The Gettysburg Address–151 Years Ago Today
Happy Gettysburg Address Day! Here’s Steve Earle Singing “Dixeland,” warming up for Garrison Keillor’s reading of the best two minutes in American political history.
Happy Gettysburg Address Day! Here’s Steve Earle Singing “Dixeland,” warming up for Garrison Keillor’s reading of the best two minutes in American political history.
Well, maybe not all of them. But while working on the “Lincoln and Race” series, I came across a remarkable set of webpages. Thanks to John McKee Barr at Loathing Lincoln, I have discovered at least one libertarian who is moved by facts and not ideology.
In John’s post, which takes on the anti-Lincoln agenda at the Washington Post, he mentions the name of Timothy Sandefur, who works as a Principal Attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation. I clicked and found Mr. Sandefur’s blog Freespace. What I found there was a description of why secession was unconstitutional that is pretty much as good as any I’ve read. Those posts (“Springtime for Jeff Davis and the Confed’racy”) are here, here, and here.
Moreover, Sandefur has provided a link to a paper he wrote called “How Libertarians Ought to Think About the U.S. Civil War,” which argues that libertarians should support Lincoln, the Union, and the Civil War as instruments of liberty, rather than castigate them as agents of tyranny. What makes this analysis so intriguing to me is that Sandefur uses John Locke’s idea of natural rights to show, not merely why secession was not a legitimate revolution, but that the entire concept of a nation built on slavery is antithetical to libertarian philosophy.
I’ve not looked at much of the rest of Timothy Sandefur’s website. I don’t know how he feels about Teddy Roosevelt and the National Parks, or FDR and the New Deal, or the rights of indigenous Americans—and at this point I don’t need to. It’s just refreshing to find writing on the Civil War from a libertarian that is guided by principle, and not blinded by ideology. That’s an idea we should all be able to agree on.
The pivotal moment in both the Civil War and in Lincoln’s views on race occurred on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation. While criticized by contemporaries and scholars for its conditional nature and its lack of style (Richard Hofstadter famously remarked that it “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading”), the Emancipation Proclamation changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the old Union to a revolution that would create a “new nation, conceived in liberty” by also destroying slavery. It also unleashed the forces that compelled Abraham Lincoln to emancipate himself from his racist attitudes, and and confront directly the place of blacks in America.
The Final Emancipation Proclamation punctures one of the biggest holes in the Libertarian caricature of “Lincoln the Racist” propagated by Thomas DiLorenzo. This caricature is based on Lincoln’s words in addresses, speeches, and actions before 1863—before the Emancipation Proclamation. This is because the Proclamation itself, and the Lincoln that emerges during its implementation, defy the cartoon racist Lincoln that DiLorenzo has drawn for his audience. DiLorenzo attempts to freeze Lincoln in time as a white supremacist, allowing for no change over the years of the war. In this cartoon, Lincoln simply used blacks for his own nefarious purposes.¹
This cartoon, of course, is incompatible with the reality of Lincoln’s words and deeds in 1863. In this period, Lincoln underwent a change. While we can never know to what extent Lincoln rid himself of his racist views, we can see that his views did change, and that he came to understand that, whatever his personal prejudice—and whatever the white public’s prejudice—black Americans clearly were Americans, and deserving of most of the rights enjoyed by whites.
The Emancipation Proclamation was the most radical act of Lincoln’s presidency. It was also the most unpopular act of his presidency. Libertarians and other Lincoln Loathers point to its conditions—that it famously freed very few slaves on the day of its issue—and its sterility—that it had no soaring language (although, I admit they make this a minor complaint, since Loathers despise all of Lincoln’s eloquence as cynical)—as evidence of Lincoln’s racism. This is because they A) refuse to properly understand the Proclamation; and B) its conditions and language, coupled with Lincoln’s subsequent defense of the Proclamation, actually show Lincoln’s personal realignment on race.² Continue reading
Here is an hour-long talk with John McKee Barr on “Civil War Talk Radio” with Gerry Prokopowicz. Mckee Barr is the author of Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present.
It’s fascinating, although there’s not enough time at the end to deal with the modern Libertarian view of Lincoln. Even so, it’s well worth your time. The interview begins at minute mark 7:45.
The term is over, I am off to Northern California for some casual debauchery. I will finish my series on Lincoln and race when I get back. But in the meanwhile, here’s a brilliant post in That Devil History by Jarret Ruminski. Jarret gleefully takes on the hapless book review The Economist recently performed on Ed Baptist’s new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Enjoy!
Thus far, we have examined Lincoln’s words to understand his racism. That’s important because statesmen (especially Lincoln) live by their words. But we must also examine his deeds—specifically, we need to look at Lincoln’s policy initiatives to understand his racism and his subsequent conversion.
I think the most racist policy of Lincoln’s career was his commitment to colonization. Colonization was the idea that freed blacks in the United States could be moved away from the states into “more suitable climes” where they would theoretically thrive. The African nation of Liberia, for example, was established as an American colony of freed blacks. Colonization was coupled with another important idea that anti-slavery men in the North and Border States (like Henry Clay, Lincoln’s political idol, perhaps the highest profile politician who advocated for colonization) favored: gradual, compensated emancipation. The idea was that slaves would become free gradually (as New York had done) as they reached a certain age, and then the federal government would use taxpayer dollars to pay the master for his loss. The only remaining factor—and the one that vexed almost all white Americans who were not named Wendell Phillips or Thaddeus Stevens—was what to do with the freedmen. (Somehow, it never occurred to white statesmen that these freedmen were all second or third or even fourth generation Americans.)
The idea of removing millions of native-born Americans to other parts of the world simply because of their skin color properly appalls us today. Lincoln’s commitment to colonization was nearly life-long, only abandoned after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. But like all else, we must understand his commitment colonization within the context of the time. Moreover, observing the transition in Lincoln’s policies as president from colonization to emancipation can help show the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking about race itself. And lastly, looking at colonization and the reasons moderates like Lincoln favored it can give us another example of racism as the cause of the Civil War.
And the issues swirling around colonization are crucial, because they cut to the heart of, not merely Lincoln’s racism, but to the stated reasons for the Deep South seceding from the Union in 1860. The obvious implication of these issues is that neither Abraham Lincoln, nor almost any of his countrymen, could envision living in a multi-racial society.
I have already written in this blog of racism as a cause of the war. The Ordinances and Declarations of Secession, coupled with the addresses of the Special Secession Commissioners, show that the seven Deep South states regarded the election of Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” as a grave threat because it promised (as they thought) an end to slavery, and therefore an end to white supremacy. These documents also make it clear that one of the forms of equality that Southern whites feared they would have to endure is the social equality of blacks; what we today call integration. Thus, we can see that when we say “slavery caused the war,” we are also saying “racism against blacks helped to cause the war.”
In the North, racism, while not as virulent as the South, was also a powerful motivating element. Most Northerners who opposed slavery (excluding the radical abolition wing) were also racist to some degree or another. The question of where newly-emancipated slaves would live seemed answered by colonization. Allen Guelzo discusses “good” colonizationists and “bad” colonizationists as the difference between those who felt blacks would never be given a fair shake in the United States, and so were better off going elsewhere to a place they could craft an equality all their own; and those who disliked slavery and blacks, and wanted to ship freedmen out because they didn’t like them. Lincoln understood this instinctively, and we can see it manifested in his presidency.
By the time Lincoln was inaugurated, seven states had already left the Union. After Ft. Sumter and Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down insurrection, four more would leave. Suddenly, slavery was not an issue for the new president. His immediate overriding goal was to put down the rebellion and “practically restore… the constitutional relation between the general government, and…the states.” This, of course, didn’t stop abolitionists from demanding that Lincoln use the war to destroy slavery. However, he disappointed anti-slavery Republicans, since he regarded—correctly, in my view—slavery as protected by the Constitution. For Lincoln to attack slavery in 1861 would be to admit that Republicans did indeed intend black equality as a plank in their platform, when it most certainly was not. More importantly, Lincoln understood that he could not alienate Northerners who did not care about slavery. And most important of all, he must not threaten Kentucky, that crucial border slave state, with emancipation. “To lose Kentucky,” Lincoln said in 1861, “is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
His address to Congress in December of 1861 contained an assurance to Americans that his goal was only the restoration of the Union, not the destruction of slavery. He would take care that the war did not become a “violent remorseless revolutionary struggle.” But at the same time, the president mentioned to Congress that he might wish for financial appropriations to colonize free blacks out of the country. But why would one need to exile blacks if one was committed to preserving slavery? This suggests Lincoln was playing both ends from the middle. Of course, this was not unusual for him. As Brooks Simpson has recently pointed out, “Lincoln seemed quite willing to entertain and even promote multiple paths toward the same conclusion.” He might not have intended in the winter of ’61 to disturb slavery, but he needed to hedge his bets in case he might change his mind later.
And indeed, by the spring of 1862, Lincoln was beginning to change his view. Events forced him to reconsider slavery—as both a cause of the war and as a tool of the rebellion. After the failure of George McClellan to end the rebellion on the Peninsula in 1862, Lincoln understood stronger measures were necessary. Emancipation was already taking place by fits and starts all across the vast front of the war, and with the continued military failures in the east, Lincoln understood that to strike a fatal blow to the Confederacy, he must strike a fatal blow against slavery. By summer, Lincoln was prepared to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure to destroy the rebellion.
But he still was not prepared for a multi-racial society; or at least if he was, he knew most Americans weren’t. And so to prep the ground for emancipation, Lincoln began to push for colonization schemes. I think one of the most telling moments in his advocacy came on August 14, 1862 when Lincoln met with four free black community leaders from Washington. First, he informs them he’s asked Congress to set aside money for colonization. Then he gets to his main point:
You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen I suppose.
A VOICE: Yes, sir.
THE PRESIDENT: Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you.
I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition—the country engaged in war!—our white men cutting one another’s throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.
It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. [My emphasis]
This, which we today rightly see as Lincoln’s most cringe-worthy moment, is still an exchange of remarkable frankness. Lincoln is stating a political fact: that racism prevents blacks from enjoying their liberties; and equality is out of the question. It would be better for all if blacks—voluntarily and supported by the federal government—went their own way. There is an undercurrent of pathetic wistfulness to Lincoln’s plea: it’s as if he’s saying “If it weren’t for you people, we whites would be enjoying Jefferson’s perfect liberty and equality as promised in the Declaration of Independence. But no; because of your presence (through no fault of your own, I admit), that vision of a free white republic is hopelessly complicated.”
Boy, was it ever.
We regard this as a grossly embarrassing moment—perhaps his worst as president. But, again, it’s important to point out that, as frustrated as he was, Lincoln’s words have a complete lack of vitriol. He was noted by contemporaries again and again as being every bit as respectful to black people in the White House as whites.
Lincoln’s alleged indifference to slaves and slavery—and therefore his racism—has another source that both neo-Confederates and Libertarians cite again and again. It is Lincoln’s open letter to Horace Greeley. Greeley, the editor of the most important newspaper in the North, had written an editorial criticizing the Lincoln administration for its aimlessness in fighting the war. Lincoln seized on this as an opportunity to communicate not so much with Greeley as with the American people directly:
As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free. [My emphasis]
Lincoln Loathers love to use this as evidence that Lincoln cared not at all for blacks, that he was as racist as any Southern slaveholder. But again, context is everything. This is Lincoln preparing Americans for the Emancipation Proclamation (which lay in a drawer waiting for a military victory to give it teeth). What critics would call callous indifference in the phrase “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” is actually a good description of the Emancipation Proclamation’s decree to free slaves only in states (or parts of states) in rebellion. What the loathers interpret as racism is, in truth, Constitutional conscientiousness. But they have to call it racism, don’t they? Since part of the Libertarian narrative is that Lincoln was a tyrant who ran roughshod over the Constitution, they can’t allow this letter to be interpreted correctly. And, of course, they always—always!—omit the last sentence:
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.
Lincoln continued to hope for some sort of colonization even after he issued the preliminary proclamation after the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862. On the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation, in his Annual Message to Congress in December of 1862, he still made some space for colonization. This address is basically his first major attempt (apart from the Greeley letter) to convince Congress (and the American people) that emancipation was essential to winning the war, and that the resulting liberation of nearly four million blacks need not cause great upheaval. To avoid the feared upheaval, a great portion of the address is dedicated to a series of proposals around compensated emancipation and colonization. But there is much more to this remarkable address than just holding out for colonization. Lincoln seems to realize that farming out blacks to foreign countries might not work:
I can not make it better known than it already is that I strongly favor colonization; and yet I wish to say there is an objection urged against free colored persons remaining in the country which is largely imaginary, if not sometimes malicious.
Lincoln is maintaining his long-held view; and yet there is a note of impatience with the irrational fear of his countrymen. He goes on at length arguing that the fear of free blacks living among white Americans is groundless. His logic is cold; it is not based on “brotherly love,” but rather on economics:
It is insisted that their presence would injure and displace white labor and white laborers…. Is it true, then, that colored people can displace any more white labor by being free than by remaining slaves? If they stay in their old places, they jostle no white laborers; if they leave their old places, they leave them open to white laborers. Logically, there is neither more nor less of it. Emancipation, even without deportation, would probably enhance the wages of white labor, and very surely would not reduce them. Thus the customary amount of labor would still have to be performed—the freed people would surely not do more than their old proportion of it, and very probably for a time would do less, leaving an increased part to white laborers, bringing their labor into greater demand, and consequently enhancing the wages of it. With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain. Labor is like any other commodity in the market—increase the demand for it and you increase the price of it. Reduce the supply of black labor by colonizing the black laborer out of the country, and by precisely so much you increase the demand for and wages of white labor.
Or, as here, the logic of demographics:
But it is dreaded that the freed people will swarm forth and cover the whole land. Are they not already in the land? Will liberation make them any more numerous? Equally distributed among the whites of the whole country, and there would be but one colored to seven whites. Could the one in any way greatly disturb the seven? There are many communities now having more than one free colored person to seven whites and this without any apparent consciousness of evil from it. The District of Columbia and the States of Maryland and Delaware are all in this condition. The District has more than one free colored to six whites, and yet in its frequent petitions to Congress I believe it has never presented the presence of free colored persons as one of its grievances. But why should emancipation South send the free people North? People of any color seldom run unless there be something to run from.
In both cases, Lincoln continues to insist that colonization would benefit both white and black, but that it is not a necessary component. He equivocates. Again, this is consistent with Prof. Simpson’s argument that colonization represented one possible solution, not the only solution.
And then, he tries to break it to Americans that the old ways of thinking are history, and that they are going to need to get over themselves:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
Lincoln is talking about emancipation, but he might as well be speaking of reconsidering the role of blacks in America.
And after January 1, 1863, the date when the final Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, Lincoln never again publicly mentioned colonization. And it made good sense to abandon colonization after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, of course, did not merely decree slaves free; it authorized these newly-freed slaves and Northern free blacks to join the Union army, and strike a blow against the slaveholders who had held them in bondage and tried to destroy the nation. Suddenly, emancipation made freedmen not a burden for negrophobe whites, but a weapon to save the Union. And that salvation could only happen by destroying slavery.
It is from this point–this realization that the old Union could not be saved, but that a “new nation” must be created–that we begin to see real transformation in Lincoln’s ideas on race, and the growth for which Foner argues. In the next post, we will see how the logic of emancipation and black military service dictated the terms which forced Lincoln to mostly abandon his racist attitudes.
So let’s start with absolute reality, stripped of both wishful thinking and ideology:
Abraham Lincoln was a racist.
Yes, it’s true. For many of us, this is disappointing. But the simple fact that Lincoln was a racist doesn’t explain anything. In the 1850s and 1860s, most white Americans, North and South, were racist. That is the key element of context in understanding this: Lincoln’s viewpoint on blacks was totally unremarkable in his time. It’s only a problem for us today because our sensibilities (and our science) tell us that race is a ridiculous notion, and racists are irrational beings with whom we wish no congress. It’s also a problem because when we learned about Lincoln in the fourth grade, our teachers portrayed him as “The Great Emancipator” and neglected the finer points and subtleties of the war. For all we learned (incorrectly), the Civil War was solely about destroying slavery, period.
So what does it explain, then? How do we further put Lincoln’s racism in context? How do we come to terms with it? And most important for my purposes, how did Lincoln’s racism inform his policies toward the South, the war, and the Union?
The standard work on Lincoln’s ideas about race and slavery is Eric Foner’s splendid The Fiery Trial. Anyone who wishes to seriously discuss Lincoln and race (anyone not living with the primary sources, at any rate) must take the arguments in this book into consideration. To ignore it—or worse, to attack its author for his politics—is to be unserious. While Thomas DiLorenzo is a deadly-serious polemicist, as a historian he shows all the seriousness of a clown convention. For example, continuing in his LewRockwell.com article, DiLorenzo first quotes Lincoln from a famous speech, and then attacks some of authors of recent books on Lincoln:
“I am not, nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold [political] office, nor to intermarry with white people,” said the political idol of the Marc Levins, Harry Jaffas, Rich Lowrys, Rush Limbaughs, and all other Lincoln-worshipping neocons (not to mention the Leftist/Marxist Lincoln worshippers like Eric Foner and 99% of the academic history profession).
The quote DiLorenzo uses, from the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Charleston on September 18, 1858, is Exhibit A in the Libertarian prosecution of “Lincoln the Racist.” It is perhaps the quote Libertarians are most fond of deploying. There are other remarks by Lincoln to be sure, but primarily by this quote Lincoln stands condemned. In this case, DiLorenzo uses this quote to take a swipe both at Lincoln and at DiLorenzo’s opponents on the right and left of the political spectrum. He especially gets a in stab at Eric Foner. Well, he has to, doesn’t he? Professor Foner’s left-ish political background is perhaps more repugnant to DiLorenzo’s Libertarianism than the so-called “neocons” he attacks. But more important to DiLorenzo than simply making a fling, it additionally means DiLorenzo is not required to deal with Foner’s arguments and scholarship. (Aren’t ad hominem attacks fun? They’re easy, too!) “Foner is a Red; therefore his ideas aren’t worth understanding.”
But the thing about the Libertarian narrative is that context is a bitch. DiLorenzo is especially adept at plucking events and quotes out of their historical context. However, what happens when we look at the context of Lincoln’s speeches and writing and how they changed over time is something far more interesting—something that leads to understanding, and sometimes to the genuine admiration that DiLorenzo abhors.
The very first thing to understand is that Abraham Lincoln hated American slavery. On this there is no doubt. Like his idol, Henry Clay, he saw it retarding the progress of the country. He also saw it as a great moral wrong that contradicted the promise of America expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But for Lincoln and most Northerners, hating slavery was not the same as accepting black equality. And agitating for the abolition of slavery endangered the Union, which is…
The second thing to understand: Abraham Lincoln loved the Union. The United States government, under the Constitution, was indeed “the last best hope of earth,” since it ensured common people like Lincoln the chance to rise as far as talent would take them. It is true that the Constitution was flawed by the embedment of slavery within it, and Lincoln felt that was unfortunate. But because contemporary Constitutional law maintained that slavery was a local matter to be determined by the states, Lincoln felt the institution was beyond the pale of criticism.
These two things in concert begin to explain the context we need to understand Lincoln’s racism.
Because anti-slavery agitation provoked Southerners, Lincoln avoided making any public utterances regarding slavery in the early part of his political career. Slavery was a divisive issue, and he wanted unity among his Whig Party members, North and South. But after the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, as Richard Hofstadter points out, almost every single speech Lincoln gave was about restricting the expansion of slavery. And the key here is slavery’s expansion, not its existence. Lincoln only ever said that slavery was legal where it existed, but that the country as a whole had the right to restrict it to those states.
Libertarians love to quote the Lincoln-Douglas debates for examples of Lincoln’s racism, but they never ever discuss its context. If they did, they would have to go back to fairly consider the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the territory of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery based on “popular sovereignty.” In doing so, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, considered a sacred promise between sections. This was arguably the single most important event in the entire Sectional Crisis, and was this event that so outraged Lincoln (and millions of other Northerners) that it propelled him back into politics. For our purposes, we can learn much from his speech in Peoria, IL, his first response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the speech he used to project himself back into politics:
When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery, than we; I acknowledge the fact. When it is said that the institution exists; and that it is very difficult to get rid of it, in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know how to do myself. If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough for me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not be safely disregarded. We can not, then, make them equals. It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south. [My emphasis]
Three elements stand out here. First is that Lincoln absolves the South for responsibility for the institution of slavery; it’s not Southerners’ fault they have slaves. The second is Lincoln’s commitment to colonization (which I will discuss later). The third is Lincoln’s “own feelings” on black equality.
By today’s standards, these feeling are racist notions. But it’s also interesting to see what Lincoln doesn’t say here: he doesn’t say blacks are inherently unequal; he says their inequality is a choice made by whites. There is no vitriol, no virulence—no hatred—to this racism. There is none of the rhetoric used by Southerners and Northern Democrats, that blacks were “savages,” that black equality would “degrade” whites—none of that. Lincoln is simply stating a political fact. Moreover, Lincoln leaves the door open for his own feelings to change: he might be able to see blacks as equal even as his neighbors couldn’t! It is ambiguous; he’s keeping his options open to be convinced. But when all is said and done, he cannot ignore the democracy. Those who disregard public opinion go down to defeat, and the defeated tend to disappear from the political scene. Lincoln’s entire genius was finding that perfect middle ground that was both reasonable and radical. (Not that he intended to be radical—indeed, he had his radicalism thrust upon him. But that’s a story for another time.)
Because this speech does not advance the Libertarian narrative, Peoria is rarely quoted by them. Nor do Libertarians like DiLorenzo go out of their way to quote Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, in July, right before the Lincoln-Douglas debates were organized. This speech made it is correspondingly clear that Lincoln at a certain level did consider blacks equal, since the enslavement of one group of people could easily translate to the enslavement of other groups of people. This, the end of Lincoln’s Chicago speech, remains what Foner calls “the most forthright affirmation of equality of Lincoln’s entire career”: ¹
[W]hether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold … it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?
So I say in relation to the principle that all men are created equal, let it be as nearly reached as we can. If we cannot give freedom to every creature, let us do nothing that will impose slavery upon any other creature. Let us then turn this government back into the channel in which the framers of the Constitution originally placed it.… [L]et 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…. 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.
Of course, context cuts both ways. Lincoln understood that in Chicago, which was farther north and had a reasonably strong abolitionist contingent, he could risk the soaring rhetoric of equality. Later that summer, in the debates with Stephen Douglas, Douglas tried to use the Chicago speech to tar Lincoln with the brush of “negro equality.” And so what we see is Lincoln pandering to voters depending on which part of the state he was in. In the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Quincy, a more northerly part of the state, and so only moderately racist:
I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on 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 that he is not my equal in many respects, certainly not in color — perhaps not in intellectual and moral endowments; 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.
It is in Charleston, more to the south of Illinois, and so much more racist, that we find the famous quote libertarians love. Here it is in its more complete context:
While I was at the hotel to-day an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great laughter.] … I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that 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 for ever 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.
So Lincoln makes his position clear. It is a racist position, no denying it. But again, we can sense no hatred or virulence here. What we do find is the same recognition of a standard 1850s political reality: most white voters did not consider blacks equal. And it is not difficult to reconcile Lincoln’s statements in the Chicago speech and the Charleston debate—in Chicago, Lincoln was expressing an ideal: make the Declaration of Independence a working part of the American creed or risk aristocracy; in Charleston, Lincoln was facing the reality of bare-knuckle politics: his opponent accused him of what was Southern Illinoisans considered unacceptable, and Lincoln said—truthfully—that he did not consider blacks equal.
I’m not sure what’s more disappointing, actually: Lincoln’s racism or his political pandering. We can place his racism in the context of the period, and so understand it. The pandering simply shows us that politicians haven’t changed in over 150 years. I suppose we can take some comfort in that.
So far, we see Lincoln in the 1850s much more concerned about slavery than in black equality. In this, he was merely a man of his time. And yet we also see a man unwilling to consign blacks to everlasting servitude based on their skin color. Again, he simply was not a virulent racist, whatever DiLorenzo strains to assert. And more importantly, Lincoln saw slavery and inequality as undermining the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which was as sacred as any idea to Lincoln.
One of the many problems with DiLorenzo’s narrative is that it freezes Lincoln in time, allowing for no personal or political growth. But we know that he did indeed grow (that, after all, is the thesis of Foner’s book); the question remains in what way? Now that we’ve established this context, we need to look at President Lincoln, and how his mild racism affected his policies dealing with the nation and the Civil War. How did Lincoln go from the man who could say “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races” to one who speak with a straight face about “a new birth of freedom”?
¹ Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, 138-145.
² Foner, The Fiery Trial, 104.
In early August, this came across my feed:
Lincoln’s handwriting confirmed in nineteenth-century book on racism
Experts have confirmed that handwriting in an Illinois library’s copy of Types of Mankind is that of the Great Emancipator. The book is a lengthy justification of racism based on the notion that different races constitute separate species.
Lincoln made a notation inside the book with the name and place of residence of its owner, a fellow attorney named Clifton Moore, from whom he probably borrowed it to study his opposition’s arguments in preparation for a legal case or political debate.
A more complete story appeared in several media outlets, including the Christian Science Monitor:
Did Abraham Lincoln read – and write in – a book justifying racism?
If someone were to claim that an old book had been scribbled in by Abraham Lincoln himself, you might be inclined to take that claim with a grain of salt.
Especially if that old book was “Types of Mankind,” a volume extolling the 19th-century theory that different races were actually different species, and that the Caucasian was the natural superior and fit to rule over all the others – a view that Lincoln was famous for opposing.
That’s why, when historians confirmed that handwriting on the inside cover of “Types of Mankind” was indeed Lincoln’s, they also stressed that the president, writer of the Emancipation Proclamation, was almost certainly reading the book in an attempt to better understand his opponents’ point of view.
Even Time Magazine had an article online about the discovery:
Abraham Lincoln’s Handwriting Found in Racial Theory Book
The Great Emancipator was reading a book that seeks to justify racism
Experts confirmed Tuesday what had long been whispered at a public library in the small town of Clinton, Illinois — a name written on a page in the book Types of Mankind was penned by none other than Abraham Lincoln.
On an early page of the book is written the name Clifton Moore, a local attorney and colleague of Lincoln, NBC Chicago reports. Below that note is one from a different attorney attesting that Lincoln wrote it in 1861, just before he was elected president. Lincoln is presumed to have written Moore’s name in the book to remind himself, or someone else, as to the identity of its rightful owner.
“There are certain letters of the alphabet that Lincoln wrote in a way that were not common to his era,” says the curator of Lincoln’s presidential museum James Cornelius. “A forger can typically do some of the letters in a good Lincolnian way. They’ll give themselves away on a couple of the others. This all adds up.”
The 700-page tome offers up the theory that different races on earth were created at different times and thus could not be equal and it was part of the natural order that Caucasians would enslave Africans and Native Americans. The book, published in 1854, was popular among racists and slave owners for lending support to their way of life.
Historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential [Institute] stressed that Lincoln did not subscribe to the beliefs put forth in the book, but that racial division was a hot button issue at the time of his presidency and he was likely educating himself on opposing arguments.
“Everything we know about Lincoln’s legal, religious and scientific thinking tells us he rejected that argument,” adds Cornelius.
Different media outlets handled this discovery similarly: Lincoln had in his possession a purportedly scientific book that justified racism. But what’s the big deal, after all? Why are these outlets teasing the idea that Lincoln might have held racist opinions, yet restraining themselves from just announcing as they would any other celebrity’s dirty laundry: Lincoln was a racist! There is something in that notion that both fascinates us and makes us queasy—like passing a bad traffic accident. The media smells a story, but because the subject is Lincoln, the implications of that story are too repulsive to elaborate much.
So, then, what about this book that Lincoln had in his possession?
The book itself was written by the eccentric scientist, Josiah Nott of Alabama. William W. Freehling in his The Road to Disunion, Volume II tells us that Nott once had the insight that mosquitoes were somehow the vector that caused yellow fever, but he was not able to develop that hypothesis quickly enough: four of his children died of the disease in 1852. Greif-stricken, he then turned his frenetic energies to the issue of slavery. His magnum opus (written with Englishman George Gliddon), Types of Mankind, offered a polygenesis theory of human development. At its core, Nott argued that the different races were not descended from a single pair of humans (as in the Book of Genesis), but rather several pairs appeared in different places at different times. Thus, the world’s different races were inherently unequal, and this justified black slavery. It is also worth mentioning that this book was published in 1854, the same year as the Kansas-Nebraska Act.¹
While the discovery of Lincoln’s handwriting in this book is itself an interesting thing—because however ridiculous and racist it is, Types of Mankind is an inquisition into the origins of humanity written at a time when many scientists were advancing similar hypotheses, culminating in Charles Darwin’s crowning achievement in 1859—it provoked outbursts of wild ecstatic glee in certain Libertarian circles. Thomas DiLorenzo at LewRockwell.com (an arch-Libertarian website), positively gloated:
A recent article that appeared in the Huffington Post, FOX news online, the Daily Mail, and elsewhere described how Lincoln’s handwriting had been verified by handwriting experts in an 1854 book entitled Types of Mankind. According to these news articles, the book argued that the different races developed at different times, and were therefore not susceptible to co-existing or amalgamation. “The book was used by nineteenth-century white supremacists!,” screamed the articles.
What on earth was Abraham Lincoln, “Father Abraham,” the eternal friend and savior of the black race, doing with such a book?! The Lincoln cult quickly swung into action creating an alibi. The news articles all reported that “Illinois state historians” all “took great pains to offer reassurance that the former president who ended slavery didn’t subscribe to the theories at hand” in the book. No facts were offered, only painful “reassurances” by these state-funded “historians.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not feeling especially reassured
DiLorenzo is not reassured because he makes lots and lots of money pushing the Libertarian interpretation of Lincoln, and that interpretation depends heavily on Lincoln’s racism. According to this narrative, Lincoln used the slavery issue as a cynical ploy to wage a cruel and unjust war against on the South. He didn’t care about blacks, but used the idea of freeing slaves as a way to destroy the political power of the slave states and pave the way for a powerful, centralized nation-state. Lincoln used slavery as an excuse to consolidate all political and economic power in the federal government.
If this sounds reductionist to the point of being silly, that’s because it is. While Lincoln the Tyrant is the favored caricature of Libertarians, Lincoln the Racist is a close second. But how racist was Lincoln? And, more important, how did his attitude toward blacks affect his policy before and during the Civil War? These are good questions, and so we shall examine Lincoln’s racism in a series of posts and see if DiLorenzo’s polemic has any validity.
Well, that was fast.
No sooner do I discover a Libertarian foil to argue with than I receive this email:
My name is Kristopher White and I am one of the editors of Emerging Civil War. I wanted thank you for your thoughtful responses to Phil Leigh’s recent post. For a variety of reasons, Mr. Leigh is no longer a part of our website. I wanted to make you aware that we are pulling all of Mr. Leigh’s posts from our website. Because of this you may find some broken links to your posts that engage him. You will also find that any comments that are associated with any of his posts are going to disappear. I just wanted to let you know that the system will automatically delete all comments associated with his posts.
Co-Founder Emerging Civil War
Since I obviously don’t count myself a fan of Mr. Leigh’s scholarship, his departure from Emerging Civil War comes as good news. Emerging Civil War has some fine work posted by real students of history. I’m not up on Internet blog ethics enough to know whether pulling all his posts is the right thing to do; part of me wants them to stay as part of the historical record. Also, it seems like a good way for the editors/admins to say “Yep, we have screwed up in the past, but we own it.” But I certainly understand. [See UPDATE below.] They are trying to establish “the next generation of Civil War historians,” and so don’t really need the work of an Abbeville Institute polemicist harming their credibility.
The worst part of this is that the posts were removed so fast, I didn’t have time to copy-and-paste Al Mackey’s great critique/comment he made there on an earlier Leigh post. Oh well. All is ephemeral on the Internet.
UPDATE: I have had further communication with Kris White at Emerging Civil War. He informed me Phil Leigh requested all his posts be taken down from the site. And so my remark above is answered. I didn’t mean it as a fling, and Kris didn’t take it that way. He seems very committed to making ECW into a first-rate blog of scolarship.
When I was in grad school taking courses in Constitutional history, we would argue. In one class on religion and the Constitution, my adversary made a point about the First Amendment being the most important amendment. The instructor, Tom Morris—the foremost authority on slave law in the Americas—interrupted: “the most important amendment to the Constitution is the Fourteenth.” There was no denying the authoritative tone. Both of us were confused, but one is often confused by one’s professors in grad school.
Of course, we eventually learned that Professor Morris was correct—and still is. The Fourteenth Amendment is indeed the most important change to our Constitution that We the People have ever made. Primarily, this is because of Section 1 of the Amendment, which one of the co-authors and Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax referred to as “the gem of the Constitution.”* It secured for all Americans full citizenship, the protection of the Bill of Rights from infringement by the states, a fundamental right to due process, and equality for all before the law.
So imagine my surprise when I found that Phil Leigh, writing in the blog Emerging Civil War, had portrayed the Fourteenth Amendment as a cynical ploy by Radical Republicans in 1866 to ground the South under the heel of the federal government in order to secure power for its own agenda! This agenda was somewhat unclear, until I saw that the article also appears in the ultra-libertarian Abbeville Institute’s Abbeville Blog. Considering the nature of the Abbeville Institute, one can imagine: Republicans used black suffrage to create the über-state that Libertarians fear and loathe.
[Note: as of 8/12/14, Phil Leigh no longer writes for Emerging Civil War, and his posts have therefore been removed from that site. However, the article referred to in this post is still up at Abbeville Blog.]
Phil Leigh has written quite a few posts for the New York Times’ Disunion blog. I’m familiar with Leigh only because of an exchange he had with Brooks Simpson at Crossroads a while back regarding an article he also wrote for Emerging Civil War and Civil War Chat. Leigh’s article offered an economic interpretation for the war’s causes. Al Mackey at Student of the American Civil War demolished part of Leigh’s argument in the comments section. Then Brooks copied the article to Crossroads and took the rest of it apart. Leigh then answered Brooks’ critique. I felt like Brooks got the better of the exchange, for several reasons, but that’s another story. But since I was familiar with the name, it jumped out at me. What I found was a rather stunning example of the jerked-from-context polemic that’s all too common among Libertarians.
Leigh begins by outlining the terms for readmission President Andrew Johnson and his cabinet considered a month after Lincoln’s death. The terms for readmission, which reflected Lincoln’s moderate policies, were: “(1) ratify the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, (2) repudiate Confederate debts, and (3) renounce the secession ordinances.” In addition, citizens who might have assisted the Confederacy would be required to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. But Johnson would require ex-Confederates—those of means or rank who had wholeheartedly backed the Confederacy—to apply for a presidential pardon.
Leigh establishes this moderate-sounding plan of reconciliation in order to contrast it with the merciless Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who would not rest until the rebel states were reduced to vassalage. Apparently, considering the way Leigh breezily mentions the loyalty oath, the fact that Johnson had his own agenda is not worth mentioning. Johnson’s idea was to turn on the Radicals, whom he despised, isolate them from the Moderate Republicans, then reconcile these Moderates with Northern Democrats (Johnson himself had been a Democrat before the war) and Southern ex-Confederates, who would all be beholden to Johnson after his pardon removed their disenfranchisement. His goal was to realign the political system on him and create a new party—more moderate than the slavery-dependent Democratic Party, but much more conservative that the still-new Republican. But Johnson is not Leigh’s target here—Radical Republicans are.
Leigh then argues that Johnson’s moderate terms were actually pretty severe: $3 billion in slave-capital gone; all Confederate debts in the form of investments or money worthless. This indeed did much to impoverish the South. But Leigh ignores the point that it was not Johnson who “wiped out” capital invested in slaves—the Thirteenth Amendment did that. And what nation in history has ever honored the war debt of traitors who tried to destroy said nation? It also bears mentioning that this was Lincoln’s strategy when he issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862, stating that it would not go into effect until January 1, 1863. This was a clear message to the South: come back before New Years’ and all will be forgiven; come back after then, and you will lose your “peculiar institution” forever. But none of this is germane to Leigh, because he is after bigger game.
Johnson’s lenient terms compelled the former Confederate states to eagerly agree, and they established (if they hadn’t already) new state governments and conducted elections in order to get back into the national Congress. Leigh correctly states that “Republicans were shocked that many of the Southern elected representatives for the first post-war Congressional session in December 1865 were former Confederate leaders. In response the Republican controlled Congress refused to seat them.” Why? Because:
Republicans reasoned that if Congress seated such representatives Southerners might join forces with Northern Democrats thereby creating a coalition that could drive the ruling Party from power.
Well, sort of. The point about being driven from power is true, but one must understand what that would have meant: permanent vassalage for blacks.
And this is my point about context: for Leigh, the events and conditions that lead to the drafting and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment happen in a vacuum of mere politics. Politics abounded, to be sure, but the context of these events was the legal fate of almost 4 million blacks in the South. Keep in mind that the Dred Scott decision–with Taney’s chilling opinion that blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect“–was still the law of the land. So this was not a pissing match over reapportionment or some such; this was, for most Radicals, a moral point of the highest order. And so the main point of Congress, which was controlled narrowly by Republicans in 1866, comfortably in 1867, was to define the legal and political status of blacks.
The reason the Republican Congress refused to seat these new Southern representatives (which was within their rights, according to the Constitution) was because their states had immediately began to oppress blacks and compel them to go back to the cotton fields whether blacks wanted to or not. After ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, newly-freed blacks were in an anomalous position: they were free of bondage, but what else? What was to be their status? Were they to be “underlings” as Lincoln himself had worried in 1858? Almost as soon as it could, the new state government of Mississippi, realizing a desperate need for labor, passed the first of the Black Codes—laws intended to define the legal status of freedmen. The Black Codes were notoriously restrictive: while they did grudgingly grant blacks the right to own property, marry and move about, they curtailed other American rights severely. Blacks were not allowed to serve on juries, testify against whites in open court, or carry firearms. In short, the black codes–a kind of “slavery-lite”–established blacks as “underlings” under Dred Scott.
As reports filtered north that ex-Confederates were reestablishing the old social order of white supremacy and coerced labor, Radical Republicans and their moderate allies became impatient. They passed first the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined blacks as citizens; but then, fearing that this mere statute could easily be overturned (by exactly the coalition Leigh describes), they began to debate and craft another Constitutional amendment. This new amendment must do more than grant blacks citizenship: it must create a social order in which blacks could protect themselves from white Southern depredations. In other words, it wasn’t enough for blacks to have civic equality—they must have political equality as well. They must have the fundamental right to create a government which would protect their rights.
But this is context, and Leigh doesn’t go in for context, so there must be something else going on. And this leads us to Leigh’s big idea: that the Radical Republicans “settled on two objectives”:
First, was African-American suffrage in all former Confederate states. They expected that such a mostly illiterate and inexperienced electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Republican interests. Second, they wanted to disenfranchise those Southern Whites who were thought likely to oppose Republican policies .
The first thing to notice about this alleged “goal” is that it could be lifted straight from the Dunning School playbook. (Well, really Leigh’s entire article can, but this sentence is the bald-faced giveaway.) But whereas the racist Dunning School itself believed this statement wholeheartedly, Leigh qualifies it with “they expected,” meaning that it was the Radical Republicans who held blacks in racist contempt.
Why did Radicals keep Southern states in limbo and pursue a policy of black suffrage? Before fully discussing this, Leigh takes a right-turn tangent into the historiography of Reconstruction. He does so in order to take a swipe at modern scholarship. In doing so, I fear he tells us more about himself than modern scholars:
Over the last fifty years historians have largely reinterpreted Republican motivations. Shortly before the Civil War Centennial it was generally agreed the chief aim was to insure Republican control of the Federal government by creating a reliably Republican voting block in the South for which improved racial equality was a convenient byproduct. However, by the Sesquicentennial it became the accepted dogma that Republicans were predominantly driven by altruism untainted by anything more than negligible self-interest.
There are two points to make here.
First is the idea that historians are ideologically driven: that they are, in essence, a kind of arch-polemicist. More than mere pedestrian-level polemicists, since their research methods tend to be superior to non-historians, and their positions in university ivory towers make their opinions more believable. But, in the end, because of their adherence to “dogma” and ideology, the mere opinions of historians are no better or worse than anyone else’s. This is particularly convenient because once this notion is established, then Leigh doesn’t have to tackle some annoyingly large books to figure out what was going on. After all, if Eric Foner is a leftist, then who needs to read his essential Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877?
The second point has to do with the subject itself. It is the notion that this narrative that historians have constructed—that Republicans were driven to provide blacks with the suffrage largely by altruism—is a fantasy; that there is no altruism but pure greed for power. Here, Leigh is using the argument held by Progressive-era historians, like Charles Beard, who believed high-falutin’ notions of selflessness merely disguised more material motives and concerns. Radical Republicans cared not for black equality, but for power. Leigh’s doubts about altruism say much more about the Libertarian worldview than they do about Radical Republicans. Leigh’s disbelief in altruism seems to me a form of projection: because he can’t understand altruism, he can’t imagine its existence in others—least of all, crusty old guys like Thaddeus Stevens.
The second goal of Republicans, very closely related to the first, was indeed to disenfranchise ex-Confederates. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment would revoke the notorious three-fifths clause. Blacks, no longer slaves, would be counted as full persons for the purposes of representation. This, of course, threatened to work against Republicans, since counting blacks as full persons, and not three-fifths of a person, meant that the ex-rebel states would have even more representation in Congress than they had in the antebellum period. If former slaveholders resumed power in the South, then the new status of blacks could not be protected without direct intervention by the federal government. The Black Codes would become permanent, ensuring control of the labor supply, white supremacy, and black “underling” status.
This is the true “agenda” of Radical Republicans, then. Black equality required both the suffrage of blacks and the disenfranchisement of ex-Confederates. Only then could blacks ensure and maintain their own equality without constant intervention by the federal government.
Leigh continues by showing how Radicals intended to get the franchise to blacks. Because voting rules were firmly in the sphere of states’ rights, Republicans had to find a way to get around this. The best way to guarantee black suffrage was to create a new amendment to the Constitution. But Leigh points out two problems with this Republican plan:
First, the requirement that three-fourths of the states ratify the amendment implied a legal contradiction. While Republicans would need at least some of the Southern states to ratify it, they did not recognize such state governments as lawful. Second, in reality many Northern states and Republicans objected to uniform Black suffrage. Instead, they wanted mandatory adoption in the Southern states while permitting the matter to remain a states right elsewhere because…well that’s different, see?
In other words, if Radicals considered the new state governments allowed by Johnson illegitimate—so much so that Congress had refused to seat those states’ representatives—how could such an illegitimate state ratify a Constitutional amendment? How could one count such a states’ vote in the ratification process? In addition, universal black suffrage was opposed in much of the North. And so, it would be necessary for Republicans to come up with a scheme that would force Southerners to accept black suffrage, but not Northerners.
Because Northerners were racists, too. That’s the next part of Leigh’s position: that Northerners either did not allow blacks the vote, or put much more strenuous conditions on that privilege. Here, Leigh uses a typical neo-Confederate deflection: the North’s racism makes anything it did as bad as the South. This tu quoque (“you too”), or appeal to hypocrisy fallacy is a favorite of neo-Confederates, although its less common among Libertarians. Nevertheless, it’s wrong in its essentials.
Now, there was indeed much in the way of ugly political wrangling over how to ensure suffrage for blacks in the South; there was a fair share of self-interested arguments. And Leigh is partially correct in his accusation of Northern racism. But he ignores the Big Picture. He neglects to tell the reader what Republicans’ “agenda” really was.
Finally, Leigh gets to his main point, which essentially why the Fourteenth Amendment is difficult to read in places:
Eventually Republicans settled on a plan to achieve their objectives. The initial step materialized as the Fourteenth Amendment. First, states refusing suffrage to male citizens of any race would have their Congressional and electoral representation cut by subtracting the number of members of the excluded race from the applicable state’s population. Thus, owing to their tiny Black populations the provision was inconsequential in Northern states. In contrast, Southern states might lose considerable representation. Paragon examples are Mississippi and South Carolina where Blacks represented over fifty percent of the population. Second, despite the fact that Congress considered their governments unlawful, all Southern states would be required to ratify the amendment before they could be readmitted into the Union. In short, the Republicans ignored the legal contradiction because…well, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
Hardly inconsistent. First, here is the text of Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.
This revoked the three-fifths clause. But here is the “encouragement” for Southern states to allow black suffrage. I will strikethrough the many qualifiers that tend to bog down readers:
But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
Even with the omission for clarity, it still suffers from the legalistic phrasing. But for all that, the message was actually quite clear: If states refuse to allow any black men to vote, then they would all black numbers for the purpose of representation. Preventing suffrage, either directly or indirectly with bogus qualifications like intelligence tests, would lose all the numbers of “such persons” from the counting for representation in Congress.
Section 3, coupled with Section 2’s qualifying “except for participation in rebellion,” was intended to accomplish the second goal of Republicans:
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
This is the famous “iron-clad oath”: one must be able to say “I never raised my hand against my country and the Constitution I swore to uphold” in order to participate in politics. This effectively disenfranchised ex-Confederates while allowing Southern Unionists to assert their political will. The free-labor, non-slaveholding yeomen farmers of the South, so long rendered powerless by the slavepower, would now be able to make the ex-rebel states into true republics, rather than the white supremacist oligarchies they had become. And note the “except for participation in rebellion.” Congress would itself decide which ex-Confederates were reconstructed enough to participate in state politics. These Unionists, partnered with the freedmen, were the hope of the Republican Party in the South.
And as far as Leigh’s contention that there was something illegal in forcing the ex-rebel states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before re-admittance to the Union, Congress was merely fulfilling its Constitutional obligation under Article IV, Section 5, which reads in part:
The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government[.]
The electoral composition of Southern states before and during the war was anything but republican. A small number of slaveholding families effectively dominated the politics of the South in the antebellum period. Real representative government was a fiction. More important, in this new postbellum period, real representative government simply had to include blacks and Unionist whites. The requirement of ratification, then, was the method Congress chose to ensure republican government in the South.
One might become uncomfortably close to agreeing with Leigh if one looked at the situation from Leigh’s sterile universe, where context does not exist. But in the world described by the historical record, the necessity of disenfranchisement and forced ratification is clear. Congress had just heard testimony of the riot in July 30, 1866 New Orleans, which began when Unionist whites and black U.S. Army veterans convened as Republicans to discuss a new state constitution. The convention was attacked by whites, mostly former Confederate soldiers. 34 were killed, over a hundred injured. Attacks like this convinced Republicans that the ex-rebel states were still violent, even barbaric places were normal political discourse was impossible. Disenfranchisement and required ratification were essential to change this. But this historical background is white noise to Leigh. It does not fit his predetermined outcome.
Part of the problem with ascribing a Republican agenda to this period of Reconstruction is that Republicans had almost no idea what exactly they were going to do! Outside of guaranteeing rights to blacks, there was no real “plan” in early 1867. The record is filled with the impatience of newspapers and politicians over coming up with a program to counter Johnson’s obviously unacceptable plan. Republicans did finally settle on an idea, though. I suspect it’s what gives Libertarians bad dreams. Because, in fact, Republicans held two motives equally high: black citizenship and a new social order in the South based on Northern values of free labor and capitalism. If Moderate Republicans cared more about getting at the under-used resources of the cotton states than they did black civil rights, Radicals certainly were more worried about black equality. This quote by Radical George Julian conveys the fusion of both:
What these regions need, above all things, is not an easy and quick return to their forfeited rights in the Union, but government, the strong arm of power, outstretched from the central authority here in Washington, making it safe for the freedmen of the South, safe for her loyal white men, safe for emigrants from the Old World and from the northern States to go and dwell there; safe for northern capital and labor, northern energy and enterprise, and northern ideas to set up their habitation in peace, and thus found a Christian civilization and a living democracy amid the ruins of the past. That, sir, is what the country demands and the rebel power needs. [January 28th, 1867.]
So they did develop an agenda. But not until after the Fourteenth Amendment was already in the works.
But perhaps this is a good time to look at the most important part of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus far, Leigh’s entire argument is based on Sections 2 and 3—that within these sections is the Hidden Agenda of the Republican Party. As we have seen, the true purpose was to guarantee blacks the power to defend their new rights. But what were these new rights?
Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 1 actually was designed with two interrelated goals in mind, just not the ones Leigh says. First (and foremost), it was to grant full citizenship to blacks; in doing so, it set United States citizenship over state citizenship. And second, it was intended to protect a citizen’s liberties by applying the Bill of Rights to the states–one’s “privileges or immunities”—including the right to bear arms so that blacks could protect themselves from white Southern terrorism. The explicit language “No State shall” represents a tectonic shift of power in American federalism. For the first time, the federal government would take responsibility for protecting the basic rights of all Americans, since it was clear that states could not be relied on to do that. Couple Section 1 with Section 5–“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article”–and you’ve got a document perfectly calculated to send tremors of fear and loathing through Libertarians everywhere. It was a vast expansion of federal power, but power for the sake of liberty.
And, making its debut appearance in the Constitution, there is the word “equal”:
[N]or shall any State…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Declaration of Independence was perhaps not the first, but it was the most important, document to declare equality a condition of humankind. That revolutionary idea had troubled Americans, living as they were in a republic that countenanced slavery. Many Southerners simply denied it and said Jefferson was wrong. But in November of 1863, Abraham Lincoln—according to Garry Wills—essentially slipped an early draft of the Fourteenth Amendment under our door in the Gettysburg Address. He told Americans that freedom and equality were part and parcel of a “new birth of freedom,” and that both were inextricable parts of the American creed. It was the Radical Republicans that made the first real attempt at making Lincoln’s words part of the Constitution.
And so this all-important Revolutionary theme—equality—was enshrine at last in the Constitution. It is this that Libertarians from the Abbeville Institute would attack and tear down. But he cannot attack this directly–equality, while imperfect and under attack, turns out to be quite popular with Americans. And so Leigh is reduced to launching ad hominem attacks on Radical Republicans.
Leigh’s work also suffers from an incomplete idea of the purpose of establishing black enfranchisement/ex-Confederate disenfranchisement. It was to allow the Southern states, composed of Republicans, to draft new, pro-democratic, liberal constitutions. And these coalitions of freedmen, Southern Unionists (“scalawags”) and Northerners (“carpetbaggers”) constructed very progressive constitutions indeed–they established public education, abolished imprisonment for debt, reduced the numbers of capital crimes, and all had state bills of rights that emphasized equality. The new governments based on these constitutions were composed of blacks and whites; blacks were even elected to the U.S. Congress. And these governments certainly would have executed Leigh’s nefarious plan:
As a result the Republican agenda of high protective tariffs, Federal land donations to railroads, banking and currency regulations unfavorable to the South, and a laxity of government regulation for monopolistic businesses continued for generations
See? The Republican-enforced Fourteenth Amendment caused the South to become a “colony” of the North for years to come. The only problem with this thesis is that these Radical Republican governments were all gone by 1877, and therefore fairly incapable of carrying out schemes of oppression. It is true that for the few years they lasted they worked very hard to turn the Southern states into something that resembled the North. But their failure was less because of corruption or black incompetency (as the Dunning School maintained) as it was white supremacist violence. Terrorism, in spite of federal protection, finally undermined the new governments and intimidated voters. The “Redeemers” were able to get elected, and then stage another set of constitutional conventions, overthrowing the progressive documents, and reestablishing the old order.
And so goes the attempt to discredit the “gem of the Constitution,” the Fourteenth Amendment. This particular effort avoids the all-important Section 1—which is really the part you and I care about today—and attacks Sections 2 and 3, which is very creative. However, it’s still wrong. The antiseptic, airtight laboratory where Leigh conducts his thought experiments turn out to be poor places to practice the craft of history. I know Leigh is frustrated that historians appear to him to be the “gatekeepers” of Civil War memory, the arbiters of “True: and “Not True.” But he will have to learn some of the historians’ craft before polemics like this rock anyone’s world. Prof. Morris is still right.
*Note: to be clear, Colfax was specifically referring to the Privileges or Immunities clause of Section 1. I have taken that appellation out of context and applied it to the entire Amendment.
**H/T to Jarrett Ruminski at That Devil History for the idea of sardonic photo captions.
Akhil Reed Amar, The American Constitution: a Biography.
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
David H. Gans and Doug Kendall, “The Gem of the Constitution: The Text and History of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Constitution Accountability Center, 2008.
Benjamin Kendrick, Journal on the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, https://archive.org/stream/journaljointcom00recogoog#page/n0/mode/2up
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg.
Tanah Haney, Harpist
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