A New Birth of Freedom… For Who?

I am in the throes of a major writing session for my thesis, so I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible…

Last Sunday, June 30, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made the keynote speech at a commemorative event at Gettysburg entitled “Gettysburg: A New Birth of Freedom.” Al Mackey has the full scoop on the speech at Student of the American Civil War if you want to read more about it. Most of the commentary has not been positive.

Lately, I’ve been mulling over the term “New Birth of Freedom” and how we’ve been using it during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. It is clear that the narrative of Emancipation–and, by extension, the story of “[1860s]Civil War to [1960s]Civil Rights”–has been a dominant focus of the sesquicentennial and the National Park Service’s efforts to commemorate the Civil War. I applaud this effort and think that an interpretation of slavery’s legacy in connection with the Civil War is an absolute necessity. You cannot separate the political and social issues of the war from the military ones, in my opinion. Although Goodwin’s speech was poorly structured, too self-centered, and generally terrible all around, the basic idea that she attempts to convey–that the “New Birth of Freedom” presented by Civil War emancipation has led to other freedoms in recent history–is sound.

However, I cannot help but think that the term “New Birth of Freedom” is being used in relation to emancipation at the sacrifice of other important discussions that could be taking place during the Sesquicentennial. For one, we should remember that Abraham Lincoln’s use of the term in the Gettysburg Address–while perhaps relating to emancipation indirectly–was in relation to the rebirth of the American political nation. To wit:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

While discussions on slavery, emancipation, and civil rights are important, we also need to make time to ask questions about the the Constitution, the nature of Union, why white men in 1860 couldn’t come to agreement to keep the nation together without war, and even questions about secession (By the way, Don Doyle has edited a fantastic book on secession in a global context that I really like, although I don’t agree with every essay in it). With all the bruha over the secession petitions to the White House earlier this year, the Sesquicentennial offers an opportunity to address questions audiences may have about the nature of Union today. Do we live in a perpetual union? Can a state leave on its own accord? If so, how? If not, why? How do we best solve our political problems without compromising our values? How do we ensure minority groups are treated with respect by the majority?

I also think it’s important that the NPS makes sure that the “New Birth of Freedom” and “Civil War to Civil Rights” narratives are intended to reach as broad an audience as possible. I love this post from Bob Pollock in which he argues that “civil rights is a term that should have meaning for all Americans, not just African-Americans.” That is an important distinction to make, as the civil rights of women, immigrants, American Indians, and many other groups also hung in the balance following the Civil War, and they continue to be discussed today. While the emancipation narrative is an important narrative that did not receive proper attention from historians or the broader public in the 20th century, it is merely one narrative in a much larger collection of important stories that the Civil War presents to us today. Many of those stories–like those about the challenges faced by American Indians during the Civil War–go largely ignored today. When looking at the term “New Birth of Freedom” with regards to American Indians, things get a lot more complicated. Many tribes had to decide whether the U.S. or the Confederacy would best protect their people and their lands, and those that joined the Confederacy were punished by the federal government after the war. When the 14th amendment was passed granting African Americans the right to citizenship and the equal protection of laws, American Indians were effectively ignored legally, as the amendment and the rights of American citizenship did not apply to them. Following the Civil War, did American Indians enjoy a “New Birth of Freedom”?

Cheers

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4 responses

  1. Excellent point Nick. While I thoroughly enjoy making the point of how important slavery was to the Civil War I think we [myself included] can and do go too far. By ignoring the political ideals, how democracy was existentially threatened by secession in the U.S. and by monarchism abroad, we miss one of the fundamental ideas behind the war.
    And no, I would not say American Indians enjoyed a “New Birth of Freedom” after the war.
    Great post, as most of them are.

    1. Thanks, Nathan. There is no doubt that the history of slavery in America, dating all the way back to the 1600s, plays a integral role in explaining the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War. It is good that the 150th anniversary commemorations have been focusing on slavery and emancipation, but the questions of what it meant to live in a republic and whether or not that republic could allow secession under certain circumstances are still relevant to our world today, and we should still be having conversations about them.

      With regards to different groups and their relation to the “New Birth of Freedom” wrought by the Civil War, I was influenced by a teacher I met at Gettysburg a few months ago. He is a teacher in California, and he mentioned that he struggled to get his (mostly) Hispanic students interested in the Civil War. On the one hand, I think the questions posed by the Civil War are relevant to all racial, ethnic, religious, or any other type of group. On the other hand, there were Hispanics who fought in the war and, perhaps even more importantly, there were many immigrants whose first action upon arriving in the country was putting on a military uniform. Telling these stories has the potential to get more students who may not otherwise be interested in history interested.

      By the way, Nathan, I really enjoyed your piece on the Vicksburg campaign and will be providing a link to it on a future post. As always, thanks for commenting.

      Nick

      1. Two years ago I read Adam Goodheart’s fantastic “1861.” In his preface he said that one of the biggest failings in Civil War history today was on the ideas surrounding the war. I agree, the ideas of the war are too often ignored [and often by me] by focusing on the nitty gritty and the gore and violence.
        I plan on doing something like what you’ve done for the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Looking at how Americans viewed their Republic in a sea of monarchies and despots.
        I follow several blogs and I regularly seem to enjoy yours the most. Why? Because it is often about ideas.

  2. Thanks again, Nathan. I’ve always been really interested in political and social history, but my graduate studies at IUPUI have really challenged me to catch up on my understanding of cultural and intellectual history. The history of ideas and what people believed to be true is often just as fascinating–if not more fascinating–than what actually happened.

    I look forward to reading your commentary on the Gettysburg Address.

    Nick

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