Edward L. Ayers on Lincoln

Edward L. Ayers on Lincoln and USCT’s at Lehigh University:

“Lincoln understood that the war was a race to see which society fell apart first,” Ayers said. “He was determined that that was one race the North was not going to win.” It was the widespread disdain for Lincoln that allowed him to make some of the most controversial decisions of his presidency, Ayers said. He considered his re-election a lost cause and therefore felt free to make bold decisions and take daring actions despite being aware of the massive consequences of doing so. The boldest of these actions was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ayers said. Lincoln, with the stroke of a pen, ended more than 200 years of slavery and granted freedom to over 4 million southern slaves.

The war had begun as a war to preserve the Union, but the Emancipation Proclamation transformed it into a war to free an entire people who had been enslaved for more than two centuries. “Lincoln accomplished the greatest sleight of hand in American history,” Ayers said. Ayers also discussed the Northern population’s attitude toward slavery. The Northern understanding of freedom had to be built, Ayers said. They had to feel that freedom for the slaves was right.

Northern blacks did the most to change the minds of Northern whites. During the Civil War, over 200,000 black men volunteered for the Union Army. Their willingness to fight and die for their brothers held in bondage made a deep impression in the minds of the white population of the North, Ayers said. “Black soldiers changed the minds of Northerners by saving the Union,” Ayers said. Northern soldiers fighting in Southern states who saw the cruelty of slavery with their own eyes also changed their outlook, he said. “They witnessed firsthand a people yearning for freedom,” Ayers said.

Postscript: Check out Brian Dirck’s thoughtful response over at A Lincoln Blog.

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