Healing, Heritage and History:
"The Civil War and a New Birth of American Freedom"
What is freedom? How do Americans view this ideal? And, how did the Civil War shape the concept of and American's view of freedom? The word freedom has been used so frequently and in so many contexts it has become a cliche. Today, anti-government militia groups passionately claim ownership of the concept of freedom. Conversely, American liberals view empowerment of all people through civil rights and economic opportunity as the proper definition of freedom. Clearly, then, there is no consistent, universal meaning for the term freedom. But, as Professor Foner argues, the American Civil War redefined the meaning of freedom and expanded the entitlement of its blessings in profound ways. For, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the Civil War ushered in a new birth of freedom.
Introduced by John Latschar
It is a great pleasure to take part in this symposium. I have the utmost regard for the National Park Service. The difficulty its directors and interpreters face in conveying history at these sites makes what we do in the classroom look awfully easy. But regardless of the criticisms and grounds for improvement, we academic historians really do appreciate the way you are bringing history to millions of Americans every year. I am going to talk about what Dwight Pitcaithley called the "so what" aspect of the Civil War-some of the war's consequences. More precisely, I am going to talk about what the war means for us today for understanding who we are as a people, as a nation. The subject today is drawn from the Gettysburg address, which, of course, was given at what is now the Gettysburg National Military Park.
The Civil War was "a new birth of freedom" for the United States. Now, I do not need to persuade you that there is no idea more central to our conception of ourselves as Americans than freedom. This is the central word in our political vocabulary, and between freedom and its twin word--liberty--you can find these concepts in just about every key document of American history. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty as one of the inalienable rights of man. The Constitution announces that its purpose is to secure the blessings of liberty. The Civil War brought about "a new birth of freedom," as Lincoln said. The United States fought World War II for the Four Freedoms, according to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Our love of liberty has been represented by liberty poles, liberty caps, and statues of liberty. It has been acted out by burning stamps and burning draft cards, by running away from slavery and by demonstrating for the right to vote. As Ralph Bunch wrote in 1940, "every man in the street, white, black, red, or yellow knows that this is the land of the free."
But, despite the centrality of freedom in our history, this concept is not fixed, not predetermined, but has changed many times in American history, and is constantly the subject of controversy and even very bitter battles. What is freedom? Who has the right to determine what freedom is? Who has the right to determine who is entitled to freedom? Does freedom encompass everybody who happens to be within the boundaries of the United States, or are some people entitled to more freedom than others? These debates have continued throughout our history and will continue into the next century. I have no doubt of that.
Today, if you have some spare time, use your trusty computer and search the Internet looking for freedom. You will find some very strange things. You will find that the term freedom mostly is associated with anti-government libertarians, people who believe in free market economics and especially in the right to bear arms. Patriotic organizations, militia organizations, these are the groups today who most insistently use the word freedom. The website of the extremist group, the Militia of Montana, is emblazoned with this expression: "It's Your Choice: Freedom Or Slavery." They are not talking about the slavery we have discussed in this symposium. Even so mainstream a corporation as Sony Pictures has a website promoting a forthcoming movie The Patriot, set in the American Revolution and starring Mel Gibson. On this website, Sony has a lime bulletin board with the tide "Discuss Freedom," where individuals can give their views. Here, you will find comments that say gun ownership should take precedence over all other freedoms, it is our most precious freedom. There is also a modern American declaration of liberty modeled on the Declaration of Independence of 1776 with various complaints against the federal government including the income tax, welfare, economic regulation and membership in the United Nations. This is what freedom seems to mean today. But it hasn't always had that meaning. The Civil War, among many other things, was a crisis concerning the meaning of freedom in this country and it produced a redefinition of freedom in American history. The "new birth of freedom" that Lincoln spoke about was also a fundamental change in what American freedom was and who was entitled to it.
Both sides in the Civil War fought in the name of freedom. Many who took up arms in the cause of southern independence wrote about it as a struggle for liberty. The white South had inherited from the antebellum period an understanding of freedom that centered on local self-government, opportunities for economic independence and security of property including property in slaves. Indeed, many southern whites believed that slavery was the foundation of liberty. "I am engaged in the glorious cause of liberty and justice," wrote an Alabama soldier in 1862, with no more sense of irony than Thomas Jefferson had when he wrote of the "inalienable right" to liberty while he owned over a hundred slaves. To own slaves was a very good way of ensuring one's economic independence, which was one of the foundations of liberty in the nineteenth century.
Union soldiers, of course, also spoke about what one Pennsylvania recruit called the "magic word freedom." They saw the war as an effort to preserve the United States as what Lincoln called "the last, best hope of earth;" or "the beacon of liberty and freedom," as one soldier wrote, "to the human race." But as the war progressed, these abstract definitions of America as the symbol of liberty began to give way to a more concrete meaning of freedom tied to the emancipation of the slaves. Millions of northerners who had not been abolitionists when the war began became convinced that securing the Union as the embodiment of liberty required the destruction of slavery. This was Lincoln's meaning when he spoke about "the new birth of freedom," or when he told Congress in December 1862 on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, "in giving freedom to the slave we ensure freedom to the free, honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve." Emancipation, as Lincoln came to believe, was essential to maintaining the freedom of white America and the United States itself as an emblem of liberty to the entire world. Lincoln also commented, during the Civil War, on how variable and contested this notion of freedom was. "We all declare for liberty" he observed in 1864, "but in using the same word, we do not mean the same thing. To the North," he went on, freedom meant "for every man to enjoy the product of his labor, to work and enjoy the fruits of his labor. To southern whites, it meant mastership, the power," as he said, "to do as they please with other men and the product of other men's labor." To Lincoln, ultimately, slavery was a form of theft, stealing the products of labor of one person and appropriating it by another. The Union's triumph consolidated this northern vision of freedom as control over your own person and over your power to labor as the national norm. But in the process, the meaning of freedom and the definition of those who were entitled to enjoy liberty were very radically transformed.
Throughout American history, wars have helped to change the conception of American society. The War for Independence led to the abolition of slavery in the northern states. Women won the right to vote after World War I, eighteen-year-olds gained this privilege during the War in Vietnam. The Union's victory in 1865 also led to searching discussions over this question, of American nationality. "Who is an American?" Wendell Phillips, the great abolitionist commented in 1866, "it is a singular fact that unlike all other nations, this nation has yet a question as to what constitutes a citizen. " From the Civil War emerged a new principle, that of a national citizenship whose members enjoyed the equal protection of the laws regardless of race. It redefined the boundary of the American nation-not the physical boundary, although it did that-but the nation's imagined boundary. Early in 1865, the Supreme Court, which eight years earlier in the Dred Scott decision had declared that no black person could be a citizen, admitted the first African American lawyer, John Rock of Boston, to practice law before it.
"There could no longer be even a shadow of a doubt," wrote Francis Lieber, a writer on political affairs at that time, that blacks were citizens entitled to protection by the federal government. Not only was there a new logic of liberty, but the service of 200,000 black men in the Union army and navy put the question of black citizenship on the nation's post-war agenda. "The inevitable consequence of black military service," as one Senator remarked, was that "the black man is henceforth to assume a new status among us."
That was in 1864. In that same year, Lincoln wrote a private letter to the Governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana, suggesting that some black Americans ought to have the right to vote. What is interesting here is that Lincoln singled out those who were deserving. New Orleans had a rather important population of well-educated, propertied free African Americans who had been petitioning for the suffrage. Lincoln said to Governor Hahn that these educated free Negroes should have the right to vote. But he added as well those who had fought in the Union army, which was a much larger and a very different group. Those who fought in the army were not educated, did not own property; they were, for the most part, former slaves quite unlike the free Negroes in New Orleans. But, Lincoln was tremendously impressed by the contribution that black soldiers made in the last two years of the war to help achieve Union victory.
Racism was hardly eradicated from American life by the Civil War. But by 1865, declared George William Curtis, the editor of Hapers Weekly magazine, the war had transformed "a government for white men into a government for mankind." It erased the racial definition of American citizenship, which had existed from the founding fathers down to the Civil War. And by redrawing this boundary of citizenship, the war tied the progress of liberty directly to the power of the national state. "War," declared the nineteenth-century German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, "turns a people into a nation." The Civil War was begun to preserve the old Union, but it ended up bringing into being a new nation state, a new government with greatly expanded powers.
The war forged national identity into a new national self-consciousness. This was the moral of one of the most popular stories of the war period. We used to read this in school all the time-now it is not so popular--The Man Without A Country by Edward Everett Hale, published in 1863. Hale's protagonist, Philip Nolan, in a fit of anger curses the United States, the land of his birth. As punishment, he is condemned to live on a ship never to set foot on American soil or to hear the name of the United States of America uttered. The moral of this story is that to be deprived of national identity is to lose one's sense of self, one's individuality. This new national state was intimately linked to the progress of freedom during the Civil War. The war, as Frederick Douglass said, "merged the cause of the slave and the cause of the country." This was the key to the emancipation of the slaves. The cause of the slave and the cause of the country now became identical.
To be sure, a generation of northern school children had learned to recite Daniel Webster's immortal words spoken on the floor of the Senate in 1830, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable." But Webster was talking about the doctrine of states rights, not the South's peculiar institution of slavery. When Douglass said, thirty years later, that liberty and union had become identical, he was talking about slavery, not political doctrine. Slavery not only was amoral crime but it was an affront to national power. "The master's sovereignty over the slave," said Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, was incompatible with the paramount rights of the national government. Every citizen owed allegiance to the nation. Nobody should owe allegiance to another person the way a slave did. And the destruction of slavery by presidential proclamation, by legislation, and by constitutional amendment was a key act in the nation building process. It announced the appearance of a new kind of national state, one powerful enough to destroy the central institution of southern society.
The drama of emancipation and the triumph of the Union fused together nationalism, morality, and the idea of freedom, a combination underpinned by a religious language as well as a secular one. "As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free," said the "Battle Hymn of the Republic. " And those who believed in America's millennial mission to represent freedom in the world interpreted the Civil War as a divine punishment for this divergence from the principle of liberty. Lincoln himself, not a very religious man, came to use this language as the war went on. But emancipation also gave the nation a chance for regeneration, for purging itself of this sin of slavery.
The concrete reality of emancipation made freedom into a political issue, a substantive issue, not just an abstraction or philosophical concept. It raised in the most direct form the question, what are the rights of free Americans? "What is freedom?" Congressman James Garfield asked in 1865. "Is it the bare privilege of not being chained? If this is all, then freedom is a mockery, a cruel delusion." What rights went along with freeing the slaves? Did the freed people have the right to civil equality, to political equality, to ownership of property? If the abolition of slavery reinforced the status of freedom as the key term in our political language, this made the control of the definition of freedom all the more important in political debates. Freedom became a terrain of conflict open to very different and very contradictory interpretations in the wake of the Civil War.
Now, I am going to talk a bit about the period right after the Civil War. If we are going to put the Civil War in context in terms of its causes, we also must think about the consequences of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, the period of Reconstruction, when the nation tried to deal with the results of Union victory and emancipation. There were many actors--to use a theatrical metaphor--On the stage of history who tried to put forward their own definition of liberty. First among them, were, of course, the former slaves themselves. In bondage, African Americans had forged their own understanding of what freedom would be. Adopting the nation's democratic language as their own, they interpreted it in the light of their own particular traditions and religious beliefs rooted in the biblical story of Exodus, in which a chosen people suffers a long period of bondage eventually to be released through divine intervention. Slaves saw themselves as individuals deprived of rights and as a people lacking self-determination. So, freedom for them meant not getting the government off your back, as it seems to mean today, but escaping the many injustices of slavery, including punishment by the whip, the breaking up of family, denial or access of education, and the sexual exploitation of black women.
Freedom also meant collective empowerment, a share in the rights, entitlements, and opportunities of other Americans. Blacks interpreted the outbreak of the Civil War as God's message that their passage to the promised land of freedom was now at hand. Long before Lincoln declared emancipation a Union war aim, slaves called the war "the freedom war." Acting on this understanding, thousands of slaves in 1861 and '62 fled the plantations when they could and when the Union army came nearby. Their actions placed the future of slavery on the national political agenda. What would you do with these people? Do you return them, do you free them, do you employ them, do you educate them? The Lincoln administration had to start making policies about slavery because of the flight of slaves from plantations.
This was a country that prided itself on democracy. In such a context, the right to vote came to seem essential to freedom. As Frederick Douglass stated in 1865, "slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot." To lack the right to vote was to be not fully free in American. In a monarchial government, Douglass continued, there was no special disgrace applied to those denied the right to vote. But, in America, exclusion branded people, as Douglass said, with the "mark of inferiority." As soon as the Civil War ended, and indeed, even before it ended in some areas, blacks in the South came together in meetings, parades, petitions, and in many other ways, demanding the right to vote. Sometimes they organized "freedom ballots," in which they had their own elections, when local white authorities would not let them vote. Anything less than full citizenship, African Americans believed, would betray the promise of emancipation. And of course, black men did eventually get the right to vote during Reconstruction and participated in a remarkable experiment in interracial democracy after the Civil War. Then, after a generation, in the 1890s, one after another, the southern states took the right to vote away from African Americans. And long after they had been stripped of the franchise, blacks would recall the act of voting as an essential element of emancipation, and regard the loss of suffrage as being a step backward toward slavery.
Also crucial to the former slaves' definition of freedom was economic autonomy. When General William T. Sherman met with a group of black ministers in Savannah in January 1865, shortly after his march to the sea he asked them for their definitions of slavery and freedom. The spokesman for these black ministers, Garrison Frazier, offered definitions. "Slavery," said Frazier, "is receiving...the work of another man and not by his consent." This was pretty much what Lincoln had said. Freedom, on the other hand, meant "placing us where we can reap the fruit of our own labor." Sherman then asked how they could do that, and they said: "give us land and we can reap the fruit of our labor and then we will be genuinely free." "Only land," said another former slave, "would enable the poor class to enjoy the sweet boon of freedom. "What happened after that was that Sherman issued his famous Field Order Number 15, which set aside a band of land on the coast of South Carolina and Georgia for the settlement of black families on forty-acre plots. Sherman also had a lot of mules with his army. Many of them were worn out from dragging things all around Georgia. So, he said these black families were going to get forty acres of land and these broken down mules to help farm the land. This is where the term "forty acres and a mule" comes from. It reverberated throughout the South in the early days of Reconstruction and is about the only thing most students know about Reconstruction today--possibly because it is the name of Spike Lee's film company.
To African Americans, freedom meant many of the same things it meant to white Americans--economic autonomy, family stability, the right to vote, the fruits of your labor, and so forth. But taken together the attitudes of the former slaves had a rather different focus from that of whites. To most white Americans freedom was a birth right to be defended. To African Americans, it was something to struggle toward an open-ended process and millennial transformation of every aspect of their lives. Many whites used the term "slavery" to define themselves in the nineteenth century. The labor movement talked about wage slavery, the women's movement talked about the slavery of sex. Slavery was a powerful metaphor for lack of rights. But, of course, to blacks it was not a metaphor. Slavery was a traumatic real experience, which for many, many years afterwards would help to shape their conception of themselves and of their American society.
Alfred R. Waud's "The First Vote," October 1867.
Of course, African Americans were not the only actors on the stage trying to put forward a definition of freedom. Southern whites--especially the planter class--had their own version of what freedom was. And, in the aftermath of the Civil War, white southerners, aided and abetted by President Andrew Johnson, tried to keep black freedom confined within the narrowest conceivable boundaries. As northern journalist Sidney Andrews wrote late in 1865 traveling around the South: "The whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the Negro demands the same thing as freedom for them. They readily enough admit that the government has made him free but they appear to believe that they have the right to exercise the same old control. " Most white southerners believed that the plantation system had to be maintained after slavery, which meant that African Americans could not be given the choice as to whether or not they wanted to work on plantations. They had to be coerced into doing so. They would receive some wages or a share of the crop, but they would not have the choice as their white counterparts of other occupations.
Freedom still meant hierarchy in society. It still meant mastery over subordinates, as it had before the Civil War. Freedom for white southerners was still a privilege to be enjoyed by some, not an entitlement of everybody. "A man may be free yet not independent," wrote one planter. In other words, it didn't mean giving blacks land. "A man can be free and not have the right to vote." said another. Freedom had a very narrow definition. One Kentucky newspaper summed all this up by saying, "the former slave is free, but free only to labor." The former slave's role was to work as he or she had under slavery and no other rights came along with emancipation. And indeed, this vision was put into law in the early days of Presidential Reconstruction in 1865-66. The so-called Black Codes, which southern states passed to regulate the transition from freedom, tried to force former slaves to go back to work on the plantations and to sign labor contracts, giving them no political rights whatsoever.
These laws so flagrantly violated the meaning of emancipation that they aroused a great deal of hostility in the North, and catalyzed the momentous conflict between President Andrew Johnson and the Republican Congress. This conflict eventually led to his impeachment, to the overthrow of Presidential Reconstruction, and to the enactment of civil rights laws and constitutional amendments that put the new definition of freedom into the basic laws of our land. Much of the conflict over Reconstruction revolved around the definition of freedom. The Republican majority in Congress operated on the principle that freedom required equality before the law for all Americans. That was the principle of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment. These actions established for the first time in American history a principle we take for granted-which was a new thing in 1866-the principle of birthright citizenship. This is one of the most momentous legacies of the Civil War, the principle that anybody born in the United States is a citizen. This was not the case before the Civil War. The Supreme Court ruled in 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, that no black person could be a citizen, born here or not, free or slave. Citizenship was for white Americans.
Equality before the law was a completely new thing in American history as well. There was not a state in the Union that gave black people legal equality before the Civil War. Even Massachusetts, which came close, still prohibited blacks from joining the state militia, for example. Every state, North and South, had special laws relating to blacks. Certain things were crimes if a black did them, as opposed to a white doing them. Certain punishments were harsher if a black committed the crime than if a white committed the same crime. So this dual principle of birthright citizenship and equality before the law--that the law must apply the same to everybody regardless of race--these were the products of the Civil War.
If anyone wants to know why the Civil War is relevant today, these are some of the reasons. It created our modern conception of what it is to be a citizen of the United States. These laws affected everybody; they did not just expand the definition of freedom for blacks. These principles have rever berated throughout time, and have affected every immigrant who has come into the country. Until the 1940s, Asian immigrants could not become naturalized citizens, yet their American-born children were automatically citizens. So the generational gap among Asian Americans, between the immigrant non-citizen and the children citizen, this harks back to the Fourteenth Amendment and the principle of birthright citizenship.
The Fourteenth Amendment also had another powerful effect on what the American nation became. By inserting into the Constitution the new concept of the empowered national state, it not only established a new definition of freedom, it provided a new mode for enforcing this freedom. Rather than a threat to liberty, the state that emerged out of the Civil War was seen, in the words of Charles Surnner, as "the custodian of freedom." The Fourteenth Amendment made the federal government responsible for overriding state actions that interfered with the rights of citizens. One can understand what this means in very clear terms by examining the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution-the Civil War Reconstruction Amendments. The Thirteenth abolished slavery, the Fourteenth established equal citizenship, and the Fifteenth granted black men the right to vote.
Compare the language of those amendments to the Bill of Rights, which are seen as the embodiment of our liberties. The Bill of Rights is a series of negations or restrictions on Congress: Congress shall pass no law abridging the freedom of speech, press, and religion. The principle of the Bill of Rights is that a too powerful federal government will trample on our liberties. It is not until the twentieth century that the Supreme Court declared that states must abide by or recognize the liberties in the Bill of Rights. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments end with a clause, which says: Congress shall have the power to "enforce" the amendment by "appropriate legislation. " Thus, the paradigm changed from "Congress shall pass no law" to "Congress shall have the power. " This is a clear example of the shift in federalism toward an empowered national government having the paramount responsibility for protecting the rights of citizens. The Civil War Reconstruction amendments made the Constitution a different document from what it had been.
Today, we hear political debates about going back to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That theory ignores the fact that the Constitution has changed fundamentally. Before the Civil War, disenfranchised groups never cited the Constitution to claim their rights; instead; they cited the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution was a document concerned with federal- state relations and the rights of property, not the rights of citizens. After the Civil War, the Constitution became a vehicle through which minorities and others could stake a claim to freedom and seek their rights.
While the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments radically changed the federal government regarding the protection of the rights of minorities, prevailing conventions of gender proved more resistant to change than racial conventions. The Civil War consolidated a movement among activist women to claim their rights as well. "The re-writing of the Constitution," as one feminist leader said, "offered the opportunity to sever the rights of citizens from race and sex, two accidents of the body." "We must bury the black man and the woman in the citizen," said another. The black man temporarily obtained rights. This did not happen for women, as we know. Indeed, the women's movement was bitterly disappointed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which introduced the word "male" into the Constitution for the first time. And, if that were not enough, the Fifteenth Amendment protected suffrage on the basis of race, but left open the possibility of discrimination in suffrage on the basis of gender, which was common in all states at that time. So, the women's movement had along way to go before achieving its rights.
The expansion of freedom in the Civil War was not total, but it changed the definition of who was entitled to American liberty. African American males gained, but then lost the right to vote. The desire of the former slaves for land met with disappointment as well. Efforts in Congress to give the former slaves land, led by Thaddeus Stevens-the Congressman from Pennsylvania--did not receive majority support. By the 1870s, reconciliation and reunion were more important than rights and freedom. Part of the cost of reunion was forgetting why the Civil War had been fought, and pushing to the side the rights that African Americans had won in its aftermath.
I will conclude by saying that in retrospect the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction emerges as a decisive moment in the ongoing and forever unfinished story of freedom in America. It is a story like so many other parts of our history that is both uplifting and sobering. It is uplifting to see four million people move from slavery to freedom, and to see the great struggles which took place to give them their rights as citizens-the great experiment of Reconstruction and the advent of a genuine interracial democracy in the South in that period. It is sobering because, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a commander of black soldiers in the Civil War later wrote: "revolutions may go backward." The story of freedom in this country is not a linear story of progress. It is not a story of a pre-determined narrative leading to a fixed end of greater liberty. The revolution of the Civil War did go backwards. It would be left to future generations, including our own, to try to give full meaning to the destruction of slavery in 1865.
Questions and Answers:
Question: Isn't it true that greed was the underlying cause of the Civil War and the protection of the institution of slavery?
Answer: As an American I never underestimate the power of greed as a motivating force of human behavior, and certainly slavery originated as a form of making profit. That is why slaves were brought here in the first place to labor for the benefit of others--tobacco planters, cotton planters, and so forth. The Civil War made some people very rich but made some people rather poor, not in the South so much, but certainly in the North. Some people benefited enormously from the Civil War. That said, trying to reduce the question of slavery to a matter of greed, ignores the complex ramifications of this institution. Slavery was a system of labor, a system of economic production, a system of race relations, a system of political power, and a system of morality. All of those elements were involved in the slavery issue and in the Civil War, so it is about money, it is about religion, it is about morality, it is about politics, and it is about ideology. That is what makes the teaching of history complicated and interesting--to try to integrate all these factors into a coherent story of this dramatic period.
Question: To really understand the war, do we not, in a sense, put ourselves back into the minds of southerners in 1860 and what slavery meant to them, trying to put aside our modern views about the evils of slavery, which may make it impossible to really understand what their thoughts were?
Answer: Yes, the answer is we do have to try to go back and put ourselves in the minds of actors of the time. But, by doing that, historians produce many, many interpretations of the Civil War. There is an interpretation that the Civil War was a big mistake; it was, as one book says, a crisis of fear and paranoia. Personally, I believe that any war has its share of paranoia and fear, but I think the wiser approach is to ask why people at the time felt that slavery was such an important institution to them that they were willing to go to war to defend it or the society built upon it. As we know, most southern soldiers were not slave owners, but they had invested in defending their "way of life," which was based on slavery. Even a non-slave owner was defending a society whose fundamental organizing principle revolved around slavery. Most of them would not say "I am fighting for slavery," but they certainly would say "I am opposed to the abolition of slavery because that would destroy southern society as I know it."
One thing that one has to remember is that slavery has existed for most of human history--a sad commentary--and in fact, slavery exists today. There are slaves being bought and sold as we speak in the Sudan and in some other places. The great empires of Greece and Rome were built on slavery. It is a recent thing in human history, the notion that every human being is entitled to liberty. Slave owners felt that they were, in a sense, the normal people, in relation to world history, and that the people in the North and in Great Britain were the aberrations. This free labor system, this notion of individual equality was a deviation in terms of how the world had existed. That is a frame of mind which is impossible for us to replicate completely, knowing what we know and feeling how we feel. So, to understand both sides of the Civil War, we have to try to get ourselves into the frame of mind of the people then, not the frame of mind of the year 2000. Concerning the issue of slavery, that is not an easy task.
Question: Did Congress abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and compensate the owners?
Answer: Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862. The act provided for compensation to the owners for up to $300 for each slave. The District of Columbia was under the jurisdiction of Congress; therefore, Congress could do whatever it wanted there, which it could not do with the states. Lincoln proposed compensated emancipation a number of times in 1862. He called on the congressional delegation from Delaware, and offered to pay for the emancipation of slaves in that state. He argued that this was a way of settling the Civil War, and that it would be much cheaper than the cost of the war. But the leaders in Delaware said no--"we do not want your money, but we want our slaves." This was not just a question of money. Some slaveholders in the loyal border states did receive compensation. However, the vast majority of slaves were freed without compensation to the owners, and indeed the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited any compensation for emancipated slaves after that point.
The issue of compensation is relevant today, because of the question of reparations for slavery. Should the descendants of slaves receive reparations, as, for example, today billions of dollars are being appropriated to compensate slave laborers in Nazi Germany? Without commenting on that specific issue, let me say that during the Civil War the issue of compensation related to compensating the masters not the slaves. There were some slaves who said they deserved land as a form of compensation, but the issue in the Civil War was a question of whether or not owners should be compensated for the loss of their property rights in slaves.
Question: Should we place slavery in the context of white supremacy or racism, which was a set of beliefs shared in both North and South? And, under that assumption, should not white majorities have a right to govern themselves and establish whatever form of white supremacy they want?
Answer: I do not disagree at all that racism or white supremacy was a very deeply rooted belief system throughout the country in the nineteenth century, and, indeed, before and after. But I think the danger of simply saying that is to view racism as a constant-it is always there and it never changes. Racism, like anything else, has a history. Its forms change, its strength changes, as does its salience in people's lives. People have many different sets of beliefs at the same time and many kinds of identities. We have seen instances in which white people who might be called racist have gone on strike with black people because they share an economic issue, which may override their racism at that moment. We have seen it work the other way too. We have seen poor white people during the Populist Era in the late 1800s side with planters even though their economic interests were with black farmers.
All of this makes the Civil War and Reconstruction period that much more remarkable. Here was a time when a majority of white northerners actually were willing for numerous reasons--some crass, some noble--to put aside racism and actually do things that seem inconceivable. In 1860, it was absolutely unimaginable that a majority of people in the North would favor a Constitutional amendment giving blacks the right to vote or to take major steps to end discrimination. The Civil War itself, emancipation, and the rhetoric of liberty weakened racism substantially and opened the window of opportunity so that the Fourteenth Amendment and Civil Rights laws were passed. Later on, by the 1870s, racism becomes a more prominent feature again. It returns in conjunction with views like social Darwinism and views of an innate hierarchy of intelligence and talent in the world. By the 1890s, racism was reinvigorated by hostility to immigration. So, I think we ought to look at the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction as a moment which illustrates that racism like all other things is a changeable phenomenon--it has ups and downs--and try to understand why this moment did occur.
Question: How has the Fourteenth Amendment been applied to the Bill of Rights under the doctrine of incorporation?
Answer: Under the doctrine of incorporation, the Fourteenth Amendment, through the "equal protection" clause, has applied nearly all of the Bill of Rights to the states as well as to the federal government. Incorporation developed in the twentieth century, beginning in the 1920s and then accelerated in the 1960s under the Warren Court. By now, most of the Bill of Rights have been incorporated to the states in a series of Supreme Court decisions. There is good evidence that the original intent of many of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, in particular Congressmen John Bingham of Ohio and Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan, was that at least the first eight amendments should be applied to the states. The problem with figuring out if that was the original intent or not is that the Fourteenth Amendment went through so many drafts and so many votes--there were seven to eight votes in the committee on Reconstruction which drafted the amendment--no single person or group actually was responsible. It was a compromise, and like all compromises there was a great deal that some people liked and some people did not like. But I do think the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to empower the federal government to override the states if necessary to protect the rights of citizens. The doctrine of incorporation is an outgrowth of that purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Suggestions for further reading:
Amar, Akhil Reed. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Belz, Herman. A New Birth of Freedom: The Republican Party and Freedmen's Rights, 1861-1866. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
_______. The Story of American Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
_______. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Foller, Philip S. and George Walker. Proceedings of the Black State Conventions, 1840-1865, 2 vols. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Frederickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Hess, Earl J. Liberty, Virtue, and Progress: Northerners and Their War for the Union. New York: Fordhanl University Press, 1997.
Hildebrand, Reginald F. The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.
King, Richard H. Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Nagd, Paul C. The Sacred Trust: American Nationality 1798-1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Neely, Mark E. The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Robertson, James O. American Myth, American Reality. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.
Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the
Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,