Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865


David Ferriero:
Good evening. I’m David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United
States, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you here to the William G. McGowan Theater at
the National Archives for the next installment in our continuing celebration of the 150th
anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And a special welcome to our C-SPAN friends
tonight. Tonight our panel of historians will discuss
Professor James Oakes’ work “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States.” We’re pleased to present this program in partnership
with the National Archives Afro-American History Society and thank them for their support. We also thank the Foundation for the National
Archives, as well as the host committee for the National Archives 150th anniversary of
the Emancipation Proclamation. Before we begin, I’d like to alert you to
two upcoming programs, also connected to our celebration. Next Wednesday, January 30th, we’ll host a
panel discussion on “Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, its Meaning to Newly Freed Slaves,
and its Legacy”. The program will begin at noon here in the
theater, and is presented by the National Archives Afro-American History Society. And on Thursday, February 7th at 7:00 p.m.
we’ll explore the Emancipation Proclamation in art and documents, in a discussion by the
Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit, the “Civil War in American Art”. To learn more about these and all of our programs,
consult our monthly calendar of events; there are copies in the lobby, as well as a sign-up
sheet, where you can receive it by regular mail or email. And you’ll also find brochures about other
Archives events. And another way to get more involved in the
National Archives is to become a member of the Foundation for the National Archives. The Foundation supports the work of the agency,
especially its education and outreach activities, and there are applications for membership
in the lobby. And, as I’ve said before, no one in the history
of the National Archives has been refused from membership in the Foundation for the
National Archives. [laughter] And there are many members of the board of
the Foundation here, so it’s nice to have you all with us. Over the New Year’s weekend, 9,100 people
visited this building to view the original Emancipation Proclamation. Some stood in line for hours for the chance
to read the words declaring that slaves and states in rebellion shall be then, thenceforth,
and forever free; and to see Abraham Lincoln’s signature. Although the Emancipation Proclamation did
not end slavery in America, it fundamentally changed the character of the War. Overnight, a war to preserve the Union became
a war for human liberation. For the nearly 4 million slaves held in bondage,
it was a symbol of hope. That hope for freedom was finally realized
in the 13th amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery any place under U.S.
jurisdiction. These two landmark documents of freedom reside
here at the National Archives, but our shelves are filled with documents that tell the story
of emancipation on the individual level. A letter from a black soldier to his still-enslaved
wife assures her that though the present national difficulties are great, “yet I look forward
to a brighter day.” An enslaved woman asked President Lincoln,
if she were free following the Emancipation Proclamation; sadly, the answer was no, because
she lived in Maryland, a border state, unaffected by the decree. First-person accounts of former slaves that
appear in some military pension files provide a window onto the world before and after the
War. Some talk of choosing a name to bear as a
free person, and others describe long searches to reunite their families. Milestones long denied to an enslaved population,
marriage, going to school, owning land, now become possible for free people. And our tremendous holdings, our Freedmen’s
Bureau records, contain stories of their struggles and achievements. The historians on the panel have combed these
records and more here and at other research institutions in their own investigations. We’re delighted to have them with us tonight. Leading the discussion tonight is Annette
Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of American legal history at Harvard Law School,
a professor of history at Harvard University, and professor at the Radcliffe Institute for
Advanced Studies. Joining here are James McPherson, Pulitzer
Prize winning historian and professor emeritus at Princeton University; Edward Ayers, Civil
War historian, author, and president of the University of Richmond; Eric Foner, historian,
author, and professor of history at Columbia University; and James Oakes, professor of
history at City University of New York, and the author of “Freedom National,” the topic
of tonight’s discussion; a book which was researched at the New York Public Library,
at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, when I was the director of libraries at the
New York Public Library. All the panelists will sign books in the theater
lobby after the program. Please join me in welcoming them to the stage. [applause] Annette Gordon-Reed:
Good evening, is glad to — I’m glad to see all of you here, wonderful audience. We’re going to have a conversation we hope,
spend about an hour discussing amongst ourselves, you listening, and then we will take questions
from the audience. So I hope — and I’m sure you have a lot of
them, and I hope you will be — not be shy about asking them. I want to start out, first, with Jim, and
asking you a question about the book, about the title of the book, and some terms you
used that people may not understand, “freedom national,” for one. James Oakes:
“Freedom national,” it comes from a speech that Charles Sumner gave, his inaugural speech
as a U.S. senator. That speech was called “Freedom National,
Slavery Sectional,” and it refers to two things: the first is that it’s a constitutional doctrine
that political abolitionists and anti-slavery politicians had formulated, by which they
could — in which they claim that the Constitution made slavery strictly a local, state institution,
but that everywhere the Constitution was sovereign, freedom was to be the policy of the United
States. So it’s a constitutional doctrine that said
on the high seas, in Washington, D.C., in the western territories freedom should be
the policy of the national government, and, second, it meant, logically, a series of policies
that the federal government could undertake in order to make freedom national and slavery
sectional, thereby putting slavery, hopefully, on what Lincoln called the course of ultimate
extinction. Annette Gordon-Reed:
And it was important for you. Why was it — when did you decide that you
were going to use that as your title? What was the moment you thought that this
was the thing that was going to convey what you wanted — most wanted to know about — wanted
people to know about this era, this time? James Oakes:
Well, it was the discovery that — we tend to write about emancipation as something that
starts entirely with the war, and it was the discovery that the Republicans came into the
war with a set of policies they intended to pursue to make freedom national, based on
this very controversial doctrine of what they believed the Constitution did and did not
allow. So my book is mostly about the origins and
evolution of anti-slavery policy during the War, and I discovered that there are more
antebellum origins, pre-Civil War origins that I had anticipated. And freedom national captures the organizing
framework for anti-slavery politicians. Annette Gordon-Reed:
So you think this is against the consensus, a conventional wisdom about the emancipation
story? You said you were out to overturn something? Or have people have a different view about
it? Let’s put it that way. James Oakes:
Well, to the extent that there are — to the extent that people argue that the Republicans
come into the war denying any intention of interfering with slavery and that, as a consequence,
maybe, emancipation was an accident, it was inadvertent, it was something nobody intended
to happen. To that extent, there are historians who make
that claim; I am up against them, yes. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Ed, why do you think — because this is a — obviously an issue that isn’t just in the
past, it’s here now and people are arguing about it, why is it important to say that
Lincoln and the Republicans sort of came to this later on and that this wasn’t a part
of the original story? Edward Ayers:
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of discussions over the last four years with people, and I don’t — I
think in most audiences there’s somebody who wants to resist that idea, and a lot of skepticism
about, frankly — I spoke at a school in New York yesterday, and one young African American
man said, “Isn’t true we just needed a white hero? And that they just hang that story on him
because they couldn’t really address the fact that, you know, slaves basically forced this
upon him?” and so forth. So find that even though Lincoln is venerated
in so many quarters, there’s also a lot of deep skepticism about him. Annette Gordon-Reed:
I was going to ask you about that. He’s — there’s a lot of rehabilitating of
him that would have to be done, and there are a lot of people who really have problems
with him, not just the Confederates, people in — Edwards Ayers:
Well, again — [laughter] Talking to these high school — and they had
pretty focused problems with him — but talking to these high school kids yesterday, they
point to all the anomalies, you know? “Well, if he believed that, why is he still
talking about colonization so late?” you know? “If he believed that, you know, why didn’t
he have a plan for reconstruction? If he believed that, why is he still writing
that letter to Horace Greely?” and all that. So I think that Jim’s right, that there is
a — even though people recognize that Lincoln is somehow responsible, people are just — it
may be some projection of today’s cynicism, of thinking, “Well, he can’t really have guided
us through all that; it must’ve been, sort of, controlling him to some extent.” So I think there’s a folk knowledge that Lincoln
was really racist and that, therefore, we can’t really give him all the credit; then
there’s a scholarly knowledge who knows about all these other kinds of countervailing evidence
that suggest that — Jim finds the thread that ties this all together. They’re all focused on the knots of contradictory
evidence. Annette Gordon-Reed:
And specifically about the Republicans, let me come back to that, what — at what point
do they begin to develop a plan about this; you get some sense that there’s consensus,
that they really are going to go after slavery? James Oakes:
Yeah, I — it’s pretty clear to me — well, I backed into this. I started the usual place that most historians
start this story of the emancipation, with Fortress Monroe, and then I went on to the
First Confiscation Act, and I was trying to figure out most of the story to write about
the First Confiscation Act and say it didn’t do anything. And then I decided, “Well, why did they bother
passing it? What was it all about?” And I discovered that they were all talking
about emancipation; it was understood to be an emancipation law, and I — and I saw there
was a full-scale debate on emancipation. This is the summer of 1861, the first summer
of the war, Congress is called into a special session five months ahead of schedule, and
they passed this law that begins emancipation. And two days after they passed the law — well,
Lincoln signs it on the 6th, and two days later the War Department issues the instructions
to begin emancipating. So — well, they couldn’t have thought this
up right away. I went back and looked and, sure enough, all
during the secession crisis the Republicans are saying, “You know, you leave the Union,
we’re going to start emancipating slaves.” And then I said, “Where did that come from?” And I just came backing up and I ended up
all the way in the 18th century, where these ideas come from. [laughter] Edward Ayers:
It really is a grand old party. James Oakes:
But it’s — one of the things — I understand, actually — I understand the resistance about
Lincoln, because I do think people have a hard time coming to any reasonable arguments
about Lincoln. You — the tendency to turning him into a
great emancipator has the countertendency of turning him into this, you know, racist
reluctant emancipator. And it’s very hard to find a middle ground
within which he — within which to place him historically. And I think — one of the things I try to
do in the book is just say, look, he’s a Republican, and the Republicans have these ideas about
what they can and can’t do; they implement them very quickly, quicker than I expected
them to begin emancipating — implementing them. And they learned over the course of the next
several years that this wasn’t enough, they’re going to have to go further, it’s not working
in the border states, we’re going to have to shift our, you know, policy there. And ultimately they end up where, you know,
they realize, by late 1863, early 1864, that none of these policies are actually enough,
and they shift to a completely different policy that no one actually imagined before the Civil
War, which is the 13th amendment to the Constitution. So it’s about the evolution of a policy by
a party, not Lincoln as a great emancipator. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Not an evolution of Lincoln? James Oakes:
Well, he’s part of the evolution. The whole party is changing; that is, they’re
responding to the limits of their own policies as they’re implementing them. Annette Gordon-Reed:
So you start off with a — at a conventional place, and then you feel you have to keep
going back to the stories and pushing it back. Do you have any idea why other people didn’t
push back? James Oakes:
That far, you mean? Annette Gordon-Reed:
Yeah, I mean, why is it just — why are you coming to the point that — James Oakes:
Oh, well, I don’t — I don’t — Annette Gordon-Reed:
Because you have a — James Oakes:
— really know. I thought — why didn’t we know this? I’ve been — Annette Gordon-Reed:
I mean, surely it must’ve occurred to you to ask this question. James Oakes:
Yes. [laughter] Oh, yes, it does. But I don’t like that question. [laughter] Annette Gordon-Reed:
That’s — well — James Oakes:
I don’t want to get into fights with other historians, butÖ [laughter] I think there’s a lot of different reasons
why it became difficult. It has to do with — among professional historians,
you know, there’s — the field is split between political historians and social historians,
and they all say different things that — they don’t exactly talk to one another like that. So, you know, among Lincoln historians, you
know, there are Lincoln scholars who say that Lincoln knew from the time he was a young
man that he was destined to free all the slaves with a stroke of his pen. [laughter] So they believe there’s origins, you know,
but not the way I do. Annette Gordon-Reed:
But I guess, what — is there anything politically at stake in not pushing things back, aside
from professional, you know, quirks or whatever? I mean, what’s at stake here? James Oakes:
The resistance to the idea that there — Annette Gordon-Reed:
Yeah. James Oakes:
That I really don’t know. It’s too complicated; it’s too — I mean,
do you have some idea? Annette Gordon-Reed:
Do I? No, I just — [laughter] As you’re writing this — I mean, if you’re
going through this — James Oakes:
As I’m writing this, why — Annette Gordon-Reed:
If you’re going through this and you’re saying to yourself, “My gosh, you know, look at this.” James Oakes:
Yeah, “Where did this come from?” Annette Gordon-Reed:
“These people were going to do this all along,” and you think, “why hasn’t anybody seen this?” You are in that moment when you discover something. James Oakes:
Right, right. Well, I think, it started in the ’60s, you
got a cynicism about what politics could do. And I think up until the ’60s and ’70s people
did see this. There was a body of scholarship after World
War II that talked about the anti-slavery origins of the Civil War and did trace it
back, although not back all the way to the 18th century. And I think — I think the scholarship got
cynical about politics after the ’60s, I think. And people began to take a legitimate interest
in the way social movements affect politics and became focused on the abolitionist movement
as the source. And then people started writing history from
the bottom up and became focused on the way slaves participated in the process of emancipation. And the Lincoln scholars went off on their
own and stuff like that, and they never really didn’t talk to one another. I mean, some of it is just the fragmentation
of professional scholarship in the — in the last decade, so I just decided you need to
put social history and political history and movement history together. And if you do, you see a — Annette Gordon-Reed:
That’s what you think your book is — your book is doing that? James Oakes:
I tried to do that. I tried to do that. I tried to avoid this question of figuring
out who was the person responsible for freeing slaves, or what the — who was the agent of
emancipation, and just say, “How did it happen?” I don’t want to ask who freed the slaves;
I want to know, “How did it happen? What is the process by which it happened?” Annette Gordon-Reed:
So back to the — well, does anybody else want to jump in? Have any thoughts about this, the fragmentation
of the field? Edward Ayers:
I’ll push a little bit. Annette Gordon-Reed:
You’ll push a bit? Edward Ayers:
I’m talking before my two distinguished colleagues have had a chance; I’m not really like that. [laughter] I will make it up later in some way. But, Jim, I just wanted to know, you say that
they sort of knew what they were about all along. I’m curious why Frederick Douglas didn’t see
what the Republican Party was about all along, since he really held it at great distance
in 1860? And so if it was apparent to the Republicans,
why wouldn’t it be apparent to the man who was doing so much to actually lead the end
of slavery? James Oakes:
Well, first I question the premise of your question. Edward Ayers:
Okay. James Oakes:
I don’t think he was as distant from the Republicans in 1860 as all that. And, second, more than I realized — for those
of you who don’t know, my previous book was about Frederick Douglas — Edward Ayers:
Which shows what ill-advised debating tactic this was. [laughter] Probably evident to everybody. James Oakes:
Now, Ed, as you know — [laughter] More than I realized when I wrote that book,
I realize the particular position he occupies in a constitutional debate; that is, he had
shifted in the 1850s to a particular — Edward Ayers:
“He” being… James Oakes:
Frederick Douglas. To a view of the Constitution that very few
abolitionists actually believed, which was — and every few historians, actually. He believed that the Constitution was an anti-slavery
document, that it entitled the federal government not — and create a moral obligation on the
part of the federal government to immediately go into the Southern states and begin abolishing
slavery. The Republicans don’t believe that and almost
no abolitionists believe that, almost nobody believes that. And he acknowledges by the late ’50s that
hardly anybody believes that. But a lot of it is that; a lot of it is driven
by his sense that what is holding you back, why are you resisting when the Constitution
is an anti-slavery document and it empowers you to do more than you’re doing? So some of it is that; some of it, also, I
think is that’s the position reformers are supposed to take; they’re supposed to push,
they’re supposed to push. And they need to push. And I think he’s pushing all along, knowing
he’s not going to bother pushing against the Democrats, because they’re not going to move
on emancipation. He only pushes against Republicans because
the Republicans are movable in ways that Democrats aren’t. Annette Gordon-Reed:
So was Lincoln a reluctant emancipationist? Was he reluctant? James Oakes:
Well, I think he was a Republican, and the Republicans have a policy and he goes along
with the policy. I don’t think they’re reluctant; they’re talking
about destroying slavery all through the secession crisis and he goes along with it. I mean, the famous incident at Fortress Monroe
with Benjamin Butler in late May of 1860, it goes right up to the Cabinet and within
a few days the Cabinet immediately approves the decision by — not to return slaves to
their owners. That’s widely understood to be the first step
right there. Congress passes this First Confiscation Act,
Section 4 of which emancipates all slaves used in the rebellion. He signs it right away and it’s implemented
two days later, so I think the reluctance argument is as mistaken as the great emancipator
argument. I think we’re looking for someone outside
— sometimes I wonder if it’s — this become particularly true, I’d hate to be the person
who raises the movie — [laughter] But it’s particularly — Annette Gordon-Reed:
Too late. Too late. James Oakes:
It’s particularly a problem nowadays when we live in a world of imperial presidency
and we’re looking back, looking for an imperial president. And I don’t think it worked that way back
then, I don’t think, you know, we want him to do things that it would have been inconceivable
for a president to do in the middle of the 19th century. So he’s a Republican. Republicans have this policy, he goes along
with the policy, they pass a law, he signs the law, he implements the law, you know? And I don’t see reluctance and I don’t see
him freeing all the slaves with a stroke of his pen, either. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Eric, could you talk a bit about Lincoln’s evolution? I’ve discussed this before, raised it with
the Republicans, what about as a man, as an individual? Eric Foner:
Well, you know, Lincoln, I think, once said that he had always hated slavery as far back
as he could remember, and I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that. But, you know, before the Civil War, the first
thing we have to remember as people looking at that period is, nobody knew the Civil War
was coming, right? We know. We look back, it all seems to inevitable and
so clear, but nobody in the 1850s knew there was going to be a Civil War or that slavery
was going to be dead within a few years. People — and, you know, Jim explains this
very well in his book: people like Lincoln, who hated slavery, were — but were working
within the political system and the constitutional system, unlike a Frederick Douglas, who’s
really outside of it, what can they do about slavery? Even with this freedom national idea, which,
as Jim writes about, there’s really nothing the federal government can do about slavery
in the states where it exists; it’s created by state law. Federal government can’t go into Mississippi
and say, “Hey, we’re going to abolish slavery here.” So they talk about the periphery, various
things, but that’s — you know. Now, Lincoln and most Republicans said, “Well,
we are looking forward to some end to slavery sometime in the future,” very vague and imprecise. So Lincoln in the 1850s is — basically talks
about a plan for getting rid of slavery, which he actually inherits from Henry Clay, his
political idol, which is premised on states abolishing slavery. How do you encourage states to do that? Well, you say, “We’ll give you money for your
slaves; they’re property. We — you can do it very gradually, over a
long period of time.” And Lincoln says, and many others, “We will
encourage these free negroes to leave the country, because you don’t want a gigantic
population of free blacks. We know that. So they’ll go to Africa, or they’ll go to
Central America or something.” And so that’s a plan. It’s not a plan that any Southern state ever
accepts, and Lincoln puts plan forward in 1861, a few months before the Civil War; he
goes to Delaware and says, “Hey, here’s the plan.” But they all say, “Forget it, we’re not interested
in abolishing slavery. You don’t understand, Lincoln, we want our
slaves; we don’t want a plan to get rid of slavery.” But he keeps presenting it to the border states,
Kentucky. So Lincoln’s evolution, I think, is the evolution
of someone who sees the necessity of action against slavery, but moves to different ways
of dealing with it. And by the middle — you know, we’re here
to talk about the Emancipation Proclamation. By the middle of 1862, he’s moving toward
a completely different way of dealing with slavery, which is as a military measure, military
emancipation. That’s what the proclamation is. We all saw it out there; it’s a military order. It’s based on military necessity. But if you put it that way, you don’t need
the consent of these slave owners anymore, and therefore, all the old policies are irrelevant. Gradualism is irrelevant, monetary compensation
is irrelevant, colonization is irrelevant. This is a new plan: “For military reasons,
we are going to declare the slaves free to weaken the other side.” So Lincoln — so that’s a form of Lincoln’s
evolution. But the thing that I think is — I will stop
after this — is that I think it’s, in a way, most impressive to me about Lincoln, as someone
who is, you know, studying him very carefully, is Lincoln doesn’t start out as the great
emancipator in any way, and certainly, he shares many of the prejudiced views about
the African Americans of his society. But every step forward, he never goes back. And he thinks about the implications. Once you go to emancipation, Lincoln is never
willing to go back, even though a lot of people pressure him by 1864, “Well, maybe this wasn’t
a good idea,” et cetera, et cetera. On the question of the role of blacks in American
society, once he abandons colonization he really has to start thinking about what role
African Americans are going to play and he moves forward on that. He doesn’t — and he thinks about the logical
consequences of the policies he’s putting forward. So that’s what I see as evolution, that he’s
willing to, kind of, accept the logic of what is happening. And by the end of his life, 1865, he’s occupying
very, very different positions on race in America, on slavery and its fate than he had
earlier in his career. Annette Gordon-Reed:
What role did the military play on this in terms of policy? I mean, we know what they did on the ground,
but, Jim, do you have any — or either one of you, any of you, about — did it help push
him along in any kind of way? Were they ahead of the curve, military leaders? James McPherson:
The military is right out there on the front lines, not only fighting the war but also
in the front lines of getting rid of slavery. Just take the very first incident that Jim
mentioned, Fortress Monroe in May of 1861, Benjamin Butler is the Union commander there,
three slaves come, say that they’ve been working on Confederate fortifications. A Confederate officer comes and says that
they belong to so-and-so in Virginia and wants them returned. And Butler says no, he tells them no. And the next step is for more and more slaves
to come into Union lines. Then Congress passes the First Confiscation,
the Emancipation Act, and that’s the War Department that issues the orders to implement that. Orders go out to military commanders not to
return fugitive slaves. And so, the military is right on the cusp
of this process from the very beginning. There’s an interesting thing, I think, that
happens primarily, I would say, during the course of 1862, the second year of the war. At first, I think, a lot of military commanders,
a lot of soldiers, junior officers, don’t see themselves in any way as emancipators. But the more they see of slavery in the South,
the more they realize that slavery — that the slaves are really, as Frederick Douglas
himself put it on one occasion, the backbone of this rebellion, the stomach of this rebellion. They are providing the labor that sustains
the Confederate economy, the war economy; they are providing the labor that sustains
the logistics of the Confederate armies. They begin to say, “Why should we let them
have their slaves? Why should we return their slaves when we
know that they’re going to be used to sustain the war effort? We’re trying to win this war, and one way
to win the war is to take away the slaves, take away the labor power in the slaves, make
— bring it over to our side.” And more and more soldiers are writing home
and saying — in 1862, and saying, “It’s time to take off the kid gloves. It’s time to make the traitors feel the weight
of this war, and one way to do that is to take their slaves.” So this penetrates fairly far down in the
Union army, and you’ll find many examples, even when their officers, like Gen. McClellan,
would say they don’t want this become a war against slavery. When slaves come to Union lines, even in the
border states, a border state like Maryland or Kentucky, and they — the master comes
and says a slave — you know, “Joe is in your army camp and I want him back.” The soldiers won’t give him back; they’ll
say, you know, “Get out of here or we’ll drive you out of here.” So clearly, there’s a role being played at
several levels by the army from the top down, from the commander in chief down, who’s President
Lincoln, way on down to the common soldier in the ranks, from fairly early in the war. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Sure, absolutely. I mean, as I’ve said, you guys just jump in
— James Oakes:
This speaks to Eric’s point, also, about evolution. One of the things that also happens by 1862
is that the soldiers are writing back and saying time to take the gloves off, but they’re
also saying, “You know, we get down here and the only loyal people we’re finding, the only
people we can trust are the slaves.” And one of the evolutions in Republican Party
thinking, and particularly Lincoln’s thinking, is the realization that any hope they had
that the war would spark an uprising among Southern unionists that would throw the rebellion
into chaos was gone. And part of the reason it was gone, a major
part of the reason it was gone, is because soldiers were writing back to home — to their
home families, and commanders in the field were writing back saying, “We get down here
and there are no loyal whites, there are only — the only loyal people we can trust, the
people who are giving us information, crucial military information about where the Confederates
are, the only people who welcome us are the slaves.” And Frederick Douglass said at a certain point,
you know, “There is no such thing as a disloyal slave.” And I think that’s also crucial. That also evolves over the course of the war
so that I think — the realization that the slaves were loyal and they couldn’t count
on any loyal uprising in the white population is also critical to the evolution of anti-slavery
policy during the war as well. James McPherson:
In his first annual message to Congress — a special session of Congress on July 4th, 1861,
Lincoln said that there’s reason to believe that except for South Carolina — he was willing
to grant that South Carolina was , most of the whites there were rebels — but except
for South Carolina it’s reasonable to think that a majority of whites really are closet
Unionists; and if we appeal to the better angels of their nature and conciliate them,
try to bring them back into the Union maybe we can do that. That’s in July of 1861. By July of 1862 that’s gone, and as Jim said,
from Lincoln on down it’s the slaves who are the Unionists in the South and not — there’s
no solid core of white Unionists in at least the 11 Confederate states. Edward Ayers:
You know, I’m not being true to arguments that I’ve made in print so I guess I should
go ahead and stand up for myself. I take the, you know, Jim Oakes was talking
about telling the story, he goes back, he finds this, and he traces the line back where
it came from. And I say that people only lived history in
one direction, and I don’t let my students use the word “antebellum.” It’s always antebellum, we just don’t know
when the next war’s going to be; and we don’t organize our lives around a war we don’t know
is coming and neither did they. And so, you know, I’ve sort of jostled a little
bit with Jim McPherson, too, about this in pointing out that — all the things that you
just said are true. We just built this big project at Richmond
visualizing emancipation where we show everywhere the Union Army is and every instance we can
find of the African Americans interacting with the Union Army, and you’ll find all the
way to 1865 episodes of being betrayed, of being — of rape, of, you know, of being abandoned,
and I think that we — there are two stories we want to have. One, there’s the evolution of America. It sort of wakes up and becomes better, and
we want everybody to be Abraham Lincoln, but I point out that in 1864 Lincoln got the same
percentage of the vote he had gotten in 1860, which means 45 percent of white Northern men
including the United States Army vote against Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and — which is amazing. After Garry Wills supposedly has Lincoln transform
the war with the Gettysburg Address, and after Gettysburg itself, and after the fall of Atlanta,
and after Shenandoah Valley, and after Lincoln has shown himself to be the great leader he
is, people still, nearly half of white Northern population won’t support Abraham Lincoln. So, I guess, you know, it strikes me as necessary
to look at the whole universe. If you look at the Republican Party and its
policy and its leaders, I think Jim is exactly right. If you pull the camera back and see who all
was on board with this, the white North, and I think this is one thing the movie does a
pretty good job of showing, the Democrats who were just apoplectic about — that Lincoln
is going to win all of this. And I don’t think Reconstruction is actually
understandable until you understand that 45 percent of white Northerners are not with
the program at the beginning. So, you know, you’ve asked me before, Annette,
about what, why, what’s gained and lost from different historical perspectives today? I think that if the danger of seeing this
as the unfolding of a vision, a plan, a policy is that we forget how opposed it was, how
risky it was, how unlikely even — I mean, I think the election of 1864 is a turning
point in the war. Even after that important things can happen. So, there’s no — nobody can do it all in
one frame, and Jim has brilliantly put down the frame of what drove the people who won
and brought this about? Okay? Another frame would be, well, let’s look at
the Northern population as a whole and see what they do. And then, as Jim McPherson was just saying,
look at the Southern population. The fact that only 1,000 white men in present
day Virginia fought for the Union after so many had voted for the Constitutional Union
Party before, I’m struck by the constant change, and that people are constantly redefining
loyalties in very remarkable ways. So, I just wanted to stimulate things — Eric Foner:
But you could turn what you just said around and say, isn’t it remarkable that after the
incredible casualties of 1864, you know, the terrible, terrible loss of life that Grant
and his army sustained, and, you know, that Lincoln still carried every single Northern
state except New Jersey, perhaps; they were always on the — Edward Ayers:
But see, that’s where I differ from you guys. You guys look at the Electoral College — Eric Foner:
No, I know that he didn’t carry it by a giant majority in any state, but still — people
— that a majority were still willing to continue the war under those circumstances, you could
say, is actually remarkable. After all, McClellan was offering a policy
of peace but with Union. He was not saying, “Hey, let’s just give in
the Rebels.” You know, sort of like when Nixon ran, “I
have a peace plan. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but
I have a plan for peace.” So, you know — Edward Ayers:
But it will be with honor. Eric Foner:
Right, exactly. So, you know, you could look at it both ways. Edward Ayers:
Yeah. Eric Foner:
I’m not saying you’re wrong at all. Edward Ayers:
That’s a good place to start. Eric Foner:
The point you’re making is quite important. Right. The North was deeply divided. It was not a united North, and there were
even some Unionists in the South, as you know, in your hometown. Edward Ayers:
Right. Eric Foner:
He’s from East Tennessee, a place that did have a lot of Southerners — Edward Ayers:
I was Lincoln’s best hope. Eric Foner:
Right. Supporting the Union. But, yeah — Edward Ayers:
And my point is, if you’re trying to explain what happens, following the line through that
you folks do is right. If you’re trying to understand what the universe
was like I think that it’s easy along the way to sort of be on the side that wins and
these other — this opposition and these reservations are sloughed away. And, so, that would just be, you know, everything
that I’ve done is to try to account for all the variants as well as for the line that
goes through it. The entire range of ideology that’s contesting. Ironically, I think, go back to your very
first question, Annette, it’s when people see us not fully accounting for the anomalies,
reservations, resistance, and all this that makes them skeptical when we seem to be just
making a case for what ultimately triumphed. So, I don’t let my students use jargon either
but I do use teleological, which is you start at the end of the story and go back and find
the beginning, and everything drives towards that. It strikes me in the Civil War, in particular,
we need to resist that at every turn, and because — so that’s just my own take on it
that — Eric Foner:
But we do have to explain what happened. Some things happened and some things didn’t
happen. Edward Ayers:
Yep. Eric Foner:
It’s true, and historians all know this, at every moment there are many options out there
and many possibilities, and nothing is every inevitable, absolutely. On the other hand, the job of the historian
is to explain what did happen, and since emancipation did happen and Lincoln was re-elected, et
cetera, we have to provide a story which plausibly explains that while, yes, taking into account
that there were other options on the table for people. Edward Ayers:
Yeah, I just think that people find American history less interesting than it could be
because we suppress all the alternative histories along the way. I actually disagree with all three of my friends
here so — why am I keep doing this? Because I feel like this is my job up here
to be the representative of that kind of perspective. So, I hope everybody in the question and answer
period will be gentle with me. James Oakes:
I don’t think it’s a question necessarily of one view being teleological and the other
not being, because I think actually there are a lot of different ways, which — I actually
tried very hard to frame my book as an anti-teleological book to say that nobody knew until the very
end what the outcome was going to be. And I did put an awful lot of Democrats into
my story to show exactly what the Republicans were up against. But one of the things that has always struck
me — this goes to the second question you asked about why didn’t we know — one of the
things, I think, that the problem with the way that we’ve talked about emancipation so
far is that it’s too teleological in the sense that the teleology that we’re looking for
is the disastrous situation in the post-war South, and we’re trying to explain the failure
of somehow — the failure of things to turn out as we would’ve liked back onto something
about the way emancipation happened to begin with. And I think that’s really a much more serious
problem in the scholarship, that kind of teleology, than the one that says — I don’t think anybody
think — well, that’s not true, there are people who say, you know, as I said, there
are Lincoln scholars who say Lincoln knew from the time he was 10 that he was going
to free the slaves, and there are people who have said things like, you know, “By the time
Lincoln got around to issuing the Proclamation no force on earth could’ve stopped the revolution
from happening.” Social historians make teleological arguments,
Lincoln scholars make teleological arguments, but the dominant teleology in the literature
has been the pull of the failure of Reconstruction back into the war to explain how it happened,
and that’s one of the things I’m actually trying to resist in my — Annette Gordon-Reed:
Back to the Proclamation, what difference does it make? All of you tell me, what was its critical
importance? You were talking before about the fact that
people were already leaving, slaves were running away, there was a sense that — not inevitable,
but the process — things had been breaking down before then. What was critical about the Proclamation? Just, you know — this is for all of you. What do you think is the importance? James Oakes:
It’s the critical turning point. It’s the point at which — it implements a
policy that, I think, the Republicans had actually decided upon the previous summer,
to basically expend emancipation to the entire Confederacy. So, it makes emancipation universal, and it
does — and it attempts to implement that by changing the policy on the ground in two
important ways. The first one we all know about is Lincoln
opens the Army to the Armed Forces of African Americans based on the Militia Act that had
previously been passed that allowed him to do that. And second, it lifts the ban on enticement
that had been in place since the beginning of the war; that is, they began emancipating
slaves on August 8th, 1861, but they banned Union soldiers from going onto plantations
and farms in the South and encouraging slaves to leave. The Proclamation lifts that ban and from that
point on you see Union officers and Union soldiers going onto plantations saying, “Look,
you’re free, you know, Lincoln has freed you by this emancipation, come and join the Union
Army.” And from that point on you see — the slaves
had always been running to Union lines right from the start of the war — but from that
point on you start to see in ë63, truly enormous numbers of slaves following the Union Army
and running to the Union Army with the, you know, because the active policy from the Emancipation
Proclamation forward is to encourage this. James McPherson:
I don’t think you can sell short the immense symbolic value in power of the Emancipation
Proclamation. It got enormous exposure in the public media
of the time, not only in the United States but abroad, and it’s the one single document
that stands out. It’s part of a process, yes, the process has
been going on before the Emancipation Proclamation, and it continued after the Emancipation Proclamation,
but it’s like a kind of EKG suddenly that’s up there, and it has this enormous visibility,
and the word of it circulates by the slaves grapevine through the South, and I think it
encourages even more slaves to run away to Union lines; but it’s also an announcement
that the war now has another purpose as well as just restoring the old Union. It’s no longer the old Union. As Lincoln said later at Gettysburg, “We’re
giving this Union a new birth of freedom.” And the one thing that stands out as symbolic
of that new birth of freedom in 1863 is the Emancipation Proclamation. James Oakes:
I think that’s right. I also think it accustoms — because it’s
universal, because it makes emancipation universal throughout the seceded states it accustoms
Northern voters to the idea that the war is not going to end without slavery having been
thoroughly abolished. And the fact that that turned out not to be
the case was crucial because I think it creates the political will by which a 13th Amendment
becomes possible and conceivable in 1864 and ë65 in a way that it was inconceivable in
1861 and ë62. Eric Foner:
I agree. I think the Proclamation, which many of you
hear had the opportunity to see it a little while ago, it’s a little hard to read and
it’s kind of faded right now, but everybody can easily find out what it says, but it — what
strikes me as interesting in the Proclamation is not simply what you just heard, but that
Lincoln addresses a little paragraph in it to slaves themselves. In other words, he’s dealing with them now
as people who the Union must win their loyalty. He says, first of all, that they have a right
to defend their freedom by violence if necessary. Now, he says, I urge you not to use violence
except in necessary self-defense. Many people thought if you declare emancipation
slaves are going to rise up and cut the throats of their masters, there will be a, you know,
giant race war in the South. Lincoln could easily have said just take it
easy and don’t do anything, but he said, no, you have the right to defend your freedom
even by violence if necessary. And secondly, he says, “I urge you to go to
work for reasonable wages.” I mean, this is probably the least important
part, but I always find that word “reasonable” interesting. Why did he put “reasonable”? Not just go to work for wages, go to work
for reasonable wages, which weren’t always available to people. That’s, you know, partly the free labor idea
from before the Civil War that people have a right to, you know, negotiate for their
wages, to choose their employer, but to say that to slaves is a rather interesting thing
in the middle of a proclamation of emancipation. So, it’s well worth reading very carefully. One of the things about Lincoln is he was
a master of the language, and he chose his words with extreme care. So, you have to read Lincoln really carefully
to get the full depth of what he is saying at any particular moment. Edward Ayers:
I think what the Emancipation Proclamation does is say, okay, the war will now be prosecuted
until its very end, that it redefines the purpose as well as the way the war is fought. The white South recognizes now there really
is no turning back. We lose this, we’ve lost slavery and everything
else. So, I think it really is a pivot around which
the war turns. Annette Gordon-Reed:
And overseas does it have any effect, any foreign policy implications? James McPherson:
It certainly did have an effect overseas. In the month after January 1st, 50 public
meetings were held around the UK. Thousands of people attended these meetings
and praised the Lincoln Administration, praised the United States for the Emancipation Proclamation. It ended, I think, for, definitively, any
possibility of British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which had been a potential
problem — potential danger for the Union cause right up until, I think, the Emancipation
Proclamation, and after it. It precluded the possibility of European intervention,
which had been a live option up until that time. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Anything else you would like to say about your book before we turn it over to the audience
for questions? James Oakes:
Buy it. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Buy it? Eric Foner:
Can I say something about his book? Annette Gordon-Reed:
Absolutely, yes. Eric Foner:
I just want to say one word about Jim’s book as his publicity agent. One of the things I think is very good and
important about that book is that it urges us to get away from the dichotomy that people
— is the war about the Union or is the war about slavery? And I think, you know, he shows that both
issues were in the minds of the Republicans from the very beginning. The balance shifts, but it’s not as if for
two years they’re only interested in the Union and then suddenly they become interested in
slavery. From the very beginning of the war people
were trying to save a Union in which slavery would be on the way out in some way, but how
exactly — so, I commend him for trying to get us away from that either/or situation
which is so common in discussions of the Civil War. Annette Gordon-Reed:
So, do you expect opposition? Did you expect opposition for this? Eric Foner:
Well, we had Ed Ayers here, so… Edward Ayers:
If that’s the worst you got, you’re in good shape. James Oakes:
I’ve been telling my friends for two years — I call it in the email line, the subject
line, “the book nobody will believe.” Annette Gordon-Reed:
The book nobody will believe. I’m not even talking mainly about historians
but, I mean, the public. I mean, this is a book for the general public
as well. You’re speaking to everyone. James Oakes:
I really don’t know. I can imagine pushback, but I can also imagine,
at this particular moment in time, when I think some of the cynicism about politics
has diminished a little bit, I think — I just don’t know, you know, I just can’t tell. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Okay. Well, we’ll find out. James Oakes:
I expect some pushback. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Well, you want some pushback, right? Of course. James Oakes:
No, I want universal adulation. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Okay. Well, if people have questions, well, you
know the drill. This is being recorded so we need to hear
what you’re asking. So, I think I will start over here. Audience Member:
Good evening. Gentlemen, my question is actually about the
prelude, that I was interested in the evolution of thought of Lincoln and the Republicans,
but particularly I wanted you to turn your attention to the conflict that happened in
Kansas along the Kansas border area because that was one of the changes that presaged
the change of the Republican Party; the decision to leave behind the compromise and instead
allow states to vote whether or not to be free states, and I’m wondering what impact
you think that hand on the, sort of, march to war and the evolution of the national party
stances. James McPherson:
Well, I’ll make a stab at that. The Kansas controversy really gave birth to
the Republican Party. Jim’s book is about the Republican Party and
its success in bringing an end to the slavery, and that’s when the Republican Party was born,
in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. So, that’s not where the story starts, but
that’s a major punctuation point in the story. Annette Gordon-Reed:
We can come to this side. Audience Member:
Yes, I have a question for Professor Oakes about, in particular, just the way the Union
commanders during the war interpreted, like, the First Confiscation Act, and then, of course,
subsequently there were military orders, but how did they — what was the role of these
commanders in terms of what happened with fugitive slaves and that sort of thing in
the Civil War, and how did they even feel about emancipation, so to speak? James Oakes:
Well, I think the Union Army is like the North; it’s divided. The North is divided over this, and the Union
Army is divided over this. There are anti-slavery generals and soldiers,
and there are pro-slavery generals and soldiers. There’s a general resistance on the part of
soldiers who were Democrats to making this war an anti-slavery war. But, that said, I think there’s also in the
Army — this surprised me — more than I realized, a commitment to the idea of civilian rule,
and if Congress passes this law and if the War Department issues these orders we have
to obey these orders. Right? And there’s not too much resistance in the
Confederate states, in the seceded states. The problem is in the border states, because
that’s a mess, because those states don’t leave the Union, the state laws presumably
are still in existence, and yet there are policies that are being enunciated from Washington
that say contradictory things. And so, most of the conflict we see within
the Union Army about the implementation about the way the Union Army — happens in the border
states. It’s in Maryland, it’s in Kentucky, it’s in
Missouri. Those are the — generals in those states
are the ones that we see most often in the literature when we talk about these kinds
of things. It’s relatively clear-cut early on that military
emancipation is legitimate in the disloyal states. It’s in the border states that you get a lot
of tension or especially within the Army. Audience Member:
Given President Lincoln’s skill working with Congress and given the difficulties that his
successor, Andrew Johnson, had working with Congress, what do you think are the odds of
the 14th Amendment’s enactment if President Lincoln had not been killed? Eric Foner:
Well, that’s what we call counterfactual history, which is fine. Edward Ayers:
You can’t be wrong. Eric Foner:
That’s it, you can’t prove I’m wrong, so. You know, it’s inconceivable that Lincoln
would’ve gotten himself into the fix that Andrew Johnson did. Lincoln was far too connected to the mainstream
of the Republican Party, far too good a politician, far too connected with Northern public opinion. It’s impossible, I think, to imagine Lincoln
becoming so alienated from Congress the way Johnson ended up and being impeached by Congress. I actually think it’s quite likely that had
Lincoln lived, Lincoln and Congress would’ve worked out some plan of Reconstruction as
during the Civil War they worked out things. You know, Lincoln — they had debates, Lincoln
and Congress, but Lincoln signed every single bill that passed through Congress relating
to slavery with the exception of the Wade-David Bill, which is more about reconstruction. If Lincoln and Congress would’ve worked out
a deal on Reconstruction I think it probably would have looked very much like the Civil
Rights Act of 1866, which was a mainstream Republican measure trying to guarantee the
rights of free labor for former slaves, and something probably like the 14th Amendment. Would they have gone further than that to
radical reconstruction? Maybe not under Lincoln because the dynamic
that pushed them toward radical reconstruction was the impasse with Johnson, and you wouldn’t
have had that impasse if Lincoln — but the further you get into the history the more
just total speculation it becomes, but I think you would’ve probably seen something like
the 14th Amendment if Lincoln had lived, but it would’ve had the cooperation of the president,
not the total opposition the way it did with Andrew Johnson. Audience Member:
My question is for Mr. Oakes. I’m not a professional historian, but I’m
a member of the public who doesn’t buy your argument yet either, so here we go. My multi-part question, I’ll make it brief. Is your thesis that from the outset of the
Republican Party it was bent on abolishing slavery and, if so, aren’t you then required
to tell us which Republicans were and at what times — the Charles Sumners who are more
liberal compared to the moderate and conservative Republicans who did not want to end slavery
in the South. And also a quick note about Frederick Douglass
changing his position about the Constitution; wasn’t that Gerrit Smith patronizing his new
newspaper and he changed his position? Because didn’t he hold the Garrisonian view
before that about the Constitution? So, that’s my three-part question. James Oakes:
I’ll answer part three first. He was certainly influenced by Gerrit Smith. That’s no question. I resist the suggestion that some biographers
have made that he changed his mind because Gerrit Smith paid him $200. Frederick Douglass wasn’t that kind of person. Let me go backwards. What was the second? Audience Member:
The second one, if your thesis is that the Republican Party was against — for abolishing
slavery from the start — James Oakes:
The Republican Party is an anti-slavery party. When I say — you have to be careful — what
the Republican Party was committed to was putting slavery on a course of ultimate extinction. What does that mean? It means the kind of thing that Eric was talking
about before. It doesn’t mean — nobody believes the federal
government has the power to go into a state and abolish slavery. So, that’s not what it means. It means a series of policies, some of which
old Republicans accepted — no slavery in the territories, virtually all Republicans
accepted the abolish of slavery in Washington, D.C., virtually all Republicans wanted to
revise if not repeal the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Not all of them believed the federal government
had the power or any business, for example, abolishing slavery on forts and military installations
in the seceded states, in the Southern states, but there was talk about that among some Republicans. But the general framework that I’m talking
about, it’s in the 1856 and 1860 Republican Party platforms. Freedom is the normal natural condition that
exists under the Constitution, and only in the states where slavery — where the states
create a law does slavery exist constitutionally. So, the commitment to freedom national is
the general overarching policy of the entire party. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Why are you skeptical? Audience Member:
Just based on reading books by Eric Foner and James McPherson. [laughter] Eric Foner:
I think you misinterpreted my book. James Oakes:
I thought we agreed. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Oh, back over here. Audience Member:
I have a two-part question. The first is, while I appreciated your responses
to Dr. Reed regarding the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, they all spoke to the effect
of the Emancipation Proclamation on the war, but what about the effect of the Emancipation
Proclamation on the people it freed, and the spirit that it brought to the people who knew
the words that said “forever free” and who began to leave plantations and sat in darkened
rooms on the night of December 31, 1862 and waited until midnight when the Emancipation
Proclamation would take effect? It may not have meant for sure that they were
emancipated, but certainly the spiritual shackles came off, and the physical shackles and the
legal shackles were never going to be on the same way again. That’s my statement. Anyway… [applause] James McPherson:
Let me just quickly respond to that with a story that I think backs it up. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was in South
Carolina, a famous New England abolitionist, and he went to South Carolina to become the
colonel of the first black regiment recruited in the Confederate States. It was called the First South Carolina. And he talks about a celebration in Beaufort,
South Carolina on the South Carolina Sea Islands among the thousands of former slaves who had
been liberated there by the Union occupation early in the war. And during the course of all the speeches
and so on Higginson is observing this, and during a break in this a quavery woman’s voice
starts singing “My Country Tis Of Thee”; it’s a black woman. For the first time, as Higginson puts it,
she had a country. That was what the Emancipation Proclamation
meant to her and to the thousands of other former slaves who were in the audience there
on January 1st, 1863 in South Carolina. Audience Member:
Thank you. Eric Foner:
Can I just add something? I’m going to take the Ed Ayers approach here,
which is that there are many different stories here, and we should not — what Jim just said
is completely right, of course — in an area where the Union Army was occupying the Sea
Islands. There are many parts of the Confederacy where
the Union Army didn’t get until the very end of the war and, indeed, Annette was talking
before about Texas, they didn’t get there at all during the war. That’s by Juneteenth — it wasn’t until June,
after the war was over, that the Union commander came into Texas and announced slavery is over
because there hadn’t been a single battle or anything in Texas. So, there are many parts of the Confederacy
where slaves get to know about the Emancipation Proclamation, but it doesn’t actually have
a practical effect on them until toward the very end of the war. In fact, when Lincoln calls in Frederick Douglass
in August 1864 to talk he says, you know, “I’m disappointed that not more slaves are
running off. I want you to figure out a way to go into
the South and spread word of the Emancipation Proclamation and encourage slaves to run to
Union lines.” So, in some areas the Proclamation was sort
of immediate and people felt this spiritual liberation that you’re referring to; in others
it took a longer time. In other words, emancipation is a process. It did not just happen on January 1, 1863. Not only political emancipation but even the
personal emancipation of people feeling that they were free. Edward Ayers:
And there are millions of enslaved people who are never within reach of the Union Army. Never. So, I think that it’s how we combine all of
these into the same braided story that, I think, that — Audience Member:
And some would argue that it’s still happening. But I still have another question. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Quick. [laughter] Audience Member:
All right. Am I naÔve in thinking that unless you are
taking the moral measure of the man, meaning Abraham Lincoln, should we care what his motivations
were in freeing the slaves or moving on the 13th Amendment? Eric Foner:
As historians we should care. We try to figure out everything. Audience Member:
I mean, but, yes, if we want to look at him as a — at a moral question, but as a political
question is it important to second guess the result? Edward Ayers:
I would say the spirit of your first statement, if you turn the telescope around, the question
is, if you’re becoming free he can believe whatever he wants to, just give me the chance. I take your point. Audience Member:
Yes, I have two questions for Drs. Ayers and McPherson. There was a gentleman, Francis Lieber, who
basically established the treatise on the conduct of armies during time of war, and
I understand it was a direct result of the Emancipation Proclamation because Lincoln
was concerned about potential uprising, slave uprisings in the South, and potential blood
bath, and basically the South had already indicated that they were going to enslave
black soldiers. So, I think — based on what I have been reading
that Lieber document or treatise was a direct result of the Emancipation Proclamation. I’d like to get your thoughts on it. The other question I have just quickly is
exactly there were 200,000 blacks that served in the Civil War. Approximately how many blacks were actually
— were battle casualties as opposed to blacks that were killed — I mean, died as a result
of disease or illnesses? Just want to get your thoughts on that. James McPherson:
I can answer the second question and then I’ll yield to somebody else for the first
part of it. Of those 200,000, 37,000 died in the war,
which is a slightly higher percentage than white soldiers, but the reason for that was
primarily disease mortality which was much higher among black soldiers than it was among
white soldiers. Nearly 34,000 of the 37,000 black soldiers
who died, died of disease. So, it was a 10 to one ratio, whereas, white
soldiers it was about a two to one ratio. Edward Ayers:
And there’s a new book about Francis Lieber that — “Lincoln’s Code” — that says that
— it’s interesting, he admires it, but he also says that it’s sort of a — that winning
nations want to codify the rules of war, and that — I don’t know if it’s a direct result,
but they were linked together, that Lincoln was looking for a larger rationale by which
this policy made sense in the eyes of international law and was consistent. And so, Lieber is making sure, as much as
possible, that the great fear — Haiti, and that there’s going to be this slave rebellion
and all of this — Lieber is trying to codify as much as possible what Jim Oakes is showing
the Army doing and to give it a rationale, a logic; and it endures much to this day. It’s interesting, the book points out that
much is actually about slavery, and that’s kind of fallen away as people are using it
for international law today. So, that’s my own limited understanding of
it, and that you’re right, those two things are woven tightly together. James McPherson:
Well, the Lieber Code had to do with a lot of other things as well, including how to
treat guerrillas in guerrilla warfare, the behavior of occupation troops and their relationship
with civilians. So, it’s not just slavery, it’s a very comprehensive
— yeah, yeah. Edward Ayers:
That’s what’s endured. All of that part has endured. Right. Audience Member:
I had a question for James McPherson. I read in your book, “Battle Cry of Freedom”,
something interesting about at the start of the war, that very early on, how really both
sides didn’t believe — or really believed that the war wouldn’t last very long. That, I mean, the Rebels and the Yankees going
into it, even before Sumter, after things broke out, that it would be a relatively short
skirmish, and that, you know, they were going to squash each other relatively quickly; and,
of course, as things endured starting into Bull Run into Shenandoah and especially with
Antietam as the war dragged on, I mean, at the risk of sounding to teleological, I guess,
was there evidence to suggest that perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by
Abraham Lincoln as, perhaps, a bold measure to really speed up the war by way of total
war as a real massive head rush towards total war, and that this, perhaps, could be a real
reason for this issue, speaking, you know, beyond the spheres of making it more about
slavery and freeing the slaves? Could it be really more about that subject
as well? James McPherson:
Well, Lincoln himself said that this was a measure, a military measure to help win the
war. You’re quite right to suggest that it’s — and
it’s also part of the process of the war becoming what historians now call hard war. The idea that the war would be over in just
a few months that both sides shared back in 1861 had long gone now, and clearly this was
a measure — a “military necessity” was the phrase that was used, widespread phrase used
to justify the Emancipation Proclamation — a military necessity to help us win the war
by weakening the Confederacy. Yes, it was certainly part of that process. Audience Member:
I mean, in the anticipation of greater bloodshed too, for that matter, and I mean, in some
of the skirmishes that followed. James McPherson:
Well, nobody on January 1st, 1863 could know whether the war was going to go on for another
28 months as it did or even longer or less, but clearly it had already gone on for almost
two years and one of the — I think you’re quite right to suggest that one of the hopes
was that it would help the North to win the war sooner than — but the reaction among
a lot of Northern people as well as most Southern whites was that this would prolong the war
by making Southern people fight even harder because now there was much more at stake for
them if they lose the war than there might’ve been before emancipation became the professed
policy with the Emancipation Proclamation. So, there were both reactions, one that it
might speed up the war and bring the war to an end sooner, another that it might prolong
the war and make it even more bloody. James Oakes:
I think, the book that Ed mentioned by John Witt on “Lincoln’s Code” speaks directly to
the question that you’re asking. I mean, one of the points I think that book
is making is in order to find — to embed emancipation in the laws of war and to justify
it, Lieber and the Lincoln Administration had to expand the powers of the Union Army
in its attack on civilians. You can’t — you have to broaden the definition
of military necessity to include going on to plantations and taking what the Southerners
viewed as their property away from them, but it’s attack on nonmilitary, you know, homes
and farms in the South. The paradox for Witt is to get emancipation
legalized you had to expand the parameters of war in ways that we may not like. Edward Ayers:
There’s another indirect result. The Emancipation Proclamation calling for
the enlistment of African American soldiers stops the Confederacy from exchanging prisoners. And so, you would’ve seen, you know, in the
hard war you would’ve see, sort of, a skyrocketing of death in Andersonville and Elmira because
of the lack of exchange directly as a result of that policy. Audience Member:
Thank you. Audience Member:
Because we’ve got so many historians on the same stage I have, kind of, a bigger picture
question so, if possible, I would like to hear from each of you. In the course of doing your research and writing
your books not only about what we’re talking about here but things that preceded that,
things that happen now, things that might happen in the future, is there kind of a North
Star that you guys keep coming back to when it comes to the way events unfold no matter
how basic it might be? But as historians, do you see something that
keeps coming up over and over again? James Oakes:
Do you mean specifically about the war or just as a general philosophical — Audience Member:
Just in general. Just in general. Anything about people or leadership or the
way events just happen. Kind of a broad question, I know. [laughter] Edward Ayers:
Well, I’ll go first. I kind of articulated a little bit. The idea that I have in my book about the
Civil War is deep contingency in which there are people’s entire identity pivoted, certainly
I’m thinking of the white South, and the example I was using before about people who had voted
for the Whigs and then for the Constitutional Union Party and then die for the Confederacy. And the example I use for that, they bring
God along with them. They decide that God has become a Confederate. Right? So, that you can see at various points in
history, not all that often, where these things will shift. Maybe 9/11 will prove to be that in a while,
which the view of the world by an event, sort of, cascading through the social order has
a consequence that people are not anticipating at the outset. So, I think that history for me is a series
of punctuations and like throwing a rock into a puddle, and then it radiates out from that
rather than a flowing stream. So, that’s my theory. But there’s a bunch of historians on the stage
here, he began by saying. [laughter] James Oakes:
For me it’s always — it’s an ancient problem, you know, free will and determinism. It’s structure and contingency. You’re always as a historian balancing those
things that seem driven by irresistible forces against the fact that anything can happen. Right? And it’s never easy to — there is no answer. In every particular situation you’re describing
at any point along the way is driven by both of these forces or facts, you know. Accidents happen and when they happen they
don’t come out in completely unpredictable ways. Edward Ayers:
That’s right. That’s the deep part. It’s not just anything can happen; they work
within existing structures and ideologies. James Oakes:
So, a good example is the point we’ve been referring to, we’ve referred to a couple of
times. When Benjamin Butler decides not to send those
slaves back to the Union — to their owner in May of 1861, in one sense he’s playing
it by ear. Nobody’s done this, there has been no policy. On the other hand, he’s not flailing about
blindly. The arguments he’s beginning to make about
why he shouldn’t sent them back would be familiar to anybody who had been involved in the anti-slavery
movement for the previous decades. So — Edward Ayers:
And speaking the language of law. James Oakes:
Yeah. So, nobody could’ve predicted that this would
happen at this time and in this place that these three slaves run to Union lines and
force a decision; but the decision they force isn’t just a blind accident. Right? So, it’s always structure and contingency,
free will and determinism, and that’s something I think all historians have to deal with all
the time, you know, and resist too much teleology but don’t pretend that in the end we do have
to explain what happened. Audience Member:
Good evening. I’ve enjoyed all of work, but I especially
wanted to ask Professor Foner about a couple of things. You know, the golden age of the Emancipation
Proclamation, it seems to me, was between 1865 and 1876 when Reconstruction came. It wasn’t completely implemented in 1865 as
you all have pointed out, but by 1876 we knew that the deal was not going down. In other words, there was a complete reversion. Now, and those parts of the Emancipation Proclamation
that you lifted up I think are not often lifted up but are very important: the notion of a
decent wage, and the notion of a right to defend. But, you know, there are some people in the
South who still do not believe that they lost the Civil War, and still do not believe that
the Emancipation Proclamation means anything. Thus, you got in 1898 the uprising — this
was white people uprising, not black folks — the uprising because someone dared print
a newspaper a whole area of a town was burned down. Or you get the 1921 burning of Black Wall
Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So, we know that there was significant resistance
in the South and that Reconstruction basically gave people permission to go back to a kind
of quasi slavery. So, I, like some of the others, asking you
to do a little speculation. What kind of political configuration would
have allowed the Emancipation Proclamation to be implemented? Furthermore, what kind of political configuration
would have distributed the 40 acres and a mule that was promised through the Freedmen’s
Bureau? Third, what kind of political configuration
would have allowed the Freedmen’s Bureau to be effective? Now, I know I’m asking you to speculate, but
one of my favorite writers, Steven Carter, wrote a book very recently, the “Assassination
of Abraham Lincoln”, that presumes — no, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln”, forgive
me, but presumes that Lincoln lived longer than when he died, not too much longer, but
lived longer than when he died and talked about what might have happened but only for
a year or so out. So, I’m asking you to take it from 1876 to
as far as you want to, to share what kind of political configuration could have made
this thing work so much better that we wouldn’t still be grappling with these issues today. Eric Foner:
Well, you know, this is awfully complicated — Annette Gordon-Reed:
And you have to do it very quickly because we have got two more questions. Eric Foner:
Yeah. You know, what you’re really asking is, was
there any possibility of Reconstruction being successful, or more successful, than it was? If Reconstruction had been successful, if
the basic civil political rights of African Americans had stuck, so to speak, in the South
that were implemented and taken away later on, then many of the things — you wouldn’t
have had utopia, you wouldn’t have had nirvana, but you would’ve had a much more democratic
and modern society in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We are oppressed by the tyranny of the fact,
you know. We know that Reconstruction failed, and it’s
very hard to kind of figure out alternative scenarios. If the Republican Party had maintained its
commitment that it did have at the very end of the Civil War of its willingness to enforce
the law of the land, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, the Civil Rights laws, then
maybe this could’ve happened. You know, it’s almost impossible to say, but
I don’t think we should just throw up our hands and say, no, it was absolutely inevitable
that the — you know, it’s 50 years since Martin Luther King stood up at the Lincoln
Memorial and said, “We’ve come to cash the promissory note of the Emancipation Proclamation.” That’s a century later from the Emancipation
Proclamation. I don’t think it was inevitable that it would
take another century for freedom to really be, you know, implemented for many people. But it’s very hard to work out a speculative
scenario which would, sort of, get you from Reconstruction to a more democratic and, you
know, progressive kind of situation in the South than actually happened. So, that’s about all I can say. Audience Member:
Got to thinking about something Mr. Foner said. You made the point that in spite of all the
casualties and what was going on the Republicans won in 1864, Nixon won, I mean — [laughter] Audience Member:
Lincoln won, but it struck me that not only did the Republicans win that election, but
they dominated presidential politics for a couple of generations after the Civil War,
and that is a real contrast from more recent wars, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam,
Iraq, the opposition party was a president election almost the next chance that they
had. Iraq is particularly striking because the
casualties in that were minuscule compared to the Civil War and yet the Republicans lost
an election. Now, that to me indicates that people on both
sides of the Civil War thought they were fighting about something much more important and that
Americans because of the Civil War may have less tolerance for war than they did during
that time. I was wondering what you thought of that. Eric Foner:
Well, I don’t want to make a general rule about wars and elections. I think it is an important fact that the Civil
War fixed the political structure of the United States for two or three generations, really
up to the New Deal. You look at the maps, the Republicans always
won the North almost entirely. After Reconstruction the South was solidly
Democratic for a long, long, long time. And even if you look at the map of the last
election you can see the Civil War imprinted on that map. The parties have kind of switched, so to speak,
but the South voted completely differently from most of the rest of the country, and
we — you know, for whatever reasons — but the Civil War is imprinted in our politics
still today, which suggests, as you said, that it had a tremendous impact on the way
different regions of the country think of themselves. Edward Ayers:
This helps explain the last question, too. Samuel J. Tilden did get more popular votes,
probably, than Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, okay. From then for the next four decades the closest
elections in American history are imprinted of the Civil War, but they’re so close that
things could have turned out differently. So, I think that, you know, what Eric is saying
is exactly right. I mean, I’m a historian of the South and so,
I’ve studied all these race riots and the lynchings and segregation and all this, and
it’s so discouraging to see that without the power of the federal government, it’s hard
to see how the white South was ever going to change; and they had half the power, you
know, and everything was pivoting on that so — even FDR has to kowtow to the white
South to do that. So, as we think about the generations that
followed and the century of segregation that followed it’s, what Eric is saying, it’s the
very precariously balanced structures of power that white Southerners run the South, and
until they can’t that stays in place. Annette Gordon-Reed:
Well, we’ll have to leave it with that. Thank everyone for coming. I’d like to thank the panelists. [applause]

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