Monday, January 05, 2009

A War for a Great National Idea

It is not uncommon to hear people say that the War Between the States was a great moral struggle against slavery, with Lincoln and the Northern Unionists holding down the fort for freedom. Not only is this perspective of events historically anachronistic, as I have attempted to show in some of my writings HERE, but it comes close to being completely opposite of the truth. The result of Northern victory was certainly not freedom but enslavement - enslavement to a powerful centralized government and nationalistic ideology that was unprecedented in the history of our nation. Under Lincoln, the plantation was simply extended to include us all, a point that Steve Wilkins convincingly makes HERE.

I have been doing a bit of reading in David Herbert Donald's biography Lincoln. Donald is a distinguished historian of the South and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography. He is the Charles Warren Professor Emeritus of American History and American Civilization at Harvard. Among his many achievements was being invited by President Bush in December 1989 to deliver the first of what was to be a series of White House lectures on Ameracn history. On p. 315 of his 1995 New York Times bestseller Lincoln, Donald writes about an interesting interview the president had with Mrs. Fremont.
The account of this interview should help to dispel the idea that slavery was a motivating factor for Lincoln in the beginning and even middle of the war. Though personally against slavery, this was not why Lincoln invaded the South. It retroactively became the reason only after the pragmatic Lincoln realized that he could use emancipation tactically to transition the war from a petty fight for national greatness to a great moral struggle.

Mrs. Fremont arrived on September 10 and immediately asked the President to set a time for an interview. He replied tersely, "Now, at once." Though it was nine o'clock in the evening and she was tired and dusty from traveling all day, she went immediately to the White House. She did not find Lincoln hospitable. He received her in teh Red Room, standing, and he did not offer her a seat. When she presented a letter from her husband explaining his position, Lincolnd, as she remembered it, "smiled with an expression that was not agreeable" and read it without comment. Attempting to make Fremont's views clearer, she went on to talk about the need to strike a blow against slavery that would enlist British sentiment on the Union side. The president cut her off with "You are quite a female politician." Then, in a voice that she found both hard and "repelling," he told her, "It was a war for a great national idea, the Union, and...General Fremont should not have dragged the Negro into it."

And finally, lest anyone still think that slavery had anything to do with Lincoln's motivation in the war, we have Lincoln's own words:

"My chief object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.

"What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. This is how I see my official duty. It does not change my wish -- as a person -- that all men everywhere could be free."

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