Civil War 1860–and 2016?

Posted on August 11, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s the last post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, in which we leave the campaign and think ahead to its logical and inevitable conclusion—the election of a president.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

We don’t know who will win the 2016 presidential election, but it seems fair to say that the reporting of Election Day in 2016 will be much like the reporting from the New York Times on Election Day 1860:

…The return of Napoleon from Elba did not a greater excitement than the returns of the present election. All day yesterday the inquiry was in everybody’s mouth, “What’s the latest news?” Newspapers were in demand… Every bus that carried its dozens of citizens businessward in the morning was a reading-room, a political meeting-house and a pseudo stock board, all in one. Some read the papers, some fought the bloodless battle over again, bringing their batteries of profound argument to bear upon the proposition that “they knew Lincoln would be elected”… In the streets, in the restaurants, in offices and counting-houses such was the tenor of the talk, and the character of the occupations of all to whom a leisure moment came.

Change out “newspaper” for “Internet” or “TV” and it fits pretty well. Change out “Lincoln” for “Clinton” or “Trump” and again it seems likely. One hopes that the battles after the 2016 election results are in will be bloodless; as we know, the returns in 1860 heralded the shedding of more American blood than anyone could have imagined even on November 7, 1860, when it was obvious to most Americans that sectionalism, created and exacerbated by the enslavement of black Americans, had driven a wedge so deep into the country that nothing short of a war seemed powerful enough to dissolve the sectionalism and mend the breach.

Today, Trump denies that he was inciting people to murder when he said on August 9 that the “Second Amendment people” might find a way to stop Clinton from naming Supreme Court justices if she is elected president, but this was just the most egregious of many calls to violence and bloodshed that we’ve heard in this country over the past year of campaigning, all, so far as we have seen, coming from the conservative side of the liberal-conservative sectional divide that is currently rending our country in two.

It’s hard to imagine another Civil War being fought today over liberal-conservative sectional issues. But as we said back in 2008 in Union or Slavery?:

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

The current election is causing great anxiety for many Americans on both sides of the sectional divide, but no doubt few are ready to believe that it could spark another Civil War. As we’ve seen in the Times‘ coverage of 1860, they were loathe to believe it, too; to the very end they kept reflecting the belief that somehow the proslaveryites would gradually back down and accept the fact that they no longer controlled political power in Washington. They were wrong. And those who believe today that one side or the other will back down from civil war may also be wrong. We devoutly hope they are not. But our trip back in time to the 1860 election has, sadly, inspired more fear than hope on that issue.

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What is conservative and what is radical? 1860 and 2016

Posted on August 4, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to post seven in  our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Today we extrapolate a parallel between Trump and Abraham Lincoln.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

Speaking of slavery, a New York Times editorial from October 1861 focuses on whether or not newly nominated Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln really intends to end slavery as southerners insist. Despite the fact that Lincoln represented a party founded in large part to stop the spread of slavery, and that Lincoln had, over the previous four years (since his debates with Stephen Douglas) been more and more clear that he found slavery morally wrong and dangerous to the political Union and American democracy, and that most Republican voters expected Lincoln to “teach the South a lesson” after having its way in Washington for four score and seven years, the author of the editorial is sure that Lincoln will do nothing to stop slavery:

After Mr. Lincoln shall be elected we think he will very promptly take steps to dispel the fogs that have been thrown around his political position – and that he will present himself to the country as a Conservative, devoted to the Union, considerate equally of every section and of every State, and resolved faithfully and with firmness to maintain the Constitution in all its parts. We have no doubt that he will proclaim himself opposed to the extension or increase of Slavery, and equally opposed to any interference of Congress, or of the North, with Slavery in the Southern States. He has repeatedly declared himself in favor of an efficient Fugitive Slave Law, and opposed to negro suffrage and the political equality of the negro race. We regard these as eminently conservative views, and if his Administration adheres to them with firmness and fidelity, we believe it will contribute largely to the restoration of the public peace, and fortify the Constitution and the Union still more thoroughly in the affection and confidence of the American people…

In this short paragraph we have a wealth of contradictions:

—The idea that Lincoln’s plans as a Republican president were unclear, shrouded in “fog” by outsiders, is an amazing example of wishful thinking. Very few people in the U.S. in the election year of 1860 felt unclear about what Lincoln would do regarding slavery. Northerners assumed he would stop it from spreading and eventually end it in the South; Southerners assumed he would immediately abolish it throughout the Union. This is because of Lincoln’s many statements about hating slavery and wishing to help it along to oblivion, and because of his party’s antislavery basis.

—The statement about a conservative being equally devoted to every section and state is also pretty astounding. The 1860 election was the first in which no presidential candidate represented the entire country. The Republicans were Northern, the Southern Democrats were Southern, the Democrats were primarily Southern, and the Constitutional Union party was created to attract loners who did not take a side—of whom there were vanishingly few. That was the whole point of the 1860 election: the country had irretrievably divided over slavery. There was no going back, and certainly not with a candidate like Lincoln who was antislavery. He did not represent the South.

—The characteristics of “eminently conservative views” given here are shocking, as they are three examples of radical race hatred against black Americans and, in the case of the FSL, a violation of the Constitution (state antislavery laws were overruled by federal law insisting that slavery must be acknowledged in those states while slave states were not forced to acknowledge abolition). This is what passes for normal in a country driven to extremes of sectionalism: maintaining the horrible, anti-democratic status quo is “conservative” while attempting to restore democracy is “radical”.

—How is it possible to confidently claim that if Lincoln does continue to maintain the proslavery status quo it will restore the Union and public peace, and fortify the Constitution? The Constitution is already violated, and it’s the status quo of appeasing slaveholders itself that has led the Union to the brink of rupture and destroyed the public peace.

If we look to the present 2016 presidential race, we see unsettling similarities between this article and how Trump is often described by his admirers. He may seem like a dangerous radical, but that’s just a “fog” of misinformation spread by his detractors, all of whom are themselves dangerously biased. Trump is devoted to the United States and its Constitution, and will treat all Americans with the same love and respect, no matter how much he targets certain populations for his hatred. His deeply racist, sexist, and anti-democratic views are actually “eminently conservative”, representative of the established status quo and traditional American values.

At the same time, the editorial writer’s willful blindness to the reality that the nation has changed and is on a very dangerous course toward civil war is seen today in writers and speakers and average Americans on both the Democratic and Republican sides. Pretending that the 2016 election is business as usual is as crazy as pretending that the 1860 election was. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that you live in dangerous times, and that the status quo is being fundamentally challenged. Presenting radical hate as common sense, threats of nuclear war as protecting national security, and an unstable character as “honest” is as much an attempt to say that nothing is changed when everything has changed as anything written in 1860.

Next time: the end of our journey

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Delegates forced to vote for Trump, not forced to vote for Douglas

Posted on July 28, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Entry six in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign focuses on a detail of the second 1860 Democratic convention in Baltimore that hews closely to a detail of the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

You’ll remember that in post five on the 2016 Republican national convention, we described how the 1860 Democratic national convention fell apart after proslavery fire-eaters walked out rather than support slavery moderate Stephen Douglas as their candidate. The Democrats decided to try again six weeks later in Baltimore. When we wrote post five, we noted that it was uncertain whether the 2016 Republican national convention would suffer the same division as moderate delegates tried to rescind their promised votes for Trump. The answer is yes and no.

In Baltimore in 1860, the Democrats had to decide whether to let the southern proslavery delegates who had walked out of the Charleston convention six weeks earlier to participate in the new convention. Eventually the committee charged with the decision said the party should re-admit all of the renegade delegates except those from Louisiana and Alabama. Those states would have to provide new delegates. They did so, and the new delegates joined the convention, but as they did almost all of the other southern delegates walked out again, and this time they took some northern and western delegates with them.

When Douglas was nominated by well over a 2/3 margin of the remaining delegates, the official Democratic party had its presidential candidate. But the delegates who walked out regrouped in another location in Baltimore and elected their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, in the name of their new party, the Southern Democratic party.

The Democrats were officially split, and this helped guarantee a win for the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in the presidential election.

In the New York Times‘ initial coverage of the reconvening of the Democratic convention, before the walkout, there is an interesting note:

The most significant step taken was the action upon a resolution offered …that all the delegates admitted to seats in the Convention should be deemed bound in honor to support its nominees. Nothing could be intrinsically more just than such a rule. Conventions become a mere farce when they cease to carry any obligation—and if one portion of their members are held bound by their action, while another portion is entirely free, they become insurgents of oppression. But the Southern Delegates refused utterly to assent to any such restriction of their liberty. They declared their determination to secede en masse in advance of any action, if such a rule should be adopted.

This is almost identical to what happened in Cleveland this year: the Republican convention began with some delegates attempting to force through a resolution to change the rules of the convention to allow them to rescind their promised votes for Trump. They were not successful, and basically the above argument was made against them that “Conventions become a mere farce when they cease to carry any obligation—and if one portion of their members are held bound by their action, while another portion is entirely free, they become insurgents of oppression.”

The present-day Republican delegates did not “utterly refuse to assent to this restriction of their liberty”, they did not walk out, and the convention did not split. But the eerie similarities between 1860 and 2016 continue in this moment from both conventions.

Next time: political spin, 1860 and 2016

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Trump and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Posted on July 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part four of our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Here we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City (now Cooper Union) on February 28, 1860 and compare one part of it with the rhetoric coming from Trump supporters in 2016.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “war on Christianity”and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln represented the new Republican Party, in only its second presidential election season. He was in 1860 still walking the fine line of saying that while the Republican Party was dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery into the west, it would not try to abolish slavery in the south. In most of his speeches on the campaign trail, Lincoln tried to do two things at once: force southerners to accept a Republican victory, if it came, by emphasizing that winning the popular vote would mean that most Americans wanted to stop the spread of slavery and therefore southerners could not claim that the election had been hijacked by a radical minority; and convince southerners that this antislavery majority did not mean that the south would have to get on board with the rest of the nation and abolish slavery.

This is the context for the statement we’re about to quote from the Cooper Union address, in which Lincoln addresses proslaveryites and debunks their claim that they have a Constitutional right to enslave other people and, therefore, an implied right to secede from the Union if slavery is abolished or even limited to the south. Here is the candidate:

…But you will break up the Union, rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound: but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such  right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

Sub out “slaves” and the right to enslave for the right of anyone and everyone to buy and openly carry guns anywhere in public, even schools, or the right of self-professed Christians to deny public services to people who they feel offend Christianity, or the right of anti-choice legislatures to deny women access to health care from providers that also perform abortions, and you have a Democratic speech right out of 2016.

Many people today who self-identify as conservative in our new sectionalism of conservative v. liberal consistently claim a constitutional right to deprive others of their personal liberties. Yet the Constitution, as Lincoln points out, is “literally silent about any such right”. The Second Amendment does not protect private gun ownership for private use; it protects the right of American citizens to own guns so they can fight in local militias sanctioned and controlled by local governments. The Constitution does not mention Christianity in any way, and the Founders officially denied any Christian basis for the United States. Abortion or the rights of fetuses are not in the Constitution.

Too often an American’s right to freedom of speech, which actually is in the Constitution, is construed to protect “rights” that are not in the Constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that actions could be identified as speech, this has happened. If it’s constitutional to protest outside an abortion clinic, clinics must be unconstitutional. If religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, then all of my religious beliefs must also be constitutionally protected (nope—see Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment for a rundown of the difference between religious worship and religious belief).

But conservatives who believe that all their beliefs are enshrined in the Constitution are often deaf to these arguments. As Lincoln put it, they will destroy the Government, unless they be allowed to construe the Constitution as they please, on all points in dispute between them and liberals. They will rule or ruin in all events. The eagerness of Trump’s supporters to destroy the federal government that they see as denying them their constitutional rights is a harvest sown by neoconservative Republicans for over thirty years now. This anti-government, Constitution-bending activist section may likely dispute the outcome of the presidential election if Clinton wins. And so we find ourselves, like Lincoln, facing a possible contested election over chimerical Constitutional rights. Secession seems slightly less likely today than in 1860… but it seemed unlikely to most observers in 1860.

Next time: on with the 1860 campaigns

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If Trump could save the Union by bombing Europe with nuclear weapons…

Posted on April 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Do you remember how, back in April 2008, we posted an analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation? It was called “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves…”: The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation,” and it referred to the famous Lincoln-Greeley exchange:

In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.

In our effort to explain why Lincoln’s statement is not disgustingly pro-slavery but revolutionary in its essence, we said this:

Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.

You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)

We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.

It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.

When we wrote that, we deliberately tried to think of the most exaggerated, not remotely possible scenario we could—a U.S. president saying s/he would use nuclear weapons on the Middle East.

But Republican presidential candidate Trump has yanked this scenario into the realm of the possible. He has in fact made our outlandish scenario look modest by saying he would bomb not just ISIS-held areas of the Middle East, but our allies and friends in Europe. Here is the relevant part of his interview with Chris Matthews:

Donald Trump: “First of all, you don’t want to say take everything off the table because you would be a bad negotiator if you do that.”

Chris Matthews: “Just nuclear?”

DT: “Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time that it could be used? Possibly.”

CM: “The problem is when you say that, the whole world heard that. David Cameron heard that in Britain, the Japanese where we bombed them in ’45 heard it. They are hearing a guy running for President of the United States talking about maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”

DT: “Then why are we are making them [nuclear weapons]? Why do we make them?”

CM: “Because of the old mutually assured destruction, which Reagan hated and tried to get rid of.”

DT: “I was against Iraq, I would be the last one to use the nuclear weapons because that’s sort of like the end of the ball game.”

CM: “Can you tell the Middle East we’re not using nuclear weapons?”

DT: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”

CM: “How about Europe? We won’t use in Europe?”

DT: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”

CM: “You’re going to use it in Europe?”

DT: “No! I don’t think so. But…”

CM: “Just say it, say ‘I’m not going to use a nuclear weapon in Europe’.”

DT: “I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes – but I’m not taking any cards off the table.”

And thus we have it: an American presidential front-runner, if not an actual president, saying he would use nuclear weapons on Europe. Lincoln’s statement that he would end slavery to win the war now takes second-place in the list of astonishing political statements made by presidents and/or presidential contenders. If we jinxed this by making the analogy, and by using the very words “on the table” that Trump used,  believe us, we’re sorry.

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The First Thanksgiving was not a scam!

Posted on November 20, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , |

In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

____

The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in London in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year, but the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

That one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

_____

The hype around the Pilgrims’ first thanksgiving only began after 1863, when historians noted the tradition of impromptu thanksgivings in the 1600s and made an unwarranted and improper connection to the new holiday to make it seem less new and more traditionally American. Before then, their many days of thanksgiving and fasting were completely forgotten. The Pilgrims certainly weren’t the inspiration for the holiday we celebrate today—they were retroactively brought into that in the worst, most ironic way: after the Civil War, southerners resented Thanksgiving as a “Union” holiday celebrating U.S. victories in the war and so the focus was changed from fighting slavery to the Pilgrims. It’s bitterly ironic because now people use Thanksgiving as a time to criticize white treatment of Indians when they should be celebrating our nation’s commitment to winning a war to end slavery.

This year, feel free to enjoy this Thanksgiving and share the truth about the Pilgrims and where the holiday really comes from—the depths of a terrible war fought for the greatest of causes. Let Thanksgiving inspire you to stand up for the founding principles of this nation and re-commit to upholding them in your own daily life of good times and bad.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Lincoln (on Real Time)

Posted on May 7, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.

The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history,  including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:

Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…

Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.

Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.

We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.

(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)

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“If I could save the union without freeing any slaves…” – The victory of the Emancipation Proclamation

Posted on April 30, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

This post is part 3 of my series on Lincoln, racism, and slavery. Here we conclude our study of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The EP is short and legalistic and has been criticized for lacking moral rhetorical flourishes, but this is deliberate. It is a canny legal document designed to outmaneuver Taney and the courts. In its short lines, the EP gives its legal rationale for freeing certain enslaved people, a schedule for doing so, a definition of who is freed, and their new legal condition. In its short lines, Lincoln overrode centuries of power located in state slave codes, property ownership laws, and civil court rulings and procedures. Lincoln offers no monetary compensation. And, at last, he drops all mention of shipping freed black Americans to Africa. [Ibid. 120] There would be no more colonization, compensation, or caviling. Slavery would no longer be a part of the southern United States. If the Confederate states returned to the Union, it would be without slaves.

So we see the reason Lincoln did not extend the terms of the EP to the Border states, or the western territories. (This is what he is lacerated for, for only freeing slaves in Confederate states at war.) First, the Border states were not at war with the U.S. but a part of it; Lincoln could not use his war powers on them when they were not in a state of war with the U.S. The same applies to the west, which was not at war with the U.S.

And Lincoln did not apply the EP to the North, to the Union, to the United States as it stood in 1862, because slavery had already been outlawed in all the states then remaining in the Union. We’ll come back to this later, though; Lincoln would.

In the months before Lincoln published his proclamation, Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune, wrote an editorial letter on August 20, 1862 blasting the president for not abolishing slavery already. No one outside Lincoln’s cabinet knew he had the EP written and waiting. Lincoln’s response is famous, or infamous, to us now. It is the letter in which he said that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would, and it he could save it by freeing none, he would, and if he could do it by freeing some and leaving others, he would do that.

We take that as the basest kind of position. This is the quote most people use to show how racist and pro-slavery Lincoln was. They are wrong. Let’s look at the whole letter.

Lincoln starts by saying that his main aim in the war is to preserve the Union. He sees a few options when it comes to saving the Union. He might be able to do it by freeing all the slaves. If that was the best option, he would take it. He might, though, be able to save the Union without freeing any slaves. If so, he would take that option. Or, he might be able to save the Union by freeing some slaves.

You, by now, should see that he is hinting very broadly at his Proclamation, which did just that: it freed some enslaved people and left others (in the border states) enslaved. (For the reasons we have already described—under war powers, he could only free slaves in territory at war with the U.S. without Taney and the courts striking the measure down.)

We still shudder at Lincoln calmly talking about not freeing anyone. But people at the time saw what was really shocking: Lincoln was saying that ending slavery was on the table. For the first time in the history of the United States, a president was saying he would outlaw slavery. This had never been on the table before.

It would be like an American president today saying, “If I can bring peace to the Middle East without using nuclear weapons, I won’t use them. If I have to launch a few nuclear strikes to bring peace, I’ll do that.” We would say, wait a minute—when did nuclear weapons come into this question? No one has ever talked about nuclear war in the Middle East before, but now the President is saying it’s on the table.

So with Lincoln’s statement that suddenly abolition was on the table. No longer could anyone in the U.S. or the Confederacy believe that slavery was protected and would not be abolished. Lincoln was telling the nation that he was thinking about abolishing it—that he would abolish it, if that would win the war. To Americans at the time, it didn’t matter that it might be partial abolition. Any move toward abolition coming from Washington was unheard of, and again, certainly no president had ever moved to abolish slavery at all, anywhere, ever.

Lincoln underlined this new attitude by adding, “I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” This was a pretty clear message—or warning—to the nation and the Confederacy that slavery was not going to make it out of the war intact. Lincoln was just waiting for the moment to make a move that would be effective and lawful. As Lincoln said himself after his letter appeared, his intention was to make clear that “he would proclaim freedom to the slave just as soon as he felt assured he could do it effectively…” [my italics; Ibid., 135-36]

Lincoln put the Proclamation out to the nation right before the November 1862 Congressional elections. This was dangerous. People might have voted all Republicans out of Congress because of the Republican president’s Proclamation. The Congress might have come under Democratic control, and those Democrats would have fought the Proclamation. But it had always been Lincoln’s wish to give the people a chance to vote on any emancipation order he issued. And 31 Republicans did lose their seats in Congress, as voting for Republicans fell 16 percent from 1860 [Ibid. 167] But the Republicans maintained their majorities in the House and Senate, and Lincoln pressed them to support the Proclamation. He knew that the Proclamation would not only free enslaved people, but galvanize the North. Once the Proclamation took effect… “the character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination [of slavery],” Lincoln told T. J. Barnett.

He was right. After January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, emancipation was “wedged into the war’s equation as a sine qua non of victory.” And Lincoln added that he intended to shape a follow-up policy that would be “more radical than ever.” [Ibid. 156, 228]

What was this radical move? To pass an Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery. Lincoln knew his Emancipation Proclamation would hold up during the war, and that those freed by it would remain free after the war. But what about enslaved people in the Border states, who were not freed by it? What about slavery in the west, or even in the North, unlikely as that may have seemed? Slavery was still technically possible in those areas. And Lincoln couldn’t be president forever. Once he was out of office, a new president could re-affirm slavery.

Lincoln could not accept this kind of risk. He began to push the new Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery in the United States. It seemed like a good sign when Lincoln’s legal nemesis Chief Justice Roger Taney died in October 1864. The vote on the Thirteenth Amendment came on January 31, 1865, and, as we know, it passed.

Next time: the final Lincoln post

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Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism

Posted on April 25, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , |

One of the most damaging myths about American history is that Abraham Lincoln was a terrible president. That he was a racist who loved slavery, and worked hard to keep the Civil War from ending it. That Abraham Lincoln was a pro-slavery weasel whom black Americans should scorn and whose memory we should all trample in the dust.

I will stamp out this malevolent myth about Lincoln in a series of posts. To help me, I will lean heavily on the great historian David Potter, and his invaluable book The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, and just about drown in the fantastic, should-be-required-reading-for-all-Americans Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, by Allen Guelzo.

To get to the truth about Lincoln, we have to go back to his statements and personal thoughts about slavery when he was on the road campaigning in Illinois to win the 1858 senate race against Stephen Douglas.

When Lincoln and Douglas spoke to the people, and debated each other, slavery was a major topic. Douglas had a typical “moderate” position on slavery: since black people were not the equal of white people, black people had to be kept in check somehow. Slavery took that too far; there was no need to enslave black people. But when it came to figuring out exactly what else to do to keep them in line, Douglas had no real ideas. He was willing to grant black people their freedom as a gift, rather than a real right, but he was in no hurry to do so, since there didn’t seem to be a clear way to keep black people in order once they were free. Douglas firmly stated that black Americans were not equal to white, and that black people ought to be treated with the charity one gives to inferior beings. “To a man who, as Lincoln observed, had ‘no very vivid impression that the Negro is a human,’ slavery did not appear either as a great moral issue or as an agonizing dilemma. The most important thing about it was to avoid a violent national quarrel about it…” [Potter, 340-341, 342].

Lincoln knew slavery was wrong. He knew that the reason the Founders didn’t put the word “slavery” into the Constitution was because they were ashamed of it and hoped that slavery would die, or, as Lincoln put it, they “intended and expected the ultimate extinction” of slavery. Lincoln believed black people were the equals of white people. “Let us discard all this quibbling about [this] race and that race and the other race being inferior… Let us discard all these things and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.” (Ibid., 342-3] Lincoln also believed slavery could not be allowed to spread, and that containing it would indeed set it on a course to die.

But then, like many Americans at the time, Lincoln ran into problems. Like the Founders, he believed that the existence of the United States was crucial to the quotient of good in the world. Lincoln believed he was obligated to live with slavery on this basis, waiting for it to die on its own. He also didn’t know how black people could be integrated into white American society. He did not believe black and white people could live peacefully together, not after hundreds of years of slavery had driven them so far apart. Lincoln felt that black people would never be given their full rights as Americans. He knew that there was no point in “[freeing black Americans] and [keeping] them among us as underlings.” Therefore, he decided the only solution was to send all the black people in America back to Africa, “their own native land.” This despite the fact that America was their own native land.

So Lincoln aspired to high ideals, and knew intellectually that black and white people were equal, but in his daily life and habits he was he was not ready to end slavery or begin the work of racial integration in the United States. And when he was addressing racist audiences during his senate campaign, he ramped up the racism in his own comments, assuring people he would never want to see blacks living equally with whites, and that the U.S. was a nation by and for whites alone.

What makes this man admirable? The fact that he grew increasingly irritated with his own inconsistency, and that he changed. In 1858, he believed that black people were equal to white people, but when it came down to visualizing a truly mixed and equal society, he just couldn’t see it, and didn’t want to risk trying it for fear of civil war. He believed what he said when he told his audiences that black and white people shared a common humanity. But nothing in his life in America had prepared him to live in a truly just, racially equal society.

Unlike Douglas, and most other Americans, however, Lincoln couldn’t rest with this attitude. He struggled with it. In his private papers, he wrote this: “If A can prove… that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A? –You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own. You do not mean color exactly? –You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”

As Potter points out, “Here, clearly, Lincoln saw blacks and white together, caught indiscriminately in the web of injustice which society often weaves. …it was only random chance which had made him free and made [blacks] slave.” [Ibid., 352-3]

So Lincoln was conflicted between an ideal and reality. The ideal—all people are equal, and brothers and sisters. The reality—he was uncomfortable living that out with actual black people. This is hardly surprising. Think of your own lofty ideals and how you fall short in living them out. Americans believe in justice and democracy, yet very few have done much to stop the imprisonments of Americans and others at Guantanamo Bay, the torture carried out by our soldiers, or the crimes committed in America’s name by private contractors in Iraq. Many Americans who know that racial profiling is wrong, and who would yell if it were applied to them, still can’t quite bring themselves to condemn it when it is applied to others, particularly olive-skinned men wearing turbans at the airport.  We all fall short of living out our ideals.

So do we hand Lincoln a big prize for falling short of his ideals? No. And if he had stopped there, he would not be the great man that he was and the American hero that he is. But he didn’t stop there. What makes Lincoln admirable at this point is what he did next: he kept thinking about his inconsistency, and he changed his position. He started out racist and changed. He started out wishy-washy on slavery and he changed.

We all start out with prejudices; that is part of growing up in any human society. If we live out our lives with those prejudices, we are not admirable. But if we can come to realize that prejudice is unjust, we can change, and become better people, and that is admirable. Lincoln was still racist in 1858. But he was not racist by 1861. That profound change is what makes Lincoln someone we can respect  and, more to the point, emulate.

Slavery mattered to Lincoln. His own inconsistency on race mattered to him. Having to talk publicly in political debates about slavery and race, and hearing himself waffle on both, forced Lincoln to resolve his ambiguity. Potter sums this up so well:

“The difference between Lincoln and Douglas… was that Douglas did not believe that slavery really mattered very much, because he did not believe that Negroes had enough human affinity with him to make it necessary to concern himself with them. Lincoln, on the contrary, believed that slavery mattered, because he recognized a human affinity with blacks which made their plight a necessary matter of concern to him. This does not mean that his position was logically consistent or that he was free of prejudice. …In a very real sense his position was ambiguous. …And, one must add, an ambiguous position is by definition one in which opposing values conflict with one another. It is hard to believe that, in Lincoln’s case, the conflicting values were really of equal force. …By a static analysis, Lincoln was a mild opponent of slavery and a moderate defender of racial discrimination. By a dynamic analysis, he held a concept of humanity which impelled him inexorably in the direction of freedom and equality.” (my italics) [Ibid., 354]

Lincoln had conflicting values, like most of us. Unlike most of us, he came pretty quickly to see that this was completely unacceptable, and he acted decisively to end slavery and to successfully integrate the United States after the war. That was in 1862, when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation.

Next post: The Emancipation Proclamation WAS the end of slavery in the U.S.

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