Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > Slavery and “Big Government”: The Emancipation Proclamation’s Lessons 150 Years Later

Jul 12, 2012

Slavery and “Big Government”: The Emancipation Proclamation’s Lessons 150 Years Later


First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln went out for a carriage ride with his Secretary of State, William Seward, and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln told them (as Welles recalled it) that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.” That was the seed of conception for the Emancipation Proclamation, which came to birth five and half months later, giving Lincoln his greatest legacy: “He freed the slaves.” It’s a story everyone knows.

But it’s not quite accurate. Only the slaves in the Confederate states were emancipated. Citizens of the Union could still own slaves.

The part of the story that portrays Lincoln issuing the Proclamation simply from his deep moral concern about the evils of slavery is rather misleading, too. He had plenty of moral concern. But he stated over and over that his number one goal was winning the war. He said he would be willing to keep every slave enslaved if it would help win the war.

Fortunately, by mid-1862 freeing the slaves seemed to be the best way to win the war. Emancipation would deprive the Confederates of their main source of labor and bring much of that labor into the Union Army, where blacks served in all sorts of ways.

Lincoln knew he was taking a political risk. The vast majority of Northerners, like their president, had gone to war only to save the Union, and now they were shedding blood at an unprecedented and unexpected rate for that cause. But racism was rampant in the North. Would whites fight and die for emancipation?

There was also a huge controversy in the North over whether blacks should be allowed to fight; the specter of armed African Americans terrified many white Northerners almost as much as Southerners. And Northern Democrats played the racist card as their strongest weapon to discredit Lincoln and the Republicans.

So why was Lincoln willing to take the political risk of declaring the Confederacy’s slaves free? The military advantages were certainly the decisive factor. And he had finally given up his fervent hope that the border states would agree to a slow, gradual emancipation plan.

But historians also point to a major shift in public opinion between the war’s beginning and the middle of 1862, which diminished the political risk. Though racism still abounded, there was a large and unexpected growth of sympathy for the slaves that brought with it support for the idea of giving them freedom. Indeed, Congress had already passed the Confiscation Acts, giving Union soldiers the right to free slaves in any Confederate territory that the Northern army controlled.

Why this sudden public desire to free the slaves? Many of these congressmen and their constituents were not only racist but rather conservative by today’s standards. And the surge of evangelical piety unleashed by the Second Great Awakening was still rising. A vast number of Northerners in 1862 would have been quite comfortable with the religious, social, and for the most part political views of today’s “religious right.” Recent scholarship (Richard Carwardine, David Goldfield, and Orville Vernon Burton, among others) sees the religious factor as key to understanding the era.

The Republican Party first coalesced around a demand to keep slavery out of the western territories. Their rallying cry, “free soil, free labor, free men,” had a rather libertarian ring to it. There was little to no enthusiasm for war.

Once the Confederacy seceded, though, the slavery issue itself almost disappeared, as “the salvation of the Union” became the one and only concern. (It is noteworthy that Lincoln used this religious terminology in a private chat with his Cabinet secretaries.) A year later, limiting slavery had returned, in a new form, to join victory at the top of the Republican agenda.

It’s striking to see how quickly and easily nineteenth-century evangelicals (again, mostly conservative by today’s standards) could change their top political issues.

We’ve seen the same thing in the twenty-first century. The day after Election Day, 2004, the pundits credited George W. Bush’s re-election to the power of the religious right and its overwhelming concern for morality and social issues. A closer analysis of the exit polls showed, though, that the real key to Bush’s win was the perception that he could best win the war against terrorism.

In 2004 conservatives showed no fear of “big government.” They wanted a government strong enough to protect them from “terrorists” and “secular humanists,” so they voted enthusiastically for a president who had driven the nation deeply into debt, erasing the surpluses of his Democratic predecessor.

Now, neither social issues nor terrorism rise to the top of conservatives’ list of most important issues. Neither one gets more than about 5 percent in “What is your most important issue” polling, although 35 percent to 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservative. Even among evangelicals, the leading concern of the day is the supposedly “crushing burden” of federal debt and curbing the spending of “big government.”

We could look at any other era of American history and see the same pattern we see in the Civil War era and our own. Conservatives, evangelical and otherwise, are not defined by any single issue. Their favorite issue(s) change with the times, sometimes very rapidly.

Still, their movement does have a unity and continuity that explains its enduring strength. Burton offers an important clue when he describes the national mood in 1856, as the Republican Party was first taking the national stage:

Americans had a strong sense of failure in spite of economic prosperity. Socially, communities seemed troubled, in flux, coming apart. Culturally, all that was American seemed steadily diluted, adulterated, narrowed. Political vision seemed utterly lacking.

Fast forward five years, add the shock of massive death and suffering on the battlefield, with no victory in sight, and one can only imagine how much stronger was the sense of failure, how much more communities seemed troubled. Yet they were no longer in such flux, and America no longer seemed diluted or adulterated. Now all came together around a fixed cause to fight for, to give America meaning: a war against the evil of secession.

Add another year, and slavery joined secession in the list of evil to be exterminated. But the principle remained the same: When conservatives are plagued with those disturbing feelings, their healing balm is to divide the world into a simple dichotomy of good against evil and to join the forces of good in a war -- social, political, and military if need be -- against the evil.

Now fast forward 156 years, and we must subtract the economic prosperity of 1856. But the rest of Burton’s description is an almost exact summary of how most conservatives feel, especially the evangelicals among them. And the loss of confidence in the economy surely heightens all the other anxieties he identifies.

Now, as then, the antidote to anxiety is to find an evil to resist. Now, as then, the name of the evil is a secondary matter. The heart of the matter is a simple truth: A world starkly divided between good and evil is a world that has a firm, clearly defined structure. Psychological studies show that conservatism arises from a desire for structure, for a controlled world that offers the security of certainty.

As long as the moral boundary line seems immutable, people who are comforted by structure feel far less troubled. Their world no longer seems in flux or coming apart. As long as they can place America squarely on the side of good, they no longer have to worry about their nation seeming diluted or adulterated.

Any issue that lets conservatives draw an absolute, patriotic dividing line will do the job and inspire their passion, at least for a while. That’s why the causes they fight against can change so readily.

Unfortunately, when the world is morally divided like that, someone on the “wrong” side usually suffers. In today’s political climate, the millions who depend on government funds for their very survival are the potential victims of the conservative crusade. (Just take a look at this one sad story, out of dozens that appear every day.) In the nineteenth century, the Emancipation Proclamation was produced by the same crusading reform spirit that demanded the repression of sexuality, the prohibition of alcohol and gambling, and other such routes to “purity.” Yet in this case it produced an indisputable moral good.   

Just as the nineteenth century spirit of reform produced mixed results, so the mythic tale that the Emancipation Proclamation spawned has carried mixed results. As Eruc Foner has written:

The sheer drama of emancipation fused nationalism, morality, and the language of freedom in an entirely new combination. ... It crystallized a new identification between the ideal of liberty and a nation-state whose powers increased enormously as the war progressed. ...  Henceforth, freedom would follow the American flag. As Frederick Douglass proclaimed, “The cause of the slaves and the cause of the country” had become one.

As conservatives showed in 2004 -- and indeed, as they have showed since the 1940s -- they, too, want an enormously powerful nation-state, as long as it wields its powers only to fight foreign enemies and domestic moral evils, as conservatives define them. The debate in this election year is about the economic meaning of the freedom that follows the flag.

But conservatives also tend to want their government to wield its power quickly and decisively. When good goes up against evil, they see a battle of absolutes. So there’s no time for reflecting on subtle shades of gray. 

That’s the way the story of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation has been told: One day, Lincoln just decided that slavery was wrong, so he freed the slaves, each and every one, with a single stroke of the governmental pen. This myth goes hand-in-hand with another myth born out of the Civil War: When American soldiers carry the flag into battle, they must win absolute victory by totally destroying the enemy -- and the quicker the better. Like the final battle of Christ against Satan in the Apocalypse (The Book of Revelation), victory should ideally be instantaneous.

This was apparently the strategic vision of General Ulysses S. Grant. Once he took command of the Union forces and achieved victory, it became what Russell Weigley has called “the American way of war,” showing its implications most clearly in Sherman’s march through Georgia.

Since the Civil War, total, instantaneous freedom -- whether by decree or by force of arms -- has been a powerful American myth. Today’s conservatives seem more likely than liberals to build their politics upon it. We shouldn’t discount its impact on liberals, too. But those who demand a clear-cut, immutable structure for their nation and their world are more inclined to be conservative, and they’re more inclined to try to put this apocalyptic myth into political practice.   

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that, in 1862, politicized evangelicals pushed a hesitant president to do what was so obviously the morally right thing, even if he did it only as a way to win the war. And Lincoln’s decision transformed the very idea of America.

Today, too, there is a small but growing minority of evangelicals who would move public policy in progressive directions. Some are deeply concerned about the environment. A smaller number of white evangelicals -- and lots of evangelicals of color -- are deeply concerned about peace and social justice.

Progressives have a dangerous tendency to stereotype all evangelicals as conservative and reactionary. It would be better strategy to engage them in conversation and treat disagreements somewhat diplomatically. No one knows what issue might engage evangelicals’ passions next year. 

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