I had one of those moments today in my Civil War course where a student said something that helped me understand a document from a completely different perspective. We are in the middle of a week-long discussion of the coming of emancipation in the summer of 1862. We are following the ebb and flow of battle in Virginia and along the Mississippi and tracking the changes taking place throughout the United States surrounding the push toward emancipation. One of the more interesting documents we read this week was a Congressional address by Ohio Democratic Congressman Samuel S. Cox. On June 3, 1862 Cox delivered a blistering condemnation of emancipation and outlined a horrific picture of what would happen to the good people of Ohio in the event of a general emancipation. It was difficult to read, though it is crucial for my students to understand the strong racist views that white Northerners held at this time.
Today we read Lincoln’s famous response to Republican newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, who urged Lincoln to move more quickly against slavery. We all know Lincoln’s response to Greeley in which he carefully explains how slavery relates to the overriding goal of preserving the Union. I asked my students to think about who Lincoln was addressing in this response and what he was trying to accomplish. A number of interesting points were raised in terms of Lincoln trying to find a middle ground by satisfying the Democrats focus on Union and a growing Republican interest in emancipation. We also discussed the extent to which Lincoln was trying to force those on the extremes to acknowledge that they may have to give up something in return for the preservation of the Union. At one point one of my students asked if Lincoln was trying to set the terms of what it means to be committed to the cause and the nation. In other words, that Lincoln may have been trying to define the language of patriotism and loyalty. With Cox in mind she suggested that Lincoln was forcing him to defend a position that may end up satisfying his own personal/local priorities even if that meant losing the war. I assume we could apply the same line of reasoning in reference to those on the opposite side who were so focused on ending slavery without considering the possibility that this may not bring about the preservation of the Union. To be completely honest, I never thought of this.
I always have to remember to control my facial response when a student says something that I find truly insightful. The last thing I want to do is stifle further discussion. With all of the talk about mischievous teachers steering their students in ways that reflect our own political values it’s nice to be able to point to an example where it’s the student who steers the teacher. As far as I am concerned, it’s not about us anyway.