Lincoln on the Tavis Smiley Show


See here for a nice discussion on the legacies of the Civil War on The Tavis Smiley Show (from April 9). My friend Eric Walther was part of the panel and Lincoln comes up several times in the course of their conversation. It was an interesting talk among some esteemed historians, one I enjoyed very much.

Still, I have a few criticisms regarding the show. One, Smiley begins with a quote from Howard Zinn, the essence of which was that Lincoln was the candidate of northern business interests. None of the panelists (and I’m conceding they may all have been a bit nervous; I would have been!) called out Zinn’s fundamental error here in that “business interests” were making  a nice, tidy profit from the status quo and there was no reason to favor any disruption to that cozy arrangement, one which Lincoln and the Republicans threatened. As the libertarian Timothy Sandefur puts it, in a refutation of Zinn’s argument:

[people claim that] antislavery was only “the stalking horse for more practical causes.” This is always a convenient thesis, often a plausible one, frequently a trick devised to put us out of the right way. Seeking the “real” materialistic, cui bono cause of any historical phenomenon enables us to ignore the professed purposes of the actors themselves, and thus perpetuates a sort of conspiracy theory or pareidolia method of history. It’s a favorite of such as Howard Zinn, who seek to ignore or hide the ideological factor in historical events in the service of a broader propaganda campaign. That’s not to say that materialistic self-interest is never the right answer on the history test; it’s certainly a common human motivation. But we should always beware anyone who tells us that an historical figure who said he believed X, acted to promote X, fought the enemies of X, sacrificed other interests to X—didn’t really believe X, but only said it to disguise his real interest in Z. It’s always equally likely that the person who says this is seeking not the truth but the denigration of X in his own time.”

Thanks to the panelists for emphasizing throughout the show that slavery was the cause of the conflict and there is no getting around that basic fact.

There was also some discussion about Lincoln not being the Great Emancipator, and that this was a vitally important truth to teach our students. Of course, this is closely allied to the idea that the slaves emancipated themselves. I’ve never understood why we have to choose between Lincoln freeing the slaves and the slaves freeing themselves. Why can’t it be both/and rather than either/or? As James McPherson puts it in his most recent book (see also a quote from David Blight on page 107 of McPherson’s work):

Proponents of the traditional interpretation that Lincoln had something to do with freeing the slaves, and that the Emancipation Proclamation was an important step in that process, are quite ready to acknowledge that the actions of slaves who came into Union lines forced the Lincoln administration to decide what to do about them. . . . But most of them [the slaves running to Union lines] had done so by the Union army coming to them rather than by escaping to the Union army. The remaining 3.3. million slaves achieved freedom by the Thirteenth Amendment whose adoption was possible only through Union military victory. And no one deserved more credit for that victory than Abraham Lincoln, commander in chief of an army of liberation.”

Indeed. I think that we have a hard time conceding the truth of McPherson’s point simply because we have little understanding anymore of statesmanship and its importance. Instead, we lazily rely on clichés about inept, corrupt politicians, shun the political process almost entirely, and therefore impoverish our public life, if not the prospects of freedom more generally. Maybe we should teach that as well to our students?

At any rate, kudos to Tavis Smiley for hosting this panel on how the Civil War affects us still.





Lincoln Assassination

Just a quick post to note the 150-year anniversary of the Lincoln assassination. I’ve posted something on this before here. Make sure to also read historian Jennifer Weber’s reply to my post.

I think the most discouraging thing of all is despite all the progress this country has made over last century-and-a-half, so many of the issues surrounding the Civil War remain unresolved, or euphemized, or people remain in total denial over what the war was about. For a brief survey, see here, here, and here.

For now, the words of Walt Whitman from the poetry foundation:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.




One Year Anniversary

Well, today is the anniversary of an entire year of blogging on Abraham Lincoln and his critics. What have I learned in the past 365 days? First, I am impressed by all the good work being done by various bloggers (for a sampling, go here, here, and here) on the Civil War. Some of the writing is so good and informative (not to mention meticulous and frequently funny) that at times I find it difficult to believe that I have anything important or original to say. Still, I press on. Second, I am acutely aware that many of the issues that Lincoln dealt with have not gone away? The meaning of liberty? Check. The meaning of equality? Check. Matters of race? Check.  Questions about suffrage? Check. Vindicating democracy? Check. The power of the federal government versus state and local governments? Check. Issues of habeas corpus? Check.

As a word of encouragement to my readers, let me close with one of my favorite Lincoln utterances, to a group of United States soldiers, from 1864:

August 22, 1864

I suppose you are going home to see your families and friends. For the service you have done in this great struggle in which we are engaged I present you sincere thanks for myself and the country. I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.