The Photography of the US Civil War.

August 27, 2013

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“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862

The great US Civil War historian Shelby Foote, once commented that the Civil War fundamentally changed the US linguistically from ‘the United States are…‘ to ‘the United States is…‘. A rather perfect outline of the result of the war. But there’s another interesting result of the conflict. The Civil War also introduced photography to journalism.

Lincoln recognised the power of photography, having joked that he may never have been re-elected without Mathew Brady’s portrait. Lincoln knew by 1865 the importance of photography, because its use in the US Civil War helped to diminish northern support for the Union forces, the moment hundreds of photographers invaded the battlefield at the end of a battle.

It was one thing to read letters from the front line (this also struck a blow to Northern support for the war, given the growth of the postal service at this time), but it was a completely different thing to see broken and torn corpses strewn across the battlefield, from a quiet house in northern towns and cities, far from the frontlines. The birth of Photojournalism at this point brought images of hell, to every American house in the country.

Today, they give us an incredible documentation of that four year period that cost so many lives, made so many political careers, and gave birth to ‘the United States is…‘.

Here are a few that caught my attention. Click the images, for larger versions.

A Confederate soldier, killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse:

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The inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1861:

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Union War General, and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S.Grant. 1863:

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Confederate troops killed at Antietam:

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A slave family on a cotton plantation in Georgia:

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President Lincoln, with the Glaswegian Allan Pinkerton on the left, and Union General John McClernand:

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A regiment in formation, in Missouri:

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The 8th New York State Militia:

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Confederate Commander Robert E.Lee:

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Union Troops at Fredericksburg:

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Union General, and scorched Earth enthusiast, William Tecumseh Sherman:

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Confederate Soldiers killed, at Spotsylvania Court House. 1864:

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The camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, outside of Fort Slocum. 1862. A lot of wives and children insisted on joining their husbands at camp:

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Confederate Soldiers of Louisiana’s Washington Artillery, preparing for the Battle of Shiloh. 1862:

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President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

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A Union camp:

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The flag of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. 1864:

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Civil War Photography was used for a duel purpose. Firstly, we see from the horrendous images of those killed in battle, those young men who lost their lives so early, for a war that shaped the US ever since; as the New York Times pointed out in 1862, those images brought the horrors of war to the doorstep of every American. Secondly, the photography of the Civil War was used to create heroes out of its leaders. Tecumseh Sherman is sitting mightily, back straight, in a leadership pose atop his horse, in eerily similar pictures to early paintings of George Washington similarly used to convey a sense of majesty and honour. Similar images from the Mathew Brady collection show us Lincoln, as a towering figure, looking purposeful. Civil War photography helped propel the face of Ulysses Grant into the minds of millions. Photojournalism was a key component of the US Civil War and its legacy can be seen whenever we are presented with the horrors of war and conflict, and the images of World leaders appearing to look determined and thoughtful. US Civil War Photojournalism is an often forgotten, but vastly important contribution to the modern World.


The Republican Party: From Lincoln to Romney.

August 26, 2013

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“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
— President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

“Corporations are people, my friend… of course they are.”
– Mitt Romney, 2012.

There is a rather neat simplicity in Republican circles that insists upon the populace, that the Republican Party of the 21st Century, is a continuation of the Republican Party of President Lincoln. In 2010, Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate seat for Delaware, was one of those running for Congress, asserting that the Republican Party that she belonged to, was the Party of Lincoln. It is as if they believe that had Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt (another name often used to link the GOP to its roots) existed today, they would find a similar Republican Party – in tone, and in policy – to the GOP they left behind, when in fact the history of the Republican Party renders it a completely separate entity from its late 19th early 20th Century counterpart.

It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between Texan Governor Rick Perry’s subtle call for secession, on the re-election of President Obama, shouting States Rights, to the same calls upon the election of President Lincoln in 1860 and the same States demanding secession, shouting States Rights (the Civil War was never about States Rights, as I point out in a previous article here).

Indeed, had Lincoln lived today, I would go as far as to say that the Republican Right might categorise him as a liberal who should be opposed at every opportunity. It would be the Republicans calling for secession. The GOP in 2013 is simply anti-government intervention for the most vulnerable. It is a fundamentalist position. It does not take into account context, or indeed, facts.

In contrast, President Lincoln was not anti-government intervention. Far from it, he pressed for state sponsored subsidies for railway building, canal building, road building amongst other Federally financed projects – a stimulus, as you may call it today. A vast swarm of States at the time – including Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky – had State constitutional bans on Federal subsidies for infrastructure. In fact, it was such a contentious issue splitting the progressive, Government-spending attitude of Lincoln’s northern Republicans with the Democrats in the South, that the Confederate Constitutional Drafters included the particularly conservative, anti-Federal clause:

“… neither this, nor any other clause in the Constitution shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvements intended to facilitate commerce”

– The Confederacy – with logic similar to today’s Republicans – considered internal improvements to be a matter for the individual states, not the Federal government. Lincoln disagreed. To the South, Lincoln was the very epitome of the power of central Federal government. Lincoln believed the Federal government to be a force for good.

In 1862, the Lincoln Administration signed into law, the Revenue Act. What this did, was to create the Commissioner of Internal Revenue; the IRS. Furthermore, the law created the USA’s first ever progressive income tax. If your annual income was less than $600, you paid nothing. If your income was greater than $10,000, you paid 5% (this was increased to 10% in the Revenue Act of 1864). It was designed to aid those who couldn’t afford to pay, whilst placing an increasing burden on those who could most afford to. For its time, this was an incredibly progressive step. We can contrast this today to Republicans in – for example – Wisconsin, who are currently pushing for a State flat tax, that independent analysis suggests is simply a massive tax cut for the wealthiest, whilst increasing the burden on the most vulnerable. The exact opposite of the Lincoln plan.

But it isn’t only Lincoln. Republicans will also mention their party’s ties to Teddy Roosevelt. “We’re the Party of Lincoln & Roosevelt!” is the cry from the Republican faithful. And yet, it is difficult to find any similarities between the Republican Party of 1901 – 1909, and the Republican Party in 2013. For example, in the 2012 campaign, Romney set himself up as the anti-union candidate. For Romney, unions were the problem. They hampered corporate power (the corporate power Lincoln – and in fact, Jefferson – were fearful of). For Romney, any legislation that empowered working people over the managerial classes, was only going to create bigger economic problems. This is no surprise given that when Romney was in control of Bain Capital, his company took over Marion, Ind, laid off one fifth of its workers, sharply cut health benefits, cut wages, and abolished its retirement plan. Romney got rich, by hammering working people into the ground, destroying unions, and fostering poverty.

By contrast Teddy Roosevelt supported United Mine Workers, when they went on strike in 1902 for higher wages and better conditions. The Republican President’s support for unions led UMW to a pay increase, for less hours. This, a year after Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress demanding the curbing of power of large corporations, earning him the title of ‘Trust Buster’. He then signed into law the Meat Inspection Act making it illegal for a label to be misleading, and banned harmful chemicals. With his trust busting, and his dedication to food safety, Monsanto’s abuses certainly wouldn’t have lasted very long. To today’s Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt is far more to the left, than President Obama.

Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt wished to regain the Presidency in 1912, from his Republican ally William Taft, whom he now distrusted and considered anti-progressive. Failing to do so, Roosevelt then went about setting up the very short lived Progressive Party. The Progressive Party proposed the following; strict regulations on campaign contributions (Senate Minority Leader in 2013, Mitch McConnell has very good reason to oppose campaign finance reform; his loyalties lie entirely with big business); A universal healthcare system, proposed 40 years before the British NHS, and still not realised to this day whilst Republicans spend an incredible amount of money on constant repeal-Obamacare votes in the House; Minimum wage for women; social security to provide for the elderly, disabled and unemployed (all threatened by 21st Century Republicans); an inheritance tax (repealed in Indiana by State Republicans in 2012).
Naturally the Progressive Party died horribly, after funding ran dry given that Corporate interests didn’t particularly favour a progressive position. Nevertheless, in 1912, hundreds of progressive Republicans ran for office.

Let us also not forget that whilst the Republican Party today appears to be having a problem appealing to minorities, and giving the impression that it is willing to suppress voting rights of African Americans the moment the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the defining feature of the Ulysses Grant Republican administration, was one of extending voting rights, and progressing civil rights for African Americans. Grant was the first President to sign a Civil Rights Act, in direct conflict with rising anti-civil rights groups in the South.

On the issue of race, it appears to me that the period following the 1876 election, which saw the removal of Federal Troops from the South, allowing Democrats to again mistreat African Americans, lead to Southern Republicans trying to win over those white folk who were naturally drawn to the Democrats, thus we see Republicans actively abandoning the cause of civil rights.

The Democrats had a similar struggle to become the more progressive party we see today. As late as the 1950s we see a Democratic Party that included Hubert Humphrey who strongly advocated a shift in Democrat policy, by including the idea to end racial segregation, at the 1948 Party Platform at the DNC. This moment marks a huge shift for the Democrats. Humphrey took to the DNC floor and demanded that on racial segregation, the Democrats abandon their old position, and:

“…walk into the sunshine of human rights.”

– As Humphrey was making his way through the Democratic ranks, forging new ideas for the Party, another Democrat – Strom Thurmond – was actively fighting the change. Thurmond supported Jim Crow, and segregation. This split eventually lead to Thurmond joining the Republicans, and supporting Nixon’s vastly racist southern strategy. It is incredible to note than in less than a century, the Republican Party went from passing the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments, reconstruction, and pioneering the way to bring African Americans into politics….. to supporting, and violently enforcing racial segregation. The Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s, were completely different to the Lincoln Republicans of the 1850s.

By the 1960 election, we see a clear shift of powerful rhetoric, defining what the Democrats now stood for. Less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Democrats were now firmly the party of the progressives, the heirs to Lincoln and Roosevelt. We see this, with Kennedy’s nomination acceptance speech in New York:

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.” ”

– This could easily be repeated in 2013, and the same lines of division between liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, would apply.

The Republicans we see today started to crop up around the time of the Roosevelt New Deal era, having been stirring for around the previous 60+ years since the end of Reconstruction. According to Nancy Weiss in “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR” writes:

“Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time.”

– For a number of years before the New Deal, both Parties were promising some sort of help for the most vulnerable, via the enlarging of Federal Government. The northern Democrats of the Roosevelt era knew fully that the Great Depression gave them the opportunity to reconstitute the entire Democratic Platform. It is only during the New Deal era that the Republicans start becoming the Party of small government, and pressing ahead with much more racially divisive ideas. It is around this time too, that the Republicans start to become involved far more with the Christian Right. President Lincoln did not advertise his religious beliefs, and often questioned Christian dogma. Not as much as Jefferson, but certainly enough to render him the devil in the eyes of a fundamentalist like Rick Santorum.

The name “The Republican Party” is empty & meaningless for the sake of recalling its history. It is the attitudes – conservative or progressive – inclinations, beliefs and policies that form a Party, not its name. The big business, anti-progressive, anti-welfare, rabid obsession with small government fundamentalist vision of the Republican Party in 2013, cannot be identified in any way with the early Republican Administrations, and certainly not with that of Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats & Republicans of the 19th Century are in no way comparable to their 21st Century counterparts. It is important to point our the complete 180 degree turn the Republicans & Democrats have gone through over the past 150+ years, when confronted with those who claim that today’s GOP is the “Party of Lincoln!“.

21st Century progressivism is the natural heir to the 19th and 20th Century progressivism of Lincoln and Roosevelt.


To fly the flag of the Confederacy

January 15, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: By Donald Lee Pardue (Flickr: Still Waving).

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: By Donald Lee Pardue (Flickr: Still Waving).

In his 1953 novel ‘Bring the Jubilee’, Ward Moore imagines a revised history in which the Confederacy wins the Battle of Gettysburg and thus the Civil War. A key theme of the book, is the imperialist ambitions of the Confederate States between the end of the war, and the 1950s. President Robert Lee, whom takes over at the end of Jefferson Davis’ term in Office fights and fights to stop an imperialistic Congress invading Central and South America. The novel is of course imagined alternate history, but it is shockingly close to reality when we note the future aims of the Confederacy during the Civil War period, and the complete ignorance of this by those who still fly the Confederate Flag (appropriated from the original Army of Tennessee flag) under the misapprehension that it represents “State’s Rights”.

I have travelled from the UK to Michigan three times this year. The three seasons I have encountered have all had their merits, and the wonderful landscape adapts each time to reveal a hidden beauty that I hadn’t seen previously. The red leaves of autumn are calming whilst the summer evenings provide beautiful sunsets over the lake. I love Michigan.

However, as an outsider, I have been shocked to see that people still fly the Confederate flag.

I am ensured that it is a symbol of the South in general – and in particular, States rights. This is of course, nonsense. It pre-supposes that the Confederate flag and the Confederacy in general, along with secession was ever about State’s Rights. I believe this mythical idea of the old South used to be referred to as the ‘Lost Cause’; a devious yet charming little term of propaganda romanticising the South to a degree that it absolutely doesn’t deserve.

The ‘State’s Rights’ claim as to the cause of the Civil War suggests that the Southern States were ardent defenders of the individual States as a loose collection of autonomous States that could vote on and set their own laws and regulations, and trade with each other, without Federal interference. This is simply not true. The Southern States were far more anti-freedom, and anti-States Rights than the North.

For example, on the eve of secession, South Carolina issued a declaration entitled:

“Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”

– Their grievences listed, are almost entirely based on slavery. In the most telling attack on State’s Rights, it is clear that South Carolina did not like that Northern States had at times refused to send fugitive slaves back to their ‘Masters’ in the South:

“an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery. … In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed …”

– Tellingly, the South Carolina Declaration demands that the Northern non-slave holding States conform to the views of slave holding States by allowing Southerners when visiting the North, to bring their slaves with them, as slaves:

“In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals.”

– The South didn’t care for States Rights. The South employed the most imperialistic, totalitarian, anti-liberty social and economic system, dreaming of empire, in the entire nation.

Now Southern propagandists will argue that tariffs, and Federal planning grants were just as to blame for secession, but those points are not mentioned in most Southern literature from the time. The Southern States seceded, because of the issue of slavery. It isn’t State’s Rights, it is White Male Rights.

Similar to South Carolina, Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession states:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Perhaps most tellingly of all, is the Confederate Constitution. Section 9 of which states:

(4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

– This shows how little the Confederacy cared about State’s Rights. The State’s have no right to abolish Slavery. No individual State can pass a law impairing the right of property in slaves. The Confederate Federal Government did not care for State’s Rights. They cared only about maintaining and spreading slavery as a system.

So, the South essentially means that it is an ardent defender of States Rights, as long as the Southern States have the Right to demand the Northern States do as the South demands. But not only did the South wish to ensure the North did as it was told, they wished to expand their slave holding empire into different continents.

The American lawyer and journalist William Walker, in 1854, after a failed attempt to set up a Republic of Sonora in Mexico, with the intention of it becoming a State of the Union; invaded Nicaragua for control of a vital trade route between New York and San Francisco. He succeeded in his efforts, and took control of Nicaragua, renaming it “Walkeragua” (seriously, i’m not making this up). In 1856, President Franklin Pierce, officially recognised Walker’s regime in Walkeragua as legitimate. His regime began to Americanise Walkeragua, by instating slavery, using American currency, and making English the official language. He advertised his new Country to American Southern businessmen by advertising the fact that his new quasi-State was pro-slavery and would remain so.
By the time Walker revoked Nicaragua’s 1824 Emancipation Act, the rest of Latin America took note, and invaded. He fled and was bought back to the U.S where he was welcomed as a hero of the South.
He died before the Civil War kicked off, but the South referred to him throughout the Civil War as “General Walker“ and “The grey-eyed man of destiny”. The South did not just fight to preserve the institution of slavery, they wanted to expand it, on a grand scale, to the point where Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky proposed that the 36°30′ parallel north be a line that separates the northern free states, and the southern slave states, all the way down to the tip of South America.

Walker wasn’t the only Southerner with Imperialist ambitions. The Confederate Secretary of State John C. Breckinridge decided that Southern States had the right to invade whomever they wished:

“The Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government.”

As autonomous “States rights” go, invading another sovereign nation and revoking its anti-slavery laws, in hope of creating a slave owning empire, is about as big and as bad as a Federal Government can get.
So far, that’s State’s Rights to own people as property, and the State’s Rights to invade sovereign countries and force slavery upon them. Let’s also not forget State’s Rights to wander into other countries, and capture locals to be shipped back to Southern lands as slaves, as President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davies suggested when he mentioned reviving the slave trade because there was an abundance of:

“….new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande.”

– The imperialist fantasies that prominent Southern politicians were expressing quickly evaporates the intensely faulty premise that for the South, the Civil War was about State’s Freedoms and Rights. It is therefore absurd to claim the Confederate flag stands for those qualities. It stood in defiance of those qualities.

By flying the Confederate flag, what social system are you showing your support for, or your nostalgic sense of loss for? What economic system? Certainly the civil war pitted the more industrialised and Capitalist Northern economic system, against the more agrarian and slave-holding Southern economic structure. So what are you advocating? Surely not Capitalism, as Capitalism was most certainly considered a great evil in the old South, so much so that George Fitzhugh – a leading Social Theorist of the time, insisted that slavery protected African Americans from the pains of Capitalism, and attacks the idea of “free competition” no less than 42 times in his book ‘Slavery Justified’. On a Social level, Fitzhugh (who went on to work in the Treasury of the Confederacy, as well as counting numerous Confederate politicians among his friends and admirers) says of African Americans:

Half of mankind are but grown up children, and liberty is fatal to them as it is to children.

– The line of reasoning is reasonable when framed in the cold ignorance of the mid-19th century, but is widely unacceptable, and entirely incorrect by 21st century logic. We must remember that Fitzhugh was writing prior to Darwin’s understanding that racial differences were not biological. Fitzhugh would have been influenced by social theorists on racial and cultural differences, culminating in the studies of anthropologists such as Lewis Henry Morgan, who argued in his work ‘Ancient Societies’ that societies and thus peoples could be classed as primitive or civilised, and that the white European civilisation was far more advanced than ‘primitive’ African cultures. Morgan’s work was less based on evolutionary biology, and more on a Euro-centric cultural study, and very little else. His works later influenced Marx in his theory of Historical Materials, thus proving that his writings were widely available and respected.

State’s Right’s. What they mean is, the rich white male’s right to own people as property based on skin tone, without anyone telling them that it’s wrong. The African American had no right to complain, had no right to vote, no right to not be beaten, no right to anything. As the great Senator of the time Charles Sumner stated:

By the licence of slavery, an entire race is delivered over to the prostitution and concubinage without the protection of any law.

– Here Sumner is noting that the South revokes its claims on “Rights” when it imprisons the vast majority of its population in a state of bondage; breaking the ties of family, and brotherhood, of marriage and replacing parent/child relationships (natural relationships) with master/slave. When you appropriate the fruit of labour freely, when you take away their right to active political participation, when you deny education, and when you break natural bonds like that of family; you can no longer claim the defence of ‘State’s rights’, and any future generation flying the flag that represented that putrid system should be ashamed.

Often, I read insistences that the Confederate Flag today means Southern pride, or Southern heritage, or other equally manipulative benign terms. That narrative is misjudged. The Confederate flag was a very specific flag, for a very specific system, at a very specific time. It is a reason. So, if you must insist on ensuring the World knows just how proud you are to be from Southern States, why not have a new flag, predicated on State’s Rights, or Southern Pride? Designed for that purpose. Why use the EXACT same flag that was designed purely for the sake of representing the slave system. It is disingenuous to attempt to suggest the Confederate Flag is anything but a provocative flag of hate.

The Confederacy Flag represents, not States Rights, not Southern heritage or pride, but the following: An Economic and Social system built on slavery. Anti-Capitalism. Anti-liberty. Imperialism. Scientific ignorance. White Supremacy. The Confederate flag represents that system. Nothing else. Certainly not “State’s Rights”. It is very specific as a symbol.

The attempts to pose the Civil War as a State’s Rights issue, is simply to ignore and revise history in an attempt to create a sort of “David V Goliath” narrative in which the South is the victim of the big bad Federal Government. It is ignorant, lazy, and wrong.

To fly the flag of Confederacy today is shameful.


Racism in America: Lincoln

March 2, 2011

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought with it the utopic notion that racism in the United States of America was over. I certainly do not the doubt the momentous appointment of an African American man to the office of President of a country that was built on racial genocide and slavery. A country that less than a century ago, during the life time of my grandparents, did not allow a white child to attend the same school as a black child simply on the basis of race. The elevation of a black man to the highest office in American politics is symbolically another step on the road to tackling the evils of racism.

This blog isn’t meant as an analysis of Obama. He is essentially part of an establishment that favours financial institutions, oil companies and private health insurers above the lives of the less wealthy, and panders to the apparently widespread American belief that the very wealthy deserve massive tax cuts at the behest of the most vulnerable. He is no different in that respect regardless of his skin colour.

I wanted instead to focus on the beliefs of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, and his complex and often contradictory approach to slavery. Like Jefferson before him, it is almost impossible to figure out where Lincoln stood on the issue, and conflicting books are widespread. Lincoln’s party politics and his true beliefs seem to be confused much of the time, and yet history tends to stick entirely to his party politics regardless of the motives. I wanted to explore those motives more in depth.

Yesterday I went along to see an hour long lecture by Professor Richard Carwardin, the President of Corpus Christi College Oxford and winner of the Lincoln Prize for his book “Lincoln: A life of purpose and power“, a favourite of George W.Bush. Obviously there is a very limited and narrow version of Lincoln’s life one can present in just an hour, but Carwardin alluded to Lincoln as a great emancipator, as if he had been way a head of his time and the progressive champion for the freedom of black slaves, willing to fight a war for its eradication.
I would argue differently.

Lincoln wasn’t happy with the fact that slavery had become an issue by the time he took office. Lincoln told the esteemed journalist Henry Villard;

“I will be damned if I don’t feel almost sorry for being elected when the niggers is the first thing I have to attend to.”

Lincoln was not prepared to go to war for the abolition of slavery in itself. He had agreed to back an amendment to the Constitution, penned by the Representative from Ohio, Thomas Corwin, that would have made it Unconstitutional for Congress to amend rules or abolish slavery. Lincoln backed it.
The Corwin amendment read:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State

In his inaugural address, Lincoln referenced the proposed amendment, stating:

“Holding such a provision to now be implied Constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Interestingly, the amendment passed Congress by the two-thirds majority needed, but was never fully ratified in the State legislatures, and is still up for ratification, as it was never thrown out. If it had been fully ratified, one must wonder just how different the U.S would look today. The fact remains though that up until the outbreak of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln supported a Constitutional Amendment rendering it impossible to abolish the institution of slavery.

The worry from the Republican Party of the Lincoln years, was not so much the moral implications of ethical dilemma of the owning of slave labour, but the economic problems it creates. They worried that slave labour merely worked to undermine wages of the poor white working classes, and just created a new dominant class known as “Slave Power”. They worried that the Slave owning classes in the South were just violent and expansionist people with a goal of Empire. This paranoia wasn’t without merit, but it was borne out of the relatively new Nation’s deep suspicion of Empire and too much power. Lincoln charged that the Southern Democrats and slave owning classes were out to take over Cuba and the war on Mexico seemed to confirm those suspicions. The Civil War Confederate cry of “States rights!!” was simply the right for the very wealthy land owners in the South to keep and abuse people with darker skin, and the right to centralise power within very few hands. Only the free States were fighting for States rights.

Lincoln’s famous signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It is doubtful whether the proclamation actually freed any slaves whatsoever. Depending on your source, it was either the greatest achievement of the short Presidency of Lincoln, or it was useless. No one really knows. One thing is for sure, Lincoln signed the proclamation as a further attack on the South (rightfully so). In September 1862, he demanded they return to the Union or he would free their slaves. Not “and i’ll free your slave“. It’s an ultimatum. If you rejoin the USA, you get to keep your slaves… if you don’t, we’re freeing them. He is more concerned here with preserving the Union – an abstract concept – than ending slavery. The Proclamation not only didn’t free slaves in the Confederacy, it didn’t free slaves in the slave holding States in the Union – Kentucky and Maryland.

The Proclamation looked good for Lincoln, as it put real pressure on the Confederacy. France and Britain were very anti-slavery, and he needed support and recognition of the legitimacy of the USA in a war that at the time, no one knew which way it might go. With the support of France and Britain, and so legitimacy, it helped Lincolns case. It was similar in a way, to how old European powers gained legitimacy. When Henry Tudor took the Kingship away from Richard III, he was a nobody on the European stage and England was at civil war, much like America. Tudor needed an air of legitimacy, so he married Elizabeth of York; she happened to be the niece of Richard, and daughter of King Edward IV. This was the legitimacy Henry required, and won. He rather secured himself, by marrying his son – Arthur – off to the daughter – Catherine of Aragon – of the most powerful family in Europe; the King and Queen of Spain. The marriages and alliances were all about protecting himself, and securing his throne, not about love nor about the wellbeing of his Kingdom. Lincoln signed the Emancipation declaration, to protect his Throne by winning the support of the English and the French. Up until the Proclamation was signed, it seemed Britain was on the side of the Confederacy, having been involved in the provision of the British made warships the CSS Alabama and the CSS Florida.

Lincoln knew the Proclamation, which freed black slaves in Confederate States that fell to the Union forces, would compel black slaves and freed slaves to help the Union armies. He stressed in a letter to his friend James C. Conkling:

“I thought that whatever negroes can be got to do as soldiers, leaves just so much less for white soldiers to do, in saving the Union.”

The freedom of the slaves with the passing of the 13th Amendment was a tiny ripple in the water. Saying to a group of people who have had no access to education, to family ties, to survival, to anything other than a system that treated them as less than human for so long, that they are now “free”, is worthless. It is not freedom. It would take another 100 years before the real reforms were introduced. Lincoln was not a head of his time. The abolitionists were calling for equality, not just the ending of slavery. Economically, black Americans would be held down for more than a century in place of White privilege. Lincoln may have given them freedom, but he certainly did not give them anything anywhere near equality, and he knew it.

Even the banning of slavery expanding into new territories was a rather obscure policy that was not designed for the sake of the wellbeing of black Americans, rather it was an attempt to keep black people from being shipped to America full stop. It was a white supremacist policy that today would be deplored as vicious and racist. Lincoln, when talking about the banning of slavery expanding to new territories stated that he did not want the United States:

…….to become an asylum for slavery and niggers

The expansion into the West was an opportunity to spread the white race for Lincoln, who had no desire to see black people live there, stating in 1858 in Illinois, that:

in favor of our new territories being in such a condition that white men may find a home … as an outlet for free white people everywhere, the world over.

Lincoln was therefore using race as an unnecessary social divide. Race had only really became an issue, during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Up until then, nobody really cared what race you were. White slaves existed in the Colonies way before black slaves. The worry was that they would join hands and rise up, so race was used to divide them. Tell a poor white slave that he is more important in God’s eyes than a poor black slave, and suddenly there is no chance they will rise up together and overthrow the economic powers that hold them both down.

In 1853, Lincoln backed the Illinois State law that banned freed black people from moving to Illinois. They weren’t so free afterall. Lincoln it seems, was obsessed with the division of black and white, and even Mexicans, whom he referred to, out of the blue, for no reason, as:

“most decidedly a race of mongrels. I understand that there is not more than one person there out of eight who is pure white.”

He was a power obsessed, white supremacist.

The great emancipators in the Congress and the abolitionist leaders who pressured and pressured for Lincoln to keep to his line on abolition. Thaddeus Stevens, in the House of Representatives, and Chairman of the Ways and Means committee was a committed Abolitionist. This man was ahead of his time. He helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. He protected the rights of Jewish and Chinese Americans and he defended the rights of Native Americans. Stevens was a hero of the Civil War era and should be remembered as such, far above Lincoln. But one man stood out as great, even beyond that of Thaddeus Stevens, and that man was Charles Sumner, the Senator from Massachusetts.

Charles Sumner absolutely hated the institution of slavery. As did his father before him. He argued that freeing the slaves would achieve nothing, unless it was accompanied by a raft of legislation promoting equal rights both politically and economically. This was 100 years before equal rights began to take shape. He is responsible for one of my favourite quotes from history, that I tend to live by when shaping my political thoughts:

“The Utopias of one age have been the realities of the next.”

Sumner argued in a court case, that segregation was an abomination. The year was 1848. The case was Roberts VS Boston. It lead to the ban on segregation on the basis of race in all public schools in Massachusetts. It was over 100 years before the rest of the country would catch up.

Sumner’s extraordinary career taught me that it is okay to think radically, even if the rest of your contemporaries think that you are an idealist living in a dream land. The contemporary Senators did not like Sumner for his radical ideas on racial integration and equality, one Senator suggested that Sumner was unimportant and should be ignored:

“The ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.”

It is a myth that Lincoln was a great emancipator and forward thinker and it is a great injustice that men like Charles Sumner go unrecognised and ignored by history.
Sumner’s face should be on Mount Rushmore. Not Lincoln’s.

Anyway, as Sumner argued, The Proclamation was meaningless, the 13th Amendment was the result of much pressure put on the administration. Lincoln himself once remarked quite tellingly:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”

He stresses exactly why he felt compelled to free the slaves. It was not on grounds of compassion or freedom or respect for the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, far from it, he did it for the sake of his own power:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to 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; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

Abraham Lincoln was not a great emancipator. Nor was he one of the great forward thinking abolitionists of the time. He was a racist and a white supremacist who put his own position and power above that of the rights of a group of people who had different coloured skin. It is quite extraordinary that history teaches us that President Lincoln was one of the great Presidents who ended the horrific institution of slavery. The reality is far more ambiguous. It is much like the celebrating of Columbus day as a great day in American history, when in fact it simply marked the beginnings of a mass genocide. History should be taught with equal weight to both interpretations, if the subject is as ambiguous as that of President Lincoln and the question of slavery.