Once again, thanks to my buddy across the street, I dived into a Civil War story. This time, The Fiery Trial, a Lincoln phrase, naturally, exploring Abe’s evolving attitudes and policies toward slavery. For a while, I found no surprises, though of course Foner includes some facts and stories that were new to me. However, it was not news that Lincoln was pretty much always anti-slavery. Nor was it news that he
was not much for black-white social or political equality. Most of his life, his notion about what white folks’ obligation toward Negroes was to get them free so they could keep and eat the bread that was the fruit of their labor. Voting, citizenship, or other civil rights–these matters pretty much didn’t enter his mind.
Even the descriptions of the careful political trail he had to blaze among the various factions vying for his presidential favor were part and parcel of a story with which I’d become quite familiar in my reading of the last few years. About midway through Foner’s narrative, though, some new material manifested. I hadn’t realized how little contact Lincoln had had with colored folks in his life.
Even though he’d grown up in a slave state and even though southern Illinois was only a step or two away in both distance and attitude from KY (I hadn’t realized how different the northern and southern peoples of IN and Ill were befoe reading The Fiery Trial.), both slavery and black people were pretty much abstracts to Lincoln. He entered the presidency and the war firmly resolved to do away with slavery, but was open to many ways to accomplish it. “Gradual” was a big word for him at the time. “Compensation” was another; i.e., paying slaveholders for the “property” they manumitted. He spent a lot of time negotiating such matters with owners in the border states and dreaming up ways of duplicating those offers even to the secessionists. He hung on for a long time to the idea that there were a lot of unionists in the south who would give up the bloody war if they could be shown an honorable method to change their ways and free their chattels.
During all this, he was trying to weave his way among the radical republicans who wanted all slaves freed immediately and granted the rights everyone else had; the moderates, who wanted slavery to end but who were willing to start with freeing the children and letting the thing die a natural death along with the adults; the colonizationists (of whom I was quite surprised to learn that Lincoln was an avid supporter) who believed that white and black could never live together and were exploring African, Central American, and South American venues for new black colonies); and the Democrats who wanted the union to survive, but saw no reason why it couldn’t continue half-slave and half-free as it had for more than fifty years.
Although much of this was masked under arguments about constitutionality, states rights, the economics of farming vs. industry, and the like, it was really all about slavery. No slavery, no war. It was remarkable to me how short-sighted both Lincoln and the abolitionists were about post-slavery,though. Relatively little thought was given to what the society would do when several hundred thousand freed people suddenly needed to earn a living and tens of thousands of plantation acres were suddenly left without their customary caretakers. There were some early, desperate experiments with paying slaves who escaped into Union Army arms to do some of the camp labor. After some fierce struggling, a few thousand men and their families were made soldiers and eventually given freedom. Sherman handed out quite a lot of Georgia land–40 acres per parcel and a mule to go with it–to thousands. But he did it mainly to get rid of the burden of feeding and caring for the hordes who followed his army off the plantations and towns he’d burned as he scorched his route through the Confederacy. In the end, most of these land giveaways and support schemes fell prey to northern capitalists and southern grafters. The slaves realized little.
But Lincoln was a learner. He’d begun to realize that the black folks saw themselves as Americans, that there were many free, intelligent, and accomplished black people, that as soldiers they could fight and die as well as anyone, and that reconstruction society was going to have to deal with them. He’d begun realize that the Confederate principals were intransigent and unrepentant to a degree he’d been unwilling to recognize early on. No one can say how the post-war years would have been different had he lived. However, it is certain that the man who replaced him was a stubborn, short-sighted alienator who was unwilling and unable to learn or compromise or understand any view but his own. Lincoln failed to change the views of many around him, but he generally found ways to work with them or to confound them. Johnson was incapable of any of that. Whatever is uncertain about what direction reconstruction would have taken under Lincoln, it seems certain that the direction it did take, with the lapses into vitriolic vengeance by northerners, black laws, and Jim Crow and all the rest, could not have been worse.
The framers punted on slavery, finding no way to solve the situation beyond the 3/5 rule. They left it to future generations to take care of, and we’re still trying to do it, I guess. All the way through The Fiery Trial I thought of Obama. The racism, of course, which is still so uglyly with us. But also his notion, so much like Lincoln’s, that somewhere in the heart of those who oppose him most bitterly, there must be a place he can reach, a way to bring them along, and the ceaseless efforts to do so in the face of absolute evidence that such efforts are futile. Even though he had little outward success in persuading Kentucky, for example, to pursue abolition using any of the thousand methods he proposed, perhaps his constant, almost humiliating, effort kept them from seceding, which was crucial to the salvation of the union. “I can hope for divine approval,” he said once, “but I need Kentucky’s.”
I knew a lot about what The Fiery Trial had to say, but what I didn’t know was crucial to understanding the war, the society, and the man. You keep trying, learning, growing. To stand and wait is death. Or anyway stagnation, which is just as good as.