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An antidote to Lincoln (the movie)

CNN on the upcooming PBS special, "The Abolitionists." Good summary, and this caught my eye:

Want to know why slavery lasted so long? The simplistic answer: racism. Another huge factor: greed, according to "The Abolitionists."

But the spread of Christianity [in the Great Awakening] did little to stop the spread of slavery because too many Americans made money off slavery, the documentary shows. The wealth produced by slavery transformed the United States from an economic backwater into an economic and military dynamo, says Gilpin, also author of "John Brown Still Lives!: America's Long Reckoning With Violence, Equality, and Change."

"All the combined economic value of industry, land and banking did not equal the value of humans held as property in the South," Gilpin says.

Many Americans hated abolitionists because they saw them as a threat to prosperity, says David Blight, a Yale University historian featured in "The Abolitionists."

"They wondered if you really did destroy slavery, where would all of these black people go, and whose jobs would they take," says Blight.

The South wasn't the only region that profited off the slave trade. Abolitionists faced some of their most vicious opposition in the North. New York City, for example, was a pro-slavery town because it was filled with bankers and cotton merchants who benefited from slavery, Blight says.

"Jim Crow laws did not originate in the South; they originated in the North," Blight says.

The lesson: Don't reduce the issue of slavery to racism. Follow the money.

Yep. And the Abolitionists weren't cartoon figures either, no more than Lincoln. No doubt there's an even more bracing view of this history to be had than PBS's, but this seems not so bad.

Shorter: Speilberg sucks, except as a hagiographer, where he is excellent.

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tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

From his presentation at the Golden Globes last night:

“A tough fight to push a bill through a bitterly divided House of Representatives,” he said. “Winning it required the president to make a lot of unsavory deals that had nothing to do with the big issue. I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“President Lincoln struggle to abolish slavery reminds us that enduring progress is forged in a cauldron of both principle and compromise,” Clinton continued. “This brilliant film shows us both how he did it and gives us hope that we can do it again.”

Link here.

Because officially ending slavery is exactly comparable to gutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Well, at least Clinton and Obama have the "compromise" part down pat.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

er, MasterCard.

The Civil War, A Narrative
Vol.1 Fort Sumter to Perryville
by Shelby Foote
Copyright 1958, renewed 1986

[my paragraph breaks]

[p. 535] The unplayed card was emancipation. Mindful, so far, of his inaugural statement: "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists, I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so," Lincoln had resisted all efforts to persuade him to repudiate his words. He resisted mainly on practical grounds, considering the probable reaction in the border states; "We should lose more than we should gain," he told one Jacobin delegation. Not only had he refused to issue such a proclamation as they were urging on him, he had revoked three separate pronouncements or proclamations issued by subordinates: one by Fremont, one by Cameron, and recently a third by Hunter in South Carolina.

In the instance of the latter revocation, however, he had shown which way his mind was turning in mid-May [1862]: "Whether it be [p. 536] competent for me, as Commander in Chief of the army and navy, to declare the slaves of any state or states free, and whether, at any time, in any case, it shall have become a necessity indispensable to the maintenance of the government to exercise such supposed power, are questions which, under my responsibility, I reserve to myself." This was putting a new face on the matter. What a president had no right or inclination to do in peacetime, Lincoln was saying, might become an indispensable necessity for a wartime Commander in Chief.

Besides, he had done some ciphering back in March, and had come up with a simple dollars-and-cents solution to the problem. Figuring the cost of the war at two million dollars a day, and the cost of slaves at four hundred dollars a head, he had found the value of Delaware's 1798 slaves to be less than the cost of half a day of fighting. Extending his computations on this basis, he found the total value of the 432,622 slaves in the District of Columbia and the four border states -- Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri -- amounted to less than the cost of three months of warfare. [See also]

Accordingly, he laid these figures before Congress in support of a resolution proposing compensated emancipation. In early April it was adopted, despite the objections of abolitionists who considered it highly immoral to traffic thus in souls; but nothing came of it, because the slave-state legislatures would not avail themselves of the offer.

Lincoln was saddened by this failure, and on revoking Hunter's proclamation the following month addressed a special plea to the people of the border region: "I do not argue -- I beseech you to make arguments for yourselves. You cannot, if you would, be blind to the signs of the times. I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partisan politics. This proposal makes common cause, for a common object, casting no reproaches upon any...."

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

The South wasn't the only region that profited off the slave trade. Abolitionists faced some of their most vicious opposition in the North. New York City, for example, was a pro-slavery town because it was filled with bankers and cotton merchants who benefited from slavery, Blight says.

Blight says? One of the most powerful and oft quoted declarations of American exceptionalism is a line of President Lincoln's which comes near the end of his December 1, 1862 Second Annual Message to Congress:

The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

For the sake of context before discussing what exactly Lincoln was talking about here, consider the primary subject of discussion during the cabinet meeting on the preceding July 22 and the circumstances surrounding it. The War of Rebellion was not going well for the North on the battlefield, nor politically as the administration all ready was faced both with growing war weariness in some quarters and sharp criticism by members of the radical wing of Lincoln's own party who wanted more martial and political aggressiveness. The president, nonetheless, announced to his cabinet on that July day that, in his capacity as Commander in Chief, he planned to issue a proclamation which would free all slaves in those states which were in rebellion against the government of the United States anytime after a specific date.

Secretary of State Seward cautioned the president, "...the depression of the public mind, consequent upon our repeated reverses, is so great that I fear the effect of so important a step. It may be viewed as the last measure of an exhausted government, a cry for help; the government stretching forth its hands to Ethiopia, instead of Ethiopia stretching forth her hands to the government. It will be considered our last shriek on the retreat. Now while I approve of the measure, I suggest sir, that you postpone its issue until you can give it to the country supported by military success, instead of issuing it now, upon the greatest disasters of the war."

Lincoln heeded Seward's advice and waited for a victory on the battlefield before issuing his proclamation. In late August of that year the Confederates won the Second Battle of Bull Run and General Lee then boldly led his troops into Maryland, Union territory. He was up against superior numbers but the Union forces were then being led by the terminally cautious Gen. McClellan. At that crucial moment an astounding development changed the course of the war, though not as decisively as it might have. Wikipedia says:

...two Union soldiers (Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sergeant John M. Bloss of the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry) discovered a mislaid copy of Lee's detailed battle plans—Special Order 191—wrapped around three cigars [which were left on the ground at a recently vacated Confederate campsite].

The order indicated that Lee had divided his army and dispersed portions geographically (to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and Hagerstown, Maryland), thus making each subject to isolation and defeat if McClellan could move quickly enough. McClellan waited about 18 hours before deciding to take advantage of this intelligence and reposition his forces, thus squandering an opportunity to defeat Lee decisively.

The two armies fought a titanic battle:

On September 17, Confederate forces under General Lee were caught by General McClellan near Sharpsburg, Maryland. This battle proved to be the bloodiest day of the war; 2,108 Union soldiers were killed and 9,549 wounded -- 2,700 Confederates were killed and 9,029 wounded. The battle had no clear winner, but because General Lee withdrew to Virginia, McClellan was considered the victor. The battle convinced the British and French -- who were contemplating official recognition of the Confederacy -- to reserve action, and gave Lincoln the opportunity to announce his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22), which would free all slaves in areas rebelling against the United States, effective January 1, 1863.

And just to provide a little more context, that very December following Lincoln's Second Message to Congress the Union army suffered a crushing defeat back in Virginia at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Lee invades the North again in the summer of 1863, making his way into Pennsylvania before suffering a significant defeat there, and in the summer of 1864 Lincoln believed he was likely to lose the presidential election that year to George McClellan who, Lincoln expected, would be willing to capitulate to the terms demanded by the South in order to end the war.

Now all this review is intended to make it quite clear that when Lincoln sent his December, 1862 message to Congress that, though he had announced publicly his intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, he was not at all certain that the war would end with a Union victory. Therefore when he wrote:

We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

Lincoln was proposing not that the Union commit to freeing the slaves in the Confederate states by force of arms but that those states then in rebellion each agree to accepting fair value compensation for ending the institution slavery within their borders. Here's the way he put it, knowing that if no agreement could be reached before January 1, 1863 when his proclamation would be issued then the War of Rebellion would be fought out to a desperate conclusion. (Oh, and I'll add emphasis to the part here that PBS might want to take note of):

...The plan leaves to each State choosing to act under it to abolish slavery now or at the end of the century, or at any intermediate time, or by degrees extending over the whole or any part of the period, and it obliges no two States to proceed alike. It also provides for compensation, and generally the mode of making it. This, it would seem, must further mitigate the dissatisfaction of those who favor perpetual slavery, and especially of those who are to receive the compensation.

Doubtless some of those who are to pay and not to receive will object. Yet the measure is both just and economical. In a certain sense the liberation of slaves is the destruction of property--property acquired by descent or by purchase, the same as any other property. It is no less true for having been often said that the people of the South are not more responsible for the original introduction of this property than are the people of the North; and when it is remembered how unhesitatingly we all use cotton and sugar and share the profits of dealing in them, it may not be quite safe to say that the South has been more responsible than the North for its continuance. If, then, for a common object this property is to be sacrificed, is it not just that it be done at a common charge?

And if with less money, or money more easily paid, we can preserve the benefits of the Union by this means than we can by the war alone, is it not also economical to do it? Let us consider it, then. Let us ascertain the sum we have expended in the war since compensated emancipation was proposed last March, and consider whether if that measure had been promptly accepted by even some of the slave States the same sum would not have done more to close the war than has been otherwise done. If so, the measure would save money, and in that view would be a prudent and economical measure. Certainly it is not so easy to pay something as it is to pay nothing, but it is easier to pay a large sum than it is to pay a larger one. And it is easier to pay any sum when we are able than it is to pay it before we are able.

The war requires large sums, and requires them at once. The aggregate sum necessary for compensated emancipation of course would be large. But it would require no ready cash, nor the bonds even any faster than the emancipation progresses. This might not, and probably would not, close before the end of the thirty-seven years. At that time we shall probably have a hundred millions of people to share the burden, instead of thirty-one millions as now. And not only so, but the increase of our population may be expected to continue for a long time after that period as rapidly as before, because our territory will not have become full. I do not state this inconsiderately. At the same ratio of increase which we have maintained, on an average, from our first national census, in 1790, until that of 1860, we should in 1900 have a population of 103,208,415. And why may we not continue that ratio far beyond that period?...

With all due respect to modern scholarship, it's pretty tough to come up with deeper insights than President Lincoln's own when analyzing the martial, economic, political, and cultural issues he was facing.