I agree with Walt -- we desperately need more imaginative leadership and bolder decisions. We are mired in multifaceted intractable problems that, despite the United States' fading status as the world's lead empire, have planet-wide implications. Yet our politicians and institutions seem unable to take up the work of dealing with these realities at home or abroad.
Meanwhile, I just finished reading with fascination Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. In fact, I read it through twice. It's that gripping -- and it gave me a lot of think about. Much of that thinking arises from appreciating that Foner is drawing a picture of another era when the U.S. system of government proved constitutionally unable to solve its vital presenting problems. Lincoln's trial, and the nation's, was the result.
Foner's picture of Lincoln, as the subtitle indicates, makes the struggle over whether slavery would continue the center of the Civil War era impasse. That may seem obvious, but it was not always so. I grew up in a time when historians had acceded to Southern insistence that we'd had a "War between the States," an argument about states' rights that somehow turned violent. As a young person haunted by visiting Civil War battlefields where tens of thousands died, I doubted that this conflict was about anything so abstract and bloodless. As a young liberal, I leaned toward the historiography of Charles A. Beard, now largely forgotten, that placed the war in a context of class conflict leading to capitalist development. Nonetheless, coming up in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s, I could hardly forget that the Civil War was somehow about the full humanity of "the Negroes" as we would have called African Americans at the time.
Slavery and how to end the institution that held 4 million Black people in bondage frames Foner's history. Here's how he introduces his project:
Rather than try to summarize Foner's dense volume, I'm just going to throw out some highlights from what I learned, hoping they intrigue readers as they did me.
- It struck me that the names of most of the actors in the Civil War era were the same ones that I learned in childhood were normal for men of the political class. This is no longer quite so true (and now they are not all men); note the President's name. But nonetheless, we still have lot of Clintons and Browns and Bushes, just like the old days.
- Lincoln was a party building politician, a guy who saw his role as holding the fragile, newly formed, Republican Party together in the 1850s. The glue that worked for that purpose was opposition to the extension of slavery into new territories. Maintaining party cohesion seems to have been the impetus that moved slavery to the center of Lincoln's concerns. (Yes, it's hard to think of Republicans as the party of liberation and progress -- how times have changed.)
In trying to forge a winning Republican coalition, Lincoln understood he needed to not only keep as many conservatives in the fold as possible, but also to show respect for those who pushed him in more radical directions.
Would that the current Democratic leadership understood as well the need to keep the core of moral liberal activists within the broad "enterprise." This history also gave me a useful adjective to describe our current incumbent president; as Lincoln was to his critics, for contemporary progressives Obama is often "provoking."
- I feel a little embarrassed to admit this: this book, for the first time, enabled me to internalize why the common Northern description of the Civil War was as "a fight for the Union." My own ancestors who fought for the North labelled the war that way, but I didn't get it. To take this in (and even comprehend the Gettysburg address!) you have to be able to enter a mindset in which it was still an open question whether democratic government under a constitution written by known human actors could ever work. In the 1860s, this was still debatable all around the world; maybe the idea was just a momentary madness and humans needed kings and priests to govern them? Today we treat legal democratic governance as so normative that we try to impose it on other, unwilling peoples. But in the 1860s, the question of whether humans could intentionally govern themselves under a broadly enfranchised, secular democracy really was up for grabs. Perhaps it is still.
- Foner puts abolitionist agitation at the center of the national crisis Lincoln confronted. In doing so, he resuscitates a picture of the power of a morally grounded social movement that we've sometimes lost touch in these cynical times. The Constitution as written in 1789 protected slavery; figuring out how to end it required thinking outside established norms -- and led the abolitionist movement to altogether new ideas. Abolitionists were not popular; they were the shit-disturbers of their day.
- Foner's account of Lincoln's drift toward emancipating the slaves makes clear the extent to which slave and free Black people liberated themselves. Black abolitionists forced the movement to go beyond condemning slavery's bad effects on "free" (white) labor and imagine legal equality. During the Civil War, slaves flocked to Union outposts seeking freedom long before the North had yet considered emancipation -- and by doing so, showed their value to the Union war effort by undermining the Confederate economy. The Emancipation Proclamation was in part a recruiting device: Lincoln needed every Black soldier he could attract to fill the ranks of the army. By war's end, some 100,000 had served. It became unimaginable to Lincoln to treat these men and their families as anything less than full citizens.
This volume indeed gives those of us obsessed with the current impasse in government many insights, "a usable past." That's what I want from the study of history. Foner delivers. Some may criticize such a history; I applaud.