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.





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