Thursday, June 16, 2011

On leadership in another time when the system reached impasse ...

... [Obama's has] been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed.

Professor Stephen Walt

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:

... My aim is to situate Lincoln within what Charles Sumner, the most outspoken foe of slavery in the U.S. Senate, called the "antislavery enterprise." This social and·political movement encompassed a wide variety of outlooks and practices. At one extreme, it included abolitionists who worked outside the party system and advocated an immediate end to slavery and the incorporation of the freed slaves as equal members of society. It also included those who adhered to what Sumner called "strictly constitutional endeavors," including steps to prevent the westward expansion of slavery and, in some cases, plans for gradual emancipation with monetary compensation to slaveowners and the "colonization" of the freed people outside the United States. At various times, Lincoln occupied different places on this spectrum.

... Much of Lincoln's career can fruitfully be seen as a search for a reconciliation of means and ends, an attempt to identify a viable mode of antislavery action in a political and constitutional system that erected seemingly impregnable barriers to effective steps toward abolition. For most of his career, Lincoln had no real idea how to rid the United States of slavery, although he announced many times his desire to see it end. But in this he was no different from virtually every other antislavery American of his era. ... If Lincoln achieved greatness, he grew into it. Not every individual possesses the capacity for growth; some, like Lincoln's successor as president, Andrew Johnson, seem to shrink, not grow, in the face of crisis. But to rise to the occasion requires not only an inner compass but also a willingness to listen to criticism, to seek out new ideas. Lincoln's career was a process of moral and political education and deepening antislavery conviction.

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.

    In July 1856, the Chicago Tribune observed that the "charge of abolitionism" constituted one of the greatest obstacles to Republican success. Fear of being "caught in cooperation with some abolitionist" had led "timid souls" to remain "aloof from the Republican movement." Yet Lincoln was not afraid to work with abolitionists. He understood that without the public sentiment generated by abolitionist agitation outside the political system and by Radical Republicans within it, his new party could never succeed and that it needed to harness the intense commitment that [abolitionist Owen] Lovejoy's supporters would bring to the campaign.

    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.

    In 1795, the Virginia critic of slavery St. George Tucker inquired of the Massachusetts clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap how his state had abolished slavery. Belknap replied, "Slavery hath been abolished here by public opinion." Understanding the importance of public sentiment, abolitionists pioneered the practice of radical agitation in a democracy. They did not put forward a detailed plan of emancipation. Rather, their aim, explained Wendell Phillips, perhaps the movement's greatest orator, was "to alter public opinion," to bring about a moral transformation whereby white Americans recognized the humanity and equal rights of blacks. By changing public discourse, by redefining the politically "possible," the abolitionist movement affected far more Americans than actually joined its ranks.

    ... The first racially integrated social movement in American history, abolitionism was also the first to insist on the inextricable connection between the struggles against slavery and racism. "While the word 'white' is on the statute-book of Massachusetts," declared the abolitionist editor Edmund Quincy, "Massachusetts is a slave state." Abolitionists challenged both southern slavery and the racial proscription that confined free blacks to second-class status throughout the nation. In the ideas of a national citizenship and of equal rights for all Americans, abolitionists glimpsed the possibility, which came to fruition during the Civil War, that the national state might become the guarantor of freedom and equality rather than its enemy

  • 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.
At one point in The Fiery Trial, Foner remarks

History, it has been said, is what the present chooses to remember about the past.

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.

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