“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

“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.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
This entry was posted in Civil War, Lincoln's Words, Slavery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to “We Must Disenthrall Ourselves”

  1. Dr. Zhivago says:

    For a brief moment, I genuinely and sincerely thought Daniel Day-Lewis was going to say that the word he was surprised to learn Lincoln used was the dehumanizing and degrading word “nigger”‘, which Lincoln used repeatedly. In any case, I always thought Jefferson Davis should have met Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation with one of his own, announcing freedom for the slaves in Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and the Virginia counties which would become West Virginia. Then those slaves could have risen to smite the evil that held them in bondage. But once free, then what?
    Some suggest that the emancipated slaves could have, for example, traveled to Oregon and start a new life in there, but the hatred and racism towards blacks was so intense, and in fact so deeply embedded in the Oregonian way of life, that excluding blacks was actually a feature of the Oregon constitution. So what, exactly, was an emancipated slave to do?


    • For a brief moment, I genuinely and sincerely thought you, Cauldwell/Austin/Colleen (CAC), were going to offer something insightful. But no–all we get are 150 words that can be summed up as follows:

      -Lincoln was a racist.
      -The EP did not free slaves in the border states.
      -Oregon was racist.
      -Freedmen had it hard.

      There: I’ve edited you down to a score-plus-two words. You’re welcome.

      And all of which I freely admit (and why wouldn’t I? I’m a historian, not a polemicist). And yet, I still must ask, what is your ultimate point here? Do you not understand the subtlety of the Emancipation Proclamation? Or do you think Lincoln’s racism negates his humanity and political genius? Or that I should feel ashamed of my home state? Sounds like sour grapes to me.

      I suppose I should be glad that you didn’t offer another of your quotes taken hopelessly out of context. It would be a shame for you to murder Lincoln as you have Madison.


      • Dr. Zhivago says:

        Indeed, and for a measure of Planck Time, I thought you would finally have some meaningful commentary to offer. Sadly, however, your reply, like the original essay itself, can be summed up as follows: “Lincoln good, Confederates bad”. There, I have reduced your dull, effusive, and tiresome circumlocutions to a mere four words, and in so doing, have captured the essence of your message perfectly. Now then, in direct answer to your question, Lincoln certainly had no political genius; quite the contrary, he was an obtuse and clumsy political hack. His success was solely attributable to the fact that he was a cruel, vicious, and ruthless man, willing to slaughter, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of men to achieve his political goals. But inasmuch as you simply do not understand the fundamental nature of a theoretical Madisonian imperative, I don’t expect you will understand the essential nature of Lincoln’s raw brutality any better. Just think Joseph Stalin.


  2. Yes Oregon had anti-immigration provisions built into their constitutions as di. In Illinois (1848),(which Lincoln supported) in clause-by-clause voting, this clause was approved by voters by more than 2 to 1.. The Illinois act stayed on the books until 1865. The Black Codes dealt with more than just settlement. Oregon forbid blacks to hold real estate, make contracts, or bring lawsuits. Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and California prohibited them from testifying in cases where a white man was a party.


  3. Jimmy Dick says:

    It is kind of funny because I was working on the conclusion of the Civil War and my American History to 1865 class this weekend. It is perfectly natural to draw a line from the Declaration of Independence through the Constitution to the Emancipation Proclamation into the Reconstruction Amendments and then onward towards today. The events that shaped those documents are distinctly related. The concept Jefferson broached in the Declaration that is the most important is the idea that all men are created equal. Just what was Thomas Jefferson saying with that idea?

    Did he truly believe all men were created equal? What would he think of the Reconstruction Amendments? Would he have agreed with Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation? Keep in mind that Lincoln’s views on slavery and blacks changed over time as did many people’s views. Jefferson himself disliked slavery, but yet he could not give up his because it supported his lifestyle. He admitted as much.

    I think you get the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln correct here. We know he created the EP in order to free the slaves via his powers during rebellion. We know freeing the slaves was meant as a direct threat to the slaveowners to give up the rebellion or lose their slaves. They made their choice and lost their slaves. I don’t know if Lincoln knew they would turn down the EP or not, but I venture the odds are pretty good he knew what the response would be. I also think he knew very well what the response of many whites in the North would be. However, by that time he had reached the conclusion that slavery was going to end as the result of the war. The EP served as a way to make that transition happen.

    So I pointed out to my students the idea Jefferson brought up, all men are created equal. I explained to them that idea changed over time. What it meant in 1776 changed by 1865 and would change again right up to our current time and it will change again in the future. The tide of egalitarianism is a thundering tsunami that sweeps all before it. In its wake the landscape of the nation is changed forever. All must bow to its power which just goes to show you how the ideas set into motion via the American Revolution are still in motion today.

    During the Civil War those ideas were in motion and they swept the nation changing the nature of it for all time. Lincoln was an agent of that change as he wrote the EP. The congressmen who voted for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were agents of that change. The men in uniform were part of the change as were the men and women at home or wherever they were. The change affected everyone including those who resisted it futilely.

    The Civil War was not the only time those ideas changed the nation. We are living in a period of it now as change sweeps inexorably through the land. Resistance is present, but it fights a delaying action only as it so often is wont to do. The ideas of the Revolution cannot be denied.


    • It’s a funny thing, that Revolution, ain’t it? The ideas–liberty and equality–were always bigger than anyone was fully aware at the time.

      I tend to agree with Garry Wills: that Jefferson ultimately believed that, while blacks may be inferior in their intellects, they were equal in their souls. This made them equal to whites in the only realm that truly mattered (truly mattered to theorists, anyway): their moral selves. Of course, Jefferson was also in too much debt to pursue his logic to its ultimate ends, and behaved as irrationally as any other slaveholder of the time. And as I’ve written in the “Slavery” entries here, he could not envision a multiracial society.

      It was left to Lincoln to take the next big step, however reluctantly. What I love about the guy is his ability to see the logic of the situation above and beyond his weak prejudices, and to follow the path of that logic to its ultimate conclusion. Slaves were the key to rebellion, so free them (as much as you can); freed slaves should if they wish serve in the army; those who serve in the army are entitled to citizenship; and so on. As the logic of the war spun on and on, it outstripped Lincoln’s bigotry. And he, being a man of true reason, accepted that logic over his own racism. It is no surprise then to read his words in the spring of 1864: “In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

      The beautiful, glorious logic of the Fourteenth Amendment we’ll save for another time.


      • Jimmy Dick says:

        The Lincoln quote about events is so very true. The actions of the secessionists triggered the events that led to the demise of their way of life. It really does illustrate the need for people to think first and not just take actions without thinking them through. Had the Lower South not seceded slavery would not have ended as the result of the Civil War. What would have happened is pure speculation because obviously there is no way of knowing.

        What we do know is that Lincoln was thrust into a situation not of his choosing. Six states had left when he took office. Rather than start a war, he bided his time because that was his ally. Unfortunately, Jefferson Davis and the secessionists decided to start a war because time was not their ally. Each day was bringing more calls for the states to abandon the idea of secession and return to the Union. Note that these calls were from within the Lower South itself. They were left with two choices: War or a return to the Union. Obviously they made a bad decision that got hundreds of thousands of people killed and destroyed the very idea behind secession itself.

        Lincoln made errors like all presidents do, but he displayed a great ability to manage events as well. The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the best examples of a president maneuvering through the rocks and shoals of a cataclysmic event. It was a sheer stroke of genius and it had tremendous ramifications. I think Lincoln understood that, but not so many others did at the time. He constantly was examining the foundations of America for answers and found them. All men are created equal. It keeps going back to that idea.

        Slavery was incompatible with that idea and I think even Jefferson realized that, but he didn’t necessarily like it. Jefferson wanted to end slavery, but he also wanted to ship the former slaves elsewhere. He could not envision a country where blacks and whites were on an equal basis which reflects the strong racist hold slavery had generated in the South and for that matter in the North as well. There is no question that racism existed then or for that matter today. Basically, this shows that Jefferson had limits to what he could see.

        One thing I constantly stressed to my students was the theme of racism in our history. It is one of the strongest themes and one which shaped much of our past. It was the basis for Virginia’s plantation and labor systems. It welded the upper and lowers classes in Virginia together so that the upper class could maintain power and wealth. I could go on and on with this theme and write a multivolume work. It is just that prevalent. However, I am encouraged by what I see in America. No longer do we accept racism, but rather we take steps to eliminate it. The Emancipation Proclamation was a huge step in that process.


  4. vikingshieldmaiden says:

    Hey Chris,
    I’d like to get back to the word “disenthrall” for just a moment. Since you know I’m the resident medievalist at our hallowed institution, and steeped in all things Viking, I felt compelled to let you know that the Old Norse word for the class of servants and slaves was Thrall (þrӕl). The “p” looking letter at the beginning of the word is known as a “thorn” and in English is pronounced “th.” In Viking Age society the distinction comes from a poem believed to have been written in the 10th century called the Rigsþula, in which is told the story of how Scandinavian social classes came to be. There are three of them:

    Thralls = servant/slave class (unfree people)
    Karls = free people
    Jarls (Earls) = aristocracy

    As Tolkien is/was a well-known medievalist, it is no surprise he would use the word in his work. For the Dark Lord to hold someone “in thrall,” in the medieval Norse sense of things is to literally hold them in bondage or a state of slavery. In our modern sense of things, like your mother’s usage you remember, we have morphed the word into being awestruck or captivated by something when we are enthralled. But being captivated is being held captive, hence an echo of the word’s origin as a Viking word for slave.

    To “disenthrall” as Lincoln used it, quite simply, is to “un-enslave” ourselves. Who knew Lincoln was a Viking?…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, VSM! And the correct etymology.

      However, I do think it’s this “morphed,” more modern definition that Lincoln is using, which is a combination of the two. (I say that, of course, with no training in nineteenth century linguistics.) He could have just said “We must unenslave ourselves” or “We must free ourselves” from this worry over a post-slavery world; but he didn’t. Lincoln always tried for the perfect word, which I think is one of the reasons he is one of the best American writers of the century. (Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”?) Those words, unenslave and free, wouldn’t convey his sense that Americans were fixated in an unhealthy way–obsessing, really–on the results of emancipation. I think he’s telling his people, “Look, I’ve gotten over my obsession with it, so it’s time for you get over yours.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. vikingshieldmaiden says:

    I agree with your last sentence. That’s probably exactly what he was telling them. You could definitely argue that he was not only suggesting we get rid of slavery in the literal sense, but “un-enslave” ourselves from reliance on the institution as well. A sort of emancipation for both the free and unfree at the time. He just happened to be telling them that in the 19th century, where he was not at all unusual in his use of genteel, flowery, elegant, just-the-right-word language to express it, especially for someone in his elevated position in society. What we should look into is how common was the use of “disenthrall” among the populace at large to mean exactly what he intended. That would give a better sense of whether he was trying to be particularly intentional in his choice of words, or whether he was just using common language that everyone would have understood.


    • Agreed. My son just pointed out that it’s probably a Romantic Era usage–some emo English poet got a crush on a pretty girl and wrote in the throes of debauched obsession “I am inthralled with her.”

      But disenthrall is just so weird because it calls attention to itself. Why do that without intention?

      And Lincoln is a lot less flowery than you give him credit for!


  6. vikingshieldmaiden says:

    I think you’re probably right that it was intentional, mainly because it was in a speech where he used it. Obviously, the words of a presidential speech are always written and spoken with intention. Now, it begs the same question I raised before: did he only use it there, that one time, or was it commonly used?
    Your son is right; it was the Romantic Era. Lincoln may have been less flowery than some, but he was a product of his time nonetheless. Maybe we’re giving him too much credit. Maybe Seward came up with the word for him!


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