Friday, September 02, 2016

Character Assassination

It's not enough that John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Now historical revisionists would assassinate his character as well.

This appears on a Facebook page called "Knowledge Room Revolt". It's captioned as follows:
"The REAL Deal..... Good Ole Abe and The Emancipation Proclamation. was his concern really about blacks and slavery? And did the emancipation truly free the slaves? It's time to get it correct!"
I agree. Let's get it correct. The first step in doing that is understanding the vast gulf between this video and the truth. Let's skip editorializing for a moment and go straight to the core premise... that the Emancipation was a lie; there was little concern for the rights of Blacks and every concern for economics of White Power; that it came about because the powerful Whites of the North could maintain their supremacy over the powerful Whites of the South.

The presenter (who I believe to be the producer, Kara L. Poole) says that one can't understand the Emancipation Proclamation without understanding event that preceded it: the Civil War. I say absolutely... yes... let's roll with that. And you can't understand that without understanding the election that preceded it, which means you have to look at the Lincoln-Douglas debates; and you can't understand that without examining the views of the man before he had any stakes in that election.

As a lawyer, Lincoln repeatedly defended Blacks in courts. They weren't well-connected; they weren't powerful; they couldn't pay a lot. In some cases it would have been more beneficial to Lincoln himself to return a freed slave to chains rather than argue their case in court, as was the case of Bailey v. Cromwell in 1841 when he defended a freed woman and her children. And yet he took these cases though the only benefit to him was to his conscience.

His thoughts on slavery were crystal clear. Here's a letter he wrote to Joshua Speed in 1855, long before he ran for office. Remember, this was a private letter to a friend. He didn't write it for posterity; he didn't write it to get votes; and he didn't write it to pull the wool over your eyes.
"You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it... I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union. … How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
And then there were the contents of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln was a pragmatist; he knew that you cannot work to the betterment of society if you allow your society to dissolve. He wished for the Union to remain intact, just as the Founders wished for its formation, and in the political climate of the mid-1800s this seemed impossible if slavery were to be summarily abolished. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that his reasons for consistently fighting against the spread of slavery were based on moral grounds. His arguments were not populist. He was widely considered to have lost the debates, although to modern eyes it was anything but. Lincoln won the 1860 election with less than 40% of the popular vote. Nevertheless, he spoke his conscience. When Lincoln addressed slavery as being morally wrong in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he didn't do it to hoodwink Black voters... there were none.

That's not to say that all was peaches and roses. Lincoln acknowledged his own bias, publicly, in the very first debate, of which I present here a sample:
I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. [Great applause.]
Regarding Lincoln's acknowledgement of his own bias, note two things: he's looking for votes (including Southern votes) in an overwhelmingly racist climate; and he nonetheless claims that this acknowledgement is no cause to deny any man his natural rights. No matter what you think of another person, they have the same rights you do. And to the point, that although they were enslaved by law, Negroes had the right to Liberty. That was an extraordinary thing to say when the Founders penned it; no less extraordinary when Lincoln affirmed it; and practically unheard of among nascent postmodern "Big Brothers" who affirm that you have only the rights that don't offend them personally.

Lincoln would have been completely unremarkable had he done the popular thing to universal acclaim with no need for introspection. But students of our grandparents' generation knew that Lincoln had to overcome the biases and prejudices of his time. They knew of these flaws that accompanied the ideals because they were tasked to actually read the Lincoln-Douglas debates as well as the founding documents of our country. Their admiration for Lincoln was greater because they knew of these impediments, not because they were ignorant of them. But today's students know nothing of such things because they are encouraged to discard those musty old documents and rely on the interpretations of ideologically warped pedagogues.


Poole begins her presentation with the words "under Colonial education", setting an overtly anti-historical editorial tone for the piece. She speaks of "Union" and "Confederacy" domination before their existence, when prior to 1860, "the Union" meant one thing, which was the whole of the United States. And as you have read yourself, she's simply ignorant of the morality of it. She misquotes Lincoln: as you can read above, the quote she frames as having been stated with frankness to visiting Black ministers was actually taken from the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. Furthermore, she deliberately misquotes even that, using only the most racist subquote, and replacing "the race to which I belong" with "the White race" without brackets and strips it of the context which I have restored above. The actual preamble to this meeting of ministers was as follows:
The President:“Why should the people of your race be colonized, and where? Why should they leave this country? This is, perhaps, the first question for proper consideration. You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated. You here are freemen I suppose."
A Voice: "Yes, sir."
The President: "Perhaps you have long been free, or all your lives. Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong inflicted on any people. But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race. You are cut off from many of the advantages which the other race enjoy. The aspiration of men is to enjoy equality with the best when free, but on this broad continent, not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours. Go where you are treated the best, and the ban is still upon you."
Poole frames this meeting as an attempt to "deport" slaves rather than an offer to fund their willing emigration, of which they could, and did, refuse. She imagines it to be the an attempt to brainwash their congregations, and punctuates it with a bunch of Trump for President imagery. She doesn't consider for even a moment that Lincoln was trying to find the best solution for an injustice that could have no perfect solution; that he was considering whether the injustice of having a People ripped from their homeland might be properly addressed by returning them to that homeland, as had been done before with the Jews released from Babylonian exile; and then again later with the creation of Israel. Historically, this was the redress that White people had accepted for themselves. The quote she presents as Lincoln's (about "mixed-breed bastards") was never said by Lincoln, but was from an 1862 paper by Reverend James Mitchell, who had pitched the idea of a Central American country of Blacks, as "That region had once known a great empire and could become one again."

Before we leave the incident of the ministerial delegation, let's look at the Poole's conclusion: "So the Civil War was NOT fought for slavery." Yet Lincoln's remarks to those ministers included the following:
"See our present condition---the country engaged in war!---our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence."
That they were so abhorrent of slavery though they did not care for the people who are enslaved tells us that the issue was indeed the slavery itself. Remember the caption of this video: "was his concern really about blacks and slavery?" As a slave, would you have given a damn about Lincoln's personal "concern" for you so long as Lincoln's moral opposition to the institution gained you your freedom?

Poole not only presents grievous factual errors such as those I note above (and in some cases, pure fiction wrapped up as scholarly conclusions); she commits the unforgivable academic sin of judging the people of history by the standards of today. And in all of that, she simply makes no logical sense. There was no need for an expansion of White power in the 1860s... as she noted herself, Whites already had all the power. The South fought to preserve slavery in the face of what it saw as imminent extinction; whereas the North fought first and foremost to preserve the Union. And as slavery, being the divisive element, could not be allowed to stand, the Emancipation Proclamation was about ceding power over their own lives to Blacks to the greatest extent possible while still preserving the Union. It was about fulfilling the promise of the Constitution. Lincoln already had that moral inclination when he took office, but he didn't think he had the Constitutional authority to carry it out, and that is why the Emancipation Proclamation was a "practical matter". Many historians agree with him about that technicality: he lacked the legal authority. But prompted by the War, Lincoln nevertheless took the authority and exercised it. His moral certainty strengthened, not weakened. And he ended his life in favor of Black suffrage. Following his death it was the party of Lincoln that passed the 14th Amendment despite 100% Democratic opposition in both the House and Senate.

That a man like Lincoln could run for office at that time and be elected while speaking out publicly for this was nothing short of astonishing. That he was in favor of Black suffrage before White women had a vote is astounding. That the great-grandchildren of the beneficiaries of his legacy could be so petty is contemptible. Were I enslaved, I could not imagine begrudging my freedom because the man who secured it for me didn't follow it up with an invitation to marry his daughter.

As to whether Lincoln was "really" in favor of ending slavery, I will reach back before the War and necessity and expediency, and quote from the same first Lincoln-Douglas debate that was so egregiously misquoted in this video:
"I believe we shall not have peace upon the question until the opponents of slavery arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction."
Remember that people like Poole are entitled to spout all the nonsense they like, but that doesn't obligate anyone to accept it for anything other than the nonsense it is. In order to be so wrong, she has had to deliberately overlook overwhelming evidence that contradicts her conclusions. She has to have been looking for and cherry-picking evidence that supports her pre-drawn conclusion that Whites - but this one in particular - must be evil.

This video isn't scholarship... it's racist apologetics, for the express purpose of keeping people at a perpetual distance who might otherwise move past their differences to come together in unity. This isn't different from the White revisionists who call the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression" without irony; and who claim that the whole thing was about States Rights, not slavery. This is exactly the same kind of rhetoric used by the KKK, and as a country, we're already sick of it from them. What do we need with a remake of that tired old show?