The Lincoln Bicentennial is being celebrated across the country. History has been mostly reverent to our 16th president. Yet some of us are old enough to remember back to the 1960s and 70s when some began taking a more critical look at Lincoln’s motives for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. And some still accuse him of being racist because his preliminary proclamation had mistakenly called for freed slaves to be colonized.
Many of us hadn’t realized that the emancipation of black slaves could have been both tactical and moral. I recently revisited Lincoln’s presidency by reading some works of Civil War historian, James McPherson. (His most prominent book is Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.)
McPherson emphasizes in his essays that Lincoln simply evolved throughout his presidency, even as the nature of the Civil War itself evolved. Lincoln was quick to grasp these shifting ideological aims of the war and so was able to save the Union.
At the start it was Lincoln’s own election that triggered the secession of slave states in the South, winning as he did with well under half of the popular vote. Lincoln felt the Union couldn’t let those states leave and still survive. The South felt they couldn’t survive without slave labor for their plantations. Seven southern states seceded and declared themselves the Confederate States of America. The war began as a means to put down their insurrection.
McPherson believes that Lincoln could not initially make the Civil War about emancipation for the simple reason that he had to please his much needed united front of northern and border states, some of which threatened to bail if he did.
“He did not consider abolishing slavery until it could become a weapon in preserving the Union,” said McPherson. Neither side intended to surrender and so the war became furious and full-blown. Since slavery was the main economical and ideological sustaining force for the South, it meant the Union had to crush them completely in order to succeed. The South knew it could not stay with the Union and maintain its economical and political power which had been provided by slave labor.
The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, eventually freed most of the nation’s 4,000,000 slaves. It took the Thirteenth Amendment, 1865, to guarantee that slavery would never again exist in the US. In addition, McPherson explains that emancipation necessitated a new definition of liberty – from freedom from government power, to freedom which only government power guarantees.
Lincoln ended up championing the Union and the slaves, and proved himself to be perceptive to the needs of his nation. And now … where the White House foundations were laid by slaves and where eight presidents brought their slaves with them during their terms in office, President Barack Obama now presides over the nation. My humble opinion? Obama is precisely right to want to learn from Lincoln.
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