Posts Tagged Civil War
On March 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln spoke at New Haven, Connecticut. It was part of the same speaking tour that had taken him to Cooper Institute in New York City, but coming after that speech, in a smaller venue, it has attracted much less historical attention.
No doubt it also attracts less attention now is that much of the speech is a rehash of ideas first presented in the Cooper Institute speech. One section, however, discusses a “shoe strike” then going on in New England, and it thus particularly appropriate for Labor Day.
Workers in shoe manufacturing plants had first struck in Massachusetts over wages. Even though there was no formal union, the strike spread to other plants across New England. Lincoln, in the manner of politicians everywhere, sought to address great national issues in the context of local ones., in this case, slavery.
I am merely going to speculate a little about some of its phases. And at the outset, I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails in New England under which laborers CAN strike when they want to where they are not obliged to work under all circumstances, and are not tied down and obliged to labor whether you pay them or not! I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to, and wish it might prevail everywhere. One of the reasons why I am opposed to Slavery is just here.
So far, Lincoln is making a fairly pragmatic pro-free labor argument, one that will resonate with northern workers: that they have the right to quit and deprive the boss of their labor whenever they feel like it. He goes on:
When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life. I am not ashamed to confess that twenty five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son! I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition —when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him!
Now, Lincoln moves subtly to a natural rights argument, one that goes straight after some Southerners’ argument that black men aren’t really human. Not only are blacks human, but they are also entitled to the same human rights as everyone else when it comes to selling their labor and improving their condition. Even to the point of being able to hire other men to work.
The outcome of this freedom is a general prosperity where wealth is no longer directly tied to the soil, while hinting at the next direction he’s taking this argument:
That is the true system. Up here in New England, you have a soil that scarcely sprouts black-eyed beans, and yet where will you find wealthy men so wealthy, and poverty so rarely in extremity? There is not another such place on earth! I desire that if you get too thick here, and find it hard to better your condition on this soil, you may have a chance to strike and go somewhere else, where you may not be degraded, nor have your family corrupted by forced rivalry with negro slaves.
Then comes the direct attack on Stephen Douglas, several paragraphs long, which require some unpacking. They refer to other events and even to other arguments that Lincoln was making, which the audience at the time would have understood. We might not grasp them at first, but once we do, the ominous similarities to today’s politics will be clear.
Now, to come back to this shoe strike,—if, as the Senator from Illinois asserts, this is caused by withdrawal of Southern votes, consider briefly how you will meet the difficulty. You have done nothing, and have protested that you have done nothing, to injure the South. And yet, to get back the shoe trade, you must leave off doing something that you are now doing. What is it? You must stop thinking slavery wrong! Let your institutions be wholly changed; let your State Constitutions be subverted, glorify slavery, and so you will get back the shoe trade—for what? You have brought owned labor with it to compete with your own labor, to under work you, and to degrade you! Are you ready to get back the trade on those terms?
But the statement is not correct. You have not lost that trade; orders were never better than now! Senator Mason, a Democrat, comes into the Senate in homespun, a proof that the dissolution of the Union has actually begun! but orders are the same. Your factories have not struck work, neither those where they make anything for coats, nor for pants, nor for shirts, nor for ladies’ dresses. Mr. Mason has not reached the manufacturers who ought to have made him a coat and pants! To make his proof good for anything he should have come into the Senate barefoot!
Recall that in the Cooper Institute address, Lincoln says that the South will never be mollified as long as the North continues to believe that slavery is wrong. Only a change in Northern beliefs – to be signalled by censorship of anti-slavery speech and changes in northern laws – will persuade the South that the North means slavery no harm where it exists.
Lincoln here is showing what that would look like. The Dred Scott decision has already brought the country close to the point where free soil laws might be illegal, that slaves brought by a southerner into a free state do not automatically become free. The next logical step would be to force the free states to permit not merely personal servants but slave labor in commercial enterprises.
Lincoln is also contradicting a frequently-assumed argument for popular sovereignty, that slavery simply won’t work in certain places. Part of the argument in favor of popular sovereignty was that if people didn’t want slavery, or if the climate of a place wouldn’t support it, then it wouldn’t take root no matter what the laws were. Lincoln appears to be arguing contrary to this, saying that slavery could well exist in an industrial economy, and that therefore laws against it are necessary.
This is an unsettled point among historians. Harry Jaffa seems to agree that slavery wouldn’t have worked in California or the New Mexico territory in Crisis of The House Divided. In his book The Impending Crisis, David Potter argues that Jaffa doesn’t quite prove the point, and re-opens the question about what would have happened had slavery not been banned in certain areas. Lincoln appears to be taking Potter’s position here, that slavery might well be possible no matter what the economy.
There was also, at this time, a movement in the South to boycott northern goods over the north’s opposition to slavery. So Lincoln is mocking that boycott as ineffective, and nothing to be afraid of.
Another bushwhacking contrivance; simply that, nothing else! I find a good many people who are very much concerned about the loss of Southern trade. Now either these people are sincere or they are not. I will speculate a little about that. If they are sincere, and are moved by any real danger of the loss of Southern trade, they will simply get their names on the white list, and then, instead of persuading Republicans to do likewise, they will be glad to keep you away! Don’t you see they thus shut off competition? They would not be whispering around to Republicans to come in and share the profits with them. But if they are not sincere, and are merely trying to fool Republicans out of their votes, they will grow very anxious about your pecuniary prospects; they are afraid you are going to get broken up and ruined; they did not care about Democratic votes—Oh no, no, no! You must judge which class those belong to whom you meet; I leave it to you to determine from the facts.
Here, Lincoln (to laughter) isn’t merely mocking the boycott – he’s pointing out its partisan nature. Northern Democratic businessmen were trying to organize a “white list,” (not in the racial sense, but as the opposite of a “blacklist” from which Southerners would not buy). Southern Democrats could then buy from Northern Democrats.
And your Democrat neighbors aren’t concerned about your profits because they’re not really worried about the boycott – if they were, they could just get themselves whitelisted and take your business. No, they’re worried about your votes.
All of this sounds dismayingly familiar – partisan boycotts, pretend concern for political opponents’ well-being, and demands that the other side not merely behave a certain way, but believe a certain way.
Having finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant, I decided to go back to my library and re-read Bruce Catton’s shorter treatment of the subject, U.S. Grant and the American Military Tradition. Catton did most of his writing in the 50s and 60s, so some of the scholarship is dated, but most of his conclusions have held up.
More than that, Catton’s writing verges on the poetic, both summarizing and illuminating a subject with an economy of words I often wish I had. For instance, in describing frontier Ohio of the 1820s and 1830s:
Men who could do everything they chose to do presently believed that they must do everything they could. The brightest chance men ever had must be exploited to the hilt. And the sum of innumerable individual freedoms strangely became an overpowering community of interest.
When dissecting the rights and wrongs of secession, its present-day defenders (who do not defend the institution of slavery, it should be emphasized) tend to focus on the clinical, legal aspects of the matter. Catton captures what they miss, and why the North and especially the West was willing to fight:
Against anything, that is, which threatened the unity and the continuity of the American experiment.
Specifically, they would see in an attempt to dissolve the Federal Union a wanton laying of hands on everything that made life worth living. Such a fission was a crime against nature; the eternal Federal Union was both a condition of their material prosperity and a mystic symbol that went beyond life and all of life’s values.
On the post-Shiloh commanders:
McClellan, Halleck, and Buell, then, were the new team, and that hackneyed word “brilliant” was applied to all three. The Administration expected much of them. It had yet to learn what brilliance can look like when it is watered down by excessive caution and a distaste for making decisions, and when it is accompanied every step of they way by a strong prima donna complex.
And on how Americans view war. Catton believes it goes a long way towards explaining why Grant – representative of his people – was doomed to substantially fail at the big post-war task of Reconstruction and restoration:
…the will-o’-the-wisp again, recurrent in American history. Victory becomes an end in itself, and “unconditional surrender” expresses all anyone wants to look for, because if the enemy gives up unconditionally he is completely and totally beaten and all of the complex problems which made an enemy out of him in the first place will probably go away and nobody will have to bother with them any more. The golden age is always going to return just as soon as the guns have cooled and the flags have been furled, and the world’s great age will begin anew the moment the victorious armies have been demobilized.
Catton was not, of course, infallible. He had this to say about President-Generals, whose training is to treat Congress as supreme, the executive as the instrument of Congress’s declared war aims:
It made it inevitable that when he himself became President he would provide an enduring illustration of the fact that it can be risky to put a professional soldier in the White House, not because the man will try to use too much authority in that position but because he will try to use too little.
Catton wrote these words in 1954, with full awareness of who was then president. But history doesn’t bear out his fear, entirely. Washington maintained a strong sense of the office’s limitations, but worked to strengthen both the federal government and the executive. Neither of the two previous Whig presidents – both generals – lived long enough to have much impact in the office. And Eisenhower was working with an already-stronger executive, which he worked to professionalize, treating his cabinet a little like a corporate boardroom of competing ideas.
He differs with Chernow on a few points, and Catton is somewhat better at drawing connections. Catton considers the Santo Domingo treaty not merely ill-advised but actually corrupt, for instance. Both note that Grant manumitted the one slave he ever owned as quickly as he could (a gift), but only Catton points out that Grant did so even though he could really have used the money from a sale at that point in his life.
Catton is also harder on the Radical Republicans, and somewhat more forgiving of Andrew Johnson, than Chernow is, possibly because Catton was unaware of the postwar wave of white supremacist violence that swept over much of the Deep South. He argues that the Radical Republicans were at least as interested in using blacks as a means to political power as they were in their welfare – not the last time that would happen in American history. Catton also claims that Johnson adopted Lincoln’s view of postwar reconciliation, where Chernow states that Johnson adopted a softer line through misbegotten racial solidarity. Whether this is from cynicism or greater political savvy, or from both, it’s hard to know.
We were over at a friend’s house for lunch this Shabbat. Knowing that 1) I have a lot of history books, and 2) I tend to read them, he was kind enough to ask me for some reading lists about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the Cold War. “I haven’t had much luck with fiction, so I’m trying to round out my history.”
Here’s what I sent him. These aren’t intended to be college syllabuses, or comprehensive. They’re books that I have and leafed through, or that I’ve read. I’ve tried to vary them by author. I could have had the entire Revolutionary War list by Joseph Ellis, the whole Civil War list by Bruce Catton, but what’s the fun in that? My library, while large by 19th Century standards, is limited by the size of the house. Had I fewer books, I would paradoxically have more room for them. But it’s a good list, enough to cover some key points, get an overview, or just when your appetite for more.
For a decent overview of the war as a whole, Liberty by Thomas Fleming isn’t bad. I think it was originally written as a companion book to a PBS series, but it’s good in its own right. For a deeper examination of the issues around the Revolution and the war, and how the Founders handled them, American Creation by Joseph Ellis is recommended.
We all know of Washington Crossing the Delaware; David Hackett Fischer has written a great in-depth review of the events surrounding that crossing and subsequent battles, and how they set the stage for the rest of the war, in Washington’s Crossing.
And for well-researched discussions of adoption of the two primary founding documents – the Declaration and the Constitution, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture and Ratification give surprising insights into what people were thinking at the time.
The Founders lived on into the post-Revolutionary era, and had a second act right after the Constitution in 1787, so some bios are in order. Richard Brookheiser’s short Founding Father is a fine thumbnail bio of Washington; for something longer Ron Chernow has bios of both Washington and Hamilton. And David McCullough’s John Adams is what the PBS series was based on.
Having come this far, read about 700+ pages about the early Republic, when were getting ourselves established, with Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty. I’m reading it now, and pretty much every chapter has some surprise or another.
Much of the same material is covered in the first volume of Bruce Catton’s very readable and shorter three-volume Centennial History of the Civil War. These are The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat. I would recommend anything written by Catton on the Civil War.
This one is tougher, because it covers decades, not mere years, so the politics, military, and technology changed substantially from 1948 to 1989. I’ve picked out the books I have and have read that do a good job talking about the Cold War. My library is heavier on the spy stuff, but there was a lot of spy stuff.
Witness by Whittaker Chambers is indispensable. He starts out as a Communist, and then converts over to the good guys, and was a key player in one of the great Cold War controversies, the Alger Hiss case. Nixon’s rise to prominence began with this case, and the left never forgave him for being right.
The Great Terror, is one of the best books about Stalin’s Russia, by one of the best chroniclers of the 20th Century, Robert Conquest.
The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn is recognized as the best insider account of the Soviet punishment system.
Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe covers the building of the Berlin Wall.
Merchants of Treason by my friend Norman Polmar and KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents are old now, but a good guide to how to the KGB operated in the day, and how the Russians still operate today.
That’s enough to keep you busy for a few years. So what are you still doing on this page?
I discovered The Long Recall blog over at the American Interest site a couple of months ago, but only now am I getting around to posting on it. The folks there have decided to do a real-time, day-by-day blog of the Civil War, on its ongoing 150th Anniversary. It’s a brilliant idea, and so far, they’re pulling off what must be a great deal of unpaid work quite beautifully.
The effort seems to be led by Walter Russell Mead, and I’ll quote from his intro to the blog, but it’s worth reading the whole thing:
We will use a modern form to present the daily news: our Civil War aggregator that combines a short daily summary of the news along with links to articles that a well-informed Civil War-era reader would have wanted to read. Our goal is to allow readers today to get a feel for what it was like to experience the conflict in real time, to hear the many voices trying to make sense of the conflict, and to sift through sometimes confused and misleading news accounts to try to discern what was actually taking place.
The Long Recall will do its best to help 2010 readers understand the economic dimension of the conflict. At times this will involve us in something more active than simply linking to Civil War era news sources; we will provide commentary that helps the readers of today understand what yesterday’s news meant to intelligent readers of the day.
In The Long Recall, we will carry foreign news as it became available to American readers, not the day it actually happened. At times of crisis, as during the Trent Affair late in 1861, this uncertainty about foreign events was a major factor in American politics and policy. Because the US economy and financial markets were so dependent on London at this time, the uncertainty about foreign developments was also an important factor in the economic news….
Finally, a word on language and ‘political correctness.’ The United States has always been and remains a prudish society with strict limits about the kind of language that is allowed — and about the subjects that may be discussed. In the Civil War era, Americans were very strict about sexual matters — but when it came to race, they were extremely permissive. …words that could never be used today in polite discourse were routinely used in those days to describe different racial groups. Worse, racial humor and stereotypes were deeply embedded in the culture. Politicians and political writers frequently resorted to anecdotes and humor that would justifiably end careers today to score points with public audiences.
At The Long Recall, we have made the decision to link to Civil War era material without censoring or toning down racial language, images and ideas that modern readers (including, we must say, ourselves) find offensive. The use of such language and the prevalence of such ideas is too central to American life and culture at the time — and too vitally involved with attitudes toward the Civil War — to be edited away or softened down.
While I was born after April 1965, when the Centennial ended, I do remember this Peanuts cartoon from a book I had as a kid:
For some reason, the Sesquicentennial hasn’t attracted the same amount of publicity as the Centennial apparently did, when even kids reading comic strips could be expected to know about it, and possibly even recognize some of the songs. It’s probably a combination of a decline in cultural literacy, and a harrowing sensitivity about race. Or maybe the Civil War was just unlucky enough to have its 150th Anniversary start in a year when the Founders were hogging all the attention.
One has to admire the audacity of the authors to undertake such an effort, and the courage of their approach.