The Teaching of Reconstruction and “What if Lincoln Had Lived?”

I know it has been awhile since I’ve posted anything, but I’ve simply been buried in teaching, grading papers, and writing a proposal for another book project. At any rate, I’m back from the Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta, and I thought I’d post a few ruminations on the meeting, the teaching of Reconstruction, and if Lincoln being able to serve out his second term in its entirety would have changed what happened in the South after the war.

One of the more interesting papers (by no means the only one) I heard was from Cynthia Nicoletti at the University of Virginia, on “The Disputed Constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation.” According to Nicoletti (and I am relying exclusively on some hurriedly written notes), Lincoln absolutely did not want the Proclamation litigated, and even went so far as to make people promise that when they took an oath of loyalty to the Union they would not do so. Dr. Nicoletti’s paper was, as many are at the Southern, necessarily short, but intriguing, and I am looking forward to her forthcoming book on secession. For me, her work reminded me of just how precarious the Proclamation’s legality was, and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that it would hold up in a court of law; hence then need, later, for the 13th Amendment.

Another panel focused on the New York Times “Disunion” blog (there was an interesting piece yesterday, for instance, on Sherman’s March through Georgia). Kate Masur, of Northwestern University, expressed concern that the blog was shutting down in April, 2015, as by doing so it ignores entirely the extraordinarily important period of Reconstruction that followed formal military hostilities (the violence continued, but in a different form). This got me thinking about how we teach – or fail to teach – Reconstruction in our U.S. History surveys.

Generally speaking, my experience has been that those teaching the first half of the survey tend to tack on a day or two, if that, investigating Reconstruction. Or, in the second half of the survey, professors may begin with a cursory examination of the period (if they touch on it at all) before they move on to the enormous amount of material they have to cover from 1877 onward. Consequently, I think, Reconstruction is not taught as thoroughly as the subject demands, to the great detriment of our students. Thus they know little of the achievements and failures of the era, and are less able to appreciate the great tragedy of the country’s retreat from the egalitarian promise of the Civil War and Reconstruction era. On this point, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Masur that one cannot teach the Civil War without some critical examination of what followed. For myself, I try, usually with success, to spend an entire week on Reconstruction, attempting to bring the story down to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but especially lately as I’ve been reading Mark Wahlgren Summers’ new book, out with UNC Press, The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction. This is an extraordinarily interesting volume, deftly and wittily written, which argues the following:

“If we make the mistake of defining Reconstruction’s exclusive end as remaking the South on the basis of equal rights and democracy in a truer sense of the word than its inhabitants had ever known, then we can’t help calling Reconstruction at best a failure – though that failure seemed less clear, unambiguous, and complete in 1877 than  in retrospect. But if we see Reconstruction’s purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be fulfilled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of a permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to state sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success (page 4).”

I think Summers maintains this thesis pretty well, without ignoring at all the homicidal violence African Americans suffered at the hand of whites, or the corruption of the period (what he called in another book The Era of Good Stealings!). I think that to ignore, or give short shrift, to this era of American history, is to do a grave disservice to our students and their understanding of the past. On this point, for example, Reconstruction displayed an instance – as I put it in Loathing Lincoln – where the federal government broadened rather than diminished freedom (emphasis mine). “Local control” (or “limited government”) is not always a good thing. Rather, it sometimes is oppressive, and I think we would have a better politics if we all understood this basic fact.

But this also points to another question, one that I frequently get when I talk to audiences about my book: what would have happened during Reconstruction had Lincoln lived? I waffle back and forth on this, but my guess is that things would not have been all that different. My friend Frank Wetta and I talked about this over Bloody Mary’s in Atlanta, and we agreed that although Lincoln would never have broken with the Republicans as Andrew Johnson did, we also agreed that he would have been out of office by 1869 and by then Reconstruction in certain crucial respects was more or less over. As Summers puts it, “Reconstruction had succeeded; yet 1868 may also be seen as the critical year in which its eventual failure became clear” (page 152). What would have happened if Lincoln had lived is a fascinating if unanswerable question, and one worth having our students ponder. But we can’t do that if we don’t examine the era in any detail, now can we?

Libertarians, Slavery, and the Defense of Lincoln

Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind and blogger extraordinaire, has a short post on “comparisons between libertarianism and slaveholders.” I always learn something from Corey’s work (I highly recommend his book), and it has prompted me to share here the names of two libertarians (both of whom I know personally) who have been vociferously pro-Lincoln in their writings.

Timothy Sandefur, of the Pacific Legal Foundation and an adjunct scholar of the CATO Institute, has been publishing for years vigorous defenses of Abraham Lincoln. I recommend that you go to his website and search “Abraham Lincoln” to get a sampling of Sandefur’s work. Or, read his “How Libertarians Should Think About the Civil War” here.

More recently, Alexander Marriott of Wiley College has published a piece in The Objective Standard defending Lincoln. Dr. Marriott came down to our campus at Lone Star College – Kingwood recently and spoke about his essay. He talked for about 45 minutes, then answered questions from students and faculty for another 45.

Now, part of what interests me here is that both Sandefur and Marriott are Objectivists, or followers of Ayn Rand. Rand has come in for a good deal of abuse lately, but on the subject of Abraham Lincoln, Sandefur and Marriott have been excellent. Not only that, they have been willing to challenge others within their own camp to reconsider their views toward Lincoln. I asked Sandefur through Twitter if there was some connection between his Objectivism and his defense of Lincoln, and he said it was because “we think in principles.” I asked Marriott the same thing when he was at Lone Star – Kingwood, and his response was that he had to think about it.

I don’t have a good answer for this question yet myself, but it is one worth pondering, and one about which I’d be anxious to hear responses from readers. At the very least, it seems to me that Lincoln’s libertarian critics have a very different conception of “freedom” than the sixteenth president (I think they would totally agree with my assessment). Lincoln himself pointed this out in 1864, when he said the following:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

I guess the question is – and Corey and Timothy (and more recently Alexander) have continually brought this to people’s attention – whether libertarians are on the side of the sheep or the wolf.

The Anti-Lincoln Agenda and the Washington Times

Author James Bovard recently published an op-ed in the Washington Times which seemed, at least in part, a reply to one of the points I raised in my response to his piece in the Wall Street Journal. He graciously sent me the link to the piece, which has prompted this response.

The basic thrust of both of his articles, it seems to me, is contained in these passages from the Times:

Some defenders of the Union tactics insist that there was no intent to harshly  punish civilians. However, after three years of a bloody stalemate, the Lincoln  administration had adapted a total-war mindset to scourge the South into  submission. As Sheridan was finishing his  fiery campaign, Gen. William Sherman wrote to Grant that “Until we can repopulate Georgia,  it is useless to occupy it, but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and  people will cripple their military resources.” Sherman had previously  telegrammed Washington that “[t]here is a class of people — men, women and  children, who must be killed or banished before you can hope for peace and  order.” President Lincoln congratulated both Sheridan and Sherman for campaigns that  sowed devastation far and wide.

After the Civil War, politicians and many historians consecrated the conflict  as a moral crusade and its sometimes-grisly tactics were consigned to oblivion.  The habit of sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil  War policy toward the Indians (Sheridan  famously declared, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”) and the suppression  of Filipino insurgents after the Spanish-American War. Later, historians  sometimes ignored U.S. military tactics in World War II and Vietnam that  resulted in heavy civilian casualties.

The failure to recognize how wars routinely spawn pervasive brutality and  collateral deaths lowers Americans’ resistance to new conflicts that promise to  make the world safe for democracy, or rid the world of evil, or achieve other  lofty sounding goals. For instance, the Obama administration sold its bombing of  Libya as a self-evident triumph of good over a vile despot. Instead, chaos  reigns in Tripoli. As the administration ramps up bombing in Syria and Iraq,  both its rhetoric and its tactics echo prior U.S. misfires.

Since 1864, no prudent American should have expected this nation’s wars to  have happy or uplifting endings. Unfortunately, as long as the spotlight is kept  off atrocities, most citizens will continue to underestimate the odds that wars  will spawn debacles and injustices that return to haunt us.

In addressing some of these points, there are a few of my own that I’d like to make – and a few important ones that Bovard has omitted.

First, in my original response to Bovard here, I did not (or at least I don’t think I did) deny that atrocities took place. My point was and still is that there are historians (e.g. Mark Grimsley and Mark Neely, Jr., to name only two) who argue – with evidence – that the level of destruction did not rise to the level of a total war. To be sure, other historians would disagree, but this is not an entirely settled matter, at least in my view. In addition, even if total war occurred, as I have previously said, this destruction was entirely avoidable. Leaving aside certain facts, namely the Republican Party’s prewar plan to end slavery peacefully (please, please, read Timothy Sandefur too, on this point) and that the Confederacy began the war at Fort Sumter when Lincoln sent in food – not weapons – to hungry soldiers inside the fort, before the Sheridan Campaign took place it was public knowledge across North America that all the Lincoln Administration required of the Confederacy was that they rejoin the Union (I think Lincoln called it “submit to the national authority”) and give up slavery forever:

“To whom it may concern: Washington, July 8 [18], 1864.

Any proposition which embraces the restoration of peace, the integrity of the whole Union, and the abandonment of slavery, and which comes by and with an authority that can control the armies now at war against the United States, will be received and considered by the Executive Government of the United States, and will be met by liberal terms on other substantial and collateral points; and the bearer or bearers thereof shall have safe conduct both ways.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN.”

This the Confederacy would not do, and so the destruction in the Shenandoah Valley, ghastly as it surely was for many, was, because of Confederate recalcitrance, perhaps necessary to bring the war to a speedier conclusion. Furthermore, after the Sheridan Campaign, in Annual Message to Congress (December 1864), Lincoln said the following:

The national resources, then, are unexhausted, and, as we believe, inexhaustible. The public purpose to re-establish and maintain the national authority is unchanged, and, as we believe, unchangeable. The manner of continuing the effort remains to choose. On careful consideration of all the evidence accessible it seems to me that no attempt at negotiation with the insurgent leader could result in any good. He would accept nothing short of severance of the Union—precisely what we will not and cannot give. His declarations to this effect are explicit and oft-repeated. He does not attempt to deceive us. He affords us no excuse to deceive ourselves. He cannot voluntarily reaccept the Union; we cannot voluntarily yield it. Between him and us the issue is distinct, simple, and inflexible. It is an issue which can only be tried by war, and decided by victory. If we yield, we are beaten; if the Southern people fail him, he is beaten. Either way, it would be the victory and defeat following war. What is true, however, of him who heads the insurgent cause, is not necessarily true of those who follow. Although he cannot reaccept the Union, they can. Some of them, we know, already desire peace and reunion. The number of such may increase. They can, at any moment, have peace simply by laying down their arms and submitting to the national authority under the Constitution. After so much, the government could not, if it would, maintain war against them. The loyal people would not sustain or allow it. If questions should remain, we would adjust them by the peaceful means of legislation, conference, courts, and votes, operating only in constitutional and lawful channels. Some certain, and other possible, questions are, and would be, beyond the Executive power to adjust; as, for instance, the admission of members into Congress, and whatever might require the appropriation of money. The Executive power itself would be greatly diminished by the cessation of actual war. Pardons and remissions of forfeitures, however, would still be within Executive control. In what spirit and temper this control would be exercised can be fairly judged of by the past.

Two months after his message to Congress Lincoln met with Confederate leaders at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in February 1865 seeking a way to end the conflict. There are of course conflicting accounts of what happened at this meeting, but one thing is clear: all the Confederacy had to do was acknowledge the authority of the national government and end slavery and the war would be over. Again, they refused. I ask, are Lincoln’s actions here the actions of someone conducting “total war,” or are they those of a leader attempting to end the conflict as quickly as possible?

So, to be clear: it is terrible that atrocities took place during the Civil War. On that point Bovard and I agree. But the origins of the conflict lay in another atrocity: American slavery, and had that stain upon America been peacefully removed, as the Republicans advocated, then perhaps the military devastation Bovard rightly laments would never have taken place.

Now, once the war was over (when, in another example of just how far from a total war the Civil War seems to be, Confederate leaders were glorified across the white South), Bovard says that “sweeping abusive policies under the rug also permeated post-Civil  War policy toward the Indians.” Really, the Civil War caused American injustice toward the natives? I always thought that the cruelty toward the Indians, sadly, went back a bit further than that. As for Americans forgetting wartime cruelties causing atrocities overseas, well, if that is so then why have the former states of the Confederacy, like the rest of America, so often been enthusiastic participants in such ventures? One would think they would have been particularly sensitive to “wars [that] routinely spawn pervasive brutality and  collateral deaths.”

I applaud James Bovard’s critique of what he calls “wartime brutality.” He is right that it is an important and necessary job for all Americans to remember the tragedies of war so that we can avoid such suffering in the future, and he has done us a service in reminding us of this fact (I would be pleased to see Bovard publish another op-ed,  with this year being the 150th anniversary of the Fort Pillow Massacre). But we also must be very clear on the causes of such conflict and do all that we reasonably can to remove the sources of hostility that might lead to violence. And on this point, in the 1860s it was the United States government, representing millions of Americans, that wanted the country to remain unified, with the Republicans favoring a national policy to remove the stain of slavery from the country by peaceful methods, while the Confederacy and its leaders desired that the country be split apart so that they could continue to violently hold African Americans in bondage forever. That, as Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address, is why the war came, and why the terrible violence that followed, thankfully resulting in the end of inhuman bondage, occurred.

Lincoln and the WPA Narratives and Inequality

In the Summer 2014 issue of Louisiana History Matthew Pinkser has some nice words about my essay on attitudes of ex-slaves alive in the 1930s in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy:

“John Barr’s contribution on “African American Memory and the Great Emancipator” is the only essay [in the book] that focuses significant research on less conventional primary sources. In his useful study, Barr quantifies adn analyzes references to Lincoln in the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with ex-slaves. The results are not  unexpected – the Great Emancipator was still popular in Depression-era black memory-but the details about Lincoln’s various roles in African American folklore will nonetheless educate many readers.”

Well, thank you!

I read several thousand interviews for that chapter and you can find part of it in my book, not to mention another essay, published with David Silkenat, in the Lincoln Herald. Pinkser is correct that many African Americans still praised Lincoln, but some did not, for very specific – and instructive – reasons. Here is one quote from the essay in Lincoln’s Enduring Legacy, and  Loathing Lincoln:

But it was Thomas Hall, also from North Carolina, who best explained black discontent with Abraham Lincoln and by implication the United States: “Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He give us freedom without giving us any chance to live ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food, and clothing, and he held us through our necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery. Lincoln done but little forthe negro race and from living standpoint nothing. White folks are not going to do nothing for negroes except keep them down. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, did that for her own good. She had her own interests at heart and I don’t like her, Lincoln, or none of the crowd. The Yankees helped free us, so they say, but they let us be put back in slavery again.”

For me, this was important in that I argue that such attitudes reflected a deep-seated and justifiable disappointment, even loathing, with how the country had betrayed the war’s (I include Reconstruction here) egalitarian promises. Again, from the book:

By the 1930s there was unquestionable bitterness among African Americans about the shabby, violent treatment they had endured at the hands of whites since the 1860s. Such unfulfilled hopes and expectations go a long way in explaining the reasons for their harsh comments, as few as there are, in the WPA narratives. Their attitudes were consistent with previous criticism by previous African Americans, and it anticipated a decidedly negative view of Lincoln that would reemerge decades later within the black community and the country at large, during the civil rights movement, especially in Lerone Bennett’s seminal 1968 essay claiming that Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist.

For the most part, however, African Americans continued to celebrate the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Blacks throughout the South, in contrast to the Ladies’ Memorial Associations, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and United Daughters of the Confederacy, all of whom glorified the antebellum South and established monuments to the men of the Confederacy who had tried to perpetuate slavery, continued their Emancipation Day celebrations after the war and revered the memory of Abraham Lincoln. Additionally, in contrast to the unreconstructed Confederates of the Lost Cause who glorified the Confederacy, they did not remember Lincoln uncritically, nor did they have any use for the alleged heroes of Confederacy or their apologists. Indeed, in 1930 African American poet Sterling Brown insightfully described Lost Cause apologists as “pathetic,” full of “the self-pity of the defeated,” motivated by the “evils of modern life [which] furnish the impulse to an easy romantic escape in dreams of a pleasanter past,” all in the service of “the buttressing of ancient prejudices.” African Americans who voiced criticism of Lincoln were doing so because they rightly believed that the federal government should have done more since the end of Reconstruction to ensure a new birth of freedom for their race, while Lincoln’s white critics claimed they were enslaved because the president had allegedly centralized power in Washington, D.C. It was apparent, finally, that in the 1930s Lincoln was still a haunting presence in the heartsof many black Americans.

 

New Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) “Commander-in-Chief” Endorses Creationism

The September/October issue of the Confederate Veteran magazine, the official publication of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), has a “Report” from Charles Kelly Barrow on how “the SCV must prepare for the new challenges it will face” in the coming years. Barrow wants the “Headquarters” of the SCV to be both a “museum” and a “tourist attraction.” To that end, he tells encourages his readers (the SCV has about 30,000 members; I have no idea of the number of subscribers to the magazine) with the following:

One of the organizations I support is Answers in Genesis. When they built the Creation Museum [in Kentucky], they asked people to invest or become owners in the project. I can tell you personally that when our family paid a visit to the museum, we took pride in what we helped build. (page 4)

So, there you have it. The leader of the SCV endorses and, according to his words, contributed money (which of course is his right and one that I fully support) to a Museum that teaches that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth at the same time.

Now, there are a couple of things I want to emphasize. Early in his “Report” Barrow makes it clear, at least to me, that he is dedicated to “preserving my Southern heritage.” (page 4) Fair enough. But, given that later in his report he laments “the indoctrination about the civil war that students are subjected to in the public school classroom” and his fervent support for “A War Between the States curriculum, with lesson plans and teaching aids, [which] will be developed and made available to teachers in the public, private and homeschool sectors teaching the true history of the War,” (page 5, emphasis in the original), it is obvious that preserving one’s heritage has very specific implications. To wit: Barrow appears to prefer a world in which American students, in both public and private schools (not to mention homeschoolers) would be taught creationism – which is unconstitutional – and that the Confederacy was justified in its cause. After all, he says that “our ancestors . . . endured Total War from an illegal invader.” (page 5, emphasis in the original) This stance is consistent with philosopher Donald Livingston’s essay “Confederate Emancipation” in the previous month’s Confederate Veteran (you can read my analyses of this article here, here, here, here, and here).

The second thing I find of interest is Barrow’s encouragement of others in the SCV “to make a stand, . . . to be unified with others of the same mindset and lineage.” (page 5). That mindset, as I have argued elsewhere, includes not only a loathing for Abraham Lincoln, but for Charles Darwin as well. There is no grandeur in this view of life of our species, or nation’s, past. Americans, especially historians and biologists, must do a better job, it seems to me, in understanding and communicating with each other about the larger aims of this movement dedicated to preserving “heritage.”

 

Loathing Lincoln on Civil War Talk Radio

I spent an hour yesterday evening speaking with Gerry Prokopowicz on Civil War Talk Radio about my book. Gerry gave me ample time to talk (which is a good or bad thing depending on your point of view I suppose) and he had clearly read the book quite closely. You can listen to the show here.

Confederate Emancipation? Part 5 – The End (Whew!)

Today we conclude our series on Donald Livingston’s piece in the July/August issue of the Confederate Veteran magazine. To date, we have seen that Livingston’s piece obfuscated the reason for southern secession, incorrectly described the nature of the Union the founders created, perhaps mischaracterized Jefferson’s attitude toward coercing states to remain in the Union, and agreed with Lincoln and the Republican Party’s stance on slavery as a great moral wrong.

The last argument, or arguments, I want to address (there are many, many others, believe me), is Livingston’s contention that “The evidence, however, strongly sup­ports the contrary counter-factual judg­ment that had there been no war, slavery, in an independent Confederacy, would have ended in a reasonable amount of time, and race relations in the South (and in America), would have been better than what they be­came, having been put through the dehu­manizing experience of a scorched earth war, a decade of military occupation, the plunder and corruption of Reconstruction, and the manipulation of race by the Union League and similar organizations created to keep the Republican party in power.” Really? I wonder, for the four million enslaved Americans, what they believe would have been, as Livingston puts it, “a reasonable amount of time” to remain enslaved, rather than, as Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to do, begin “to devise federal policies, to be implemented immediately, that would bring about the ultimate extinction of slavery.” (James Oakes, Freedom National, page 22)

Added to this, I wrote in Loathing Lincoln:

Likewise misleading, at least from [Timothy] Sandefur’s viewpoint, was the relatively un-substantiated assertion that a slaveholding Confederacy (or northern secession from the South) would have eventually emancipated the slaves without federal intervention. Following Mises’s emphasis on slavery’s economic inefficiency, [Thomas] DiLorenzo maintained that “the market economy and the advance of industrialization were in fact eating away at the institution of slavery.” This trend, together with the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, “would have caused the price of slaves to plummet by dramatically increasing the cost to slave owners of enforcing the system, thereby quickening the institution’s demise.” Such speculation ignored that slaveholders wanted the Fugitive Slave Law enforced and would never have consented to its repeal and that in an independent, slaveholding regime such as the Confederacy, there would have been strong economic and cultural incentives to preserve the institution and to acquire more slaves by whatever methods necessary. Slavery was extraordinarily profitable, and it is difficult to see why white southerners would have voluntarily abolished the institution. Indeed, if slavery was such an inefficient, unproductive form of labor that would have some day perished, then one wonders why it had not withered away by the twenty-first century. As Sandefur concluded in a 2012 lecture: “Slavery was efficient to southerners, if not as a purely financial matter, at least as a means of perpetuating White Supremacist social institutions. Proslavery leaders sought to address those economic problems that did plague slavery—escape, manumission, and the need for land—through government subsidies and crackdowns on civil liberties.” So, at the very least it was debatable whether northern secession would have led to large numbers of slaves running away to freedom, although perhaps that would have been the case. Still, southern fire-eaters such as Robert Barnwell Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and William Lowndes Yancey all thought slavery would be better protected in an independent slaveholding Confederacy because such a republic could deport abolitionists and their sympathizers, provide greater domestic surveillance of slaves, build an elaborate border patrol system, and use railroads and telegraph lines to deliver a more rapid response to runaways and potential rebellions. Once the Confederacy had been formed, these fire-eaters thought, the importance of cotton to the northern economy would force the United States government to make treaties promising to return or pay for runaways. “Our treaties would protect our slaves,” explained Yancey. (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 309-310)

Added to this, Livingston believes that the cost of freeing the slaves was simply too great and thus peaceful separation would have been better. Here is Livingston:

It is a terrible thing to destroy a social and political order. History shows that a people can recover in a short time from almost any amount of physical destruction if their social and political traditions are intact. The great tragedy of World War I is that it destroyed the social fabric of Europe and opened the door to a plethora of ideol­ogies and other social pathologies, includ­ing totalitarian regimes and World War II. Similar baneful results followed from the North’s systematic destruction of Southern society.

But there was another cost which has been largely ignored, namely the death and suffering of blacks caused by the Emanci­pation Proclamation itself. A window has recently been opened into this terrible epi­sode by Jim Downs in Sick From Freedom, African American Death and Suffering Dur­ing the Civil War and Reconstruction. “The Civil War,” he says “produced the largest biological crisis of the nineteenth century … wreaking havoc on the population of the newly freed.” Tens of thousands of freed slaves “became sick and died due to the … exigencies of war and the massive disloca­tion triggered by emancipation.” ‘

The Emancipation Proclamation was designed to encourage a slave uprising and weaken Southern morale. Consequently, the Lincoln administration had made no preparation to care for the slaves suddenly dislocated from their place of sustenance. The army hastily threw up what were called “contraband camps.” These were the first modern “concentration camps,” a distinction usually given to the British in the Boer War 1899-1902. Though no longer slaves, blacks in these camps were not citi­zens of the states or of the United States and had little in the way of civil rights. They were legally defined as “contraband” of war.

What “social and political order,” I ask my readers, was destroyed by the Civil War? Wasn’t that order one based upon racially-based slavery? And, was that order entirely destroyed? I discussed this at some length in my book:

One piece of history that these Lincoln contrarians ignored, . . .  was that a virtual secession was carried out by the South in the years after the country abandoned Reconstruction. By 1900, once African Americans were effectively disfranchised across the region, the white South was in effect in local control of its own internal affairs. The real tragedy of Reconstruction, notwithstanding the assertions of Lincoln’s detractors, was not that it enhanced federal power at the expense of the states but that the country eventually turned a blind eye to homicidal violence and racial oppression for almost another century after the president’s death. The link between freedom and equality forged by the Declaration of Independence and vindicated in the Civil War and Reconstruction was severed by the turn of the century. The consequence was that a broad anti-caste, civic nationalism was replaced by a narrow, ethnic nationalism based upon white supremacy. Democracy was in effect dead, certainly for blacks, in the southern United States until the stunning achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, whose legislative successes were anathema to Lincoln’s foes. The de facto secession of the former Confederacy after Reconstruction on racial matters did not enhance freedom; rather, it diminished freedom and tarnished American lives and ideals. (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 308-309)

Now, I think Livingston is correct to cite Jim Downs’s book Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford, 2012), regarding the tragic, “unintended” consequences of emancipation, but I’m not sure that this – great – work supports his case as well as he thinks (the comment that these were the first “concentration camps” is without merit, and not worthy of a philosopher of Livingston’s caliber). To be sure, as Downs shows, the “Bondspeople who fled from plantation slavery during and after the war, and embraced their freedom with hope and optimism did not expect that it would lead to sickness, disease, suffering, and death.”  But, there are quotes in Downs’s work which contradict Livingston’s very argument. To wit:

In a letter to prominent religious leader and abolitionist Levi Coffin, John Eaton summed it up best when he stated, “Some among us, and some in England, have considered emancipation a farce; because it was proclaimed by President Lincoln as a military necessity, and not on the ground of humanity and justice.” Eaton went on to explain the complicated nature of emancipation, “Others declare emancipation inhuman [Livingston?] because it has been attended with so much suffering; overlooking the fact that the war itself would have produced as much without any attempt at emancipation; and that the distress then would have been without the alleviation afforded by the joys of freedom.” (Downs, Sick From Freedom, page 38-39)

Or, consider this, from O.O. Howard (the first director of the Freedmen’s Bureau, whose work Confederates and ex-Confederates did their absolute best to undermine, with violence):

Looking at the great number of indigent freedmen, old men and women and helpless children, in every Southern State, I have not wondered that the old slaveholder should pour into my ear the glowing accounts of the blessedness of slavery in its prosperous and patriarchal days, and that he should heap curses on that freedom which he believes to be the occasion of so much restlessness and suffering. But you and I know that the real cause of the desolation and suffering is war, brought on and continued in the interest of and from the love of slavery. (Downs, Sick From Freedom, page 40-41).

Might I also add here that these escaped slaves in the contraband camps who Livingston says – correctly – were not citizens of the United States at that time later became so because of the efforts of the Republican Party?

As I conclude this series, I am reminded that many, many Americans, argue that in flying the Confederate flag, or honoring their Confederate ancestors, they are honoring “heritage” and not “hate.” Fair enough, I suppose. Livingston’s essay, however, gives me pause, because he is clearly arguing that the Confederacy was constitutionally and morally right in their cause. And, I think we have a different country, if we have a country at all, if we find ourselves in agreement with Livingston’s viewpoint.

Let me conclude with the last paragraph of my book:

Americans need to remind themselves that Lincoln’s principled stand against the monstrous injustice of slavery and the slaveholders’ advocacy for its perpetuation “in all future time,” combined with his belief that recurrent elections as opposed to secession were the best, most peaceful method for solving political disagreements, were not only the hallmarks of democratic politics and Lincoln’s political career but essential aspects of “the better angels of our nature.” Consequently, Lincoln’s aim in asking Americans to fight a war to preserve a relatively democratic Union eventually cleansed of slavery was courageous and noble, perhaps even necessary, and the country remains indebted to those who fought to ensure that the United States was not forever split apart in the 1860s. This is not to say that Lincoln was either a god or a saint; obviously, he was neither, and he would in fact have been the first to scoff at such a notion. Nor was the president a demon, . . . Both views are an oversimplification of an extraordinarily complex man and movement dedicated to ending slavery in America. In fact, there is no shame in saying that Lincoln was a gifted, prudent politician who, with the help of millions of antislavery Americans, including the slaves themselves, enthusiastically issued the Emancipation Proclamation and, in public letters and speeches that contained some of the most beautiful language ever written, explained why the United States should attempt to fulfill the better ideals of its founders. And because of the war those ideals were, at least for a time, realized. The “new birth of freedom” of which Lincoln expectantly spoke at Gettysburg occurred, as African Americans became citizens in the new American nation born from the conflict, with ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In this particular instance federal power broadened rather than diminished freedom, and it became another of the war’s heartbreaking tragedies (in addition to its hundreds of thousands of casualties) that human liberty shrank as the nation’s commitment to a more pluralistic democracy withered in the face of state and local resistance to the postwar era’s egalitarian possibilities. Such inegalitarian consequences persisted for far too long yet were thankfully impermanent because Americans, especially African Americans, realized they were inconsistent with the nation’s increased commitment to freedom and equality forged in the 1860s and 1870s. As they have in the past, so will Americans in the future continue to grapple with the Civil War and the president who led the nation through that conflict. But to loathe Abraham Lincoln would be to lose, or loathe, an essential part of the nation that he thought should allow all its inhabitants “an open field and a fair chance for . . . industry, enterprise and intelligence,” one that would give his fellow Americans “equal privileges in the race of life,” a country Lincoln hoped would become, as he said in his last written words, “a Union of hearts and hands as well as of States.” (Barr, Loathing Lincoln, page 341-342)