Lincoln in the Movies

This first video is perfect for a course on Lincoln and/or Civil War memory.  It provides a nice overview of how Lincoln has been interpreted in Hollywood movies and television since 1915.  The only reference that I was unfamiliar with is the recent short animation, Robot Chicken: Jedi in Chief, in which George W. Bush faces off against Lincoln.  Enjoy.

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Why Non-Slaveholders Will Fight For Slavery

DeBow's ReviewThe comment thread following the last post reflects the difficulty of coming to terms with the way in which slavery united white slaveholders and non-slaveholders of the South by the end of the antebellum period.  It is commonly assumed that because the majority of white southerners did not own slaves they had no interest in maintaining their “peculiar institution”.  It is therefore a mistake to characterize the Confederate war as a war to defend slavery.

This is an argument that would have been soundly rejected by many white southerners, including Louisianan J.D.B. DeBow, who wrote the following in his Review in January 1861:

The fact being conceded, that there is a very large class of persons in the slaveholding States who have no direct ownership in slaves . . . I think it but easy to show that the interest of the poorest non-slaveholder among us is to make common cause with, and die in the last trenches, in defence of the slave property of his more favored neighbor…

I will proceed to present several general considerations, which must be found powerful enough to influence the non-slaveholder . . .

1. The non-slaveholder of the South is assured that the remuneration afforded by his labor, over and above the expense of living, is larger than that which is afforded by the same labor in the free States. . . .

2. The non-slaveholders, as a class, are not reduced by the necessity of our condition, as is the case in the free States, to find employment in crowded cities, and come into competition in close and sickly workshops and factories, with remorseless and untiring machinery. . . .

3. The non-slaveholder is not subjected to that competition with foreign pauper labor which has degraded the free labor of the North, and demoralized it to an extent which perhaps can never be estimated. . . .

4. The non-slaveholder of the South preserves the status of the white man, and is not regarded as an inferior or a dependant. He is not told that the Declaration of Independence, when it says that all men are born free and equal, refers to the negro equally with himself. It is not proposed to him that the free negro’s vote shall weigh equally with his own at the ballot-box, and that the little children of both colors shall be mixed in the classes and benches of the schoolhouse, and embrace each other filially in its outside sports. It never occurs to him that a white man could be degraded enough to boast in a public assembly, as was recently done in New-York, of having actually slept with a negro. And his patriotic ire would crush with a blow the free negro who would dare, in his presence, as is done in the free States, to characterize the father of the country as a “scoundrel.” No white man at the South serves another as a body-servant, to clean his boots, wait on his table, and perform the menial services of his household! His blood revolts against this, and his necessities never drive him to it. He is a companion and an equal. When in the employ of the slaveholder, or in intercourse with him, he enters his hall, and has a seat at his table. If a distinction exists, it is only that which education and refinement may give, and this is so courteously exhibited as scarcely to strike attention. The poor white laborer at the North is at the bottom of the social ladder, while his brother here has ascended several steps, and can look down upon those who are beneath him at an infinite remove!

5. The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. . . .

6. The large slaveholders and proprietors of the South begin life in great part as non-slaveholders. . . .

7. But, should such fortune not be in reserve for the non-slaveholder, he will understand that by honesty and industry it may be realized to his children. . . .

8. The sons of the non-slaveholder are and have always been among the leading and ruling spirits of the South, in industry as well as in politics. . . .

9. Without the institution of slavery the great staple products of the South would cease to be grown, and the immense annual results which are distributed among every class of the community, and which give life to every branch of industry, would cease.

10. If emancipation be brought about, as will, undoubtedly be the case, unless the encroachments of the fanatical majorities of the North are resisted now, the slaveholders, in the main, will escape the degrading equality which must result, by emigration, for which they have the means, by disposing of their personal chattels, while the non-slaveholders, without these resources, would be compelled to remain and endure the degradation. . . .

It would be a mistake to interpret this narrowly as the sole reason as to why soldiers fought.  As we all know, volunteers were motivated by a wide range of factors.  Rather, we should interpret DeBow and others as suggesting that slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike understood the consequences of defeat.

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“It’s About Heritage”

reenactorsPeople forget that slavery existed in the whole country at the time, and less than 10 percent (of Confederates) actually owned slaves,” Waller said.

It must be about heritage because it certainly isn’t about history.

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High School Students Bring The Crater and Loyal Slaves to Life

Samuel LowryLooks like students at South Pointe High School are bringing to life the diary of Lt. Samuel “Catawba” Lowry, who served in the 17th South Carolina Infantry.  Lowry’s diary is well worth reading.  He provides a great deal of detail about camp life, battle, as well as his experiences with his servants.  His final diary entry comes just days before the battle of the Crater in which he was killed.  Lowry’s servant, Henry Avery recovered the body and escorted it home to Yorkville for burial.  On the one hand, I love projects like this.  Unfortunately, it looks like both teacher and students might be taking a bit too much license with the diary.

It is a story about Lowry’s home and his family – a story about his beloved Southland. Most of all, is a story about relationships and bonds of brotherhood.  It is also a story that some of the South Pointe cast members hope will challenge the stereotypes of the Civil War and slavery. Three of the essential voices in the play are Lowry family slaves: Horace, Jesse and Henry. They accompanied young Samuel to war. The diary never uses the word slave. Lowry refers to them as servants or boy.  It was Henry who descended into the crater, recovering Lowry’s body. Henry then found Lowry’s possessions – including the diary – and then brought Lowry home to Yorkville for burial.  South Pointe teacher James Chrismon and students such as junior Nicholas Arsenal turned the diary into a stage play. The play is not literal – some theatrical licenses were taken – but it stays true to Lowry’s beliefs and to his prose….

Anthony McCullough, one of two black students in the play, said the production “makes me realize that black people have come a long way.”  Arsenal said he hopes the play changes some perspective on slavery. “It wasn’t right, but not everyone was treated so badly.  “This play is about equality,” Arsenal continued. “Race doesn’t matter. Anyone can be your family,” he said.

Of course, it would be a mistake to blame students for characterizing the relationship between master and slave as one of equality.  Responsibility for this falls squarely on their teacher. This might be a good time to recommend one of Gilder-Lehrman’s summer Teacher Seminars.

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Creigh Deeds Mystifies, Misleads, and Surprises

On Monday Virginia State Congressman Creigh Deeds decided to say a few words in recognition of Lee-Jackson Day.  It’s quite funny.   I would love to know what the two ladies seen in the video were thinking.

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Alexander Stephens Reinforces The Cornerstone

We are all familiar with Alexander Stephens’s famous “Cornerstone Speech” which he delievered on March 21, 1861 in Savannah, Georgia.  In it he lays out the purpose of the new Confederate government and the proper status of black people:

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.” Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.

One of the things that makes this document essential for the classroom is the clear distinction that Stephens draws between slavery as a “necessary evil” as opposed to a “positive good.”  We see this shift beginning in the 1830s.  After the war, Stephens took the opportunity to clarify his thinking in this speech.

As for my Savannah speech, about which so much has been said and in regard to which I am represented as setting forth “slavery” as the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy, it is proper for me to state that that speech was extemporaneous, the reporter’s notes, which were very imperfect, were hastily corrected by me; and were published without further revision and with several glaring errors. The substance of what I said on slavery was, that on the points under the old Constitution out of which so much discussion, agitation, and strife between the States had arisen, no future contention could arise, as these had been put to rest by clear language. I did not say, nor do I think the reporter represented me as saying, that there was the slightest change in the new Constitution from the old regarding the status of the African race amongst us. (Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession; out of it rose the breach of compact, for instance, on the part of several Northern States in refusing to comply with Constitutional obligations as to rendition of fugitives from service, a course betraying total disregard for all constitutional barriers and guarantees.)

I admitted that the fathers, both of the North and the South, who framed the old Constitution, while recognizing existing slavery and guaranteeing its continuance under the Constitution so long as the States should severally see fit to tolerate it in their respective limits, were perhaps all opposed to the principle. Jefferson, Madison, Washington, all looked for its early extinction throughout the United States. But on the subject of slavery – so called – (which was with us, or should be, nothing but the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white) great and radical changes had taken place in the realm of thought; many eminent latter-day statesmen, philosophers, and philanthropists held different views from the fathers.

The patriotism of the fathers was not questioned, nor their ability and wisdom, but it devolved on the public men and statesmen of each generation to grapple with and solve the problems of their own times.

The relation of the black to the white race, or the proper status of the coloured population amongst us, was a question now of vastly more importance than when the old Constitution was formed. The order of subordination was nature’s great law; philosophy taught that order as the normal condition of the African amongst European races. Upon this recognized principle of a proper subordination, let it be called slavery or what not, our State institutions were formed and rested. The new Confederation was entered into with this distinct understanding. This principle of the subordination of the inferior to the superior was the “corner-stone” on which it was formed. I used this metaphor merely to illustrate the firm convictions of the framers of the new Constitution that this relation of the black to the white race, which existed in 1787, was not wrong in itself, either morally or politically; that it was in conformity to nature and best for both races. I alluded not to the principles of the new Government on this subject, but to public sentiment in regard to these principles. The status of the African race in the new Constitution was left just where it was in the old; I affirmed and meant to affirm nothing else in this Savannah speech.

My own opinion of slavery, as often expressed, was that if the institution was not the best, or could not be made the best, for both races, looking to the advancement and progress of both, physically and morally, it ought to be abolished. It was far from being what it might and ought to have been. Education was denied. This was wrong. I ever condemned the wrong. Marriage was not recognized. This was a wrong that I condemned. Many things connected with it did not meet my approval but excited my disgust, abhorrence, and detestation. The same I may say of things connected with the best institutions in the best communities in which my lot has been cast. Great improvements were, however, going on in the condition of blacks in the South. Their general physical condition not only as to necessaries but as to comforts was better in my own neighbourhood in 1860, than was that of the whites when I can first recollect, say 1820. Much greater would have been made, I verily believe, but for outside agitation. I have but small doubt that education would have been allowed long ago in Georgia, except for outside pressure which stopped internal reform.

That final paragraph is fascinating and raises all sorts of questions about the intellectual and moral world of Southern slaveholders.  On the one hand it’s hard not to admire Stephens for not abandoning a position that viewed the defense of slavery as the catalyst for secession as opposed to shifting to a purely constitutional argument that does little more than raise further questions about what a defense of those principles was meant to protect.   At the same time we are left to ponder the moral profile of an individual who continued to view the denial of education and marriage as problematic, but not slavery itself.  Did he really still believe that African Americans stood their best chance of flourishing at the hands of the very people who could decided when and under what conditions it would be permitted?

If not for those outside agitators…

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