Fables of the Reconstruction, part five

Some clean up, before proceeding to slave power conspiracy theory.

Some object that I’m too cynical about the Emancipation Proclamation, and that regardless of what motivated it, we should see it as a great moment in American history, and as evidence of our national love of freedom.  Others object that I haven’t given sufficient credit to the importance of preserving the Union, regardless of the events that caused disunion.  Still others say I haven’t given enough credit to the abolitionist movement.  Let me pause then to respond to those things, acknowledging as I do that I’m no expert on all this.  I just happen to have a blog, and therefore a platform.  But hopefully I can at least dish up some food for thought.

 As for the Emancipation Proclamation, let me suggest an analogy.  Someday history will agree on a consensus one-paragraph explanation of the reasons for the current Iraq War, and that explanation will be in all the textbooks.  Of course the fact that we can’t even agree on why we’re in the very war that’s going on now is pretty good evidence that we ought to be skeptical about any simplistic explanation for one that happened over 140 years ago, but let’s just assume that history goes with the explanation that the Iraq War was to free the Iraqi people.  In other words, Operation Iraqi Freedom really was an operation to free the Iraqi people from dictatorship.  Suppose, however, that before the US invaded Iraq we had specifically announced that we had no intention of freeing the Iraqi people, and that as soon as our military objectives were achieved (destruction of WMD, for example), we intended to depart with Saddam Hussein still in control.  But suppose further that after making that announcement, and commencing the invasion, things began going badly for us and we were losing the war.  Because of that, the President announced that the Iraqi government had 100 days to surrender over the WMD and stop resisting, and that if they didn’t, a the end of that 100 day period we would declare freedom in Iraq.  Suppose also that the freedom we declared would only be for people in those areas behind Iraqi lines, and that Iraqis in areas we’d already occupied would not be free.  Then suppose the Iraqis ignored our threat, and fought on.  After the 100 days had passed we issued an Iraqi freedom proclamation, limited to Iraqis behind enemy lines.  After several more devastating years of war, we prevailed completely.  Iraq surrendered and we made it into an economic colony of the US, albeit with freedom for all Iraqis.  Then we wrote history books for the US and Iraq, declararing that the war was fought to free the Iraqi people, as evidenced by the Iraqi freedom proclamation. 

Would anyone reasonably buy that story?  You wouldn’t think so, but millions of Americans have bought a very similar one for well over a century now.

While I’m using analogies that are sure to rile folks up, I’ll try another one on the issue of the role of abolitionists.   I’ve argued that abolitionism in 1860 was confined to a small minority, generally perceived by the vast majority, north and south, to be dangerous radicals.  By “abolitionists” I don’t meant those who generally or vaguely disfavored slavery, but rather those who advocated immediate emancipation.   In their day such folks were generally regarded as and often referred to as anarchists and advocates of free love, feminism, spiritualism, and seemingly every other form of weirdness then known.  Even though most were probably pacifists (due to the popularity of the movement with Quakers), the public also associated them with John Brown and a desire for a race war.  Their public reputation might be compared with that of the most agressive anti-abortionists today.  While a sizeable percentage of Americans oppose abortion, very few blow up abortion clinics, kill abortionists, slip photos of aborted children under women’s doors, etc.  Someday a moral consensus may exist that abortion is equivalent to the murder of children.  Should that day ever come, those who almost all Americans now consider dangerously radical, will in those days be considered forward-thinking heroes. 

I submit that the abolitionists of 1860 were hardly more influential than the most aggressive anti-abortionists of 2008 (although then, as now, those who feared them exaggerated their influence on the political establishment).  The fact that those abolitionists are now seen as heroes of their era, is only because we’ve had a sea change in how slavery is perceived by the population as a whole.  (And y’all can all hold your fire–I’m not comparing slavery to abortion, which I imagine would offend just about everybody.  I’m just looking for an analogous moral and controversial issue, and that just seems to me to be the most obvious one of our day).  It would be incorrect, in my humble opinion, to conclude that emancipation was due to the moral force of the abolitionist arguments.

While I’m swatting hornet’s nests, let me finish with the argument over preservation of the union.   There is a bizarre inscription in the Lincoln Memorial.  It reads “In this temple, as in the hearts of those for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”  The idea that the American public would construct a momument in honor of a man, and call it a “temple” where his memory is “enshrined,” is a little hard to swallow.  Someday maybe I’ll write about the weird deification of Abraham Lincoln.  But the idea that Mr. Lincoln “saved the Union” is a fundamental element of American popular history.  I’ve had many folks tell me that even if Mr. Lincoln wasn’t really motivated by a desire to free the slaves, he acted properly nevertheless because it was urgent that he “save the Union.”  In other words, preservation of the Union was sufficient in and of itself to justify a civil war, and the side acting to preserve the Union was, ipso facto, in the right.


Let’s switch a few historical facts around, then examine that argument.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Democrat party did not come unglued in 1860.  Stephen Douglas got the nomination and easily defeated Abraham Lincoln.  Douglas had made it clear that as President he would enforce the fugitive slave laws.  Assume the New England states, outraged at that prospect, seceeded from the Union, and then formed a new alliance called, let’s say, the “Confederate States of America.”  President Douglas declared their conduct illegal.  Although the secessionists had seized most federal property in their states, one fort in Boston harbor remained in federal hands.  Douglas having sent a ship to resupply it, the rebels attacked it, shelling it into submission.  In response President Douglas called on all states to raise 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion.  New York and Pennsylvania, which hadn’t previously seceeded, were outraged at Douglas’ move, so in sympathy with New England, they too seceeded and joined the CSA. 

Despite being vastly outnumbered, and subject to a strangling blockade, the ragtag citizen army of the new Confederacy defeats the Union army several times.  In frustration Douglas issues a proclamation declaring that unless the rebels submit within 100 days, their property will be forfeited.  The CSA fights on, but after a few more years and hundreds of thousands of deaths, they are completely vanquished.  Eventually, after a humiliating military occupation and period of “reconstruction” they are readmitted to the union, on conditions designed to assure the continued power of the Democrat party.  For the next century the defeated states are impoverished economic colonies of the winners. 

Now assuming that set of facts, is President Douglas a hero for having saved the Union?  Or were the seceeding states correct to resist the unjust fugitive slave laws, nothwithstanding the fact that it required dissolution of the Union?

I’d be surprised if anyone thinks that in that admittedly fantastical scenario, Stephen Douglas would be an American hero, deserving of a temple in which to enshrine his memory.

The simple truth, in my opinion, is that union cannot be considered automatically better, morally or legally, than disunion.  That cannot be determined without reference to the justice of the positions taken by those who favored union, and those who favored disunion.   I cannot agree, therefore, that “saving the Union” necessarily qualifies one for a temple.

Ok–for those of y’all who are still willing to read on, tomorrow we’ll look at the so-called slave power conspiracy, and my thoughts on why this war happened.

Grace and Peace