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 slavery’s abolition 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, Adam 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.
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.
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.
One of the greatest challenges of the Future of Civil War History conference was choosing which sessions to attend throughout each day. There were times in which there were as many as seven different sessions going on at the same time, requiring some tough decisions on where to direct my attention. One of the sessions that made the cut was a discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites. While not directly related to anything I’m currently researching or studying, I take an interest in the USCT because they were important not only as a military force but also a political one. Through military service, according to Frederick Douglass, blacks had “earned the right of citizenship in the United States,” and many Americans would support a new Constitutional amendment giving African Americans such a right through the 14th amendment because they understood that these men had fought and died for the Union. (It should also be pointed out that voting rights for blacks would not come for a couple more years via the 15th amendment.)
(On a brief sidenote, University of Texas at El-Paso Professor Adam Arenson tweeted me some information today about his research project on blacks who had run away to Canada to escape slavery before the war but returned to fight in the Union military. I’ll be anxious to get a copy of this book when it comes out. He’s also written a book about St. Louis that I just love.)
The panelists were interesting and I enjoyed hearing their comments about the USCT. I wanted to ask questions and get involved in the discussion, but I needed more time to contemplate the panel as a whole. I just didn’t feel comfortable asking questions at that point. After further reflection, however, I believe the discussion took a turn that ultimately kept us from getting closer to devising ways to better interpret the USCT at Civil War sites. I’ll start first by describing some good points.
Kevin Levin from Civil War Memory did a great job of kicking things off by remarking that great changes had occurred in interpreting the war in recent years and that slavery and emancipation were now dominant narrative themes of Civil War history. He reminded us, however, that our continually shifting memories of the war are always accompanied by new questions about the past, and that the history of slavery and emancipation are now waiting for new questions and interpretations to be asked of them. Perhaps an opportunity even exists for a new narrative theme to take over the history of the Civil War. I appreciated Emmanuel Dabney’s call to share the personal narratives of African Americans (including USCTs) with visitors to Civil War sites. Joseph McGill suggested that genealogy could provide an avenue for African American students to take an active interest in the history of the Civil War. Barbara Gannon pointed out that most battle sites where the USCT fought are actually state parks, not national parks, which complicates the narrative of the USCT. I would surmise that it creates financial problems as well.
This said, however, I’m not sure if the discussion on the relevancy of the movie “Glory” on audiences today was effective in helping us devise ideas to improve our interpretive efforts. One panelist in particular, Hari Jones, took shots at the movie and argued that it created an image of “victimization of the victors,” by which he meant that the movie portrayed the eventually victorious black soldiers as illiterate fools who needed to be beaten into shape by white officers. That interpretation may be plausible, and I understand that the movie has its inaccuracies, but does this commentary help us move the future of Civil War history forward? In my opinion, too much time was spent by various panelists trying to convince the audience that the USCT was worth interpreting in the first place, when in reality none of us really needed to be convinced of anything. We were there because we care deeply about creating interpretations of the USCT and all African Americans that give them their proper place and agency in Civil War history. We’ve already been convinced of the importance of the USCT. You’re preaching to the choir.
Dabney remarked that an informal poll he took with visitors at his place of employment (Petersburg National Battlefield) showed that most young people have not seen “Glory.” He and several other panelists also stated that the proper resources to study the USCT were hard to find and access was sometimes blocked by academic paywalls. It seems that resources and mediums in which to interpret the USCT are wanting, and that’s why it was disappointing to hear such little discussion on the potential of digital technology to help in this endeavor.
Barbara Gannon, in my opinion, was the closest to directing the discussion towards a discussion of digital technology. She pointed out that Fort Wagner–site of where the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry engaged in battle for the first time–is now underwater, rendering the site useless for interpretation. Gannon suggested that we use digital technology to create a virtual tour of the battlefield. Although no further discussion by the panelists occurred regarding this idea, I wholeheartedly support it and believe it could be equally effective if not more effective than a showing of the movie “Glory” to young students today. Maybe this site could incorporate the same ideas that have been guiding a new project on Chinese digital caves.
I would also take this a step further. If access to primary sources for USCTs is so tough, why not use this proposed website on the Battle of Fort Wagner as a central database for accessing resources about the USCTs as a whole? I like the idea of creating a site similar to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s “Railroads and the Making of Modern America,” which provides a wealth of interactive graphs, maps, and newspapers over a wide range of sub-topics all related to the evolution of railroads. Why not create interactive maps that show the progress of various USCT troop movements and tactics? How about maps and census records to show us where these men lived before and after the war? What about a collection of newspapers that show the various reactions of whites to the Emancipation Proclamation or the idea of blacks armed and in uniform? Maybe we could use topic modeling to determine if and when there was a change in white attitudes towards the USCT once they proved their valor on the field and died fighting for the American flag.
I think an opportunity to discuss the connections between the USCT, the struggle to access their records, and the use of digital technology to enhance our interpretations of the USCT at Civil War sites was lost when no one took up Gannon’s call for a virtual tour website of Fort Wagner. Such ideas, I believe, are going to play a more vital role in the future of Civil War history than a discussion about Glory’s inaccuracies or relevancy, especially when it was concluded that many young people no longer even watch the movie in the first place. Regardless, I enjoyed the panel for the most part and felt very privileged to meet and speak with Levin, Gannon, Dabney, and McGill afterwords.