Civil Discourse Now

Where the far left and far right overlap for fun and enlightenment

"Lincoln": The effects of the institution of slavery still are fel today.

   Today we will discuss the movie "Lincoln" and history of and surrounding the Civil War. We will be joined by guest panelist Matt Stone (IndyStudent).

   I was taught in grade school, junior high, and high school that the Civil War was fought to abolish slavery. That is both a simplistic and incorrect concept.

   At the outset, let me explain that in this discussion I will not refer to "slave owners." Implicit in use of that term is the notion the practice it describes bore some moral legitimacy. One human being cannot buy and sell another human being. To do so has been against our Constitution since the Civil War. It always has been wrong.    

   The movie "Lincoln" raises a troubling point, indirectly addressed by Paul Ogden in his blog. When we attempt to depict U.S. history (as in "Lincoln") should we aim to be as accurate as possible or should we attempt to choose and mine facts to portray American society as we would like to think it occurred? The way in which I phrase the question discloses what I believe the proper answer to be.

   All of the great nations in history have horrific aspects. Many had slavery. The Old Testament, Ancient Greece and Rome took the practice for granted. As the New World was developed, slavery was brought here. Slavery shaped the Constitution, was a dominant element of discord in the decades following ratification, led to the Civil War, and continues to shape our culture today.

   Our country is supposed to be different and our Constitution unique. We like to call ourselves the land of the free. We are supposed to hold ourselves to higher ideals. Criticism on this point is a means of making sure we conform to those ideals.  

1) Slaves made up approximately 20 percent of the population of the original 13 states. There were some white, indentured servants, but they had chosen servitude via contracts at the end of which they were free; their servitude the means by which they paid passage to the New World. Slaves captured in Africa and brought here for sale had no such choices.

2) Slaves, as property, constituted a significant amount of property, particularly in the southern states (at that time Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia). Slaves held significant monetary value.

3) Slaves were central to the economies of those states also because they performed much of the physical labor on large plantations in the production of rice, tobacco, and indigo (used as a dye for the color blue).

4) These are some of the reasons the subject of slavery was such a dynamic in the Constitutional Convention. Compromises were reached. (The 3/5 of a person calculation is perhaps the most famous.) Some of the Framers were vehemently in favor of the institution of slavery. Others were opposed to it. Opposition did not come from a notion that African slaves were in any way equal, as human beings, to the white settlers of the states. The general attitude of the Framers was that African slaves were of an inferior race.

5) The issue of slavery dominated the national political landscape. The Missouri Compromise was reached, but, of course, the slaves had no say in the matter, without the ability to vote for the politicians who reached and enacted the compromise. The compromise was nullified, in any event, by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

6) Some vague notion of "states’ rights" was not the cause of the Civil War. The only "right" the states of the south sought to advance consisted of the "right"to engage in slavery. At least four of the southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas) adopted declarations of secession to explain their ordinances of secession. The main reason at the center of each was slavery.

7) More American soldiers died in the Civil War than in any other war in our history. We killed each other. At the end of the conflict, the Union won. Von Clauswitz wrote that war is an extension of politics. The national debate over slavery ended with the conclusion of the Civil War. Political differences in other conflicts ended with armed conflict as well. At the end of the American Revolution there was no question as to whether the one-third of the Colonies’ population that favored independence from England had won. At the end of World War II, no question existed as to Imperial Japan’s loss of dominance in the Pacific. The alternative would be a victor, in order to claim political victory, would be required to annihilate the opposition at the end of a war. Surrender means surrender.    

8) At the end of the Civil War, the people who had been slaves had little education (education of slaves had been illegal in most jurisdictions), no property, and soon no ability to vote. The northern states were little more progressive, but efforts to stop voting were much more concerted in the former states of the confederacy.

9) "Separate but equal" was not ended, nominally, until the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Federal troops enforced it. "States’ rights" was the argument raised by those who sought to stop African-Americans from voting or having access to basic aspects of life. We feel the effects of slavery today.

   Santayana wrote that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. The institution of slavery ended with an economic vacuum in which resided a significant portion of our population. By law many of them had been prohibited from being educated. By law, for decades after the Civil War, they were prohibited from voting and having a voice in government such that they could call for redress of their grievances. In many places, when they sought to voice opposition to their state’s policies, they were arrested, beaten, and sometimes lynched. Other ethnic groups have faced hardships. The Irish were treated as pariahs, especially after their mass immigration here following the Potato Famine in the late 1800s. (Ever seen the photographs of signs reading "No Irish Allowed"?) But no group was enslaved—on these shores in the land of the free—because of the color of their skin. Also, those ethnic groups were allowed to become assimilated in our society, vote, organize themselves, and see their interests protected in government. 

   This country is supposed to be different. All people are born equal. We are endowed with certain inalienable rights. African slaves were born enslaved. That is a contradiction between basic principles upon which our country was founded and the way the document upon which our country’s government was founded, the Constitution, was written. There are many lessons to be learned from these ironies. The first is this: one human being cannot buy and sell another human being as chattel. A second: a society cannot create an economic and societal vacuum among a significant portion of its population without negative consequences. Third: we cannot trust people to hold unbridled authority over other people. Our Constitution was created as an effort to balance power with freedom. The Framers—white males who owned land and who were, for the most part, wealthy—were suspicious of those who wield power. But the sovereign authority is that authority in a society recognized as having a monopoly of violence, if necessary, to enforce its edicts. Dress it up any way you want, but the police and the military are the hallmarks of the sovereign. During times of war, the exercise of that authority is unbridled. President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. The Grand Writ, as it is called, is the means by which the government is forced to bring a person to court and justify, if any reason there may be, why that person should remain in custody. The right to free speech was sharply curtailed during both World War I and World War II.  

   We should not paint the history of this county in red, white, and blue, bedeck it in banners, and treat it like a happy cartoon. The Constitution was written by men who acted outside their original charter only to make improvements to the Articles of Confederation. 20 of the Framers claimed legal title to other human beings. Patrick Henry (who was selected as a delegate but who refused to attend the Convention because, he said, "I smelt a rat," and opposed the Constitution during the Virginia ratification convention) is famous for his supposed declaration:  "Give me liberty or give me death." No contemporaneous historical source chronicled this statement. Only some 35 years after his death did a biographer, in the run-up to the War of 1812, write the account now accepted by so many.  However, Patrick Henry was a Virginian who claimed legal title to other human beings. In 1773 he wrote a letter to a friend in which he stated:

"Would anyone believe I am the master of slaves of my own purchase! I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living here without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them."

One reasonably may infer Henry preferred death to deprivation of his liberty, but life and servitude for those human beings over whom he claimed legal title as chattel. His chief principle in that vein was his noble aim to avoid "general inconvenience."   

   Our history is more complex than is displayed once a year with fireworks and pats on the back about how we are free. Slavery had a more significant impact on our country than perhaps any institution. I think the problem with the movie "Lincoln" was its attempt to tell the story of the fight for ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in ways more favorable to the Amendment’s proponents than was true. If we recount, inaccurately, chapters of our history, we ignore the problems that still exist today that were caused by such chapters. Slavery impacted our society in ways we feel still today.

   As entertainment, I stand by my assessment of "Lincoln" as mediocre. Mr. Ogden accuses me of being too easy in that assessment. He is entitled to his (usually warped, but he can’t help it) opinion. If you go to the movie, however, read a book or two, specific to that period of history, afterwards. Liz at Big Hat Books in the 6500 block of Cornell Avenue in Broad Ripple (I was not paid for that plug) has an excellent selection of books.

   Oh, and watch The Show today, at 11 a.m.

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