Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

What James Buchanan Can Teach Us About Respecting Dissenting Opinions

James Buchanan (1791 – 1868)

The American Presidents Series, first started by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and now continued by Sean Wilentz, offers readers a series of short, concise biographies of each U.S. president that are accessible to a wide audience. They are wonderful introductions into the character and political outlook of past presidents, and I have a number of these biographies in my library. The latest addition to my collection is historian Jean H. Baker’s biography of James Buchanan, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I learned a lot about Buchanan in this short volume. When past historians have chosen to assess Buchanan’s presidency and the coming of the American Civil War, they often portray him as a weak, ineffective leader who did too little to stop the onslaught of southern secession prior to Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Kenneth Stampp’s America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, among other studies, hews to this standard interpretation. While Baker concurs that Buchanan’s response to secession was weak, she instead portrays him overall as an overwhelming figure whose domineering personality, unwillingness to compromise, and inability to take dissent seriously doomed his presidency from the start of his term in 1857. Despite proclaiming himself as the only non-sectional candidate who would promote the interests of the entire country during the 1856 presidential election (a claim that Ulysses S. Grant took seriously when he voted in his first presidential election that year), Buchanan was in fact a pro-South sectional candidate in his own right who downplayed the extent of Northern frustration with Southern proslavery demands. I was particularly struck by this passage:

Buchanan had long since chosen sides. Both physically and politically, he had only one farsighted eye, and it looked southward. Looking to the past and heralding the Democratic party’s eternal principles against the “isms” of free-soilism and anti-slaveryism, the president-elect was blind to what was happening in the North . . . despite his experience in politics, [he] read the opposition party as ephemeral as lighting bugs in August.

In his desire to end division between North and South, the president-elect moved beyond the tradition of permissible institutionalized antagonism between political organizations. The concept of loyal opposition, inherited from Great Britain, sanctioned criticism of administrations and the presentation of alternative policies. What it did not permit was the castigation of another party as disloyal and un-American, as Buchanan held the Republicans. In his years as president, Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 [p. 72].

Perhaps there is something for us to learn in Buchanan’s failure as a president. He was arguably one of the most qualified candidates based on his experience as a politician and diplomat for nearly forty years before his election in 1856, but his lack of leadership, vision, communication skills, or a sense of changing political circumstances in the 1850s doomed his tenure. As more white Northerners desired restrictions for slavery’s westward expansion into new territories, Buchanan came to view such a position as dangerous and an abridgement of constitutional rights. That most Northerners had no intention to touch slavery where it existed and held strong racial prejudices against blacks made no difference to him. Buchanan couldn’t handle differing interpretations of the constitution or dissent from his ideology, which in his mind meant that his enemies were not fellow Americans with a difference of opinion who were still worthy of respect, but traitors whose views had to be obliterated at all costs. The president’s rhetoric damaged any future compromise over slavery since any such agreement would be considered a threat to Southern honor.

And then the war came…

Cheers

 

A Review of “Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery” by Daniel W. Crofts

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In recent years an interpretation that might be best described as “emancipationist” has emerged to explain the motives of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party with regards to slavery at the beginning of the American Civil War. This interpretation—advanced by historians such as Adam Goodheart and James Oakes—argues that most Republican politicians at the beginning of the war conceived the conflict as a fight to end U.S. slavery. Remembering John Quincy Adams’s earlier claim that slavery could potentially be abolished as a military necessity during a time of war, these Republicans used the Civil War to seek a quick, deadly end to slavery as soon as shots rang out. In Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865, Oakes argues that “secession meant war and war meant immediate emancipation” in the minds of most Republicans.

Historian Daniel W. Crofts puts the brakes on this interpretation in his new book, Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery: The Other Thirteenth Amendment and the Struggle to Save the Union. In an exhaustive analysis of the secession crisis that emerged following Lincoln’s 1860 electoral victory, Crofts convincingly demonstrates that most Republicans—Lincoln included—had no intention of interfering with slavery where it already existed or turning the war into an emancipation crusade. They made repeated overtures to the South expressing these views, and they even worked to pass a proposed thirteenth constitutional amendment (with Lincoln’s blessing) promising that Congress could not “abolish or interfere” with slavery in the Southern states where it already existed. Crofts offers one of the first major analyses of the “other” thirteenth amendment and proves that the Republican party’s embrace of legal emancipation emerged only when the contingencies of war made the abolition of slavery a necessary element for military victory over the Confederacy.

Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery is broken up into four parts. The first part focuses on anti-slavery thought before the Civil War and the limitations the Constitution placed upon any effort to abolish slavery throughout the country. While a small minority of abolitionists such as Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglass, and Lysander Spooner argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document—particularly the Fifth Amendment’s clause against any person being deprived of “life, liberty, and property”—most abolitionists and less radical anti-slavery thinkers acknowledged that the Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed and could therefore do little beyond encouraging residents and political leaders in those states to voluntarily abolish it. The antebellum anti-slavery political movement populated by Whigs, Free-Soilers, and later Republicans therefore pushed to “denationalize” slavery. “Denationalization” called for the federal government to reject all responsibility for maintaining slavery where it already existed, leaving the matter to the slave states themselves. Where the federal government had jurisdiction, however, “denationalization” supporters called for the the abolition of slavery in Washington, D.C., no future slave states to be established from the western territories, the end of the interstate slave trade, and repeal of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

The remaining three parts of the book focus on the aftermath of Lincoln’s 1860 election and the effort to assuage the concerns of white Southerners who believed the Republican Party would abolish slavery in the South. Republicans took several measures to address these concerns. Crofts argues that most Republicans believed themselves to be constitutional conservatives. They asserted that their anti-slavery beliefs squared up with the Founding Fathers, who considered slavery a national embarrassment. They hoped to block slavery’s future westward expansion and believed the institution would eventually die, just as the Founders had intended, but at the same time they accepted slavery where it existed and had no intentions of promoting immediate nationwide emancipation as had some of the more popular radical abolitionists like Douglass and Spooner had asserted. Moderate and conservative-minded Republicans like Lincoln even took steps to separate the party from the larger abolitionist movement and expressed their intentions to enforce every law in the book, including the hated Fugitive Slave Act.

Crofts shines in his detailed analysis of the origins of the “other” thirteenth amendment. Conciliatory Republicans like William Seward and Thomas Corwin pushed to have this amendment passed as a gesture to Southerners, particularly Southerners in the border states, to prove their intentions to not touch slavery in the South. Some Republicans even went farther by agreeing to allow New Mexico territory to be organized for the purpose of establishing one or more slave states. Not all Republicans were ready support this amendment, however. More radical Republicans like John Bingham, James M. Ashley, and Charles Sedgwick opposed any amendments or conciliation with the South, arguing that the Constitution should be enforced instead of amended. Lincoln himself encouraged Seward and Corwin’s efforts to gain support for the amendment and expressed his own support for it in his First Inaugural Address, saying that he considered “such a provision to now be implied by constitutional law.” Crofts masterfully analyzes these sharply intense debates within the Republican Party about the extent to which compromise was necessary to keep the Union together.

Another important goal for Crofts is assessing the way historians have previously analyzed Lincoln, the Republican Party, and slavery at the onset of the Civil War. Crofts critiques various scholars throughout the book itself and in a detailed historiographical analysis at the end of the book who have, in Crofts words, produced “history from the heart – history as we might like it to have been” (277). Doris Kearns Goodwin, Harold Holzer, Goodheart, Oakes, and even the writers behind Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster film on Lincoln are all taken to task for making Lincoln more radically anti-slavery than he really was. Oakes in particular receives a great deal of criticism from Crofts for mishandling primary source evidence and for downplaying the importance of the original thirteenth amendment as merely a “pointless” and “meaningless” gesture to appease angry Southern politicians.

Most of these critiques are fair, but Crofts overstates the degree to which contemporary scholars still view Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Furthermore, Oakes’s scholarship, in the opinion of this reviewer, still does much to highlight how the end of U.S. slavery came about through a gradual, evolving process of emancipation during the war—as opposed to one singular moment with the Emancipation Proclamation—and why a “second” thirteenth amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery throughout the country was so necessary. Nevertheless, Crofts packs many punches in Lincoln & The Politics of Slavery and convincingly highlights the candidness of many leading Republicans in 1860 and 1861 to acknowledge their inability and unwillingness to abolish slavery in the states where it already existed.

Elizabeth Keckley On Slavery and Sectional Reconciliation

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was a talented seamstress, dressmaker, and businesswoman who became the personal dressmaker and close friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln during the Civil War. The story of Keckley’s rise to such a prominent position is remarkable. Born a slave in Virginia, she experienced the worst horrors of the institution during her formative years. Her earliest recollection of slavery was witnessing a seven-year-old boy being stripped from his mother’s arms and put into a slave auction to be sold away for profit. Her father was also sold away during her childhood, and Keckley herself was subject to whippings and sexual abuse during her childhood. While living in North Carolina she was the victim of a rape that produced her only child, a boy only referred to by Keckley as “Garland’s George.” While living in St. Louis in the 1850s Keckley managed to earn enough money through her seaming and dressmaking to purchase her freedom in 1855, and shortly thereafter she made her way to Washington, D.C. to start a very profitable dressmaking business before being hired by Mrs. Lincoln at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

In 1868 Keckley published a memoir of her life entitled Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The book is part autobiography and part analysis of the Lincoln White House. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination Mary Lincoln had run into financial difficulties and a poor reputation among the public. Keckley hoped to raise money for Mrs. Lincoln and counter criticisms against her by publishing details of the Lincolns’ inner family life, but circumstances took a sad turn following the book’s release. Behind the Scenes was roundly criticized as the public disapproved of Keckley’s publishing of Mary Lincoln’s private letters, and Keckley’s clients for her dressmaking business quickly ended their patronage. She closed her business, became destitute, and in later life lived in a home for the poor.

Readers of Behind the Scenes–both then and now–often focus on Keckley’s recollections of the Lincoln White House, and several theatrical plays about the Lincoln-Keckley relationship have been written in recent years. But her life trajectory from enslavement to prominent free person of color by the outbreak of the Civil War is gripping literature, and it is this story that I want to briefly focus on with this post. Historians, biographers, and other scholars, of course must proceed with caution when analyzing the words and themes embedded in a person’s autobiography or memoir. Statements that may at first come off as factual and self-evident are in many cases subject to uncertainty and interpretation by scholars assessing a person’s life story. Any reasoned interpretation requires a scholar to put a writer’s words into context and to understand the world in which that person inhabited, lest they turn themselves into armchair psychologists. I will try to avoid that here.

“How warm is the attachment between master and slave”

Keckley’s description of life as a slave in Behind the Scenes is simultaneously riveting and complex. In the book’s preface she takes pains to warm readers that “if I have portrayed the dark side of slavery, I have also painted the bright side. The good that I have said of human servitude should be thrown into the scales with the evil that I have said of it.” She casts blame for slavery’s continuation and expansion in the United States not on the South, but on “the God of nature” (which is never clearly defined) and the Founding Fathers. In a later chapter Keckley recalls a conversation she had with a Northerner after the Civil War who expressed disbelief in the idea that she would be interested in the welfare of her former enslavers. Keckley responds that “you do not know the Southern people as well as I do–how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

These are curious statements to make. Throughout the book the only “goods” of enslavement that she alludes to are her sense of industry and the relationship she maintained with her mother, two things she could have obtained in freedom. Certainly the relationship between master and slave wasn’t warm enough to prevent Keckley from working to purchase her freedom in 1855, nor would she have consented to reestablishing this relationship at any point after obtaining her freedom. After all, she herself paradoxically argues in the aforementioned preface that “a wrong was inflicted upon me; a cruel custom deprived me of my liberty, and since I was robbed of my dearest right, I would not have been human had I not rebelled against the robbery.” Indeed, who wouldn’t detest a system that sells your father away for cash and makes your body susceptible to rape and sexual assault without consequence to the aggressor?

Mercy for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy

Keckley had been briefly employed by Varina Davis, wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, prior to being hired by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Davis had attempted to bring her South as the Davis family prepared for the secession crisis, but Keckley rejected this offer, stating that her allegiances were with the United States. Nevertheless Keckley speaks very highly of the Davis family and calls for Northerners to bestow mercy on Jefferson Davis, who was still imprisoned by U.S. forces when Behind the Scenes was published: “The years have brought many changes; and in view of these terrible changes even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, ‘Peace! you have suffered! Go in peace’.” What these “terrible changes” are that Keckley refers to remain a mystery to readers. Yet again a reader today can easily find these statements quite odd coming from a free woman of color who had been enslaved for the first thirty years of her life.

In a later passage Keckley recalls Abraham Lincoln saying on the day that he was assassinated that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “a noble, noble brave man.” According to Keckley, “Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature, and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him. His soul was too great for the narrow, selfish view of partisanship. Brave by nature himself, he honored bravery in others, even his foes.”

An important theme in Behind the Scenes

As the aforementioned quotes suggest, one of the driving themes of Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs that might be overlooked sometimes is her argument in favor of sectional reconciliation between North and South, which in turn is informed by her identification as a proud Southerner. While Keckley strives to assure readers that she suffered under slavery and that she values her freedom, her hesitance to lay any sort of blame for the continuance and growth of slavery on pro-slavery Southern politicians or the South more generally reflects a desire to avoid what she describes as a “sweeping condemnation” of the entire region, a region that she calls home. While Keckley is not convincing in her efforts to point out “the bright side” of slavery, it is clear that she is anxious to demonstrate to readers that she refuses to play the role of victim, no matter how heinous the crimes committed against her during the days of slavery. And by pleading mercy for Jefferson Davis and portraying Abraham Lincoln as an admirer of Robert E. Lee and the valorous conduct of the Confederacy, Keckley suggests to her reading audience that sectional reconciliation is the correct path towards future prosperity for the United States. It was the path paved by Lincoln before his death, and it was the correct path going forward in Keckley’s eyes.

These are just a few observations I made after reading Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs, which are truly fascinating. Any nineteenth century historian would benefit from reading them.

Cheers

A Memo to Mike Huckabee: The Military Has Always Been a Social Experiment

Last night, for better or worse, I decided to watch the first GOP debate in its entirety. I watched it partly for its entertainment value but mostly from a sincere desire to try and understand the arguments and characteristics of the candidates who claim to be competent enough to run the United States as our next President.

In the course of the debate candidate Mike Huckabee was asked a question about the military’s recent decision to lift its ban on transgendered troops. He gave a laughable response:

The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. It is not to transform the culture by trying out some ideas that some people think would make us a different country and more diverse. The purpose is to protect America. I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines makes our country safer.

Cheers and clapping came from the party faithful in response to Huckabee’s comments, but this is simply bad history. The United States military has always been a social experiment whose actions have most certainly transformed our “culture.” Indeed, serving in the military and killing people and breaking things is itself a social experiment, right?

Take, for example, President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. A passage in the Proclamation proclaims that African Americans “will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” Blacks were already serving with the Navy prior to Lincoln’s Proclamation (and have served in every American war since the Revolution), but the message signaled an important transformation within the ranks; ten percent of the military’s fighting force would be composed of United States Colored Troops by the end of the Civil War.

Some scholars such as Lerone Bennett and Michelle Alexander downplay the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation by saying that it didn’t free any slaves (which is false) or that its only significance lies in its utility as a war measure, but the vitriolic responses from some border state Unionists and the Confederate government at the time reflect a belief that the Proclamation was a radical social experiment that threatened law and order. Border State politicians and slaveholders wondered what would happen to their slaves; Kentucky troops fighting for the Union allegedly threatened to lay down their arms if abolition became a war aim and blacks enlisted in the military; and many white Northern troops who may have publicly accepted the changes wrought by the war still held private doubts about the fighting capabilities of blacks.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis also understood the radicalism of the Emancipation Proclamation and responded with fear and disgust:

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellow-men of all countries to pass judgment on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation ‘to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.’ Our own detestation of those who have attempted by the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by a profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses.

Davis believed that the Proclamation would encourage black-on-white violence in the South in the name of “self-defense” and that emancipation would ultimately lead to their extermination by giving them freedom, guns (for the men), and a place outside their “sphere.” The military is not a social experiment!

On January 1, 1861, the St. Louis Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse) hosted its final slave auction. Exactly two years later Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged those same slaves–people that could have been bought and sold as property–to enlist in the military. That’s radical. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood that the Proclamation had implications that went beyond military service when he asserted that blacks who enlisted had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” While I would argue that African Americans earned citizenship for other reasons in addition to military service, it is undeniable that their military service during the war played a significant role in shaping the fourteenth amendment (which gave all native-born and naturalized residents the right of citizenship) and the fifteenth amendment (which gave all men regardless of color the right to vote). The Emancipation Proclamation was a clear case of what we could call a “social experiment” that involved the military.

The military was also used as a social experiment in the twentieth century. Before desegregation in public facilities and schools throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in 1948 ordering the military to integrate. Just like the Emancipation Proclamation, Truman’s order aroused claims of “social experimentation” within and without the military. Lieutenant General Edward Almond, for example, believed integration would be demoralizing to white soldiers. He actively fought to deny justly-earned medals to black soldiers during the Korean War and continued to lament the perceived ills of integration well into the 1970s. And of course we cannot deny the evolving role of women in the military as nurses, factory workers, administrators, and eventually combat soldiers in our current military.

When we take a look at the social transformations that have taken place in the U.S. military throughout its history we can safely conclude that the opposite of Huckabee’s claim is true – that the military has always provided a means of social change with profound consequences for the social, political, and cultural fabric of American society. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a few years ago continued this trend by allowing people the chance to serve in the military while openly gay, and now transgender people can enlist. Until I see some sort of empirical evidence suggesting that a military with transgendered people in the service puts my country’s national security at risk (which I highly doubt), I will gladly applaud and encourage their service in our military.

Cheers

Addendum: Upon further reflection I think it’s important to further clarify that I do not mean to suggest that the military as an institution leans to the left of the political spectrum or that it embodies liberal or “progressive” ideals any more than it embodies conservative ideals. Rather, I am trying to suggest that the military has historically been targeted by activists because various social groups (including the aforementioned ones here) have earned expanded citizenship and suffrage rights through military service.

Edward Bates and the Question of U.S. Citizenship in 1862

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The meaning of citizenship in the United States has undergone significant changes throughout its history, and recent debates about who is and who isn’t a citizen and what rights citizens are entitled to demonstrate how citizenship remains contested today. Some of the most profound changes in U.S. citizenship took place in the years immediately before and after the American Civil War. For a long time my understanding of these changes was marked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case and subsequent actions after the war by Congress through the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that overturned the Dred Scott decision.

Dred Scott was a St. Louis slave whose master, Dr. John Emerson, had taken him into free soil for four years while serving as a U.S. Army doctor. Upon returning to St. Louis in 1843 and attempting to buy his freedom without success, Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. The case had many twists, turns, and appeals on its way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Scott was not entitled to his freedom and that “colored men,” whether free or slave, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” People of color were not citizens of the United States and had no right to use the courts for legal recourse, according to Taney. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 departed from Taney’s premise by stating that all people born in the United States were entitled to be citizens “without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude” and that all citizens were entitled to equal protection of all laws. The text from the citizenship clause of the Civil Rights Act was later copied into the 14th Amendment before its passage in 1868.

These changes in U.S. citizenship during the Civil War era are important and worth noting, but after reading William A. Blair’s With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era a few weeks ago I learned about another significant document published in 1862 on the question of citizenship: Attorney General Edward Bates’s legal opinion on citizenship.

A conservative Missourian who helped write the state’s pro-slavery Constitution in 1821 and served as a state legislator and U.S. Congressman during a lengthy career in politics, Bates unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1860. President-elect Abraham Lincoln appointed Bates as Attorney General shortly after that year’s election, however, giving Bates immense power to write legal opinions on American law and governance as the Civil War broke out in 1861. One such issue arose in 1862 when a ship run by David M. Selsey, a free African American who served as master of the Elizabeth & Margaret, was detained off a New Jersey coast for a routine inspection for contraband goods. U.S. law at the time stipulated that ship masters must be U.S. citizens, but whether or not Selsey was considered a U.S. citizen as a free person of color was open for legal debate. U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase requested that Bates write a legal opinion in response to the question, “are colored men Citizens of the United States?” Bates’s response provides us a unique opportunity to study how a leading legal thinker grappled with the ambiguities of the U.S. constitution on the question of citizenship prior to the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868.

Bates began his opinion by pointing out that there existed no clear definition of citizenship in the United States:

Who is a citizen? What constitutes a citizen of the United States? I have often been pained by the fruitless search in our law books and the records of our courts for a clear and satisfactory definition of the phrase citizen of the United States. I find no such definition, no authoritative establishment of the meaning of the phrase, neither by a course of judicial decision in our courts nor by the continued and consentaneous action of the different branches of our political government. For aught I see to the contrary, the subject is now as little understood in its details and elements, and the question as open to argument and to speculative criticism, as it was at the beginning of the government. Eighty years of practical enjoyment of citizenship, under the Constitution, have not sufficed to teach us either the exact meaning of the word or the constituent elements of the thing we prize so highly.

Further complicating these efforts in the eyes of Bates were legal experts at the time who focused on the characteristics of who was entitled to citizenship without sufficiently exploring what rights constituted U.S. citizenship. Bates believed the constitution defined citizenship simply as an individual who was a part of the body politic. As a member of the body politic, citizens were obligated to pledge allegiance to the state in return for the state’s protection of the citizen’s well-being. Allegiance and protection: nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, Bates argued that citizenship did not guarantee voting rights, which were determined on a state-by-state basis prior to the war. Children, women, poor whites, and criminals in states throughout the country did not posses voting rights but were still considered citizens by the U.S. government. “Once a citizen, always a citizen,” argued Bates, “unless changed by the volition and act of the individual. Neither infancy nor madness nor crime can take away from the subject the quality of a citizen.” And although voting rights were determined on the state level, Bates proclaimed that citizenship rights were national. Citizens in one state could not suddenly lose their citizenship while in another one.

Bates did have opinions about who was entitled to citizenship, however. Citing Ancient, British, and French law in a partial rebuttal of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case, Bates asserted that “whatever may have been said in the opinions of judges and lawyers, and in State statues about negroes, mulattoes, and persons of color, the Constitution is wholly silent upon that subject. The Constitution does not make the citizens (it is, in fact, made by them). It only intends and recognizes such of them as are natural [born citizens].” In other words, people born in the United States–regardless of their status in life–were automatically citizens who had earned the right to state protection according to the Constitution.

Although Bates contradicted himself by refraining from defining whether or not slaves could be considered U.S. citizens, he again criticized Justice Taney for assuming that free people could be considered as having no citizenship simply because of their skin color. To wit:

It is strenuously insisted by some that ‘persons of color,’ though born in the country, are not capable of being citizens of the United States. As far as the Constitution is concerned, this is a naked assumption; for the Constitution contains not one word upon the subject. The exclusion, if it exists, must then rest upon some fundamental fact which, in the reason and nature of things, is so inconsistent with citizenship that the two cannot coexist in the same person. Is mere color such a fact? Let those who assert it prove that it is so. It has never been so understood nor put into practice in the nation from which we derive our language, laws, and institutions, and our very morals and modes of thought; and, as far as I know, there is not a single nation in Christendom which does not regard the new-found idea with incredulity, if not disgust. What can there be in the mere color of a man . . . to disqualify him for bearing true and faithful allegiance to his native country, and for demanding the protection of that country? And these two, allegiance and protection, constitute the sum of the duties and rights of a ‘natural born citizen of the United States.’

In concluding his opinion on citizenship, Bates dismissed all judicial authority of the Dred Scott case. Since the defendant in the case made an abatement plea (an objection to a plaintiff’s claims because of a procedural error, in this case the error being that Dred Scott was not a citizen and therefore unable to file suit in court), the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the case and Taney’s opinion had no legal standing. Therefore, although Bates hesitated to comment on whether slaves had citizenship rights, he believed he had the legal standing to comment on the citizenship status of David Selsey and, by extension, free blacks. Having assessed legal precedents from past Western governments and the Constitution itself, Bates believed Selsey deserved state protection: “I give it as my opinion that the free man of color…if born in the United States, is a citizen of the United States, and, if otherwise qualified, is competent, according to the acts of Congress, to be master of a vessel engaged in the coasting trade.” Free blacks were citizens of the United States according to Bates.

In our post-Civil War world birthright citizenship rights are often taken for granted and assumed to have existed since the Constitution’s creation in 1787. But the nature of citizenship was ill-defined by the Constitution before the Civil War, so much so that the nation’s Attorney General could not rely solely on his nation’s founding document and law books to guide his interpretation of citizenship. Edward Bates’s legal opinion provides important context and insight for understanding the evolving nature of debates about citizenship throughout American history.

Cheers

Was Abolitionism a Failure? A Response

13th AmendmentToday marks a significant day in United States history. 150 years ago on January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which ended chattel slavery in the U.S. The amendment was then forwarded to the states for ratification, and in December enough states ratified the measure for it to become the law of the land. Some slave states like Missouri had already chosen to abolish the institution prior to the amendment’s passage, but the event was nonetheless significant because President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime measure applied only to states in rebellion against the U.S. government during the Civil War. Although slavery was basically destroyed in parts of the Confederacy where heavy fighting and Union military occupation occurred, what would happen to slavery’s legal status after the end of hostilities remained an open question as the war began to wind down in 1865. Lincoln sought a permanent and constitutionally binding measure that would put an end to these questions and forever end the institution.

Historians since 1865 have debated extensively about the process of wartime emancipation and the eventual demise of slavery in the United States. How did a nation dedicated to protecting slaveholders’ human property, enforcing fugitive slave laws, and sanctioning the legal buying and selling of slaves in 1861 come to abolish slavery only four years later? What changes in American thought occurred over these four years, and how do we assess the agency of those whose efforts ended slavery?

One point I would not argue is that the abolitionist movement–which arose in the early 1830s and called for the complete end of slavery (without colonization) in all corners of the United States–was a failure that had little influence in ending slavery. Jon Grinspan, writing for the New York Times Disunion Blog, makes a valiant attempt to suggest otherwise:

Before abolitionism succeeded, it failed. As a pre-Civil War movement, it was a flop. Antislavery congressmen were able to push through their amendment because of the absence of the pro-slavery South, and the complicated politics of the Civil War. Abolitionism’s surprise victory has misled generations about how change gets made.

It’s hard to accept just how unpopular abolitionism was before the Civil War. The abolitionist Liberty Party never won a majority in a single county, anywhere in America, in any presidential race. Ralph Nader got closer to the presidency. In 1860 the premier antislavery newspaper, The Liberator, had a circulation of under 3,000, in a nation of 31 million.

I agree that abolitionism’s eventual 1865 victory was a surprise. Indeed, slaveholders who supported the Confederacy would have never pushed for secession in 1861 had they known that such an effort would have hastened their slaves’ freedom. Likewise, it’s safe to say that abolition was not a popular political stance with voters at that time. But Grinspan’s claims go too far.

The problem, in my opinion, is that one cannot measure the success or failure of the abolitionist movement based solely on a quantitative measure like county votes, the electoral college, or readership lists. As I’ve stated before on this blog, the abolitionist movement during the antebellum period experienced strong disagreements about the morality and practicality of participating in democratic politics. Many Garrisonian abolitionists (named after their leader, William Lloyd Garrison) considered voting to be a sinful act that sanctioned state violence and promoted allegiances to political parties and nations instead of God’s earthly kingdom. Going to the polls and voting was not nearly as important to these abolitionists as influencing public opinion about slavery and compelling non-abolitionist voters to choose anti-slavery candidates for office. The success of these efforts was undoubtedly limited, but to suggest that they were a “failure” is wrong if we move beyond quantitative voting tallies.

The leaders of Confederate secession were not stupid. Several states created Declarations of Secession that clearly outlined the reasons why they were leaving the Union, and it’s evident that regardless of abolitionism’s political power, its imagined influence in the minds of Confederate leaders was strong, so much so that they chose to leave the Union rather than accept President’s Lincoln’s repeated promise to leave slavery untouched in states where it legally existed. South Carolina’s Declaration complained that the free states–including the abolitionists–“denounced as sinful the institution of slavery” and “encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes.” It went even farther by attacking the abolitionist practice of sending incendiary anti-slavery literature through the mails to Southern slaveholders. Slaves that remained in bondage, the Declaration claims, were encouraged by “emissaries, books and pictures” to move towards “servile insurrection.” Mississippi was so threatened by abolitionism that its Declaration claims that “there was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

In sum, the Civil War was ignited in large part by fears of a growing abolitionist movement and its potential to end slavery in the United States. Whether or not these fears were rational or realistic in 1861 is a moot point because leading secessionists believed abolitionism was a threat. To say that the Civil War and not abolitionism ended slavery in the United States, as Grinspan suggests, is to imply that abolitionism did little to influence the outbreak of war in the first place. This claim is clearly mistaken if we are to take the various Declarations of Secession seriously.

Were the goals of abolition fully achieved prior to the Civil War? No, far from it. But did that make the movement a failure? Of course not. Abolitionism was an ongoing struggle with limited results prior to the Civil War. The movement ultimately succeeded because a range of circumstances and contingencies that included the Union military, the slaves themselves, the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, Congress, the act of Confederate secession, and yes, the abolitionist movement, all contain a degree of agency in pushing emancipation forward. I don’t doubt that the Union military’s presence in Confederate territory emboldened slaves to run away to their lines and hasten the institution’s demise during the war, and the 13th amendment certainly helped put an end to slavery in 1865. But underlying all of these efforts was an eventual acknowledgement that abolition was right for the country moving forward, and the abolitionists who spoke out against slavery in the years before the war deserve a degree of credit for their efforts.

Cheers

Counterfactuals and Anniversaries in History

As many of us already know, today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address.” Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. A lot of media attention surrounds the anniversaries of these historical events and it seems as if everybody’s writing essays and/or talking about the legacies of Lincoln and Kennedy.

While this increased press attention towards the past temporarily emerges, I find myself wondering why historical anniversaries should matter to society. Do people really care about “this day in history”? Does the Gettysburg Address evoke a special feeling or provide insights into the past on November 19 that aren’t otherwise there on November 18 or November 20? Do we “feel” Kennedy’s death in a more personal manner on November 22 than other days? Will anyone remember what they did on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s address or the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? I don’t have clear answers, but I have an idea I’d like to bring to the table. What I’ve noticed with many recent discussions is that rather than talking about the actual moment in which Lincoln spoke or Kennedy was shot, many public thinkers have used counterfactual history to guide their discussions about these two men and their legacies well after died. Perhaps historical anniversaries are important to us because they offer an opportunity to talk about contemporary issues in society.

I define conterfactual history as essentially “what if” history. When I turned on the television this past Sunday, I happened to flip on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” David Gregory, Tom Brokaw, Chris Matthews, and a host of others discussed the Kennedy assassination for a brief while, but the most impassioned discussion revolved around the “what if” questions. What if Kennedy had survived? What would have happened during the 1964 election? Would Kennedy’s stance on the Domino Theory have changed had he lived to see the increasingly tenuous situation in Vietnam? These questions are what I consider counterfactual history. We don’t have evidence to predict what Lincoln or Kennedy would have done or how events and circumstances would have changed had they lived past their untimely deaths, but we are often attracted to these questions because they challenge us to use our imagination about “how things could have been” or how our situation could be better or worse in our world today. To many people, history is an account of what actually happened in the past based on historical evidence and interpretation. Counterfactuals, however, go beyond the archived record and into the realms of our personal experiences and ideologies.

Scholars have also used counterfactuals when looking at the Gettysburg Address. Over at the History News Network, Alan J. Singer muses on what Reconstruction would have looked like had Lincoln lived beyond 1865:

I suspect if . . .  Abraham Lincoln had lived, presidential Reconstruction would not have differed much from the program promoted by his successor Andrew Johnson, and it probably would have received more support because of Lincoln’s political capital earned as a victorious war president. In this circumstance, the United States may never have seen the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments defining African Americans as citizens entitled to vote.

Whereas Singer suggests that Reconstruction would have remained largely the same under the Lincoln administration (and perhaps even worse for African Americans because the 14th and 15th amendments may not have been passed), Scott Hancock speculates on the possibility that Lincoln may have supported Thaddeus Stevens’ and the Radical Republicans’ efforts at redistributing southern lands abandoned by former Confederates to newly freed African Americans:

What would Lincoln have done to take advantage of one nation-changing opportunity: Thaddeus Stevens’s proposal in 1867 to take land that had belonged to Confederates whose property value exceeded $5,000? He was a master of political compromise but also was committed to making the Union whole. He may have seen such a measure as so punitive it would have keep [sic] the wounds of war too deep and fresh. But Lincoln only compromised when it did not involve forsaking his core principles, and he understood freedom to be severely compromised without equality.

So the question emerges: is counterfactual history useful or relevant to understanding the past?

My answer is no (mostly). Brooks Simpson at Crossroads has addressed several counterfactual questions in Civil War history (what would have happened to slavery in America without the Civil War, how would the Lincoln administration have dealt with the media in the age of television, what if the Confederacy won, etc.) that have provoked much discussion on that blog. These questions are somewhat interesting and to a certain degree they challenge us to consider why the past happened the way it did. For example, asking about the state of slavery without the Civil War may provoke an interesting discussion about the state of slavery in 1860 and why war may have been unavoidable at that time. However, these discussions often veer into less useful territory by asking when slavery would have ended, which no one knows and is impossible to judge. Any educated answer to such a question would require a great deal of subjective speculation.

I suppose that is where I start to have problems with counterfactuals. I don’t know what Abraham Lincoln would have done during Reconstruction, I don’t know what he would think of Barack Obama, and I don’t know if he’d prefer Captain Crunch or scrambled eggs for breakfast if he were alive today. I don’t know how John F. Kennedy would have addressed Vietnam or what he would have said had he been alive when the first man made it to the moon in 1969. While these questions are fun, there is little evidence to back any claims made by those living today. In reality counterfactual history tells us more about the way we want history to play out rather than saying anything substantial about what actually happened.

This notion of counterfactual history as dialogue about the present may partly explain why historical anniversaries are important. Anniversaries present a sense of time and chronology that give us a better sense of our place in history and where we’ve come from, but I think their real importance (if there is any) lies in provoking questions about where we are now and where we’re going in the future.

What do think about counterfactuals? Do you have a particular counterfactual that interests you?

Cheers

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

“The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves”

I mentioned in an earlier post that after writing about the U.S. military and emancipation during the Civil War, a friend on Facebook asked me if I had “any insight as to whether our modern army would fire upon its own US citizens at the orders of the Commander in Chief?”

I find it fascinating that an essay on the executive-military relationship during the Civil War roughly 150 years ago immediately prompted a question about our present situation regarding the use of drones in warfare. It reminds me that the questions we ask of the past are determined by the questions we have about the present, and that our roles as participants in the America of 2013 shape our observations and perceptions of the America of 1863, whether we like it or not. Indeed, President Barack Obama has claimed that he has been influenced by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, but an argument could easily be made that the legacy of Barack Obama has influenced the way we look at Abraham Lincoln. My studies in graduate school have demonstrated that there really is no such thing as creating histories that depict events of the past “as they happened.” We create histories that depict events of the past as we think they happened with the partial, existing evidence we are able to study today.

It would be fair for me to say that regardless of what perspective one takes when looking at the Civil War, we can all agree that the demise of slavery was a good thing. Yet my friend’s question suggests that using the military to help destroy slavery in the South demands new questions to be asked about what the military can do on American soil today. In sum, what’s next? Where’s the boundary line between military benevolence and military despotism? Is the executive branch allowed to unilaterally call for an attack on an American citizen(s)? Doesn’t the Constitution protect us from such a thing?  Alas, strikingly similar questions were being asked by slaveholders in the border states who remained in the United States (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Tennessee [sort of]) in 1863. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to these states, many slaveholders understood that this act threatened the stability of their “property” and they vocally criticized Lincoln for what they perceived as an undemocratic and despotic act of executive fiat that demonstrated his love for “the Negro race.” In fact, one pamphlet distributed by Northern Democrats for the 1864 Presidential election was entitled Abraham Africanus I: his secret life, revealed under the mesmeric influence; mysteries of the White House. “The Executive branch should not be allowed to conduct such a program [emancipation] by themselves,” these people argued, in more or less terms.

Many Union soldiers during the Civil War argued that America was an exceptional nation because its rulers were bound by the rule of law and the ballot box, not a monarchical leader or a military dictatorship. Furthermore, they argued that America was composed of citizen-soldiers who did their duty and followed orders, regardless of how they felt about the government’s position on the issue. Most detested the constant political upheavals that plagued Europe and were proud of the fact that military coups did not take place in America.

I think we are seeing that strains of those convictions in our current political discourse over drones today. We are now in the midst of a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, led by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, after Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a letter saying that yes, under certain circumstances determined to be “catastrophic” in the minds of the executive branch and the executive branch alone the President CAN kill Americans on American soil. Viewed in this light, is it right for a soldier to always obey and enforce an order of the executive, even if that order targets American citizens and could be considered morally wrong? Many people have echoed Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s comment that regarding drones, “The Executive Branch Should Not be Allowed to Conduct Such a Program by Themselves.” Equally important to our discussion, does the debate over drones today change the way we look at Lincoln’s use of the military in ending slavery during the Civil War?

These questions are tough to answer, but for me I think the current debate shows that we to need set more boundaries regarding what the executive can and can’t do with the military. I’d also point out that Lincoln did set some boundaries because he avoided issuing a similar document like the Emancipation Proclamation in the border Union states. He believed it was an unconstitutional violation of the 5th amendment regarding the confiscation of property (i.e. slaves) without due process. (Also remember that Confederates no longer acknowledged the laws of the United States, thus the EP was used as a “war measure” to destroy the Confederacy’s fighting ability). I think this demonstrates that there were limits to the President’s power in 1863 at least, but my interpretation is certainly up for debate.

Conversely, we’ve learned that the leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died. Chavez was a brutal, undemocratic leader who made his first entrance into politics through a failed military coup–rather than the ballot box–in 1992. Indeed, throughout the 1990s Chavez believed that a military takeover of the government was the only effective way of enacting political change, according to this book. (p.116) Chavez even had a failed military coup enacted against his government in 2002. This situation asks us whether or not it is right for the military to have the right to arbitrarily decide when it will enforce the actions of their executive. If I’m not satisfied with the actions of an executive (as was Chavez), is it right for me to use my position in the military to reject those actions and attempt to overthrow the government, without the use of the ballot box?

Some intellectual food for thought. I welcome any feedback and appreciate your readership.

The U.S. Military and Emancipation: A Question of Agency

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Red States free. (Click to Enlarge)

I enjoyed presenting my paper and meeting several historians throughout the states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee at the IAH Conference today. As mentioned two days ago, the central argument of my paper was that the U.S. military has played an active role in shaping the constructs of social policy throughout our history, and that more research is needed to understand the military’s influence in these matters. After my presentation an audience member asked me a very good question that is worth further elaboration here. He asked how I was able to determine a difference between the agency [the power of choosing or determining a course of action] of the federal government and the military in shaping social policy. If I understood the question correctly, he is basically asking the following:

“Isn’t the military supposed to take orders from the Chief Executive?”

“Is it fair to say that the military played a role in shaping social policy when in actuality they were merely enforcing the orders of the federal government, the true agents in calling for emancipation during the Civil War and the end of segregation during the Civil Rights movement?”

On the face of it, the answer to both is yes. When looking at events during the Civil Rights movement, the question of agency and the U.S. military is tougher to answer. However, the circumstances surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the military’s part in helping to enforce the act demonstrate that the military did have a fair amount of agency in helping to destroy the institution of slavery during the Civil War.  It was not merely an act of the military “enforcing orders” from the President. I’ll explain why.

In looking at the relationship between the military and the executive branch during the Civil War (and, by extension, the period from 1776-1898) we must internationalize our context and compare/contrast the military-executive relationship with a wider range of countries. When we do this, we see that the United States and their republican form of government are the exception to the rule of governmental structures during this period. We must remember that England, France, Austria, Hungary, Russia, the areas that would eventually become the countries of Italy and Germany, and many other countries still had a monarchical form of government at this time. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind the fact that the power of these monarchical regimes relied on the military to enforce the King’s actions. In sum, these Kings greatly relied on the military for legitimacy. If the King took an action that the military didn’t like, there was always a possibility that a military coup would overthrown the King’s government and put in its own puppet regime. You can see here that there were many successful military coups in the 18th and 19th centuries, and this was the world in which the United States was attempting to maintain a form of government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

The world was watching the Civil War and waiting to see what would happen to this republican form of government. Would it perish? Would Lincoln be overthrow by the Union military when things starting going bad in 1862? Would a new Northwest Confederacy emerge?

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, there remained a sense of uncertainty about how the act would be received in the border slave states (Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Maryland, and Delaware) and the Union military. Rumors spread that thousands of soldiers were going to throw down their guns and go home in protest against a war for abolition. Such concerns in Lincoln’s mind led him to prevent John Fremont from issuing his own Emancipation edict in Missouri earlier in 1861.

Given the high number of recent military coups that had occurred in Europe and the widespread criticism Lincoln received for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, I’m not convinced that the process of having the Union military enforcing emancipation is as easy as “following orders” from the President because the military-executive relationship was tenuous and unstable. Turning the war into one for abolition was risky and could have possibly led to a coup against the Lincoln government from the soldiers of the border and/or western states. If the Union Army refused to enforce emancipation, what would have happened?

According to Reid Mitchell, following the Emancipation Proclamation, “some soldiers were jubilant, others horrified, and still more accepted the war’s transformation with troubled minds.” That last part is notable. Many soldiers put their own feelings aside and simply soldiered on. Let us look at a letter from Andrew Bush, an Indiana soldier in the 97th Indiana volunteer regiment, for his reaction to Emancipation:

We have not much news here but much anxiety is felt for northern news amongst some of the soldiers in regard to the welfare of old Hoosier. It is reported frequently amongst us that Indiana is about to form a government [the aforementioned Northwest Confederacy] of her own with some other of the western states… Some of our boys are jubilant over the news; they think that if old Indiana should slip out of the Union they would get to go home; but they will find out that they are in mistake for us soldiers don’t belong to Indiana, for we are sworn to obey the president of the United States and we are in his service and he can hold us in spite of anything that we and our friends can do.

I don’t like old Abe’s proclamation but I can’t help myself at this time. If I had thought that it was the idea to set the negroes all free they would not have got me to act the part of a soldier in this war. But as it is I am willing to fight for the Union if it will cause the freedom of the last beastly negro in the South for I don’t think that they are human. I am in for anything that will cause Union and peace of our once happy government.

Andrew Bush did not care one ounce for African Americans, but he helped to end the institution of slavery in the country by being a Union soldier. Following the Emancipation Proclamation he refused to lie his gun down because his nationalism and belief in a republican form of government overrode his personal views. “We are in his service,” Bush claims. There were no further questions to ask. This was not a European country ruled by an oppressive king and his strong military, but a government ruled by the people and the ballot box, and this was the ideal Bush believed he was fighting for. Such letters reinforce my argument that many members in the military–guided by a strong sense of nationalism during the Civil War–put aside their personal views and decided to support Lincoln’s controversial measures during the deadliest war in American history. So it seems to me that the military did have an element of agency in helping to end slavery in this country. In the words of Gary Gallagher, they became “an army of liberation.”

P.S.: It did NOT take me this long to answer the question at the conference!