Sunday, October 10, 2010

"The Fiery Trial" by Eric Foner

Abraham Lincoln was a complex man. A potrait of him hung on the wall in my Kindergarten class, so his image is a part of my psyche. There are certain things I have come to accept about him. The Emancipation Proclamation is one of those things. But the story behind it is quite another. History is never cut and dry, and as I said, Lincoln was a complex man.

The author of this book has done a superb job of attempting to find the "real" Lincoln. He has gone to painstaking lengths to do so, and in the process has shed some light on a very volatile, and often misunderstood, chapter in our collective history.

Did Lincoln free the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation? All the slaves? Right away? Most Americans believe the answer to be yes to all three of these questions. And most Americans would be wrong. The issue of slavery has been a thorn in the side of the Republic since the first day of it's founding. How one group of men could write of tossing off "the chains and shackles that bind us", while continuing to allow the institution of slavery to exist, is mind boggling. That the Civil War didn't occur sooner than it did, is amazing.

Lincoln found himself in the middle of all these questions, both moral and legal, which surrounded the issue of Abolition. And he took all sides, playing them all. He was a moral man, to be sure. But, he was also a shrewd politician, and that profession can often trump "our better angels."

Take the Missouri Compromise as an example. As a Congressman, Lincoln was for it. It would abolish slavery East of the Missouri, but allow it to continue West of that divide. True, he was attempting to hold the Union together, but how wise was it to delay the inevitable confrontation that awaited the nation?

Once the war began, Lincoln found himself committed to taking some sort of action that would underscore the issue of slavery. In late 1862 he rolled out the Emancipation Proclamation. This document was immediately construed to be the Instrument by which slavery, as an institution, was abolished in the United States. But that is only a half truth.

The Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the states that comprised the South. The slaves in the North would not attain full freedom, by this Instrument, until 1900. The main idea was to grant freedom to the slaves in the South in an effort to get them into the fight on the side of the North.

As early as May of 1861, only 2 months after the war had begun, General Butler was already allowing runaway slaves to take refuge in Fortress Monroe, at the mouth of the James River opposite Norfolk, in Virginia. This was in direct contravention to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was nullified as soon as the South fired the first shot at Fort Sumter. The irony here is that these slaves were taking refuge to avoid working as slaves for the Confederacy, yet when they arrived at Fortress Monroe, they were immediately assigned to work details as cooks and laborers, for the Union Army, without pay.

Meantime, in Washington, Lincoln was formalizing plans to ship ex-slaves back to Haiti and Liberia. There was also something called the "Chiriqui Project", which Lincoln had discussed as early as 1861. This plan would have shipped all African-Americans to Colombia to build a colony on land owned by one Ambrose W. Thompson.

As all this talk of Emancipation and Repatriation was taking place, there was considerable opposition in the black community. Some, if not most, of the freed slaves were born here in America, which technicaly made them natural born citizens.Once again, irony rears it's head, as Lincoln had made this very argument himself while in Congress. Moreover, there were many white Republicans opposed to the plan, further hindering it's implementation. Frederick Douglass was also one of the most vocal opponents of these plans to ship African-Americans away from the land of their birth.

This is a fascinating book that will inform the reader on many levels concerning the Institution of Slavery and how it came to an end in America. And some of it will suprise you, because history is not always what you have been taught to believe.

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