Are Our Liberties In Peril?

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Colonial leaders who had chafed under British control had described their afflictions as “enslavement.” Gradually, as the logical implications of their opposition to metaphorical slavery became clearer to them, many revolutionaries came to believe that actual chattel slavery was inimical to their cause. This ideological development led to the gradual abolition of slavery in the newly formed Northern states and to serious debates about it in states like Virginia and, later, Kentucky.

The Revolution unleashed other new ideological forces. Even as its leaders struggled to articulate their vision for a new nation and government, the sheer economic, ethnic, and religious diversity of America’s population forced a reconsideration of the old republican rejection of factions. Ultimately, Wood says, the Founding Fathers “recognized the reality of an American society composed of many conflicting private interests,” and this realization gave the new nation democratic ways of thinking and of governing, among them, political parties. None of this would have been possible before the war.

The Civil War also made Americans expand their definitions of freedom and liberty. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party ran on a platform that pledged only to stop slavery’s expansion into the Western territories—not to abolish it outright or even gradually. Still, this was too radical for most voters in the Solid South and the border states and even for a considerable portion—perhaps 46 percent—of the Northern electorate.

For almost two years into his Presidency, Lincoln took pains to accommodate the nation’s fundamental conservatism and effectively embraced the Democratic party’s rallying cry: “The Union as it was, the constitution as it is.” In a nod to borderstate slave owners and Northern Democrats, he twice overruled radical Union generals who attempted on their own authority to liberate slaves within captured Confederate territories. In a famous letter to Horace Greeley, dated August 1862, he identified as his “paramount” objective the restoration of the Union. If he could accomplish this task without freeing a single slave, he would.

But the war was proceeding on a trajectory of its own. Lincoln later admitted in his second inaugural address that most Americans had understood from the start that slavery was “somehow” the cause of the conflict. And as 1862 wore on, without an end in sight, many Northerners began to see the logic in attacking secession at its apparent roots. That spring, Congress banned slavery in Washington, D.C., and the Western territories and passed a confiscation act that allowed for the expropriation of slave property. Finally, on September 22, Lincoln issued the preliminary emancipation proclamation, though he didn’t predicate it on the morality of abolition but rather on the strategic necessity of undermining the South’s economic and military efforts.

Lincoln’s issuance of the final Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 sparked heated argument among hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers, who contested the merits of black freedom by campfires, in tents, and even in formal, regimental debate societies. A handful of companies from the Midwest laid down their arms and returned home. Many other soldiers bridled at the thought of fighting to liberate slaves. But the vast majority continued to serve.

Complicating this debate were three phenomena that led to a gradual but critical shift in Northern and, more particularly, military opinion. To begin with, many Union troops gained firsthand exposure to slavery, which brought them to believe that there was, in fact, something fundamentally immoral about it. Second, the bravery of all-black regiments like the 54th Massachusetts made many white soldiers and civilians reconsider their old prejudices. And toward war’s end, many of the Union’s nearly two million soldiers found ennobling their role as an army of liberation.

By late 1863, Lincoln was speaking of a “new birth of freedom” for America. A year later, he won 78 percent of the soldier vote, on a platform calling explicitly for the abolition of slavery. And just before his assassination he promised that should the war continue, “all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and… every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

 
 
 

That same year, Congress and the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, and the federal government subsequently enacted two additional amendments guaranteeing full citizenship and due process of law to African-Americans and banning electoral disenfranchisement on grounds of race. None of this had been remotely imaginable, let alone possible, in 1860.

The Civil War was in many respects an unfinished revolution. Most of the constitutional gains of the 1860s went unenforced for another century. Nevertheless, what began as a very limited war ended with a deeply radical outcome.