The slave law, made it a crime to shelter any runaway slaves and by implication legally compelled citizens to aid in the capture of found runaways. Susan B. Anthony makes reference to this in readings from last class, referring to the humanity of people who disobeyed this law. The conflicts of the 1850s raised the importance of civil disobedience even more. The Dred Scott case was decided that an ex-slave named Dred Scott who have lived for years already as a free man was not legally entitled to his freedom or to any rights. Chief Justice Taney ruled explicitly that African-American were not entitled to the rights under the Declaration of Independence. This illustrates how the court system applies the laws to specific events, it also underscores, how no matter how elegant the words are in the Declaration, they are in the end just words and are only powerful to the extent they became the basis of action. One of Lincoln's most famous writings is his response to this case which firmly established him as a leading anti-slavery spokesman in the Republican Party.
Civil disobedience was practiced by both pro and anti slavery forces, and very quickly it descended into violence. Perhaps, nowhere was there a better prologue to the Civil War than in Bleeding Kansas in 1855. Kansas which had recently applied for statehood was expected to come in as a free state. Pro-slavery forces then invaded the state and actually staged battles against the anti-slavery government. Eventually the pro-slavery side won and burned the capital of the anti-slavery government and established, by force, a pro-slave government in Kansas.
One man who fought in Bleeding Kansas was John Brown. He believed he was God's agent to bring about the destruction of slavery. In Kansas he executed several pro-slavery prisoners. In 1859, he led an attack on the U.S. Armory at Harper's Ferry in Virginia with five black men and thirteen white men. His intent was to start a full-scale slave revolt in the South by arming the slaves. However his plan failed and he was captured by an Army Colonel named Robert E. Lee who would later become the General of the Confederate Army. Here is an excerpt from the New York Herald, once an important newspaper, interviewing Brown shortly after his capture: "Bystander: Upon what principle do you justify your acts? Mr. Brown: Upon the golden rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them....Bystander: To set them free would sacrifice the life of every man in this community. Mr. Brown: I do not think so. Bystander: I know it. I think you are fanatical. Mr. Brown: And I think you are fanatical."
At this time, it is important to remember that to be considered an abolitionist at this time was to be considered a radical, an opinion which was not shared by the majority of the people at the time.
Brown was tried for treason and hanged, however, he became an icon of the abolition movement and was praised by people like Frederick Douglass and writers like Herman Melville who wrote of the prophetic quality of Brown's actions, one that would be confirmed just a few years later, in his poem "The Portent":
Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
Shenandoah is an Indian name for Virginia, where Brown's attack was carried out. There are many prophetic references in the poem, which was first published in 1866, so Melville is reading this prophetic quality in Brown after the war. A portent is a sign of the future, a meteor (actually his beard covered by a hood) has also been seen for centuries as a symbol of prophecy, weird in this sense refers to the "weird sisters" who predict the future in Shakespeares' play Macbeth. Lincoln, who has also been attributed with prophetic qualities, however denounced his use of violence. Lincoln at this time had returned to the practice of law after serving time in Congress. He would later run for president in 1860. This more than anything else is what drove the South to secede from the Union.
Lincoln was perceived by Southerners as representing a direct threat to their way of life, even though he was perceived as a moderate and was often criticized by the more progressive elements of the abolition movement. Lincoln for example did not favor the total abolition of slavery, only to restrict its further expansion (which he believed would kill it in the long run). Douglass, you will remember from last class, was very critical of this view and in fact became one of the most vocal critics of Lincoln. Many credit his frequent protests against the government in the form of public speeches and written documents to have influenced the policy of the administration in eventually abolishing slavery.
The Souther Secessionist movement to leave the Union was led by members of Congress, like Jefferson Davis, a Senator from Mississippi who became the first and only President of the Confederate States of America. Southern states began to seceding after the election of Lincoln and before he took office on March 4th, 1861. South Carolina was the first to secede in December 1860, followed by Mississippi and Florida. In Texas, the Governor Sam Houston was thrown out of office by pro-slavery factions. West Virginia broke off from Virginia and refused to secede from the Union. Maryland was retained by force after President Lincoln sent troops to occupy Baltimore and the capital and arrested the mayor of Baltimore and secessionist legislators. All of these men were held without trial.
As mentioned last class, Abraham Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party which was originally named the Free Soil Party and then Free Soil Republicans. Anti-slavery was one of the major foundational principles of the modern Republican Party. It also a strong Union and a strong national government. It also stressed economic growth and favored close relationships with the growing industries: railroads, shipping, iron and steel, coal mining, lumber, textiles, cattle and livestock, corn and other cereal crops. All of these industries were mutually interdependent and growth in one sector tended to mean growth in all the sectors. Most historians stress the North's industrial supremacy over the South in being a decisive factor in their ultimate victory over the Confederacy. After the war, many of the industrial managers who had supported the war effort now benefitted from government support in the various form from protective tariffs to control over currency and even influencing the passing of laws.
Highlights of Lincoln's Presidency (Besides the Civil War):
Lincoln was a very powerful president who extended the power of the executive branch of government more than it had ever been previously.
Pacific Railway Act 1862: Started construction on the transcontinental railroad connecting the East and West coasts of the U.S.
Land Grant Act 1862: Sold federal land cheaply to states in order to create public universities to specialize in teaching agricultural and industrial arts as well as military training
Founded Dept. of Agriculture 1862 (USDA): This branch of government would provide assistance to farmers, providing them credit, and giving them information on the latest farming techniques and technology. This was helpful too for the newly freed slaves after the war, most of whom tried to make a living for themselves through agriculture (farming and raising livestock).
During the Civil War, Lincoln suspended certain civil liberties like habeas corpus. This legal principle states that people arrested for a crime must be brought as soon as possible in front of a judge and charged formally with a crime. During the war, Lincoln had Southern sympathizers jailed without reason and never charged with a crime. He also shut down newspapers which were sympathetic to the South. Lincoln seized control of all Northern telegraph lines thus controlling the flow of information between all the states in the North.
Lincoln idolized Jefferson and in the Gettysburg Address, attempts to redefine the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Notice how he refers to "dedication" and "conception". He says the country was born with liberty (conceived) and dedicated to equality. He does not say the country was born with equality. Instead dedication refers to a future goal that has not come to pass. In this sense America is an unfinished project that is committed to realizing equality among its citizens. The Civil War will be the rebirth of the Nation which will now be conceived in equality as well. Lincoln's death will link him to the memory and sacrifice of the soldiers he himself commemorates in this speech. Lincoln himself becomes a victim of the Civil War, unlike leaders who usually escape the personal consequences of war themselves.
The traumatic experience of the war, and theme of devotion to a cause to the point of self-sacrifice was still felt even decades later as this quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War veteran and later Supreme Court Justice shows, and perhaps suggests a much darker undercurrent to the idea of civil religion:
I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.
Most men who know battle know the cynic force with which the thoughts of common sense will assail them in times of stress; but they know that in their greatest moments faith has trampled those thoughts under foot. If you wait in line, suppose on Tremont Street Mall, ordered simply to wait and do nothing, and have watched the enemy bring their guns to bear upon you down a gentle slope like that of Beacon Street, have seen the puff of the firing, have felt the burst of the spherical case-shot as it came toward you, have heard and seen the shrieking fragments go tearing through your company, and have known that the next or the next shot carries your fate; if you have advanced in line and have seen ahead of you the spot you must pass where the rifle bullets are striking; if you have ridden at night at a walk toward the blue line of fire at the dead angle of Spottsylvania, where for twenty-four hours the soldiers were fighting on the two sides of an earthwork, and in the morning the dead and dying lay piled in a row six deep, and as you rode you heard the bullets splashing in the mud and earth about you; if you have been in the picket-line at night in a black and unknown wood, have heard the splat of the bullets upon the trees, and as you moved have felt your foot slip upon a dead man's body; if you have had a blind fierce gallop against the enemy, with your blood up and a pace that left no time for fear—if, in short, as some, I hope many, who hear me, have known, you have known the vicissitudes of terror and triumph in war; you know that there is such a thing as the faith I spoke of. You know your own weakness and are modest; but you know that man has in him that unspeakable somewhat which makes him capable of miracle, able to lift himself by the might of his own soul, unaided, able to face annihilation for a blind belief (The Soldier's Fate, 1895).
The Second Inaugural Address, is one of the most famous political speeches of all time (along with the Gettysburg Address). In this speech Lincoln tries put the war in context, he views it as a long and painful act of atonement for the sins of slavery. Slavery is a crime against nature and a part of "original sin" in Christian doctrine. For over 250 years (in his time) this crime against nature had been perpetuated. Now this war has been delivered like a judgement from God to balance the scales of justice, sparing neither North or South both of whom share guilt. Unfortunately, the "sins" of racial oppression continued long after the war.
Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the war, but the legacy of his presidency could not be changed. Lincoln greatly increased the power of the presidency, mostly out of necessity and circumstance. However, certain changes once made cannot be undone, and although Congress tried to control presidents after Lincoln the power of the president was forever increased.
Power over reason also came to play more of a role in politics. Although the framers like Hamilton and Madison believed that reason and persuasion could solve our problems (a central belief of Enlightenment philosophy), the legacy of the war and slavery revealed the limits of persuasion. The lesson was clear, at a certain point, persuasion fails and only power can achieve the necessary results. Hamilton did want the citizens to identify and form emotional attachments with the federal government, and in this sense he succeeded beyond his imagination. States' rights was seen as coded language for slavery. The Union (as in United States), which many hundreds of thousands fought and died for ascended to a level of importance in the eyes of ordinary citizens that had been unprecedented in the history of the nation thus far.
Next class we will talk about the Progressive movement.
Have a happy holiday and a great Thanksgiving!
Assignment Due 12/3: Choose a passage from the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural Address. Write out the passage and interpret its meaning and explain why you chose it.