February 11, 2007

The "What Ifs" of Emancipation

A blogger known as "the Ape Man" is shocked by Larison's characterization of Lincoln as a "tyrant" and my pondering the justice of that rather severe historical judgment.

My sin in the pongid world is to have asked whether, if the North had let the South go without war, slavery would have long persisted in the South. I can also ask whether, given the blood spilled in the War and the rapid turn away from Reconstruction, Lincoln was far-sighted, bloody-minded, or a bit of both.

Brazil abolished slavery without a war in 1888. In 1871, the “Free Womb” law passed, making all children of slave mothers free at birth. In 1885 the “Sexagenarian Law” passed, freeing all slaves when they reached 65, and in 1888 slavery was abolished in its entirety.

The U.S. Civil War started in 1861, and the official story was that it was being fought to preserve the Union, which continued to include slave states. Pressure for emancipation grew in the North, and in 1862-1863 Lincoln used his war powers to issue proclamations that declared slaves free in rebel States. It was part of a strategy, combined with blockade and the depredations of Sherman, among other things, to destroy the Southern economy.

If the Confederacy had simply been allowed to secede, where would the room to expand, apparently necessary to the slave system, have come from? Would slavery have been compatible with a more advanced technology? Would the South have evolved toward emancipation, as did Brazil? In fact, by 1876, white supremacy came roaring back, not seriously challenged until 3/4 of a century later.

The “what ifs” are all conjectural history, of course, but whatever the truth and whatever the real goal of the North’s war, the 600,000 dead and countless maimed was a very high price to pay, as was the unleashing of industrial-scale warfare. The carnage of the Civil War was unrivaled until the maniacal slaughter of World War I, fought, if one accepts the sanctimony of Woodrow Wilson, to “make the world safe for democracy,” but in fact opening the door to Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism.

Lincoln is justly remembered as larger than life, a fascinating and eloquent figure, whose victory opened the way to the modern, industrial United States, for good or ill. Southern nostalgia generally gives slavery the once-over-lightly. Was there another possible outcome?



Chieftain of Seir said...

(this is Ape Man, I have got to get a blogger account in my own name)


I wish that you were right when you said that I was "Shocked."

Both of my grandfathers held that the South had every right to leave the Union. Growing up, I read many a writer that praised the South and condemned Lincoln. Like all hillbillies, I have an inborn dislike of centralized authority. If there was ever a boy who was predisposed to be sympathetic to the South and hostile to Lincoln it was me.

But then I started reading the source material that history is made out of. I read speeches by the people in the north and south. I read their letters. I read the books that the people who lived at the time wrote.

It was then that I discovered that Conservatives could lie as well as Liberals. So many Conservative apologists for the South have done such violence to the truth that I have given up on finding an honest apologist.

Do you ever really get over your boyhood betrayals?

I don't know the answer to that question for I am still on the young side. But I figured that on the day before Lincoln's birthday a little bit of demagoguery would do me some good.

I don't pretend that what I put forth was a rigorous argument, but I stand by it nonetheless. Sometimes you need to provoke before you can say anything serious.

Since you have decided to be provoked, I intend to give you a serious answer to the questions that you asked. But it may have to wait until this weekend. I have stayed up way too late as it is.

Ape Man

Grumpy Old Man said...

I look forward to your thoughts. Unlike Larison, I am only a semi-contrarian. I write "favor" and not "favour," and am not prepared to call Lincoln a tyrant--only to turn over in my mind the argument that he was one.

Lincoln was a hero where I came from, and the South could do no right.

As for "hillbillies," they weren't in sync with the slaveocracy, as I understand it, but made good cannon fodder. At least if Cold Mountain has some truth in it.

Chieftain of Seir said...

A serious answer, such as I could manage in one weekend, can be found here....

The Chieftain of Seir/Ape man

Grumpy Old Man said...

Chieftain and soi-disant pongid:

I have read your post quickly. I haven't studied the history in depth for many years, but I will think about it some more.