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Eric Foner es uno de los grandes historiadores estadounidenses. Profesor de Columbia University y ganador de premios tan prestigiosos como el Lincoln, Bancroft y  Pulitzer, Foner ha dedicado su  carrera al estudio del Partido Republicano,  la esclavitud, la guerra civil y, sobre todo, la Reconstrucción. Es a este periodo posterior a la guerra civil que Foner dedica su último libro, Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (Norton, 2019). Enfocado en el significado de las tres enmiendas constitucionales aprobadas entre 1865 y 1870 (XIII, XIV y XV), Foner plantea que la Reconstrucción cambió radicalmente el ordenamiento político estadounidense. Al acabar con la esclavitud, definir la ciudadanía y garantizar el derecho al voto, tales enmiendas, propone Foner, conllevaron un renacer de la nación estadounidense.

Comparto con mis lectores la transcripción de una entrevista que el  historiador Ed Ayers, del podcasts Backstory, le hiciera a Foner sobre su último libro y otros temas. La entrevista se puede escuchar aquí

February 18, 1865 Harper’s Weekly cartoon depicting celebration in the House of Representatives after adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. Source: Internet Archive.

HOW RECONSTRUCTION TRANSFORMED THE CONSTITUTION

A FEATURE CONVERSATION WITH PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN ERIC FONER

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to find a heated debate about big issues, from citizenship to voting rights. For Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, these issues are at the heart of what are often called the “Reconstruction Amendments”: the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. They were passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870, respectively. And if you ask Eric, they’ve been misinterpreted and overlooked for generations.

On this episode, Ed sits down with Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University, to talk about public perceptions of Reconstruction, the landmark amendments to the Constitution and how they have the power to change the country today. Foner’s new book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Download a pdf of the full transcript here.

Speaker 1: Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for The Humanities and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation.

Ed Ayers: From Virginia Humanities, this is Backstory. This is Backstory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Ed Ayers. If you’re new to the podcast, my colleagues, Joanne Freeman, Brian Balogh, Nathan Connolly, and myself are all historians and each week we explore the history of one topic that’s been in the news.

Speaker 3: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime shall exist within the United States or any place subject to [crosstalk 00:00:48]-

Speaker 4: All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein [crosstalk 00:00:58]-

Ed Ayers: What you’re hearing are portions of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US constitution.

Speaker 4: Which shall outweigh the privileges or [crosstalk 00:01:02]-

Speaker 3: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.

Speaker 5: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Ed Ayers: They’re known as the Reconstruction Amendments passed in 1865, 1868 and 1870 respectively. And if you ask Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner, they make up a second founding of the United States of America. The amendments are so important, Eric has made them the subject of his brand new book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. He says they have the power to bring progressive change on deep seated issues from citizenship to voting rights if only we’d give them their due. So today on Backstory, we’re bringing you a feature interview I did with Eric about his new book. It joins a host of others he’s written including Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. We talked about many things from public perceptions of Reconstruction to what Eric and I learned about the period when we were in elementary school. But I started our conversation by asking Eric why he felt we needed a book about the Reconstruction Amendments right now.

Foner

Eric Foner

Eric Foner: Two things; one the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, I argue and I think many scholars would agree, really transformed the constitution and are essential to understanding the Civil War era and indeed our current situation today, and yet they are not widely known or understood. Even though they really are central documents of American history, they don’t occupy the same place in our historical imagination as other key documents such as the Declaration of Independence or the Emancipation Proclamation. Your man or woman in the street has probably never heard of the people who wrote these amendments, people like John Bingham and James Ashley and Henry Wilson. They’re not part of the Pantheon of key figures in American history. I just wanted to draw attention to why they’re important, why those people are important, why the amendments are important.

Eric Foner: But secondly, as I said, I lecture a lot, as you do, to all sorts of audiences within the university, outside, or people who are just interested in history and I’ve found that there’s very little understanding of what these amendments were attempting to accomplish. Even in law schools, I hate to say it, I’m not a lawyer or a law scholar, I find that there’s a lot of misconception and even, dare I say it, on the halls of the Supreme Court. One of my arguments is that there’s a long history of what I can think of as misconceived Supreme Court decisions that are still embedded in our jurisprudence. If my book can help nudge the nine members of the Supreme Court toward a more expansive vision of these amendments, then I think that would be all to the good.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, that would be quite a return on your investment here. So you talk about being out in the world talking about Reconstruction, and I find that people don’t even claim to know anything about Reconstruction. My joke is that Reconstruction happens over the winter break and between volume one and volume two, and that it-

Eric Foner: They don’t reach it in the first semester if you’re teaching the survey of American history or if it’s the beginning of the second. They scoot right through it because there’s a heck of a lot of history coming along afterwards, but that’s a step forward Ed. You and I know that not that long ago when you mentioned Reconstruction, people knew “about it.” What they knew was that it was a period of misgovernment, corruption, the lowest point in the saga of American democracy. And that the reason for that was one, vindictive Northern radicals who wanted to fasten their power on the South, but also the former slaves who were just incapable of exercising democratic rights. They were manipulated by whites. They were childlike, and that giving them the right to vote was a disastrous mistake.

71DfIQ9brpL._SY741_Eric Foner: That played an important part in the ideological edifice of the Jim Crow era. The supposed horrors of Reconstruction were part of the justification for taking the right to vote away from black men in the late 19th, early 20th Century. That people no longer generally hold that view and actually know little is better. That at least now if people are interested, they can go at it with a fresh, a clean slate rather than having to disabuse themselves of a lot of mythologies.

Ed Ayers: That’s a very optimistic interpretation. I like that. Now it’s my sense that a lot of people still take their general idea about Reconstruction from Gone with the Wind, in which we have this great saga of that in which the victim is a slave holding white woman from the South. We’re sympathetic with her and it creates the impression that Reconstruction began immediately after the end of the war and the devastation there. Is this your experience? Do you think that people are still filtering this through … What do they think they know about Reconstruction? Where does it come from?

Eric Foner: Yeah. Well certainly Gone with the Wind or if you want to push back further Birth of a Nation, which of course is even much more pernicious because it’s a direct defense and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, Gone with the Wind is probably the most popular American movie ever made and it’s constantly being shown on Turner movie channels. Look, people don’t watch Gone with the Wind for a history lesson on Reconstruction. They watch so they can trace out Scarlet O’Hara’s ups and downs. But yes, the Klan is in there, the whole idea that black people were just ignorant and incapable of taking part of democracy is in there. Whether it’s that or just what you learned in school.

Eric Foner: I’m old enough to have learned in high school, and this was in Long Island, the suburbs of New York. I learned the old Dunning School view that Reconstruction was the worst period in all of American history. I think today most scholars see Reconstruction, or at least I’ve tried to argue, as a important moment in the history of democracy, the first effort to really make the United States an interracial democracy, which it had never been before the Civil War and then would not be again that until our own era. The tragedy of Reconstruction is not that it was attempted, but that it failed, and that left to subsequent generations, including our own, this question of racial justice in America.

Ed Ayers: Yeah. I should say in full disclosure, you learned about Reconstruction on Long Island in New York. I learned about it at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in East Tennessee, and I’m not kidding. There’s only two in the United States, and I was at one of them, but I had my students and for a class here at the University of Richmond go online and say, “What do we think about Reconstruction? What’s the general sense that you get?” And they came back with one word; failure. That’s a word that you used, a description right now. And so what’s the consequences of thinking of Reconstruction as failure? It’s been a great continuity, as you’re saying that people who hated Reconstruction defined it as a failure and people who admire it defined it as a failure. Does that have any cost?

9781912128228Eric Foner: I think that’s a great question and I will withdraw my word failure. You’re absolutely right. It is so embedded. That idea is so embedded that it’s just impossible to avoid. The problem with declaring Reconstruction a failure is that then it makes the question at hand why did it fail, rather than what it seek to accomplish and how much of that was accomplished? If you define Reconstruction as the effort to create a utopian society, it failed. We haven’t had one yet, and certainly if you go a little less expansive than that and just say the effort to put into the laws and constitution and to enforce them, the basic rights of citizens for all Americans, including African-Americans, well it’s not exactly that it failed, but it didn’t become secure enough that later on these rights couldn’t be taken away.

Eric Foner: But of course Reconstruction was many, many things and not all of them were a failure. Reconstruction saw the creation of the black church as really a major, major institution throughout the country. That’s still here and as you well know, the black church has been the springboard for all sorts of activism among African Americans. Schooling, which was denied to almost all black people before the Civil War, this is when the public school systems of the South were created. This was when the black colleges were created. Those survived and so the black family, which had been it really disrupted in many ways by slavery now is consolidated and becomes the foundation of black communities. That didn’t go away when Reconstruction ended.

Eric Foner: So yeah, we should amend failure at least to say, well, in what realms did it fail and in what realms did it succeed? Because my definition of Reconstruction is not a specific time period, let’s say 1865 to 1877 or other people have other dates, but as a historical process. How does the United States deal with the end of slavery?

Ed Ayers: As we’re thinking really about the place of Reconstruction in the current American imagination, we have seen signs of awakened acknowledgement and interest in it. You and I both were fortunate to be in the Henry Louis Gates series on the Reconstruction on PBS, and people seem to really engage with that. So where do you think this interest is coming from?

Eric Foner: Well, I, like your students, I look around and say, “Well, how is …” I look particularly at how Reconstruction is referred to in the press by journalists almost offhandedly. It’s not that long ago. I remember in the 1990s, a distinguished, I’m not going to name any names, but a pretty distinguished journalist for the New York Times wrote a little article about the Bosnian Civil War. And he said, “Well, I hope that after the Bosnian Civil War is over that the victorious side just doesn’t wreak vengeance on the losers as happened in the United States in Reconstruction.” And I, as a complainer, I send him a note. And I said, “You’re not writing about Reconstruction really, but I think it’s important to know that that’s not how historians view it anymore. You’re reinforcing the idea that giving rights to black people is an act of vengeance against white people, which is a really dangerous idea.”

920x920Eric Foner: He wrote back and said, “You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have said that, but my wife is from South Carolina,” and I’ve heard this all the time. And I said to myself, “That’s a funny way of running journalism.” You put in your article what your wife told you over breakfast. But be that as it may, you don’t see that anymore. I think what now, if Reconstruction pops up is Tim Scott is the first black Senator from South Carolina and the first ones were in Reconstruction. I think Reconstruction is being seen as a time when positive things happened even though negative things happened as well. So I think it’s good. And of course the Gates series was very important as you well know, that there’s now a national park site being developed in Beaufort, South Carolina to highlight the history of Reconstruction. So I think Reconstruction is, people are encountering it in all sorts of venues and I think in a more modern form than the old what we call Dunning School approach.

Ed Ayers: Well you were modest before in walking away from the word failure, but in many ways you came up with the right word back in 1988 with your great book on Reconstruction; unfinished revolution. Are you willing to stand by that phrase still?

Eric Foner: Yeah, I am. That was the very last words of the Gates series, if you may remember. Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw got the very last word in Reconstruction was an Unfinished Revolution. So I said, “Oh, look at that. That’s nice. My phrase still reverberating out there.” The funny thing is that that wasn’t the title of the book. The title of book was just Reconstruction, and the day before it finally went to the printer, my editor called me and said, “People here don’t think anyone’s going to buy that book. It needs a good subtitle. By tomorrow morning, give us a subtitle.” And I thought, “Gee whiz.” And I thought and thought and thought and suddenly this popped into my head, The Unfinished Revolution and I told it to him. So it wasn’t something that had shaped the way I wrote the book or anything like that.

Eric Foner: But anyway, yeah, it’s unfinished, and particularly, when you talk about the legal and constitutional aspects, yes. The Reconstruction put forward a whole set of ideals, a whole set of principles for our society and they weren’t fully accomplished, certainly. I want to give the impression of something that’s still ongoing, that Reconstruction is not just the dead past. It’s still happening in the sense that the issues of Reconstruction; who should be a citizen? Who should have the right to vote? How do we deal with terrorism and others? These are on our agenda today. So that debate is still unfinished.

Ed Ayers: Your new book, let’s talk about the title of it. The Second Founding. So why did United States need a second founding? What was it about the first founding that was inadequate?

Eric Foner: Well, as you well know, there’s a lot of debate among historians about exactly what the relationship between the constitution and slavery was. I don’t want to get into that right here. The abolitionist movement debated that forever, but I think we would all have to say that slavery in some form was embedded in the original constitution. We had the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required the return of those who managed to escape to freedom. We had the Three-Fifths Clause, which gave the slave South added representation in the House of Representatives by counting part of their slave population. So we needed a second founding to cleanse the constitution of slavery and to clarify issues which the constitution had left undecided.

Eric Foner: Number one, who is a citizen of the United States? One of the funny things is the constitution refers to citizens all over the place, but it never defines who is a citizen. What do you need to be to be a citizen? My view of Reconstruction, I use this phrase, a modern phrase, I didn’t use it back then, is this is regime change that’s going on. A pro-slavery regime is being replaced with what? With some kind of antislavery regime and you’ve got to rewrite the constitution in order to cleanse it of the remnants of the pro-slavery regime.

Ed Ayers: And that regime wasn’t just in the South. The whole nation was a regime based on slavery.

Eric Foner: Absolutely. That’s why Lincoln in his second inaugural address referred to it as American slavery, not Southern slavery. Lincoln always said that, that we are complicitous in the North. We don’t own slaves right now, but we are complicitous. We profit from slavery.

Ed Ayers: So as you know from out giving talks, people think that the Civil War itself ended slavery and that the 13th Amendment was just a codification of something that had already happened with the Emancipation Proclamation and so forth. So I thought that was one thing that was interesting about the Lincoln movie focusing on the 13th Amendment. So why did we need the 13th Amendment if the Civil War ended slavery?

GatewayEric Foner: Well there were still slaves on the ground when the Civil War ended, quite a few of them. People who had gotten to Union lines or where the Union Army had come and established control, yeah. Part of their job, part of the Union Army’s job once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, was to protect the freedom that Lincoln had announced. But legally speaking, emancipation and abolition are not quite the same thing. Slavery is created by state law, not federal law, state law. States can abolish slavery as the Northern states did soon after the American Revolution, but freeing individuals does not abrogate the state laws that create slavery. That’s why Lincoln’s, even though you wouldn’t quite see this in the movie. That’s fine. It’s not a historical treatise. Lincoln’s preferred route to the end of slavery during the war was state by state abolition.

Eric Foner: Even after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he was pressing Southern states. If any of them wanted to come back in the union, they would have to abolish slavery. That’s how you get rid of slavery on the ground, by having the state laws abrogated. But that couldn’t really happen in the Civil War very much, and so by 1864, many people particularly abolitionists are saying the simpler way is just to have this constitutional amendment. That will completely abrogate slavery everywhere in the country. We won’t have to go state by state and let’s do it that way. Lincoln got onboard of course, and as the movie shows, twisted a lot of arms in January, 1865 to get some people in the House of Representatives to vote for the 13th Amendment, so to completely get rid of slavery. It’s certainly true. The war disrupted slavery. Many people fled. Some states like Maryland, a border state and Louisiana where Lincoln was trying to push a Reconstruction plan, they abolished slavery on the state level, but there were plenty of places slavery was still existing when the Civil War ended.

Ed Ayers: Well, why would Lincoln have to twist so many arms if the United States awakened to the great injustice of slavery during the war and mobilized 200000 African American men to be soldiers and sailors? Why was there still resistance to it as late as 1864 and early 1865?

Eric Foner: Yeah, well, of course the first time they tried, the 13th Amendment failed in the House of Representatives. Remember, it needs two-thirds vote in the Congress, which is often not that easy to get. The Democratic Party was still there. It was still, if not pro-slavery, it was still resistant to abolition. The border slave states, the people there were quite adamant that they didn’t, Kentucky, Maryland said they didn’t want this constitutional amendment. They were still in the union, but it took arm twisting because the 13th Amendment gets lost in the shuffle in a way. We talk about the 14th and 15th much more for complicated reasons, but the 13th Amendment was really a constitutional revolution in and of itself.

Eric Foner: Never before had the constitution been written or amended to just abrogate a whole type of property. Some of the people in Congress said, “Wait a minute. If we’re going to say this kind of property is gone, next year there’ll be demanding that we confiscate the factories of New England.” It also completely reversed the position and that was traditional, but from the constitution arm, with the ratification of the constitution arm, that this was a state matter. Now it’s a, “Forget it. I don’t care what the states want. No slavery anymore in this country, do supersede.” That is a fundamental shift of power from the states to the federal government. And then the second clause. The first clause, abolition of slavery. The second clause, Congress shall have the power to enforce this amendment. A lot of southerners, once the war is over and Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan is moving along, a lot of white Southerners say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Yeah, slavery is dead. We understand that. We’re not going to have slavery back, but this second clause seems to give Congress the right to legislate about anything they want.”

Eric Foner: How do you enforce the abolition of slavery? Do you give black people the right to vote? Yeah. People said that’s what they need if they’re going to be free. Do you give them land? That’s what African Americans wanted. In other words, it’s very open-ended. Enforcing the abolition of slavery is a very complicated idea. Unfortunately, for very complex legal reasons, it has never really been implemented. The Supreme court has barely ever used the 13th Amendment as a weapon against the racial inequality that is, of course, tied up in slavery.

Ed Ayers: Yeah, so the 13th Amendment, it’s a breakthrough in thinking about what the nation is as well as ending slavery right?

Eric Foner: Right.

Ed Ayers: Does that help explain why the 14th Amendment comes so quickly after the 13th after there have been decades, really, without constitutional change?

WhoEric Foner: Yeah. The 14th Amendment, I would say, is working out the consequences of the 13th Amendment as well as the consequences of the Civil War. I see the 14th Amendment as putting the Northern Republicans understanding of what they had achieved in the Civil War into the constitution. Some of it has something to do with race or slavery, for example, that Confederate bonds are never going to be repaid. If you patriotically loaned money to the Confederacy, forget it. You’re never getting that back. It has to do with various other things related to the war. But the first section, which is the key one, is really henceforth because of the abolition of slavery, everybody born in the United States is a citizen of the United States.

Eric Foner: You needed that because the status of citizenship was still very uncertain and then more important, all those citizens are going to enjoy the equal protection of the law. The original constitution said nothing about equality among Americans, nothing. It’s the 14th Amendment that makes the constitution as it has been in our own time, a vehicle through which all sorts of people can claim greater equality. The gay marriage decision a few years ago was a 14th Amendment decision. They weren’t thinking of gay marriage when they were writing the 14th Amendment, but they were thinking of how do you make people equal before the law?

Ed Ayers: The last amendment you talk about of course, is the 15th, which I think often tends to be seen as a footnote to the 14th but was that also a hard fought battle to create that?

Eric Foner: That was very hard fought because the principle that the states controlled the right to vote was deeply embedded North and South. There were plenty of Northern states that were nervous. In Congress, they were those who said, “We want an amendment that just says every male citizen age 21 has the right to vote.” If they had gotten that through, just think of all the trouble that would have been avoided. Even today when we’re debating voter IDs and all that, a positive statement. Now they weren’t willing to give women the right to vote and the women’s movement was very outraged by that. But Northern states, the Chinese couldn’t vote in California. Immigrants couldn’t vote on the same basis as a native born in Rhode Island. Massachusetts had a literacy test for voting. They didn’t want to give up their control of the rights. So instead of a positive amendment, it’s what you might call a negative amendment; that no state can deny anyone the right to vote because of race.

Ed Ayers: Well, it’s a work-around in a way, right? It’s-

Eric Foner: It’s a work-around and it has a serious flaw, which is any other limit on the right to vote is not prohibited right? You can have a literacy test. You can have a poll tax. When the Southern states, as you well know, took away the right to vote, they didn’t do it by saying, “Hey, black people can’t vote anymore,” because that would’ve violated the 15th Amendment. What they did was put all these other qualifications and then understanding clauses. You’ve got to prove to the registrar that you understand the state constitution, but the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. They said, “Well, look, they’re not talking about race actually. This law says nothing about race so it doesn’t violate the 15th Amendment.”

Ed Ayers: Well and there’s other parts of these amendments that have come back to haunt us in some ways. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about the clause about involuntary servitude and the 13th Amendment?

Eric Foner: That’s been highlighted a few years ago by the documentary of, the Hollywood documentary, 13th. 13th Amendment, the language is taken just about directly from the Northwest Ordinance of Thomas Jefferson, and it says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, can exist in the United States.” That criminal exemption. Now this is not a conspiracy as some people think, “Oh look. They were looking ahead to mass incarceration, to convict labor, to the exploitation of the labor.” They were hardly any prisons in 1865. There was a little bit of a history of convict labor to help pay the cost of prisons, but it wasn’t a mass system. But this little, this exemption, which was not even debated in Congress, nobody even mentioned it except Charles Sumner, the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts. It wasn’t debated in the press. I looked through the newspapers. Nobody mentions it.

Eric Foner: It’s just boilerplate language really. But nonetheless, inadvertently, it created this loophole through which the Southern states particularly drove this Mack truck in the late 19th century of massive convict labor, either within prisons or leasing out of convicts to work in mines and plantations and on roadwork and stuff like this, under terribly oppressive conditions. The courts have persistently ruled that the 13th Amendment allows the requirement, the involuntary labor of people convicted of a crime. And then after Reconstruction, Southern states began making almost anything a felony. You steal a chicken, it’s a felony, and you’re eight years in jail and you are sent out pretty soon to labor on some guy’s plantation who has rented the labor of the prisoners from the federal government. So it’s disastrous really in Southern history later on, but it was inadvertent almost. What it shows you is people talk a lot about the original intention. Sometimes unintended consequences can be just as important as the intended consequences of an amendment.

Ed Ayers: You talked before, Eric, about the way that even though women played such a crucial role in bringing about these amendments; petitioning Congress during the war and afterwards, that they were excluded from this. How about the place of American Indians in all this? Who’s been born in this country more than American Indians? So why is that a blind spot in these laws of the post Civil War era?

Eric Foner: The legal status of Native Americans was murky, to say the least. You still had the remnants of the idea that they were not Americans. They were members of their own tribal sovereignties. People talked about the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation. You are not a citizen of the United States. You were a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Now, of course, by this time, the power of the Indian nations in most places had been broken, and it wasn’t as if you had the United States government dealing with equal nations on the other side. But the people who wrote the [inaudible 00:29:15] did not, their aim was not to make Native Americans citizens. The exemption in the 14th Amendment says, “Anybody born in the United States or naturalized coming from abroad except and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.” And the idea, well Native Americans are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. They’re subject to the laws of their own national sovereignties.

ForeverEric Foner: So Indians were not citizens and it’s not until 1924 that Congress enacts a law making all Native Americans, regardless of where they are living, regardless of what tribe they in, citizens of the United States. So yeah. These amendments had exemptions, they had loopholes, they had serious flaws. Women, as you said, certainly objected to the 15th Amendment, which didn’t give them the right to vote, and the second clause of the 14th Amendment, which introduces the word male for the first time into the constitution. These measures were compromises. They were worked out after long debate and amendments and ups and downs in Congress. There’s no single mind behind the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendments. They were the result of all sorts of negotiation and controversy. Nonetheless, the basic principles are pretty clear. The abolition of slavery, the establishment of a universal notion of citizenship, despite without the native Americans and of equality among those citizens and the vast expansion of the right to vote.

Ed Ayers: And they are alive in today’s political and legal culture. What do you see as the issues that are most salient right now on either being contested or helping drive forward some kind of change?

Eric Foner: Well, sadly, yeah. Many of these issues are still unresolved and I’d have to say sadly, our Supreme Court has adopted an increasingly narrow definition of the implications of these amendments. The most notable was a few years ago in the Shelby County decision, which overturned a very important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That’s a law passed under the 15th Amendment. It was passed with virtual unanimity in Congress, forcing jurisdictions in the South that had a long history of discrimination and voting to get prior approval from the federal government before they changed the voting rules. Supreme Court a few years ago said, “Well that’s a violation of federalism. It treats some states more harshly than other states.” Well, these are states that had slavery and not every state did. And also these are states that had consciously removed the right to vote over many years.

Eric Foner: But anyway, so their narrowing the 15th Amendment. Who should have the right to vote is a hot issue in our politics as you well know, with gerrymandering, with various ID and other voter suppression laws. Citizenship, how relevant can you be on our border today? This is being debated all the time. Who has the right to be an American citizen? For example, does the child born in the United States of a undocumented immigrant, is that child automatically an American citizen? Well, language of the 14th Amendment is pretty clear. Yes. Any person born in the United States. Your parents can be bank robbers. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a citizen of the United States. But President Trump, among other things, has said that he feels he has the right as president to abrogate the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, the birthright citizenship sentence for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Eric Foner: I don’t personally think the president can all by himself eradicate part of the constitution, but some people have tried to do that. So these issues are certainly on our political agenda today and I think an understanding of how the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were enacted, what they were intended to accomplish, can help us think through the implications of that today.

Ed Ayers: Eric Foner is professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. His latest book is The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find this at backstoryradio.org or send an email to backstory@Virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter at Backstory Radio. Special thanks this week to Jerry [inaudible 00:34:10] and Katie Gary.

Ed Ayers: Backstory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial foundation, the Johns Hopkins University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those that the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 6: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.

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download-1El 2018 Lincoln Prize ha sido sido concedido al trabajo de Edward Ayers,  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America (W.W. Norton and Company). Este premio, que consiste de $50,000, es otorgado anualmente por  el Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History para reconocer el mejor trabajo investigativo sobre Lincoln y el periodo de la guerra civil. Ayers es un historiador estadounidense, ex Presidente de la Universidad de Richmond y miembro fundador de unos de los mejores podcast de historia estadounidense: Backstory. Ha sido merecedor tanto del Bancroft Prize como  del Beveridge Prize.

Vale mencionar a los finalistas de tan prestigioso premio:

  • Ron Chernow, Grant (Penguin Press).
  • Gordon Rhea, On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-14, 1864 (LSU Press).
  • Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock:  Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century(Harvard University Press).
  • Cate Lineberry, Be Free or Die (St. Martin’s Press).
  • Graham Peck, Making an Antislavery Nation(University of Illinois Press).
  • Adam I.P. Smith, The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics: 1846—1865 (University of North Carolina Press).

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HISTORIANS NOW: THE FIERY TRIAL BY ERIC FONER

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

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Lincoln’s Failed Peace Process

The New York Times    February 3, 2015

disunion45On Feb. 3, 1865, a lovely false spring day, the president of the United States traveled south by train and steamboat to a spot near the front lines of the Civil War for a peaceful talk with the enemy. Such high-level negotiations in the middle of a shooting war had never happened before, and have never happened since. After nearly four years of battering, the Confederacy was all but broken – and Lincoln was eager to stop the killing and begin to heal the country with a peaceful reconciliation instead of a military conquest. That’s why, that afternoon, Abraham Lincoln welcomed three Confederate leaders to the presidential steamboat River Queen, the Air Force One of her day, and exposed himself to political attack for the mortal sin of compromise.

Though many in the North wanted to end the war quickly, the dominant, radical wing of Lincoln’s Republican Party had long since determined not to negotiate with the rebel leaders but to hang them. The beaten South, they said, would be governed “as England governs India.” When they learned that the president had quietly slipped away to entertain its emissaries without so much as telling them he was going, the radicals on Capitol Hill and their partisan press exploded.

The meeting had been set in motion through a harebrained scheme contrived by Francis Preston Blair, a longtime Washington power broker, an alumnus of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a mentor to Lincoln and a father figure to Jefferson Davis. In 1864, while the proponents of the Monroe Doctrine were otherwise engaged, Napoleon III of France had sent 35,000 troops to Mexico, ousted its elected president and installed a puppet emperor. Now Blair conceived a secret choreography. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee would retreat southwest from Virginia and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would pursue him all the way to the Rio Grande. Crossing the Mexican border with Grant on his heels, Lee would pick a fight with Napoleon’s army and Grant would jump in on the side of his fellow Americans. Together they would beat the stuffing out of the French, embrace on the fields of the Second Mexican War and proclaim a joyful reunion. Slavery would be exchanged for a chance to loot Mexico, and the Civil War would end with no loss of face for the South.

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Francis Preston Blair Sr.Credit Dickinson College

Blair proposed the idea in a month of shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Richmond. Amazingly enough, Davis purported to bless it. Though Lincoln dismissed it out of hand, he invited a conversation with “any agent” of the rebellion who was willing to bring peace to “our one common country.” Under irresistible political pressure with the war all but lost, Davis sent to Lincoln three leaders of Richmond’s growing peace movement and gave them a secret mandate to bring peace to “two countries.” Knowing how Lincoln would respond, Davis hoped to kill the peace conference in its crib, discredit the Southern doves he had sent to it and incite the Southern people to a war of desperation.

To the cheers of the combatants on both sides, Grant let the Southern peace envoys across his lines from the rebel fortifications; ignored his orders to keep them there; entertained them profusely at his headquarters; introduced them to his generals, his family and his horses; helped them craft conciliatory messages to the North; and convinced his embattled president that they were ready to accept reunion, Jeff Davis notwithstanding, and give peace a chance. Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, a world-class charmer and a prewar friend and colleague of all three rebel emissaries, joined the president for the peace talks.

The conference on the River Queen was a gathering of old friends. The leader of the Confederate delegation, the 90-pound paradox Alexander Stephens of Georgia, was Davis’s political nemesis as well as his vice president; he was also a friend and ally of Lincoln’s in the Congress of 1848 in a movement against the Mexican War. Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia had been close to Seward in the old Senate. The brilliant Alabamian John A. Campbell, a former justice of the United States Supreme Court, had attended Lincoln’s inauguration and tried to help Seward stop the war before it started.

Their reunion at Hampton Roads began in a glow of nostalgia, descended into threats and ended with a glimpse of Lincoln’s simple compromise: the restoration of the Union, a gradual abolition of slavery, the return of all forfeited Southern property, a $400,000,000 payment to the slave states to offset the loss of their slaves, and pardons for their leaders. The conference ended inconclusively and the participants returned to their capitals, determined to keep hope alive.

But peace was not at hand. As rumors of peace brought hope to their suffering people, militants North and South condemned the very idea of negotiation itself. In the exhausted Confederate capital, The Richmond Sentinel told its readers what peace would bring: “All the dark and malignant passions of a vindictive people, drunk with blood and vomiting crime, will be unloosed on us like bloodhounds upon their prey.” On the floor of the United States Senate, Benjamin Wade, a Republican from Ohio, proclaimed that “this nest of vipers at Richmond” must be crushed, not reasoned with, for negotiation “would be disgrace, dishonor, contamination in the eyes of our own people and in the eyes of the civilized world.”

Explosive though he knew it would be, Lincoln would have brought his generous peace plan to a Congress bent on revenge if a single member of his Cabinet had endorsed it. Not a single member did. “You are all against me,” he said, and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference went for naught.

Its failure had consequences. Some 10,000 men and boys alive and well when their leaders clasped hands on the River Queen were corpses three months later. Instead of a voluntary reunion, the South endured the only existential defeat that Americans have ever suffered. A century of bitterness followed.

James B. Conroy is the author of Our One Common Country: Abraham Lincoln and the Hampton Roads Peace Conference of 1865.”

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How Douglass Came Around to Lincoln

Tom Chaffin

The New York Times   December 7, 2014

civil-war-sumter75-popupBy December 1864, Frederick Douglass had become an admirer of the man he later called “our friend and liberator,” and he savored President Lincoln’s re-election the previous month. But Douglass’s path to that admiration had been anything but direct.

Four years earlier, he had quietly supported candidate Lincoln in the November 1860 election. But the Republican president-elect soon gave him pause. Lincoln’s silence during the final months of Democrat James Buchanan’s presidency irked Douglass, and he complained of Lincoln’s failure to condemn pro-South actions by Buchanan’s lame-duck administration.

Moreover, during Lincoln’s days as president-elect and his presidency’s first months, Douglass was also disturbed by the new chief executive’s receptiveness to proposed peace deals with the South that would have left its “peculiar institution” — slavery — intact. He was likewise troubled by Lincoln’s continuing advocacy of black emigration schemes as a means of addressing the secession crisis — schemes that would have sent African-Americans, both free and slave, to Africa or the Caribbean. Indeed, in spring 1861, Douglass, though throughout most of his life an opponent of such schemes, grew so wary of President Lincoln that he planned a 10-week trip to Haiti to ponder emigrating there himself (he eventually canceled the trip).

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass Library of Congress

By late 1862, though, Lincoln had begun to change, and so did Douglass’s estimation of him. In January 1863, Douglass and his fellow abolitionists exulted over Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all rebel-controlled areas and authorizing the recruitment of black troops. With the stroke of a pen, Lincoln, acting in his role as commander in chief, had elevated the war effort from a fight to preserve a political nation-state, the Union, into a moral campaign against human bondage.

The proclamation did not abolish American slavery, nor did it free all American slaves. It left in bondage close to a million souls in areas exempted by the edict: the nominally Union and free-soil “border states” of Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Kentucky, as well as all parts of the Confederacy already occupied by Union forces. But Douglass saw that Lincoln’s edict put the nation on an irreversible course. “For my own part,” he later recalled, “I took the proclamation, first and last, for a little more than it purported, and saw in its spirit a life and power far beyond its letter.” He added:

Its meaning to me was the entire abolition of slavery, wherever the evil could be reached by the Federal arm, and I saw that its moral power would extend much further. It was, in my estimation, an immense gain to have the war for the Union committed to the extinction of slavery, even from a military necessity.

Douglass’s voice was, by then, being heard at the nation’s highest levels; at Douglass’s request, President Lincoln met with him, at the White House, on Aug. 10, 1863. “I was somewhat troubled with the thought of meeting someone so august and high in authority, especially as I had never been in the White House before, and had never spoken to a President of the United States before.” Upon entering the office, however, Douglass was put at ease. He found the tall president seated in a low chair, surrounded by books and papers. “On my approach he slowly drew his feet in from the different parts of the room into which they had strayed, and he began to rise, and continued to rise until he looked down upon me, and extended his hand and gave me a welcome.”

“Reaching out his hand, he said, ‘Mr. Douglass, I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward” — Secretary of State William H. Seward — “has told me about you’; putting me quite at ease at once.” Their ensuing conversation focused on the black regiments then being organized, those from Massachusetts and other Union states, as well as others, made up of former slaves, in South Carolina, Tennessee and other Union-controlled areas of the South. To the president, Douglass made several requests: He asked for an end to pay inequities between black and white soldiers; that black soldiers be promoted, just as white soldiers, for “meritorious” battlefield performance; and that the president enunciate a policy for the Union’s military to retaliate in kind against rebel prisoners of war if the Confederacy made good on threats to execute captured black soldiers. Lincoln, in turn, asked Douglass how the Union Army might more effectively recruit former slaves now in Union-occupied parts of the South.

As their exchange drew to a close, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy of Kansas, who, at its start, had introduced Douglass to the president, told Lincoln that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intended to commission Douglass adjutant-general to Gen. George H. Thomas. The commission would authorize Douglass to travel down the Mississippi and recruit former slaves into the army. The president, by Douglass’s account of the meeting, seemed pleased with that news: “I will sign any commission that Mr. Stanton will give Mr. Douglass.”

When they met that August, Lincoln was well into his first term and already pondering his re-election campaign the following year. He was facing stiff political headwinds from both Republicans and Democrats: Radical Republicans were demanding that he move more aggressively against the South; and Democrats — motivated by the sort of anti-black sentiment that flared during New York’s Draft Riots — were complaining that, through the Emancipation Proclamation and similar measures, he was pursuing policies injurious to whites, and unduly favorable toward blacks.

The president thus exercised caution in answering Douglass’s requests. Lincoln said that, while he was prepared, eventually, to accede to the equal pay request, he would, in the meantime — for political reasons — be unable to grant the other entreaties. Moreover, Lincoln cautioned that he regarded the very idea of any black enlistments as, for the time being, an “experiment.” Regardless of his own favorable view of the value of recruiting black soldiers into the war effort, the president said that he was also aware that many whites remained skeptical of the change in policy. “He spoke,” Douglass recalled, “of the opposition generally to employing negroes as soldiers at all.”

By the war’s end, Lincoln did remove most pay disparities between black and white soldiers, and after atrocities were inflicted on black soldiers, he also issued a warning to the Confederacy that any similar, future actions against black soldiers would produce commensurate retaliations against rebel prisoners. However, the change in policy, requested by Douglass, concerning promotions for black soldiers, never occurred; for the war’s duration, black enlistees were rarely elevated to higher ranks. As for Douglass’s military commission, that too never came — whether for reasons of bureaucratic error or deliberate policy, he never learned.

Even so, Douglass left the meeting satisfied that, in Lincoln, he had met a trustworthy leader with whom he could work. Speaking to an abolitionist convention the following December, Douglass reflected, “I never met with a man, who, on the first blush, impressed me more entirely with his sincerity, with his devotion to his country, and with his determination to save it at all hazards.”

disunion45A year later, on Aug. 19, 1864, Douglass met again with Lincoln at the White House, but this time, at the president’s request. “I need not say I went most gladly,” he recalled. “The main subject on which he wished to confer with me was as to the means most desirable to be employed outside the army to induce the slaves in the rebel States to come within the Federal lines,” where, by terms set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation, the bondsmen would be guaranteed their liberty.

Growing war opposition in the North — much of it fueled by complaints that the Emancipation Proclamation had rendered it an “abolition war,” recalled Douglass — “alarmed Mr. Lincoln.” The president was also “apprehensive that a peace might be forced upon him which would leave still in slavery all who had not come within our lines.”

Fearing such a forced peace, the president told Douglass that he wanted to render the Emancipation Proclamation “as effective as possible” as long as it remained the law of the land. While the order was in effect, he wanted it to liberate as many slaves as possible. More specifically, Lincoln worried that slaves in rebel areas “are not coming so rapidly and so numerously to us as I had hoped.” To increase their numbers, Lincoln made a proposal: He asked if Douglass would be willing to organize “a band of scouts, composed of colored men, whose business should be somewhat after the original plan of John Brown, to go into the rebel States, beyond the lines of our armies, and carry the news of emancipation, and urge the slaves to come within our boundaries.” Union military advances, however, soon rendered Lincoln’s idea unnecessary.

By the fall 1864 presidential campaign — following the Emancipation Proclamation and the two White House meetings — Lincoln had thus earned Douglass’s trust and admiration. Even so, Douglass, again as he had in 1860, remained mostly quiet in his support for the president’s election campaign. This time, Lincoln’s opponent was the former Union general George McClellan, who had expressed a willingness to discuss an armistice with the rebel South that would have left the region’s slavery in place. Explaining his reticence to the journalist Theodore Tilton, Douglass confided, “I am not doing much in this Presidential Canvass for the reason that Republican committees do not wish to expose themselves to the charge of being the ‘Niggar’ party.” In the end, Lincoln handily defeated McClellan — winning by 2,218,000 to 1,813,000 in the popular vote, 212 to 21 in the Electoral College.

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Tom Chaffin

Tom Chaffin’s books include “Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire,” recently reissued with an updated introduction, and the just published “Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary,” from which the above essay is adapted. For

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Lincoln, God and the Constitution

Disunion

 On Dec. 3, 1864, Abraham Lincoln proposed putting God in the Constitution. Preparing to submit his annual address on the state of the union, the president drafted a paragraph suggesting the addition of language to the preamble “recognizing the Deity.” The proposal shocked his cabinet during a read-through. With his re-election secured and the political utility of such a move dubious, the most religiously skeptical president since Thomas Jefferson proposed blowing an irreparable God-size hole through the wall separating church and state. What was Lincoln thinking?

Recalling the meeting in his memoirs, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote that the imprudent idea had been put in the president’s head “by certain religionists” – namely, the Covenanters. A tiny sect from Scotland that had resided in America since before the Revolution, they believed the Constitution contained two crippling moral flaws: its protection of slavery, and its failure to acknowledge God’s authority. With the Emancipation Proclamation poised to fix the one sin, they believed, why not correct the other? At their first meeting with Lincoln in late 1862 (it was much easier for citizens to get an audience with the president at the time), a group of influential Covenanters suggested doing just that.

In that first meeting, Abraham Lincoln was quintessentially Abraham Lincoln — by turns respectful, humorous and reflective. He regaled his guests with the rough-hewn ideas that became his second inaugural address. He observed that each side in the war prayed to the same God, read the same Bible and invoked divine favor against the other; perhaps, Lincoln suggested, the war would ultimately decide which nation God chose

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnCredit Library of Congress

 

The Covenanter ministers left their meeting emboldened. Thereafter they were instrumental in forming a coalition of denominations dedicated to acknowledging Christianity in the Constitution. This group, the National Reform Association, hoped to reference Jesus’ authority just after “We the People” and before “in order to form a more perfect Union.” They visited the president again in 1864 with an official request for action.

Lincoln is often remembered as a religious skeptic, at best, but throughout the war he showed exceptional shrewdness in wielding the political power of religion. As a young man, he openly scoffed at Christianity and once wrote an essay examining all the falsehoods contained in the Bible. Open heresy proved politically perilous; he lost his first bid for a congressional nomination amid accusations that Christians could not vote for him in good conscience.

From that experience, and from his active participation in grass-roots political organizing, Lincoln came to respect the ability of church networks to mobilize voters on moral issues. Thereafter, he used religion to great effect in his political career, casting his campaign platforms in stark moral terms, calling for more thanksgiving and fast days than any previous president and meeting constantly with clergy. Those ministers returned from their audiences at the White House preaching sermons that baptized the Union, the War and the president with religious purpose. Cultivating relationships with religious leaders paid dividends when Lincoln won re-election in a landslide.

Even so, the 16th president paid more than lip service to religion. Raised by a Bible-thumping mother in a hard-drinking culture, he somehow managed to reject and have sympathy for both. He was a moralist, a fatalist and prone to bouncing between soaring hope and sinking melancholy. For all these reasons, the president understood and reverenced religion better than many believers did, both as a political advantage and a safe harbor for troubled souls in the midst of storms. Lincoln’s own storms — the disintegration of the Union, the death of his young son Willie and regular wartime casualty reports — heightened his belief in Providence and shook the skepticism of his youth. A distant, impersonal sense of divinity was replaced by the president’s increasing conviction that God was concerned with the affairs of humanity. More important, Lincoln came to believe what he said in 1862 – that this inscrutable God might actually choose sides.

In contemplating a religious amendment, then, Lincoln brought to bear his own conflicted sense about God and America. The nation was at war both with itself and with what he believed remained its ultimate destiny to be an example of free government to the world. With the Emancipation Proclamation, and soon through the 13th Amendment, Lincoln christened the Civil War with the moral name of abolition. Perhaps, if only briefly, he considered that Reconstruction would need a higher calling as well. Americans, in the rubble of war, would share little in common besides enmity. They might yet find unity in rebuilding a nation that possessed a divine destiny.

But Lincoln the philosopher was also Lincoln the lawyer; such a move would open a Pandora’s box of divisive constitutional issues. The Cabinet’s very loud concerns were joined by some of his own. He struck the paragraph and it was never mentioned again.

By suggesting it at all, though, the president put on display, however briefly, the exceptional power of the Civil War to remake American society. Just 10 years before, most Americans might easily have conceived of a constitutional amendment invoking the name of God. Few would have predicted one eradicating slavery. Then the nation’s greatest crisis proved capable of taking slavery out of the national compact but not of putting God in it. High-profile campaigns to Christianize the Constitution continued well into the 20th century and even made their way into congressional committees. Still, they never came closer to realization than that one paragraph read aloud by Lincoln in a cabinet meeting. Those brief words bespoke the limits of religion and reform in American government at the nation’s most malleable moment.

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Sources: “Diary of Gideon Welles, Vol. II”; John Alexander, “History of the National Reform Association”; Richard Carwardine, “Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power.”


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Joseph S. Moore, an assistant professor of history at Gardner-Webb University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Covenanters and the American Republic.”

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This Was One of the Little-Recognized Causes of the Civil War 

HNN  August 17, 2014

I remember reading many years ago W. E. B. Du Bois’s complaint that Americans knew far too little of the decisive role blacks played in winning their freedom.  He pointed specifically to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant in which the author, W. E. Woodward, wrote of African Americans as “the only people in the history of the world . . . that ever became free without any effort of their own. . . . They twanged banjos around the railroad stations, sang melodious spirituals, and believed that some Yankee would soon come along and give each of them forty acres of land and a mule.”  I was in graduate school at the time and congratulated myself on knowing better – that blacks had served in the Union army.  But that was about all I knew of it. As the proud holder of a college degree in history, I thought that was just about all I needed to know.  There are none so ignorant as the educated ignorant.

Some historians still downplay the wider role of blacks in bringing on freedom, preferring to emphasize Abraham Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator.  Historian James McPherson, a leading defender of Lincoln’s Great Emancipator image, argues in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War (1996) that without Lincoln there would have been no war and, hence, no opportunity for freedom. With regard to emancipation, it was Lincoln’s determination that was “the essential condition, the one thing without which it would not have happened.” Without Lincoln, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation and no Thirteenth Amendment. Therefore, says McPherson, “Lincoln freed the slaves.”

Arguments such as those of McPherson and others have some validity as far as they go. To my knowledge, no reputable scholar denies that Lincoln and the Union military played a significant part in the emancipation process. But following their lines of reasoning more deeply, we cannot help but see the efforts of black folk at their core.

Lincoln’s effort to preserve the Union was, of course, a reaction to the South’s secession, a movement engineered by slaveholders who feared not only Lincoln but, more immediately, their own slaves. Controlling slaves had been increasingly difficult for years. It could only be more difficult, perhaps impossible, with slaves believing that Lincoln’s election meant their freedom. How could they believe otherwise? Though Lincoln was no threat to slavery where it existed, and said so often during the 1860 presidential campaign, fire-eating secessionists railed against him as a radical abolitionist with a secret agenda to foment slave rebellion. Such overheated rhetoric was intended to stir up support for secession among southern whites, but southern blacks heard the message too. Rebellion and rumors of rebellion pervaded the South that year and drove slaveholder fears to a fever pitch. Most significantly, underlying their fear was the certain knowledge that slaves wanted freedom. It was that fear, born of generations of slave resistance, that led to secession, war, and slavery’s downfall.

Slaveholders’ doubts about their ability to maintain slavery indefinitely had a long history. The need to justify slavery had for decades occupied their brightest minds. The need to keep southern whites, three-quarters of whom owned no slaves, supporting slavery made fomenting fear of blacks a political priority.  Most threatening to slaveholders were the slaves themselves. Blacks had never submitted to slavery willingly or completely. They did little more than they had to do and took liberties where they could. They resisted in so many ways that the slaveholders’ need to exercise control was constant and consuming.  Had blacks been content to remain enslaved, slaveholders would have had no cause for alarm. Nor would abolitionist arguments have inspired such panic among them. As it was, slaveholder fears of threats to slavery, as much from within as from without, led them to insist on guarantees for slavery’s future and the means to control that future. And that fear led them to secede when those guarantees and their means of control seemed at risk. As Professor John Ashworth reminds us inSlavery, Capitalism and Politics in the Antebellum Republic (1995), there was a direct causal link between the slaves’ desire for freedom and slaveholder politics. “Behind every event in the history of the sectional controversy,” Ashworth points out, “lurked the consequences of black resistance to slavery.”

That resistance was not confined to the South. Escaping slaves saw to that. By the tens of thousands they headed north, undermining northern efforts to keep the slave’s war south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In so doing, as Professor Scott Hancock stresses in “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line” (Civil War History, 2013), black folk “maintained an unrelenting pressure on the sectional fault lines of identity, law, and space.” That pressure produced large cracks in those fault lines and increasingly drew northerners into the conflict. Time and again, northern failures to keep blacks and slavery locked in the South put them at odds with slaveholders’ expansionist demands. Hancock concludes, and rightly so, that “not simply slavery, but slaves – black people! – caused the Civil War.”

It was, then, at the heart of it all, the unrelenting resistance to slavery among slaves themselves that was the essential condition, the one thing without which the sectional crisis, secession, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment would not have happened.

Of course, it did not happen overnight. For more than two centuries before the Civil War, millions of African Americans lived in bondage all their lives. But it was a resisted bondage, an ongoing struggle, that would eventually reach its consummation. The internal pressures against slavery – rebellion, resistance, escape – were always there and became ever greater as slavery spread. Slaveholders clamped down with more slave codes, more slave patrols, and increasingly brutal control. But the more they tried to tighten their grip on slaves, the more slaves slipped through their fingers. By the late 1850s there were an estimated fifty thousand escapees annually, temporary and permanent. Such resistance fueled a desperation reflected in slaveholder politics and the secession crisis. The resulting war was neither an isolated event nor an end point in itself.  It was part of a massive black resistance movement that had been going on for generations, finally becoming so intense that the country as a whole could hardly help being drawn into it.

Even so, in an effort to avoid war, Congress passed, and Lincoln supported, a constitutional amendment, the Corwin Amendment, that would have guaranteed slavery in the slave states forever.  In the war’s early months, both Congress and Lincoln insisted that the conflict was a white man’s war in which blacks could have no part. But black folk knew the war was theirs and quickly took ownership of it.  Black resistance largely brought on the war, then pressed Lincoln in the direction he eventually went.  By escaping in the tens of thousands and making freedom a fact, blacks forced Lincoln to recognize that fact with the Emancipation Proclamation. They made the document their own, and made it much more that it was.  In the upper South, where the Proclamation did not apply, blacks claimed freedom anyway.  In the lower South, they made freedom real by aiding escaping slaves, serving the Union army as guides and spies, assisting Confederate deserters and armed deserter gangs, giving aid to escaping Union prisoners, resisting abuse, and engaging in open rebellion.  They established freedom for themselves by traveling at will, threatening escape to secure wages, and even claiming land and property when they could.  Still, most Americans today seem to assume that Lincoln, almost single-handedly and of his own volition, “freed the slaves.”  Certainly most students coming into my freshman U.S. history course assume that to be the case, which is in large part what prompted me to write my book, I Freed Myself.

In the war’s aftermath, although whites willfully ignored the wartime role of blacks, memories of self-emancipation efforts remained clear in the minds of black folk.  One day a candidate for local office in Illinois asked Duncan Winslow, a former slave and Union veteran, for his vote in an upcoming election. As if to seal the deal, the candidate told Winslow, “Don’t forget. We freed you people.” In response, Winslow raised his wounded arm and said, “See this? Looks to me like I freed myself.”  Blacks would go on freeing themselves for generations to come.

David Williams is a professor of history at Valdosta State University and the author of the, “I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era” (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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