Settler Empire and Abraham Lincoln

A few years ago, in the middle of the debate over passage of the Affordable Care Act, one of my conservative colleagues told me (and I’m relying on memory here) that Americans “were free before we were wealthy” and that because of President Obama we would now be neither.

I recalled this comment last week as I read Aziz Rana’s magificent book The Two Faces of American Freedom, for unlike my conservative friend, it is Rana’s argument that American freedom has always been dependent upon “suppression” and “the control of subject communities” (page 3). In other words, “settler empire.” Now, this idea that American freedom has always, to one degree or another, been dependent upon “subordination” of others, is not new. Indeed, Edmund Morgan wrote about this long, long ago. But it is Rana who provides us with a broad historial sweep of this paradox, as Morgan calls it, from the arrival of the first Europeans on American shores down to the present-day and the costs it has entailed. “Empire,” Rana writes, ” has become the master rather than the servant of freedom” (page 4).

On a related note, and this is where I think his book becomes relevant to Lincoln, Rana thinks that we live in a country where “ideas of [American] exceptionalism and constitutional perfection” combine with a “literary culture in which the most popular historical works are panegyrics to great statesmen of the past, seen as larger-than-life figures [Abraham Lincoln?] to whom we are collectively indebted” (page 6). Consequently, “the mythology of exceptionalism and democratic equality disregards a historical record riddled with ethnic, racial, and sexual exclusion, not to mention real class inequalities and conflicts” (page 7). To a large extent I would agree with Rana, but would add that it was Lincoln and the emancipatory movement of which he was an integral part that struggled mightily to confront these problems. Rana thinks there were “decisive historical moments” that “led some Americans to imagine a republicanism that was both inclusive and disconnected from territorial conquest” (page 14).

In this sense, I think it is unhelpful to focus on Lincoln exclusively as the “Great Emancipator.” Rather, it is better, as Frederick Douglass put it in 1876, to see Lincoln as “the head of a great movement, and [who] was in living and earnest sympathy with that movement, which, in the nature of things, must go on until slavery should be utterly and forever abolished in the United States.” Or, as I put it at the end of Loathing Lincoln:

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, the progenitor of all of America’s ills. 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” (page 341-42).

Although Rana sees Lincoln’s economic vision as limited – “For Lincoln, so long as the market was left to its own devices, individuals would be able to achieve economic independence” (page 173) – he is nevertheless clear that “the Civil War promoted political and economic practices that threatened the old settler paradigm and raised questions about how to sustain republican freedom under condtions of corporate concentration and greater social inclusion” (page 183) I think this is a good point. Still, the quote from Lincoln above is from 1859 and had he lived (the perennial question, no?) perhaps the president would have been influenced by the experience of Reconstruction and more radical members of the Republican Party to reconsider, or alter, such views.

One final point. In a wonderful disquistion on Randolph Bourne (see pages 290-96), Rana writes that “for Bourne, this rejection of empire was just as thoroughly a rejection of isolationism and nativist sentiment; it rested instead on the diffusion of borders and the cultural integration of America with the world at large. In effect, Bourne sketched a vision of a U.S. metropole, economically prosperous and dynamic, which relied on no peripheries – traditionally marked by colonized subjects or satellite states – to maintain its position. Both noninterventionist and universally inclusive, American identity would reject any ‘narrow “Americanism” or forced chauvinism.’ As a consequence, it would disarm political and economic elites of a central tool – parochial nationalism – in the extension of state perogatives” (page 295). Would it be too much of a stretch to argue that Lincoln, in his rejection of an empire of slavery, his rejection of prosperity and home for some rather than all, his rejection of nativism, and his rejection that the Civil War was only about Union and slavery, helped make Bourne’s argument possible?






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