Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle between these two fair analysis of Lincoln. One question I have is, thinking about Lincoln the politician he was politically savvy enough to know his audience and when he spoke about saving the Union without freeing a slave, though I believe he meant it, he was nonetheless still a political creature and had political aims with regard to his speech or letter, did he not? Also, once President he was sworn to protect the constitution, which at the time essentially protectect the property rights of the South. To me Lincoln was clearly progressive in his thinking towards slavery and deserves much respect in this regard. Finally, his staunch stance on limiting slavery's expansion is also underscored as McPherson notes.

  2. The endlessly-quoted line about saving the Union "without freeing any slave" comes in a letter answering Horace Greeley's editorial "The Prayer of Twenty Millions." I agree with Chris that Lincoln was a master politician always attuned to his audience. Greeley's New York Tribune was printed in a city that was heavily Democratic and anti-abolition. Had Lincoln been writing, say, for a Boston audience, he may have come out more fully in support of abolition--which he did in the Emancipation Proclamation anyway. Gotta side with McPherson over Fields on this one.

  3. I think the positions staked out by McPherson and Fields underscore the tensions Lincoln himself was dealing with in dealing with the question of slavery in the context of a war to preserve the Union and the authority of the federal government. Recognizing the tension between these twin issues is probably gets us closer to understanding the historical realities and Lincoln's attitudes than coming down firmly on one or the other interpretation.

  4. I find this sort of argument something of a problem. Not because it should be but because our society tends to reject anything negative on Lincoln. It seems that uneducated people on the topic will look at you with a blasphemous look when you tell them his quote on the before mentioned letter. I myself agree with Fields but I agree with Marc above me as well. He had to battling both ideals. I do tend to agree with Fielde though.