This afternoon I will be spending a few hours with a French newspaper reporter to discuss the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He arrives in Charlottesville having already visited Atlanta and Gettysburg, where he spent some time with the folks at the Civil War Institute. I plan on taking him to some of the Civil War related sites in town followed by a relaxing cup of coffee/cappuccino at my favorite cafe. I like the fact that I will get to respond to much of what he has learned thus far on this trip. Expect a full report in the following days.
I am quite curious to see what the turnout will be this weekend in Montgomery, Alabama for the sesquicentennial commemoration of Jefferson Davis’s oath of office. According to Thomas Strain Jr. of Tanner, a member of the national board of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “We are trying to present a historical account of what happened 150 years ago.” They are hoping to have hundreds of reenactors march up Dexter Ave. toward the state Capitol. Strain doesn’t perceive this reenactment to be at all controversial. Fortunately, Mr. Strain doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t controversial. This commemoration cannot simply mark a discrete moment in the past independently of the events that took place in that city in more recent years. In this case that includes a history of civil rights protest by the very citizens of Montgomery – descendants of people that would have remained enslaved had the Confederate experiment in rebellion been successful. Because of this, Saturday’s commemoration will look nothing like the Montgomery of 1937 and that is something that we should all be thankful for.
To most Americans Abraham Lincoln is the nation’s greatest president – a political genius who won the Civil War and ended slavery. Today the cult of Lincoln has become a multi-million dollar industry, with millions of Americans visiting his memorials and thousands of books published that present him as a saint more than a politician.
But does Lincoln really deserve all this adulation? 150 years after the war his reputation is being re-assessed, as historians begin to uncover the dark side of his life and politics. They have revealed that the president who ended slavery secretly planned to deport the freed black people out of America. Others are asking if Lincoln should be remembered as a war hero who saved the nation or as a war criminal who launched attacks on innocent southern civilians.
His “reputation is being re-assessed?” Historians haven’t just “begun to uncover” anything. You couldn’t even think about doing this documentary without the fact that historians have been working on more critical and balanced interpretations of Lincoln for years. How many books on Lincoln came out during his bicentennial alone? Give me a break.
The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln. Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization. It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself. It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with. The same holds true for my AP sections. Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.
Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy. According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.” I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation. It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states. I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals. Here is the book description:
Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.
Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.
That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:
The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’ The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.
I would love to know which historians are being referenced here. And what exactly is the criticism? The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization. O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization. In fact, the very opposite is true. The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read. It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years. Sorry boys, but this is not news. At least it’s not news to my high school students.
Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.
It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority. For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful. In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government. Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution. The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.
What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further. Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself? After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?
A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government. Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes. They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders. Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.