Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Washington, Lincoln, slaves, war

With the July 4th celebrations last weekend and my time reading Barry Schwartz's Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Age, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about American history. And, of course, most of this thinking has been filtered through my interests in the processes and dynamics of how we remember historical figures.

So the memories of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington—both heroic figures in American memory and history, if for differing reasons and to varied degrees—is especially interesting, and particularly as these two figures relate to a vibrant issue in contemporary American political discourse: race relations. Schwartz, in his analysis of the presentation of the Emancipation Proclamation in American history textbooks between 1920–44 and 1945–present, notices a shift in this presentation. Since WWII Emancipation has become an issue of humanitarian ("civil rights") more than philosophical ("liberty") dimensions, and in history textbooks the motivations for pressing the Civil War have shifted to emphasize the moral urgency of abolishing slavery. This was not always the case.
Between 1915 and 1944 . . . textbook writers described slavery as a moral wrong, but defined emancipation as an instrument of Union victory, not an end in itself. The rationale for emancipation was to weaken the South's labor force, augment the Union's manpower, and prevent European governments from recognizing the Confederacy. (Schwartz 2008: 132)

The presentation of the Civil War in these textbooks emphasized the State ("preservation of the Union"), military battles and heroes, and so on. After WWII, the presentation of the Civil War would shift to focus on "history from below": images of slave experience and the accoutrements thereof, the emphasizing of "black contributions to the war effort" (Schwartz 2008: 133), and so on. In other words, late-twentieth-century American memory has seized on an historical event (the Emancipation Proclamation) but has reconfigured its significance from freedom to equality. The fact (indisputable, I would have thought, though such things rarely are) that nineteenth-century Americans could emancipate millions of slaves without also making the necessary provisions to ensure equality, coupled with the inconceivability of emancipation without equality in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, strongly suggest that emancipation, though we keep on using that word, did not mean [in the late 1800s and early 1900s] what we think it means.

If Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a political maneuver to pursue war goals (rather than as a moral maneuver to restore human dignity), George Washington did neither. At least, not according to a series of docudramas that ran on the History Channel on the 4th of July. Washington, in the process of configuring his army, rather confidently asserted that they (a group of men with guns rather than a trained army) would be able to fight the British (then the premier military machine in the Western world) without the aid of "negro soldiers." (Though see the section, "The Congress refuses Black enlistees" here for a different perspective.) I haven't done any research here, but according to the History Channel (I know, I know) the British, capitalizing on Washington's decision, opened up their ranks to blacks who would run away from their slave owners and enlist in His Majesty's army.

As near as I can tell, this is exactly the opposite move Lincoln would take nearly eighty-eight years ago. But the motivations of both men seem to me to flow in the same direction. Washington, trying to galvanize an army from thirteen disparate colonies with wildly divergent views of slaves and blacks, avoided putting off pro-slavery interests in order to achieve his war goal of fielding a unified fighting force against the Crown. Lincoln, trying to counter a number of military defeats in the early years of the War, sought to undermine the South's ability to meet his forces by robbing them of their labor force. Interestingly, the colonies faced a similar problem during the Revolutionary War when many men of fighting age—whom Washington refused to recruit—stopped participating in the colonial economic machine as slaves and fought with the Red Coats.

But—and here's the point—neither man seems to have been motivated to engage in race relations by the concepts of equality, civil rights, justice, or whatever. For both these seem to have been very practical decisions, so much so that we could be cynical regarding these American heroes' legacies for race relations. (We should acknowledge, however, that the relationship between Washington and his personal man-slave [!!!], William Lee, is rather ambiguous, being neither the abusive owner-slave relation of much popular depiction nor the rather egalitarian situation we who admire Washington might like it to have been.)

So my questions are as follows:
  • First, How do we assess our American heritage in light of these ambiguities? I don't think we can valorize our past, which was clearly marred by realities we should not wish to recreate. But neither can we demonize our past, cut ourselves loose from it, in order to avoid those realities.
  • Second, Why do we insist that people today make the right decisions for the right reasons (= for my reasons)? For example, I'm certainly no environmentalist, and I'm alarmed at the massive effort at wealth-redistribution masquerading as "cap and trade." If we want to engage in redistributing resources, that's one thing. But let's not do it while telling ourselves we're doing something else (viz., saving the planet). But as a capitalist, I'm all for conserving energy, becoming more efficient, and minimizing our impact on the world around us. Making an impact costs money, and if we can do as little of that as possible to pursue our goals, I'm all for it. But the current discussion doesn't allow people like me. There are two sides in this debate, and neither one of them seem to tolerate positions like mine, who aren't motivated by apocalyptic fears of rising oceans but who like the idea of using less gas/petrol, electricity, water, etc.
  • Third (and just to end on a controversial note), Has the focus on "civil rights" over the last fifty years neglected the dynamic of "liberty"? Do we need to stamp out racism, bigotry, and hatred, and make everyone love everyone else? If so, are we supposed to hate and discriminate against bigots? If not, can we let bigots and racists and others be who they want to be and live the consequences of their decisions and at the same time provide a social context in which the traditional objects of hatred, bigotry, and discrimination are empowered to live fulfilling lives, pursue their goals, and enjoy liberty?
I have answers I prefer to the first two questions, but this third one genuinely stumps me. Perhaps I've asked the question in an unhelpful way. Or perhaps the question itself is unhelpful. I don't think civil rights and liberty are the same thing, but I don't want to suggest that they are opposites, either. I guess I'm asking, Do we think we've been pursuing both up till now, and if not, How do we do so?

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