Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Eric Foner’s striking letter on “Lincoln” in this morning’s New York Times

Eric Foner, one of the great writers on the Civil War, punctures David Brooks’ empty celebration of elite arm-twisting.(h/t David Crocker) More importantly, in brief compass, he adds important facts to my account of actions of rank-and-file blacks and whites in pushing for this amendment and questions, more than I did, whether the dilemma shown in the film, that the Lincoln had to stall the peace in order to pass the 13th amendment and make the Constitution no longer a slaveowners document, is as deep as “Lincoln” suggests. See "Lincoln and Founding Myths" here.


Foner makes the central point that blacks escaped to the Northern side at the outset of the Civil War. Their arrival sparked Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation when the Union's military effort flagged.

To add some more background, the radical abolitionist movement and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, accompanied by rallies in the North and Canada featuring the eloquent words of Henry David Thoreau, had helped spark the rise of the Republican party and the Civil War. For the South seceded.

Blacks therefore knew to come to Northern side, as they had known to come to Governor Dunmore who had threatened from 1772 on to free blacks and indentured servants who would come to the Royal side, to raze the mansions of the rebellions slaveowners to the ground and sow destruction wherever he could reach. The point Foner makes is a precise parallel to what I describe in Black Patriots and Loyalists nearly 85 years earlier.


Black people in Foner's account, as in mine of the Revolution, are agents. They shape the events. They are not a mere backdrop to the greatness of "Lincoln." For they are downplayed even in this, its best moment, the Presidential stories which are repeatedly retold in the corporate press, notably in the Times' book reviews and by many best-selling historians. See here.


Foner also makes the important point that the Emancipation Proclamation freed three million of the four million blacks, and other states took action voluntarily. So the former slave-owners would have had a hard fight to block such an amendment. W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935), a book, though published outside academic historical circles, without rival until Foner's, and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (1989) have both written eloquently on the attempt to create a decent South and the only democratic governments, uniting blacks and whites and fighting for education for all – democratic education - which flourished after the Civil War.


The 15th Amendment guaranteeing blacks the right to vote - regardless of "previous condition of servitude" - was passed in 1869 and ratified by the states in 1870. That was the zenith of Reconstruction.

But the turning point was the American reaction to the Paris Commune, the working class uprising which established a radical government in France against Prussian conquest and French bourgeois capitulation/defection (that leadership decamped to Versailles). The Commune was then brutally suppressed by the French elite under the aegis of Prussian guns - murdering some 20,000 workers in Pere Lachaise cemetery in 1871.

The American elite and American newspapers were hostile to and frightened by the Commune as they were by the new democracy in the South, and that fear, combined with the pressure of former slave-owners and their allies in the North, set national politics on a course to reverse the achievements of the Civil War.

Reconstruction, the noblest experiment in democracy in America, has long been stigmatized - in the grim "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind" cinematic, academic (celebrated by Woodrow Wilson) and journalistic culture - as “Northern carpetbaggers” and “scallywags,” and linked to the racism of lynching (which also swept away some poor and anti-racist whites).

For those who can hear, Dubois and Foner have done much to correct this.


Foner also underlines the startling role of the "Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton."

The fight against slavery was always linked to the movement for the liberation of women (Seneca Falls, 1848). In doing research in the National Archive, I found early 19th century petitions with many thousands of signatures against slavery circulated by black and white women in the North which are not widely known (I did not write about this in Black Patriots and Loyalists, except for the earlier linkage of the two emancipations among Quakers.

But that the petition for the 13th Amendment which made the Constitution clean, i.e. not a slave-owners' document with clauses about blacks counting as 3/5ths of a man to advance the Presidencies and Congressional power of their owners or outlawing Harriet Tubman, John Brown and others who led blacks to freedom, came from women underlines a dialectic of liberty. See my "How slavery shapes the Constitution" here.

For Foner's reflections on the Constitution and Constitutionalism, see here.*


Freedom for one is freedom for all. When those who are most oppressed lift themselves, everyone else - the democracy - moves up with them.


And the reverse, as Pastor Niemoller’s poem about Nazism illustrates, is also true.

“First they came for the Communists and the union leaders and I did nothing,

And then they came for the Jews and I did nothing…

And finally they came for me

And there was no one left to protest.”


Foner’s letter also underlines not just Sherman’s March to the Sea but the rising of blacks to burn the foul mansions to the ground – a really central and buried part of the story which would have made bondage hard to restore. (That Foner is a famed historian of the Civil War who won a Pulitzer and a Bancroft Prize may have helped this letter slip by the Times' antennae for censorship. In addition, perhaps the outlying version of the form, Foner's book is also a biography of Lincoln, tracing his growth about slavery...)

Nonetheless, Jim Crow was reestablished through Klan violence and Supreme “Court” decision (in 1876 and through Plessy v. Ferguson, inter alia). So the concern of Lincoln in the film to pass the 13th amendment is justified. But perhaps Eric is right that, in the circumstances, it would have passed anyway, only to be defeated by counterrevolution and Jim Crow later.


Yet the victory itself is extraordinarily important. That it might have occurred anyway for a time – a point about historic forces set in motion by Civil War, black recruitment and black escape and uprising – is an important possibility or counterfactual which should not override the actual accomplishment.


As I write in Black Patriots and Loyalists, the logic of the American Revolution – if all men are free, then blacks are free as well as whites – the military competition between the Patriots and the Crown to recruit and free slaves, and the inspiring slave revolts in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean in the 1750s surging into London and Boston in 1760 and 1764 (James Otis’s pamphlet which asserted the natural rights of every man, black as well as white), discussed in every working class tavern and influencing every revolutionary crowd all shaped gradual emancipation in the North.

New York, which voted such a gradual emancipation bill in 1799 (actually freeing the last slaves only in the 1840s), was as big a slave owning state as South Carolina or Virginia. The modes of production in the latter, tobacco and rice-farming, created more centralized plantations and forms of political control; Manhattan was the center of the British war and of black escape to freedom, eroding bondage; all the surrounding states emancipated the slaves. But even such important differences do not explain why gradual emancipation failed in the South.

Everywhere else in the Hemisphere, in the revolutions of black and brown people, emancipation and independence were linked. Slave uprising made Haiti. When Bolivar was losing to Spain, he retreated to republican Haiti which aided him in exchange for proclaiming gradual emancipation. Only in North America was there a subsequent Civil War over slavery.


But Black Patriots and Loyalists presses the central question or counterfactual of why the Revolution did not conquer bondage in the South.

For the same forces that pressed emancipation in the Northern states also existed, to a large extent, in Southern ones. In 1779, the Continental Congress passed the Laurens proposal – to free and recruit 3,000 blacks in South Carolina and 2,000 blacks in Georgia, and there was a considerable movement to inspire South Carolina to fight the British rather than betray the Patriots (the South Carolina leadership, which had seceded from the Crown to preserve bondage, knelt disgustingly to the Redcoats rather than mobilize and free blacks to fight).


Yet South Carolina could have had more forces like John Laurens. The radical crowds in Charlestown (today: Charleston), South Carolina could have given rise to a more rebellious leadership (as in the Paris Commune against the treacherous French rulers who acquiesced to Prussian conquest sooner than mobilize the workers). The British could have fought on after Yorktown, requiring through competition for military recruitment of blacks, more Patriot enlistment and freeing of former slaves in the South.

But they did not.


There is a danger in thinking that historical possibilities are inevitabilities
For instance, the elite could have stolen the recent election for Romney as in 2004 and moved the country, far and perhaps fatally, towards an imperial police state; the shifting electorate and the prevention of voter suppression/voting machine fraud (the latter blocked by a suit by the Green Party and Jill Stein and perhaps by Anonymous** – see here and here means that, despite the increasingly bipartisan police state character even of the Obama administration (total information awareness, the doctrine of state secrets and the like), this possibility may have been averted or at least attenuated by the reelection of Obama.


So Lincoln's fighting for and achieving the passage of the 13th Amendment in January, 1865 in Congress is very important.


So, too, is the fact that bombing Iran has been temporarily headed off by the defeat of Romney, but it will take a further movement to defeat this possibility.

Cuts in social security are apparently off the table (see the front page of this morning’s Times) but it may take more movement from below to fight for minimal medical care for ordinary people and certainly, to fight for decent medical care for everyone.


Eric Foner has written an unusual letter to the Times which invites such reflections.


Lincoln’s Use of Politics for Noble Ends
Published: November 26, 2012

To the Editor:

Re “Why We Love Politics” (Op-Ed, Nov. 23):

David Brooks praises the new movie “Lincoln” for illuminating “the nobility of politics” and, he hopes, inspiring Americans to reconsider their low regard for politicians. The film depicts Abraham Lincoln’s arm-twisting and political maneuvering in January 1865 to secure approval of the 13th Amendment, which, when ratified by three-quarters of the states, abolished slavery throughout the nation.

This was indeed an important moment in political history. But Mr. Brooks, and the film, offer a severely truncated view. Emancipation — like all far-reaching political change — resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.

The 13th Amendment originated not with Lincoln but with a petition campaign early in 1864 organized by the Women’s National Loyal League, an organization of abolitionist feminists headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Moreover, from the beginning of the Civil War, by escaping to Union lines, blacks forced the fate of slavery onto the national political agenda.

The film grossly exaggerates the possibility that by January 1865 the war might have ended with slavery still intact. The Emancipation Proclamation had already declared more than three million of the four million slaves free, and Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia, exempted in whole or part from the proclamation, had decreed abolition on their own.

Even as the House debated, Sherman’s army was marching into South Carolina, and slaves were sacking plantation homes and seizing land. Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives. That would be a dramatic story for Hollywood.

New York, Nov. 23, 2012

The writer, a history professor at Columbia University, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”


Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Note: A portion of Article IV, section 2, of the Constitution was superseded by the 13th amendment.

Section 1.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868.

Note: Article I, section 2, of the Constitution was modified by section 2 of the 14th amendment.

Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2.
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,* and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3.
No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4.
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

*Changed by section 1 of the 26th amendment.

Passed by Congress February 26, 1869. Ratified February 3, 1870.

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude--

Section 2.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

**An "Anonymous" video claimed to block Secretary of State Husted's effort to shift votes on computerized voting machines with no paper trail parallel to 2004 (they had read King Rove which describes that theft). Note that Rove lost it in the Fox Studio, and commanded Megan Kelly to go back and talk with the technicians for 20 minutes after Fox had declared, with other networks, that Obama had won Ohio. Romney had prepared no speech for a defeat. That could be because they are deluded fatheads - a comforting hypothesis - but perhaps not.

Also Orca - Romney's bragged about central election machine on which 30,000 volunteers in Ohio relied - malfunctioned and was shut down, as under attack, by Comcast (the volunteers were given wrong passwords...) and gave the volunteers no help.

That could be because Mitt was incompetent (a good guess), but it could also have been helped along from outside.

As long as voting machines leave no paper trail and Secretaries of State conspire to deny the right to vote - for which every one of them should be put on trial for a crime against democracy and against the office they are "pledged" to uphold - elections will be in jeopardy here.

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