New Orleans To celebrate New Year’s Eve, we went to see Quinton Tarantino’s Django and thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I understand this is controversial and that deadly serious topics are supposed to be dealt with solemnly without humor, but to the degree that Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln was all about him and the politics of emancipation, Django was all about slavery and it was terrible, profound, and felt realistic in its horror and contradictions.
All of which made me read the great historian Eric Foner’s Times op-ed on today’s 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with great interest. A warning to those who like their history mythic, rather than real, and their heroes legendary, rather than human, Foner provides a bracingly corrective telling of the real evolution of Lincoln personally and politically, rather than the storybook statue.
Among the highlights worth noting in Lincoln’s initial path to progress in the first two years of the Civil War until 1862:
- Initially he wanted a state by state solution with federal financing for the “property loss” of the slaves.
- The timeline would be gradual.
- He advocated repatriating slaves and colonizing a homeland outside of the United States.
- Lincoln’s annual message to Congress dated December 1, 1862 in Foner’s words “devoted a long passage to gradual, compensated abolition and colonization.”
After 1862, Foner reminds us that Congress moved in advance of Lincoln in 1862 by abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, authorizing the president to accept black enlistment in the Union Army, and emancipating the slaves of South leaning holders in Union Army controlled territories.
Foner also issues a corrective on most American’s understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation itself, including the Spielberg cinematic treatment:
The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
In an era where there seems to be little growth by public figures rather than increased intransience and secularization of all positions, Foner makes his case for Lincoln having been a man of his times, but moving with the times to change and grow, not perhaps in the way we would paint him in our imagination, but in ways real and material for his time in searching for a path forward. It’s worth examining his final argument in full and reckoning with it even today:
While not burdened with the visceral racism of many of his white contemporaries, Lincoln shared some of their prejudices. He had long seen blacks as an alien people who been unjustly uprooted from their homeland and were entitled to freedom, but were not an intrinsic part of American society. During his Senate campaign in Illinois, in 1858, he had insisted that blacks should enjoy the same natural rights as whites (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but he opposed granting them legal equality or the right to vote. By the end of his life, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his last public address, delivered in April 1865, he said that in reconstructing Louisiana, and by implication other Southern states, he would “prefer” that limited black suffrage be implemented. He singled out the “very intelligent” (educated free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy. Though hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks.
And then there was his magnificent second inaugural address of March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln ruminated on the deep meaning of the war. He now identified the institution of slavery — not the presence of blacks, as in 1862 — as its fundamental cause. The war, he said, might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery. And God might will it to continue until all the wealth the slaves had created had been destroyed, and “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.” Lincoln was reminding Americans that violence did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. What he called “this terrible war” had been preceded by 250 years of the terrible violence of slavery.
In essence, Lincoln asked the nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of slavery. What were the requirements of justice in the face of this reality? What would be necessary to enable former slaves and their descendants to enjoy fully the pursuit of happiness? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer. A century and a half later, we have yet to do so.
Yet another resolution for this year and undoubtedly many to come.