Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A New Birth of Freedom in America

What an astounding day for the nation. I spent the afternoon with my aunt and her family. She was active in the Peace Corps during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and helped many African-Americans register to vote for the first time in their lives. Needless to say, this day meant a lot for her. As President Obama mentioned our nation's many struggles, including Gettysburg, I came to realize that my aunt's mission (as well as Lincoln's) were coming to fruition this day. In what other democracy or country could such a thing happen? We indeed are a nation of immigrants, and that fact is being celebrated this day.

Below is a great editorial by Pulitzer-Prize winning Civil War Historian James McPherson, further explaining how past meets present. Happy Inauguration Day America.

Removing the Stain

Lincoln promised a 'new birth of freedom.' With his hand on Lincoln's Bible, Obama fulfills that pledge.

James M. McPherson
From the magazine issue dated Jan 21, 2009

In November 1863 president Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief address at the dedication of the soldiers' cemetery in Gettysburg. The Union dead buried there had given the "last full measure of devotion" in the bloodiest battle of a "great civil war" that would determine whether the nation founded four score and seven years earlier would "long endure" or "perish from the earth." Lincoln urged the audience—which has included millions of Americans who have read these words since 1863—to "highly resolve" that the United States "shall have a new birth of freedom." Barack Obama chose a new birth of freedom as the theme for his Inaugural Address. He took the oath of office with his hand on the same Bible Lincoln used for that purpose in 1861.

Lincoln did not define "a new birth of freedom" at Gettysburg, but his contemporaries knew what he meant. The nation had been founded on a charter of freedom which declared that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator" with the unalienable right of liberty. Yet the man who wrote these words owned many slaves. African-Americans were enslaved in all 13 states that proclaimed their freedom from British rule in 1776. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" asked the English littérateur Samuel Johnson in 1775. It was a question that embarrassed the Founding Fathers and continued to plague Americans who liked to boast of their republic as a "beacon of liberty" to the oppressed peoples of other lands. Slavery soon disappeared from the states north of the Mason-Dixon line and was prohibited north of the Ohio River by the Northwest Ordinance. But the institution grew stronger than ever in the states south of these boundaries. By the mid-19th century the United States was the largest slaveholding country in the world. "The monstrous injustice of slavery," said Lincoln in 1854, "deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites."

A growing number of Americans agreed with Lincoln. They decried not only the institution of bondage but also the "slave power" that had dominated the national government since 1789. During two thirds of those years a slaveholder had been president of the United States. Two thirds of the Speakers of the House and presidents pro tem of the Senate, as well as 20 of the 35 justices of the Supreme Court, had been from slave states. The slave power's lock on the federal government was broken by Lincoln's election in 1860 with no electoral votes from any of the 15 slave states. He won on a platform pledging restriction of the future expansion of slavery. Such restriction, Lincoln had said in his "House Divided" speech two years earlier, would place slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction." With Lincoln's victory in 1860, declared Charles Francis Adams (the son and grandson of two previous Northern presidents), "the great revolution has actually taken place ... The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders."

Precisely. The slaveholders thought the same. That is why they launched a counterrevolution of Confederate independence to protect slavery from the new antislavery majority that had elected Lincoln. This pro-slavery counterrevolution ironically sealed the fate of bondage. When Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter six weeks after Lincoln's inauguration, they set in motion a war that ended four years later with the extinction of slavery as well as of the Confederacy. The Civil War did not begin as a war to abolish slavery. Quite the contrary, the North's initial war aim was to "restore the Union"—a Union in which nearly half of the states were slave states. As late as August 1862—16 months into the war—Lincoln declared that "my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." Often misinterpreted, Lincoln's purpose in this declaration was to prepare public opinion for the proclamation of emancipation he had already decided to issue at the right time. He had concluded that to win a war against an enemy fighting for and sustained by slavery, the North must strike against slavery. "Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed," said Lincoln in 1862. "Without slavery it could not continue ... We [want] the army to strike more vigorous blows. The administration must set an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion."

As commander in chief, Lincoln had the authority to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States. Slaves were such property, for their labor sustained the Confederate economy and the logistics of Confederate armies. On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln invoked this authority to proclaim freedom for slaves in states and parts of states at war with the United States. To make good on this proclamation, of course, the North would have to win the war. To help Union armies do so, Lincoln included in the Emancipation Proclamation a provision for recruiting freed slaves into the armed forces. During the next two years some 200,000 black soldiers and sailors—most of them former slaves—fought for the Union and freedom. By August 1863 these fighting men had so far proved their value that Lincoln publicly praised them and contrasted them with Copperhead Democrats who opposed the war. When the conflict was won, said Lincoln, "there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it." A year later, with more than 100,000 black men under arms, Lincoln proclaimed their contribution essential to victory. Without these soldiers, he said, "we can not much longer maintain the contest ... Abandon all the posts now possessed by black men ... & we would be compelled to abandon the war." The fighting of black troops helped to bring the new birth of freedom consummated by Union victory in 1865. It also persuaded Lincoln to take the first step toward equal civil and political rights for freed slaves.

In March 1864 he wrote the new governor of the reconstructed part of Louisiana to urge that literate African-Americans and black soldiers be enfranchised. "They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom." Thirteen months later, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln spoke to a crowd on the White House lawn that had come to celebrate the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox. It was time to look to the future, said the president, a future in which the ex-Confederate states would return to the Union on the basis of this enfranchisement of many African-Americans. One of the listeners in the crowd turned to his companion. "That means n––––r citizenship," snarled John Wilkes Booth. "Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make." Three days later Booth carried out his ugly threat. The nation was deprived of Lincoln's leadership during the trying years of Reconstruction.

The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution granted equal civil and political rights to AfricanAmericans—on paper. For a few years these pledges were fitfully fulfilled on the ground as well. But the nation backslid from this commitment in the 1870s. The freed slaves and their descendants fell into the mire of segregation, repression and exploitation. The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, written in 1892 to celebrate the triumph of American nationalism in the Civil War, spoke of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. An indivisible nation and liberty were realities in the 1890s. But justice for all was not. The new birth of freedom was incomplete. Three generations later the civil-rights movement put America on course again toward that new birth—toward justice for all. The election of Barack Obama gives hope for completion of the course. When he took the presidential oath with his hand on the Lincoln Bible, the nation had come a long way toward fulfilling the promise made at Gettysburg a century and a half ago.

McPherson is the author of "Abraham Lincoln," "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" and "Battle Cry of Freedom," which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.

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