An Effective Analogy

One of the most common retorts to the argument that slavery was central to the Southern way of life is to point out that only 1 in 4 white southerners actually owned slaves.  The argument suggests that ownership of slaves was a precondition for any decision that involved secession and even a reason to go off to war.  Recent studies of Southern society clearly show that the maintenance of the institution of slavery mattered in more ways than simple ownership.  It propped up a hierarchical society based on race and provided a means for advancement within society.  After all it took only one slave to be considered a "slave owner."  I find it difficult to make these points in class in a way that students identify with.  Luckily William Blair offers a wonderful analogy in his essay on slavery and secession which recently appeared in the new edited volume Struggle for a Vast Future. 

Imagine asking the question to a room full of primarily 18- through 21-year olds, "How many of you are homeowners?"  The predictably few hands that go up might provoke the following question: "Then does that mean you are against homeowning?"  The absurdity of the question strikes them almost immediately.  They understand that they have grown up in a society based on property owning by individuals, with homeowning as a means of measuring success.  Although listed on a census as non-homeowners, most have grown up in domiciles owned by parents and, even if they begin their independent adult lives as renters, wish to find property reflective of their social stations as soon as conditions allow.  Those who were raised in apartments admit to the power that homeowning holds on the culture.  Furthermore, while renters derive no benefit from the tax code that credits expenditures for interest rates on mortgages, few of them storm the tax office and cry for an end to the advantage, even if they grumble on tax deadline day about the lack of similar breaks for themselves.  Similar to our ancestors, we can overlook the contradictions within our society.  Many of us can walk by the homeless on the street and believe that a character flaw contributes to their condition, rather than challenge the individualism that undergirds our society or question whether we ought to accept the poverty-stricken as unfortunate, if inevitable casualties of a free-market system.

As Blair points out students can see the possibilities of a future war over the rights of homeowning and property, especially if it is couched in a broader ethical/moral language regarding a way of life. Slavery and homeowning both involve the rights of property ownership which makes this such an effective analogy.  Students can reflect on all the ways that homeowning fits into their broader economic and social world view.  What would it mean to lose this opportunity as an individual (freedom and self esteem) and a society? 

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Struggle for a Vast Future

I recently picked up Aaron Sheehan-Dean’s new edited collection Struggle for a Vast Future.  It is oneStruggle of the best edited volumes to appear in some time.  There are twelve essays from some of the leading historians in the field.  The book is well illustrated which gives it a less scholarly feel.  This is one of those unusual books that includes high quality essays that are accessible to a general audience.  Contributors include Willam Blair on slavery and the orgin of the war, Bob Krick on battlefield leadership, and Gerald Prokopowicz on Civil War soldiers.  Fellow blogger Mark Grimsley contributed a chapter on the evolution of the war.  In addition, Michael Vorenberg contributed an essay on emancipation, Jeffrey Prushankin on the war in the West, and Victoria Bynum on the home front.  Aaron Sheehan-Dean tops all of this off with an analysis of how the Civil War has been remembered and portrayed in popular culture.  Every aspect of the war is covered in this volume.  As I’ve argued over and over on this blog, we don’t really understand the importance of the Civil War if we fail to take both a broad and focused view. 

Over the past few years I’ve used America’s Civil War (Harlan Davidson, 1996) by Brooks Simpson as my basic narrative of the war.  This year I plan to add Sheehan-Dean’s book to their reading list.  I think my students will enjoy reading it. 

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A Very Thoughtful Student

Today I received a very thoughtful gift from one of my students.  She is a rising senior who took my AP course in American history this past year.  This individual is one of the most incredibly interesting students that I’ve come across in recent years.  She is both intelligent and curious; more importantly, she is very comfortable with herself which is a rarity for high school girls.  Anyway, I thought I would share just a little of the inscription which she included in this gift.

Mr. Levin,

I know you would much rather have a gift certificate and your second option would be to return this book, but I’m writing in it so that you can’t!  But I don’t think you will want to return this because it is right along your line of research.  I haven’t actually read it, but it is about how the South remembers history and that reminded me of [David] Blight.  So, I hope you enjoy it.

The title of the book is The South Lives in History by Wendell H. Stephenson.  The book is essentially Stephenson’s Fleming Lectures which are published by the LSU Press.  This one I believe has been out-of-print for awhile so it is really nice to have a copy.  The opening chapter traces the historiography of the South up to this book’s publication in 1955.  Additional chapters cover the careers of both William E. Dodd and Ulrich B. Phillips.  I will get a great deal of use out of this one. 

What a great gift from a wonderful student — made my year.

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The Civil War as a Failure of Democracy

I’ve commented a few times on our tendency to celebrate the Civil War rather than see it as a failure of democracy.  Today I was perusing through a section of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America and thought I would share this:

For the generation that lived through it, the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience.  It tore a hole in their lives.  To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas.  At traumatic wars do–as the First World War would do for many Europeans sixty years later, and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans a hundred years later–the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.  Those beliefs had not prevented the country from going to war; they had not prepared it for the astonishing violence the war unleashed; they seemed absurdly obsolete in the new, postwar world.  The Civil War swept the away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it.  It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of the modern life.

Menand traces the public careers of four American intellectuals, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce, and John Dewey.  Many of you are no doubt aware that these four men shaped the American pragmatist school of thought.  Menand argues that the Civil War shifted the way these men came to understand the concept of truth.  The shift involved the assumption that for our beliefs to be considered true they somehow had to connect or reflect reality.  Menand uses Holmes as the link between this older Enlightenment assumption of truth and a postwar theory which interpreted ‘true belief’ as a tool for social engagement.  In other words, beliefs are not "out there" waiting to be uncovered, but are tools to be used to maneuver in society.  True beliefs "work" for various reasons rather than being timeless and objective.

It is interesting that our popular understanding of the Civil War involves very little intellectual history beyond the political debates surrounding the abolitionist movement and secession.   Perhaps I am way off target here.   

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William Freehling on Abraham Lincoln

Today I had the pleasure of listening to William Freehling present a talk on Abraham Lincoln at the Miller Center.  William Freehling is one of the most talented historians writing today.  He recently retired from teaching at the University of Kentucky and is now a permanent scholar-in-residence at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities here in Charlottesville.   I met Professor Freehling three years ago when he agreed to visit my Civil War class to discuss one of his articles with my students.  The students thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  I highly recommend that you not pass up an opportunity to hear him in person.  Freehling is the author of numerous books and articles, including his seminal study The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 and more recently The South vs.The SouthWhat I enjoy most about his work is his emphasis on "many Souths."  All too often we generalize about the South and overlook salient distinctions that would help us better understand the evolution of slavery and the coming of the Civil War.  From the opening pages of The Road to Disunion:

My chief objection to previous accounts of the antebellum South, including my own is that portraits tend to flatten out the rich varieties of southern types.  The South is sometimes interpreted as this, sometimes as that.  But whatever the interpretation, the image is usually of a monolith, frozen in its thisness or thatness.  The southern world supposedly thawed only once, in the so-called Great Reaction of the 1830′s.  Then Thomas Jefferson’s South, which considered slavery a terminable curse, supposedly turned into John C. Calhoun’s South, which considered enslavement a perpetual blessing.  Thereafter, little supposedly changed, little varied, little remained undecided.  Gone from this timeless flatland is the American nineteenth century’s exuberant essence: growth, movement, profusion of pilgrims, a chaotic kaleidoscopic of regions, classes, religions, and ethnic groups.

Many of these themes emerged in Professor Freehling’s talk on Abraham Lincoln and the thirteenth amendment.  Freehling is close to completing the follow-up to Road To Disunion and should be released next March.  He is currently focusing on Lincoln’s presidency and is interested in the evolution of his leadership.  This talk concentrated on Lincoln’s transition from a president who relied on his persuasive skills to bring about emancipation to a position in 1863 which advocated a coercive end to slavery following the Emancipation Proclamation. Freehling framed Lincoln’s evolution around the idea of three thirteenth amendments.  The first thirteenth amendment that Lincoln backed was contained in his March 4, 1861 Inaugural Address:

I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution–which amendment, however, I have not seen, has passed Congress, to the effect that the federal government, shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.  To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express, and irrevocable.

Freehling asked the audience to thing about how Lincoln could have supported such a measure.  He answers his question by noting that Lincoln did not believe that he needed the federal government to end slavery.  In other words, Lincoln was convinced that he could persuade the states to voluntarily end slavery without using the arm of the government.  Why did he believe he was able to do this?  According to Freehling, Lincoln’s career as a lawyer and his oratorical abilities suggested to him that it was possible to convince the relevant constituencies to voluntarily emancipate their slaves.  This fit into Lincoln’s broader world view in reference to slavery and its abolition.  Lincoln always hoped that slavery would end, but he doubted that the issue could be forced on the states. 

Freehling emphasized the importance of colonization in Lincoln’s thinking on this issue.  It should be mentioned that colonization was an incredibly popular idea among many groups.  Lincoln did not believe that it was possible to emancipate slaves without colonization.  According to Freehling, colonization was not impractical and it was financially feasible.  Most importantly, Lincoln believed that he could convince black leaders of the necessity of colonization.  This conviction led, according to Freehling, to the nadir of Lincoln’s presidency when he invited black leaders to the White House to discuss colonization as a condition of emancipation.  Lincoln’s reaction to the refusal of black leaders to agree was to describe them as selfish for wanting to stay. 

Lincoln’s problem throughout this time was his inability to convince white southerners to voluntarily emancipate their slaves.  And of course this had much to do with the course of the war in mid- to late 1862.  During this time Lincoln prevented forced emancipation by his generals and resisted Secretary of War Stanton’s proposal to arm black fugitives.  A pivotal moment, according to Freehling, occurred on September 22, 1862 when Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which finally authorized the recruitment of blacks as manual laborers. 

The second Thirteenth Amendment was proposed in Lincoln’s Annual Message of December 1, 1862. With the proclamation set to go into effect in one month Lincoln supported a constitutional amendment that would authorize the issuance of bonds to those who agreed to free and colonize their slaves.  In discussing the process Lincoln assured worried Northerners who were concerned that the newly freed slaves would make their way north:

"Their old masters will give them wages at least until new laborers can be procured; and the freed men, in turn, will gladly give their labor for the wages, till new homes can be found for them, in congenial climes, and with people of their own blood and race. . . . The plan is proposed as permanent constitutional law.

Of course, nobody was persuaded though Lincoln was "scared to death" that the measure would alienate the Border states. 

The new year also brought a "new Lincoln."  From this point on Lincoln had no doubt that the abolition of slavery would be achieved through coercive means.  Lincoln never again wavered on this point and never again mentioned colonization.  According to Freehling, his persuasive skills were now leveled at Frederick Douglass and other black leaders to encourage slaves to continue to leave the South and join Union ranks.  This led directly to the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865.

Freehling concluded by reflecting on Lincoln’s presidential growth as a barometer for presidential greatness over the past 50 years.  There are two categories by which to measure presidential greatness and they include the ability to grow and correct mistakes and continue to move towards a more inclusive position.  Lincoln did both, according to Freehling. 

The Q&A was particularly interesting as both Michael Holt and William Lee Miller were in the audience.  I was invited to join all three in addition to a few more members of the history department from the University of Virginia for lunch and an opportunity to continue the discussion.  I had a wonderful time.  Best of all, Professor Freehling left me with a great deal to think about. 

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