Civil War: Lincoln's view of liberty the norm todayBy W. WINSTON SKINNER
“What we have in the American Civil War is a conflict over competing ideas of liberty.”
Dr. Gordon Jones, senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center, spoke at Newnan’s Wadsworth Auditorium on Saturday. In his talk, “Lincoln and Liberty,” Jones said Abraham Lincoln’s view of a liberty that expanded upon the high-minded principles in the nation’s founding documents is common today.
“Abraham Lincoln redefined liberty. He redefined our definition of liberty today,” Jones said.
The events that led to the Civil War constituted “the worst political crisis in American history by far,” Jones said.
The structure of the Constitution “to contain political discussion and debate shattered,” he said. “Both sides resorted to violence.”
That Abraham Lincoln rose to power and successfully navigated the terror and pain of that time is remarkable. Jones said that 10 years before Lincoln became president, his political resume consisted of only four terms in the Illinois legislature and one in Congress, which ended im 1848.
Lincoln had left Washington and returned to Illinois to practice law. Smart, but self-educated, Lincoln was viewed by many as “a barely educated backwoods bumpkin,” Jones said.
In 1860, Republican luminaries including Salmon Chase and William Seward were presidential possibilities and “far more qualified to be president” than Lincoln, Jones said. In retrospect, Jones said, one wonders “if those two frontrunners could have done what the dark horse did during the war.”
The expansion of slavery in the territories was a heated issue in the years leading to the Civil War. The Missouri Compromise had drawn a line, limiting where slavery could and could not expand. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, left the choice to voters in new states.
Abolitionists – mostly in the Northeast – opposed slavery on philosophical and moral grounds. Southern interests were concerned that limiting slavery would eventually lead to a political majority of free states with the political power to outlaw slavery.
The fight of whether to allow slavery in Kansas led to bloodshed in 1855. “What happened in Kansas was the first shots in the Civil War,” Jones said.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act “put a great fire in Lincoln’s belly and in the belly of a lot of like-minded people,” Jones said. The concept of liberty for an expanding number of people began to take hold of many. Lincoln, pondering the disenfranchisement of black men and looking at the rising anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movement, wondered where the limitations on freedom might ultimately end.
Writing to a friend in 1855, Lincoln wrote of “the base alloy of hypocrisy” in the American application of liberty.
“White supremacy in America in the mid-19th century is the norm. It’s as American as apple pie. It’s the way white Americans think of the world. It’s the way white Europeans think of the world,” Jones said.
For Lincoln and others of like mind, the way democratic ideals were played out in the 1850s raised many questions.
“Who gets to participate in American democracy? Who gets a shot at the American dream? Who gets to play the game? Who’s in? Who’s out? Who gets to make that distinction?” Jones said.
Lincoln had an evolving view of liberty and of slavery. He had concerns that slave labor would ultimately have a negative economic impact on the country and saw the need for “a strong union of states.”
The view of liberty that Lincoln came to espouse “has so firmly permeated our political philosophy” that it can be hard for 21st century Americans to grasp the competing view in the mid-1800s.
The competing concept was that every man needed to be independent to reach the American dream. People who worked for others were, in this philosophy, indebted to their employers and therefore not truly free.
In order to reach this goal, the people with land and political power saw no problem with “a servile laboring class” that was part of the path to American prosperity. By Lincoln’s time, there was a strong feeling among pro-slavery advocates that the practice “must be allowed to grow – or otherwise it will shrivel and die,” Jones said.
In 1862, Lincoln begian to formulate plans that would be implemented after the Union victory at Antietam in September of that year.
The Dred Scott decision had ruled blacks were not citizens and therefore not entitled to the legal rights of whites. Lincoln, however, saw that in his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, there was something he could do.
In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln freed slaves in areas under occupation or attack by the Union Army. For Southern whites, ironically, “slavery would have been safer had they just stayed in the Union,” Jones noted.
The law did not allow Lincoln to simply outlaw slavery, but as commander-in-chief he could free slaves in occupied territory.
The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln’s “next great step.” He knew that winning the war would require a great sacrifice of men. Through the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln created a “statement of purpose” for the continuing conflict, Jones said. “As a matter of public relations, it redefines liberty.”
The short, powerful speech at Gettysburg was delivered in a town of 2,400 people “surrounded by 10,000 dead human bodies” from the battle fought there, Jones said. “It’s a disaster area. This is the worst calamity that’s ever going to impact these people.”
In the speech, Lincoln stated the war was being fought for liberty for all. “It’s not your father’s brand of liberty,” Jones reflected. “It’s a new kind of liberty.”
Until Lincoln’s day, most freedoms had been freedoms “from” something — search wand seizure, restriction of speech or press. Lincoln created positive freedoms – freedoms that are guaranteed. The 13th Amendment ending slavery and the 14th granting citizenship to all people born in the United States both gave Congress power to enforce their provisions.
“This is Lincoln’s redefinition of liberty – remade into law,” Jones said.
He noted the 14th Amendment became law after Lincoln’s day, but the death of Lincoln gave impetus for the passage of the amendment. “It’s a fundamental shift – this notion of personal liberty,” Jones said.
Those Amendments would have great impact in the years to follow. “This is the basis for the Civil Rights movement. This is the reason most people think of the Civil War as being important today,” Jones said. He noted there was exactly 100 years between passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education ruling that led to school integration.
Jones said 75 percent of Supreme Court decisions have their basis in the 14th Amendment. Everything the United States is, has been and will be is tied to the four years of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s presidency, he said.