“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”
In an interview promoting the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis discussed how he read Lincoln’s speeches as a way to prepare his epic performance. In particular, Day Lewis told the interviewer, he was surprised to find that Lincoln used the word “disenthralled.” “I’d never seen that word before and I’m always looking for a context ever since where I can use that word, I love it so much….The richest source, which creates a very broad, illuminated avenue towards an understanding of Lincoln and his life is through his own words and his own language.”
And, come to think of it, I’ve never heard the word, either—not in any presidential address, nor any form of writing, nor even in actual speech. I can never remember hearing another human use the word. Lincoln’s message to Congress in December, 1862, is the only time I can think of ever hearing disenthrall:
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.
The context, of course, is the eve of the final Emancipation Proclamation. At midnight on January 1863, the Civil War was going to take a drastic new course. Slaves held in rebel-controlled territory would be considered free; all they had to do was get to the Union armies. And these former slaves would be encouraged to join those armies and then smite the men who had held them in bondage. Lincoln had come to realize, sometime in the late spring of 1862, that the war could not be won without striking at the institution that ultimately caused destruction of the Union. And so, as a war measure, Lincoln changed the terms of the war from one of restoring the Union alone to one of liberation.
Pretty dramatic stuff.
Of course, the word enthrall is not mysterious at all, really. It’s right there in Webster’s Dictionary. My mom used to use it fairly frequently. She always used it as a synonym for “fascinated” or “enchanted” or “infatuated.” to the point of being in someone else’s power. She used it for people who she was in awe of, usually actors and the like: “I’m just enthralled with him!” Often, a young man might become “enthralled” with a young woman—and, in this context, behave foolishly. The definition the word has always had for me was some kind of mystic hold on a person. But that is just one of the two definitions in Webster’s.
The other definition for enthrall in Webster’s is “to enslave.” I had never had an opportunity to hear enthrall in this context until I read The Lord of the Rings as a 14-year-old. More than once, Tolkien says the Dark Lord held so-and-so “in thrall.” He was usually speaking of some weak-minded tribe of men, easily swayed by the allure of evil power. And so while I never explicitly heard it as a meaning for enslaved, I certainly absorbed the gist—which is, really, the way we all learn new words. But even so, as I think back on it, I’ve never heard another human add the prefix and utter the word “disenthrall”—except for Day Lewis in that interview, and Lincoln, and anyone reading his words.
Eric Foner has remarked that the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated not just the slaves, but Lincoln himself. It marked a profound change in his thinking, and enabled him to cast off the long-championed, beguiling chimera of colonization—freeing blacks, but then encouraging them to relocate outside the United States. Whatever happened after January 1, 1863, the United States was going to fight a war for the liberation of 4 million Americans. How would the nation regard these new freedmen—180,000 of whom picked up a rifle, put on a blue coat, and spilled their blood for their country? What sort of rights would they be accorded? It was these questions many mainstream Republicans fretted over on the eve of emancipation.
And this shift in the war toward liberty and equality—this was not originally what Lincoln had wanted; from the beginning he had been trying to keep the war from becoming “a remorseless revolutionary struggle,” as he had put it exactly one year earlier in the State of the Union in 1861. But a brutal, bloody year had gone by, and now Lincoln was saying that revolution was here–that, in his mind, the inexorable logic of the war pointed toward freedom.
One of the many ironies of the Civil War is that Lincoln, one of the greatest and most articulate proponents of Jefferson’s idea that all men are created equal, resisted that principle until pursuing it was the only way to win the war. This is not a criticism; on the contrary, this is Lincoln both following through on his commitment to the Constitution, and recognizing the atmosphere of public opinion. He had stated again and again that slavery was protected in the Constitution; and he had also stated that whatever his notions on black equality, as a politician he was required to bow to public opinion, a position he clearly laid out in 1858 in the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
What next? Free them [blacks], 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, cannot be safely disregarded. [My emphasis.]
That was in peacetime. In wartime, Lincoln understood that the life of the nation depended on striking at slavery, and even then only if he could frame it as a legitimate war measure. And by the middle of 1862, it most certainly was. His job, then, was to coax along his countrymen, and get them to understand that their “universal feeling” was outdated, was no longer relevant, and must be discarded. And Lincoln, as usual, found precisely the right word, the right phrase, to communicate with his people:
We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.
In that state of the Union message, Lincoln was expressing to Americans they must rid themselves of this infatuation—a morbid fascination, to our way of thinking—with the unknown status of millions of newly emancipated blacks. The logic of the Union was gesturing more and more emphatically toward liberty and equality, for all. In short, it was time for white Americans to get over themselves so they could win this war for Union, democracy, and liberty. The details Americans could figure out later.