Lincoln and the “New Morality”

Corey Robin has an excellent piece on Robert George and other conservative opposition to marriage equality (e.g. gay marriage in their lexicon, I suppose) and their misuse of Lincoln’s opposition to the Dred Scott decision to buttress their position. I wanted to add a thought or two of my own.

First, as I was reading the Wall Street Journal this morning, there was an interesting essay by the Classicist Mary Beard on “Ancient Rome’s Open Borders.” A little more than midway through the essay Beard has an excellent paragraph on the purpose of history. To wit: “It is naïve to imagine that history can bequeath policy to the future—and simplistic to draw cheap parallels between then and now. There is no Roman [Lincolnian?] magic wand to be waved over 21st-century troubles, however seductive an idea that is. What history can do, however, is refine the way that we think about those troubles, challenge the assumptions we treat as natural and expose differences across time.” A good reminder for us all, without question, and one that David Donald pointed out long ago is particularly problematic for historians of Lincoln (see also Gordon Wood for  a similar argument).

Secondly, I wonder, do George and others in his camp not see that Lincoln and the Republicans, in criticizing Dred Scott, were criticizing a decision that denied the idea that blacks had rights, whereas George et al are opposed to the Obergefell decision, one that expands rights for others?

Finally, this reminds me of an excellent book I read this spring, Edward Rubin’s Soul, Self, and Society: The New Morality and the Modern State. Rubin’s sweeping historical narrative argues that “For the past two centuries, and at an accelerating rate, Western society has been experiencing an epochal transition. Our previous morality is declining, and a new one is replacing it. The norms that guided us for nearly a millennium are losing force, and different ones – unique and unprecedented ones, in fact – are arising in their stead. This process is now well advanced; it is transforming our society, and its consequences will become increasingly wide-ranging and profound as the new morality takes hold” (page 1). What is the new morality? “Very briefly,” Rubin argues, “the traditional morality urges people to direct their private actions to the salvation of their souls and deny themselves the pleasures of the present, while the new morality urges people to develop a life plan for their selves that will maximize those present pleasures over the expected course of their existence” (page 2).

I suspect Rubin is correct, which may help explain a couple of things. First, conservatives today are worried, and rightly so. What some see as overblown rhetoric may well be signs of a movement in its death throes. I believe this is an argument of Corey Robin’s, and to me at least it has merit. Second, I also think that this allows to see a little more clearly why Lincoln still has a hold on the American imagination. In a way, Lincoln straddled the old and the new morality. On the one hand, he never quite equated the American Union with God’s ways, – he once called Americans the “almost chosen people” – and it seems to me pretty clear that he believed some things were timelessly true: “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,” he said in 1864. On the other hand, he advocated for an America that gave “hope to all” , one where the Declaration of Independence gave hope “not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. (Great applause.) It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.) This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.” This sounds, to some degree, like the new morality that Rubin describes in his wonderful book.

Mike Huckabee Channels the Race Mixers

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin has a nice piece on presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s use of Abraham Lincoln to protest the jailing of Kentuckian Kim Davis for her refusal (which may continue), on the basis of God’s authority, to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

I’d like to add one thing to Levin’s piece, namely, that when Governor Huckabee uses quotations from Lincoln’s opposition to the Dred Scott case, he is using pretty much the very same arguments that the opponents of desegregation used in the 1950s. See page 211-12 of Loathing Lincoln for a discussion of one Marvin Mobley, from Georgia, who issued small pamphlets, one entitled “More Words of Abraham Lincoln That the Race-Mixers Never Quote,”  selectively citing Lincoln on race, or other utterances,  in order to “prove” that resistance to the Brown decision was legitimate.

What I find so fascinating here, is that Governor Huckabee (and many other presidential candidates, to be sure) is constantly lecturing the American people on how ignorant they are of their history and the horrific consequences of such amnesia. Or, they tell us that only they know how the Constitution ought to be interpreted. And yet, the former Governor of Arkansas, the very state where it took federal authority/troops to integrate one high school in the 1950s, displays the very historical ignorance that he claims to deplore.

The “Republican Cause” and Jefferson Davis

Now that the University of Texas has decided to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis from its campus, I thought it appropriate to share this “fragment” from Abraham Lincoln on those who opposed abolishing the slave trade:

Fragment on the Struggle Against Slavery [1] [c. July, 1858] I have never professed an indifference to the honors of official station; and were I to do so now, I should only make myself ridiculous. Yet I have never failed—do not now fail—to remember that in the republican cause there is a higher aim than that of mere office. I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave-trade by Great Brittain, was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success; that the measure had it’s open fire-eating opponents; it’s stealthy “dont care” opponents; it’s dollar and cent opponents; it’s inferior race opponents; its negro equality opponents; and its religion and good order opponents; that all these opponents got offices, and their adversaries got none. But I have also remembered that though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell. School-boys know that Wilbe[r]force, and Granville Sharpe [sic], [2] helped that cause forward; but who can now name a single man who labored to retard it? Remembering these things I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life. But I can not doubt either that it will come in due time. Even in this view, I am proud, in my passing speck of time, to contribute an humble mite to that glorious consummation, which my own poor eyes may not last to see. Annotation [1]   AD-F, ISLA, and Hertz, II, 705-706. The last two sentences are not in the facsimile. Probably this fragment is a portion of a speech manuscript prepared during the campaign, but separated from associated pages by Robert Todd Lincoln, who in presenting the fragment to the Duchess of St. Albans wrote on September 17, 1892, that “The MS. is a note made in preparing for one of the speeches in the joint-debate Campaign between Mr. Douglas & my father in 1858.” (Parke-Bernet Catalog No. 908, December 9, 1947, p. 126.) [2]   William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp.

“The Self-Pity of the Defeated” Loses Momentum

And so, Nikki Haley (R), the Governor of S.C. who once said that during the Civil War “you had one side of the Civil War that was fighting for tradition, and I think you had another side of the Civil War that was fighting for change,” has, according the The New York Times, “signed a law removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State House.” Good for Governor Haley and all those who have so vigorously fought against this symbol ever since the flag went up in the early 1960s in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.

Somehow, though, I doubt this is the end of this fight over the symbols of the Confederacy.  In 1930, the African American poet Sterling Brown said this about those who glorify the antebellum South (page 199, Loathing Lincoln):

“Since ‘Lee’s surrender,’ defenses of the lost cause, strident and pathetic, have been frequent. It was natural. It is the human way out of dilemmas to rationalize. The self-pity of the defeated, graduates into self-justification. Having nursed his wounds, he nurses his woes; and having recovered his strength, tells the world of the wrongs he has suffered.

Today the tradition of glorifying the South gains momentum. Certain evils of modern life furnish the impulse to an easy romantic escape in dreams of a pleasanter past. Young men of the South, keen of mind, having set themselves up as ‘liberals,’ after having learned the most advanced technique, now use that technique for the buttressing of ancient prejudices.”

Still, today, we can hope that Brown is finally wrong and that “the tradition of glorifying the South” is losing rather than gaining “momentum.” In the meantime, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in” and work assiduously to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence “in all coming days” so that “it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany [sic] and oppression.”




“Political Correctness” and Removing the Confederate Flag

I wonder, for all of you who lament that it is “politically correct” to take down the Confederate flag, or remove monuments to the Confederacy across the American South, do you believe it was “politically correct” for the American Revolutionaries to topple statues of King George? If not, then why do you disapprove of doing something similar with Confederate flag or a Confederate monument? Or, did you approve when people in the former Soviet Union toppled statues of Lenin or Stalin? Or, was that the “knee-jerk reaction” of a mob? Finally, what was your response when remnants of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime were eradicated? Did you object? If not, why not?

Lincoln and the Confederate Flag

Here is a nice piece by Lincoln biographer (and friend) Michael Burlingame on what Lincoln might say about taking down the Confederate flag. It is, I think, more or less in agreement with what I said here. Here is Michael:

The war had been fought to preserve the nation’s unity, and that rebel battle flag symbolized a violent attempt to destroy it. Lincoln called the United States “the last, best hope of earth” and “a nation worth fighting for” because it represented a hopeful experiment in democracy. As he told a White House secretary shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, “I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.”

And this:

Lincoln might well today declare: “Let us discard all this quibbling about oppressors and victims, let us not ruin ourselves by wallowing in a sense of victimhood, let us improve ourselves every way we can, and unite with our fellow citizens in declaring our allegiance to that form and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”



A Great Suggestion

Here is Texas A & M History Professor Walter D. Kamphoefner’s letter to the editor in the Houston Chronicle this morning. I reprint here in full.

Regarding “Rename Dowling” (Page B8, Wednesday), renaming Dowling Street is a good idea: Instead of commemorating an Irish immigrant’s personal bravery for a dubious cause, why not commemorate a German political refugee’s personal bravery in an admirable cause? Edward Degener came to Texas after the failed democratic Revolution of 1848, which he had supported as a delegate to the National Assembly in Frankfort on the Main. Settling on a Hill Country farm near Sisterdale, he was elected as a national delegate by a convention of antislavery Germans at San Antonio in 1854.

Degener lost two sons at the Battle of the Nueces/Nueces Massacre (it was both), in 1862 when a band of Unionists attempted to reach the North via Mexico. Degener himself was tried for disloyalty before the Confederate Military Commission and required to post $5,000 bond to obtain his release from imprisonment. He was the featured speaker when the bones of the Nueces martyrs were brought back to Comfort for burial after the war. Degener served in both the 1866 and 1868-69 Texas Constitutional conventions, after which he was elected to one term in the U.S. Congress; thereafter he served on the San Antonio city council from 1872 until 1878. Edward Degener was one of the first three Republicans elected to Congress from Texas, but to this day there is no school or street or road named for him in the entire Lone Star State. It’s about time.

In Defense of Political Correctness

In Charleston, South Carolina, yesterday, President Obama spoke at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral and in the course of his address,  and said this:

“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens.


It’s true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise…


… as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride.


For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression…


… and racial subjugation.


We see that now.

Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”

That strikes me as exactly right. I sometimes hear that to remove the Confederate flag from public places, or to change the names of schools named after Confederate generals/leaders, or to rename military bases, is being “politically correct.” But, really, for those who take that stance, do you really believe that politics, or certain assumptions about race, or the way the world works more generally, was absent from these – wait for it, political – decisions to begin with? I think not, and as our society, thankfully, has come to see more and more clearly what the Confederacy stood for, values that we should emphatically reject, it is not only politically correct to remove Confederate flags to make these symbolic changes, it is morally correct to do so.

Defending Lincoln from the Distortions of His Enemies: From Switzerland

This is an email I received from today, from David Navarro, and posted with his permission:

Hello Sir,

My name is David Navarro and I’m a law student in Switzerland. Although I don’t live in the United States I have many relatives there and made long-sojourn trips in this country. I also have a great interest in American issues and one of them being the Civil War.
I have stumbled upon your website “Loathing Lincoln” while checking the Civil War Blogs List from the Dead Confederates blog and the first post I read was on the debate you watched on CNN and how Lincoln was being quoted in a deceptive way.
I wrote on the comment section of Andy Hall’s DC blog a very lengthy post regarding a column from Walter E. Williams which not only grossly inflated the share of the South in Federal Revenues but also misquoted Lincoln. I would like you to read and comment if I got things right or not.
Here’s my message:
“Hello Mr. Hall,

I would like to come back again to the column, more precisely on its paragraphs regarding Lincoln’s stance on Blacks and slavery.

He first refers to an “1858 letter” where the then local politician affirmed: “I have declared a thousand times, and now repeat that, in my opinion, neither the General Government, nor any other power outside of the slave states, can constitutionally or rightfully interfere with slaves or slavery where it already exists.” 

However a full reading reveals Lincoln’s more complex position. In fact he affirms he will not interfere with slavery as it exists in slave states but he also states that preventing the expansion of the practice into the Territories will ultimately lead to its extinction: “I have declared a thousand times, and now repeat that, in my opinion, neither the General Government, nor any other power outside of the slave states, can constitutionally or rightfully interfere with slaves or slavery where it already exists. I believe that whenever the effort to spread slavery into the new teritories, by whatever means, and into the free states themselves, by Supreme court decisions, shall be fairly headed off, the institution will then be in course of ultimate extinction” (Letter to John L. Scripps, June 23 1858)

Williams talks about the July 17 1858 speech in Springfield, Illinois where Lincoln declared: “My declarations upon this subject of negro slavery may be misrepresented, but can not be misunderstood. I have said that I do not understand the Declaration (of Independence) to mean that all men were created equal in all respects

Actually Lincoln was explicitly opposing Stephen Douglas’ position that Blacks were not included the Declaration of Independence when it stated that all men are created equal ! The full sentence is: “My declarations upon this subject of Negro slavery may be misrepresented, but cannot be misunderstood, I have said that I do not understand the Declaration to mean that all men are created equal in all respects. They are not our equal in color; but I suppose that it does mean that all men are equal in some respects; they are equal in their right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Certainly the Negro is not our equal in color–perhaps not in many other respects; still, in the right to put into his mouth the bread that his own hands have earned, he is the equal of every other man, white or black.

Finally Williams refers to Lincoln saying during his fourth debate with Stephen Douglas : “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” This is probably one of the best known quote of Lincoln and has been used endlessly for various political purposes. Either for people to declare him a “white supremacist” or for Southrons Trademark to declare him one of their own in segregating Blacks.

Both sides seems to have forgotten that Lincoln made a very similar remark in his first debate with a clarification throwing another light on his thought: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

Amusingly Lincoln’s opponent didn’t take him seriously, seeing his statement as rhetorical shenanigan which contradicted an earlier speech from him: “You know that in his Charleston speech, an extract from which he has read, he declared that the negro belongs to an inferior race; is physically inferior to the white man, and should always be kept in an inferior position. I will now read to you what he said at Chicago on that point. In concluding his speech at that place, he remarked: “My friends, I have detained you about as long as I desire to do, and I have only to say let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man-this race and that race, and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position, discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” Thus you see, that when addressing the Chicago Abolitionists he declared that all distinctions of race must be discarded and blotted out, because the negro stood on an equal footing with the white man; that if one man said the Declaration of Independence did not mean a negro when it declared all men created equal, that another man would say that it did not mean another man; and hence we ought to discard all difference between the negro race and all other races, and declare them all created equal.” (Stephen Douglas, sixth debate)

After such a tedious reading I reassure you I will not delve deeper regarding the quotations. I will simply conclude that given the misleading and deceptive ways the earlier statements were quoted not much is to be hoped about the others. However I don’t think Dr. Williams deliberately falsified them. As he made it clear in his article he took them from an intermediary – and hostile – source without reading the originals.”

I’m looking forward to read your book !