Saturday, April 16, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 16: Lincoln as Abolitionist (1)

I'm grouping this series of posts on the Civil War and the Lost Cause ideology roughly into prewar (the last two weeks), events and personalities of the war itself (starting today) and the postwar period.  But there is a lot of overlap.  And that's part of the nature of the beast.  The war itself can't be understood apart from the prewar politics that brought it about.  And the postwar Lost Cause dogma can't be understood apart from the events of the antebellum period and of the war itself.

I originally posted this in several parts in February 2004.  One of the favorite themes of neo-Confederate hype is trashing Lincoln.  And one of the main accusations is that he was a big racist himself.  This material puts that in a more reality-based context than one finds in the neo-Confederate netherworld.

I originally wrote this after reading the brief but very informative Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States (1939) by Dwight Lowell Dumond for the first time. One of the themes he emphasizes is the ways in which Abraham Lincoln reflected the basic Abolitionist line of thought, though he may have differed with them on some issues.

But given our current understanding of race, Lincoln's attitudes can look jarring to present-day eyes. Especially his unfortunate opening to his speech in the fourth of the famous debate series with Stephen Douglas. This debate took place in Charleston, Illinois, on Sept. 18, 1858:

... 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 idfference 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.

The occasion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois.

Lincoln continued by working in some specific campaign allusions, building on this same theme to come up with some political mockery of his opponent:

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have hada black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen to my knowledge a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its - correctness - and that is the case of Judge Douglas' old friend Col Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.]

He concluded his remarks in this vein by focusing on the pragmatic aspects of the question. The debate over slavery in this contest was between the Northern Democrats' proslavery doctrine of "popular sovereignty" which would allow slavery in federal terroritories without restriction, and the Republicans' doctrine of halting the spread of slavery to additional states.

The Democrats were using the whole business about "race mixing"as political polemics. There was plenty of "race mixing" going on, but very little of it was in free states. It was quite common in the slave states, usually in the form of white masters forcing themselves on female slaves, although it was not unknown for white mistresses to impose their desires on their male property, either. So, Lincoln concluded this opening section of his speech as follows:

... I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the alw of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.] I will add one further word, which is this, that I do not understand there is any place where an alteration of the social and political relations of the negro and the white man can be made except in the State Legislature - not in the Congress of the United States - and as I do not really apprehend the approach of any such thing myself, and as Judge Douglas seems to be in constant horror that some such danger is rapidly approaching, I propose as the best means to prevent it that the Judge be kept at home and placed in the State Legislature to fight the measure. [Uproarious laughter and applause.] I do not propose dwelling longer at this time on this subject.

(I took these quotes from the Library of America edition, Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858 (1989). The text can also be found at various places online, include Fourth Joint Debate at Charleston: Mr. Lincoln's Speech.)

Those Lincoln quotations may seem a strange way to start off a series of posts on "Lincoln as Abolitionist." But it requires some effort for people today to picture the terms of the debate and the general context in which they took place.

It's certainly not the case that no one had views that more closely resembled today's democratic notions on race. On the contrary. African-American abolitionists like Frederick Douglass certainly didn't view themselves as part of any inferior race, and explicitly called for legal equality for blacks. And there were many white abolitionists, such as Wendell Phillips or William Lloyd Garrison, who held such views, or something close to them.

These questions about Lincoln's attitudes toward blacks come from several sources these days, some more legitimate than others. One is that a critical style of writing history has become more acceptable today than it was in, say, the 1950s. Historians and their readers are just more willing today to look at national heroes, "warts and all," as the saying goes.

Another source of such critical views includes an emphasis on issues of race, made possible and made a priority by the civil rights movement. A variant of this is various "ethnocentric" approaches to history. Historians writing in this broad vein have done great service in de-mystifying the writing of the "antebellum" period of American history.

And some of the less historically rigorous offerings in the "ethnocentric" approaches have encouraged a kind of ahistorical cynicism, which plays to some extent into the most noxious form of the illegitimate versions of 19th-century American history, the neo-Confederate version.

It's lately been a fad in that particular gutter of American society and thought, where pseudohistory is the only kind one is likely to encounter, to try to demonize Lincoln in particular. The Southern Poverty Law Center provides a very readable summary of this trend: Reconstructing Lincoln. And if anyone has the stomach for it - or some Pepto-Bismol handy - you can check out some of this drivel at the neo-Confederate Web site in the "King Lincoln Archive".

I don't think we can accurately say that Lincoln's comments in 1858 were simply attempts to shoot down the Democrats' attempts to divert the issue from the key dispute over "popular sovereignty" and containing the spread of slavery. While his comments quoted in the earlier posts were intended to do that, I also don't know of any reason to think that the future Great Emancipator was misrepresenting his own views.

So I'm going to touch quickly on a view general points about the American view of race in the pre-Civil War years. It's important to remember that ideas on race were shifting drastically, probably much more so than in the years since the Second World War. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., points out in The Disuniting of America (1991):

The word race as used in the 18th and 19th centuries generally meant what we mean by nationality today; thus people spoke of "the English race," "the German race," and so on. What, [French writer] Crรจvecoeur mused [in the 18th century], were the characteristics of this suddenly emergent American race?

The late Stephen Jay Gould (The Geometer of Race Discover Nov. 1994) credited the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) as the scientist who first divided humanity into four basic subgroups:

Linnaeus divided the species Homo sapiens into four basic varieties, defined primarily by geography and, interestingly, not in the ranked order favored by most Europeans in the racist tradition - Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, and Afer, or African. ... In so doing, Linnaeus presented nothing original; he merely mapped humans onto the four geographic regions of conventional cartography.

But, Gould explains, a German scientist building on Linnaeus' work, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), who first gave the name "Caucasian" to what Linnaeus had called the Europaeus group. Blumenbach assumed that people from the Caucaian mountain area, i.e., Georgia, represented the original and ideal form of Homo sapiens, and that other "races" were part of, as Gould says, "a successive departure from the Caucasian ideal."

Ironically, Blumenbach based this notion on his own subjective perception of Georgians as being a physical ideal of human beauty. He did not believe that this made other races inferior intellectually or physically (except for aesthetically). Ironically, "Blumenbach  strongly upheld the unity of the human species against an alternative view, then growing in popularity (and surely more conducive to conventional forms of racism), that each major race had been separately created."

Blumenbach, writing 80 years before Darwin, believed that Homo sapiens had been created in a single region and had then spread over the globe. Our racial diversity, he then argued, arose as a result of this spread to other climates and topographies, and to our adoption of different modes of life in these various regions. Following the terminology of his time. Blumenbach referred to these changes as "degenerations" - not intending the modern sense of deterioration, but the literal meaning of departure from an initial form of humanity at the creation (de means "from," and genus refers to our original stock).

All this may seem far removed from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But it provides a background of how the concept of race came to be viewed in 19th century slaveholding America.

Early defenders of North American slavery argued that it was a temporary institution. They justified it as bringing civilization to a "backward" people, the Africans. This justification was cynical enough, and was employed to justify a brutal system of traffic in human property and exploitation of that property.

However, by the 1820s, some Southern apologists for slavery began defending it as a positive good and an institution which deserved to be permanent. By the 1850s, that was the common defense of slavery in the Lower South. Indeed that was the principle written into the constitution of the Confederate States of America. In the Upper South states, like Virginia, the older justification was still heard even in the 1850s. (Robert E. Lee used it.)

And this was accompanied by pseudoscientific claims that the black race was inherently inferior to whites. Some of the more extreme defenders of slavery even claimed that the African race was an inferior species of being. Whites in the free states, where very few free blacks lived, shared a concept of whites as a superior race. But in the context of the 1850s, when when Lincoln said that whites would always have a "superior position" to blacks, it was a common assumption among virtually of his listeners that he was describing the relative position of whites and blacks in America in a matter-of-fact way.

This is to say that opposition to slavery and a belief in the equality of blacks and whites were not the same things. The former was far more common among the free states than the latter. Although again, it's important to remember that there were both free black and whites who did recognize an equality of rights among blacks and whites.

In fact, to a great extent, whites tended to equate the absence of slavery with the absence of black people. Historian William Freehling in The Road to Disunion (1990) decribes in some detail how slavery was weakened and eventually abolished peacefully in states like New York and Pennsylvania as the number of free whites came to greatly outnumber the black slaves.

Slavery tended to migrate southward and westward, in part due to the exhaustion of fields through poor agricultural planning. But historically, the abolition of slavery in the Northern states was associated with a relative reduction in the number of blacks there. This is one explanation for the popularity of the idea of colonizing freed slaves in Africa, which was widely supported among whites (including by Lincoln, at least nominally) who were hostile to slavery.

Colonization was always a widly impractical notion. And very few freed slaves ever wanted to go there. But it made sense to a lot of whites, in no small part because of the historical experience of the Northern state in which reducing the number of blacks relative to whites had been a precondition of the abolition of slavery.

The colonization movement, as Dwight Lowell Dumond observed, began a "steady decline" in the early 1830s as an active, conscious abolitionist movement began to develop. He characterizes colonization as motivated by a racial attitude that wanted to get rid of blacks, whether slave or free: "Ohio particularly and Pennsylvania and Connectict to a lesser degree were strongholds of colonization societies whose object was not the emancipation of the slave or the elevtion of the free blacks, but ridding the states of an undesirable and degraded element."

Colonization was largely irrelevant in practice in the slavery controversies of the 1850s. But Dumond's description of the appeal of colonization gives a excellent feel for how many whites viewed slavery and race:

It is not difficult to understand why men continued to raise their voices in support of colonization in spite of its failure, even though less inclined to open their purses. It was not easy to choose between the two extremes in the slavery controversy. A man might not subscribe to the positive-good argument of the slaveholders and still be unwilling to endorse a program of unconditional immediate emancipation. Colonization presented the easy way out for that individual. It was a rationalization for the lazy intellect, a sedative for the guilty conscience, a refuge for the politician and the professional man. Therein lies much of the organization's [the Colonization Society's] historical importance. Abolitionists claimed that the only way to abolish slavery was to do it before proceeding to the task of elevating the race; that any consideration of particular plans for emancipation allowed the discussion to be drawn away from the main question and all sorts of extraneous issues to be introduced; that all talk of a preparatory process for freedom was absurd because the atmosphere of slavery was uncongenial to the development of individual traits essential for freedom; that only as a free man enjoying a full measure of civil rights could the Negro cultivate his mind, accumulate property, discipline his habits, and assume responsibilities so essential to correct social attitudes. The colonizationists could admit all these things, but hold that elevation of the Negro as a free man in the United States was as utterly impracticable as his elevation in slaery, and, therby, indirectly support and perpetuate an insitution admittedly wrong on moral grounds and inconsistent with the fundamental pricnples of American democracy.

If this discussion seems like a long way around to get to the point, it's because the point is buried in pre-Civil War politics. And sometimes political terms and points of reference from earlier times need a bit of translation. As an illustration, if a politician today uses a term like "compassionate conservatism" or "faith-based" as a synonym for religion, they have immediate refernence points for those who hear it. But someone reading those terms in the middle of an old speech 20 years from now may be puzzled as to what they even mean, much less the particular context.

It's also important to recognize that the fight over slavery was more than just a case of applying the principles of civil equality as we know them in 2004. For instance, the question of an equal vote for women was only on the fringes of the national agenda in 1858. (And, of course, the US Constitution still does not recognize women as legally equal to men.)

This is especially important to remember in light of what comes out of the sewer of neo-Confederate pseudohistory, e.g.: Lincoln didn't use the terms of liberals in 2004 in talking about equal rights, so he wasn't serious about opposing slavery; immediate abolition of slavery in the South was not part of the official Union war aims from the moment the first shot was fired at Ft. Sumter, so the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.

So, in what ways does Dumond see Lincoln as an abolitionist? First, there was Lincoln's consistent position that slavery was against the interest of white working people, and his continual opposition to any extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln and the Republicans were openly opposed to the notorious Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court denied Congress' powerto outlaw slavery in any federal territory. And, as Dumond notes, Lincoln as a Congressman voted for the antislavery Wilmot Proviso 40 times.

In his speech on the Dred Scott decision on June 25, 1857, Lincoln uses a phrase similar to that I quoted from 1858. But the point of his statement is clear. While blacks, free or enslaved, may not be fully equal to whites, they have rights as human beings that should be respected, which the institution of slavery itself denies:

Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal and the equal of all others.

Anyone in the Southern states in 1857 who said such a thing publicly as Lincoln said in that last sentence would have been regarded as an abolitionist subversive, subject to prosecution and/or extralegal violence.

In a letter to slaveholder Joshua Speed of Aug. 24, 1855, Lincoln referred to the nativist American Party, better known to history by its pejorative nickname the Know-Nothing Party, and made on of his most famous observations on the corrosive effects of slavery on the rights of free Americans:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it, "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty - to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

A second major point in which Dumond sees Lincoln as an abolotionist is in his attitude toward the infamous Fugitive Slave Law. Since the passage of the 1850 law, free states had put up varying levels of resistance to delivering up captured human property to their owners in the slave states. They had used a states-rights approach, consistently and bitterly opposed by the Slave Power, for which the defense of slavery always overrode any consideration of states' rights.

Without that background in mind, the passage in Lincoln's First Inaugural Address on fugitive slave laws may sound exclusively accomodating to the slaveowners. But what he actually said was that while all members of Congress are sworn to uphold the provision in the federal Consitution that required the return of fugitive slaves:

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause whould be enforced by national or by State authority; but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done. And should any one in any case be content that his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept?

Again, in any law upon this subject, ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not, in any case, surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constituion which guarantees that "the citizens of each States shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States"?

The new President phrased it in artful politician's language. But it was clear to his fellow Americans north and south that he was endorsing the abolitionists' solution to the Fugitive Slave Law.

To be continued in Part 2 tomorrow.


1 comment:

amkpantera said...

I've heard that while many people back in Lincoln's day spoke of race in terms that are much more conservative in our time, Mark Twain spoke of them as if he was from our contemporary society.  I know Twain doesn't have anything to do with Lincoln being an abolitionist, but I found it fascinating that someone did have that opinion then.  But I suppose he wasn't alone as there were others.