after all, makes history so fascinating." However, I cannot help but wonder why some in America--people who love and celebrate freedom--can have such a problem and be so angry with my discussing the Emancipation Proclamation. The issuance of this all important document was a pivotal moment not just in the history of the Civil War, but in all of American history as well, and it certainly needs to be discussed as part of the September 1862 Maryland Campaign, since the preliminary draft of the Proclamation was signed on Monday September 22, 1862, just five days after the guns fell silent at Antietam. I would believe that this is something we as Americans can celebrate universally since it was the first step in the long road leading to the freedom of more than 4 million enslaved Americans.
Of course it is true that Lincoln did not free those slaves in areas still in the Union, including Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and so on. This is not a secret. Lincoln knew he could not lose these areas; he was, after all, a rather shrewd politician. We hear this the most, "Not all the slaves were freed." Somehow, visitors think that this is justification enough in their belief that the Proclamation should not be discussed, much less celebrated. What is not widely known, however, is that those slaves still in areas not in rebellion numbered 800,000, or 25% of the nation's slave population. This means, that three-quarters, some 3.2 million slaves were declared "thenceforward and forever free." Not a bad starting point, I would argue.
If we should not celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation, if Lincoln should be criticized for not freeing all the slaves with this revolutionary document, then why should we celebrate and laud the Declaration of Independence? the Constitution? the Founders? When they signed off on the document that declared "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights--that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness," they most certainly did not mean to include ALL in America. There was a sizable portion of the population that wasn't declared free to pursue their lives, their liberty, and happiness. Such criticism is almost always met with outrage. . ."How can you say that?" "Don't you love America?" Now, hold your fire. . .I am merely drawing a parallel here. Interestingly, some of those most outraged by such criticism of the Founders are among those that declare Lincoln to be "the greatest murderer" in U.S. history and that the Emancipation Proclamation shoud not be celebrated.
If we truly love and celebrate freedom, then what accounts, in the minds of some people, for the praise and veneration of the Declaration of Independence and the 4th of July on the one hand, and the villifaction of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation on the other? Can there be a reconciliation? An accounting? I don't believe so. . .
Just my thoughts. . .maybe it is me who just doesn't get it.


Anonymous said...

There's more to it than that John. Slavery was protected by the Constitution. Lincoln could not legally free slaves in states not in rebellion with the United States. But as commander-in-chief, Lincoln could, as a wartime measure, deny the Confederacy any asset that could aid it in its war effort. As I used to say in my talks, had McClellan ended the war in 1862 the Supreme Court would have probably declared the Emancipation Proclamation invalid. As it is, the war goes on for two more years and as Lincoln correctly believed, emancipation would take on a life of its own.
Up here at the show we get the same thing. Slavery is the first thing that people hear about when they go into the museum. I'm always amazed that people refuse to believe that slavery was the cause of the war. Any other argument about states rights, tariffs, or anything else will always lead back to slavery.

John C. Nicholas

Anonymous said...

Excellent post ... from someone who thinks you do frequently throw a 'gig' at the southern forces. I guess you just have to look through 1850's eyes. We struggle to understand it all today. I'm from Georgia, had five family members in the confederate infantry in the ANV, and my family owned slaves in Henry County, GA. Yet I feel that slavery was a cancer on our country that needed to be abolished. I feel that Lincoln was a great man whom I admire and respect. I guess I just try to respect and honor the incredible accomplishments and sacrifices of the southern forces against overwhelming odds while not bringing their politics into it. Even their northern foes admired and respected the southern armies fighting spirit while still condemning their motivations. Would you not agree? I appreciate your input ...

John David Hoptak said...

John~Thanks for the comment. . .always great to hear from you.

Anon~I most certainly agree. . .I never take anything away from the bravery and pronounced fighting spirit of the Confederate soldiers. What Lee's men were able to accomplish on the field of battle sometimes defies belief. The leaders were militarily brilliant and the men were hard-fighting. Please know that I have always respected the bravery of the soldiers serving on either side. How they endured the horrors of combat is beyond me.
And you are right as well. . .When we interpret the past, we must always try to approach it from the point-of-view of those at the time; to do so otherwise is simply not fair. But we must also approach it from all sides.
I had no ancestors who fought either way in the Civil War (at least none I have been able to locate). Instead, both sides of my family arrived in the U.S. from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. There is, as you said, still a struggle going on coming to terms with it all, and if I did have ancestors who served I would most likely feel that struggle all the more.
Thank you for your comment. . .

rmbat said...

When the Constitution was written many people did not consider the blacks to be human.

And Lincoln issued Emancipation Proclamation to keep the British from entering the war on the Confederate side.

Bob Greaker said...

It would be amazing to me that people are still fighting the Civil War 140+ years after it ended, if I didn't know human nature so well.

People see things through their own eyes and cannot be convinced otherwise through facts or truths.

It is more about the regard people have for others of different birth. Many of those 'negatives' live within their own local little 'bubble' and through their eyes the universe revolves around them and their immediate world.

An example is our present armed conflict, fought by brave American soldiers of various births, but condemned by family members at home who thought their young ones were only signing up for free schooling.

It does not matter to the 'at-homers' that women and children were, and would continue to be, publicly murdered because in their eyes, the ones being murdered are not our children and therefore not important.

Keep up the good work, John. Continue telling the historical story with confidence, knowing the vast majority of visitors are learning lessons of life from you, lessons that may cause them to take the right path or do the right thing someday. The negative comments are like cinders in the wind--they may sting, but they mean nothing.

You certainly get it.

Professor Philips said...

It's hard to be objective with people when they have been brainwashed with propaganda for so long. Whoever said that history is written by the winners never read much about the American Civil War. Even in the North the Confederate propaganda mills seem to have brainwashed a lot of people. I've had to be careful myself about this, but then I usually get to have students read a lot more than you do. I guess you just get to give one lecture at a time. Good luck and keep it up.

chris mandia said...

Very interesting post!

Geoff Wickersham said...


You have it correctly, and please don't back down. Right now, we're in a weird phase of historical revisionism that is pushed by radical conservative America that wants to portray Lincoln as a tyrant, murderer, etc. If you haven't seen Thomas DiLorenzo's books on Lincoln, check them out. "The Real Lincoln" is a collection of out-of-context facts and statements that need a lot more explanation. It is poor writing from a college professor.

The greatest murderer in U.S. history? What bunk! If anything, Jefferson Davis is also responsible for these deaths too since the South fired the first shot. But if you really want to get technically absurd about it, how about we blame Ruffin? Isn't he the man who began firing on Fort Sumter? Shouldn't all 600,000+ deaths and the million plus injuries be laid at his feet if we're going to use that kind of logic?

Most of Lincoln's pre-presidential writings and speeches show that Lincoln was opposed to slavery on a moral level - especially if you look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In one particular instance, he stated that the slave is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his labor just like any white man (I'm paraphrasing). If that's NOT anti-slavery, I don't know what is.

This pablum that some people regurgitate - that the South wanted to create their own country - is baloney. Sure, the Southern aristocracy wanted to be left alone to do what they've always done - make money off their slaves w/o federal interference. And if you look at the 1860 election results in the South, many more people voted for Bell and Douglas than did Breckenridge in many Southern counties. Most Southerners didn't want secession in late 1860 (McPherson, Ordeal by Fire). I don't call that states' rights as a cause. I call it slavery tied up in economics.

I don't want my argument here to take anything away from the soldiers' bravery or dedication. But, I am unrelenting and uncompromising when it comes to this kind of revisionist thinking. Slavery is the primary cause of the war, and economics and states' rights dovetail neatly within slavery as secondary causes. This is what I teach my students in my Civil War class. If that is a Northern p.o.v., so be it. I believe it is, and should be the correct point of view.

This argument sounds similar to one I've had w/ people about the Confederate flag.

Jaded Consumer said...

The effect and meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation varies wildly with the speaker. I note that, in my part of the country, Juneteenth is celebrated as the day that *news* of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the area, which was quite a different deal than a mere announcement over a thousand miles away. I also note that the legal effect of the Emancipation Proclamation was not immediately obvious, either.

In the wake of the Dredd Scott Case, it was clear that when property crossed state lines it was still property, which in the case of human "property" was an awful injustice: imagine risking your life to escape to the North, only to be returned by formal judicial process by an abolitionist Northern state's legitimate government, to face servitude and oppression on one's old plantation. The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes clear that the government cannot, without "just compensation", simply take property for public use -- and there is no record funds were ever appropriated to compensate former owners when their slaves were liberated. The real emancipation came sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Thirteenth Amendment declared slavery void, and did so without the caveat that just compensation be made. The very bedrock law of the nation was changed to effect the liberation of the many who lived in servitude and without the protection of law. Well, at least those who had been formally designated as slaves. Sweatshop workers and people trafficked in the sex trade (the subject of the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Act) didn't see much relief from their plight. Indeed, even after the Fourteenth Amendment tried to clarify what the Thirteenth Amendment had attempted, even titular slaves saw little practical improvement as they were suddenly rightless and unemployed, and often at the economic mercy of their former masters.

There was a case in Texas addressing the issue of the true date of emancipation. The litigants were two whites suing over a contract. As today, people purchasing property borrow against the property to make the transaction, and when the slaves were freed and the collateral was gone, the debtor claimed he didn't owe a cent more because a contract to buy slaves was unenforceable as against public policy. In the climate of Reconstruction Texas, the court hearing the case sought and had a terrible time finding an attorney to argue for the contract claimant. Apparently there was little zeal to have one's name associated with the legal position that slavery-related contracts were enforceable. The case turned on the date slavery truly ended, and the possibilities were the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, the date of the Thirteenth Amendment, or a date between, when a military governor in Galveston had declared slavery void by fiat in his occupied territory.

The exact trajectory of the development of real rights, and the final death of slavery, is subject to some debate. Some look on pervasive discrimination as evidence the corpse is not yet cold. However, the road isn't the upward-sloping road we're led to believe. In the case Hall v. DeCuir the United States Supreme Court overturned a Black woman's $1000 punitive damages claim under Louisiana state law for unlawful racial discrimination by a riverboat operator, and in the opinion suggested that Louisiana's law, far from being required by the Fourteenth Amendment to ensure equality, could create obstacles to interstate commerce by making it impossible to ply the Mississippi River with passengers if other states had laws making it a felony to mix races in the same cabins.

Where the State of Louisiana was prior to 1900 was willing to award $1000 against a boat operator who insisted she ride in the lower cabin and would not rent her his upstairs "white" cabin, the sitting justices of the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court and went to far as to sketch out a blueprint for how the Southern states could re-institutionalize discrimination through segregation laws -- with the approval of the Supreme Court.

Had Louisiana's old law been allowed to stand, Rosa Parks would never have been made to sit on the back of the bus.

Amazing how things have turned in a hundred years.