Credit: Wiki Commons.
In recent weeks I have conducted a series of workshops with middle school and high school social studies and English teachers grappling with incorporating new Common Core literacy standards in their classrooms. Two things I have repeatedly stressed are the importance of understanding historical context before students can successfully interpret primary source documents and the role of the historian in providing a critical analysis of text and exploring multiple interpretations or perspectives on historical events.
I think Lewis Lehrman, in his discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in the latest edition of History Now, the online journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, fails the Common Core test, not because he is unaware of the historical events, but because his interpretation is skewed by his ideological position (Lehrman is the institute's co-founder, an investment banker, and prominent funder of conservative political causes -- I have criticized him in the past for his ideological bias in American history). Lehrman suggests his interpretation of the speech is supported by Frederick Douglass, but from my reading of both the speech and of Douglass’ account, I think Douglass would more likely share my concerns about Lincoln’s address and my criticisms of Lehrman’s and the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s interpretation of United States history.
Much of the article focuses on Lincoln’s rhetorical style, which Lehrman believes reflected his courtroom and leadership experience and his desire to write for and speak to “posterity.” Lehrman describes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as a “peerless work of political theology ... In 703 words, he summarized the moral dilemma of slavery in American history and the four-year conflict it caused. In a few words, he looked back at America’s original sin as he looked forward to the Union’s restoration.”
To support his interpretation, Lehrman quotes Frederick Douglass description of the speech as a “sacred effort” and the passage most of us are most familiar with from the inaugural address:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
In the article, Lehrman uses the Lincoln speech to make a series of broader points about the end of slavery in the United States and by inference, United States history.
1) “The entire nation was moved then, as it is now, by the gravity of the moment, the eloquence of the president.”
2) Because the aim of the speech was uniting a divided country, Lincoln minimized the culpability of the South for the Civil War.
3) The inaugural address echoed abolitionists in its condemnation of slavery.
4) Lincoln understood that as president he was speaking to many different audiences, both “free soil supporters in the North” and “secessionists and slaveholders in the South.”
First, I think Lehrman selectively misuses “the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass” to make his case about the speech and its implications. In his memoir, Douglass explained how he and a female companion demanded to be admitted to a White House reception the night after the speech. Initially they were blocked from entering, but Lincoln insisted that they be allowed to enter.
According to Douglass, Lincoln asked him what he thought of the speech. At first Douglass responded, "Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you." However, when Lincoln insisted on a reply, Douglass replied, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." This is not quite the resounding endorsement of the inaugural speech that Lehrman suggests.
In addition, Douglass’s description of the inauguration, which Lehrman does not reference, has a very different tone. While Lehrman claims, “the entire nation was moved then, as it is now, by the gravity of the moment, the eloquence of the President,” Douglass offers a quite different perspective.
This condition of things made the air at Washington dark and lowering. The friends of the Confederate cause here were neither few nor insignificant. They were among the rich and influential. A wink or a nod from such men might unchain the hand of violence and set order and law at defiance ... The whole proceeding was wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn. From the oath as administered by Chief Justice Chase, to the brief but weighty address delivered by Mr. Lincoln, there was a leaden stillness about the crowd. The address sounded more like a sermon than like a state paper. In the fewest words possible he referred to the condition of the country four years before on his first accession to the presidency, to the causes of the war, and the reasons on both sides for which it had been waged. "Neither party," he said, "expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it had already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding." Then in a few short sentences admitting the conviction that slavery had been the "offense which in the providence of God must needs come, and the war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came," he asks if there can be "discerned in this any departure from those Divine attributes which the believers in a loving God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope," he continued, "fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
Douglass did not see Lincoln or the speech as fervently abolitionist, and either because of or despite this, the speech was not received wit warmth by the crowd. Douglass concluded this section, “when I clapped my hands in gladness and thanksgiving at their utterance, I saw in the faces of many about me expressions of widely different emotion.” I think Douglass and Lehrman are viewing a different Lincoln and speech, and I agree with Douglass.
Second, Lehrman misreads the inaugural address because he starts from the belief that the triumph of America is that it eliminated the stain of slavery, and that this, not the impact of slavery and racism on the United States both past and present, should be the focus of historical understanding and history education in the United States. In an interview published in the New York Times, Lehrman argued that slavery “was an institution supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it.” He deplores the view that “American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery ... One of the triumphs of America was to have dealt directly with that issue in the agonies of a civil war, and to have passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.”
As I read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, I see a war-weary and politically cautious president who never completely endorsed the abolition of slavery; who in April 1861 accepted the proposed Corwin Amendment to the Constitution that would have prevented the national government from interfering with slavery in the South; who in December 1862, less than a month before finally issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, offered the South gradual compensated emancipation that would have extended slavery in the United States into the twentieth century, and who in the actual document sharply limited the scope of emancipation so that very few enslaved Africans out of the millions in bondage were directly and immediately affected.
Douglass, in his memoir, discusses his view of this Lincoln in a passage where he described the scene at the Tremont Temple in Boston as the crowd waited with anticipation and trepidation at possible disappointment for the Emancipation Proclamation to be announced.
Although the conditions on which Mr. Lincoln had promised to withhold it had not been complied with, yet, from many considerations, there was room to doubt and fear. Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience: no man could tell to what length he might go, or might refrain from going, in the direction of peace and reconciliation. Hitherto, he had not shown himself a man of heroic measures, and, properly enough, this step belonged to that class. It must be the end of all compromises with slavery -- a declaration that thereafter the war was to be conducted on a new principle, with a new aim. It would be a full and fair assertion that the government would neither trifle, or be trifled with, any longer. But would it come?
It is this Lincoln who promised “malice toward none” of the Southerners in rebellion and “charity” toward them all. It is this Lincoln who believed that God punished the United States with a Civil War because of slavery, but offered no recompense or even a guarantee of rights to the formerly enslaved. According to Eric Foner in Forever Free (2006), it is this Lincoln who in 1863 proposed a “Ten Percent Plan” of Reconstruction that offered the South amnesty and the full restoration of political rights and property, except for the return of former slaves, to any White Southerner who took a loyalty oath.
Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan would have permitted the Confederate states to elect new state governments and send representatives to Washington as soon as 10 percent of the state’s voters in 1860 had taken the oath. The new state constitutions would be required to accept the end of slavery, but Lincoln’s plan offered no role in reconstructing the South to its black population and it would be left up to the white Southerners to decide how their state governments would control the lives of blacks (61-62).
I suspect if this Lincoln had lived, presidential Reconstruction would not have differed much from the program initiated by Andrew Johnson, and it probably would have received more support because of Lincoln’s political capital earned as a victorious war president. In this circumstance, the United States may never have seen the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments defining African Americans as citizens entitled to vote.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address should be read by high school students, not to promote patriotism, but to encourage questioning and challenges to historical orthodoxy. What was actually necessary then and what is possible now “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan -- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations”?
In 1862, Frederick Douglass argued that the development of a more equal society in the United States “does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”
I argue that struggle for equality still continues and is made more difficult because of the influence of people like Lewis Lehrman and the ability of their money to shape the political, historical, and educational debates in this country. As schools across the United States look for ways to incorporate Common Core standards into the social studies and history curriculum, I look forward to many debates exploring multiple perspectives on the real meaning of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the lingering impact of slavery and racism on American society.