Thursday, February 17, 2011

Historians Barbara Fields and James McPherson on Lincoln the Emancipator

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

Well as we know, historians disagree on just about everything. And it's a good thing too - if we didn't - there would only be one book on the Civil War...we would all read it...and that would be it. Not too exciting. The subject of "who freed the slaves" generally stirs up a lively debate - here's what two prominent scholars have to say about it.

Columbia University historian Barbara Fields insists that Lincoln’s dedication to freedom was superficial and never strayed from the confines of war necessity. Relying heavily on the oft-quoted words of Lincoln himself, Fields reminds readers that the president would have eagerly saved the Union “without freeing any slave.”

[caption id="attachment_615" align="alignright" width="110" caption="Barbara J. Fields"][/caption]

Fields attempts to show how Lincoln adopted a strictly limited policy of emancipation only as an attack on the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. A great many bondsmen, including those enslaved in loyal states or those residing in areas already occupied by United States forces, remained enslaved. Further, those laboring deep in the Confederacy, far from liberating Union lines, remained beyond the reach of the proclamation’s power. Fields admits that the Emancipation Proclamation was significant, but rather than illustrating a crucial development with roots in Republican ideology, she asserts that slaves provided the impetus for such a policy through self-emancipation. The slaves themselves forced the issue and convinced Republicans to attack the institution where it existed. “No human alive,” she comments, “could have held back the tide that swept toward freedom.”

[caption id="attachment_620" align="alignleft" width="129" caption="James M. McPerson"][/caption]

Princeton University historian James McPherson answers this challenge by pointing out that Lincoln and the Republican Party were not only committed to thwarting the expansion of slavery into the territories, but also that containment was the “first vital step toward placing it in the course of ultimate extinction.” Well before the outbreak of war, McPherson illustrates, Lincoln made it abundantly clear that a man governing another man was despotism, that the relation of masters and slave was a violation of the principle of equality embedded in the founding documents, and that the slave system undermined the “principles of progress.” Although Lincoln knew he lacked the authority to tamper with slavery where it already existed, he hoped that when the Union became either “all one thing or all the other,” that slavery would have met its demise. McPherson adds a further cautionary note in answer to Fields’s assertion of an inevitable “sweeping tide.” Her conclusions depend on a Union victory – a victory hardly foreordained in 1861.

Now you know I want your opinion - so sound off!




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Harris, The Won Cause. The Won Cause said: Historians Barbara Fields and James McPherson on Lincoln the Emancipator [...]

  2. I think the historical record shows that Lincoln's commitment to emancipation and freedom for the slaves increased as the war progressed. we can see this in his refusal to back off emancipation in peace talks, and in his support for limited black voting rights. Lincoln was not remarkable in seeing slavery as fundamentally wrong, or in holding racist views; what was remarkable about him was the capacity for change and growth.

  3. "Self-emancipation" on a widespread level would never have been possible had not several Union Armies been in the South at that time. McPherson, Guelzo, and numerous others widely acknowledge this. Lincoln realized he had to walk the careful tightrope between emancipation and the agitation of loyal slave states. As with almost all public policy, now and then, small steps had to be taken before "fuller" policy would be implemented. Interesting article!

  4. By all indications of everything I have read on the topic, I believe that President Lincoln was a political opportunist in regards to the issues of slavery and emancipation. Speeches he made as he campaigned for the presidency varied from an abolitionist tone in areas where the position was strong, to a tone of indifference or disdain for the issue in south-leaning communities. Didn't he also imply blacks and whites would not be able to coexist in this country, and then offer incentives to blacks to return to the African continent after the Civil War was concluded?
    Accepting blacks into the army to have been more a tool to demoralize the confederates than an earnest assessment of the motivation and desire of black men to participate in the end of the institution of perpetual slavery as was set in place in the southern states.
    I think Lincoln grew into the cause of freedom for blacks as opposed to viewing the war or himself as an agent of change even though economic considerations and states rights, which were at the heart of the dispute , hinged on the continuation of slavery. Thus the way blacks were to be considered in this country.
    By trying to appease as many constituates as possible, he inspired some and alienated others (states) even as he tried to maintain/build a coalition to preserve the union; not unlike the balancing acts contemporary presidents find themselves attempting to do today with issues/interests here and abroad.

  5. Just finished watching Ken Burns Series "The Civil War" I will post a different series of questions and commentary, during my next writing. Here is what I want to know, in the final segment of this series it was told that when Robert E. Lee and his Confederates forces were facing their waterloo and they decided to bring slaves into their forces because of a shortage of man power, does it mention in the records just how many slaves fought for the South and how many of the died while fighting the North?

    I understand that the slaves caught hell and beyond during this time in history and believed all of the nonsense that the white southeners handed out, but did they really believe they were going to gain their freedom from these Confederates, if they helped them after all of the crap they had to endure.

  6. What is consistently ignored in these debates and even from the brilliant Ken Burns Civil War, which introduced the world to Shelby Foots and Professor Fields, is that slavery had been banned internationally already. The US was indeed the last bastion of slavery. The institution of slavery would have died a natural death in time. The question of that time is what is pertinent.

    What is perhaps the most daunting aspect of emancipation is that blacks bore the brunt of the Confederacy loss as scapegoats and that is the legacy they have inherited. This is what I believe Lincoln foresaw as a distraction from his real agenda of taxing the south to the ground and really with that policy instigating the rebellion. Which from all accounts was not unjust on behalf of the industrial south. They were being swindled and this can be proven by the loss of state rights which Lincoln overthrew to enrich the coffers of Washington from previously independent states untaxed from central govt. These issues seem never to be explored. As the butcher Sherman explained in a quote never repeated "if this war was about slavery I would have offered my sword to the other side".

    But as professor Fields explains, the black man fought valiantly against slavery as soon as he had the chance. But that was the only real black input of the Civil War. The rhetoric of the Civil War had no allusion to slavery. Its footing was totally fiscal. Forward to the 20th century and American black soldiers were not allowed arms in international conflict pre 1945.

    What is conveniently over looked so cruelly is that if the White House had such honourable virtues, The Indian genocides would never have occurred. Black emancipation then Native genocide? The federal govt is twisted and always will be. What they have inflicted on the races is that which they will inflict on the whole American people in time to come. Lincoln is the prime example of a duplicitous, secretive and closed president that Jefferson warned of. We see his tyrannical spirit live on today.