Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Abe Lincoln Reconsidered

This was the last topic I thought I'd ever write about, but this month marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address widely considered one of the greatest speeches ever delivered. I came across this article by a Canadian professor repudiating post-modernism and calling for Canadians to engage in principled rhetoric using Lincoln's famous speech as inspiration. He cites Canadian statesmen Thomas D'Arcy McGee who was Lincolns contemporary and admirer as saying, "A war for the unity of the Republic must be necessarily, ipso facto, a war for liberty.The dogmas of which the Republic is founded are the genuine articles of every freeman’s creed." This caught my attention as a self-detonating statement. We need to engage in war to compel unity so that we can all be free? If a dogma of the Republic is  individual liberty doesn't that necessarily mean freedom from compulsion, force and unwanted unions? I didn't think they had post-modernists back in 1864. I always associated post-modernists with horrible self-indulgent art and war sophistry. This got me wondering about whether Lincolns venerated speech was the principled rhetoric its made out to be or just poetic platitudes and deepities.

Abraham Lincoln is lauded in modern culture as a heroic figure, just watch the trailer of Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis to get a sense of the awe American culture has for this man. With little digging I found a few quotes that you aren't likely to see in any modern day portrayal of Lincoln:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." - First Inaugural Address 

"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just let her alone." - Lincoln v Douglas Debate

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it 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 some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." - Letter to the Editor

Do we take honest Abe's at his own word? That wouldn't make a convenient account of history would it? How would D. Day Lewis recite those quotes with conviction? Would part of his method require he become a racist for 3 months?

History is written by the victors. Had the the United States successfully invaded Canada and absorbed our territories into their control during the War of 1812 then that conflict would likely have been named the 1st American Civil War, had the South successfully repelled its invaders it wouldn't have been a civil war at all but a war between nation states with the Confederacy no doubt having noticeably different history text books than the Union.

I'm no historian but it seems to me that Lincoln was more concerned about preserving the Union than ending slavery and the South seemed more concerned about repelling an invasion than advancing or defending against slavery abolition. Consider the two men leading the armies at the end of the war; General Lee who led the South had set his slaves free prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and considered slavery "a moral and political evil" and General Grants (the Northern General) family still owned slaves at the end of the war because Lincolns emancipation proclamation only outlawed slavery in the South. General Grant was not fighting to free slaves, unless the blood he shed was necessary to free his own slaves, and General Lee was not fighting for the right to keep them.

The American Civil War claimed over 1 million lives (3% of the population) and resulted in the emancipation of 3.5 million slaves. 1 life sacrificed for every 4 lives freed of slavery. Was the price worth it? Would you trade your life to free 4 people from shackles? Would you trade your child's life? What about a strangers?

There is no doubt that many in the South fought to preserve the repugnant and evil institution of slavery they inherited. I am not defending slave owners. I don't think it is fine to use defensive force to liberate captives and I think it is fine to use defensive force to defend ones property or life. I do think it is immoral to initiate force against people and both Lincoln and slave owners are guilty of that evil, although Lincoln has far more blood on his hands. The tragic irony of the war was the inconsistency of the moral reasoning; the South fought for secession while denying slaves the right to secede from their owners, and Lincoln was fighting "for a government of the people, for the people, by the people" by preventing people in the South from having that very thing. Humans are good at protecting their self-interests with moral reasoning that they unconsciously exempt themselves from.

William Lloyd Garrison, the most prominent abolitionist in America, argued that it was the duty of all those who wanted to abolish slavery to push for secession of the North. It was thought by abolitionists that if the North was a separate country that was not tainted with slave ownership or beholding to legislation like fugitive slave laws which required Northern states to return runaway slaves to their owners, it would become a haven for runaway slaves and the enforcement cost of slavery in the South would become prohibitive and cause the institution to collapse. This argument was demonstrated a few years later when the Brazilian state of Ceara, which had a strong abolitionist movement, became the first Brazilian state to outlaw slavery and refuse to enforce fugitive laws becoming a haven for runaway slaves. With the cost of slave ownership and social pressure rising, complete abolition occurred in Brazil in less than a decade.

So if you're an abolitionist how is positive social change best achieved? This is what interests me. I consider myself a modern day abolitionist seeking to find a way to eliminate the free range plantations or tax farms we euphemistically call nation states. Is popular culture to be believed? Is declaring war and creating rivers of blood the best way to achieve abolition? I certainly hope not. Thomas Jefferson famously said that the tree of liberty needs to be watered from time to time with the blood of tyrants. Presumably he was talking about the red coats that America fought to obtain its freedom and we Canadians are currently under the thumb of. Empirically there doesn't seem to be that much difference between the freedoms we have secured through polite and relatively peaceful discourse and the freedoms that Americans have secured through violence.

Slavery (excluding the pockets of human trafficking that still exist) was ended peacefully in every other western society after a tipping point of people found it to be immoral. This is encouraging because it tells me that change can occur as people discarding inherited irrational ideas in favor or clearer thinking and that the only arms we need bear are a reliable epistemology, truth bombs, persuasion and persistence to convince a tipping point of people that we need not organize our relationships around violence. Revolution can be peaceful, eh...