Friday, May 28, 2010

The Value of 625,000

On Wednesday night at Pollard, Richard Howe, co-author of the eponymous blog conveniently linked here and to your right, led a discussion of three Abraham Lincoln-related books in which about 20 or so local residents participated.

I decided to just engage in the discussion rather than try to take notes to summarize here on the site. As you might imagine, there were a lot of thought- and conversation-provoking points brought up by the crowd, but for this entry I'm just going to focus on two.

First, there was the question of whether the human cost of 625,000 men (roughly 4% of the male population of the U.S. at the time) justified the gains from the war for the nation.

The reason this question has stayed with me for the past couple of days during my solitary time on 495 and 93, or the more scenic 133 to 28, or wherever else I was between Lowell and Reading, is that it's not as frequently-raised as questions like whether Lincoln truly deserves credit as a "Great Emancipator" or whether the antebellum North has a claim to moral superiority over its Southern neighbors at the time.

Anyway, I'm obviously bringing some heavy-duty biases into the discussion -- I was born and raised north of the Mason-Dixon line and formed most of my original ideas about the Civil War in that environment. I've since chosen to *base* myself and form my identity around a region that fell pretty squarely on the winning side of the conflict. What's more, I'm a member of its longest-standing citizen militia, and hope to continue sporting a "Yankee Division" patch on my left shoulder for many years to come.

All that said, I still keep coming back to yes. Let's look at this fact alone -- whatever your beliefs about the true motivations of Lincoln for sending reinforcements to Ft. Sumter, or of South Carolina for seceding in the first place, or for the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, or for Chief Justice Taney's middle finger directed at the previous spate of Compromises, you have to acknowledge this -- chattel slavery existed in this great land prior to 1861, and it did not exist here beyond 1865.

Another point that seems worth acknowledging is that no person owned by another person and deprived of all basic rights -- to include freedom of expression and the right to be educated -- is going to reach his or her true potential in life.

A system of intergenerational slavery based on skin color never allows your society to have a Charles Drew, a Garrett Morgan, or a George Washington Carver, and so on. It also means no Lena Horne, no Paul Robeson, and no Jackie Robinson...which means none of THEIR forebears, or the myriad ways they enrich the world we live in. And so on. I'd like to think the tall guy in the funny hat might have been getting at this when he said, in November 1863:

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

Yes, as was noted Wednesday, it took ANOTHER 100 years for all of our nation to live up to the promise of these words, but I don't there's any question that the violent cataclysm that preceded them played a huge role. I also don't think slavery "would've just died out," if allowed to do so over time, as there are STILL some people nostalgic for the system who'd have the means to exploit it if they could. I *get* that an Irish immigrant laborer requires an almost-infinitely smaller initial fixed cost than a chattel slave, so it would be better to use Irish immigrants for imminently-dangerous activities like building bridges (or digging canals!). That said, people could still find uses for slaves, and the motivations might not be strictly economic, dollars-and-cents, seemingly rational sorts of calculations. If people buy completely-impractical luxuries to show wealth and satisfy ego, might they buy people if they could?

The second point I'll hit on is something that was raised by Mrs. Sonia Skillman concerning the war's inevitability. I can't remember exactly how she phrased it but she brought up the idea that the violence that mars our history is as much a part of our American character as are things like industriousness (yes, we work the longest) and our famously forward-looking mindset (check out David Brooks' 'On Paradise Drive' for modern implications of that).

Anyway, her point had me running back to my bookshelf to check out the inscription to Paul Johnson's epic "A History of the American People." It reads:

This book is dedicated to the people of America -- strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.

Those words come from a Briton who sees us from the outside looking in, but to me that only makes them all the more meaningful. Added up, they help give credence to Sonia's point.

I'd also note that we had already fought a war whose origins traced back to this contentious issue. In the 1820s, when Anglo settlers first made their way into what was then Mexico in large numbers, the first serious dispute that arose was over the question of whether people could own slaves -- more proof that it tugs at the emotions in ways that more mundane things like local meals taxes and Headmaster searches don't tend to do.

Two last bullets:

* The recently-restored Abraham Lincoln photo above, like that of the Tewksbury-based benefactor below, was a highlight of the "halftime tour" led by Ms. Rosemary Noon in between segments of the discussion.

* This ought to be done again. Obviously, there's a strong selection bias in a crowd of people willing to go to the library to learn about Abraham Lincoln on a Wednesday night, but one of my initial takeaways was that the participation level was more than double that of any discussion section I can remember from college.


politicalscience said...

These line in your article is very nice for these are "The reason this question has stayed with me for the past couple of days during my solitary time on 495 and 93, or the more scenic 133 to 28, or wherever else I was between Lowell and Reading for student aid, is that it's not as frequently-raised as questions like whether Lincoln truly deserves credit as a "Great Emancipator" or whether the antebellum North has a claim to moral superiority over its Southern neighbors at the time."

C R Krieger said...

I come down on the "yes" side of was it worth the cost in terms of dead and wounded—including the inevitable civilian dead.  Slavery needed to end.

I do think you were a bit hard on Chief Justice Roger B Taney.  He was trying to do what he thought was the right thing and to preserve the Union.  He failed and added fuel to the fire.  Through to his death in October 1864 he was not impeached.

Chief Justice Taney may have had a shot at immortality with the Dread Scott decision, but maybe not.  The vote was seven to two.  Thus, there is little likelihood that, had he a mind to, he would been able to make a dent in slavery with this decision.

He sided with setting the slaves free in the Amistad case. He freed his own slaves and paid pensions to the older ones.  He may not have been the terrible person so many think he is—of those who think of him at all.

He was right on Ex parte Merryman and President Lincoln was wrong.

He was wrong with Dread Scott, but he was not alone.

Regards  —  Cliff

Michelle & Randy said...

You have to be careful with Dread Scott. There is a line of research that says that Dread Scott was a correct ruling based on, if I recall correctly, the Contract Clause of the Constitution as it was interpreted at the time. I am not well enough read to have formed an opinion on that, but if we presume that CJ Taney believed that, you are presented with a very difficult moral question.

To wit, you may not do something immoral that good may come of it. Do we believe that misinterpreting the law of the land is immoral? Is it reasonable to think, if you are CJ Taney, to believe that slavery was a political question assigned by the Constitution a protected status. In such circumstance, would it be immoral for the Supreme Court to arrogate to itself a question that should be addressed by Constitutional amendment?

In the alternative, you could reasonably conclude that slavery is such an immoral institution that a Constitutional endorsement of it was of no weight and should be opposed by any means necessary. While I am sympathetic to that argument, it is a bit of a slippery slope. After all, I believe that jay walking laws are immoral . . .

In the end, we are presented with a desirable position - the end of slavery - and a situation that, by the Grace of God, will not be repeated. We should all count ourselves lucky that we have not been presented with such a difficult test.

the other cliff

C R Krieger said...

While I am not down on Jaywalking laws (except maybe Mayor Guiliani's zeal in enforcement), there are other issues out there that one side could push the other to conclude that the activity is as morally wrong as slavery.  While this may put me in the same boat as CJ Taney, I find the 80/80 split on abortion to be a good thing for the nation.  On the one hand, 80% of the People think abortion should be available.  On the other hand, 80% of the People think that abortion is wrong.  Out of that we have a compromise.  There will be adjustment along the margin, but barring a major change in how the People of the US view abortion, we are not going to have radical change.

The closest we could come to real change regarding abortion would be for the SCOTUS to throw it back on the states.  That would result in much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And some adjustments in individual states.  (I would like to underline "Individual" but this program won't take the "U" Tag, like it didn't take the ampersand Tag in a previous Comment.)

These kinds of decisions are hard.  We think of President Lincoln as being the man who ended slavery—we forget that to preserve the union he would have kept slavery, notwithstanding knowing how wrong it was.  So over 600,000 Americans died because in the end the Southern states didn't trust President Lincoln on this issue.  And Lincoln would not let them go.

These kinds of decisions are also complex.

Regards  —  Cliff