Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A very uncivil war

I expect English schoolchildren don't learn much about the American Civil War.

In Canada it features in the High School curriculum. The take-away message was that the Southerners were the baddies - all pro-slavery and generally evil. Lincoln was a god among Presidents, saviour of the downtrodden, defender individual rights.

The reality, as I've realised over the years, was rather different. Slavery was a worldwide problem, and in most places it passed away peacefully. The USA and Haiti were the notable exceptions. Did abolition really justify total war?

It seems that freeing slaves was not Lincoln's primary concern. Here are his own words, from a letter to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862):

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.

This position is borne out by his choice of allies: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri were slave states. He did not seek to expel them from the Union, nor to abolish slavery within their borders. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the 'border states'.

A recent article from made some points that were new to me (emphasis mine):

The moral grandeur of Lincoln is rooted in the myth that he made a war on the South to abolish slavery. This is, at most, a Platonic noble lie designed to legitimate the Unionist regime. Lincoln thought that slavery was immoral, but so did Robert E. Lee. And Lee, at his own expense, freed the slaves he had inherited, through marriage, from the family of George Washington. Only around fifteen percent of southerners even owned slaves, and the great majority of these had holdings of one to six. Jefferson Davis was an enlightened slave holder who said that once the Confederacy gained its independence, it would mean the end of slavery. The Confederate Cabinet agreed to abolish slavery within five years after the cessation of hostilities in exchange for recognition by Britain and France.

There is much more to be said here, and I will return to this subject when I have time.

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