Tag Archives: slavery


One of my  favorite sayings comes from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  Reflecting on his 1831 visit to the United States, the Frenchman observed, “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”   Tocqueville’s adage doesn’t always holds true, but it often does, which is why I regularly share it with my students.  Across the generations, Tocqueville reminds us to be wary of our fondness for simplistic answers to complicated questions.

Tocqueville’s words came to me repeatedly over the weekend, as Colonel Ty Seidule’s five-minute explanation of the causes of the Civil War went viral, attracting more than four million views in a matter of days.  (It’s now topped six million.)  In my last post I explained how Colonel Seidule effectively replaced one myth about the Civil War with another one, and there’s no good reason to cover that ground a second time.  But I do want to share a thought abut the venue in which it first appeared: the absurdly misnamed “Prager University.”

“Prager University” is the brainchild of conservative radio personality Dennis Prager.  It is not an accredited educational institution, and no one connected to it claims otherwise.  It offers “free courses for free minds”–professionally produced five-minute videos on a range of topics in economics, political science, philosophy, history, and religion.  I have nothing personal against Dennis Prager, and as a political conservative myself, I suspect that we could probably find several things to agree about.  But I’m offended by anti-intellectualism parading as a commitment to knowledge and wisdom, and that’s what I see in this online travesty.

I hesitate in sharing these strong words, because I’m aware that a number of serious scholars and public intellectuals have lent their names to Prager’s undertaking.  Perhaps they thought they were doing the public a service.  Perhaps they hoped to stimulate informed discussion and raise the level of public debate about important questions.  If so, then they were well intentioned but misguided.

When a ruler of Egypt supposedly asked the Greek mathematician Euclid whether there was an easier way to learn mathematics, Euclid is said to have replied, “There is no royal road to geometry.”  He meant that there were no short cuts.  No Cliff’s Notes. It would take time, concentrated effort, and perseverance.  As 19th-century philosopher Charles Peirce put it, “really valuable ideas can only be had at the price of close attention.”

“Wrong!” says Dennis Prager.  When you visit “Prager University” online, you’re immediately reassured that “there are no fees, no tuition, books, homework assignments, or grueling midterms here – just clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers.”  Who could turn that down?  It’s not just that the student at P.U. can receive “life-changing insights” without forking over a pile of cash.  He can also get them without wasting valuable time reading, studying, or thinking deeply.

There are “no long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures” at P.U., the web site proclaims.  “All our courses are five minutes long,” the spiel continues. “That’s right, five minutes.”  And how is such brevity possible, you ask?  It’s possible because “our faculty get right to the point.”  You’ll find “no fluff” at P.U.  And if five minutes still strains your attention span?  Not to worry.  Each life-changing insight “is supported by cutting edge, visually-compelling, entertaining images and animation.”  Since you’re likely to get tired of looking at world-renowned intellectuals, in other words (and let’s face it–most of them aren’t that photogenic), P. U. will regularly interject cartoon figures to help you concentrate.

P.U.'s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes

P.U.’s cutting-edge animation helps you concentrate for the entire five minutes.

“Just as a shot of espresso boosts your energy,” P.U. promises,

“a shot of Prager University boosts your brain. Because not only will you have more knowledge, you will have more clarity. You’ll get one other thing, a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”

In sum, “Prager University clarifies big ideas.  Five minutes at a time.”

If this were only a parody.

I’m sorry, Dennis, but I’ve got to go with Euclid on this one.  Like the path to geometry, there is no royal road to wisdom, much less a five-minute video, no matter how compelling its animation.  P.U. doesn’t clarify big ideas.  It trivializes them.  Rather than teach its students how to think, it tells them what to think.

The idea of a five-minute video isn’t inescapably awful.  If each video were paired with another that offered a competing answer to the same question, together they might stimulate rather than indoctrinate.  If the “world renowned thinkers” were encouraged to treat competing interpretations seriously, or invited to suggest books or articles that develop the topic further, these videos could (best-case scenario here) be a springboard to further investigation and reflection.

But that would suggest that some questions are complicated and don’t admit of simple answers, and that flies in the face of P.U.’s whole philosophy.  Want to know whether the U. S. should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan?  P.U. will cut the fluff and give you the “clear and unambiguous” judgment of history in five minutes.  Interested in the truth about Vietnam?  Five minutes should be plenty.  Want the straight scoop about the Constitution? the Ten Commandments? capitalism? feminism? racism?  global warming? abortion?  Five minutes a pop or your money back.

In addition to Alexis de Tocqueville, I’ve also kept coming back to Ray Bradbury these past few days.  In his marvelous dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Bradford eerily anticipated the denigration of the life of the mind that Prager University embodies.  Writing in 1953, Bradbury described a twenty-first century world in which the primary task of firemen was not to put out fires but to burn books.  Intellectual had become a swear word.  Entertainment was life’s primary pursuit.  Happiness was life’s ultimate goal.  Complicated ideas got in the way.

Early in the novel, Bradbury speaks through a Fire Department captain to pinpoint the genesis of the gradual denigration of learning.  It began with the rise of mass culture, Captain Beatty relates to fireman Guy Montag, who has become curious about books.  As late as the Civil War, Beatty says, “books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere.  They could afford to be different.”  But then the population began to grow rapidly, and with it came the birth of mass culture.  “Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”

Gradually everything became “boiled down,” Beatty explains.

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume.  . . . Many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet . . . was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors.  Do you see?  Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”

Ray Bradbury died shortly after Dennis Prager founded his “university,” and I won’t presume to say what he would have thought of it.  I don’t mind telling you what I think, however.  Following Captain Beatty, I’d say there’s more nursery than university in P.U.


A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release five days ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to Salon.com: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.'”)

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of "Prager University"

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of “Prager University”

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood as “practical abolitionists.”  These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war.

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed?”

And when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.


Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here, here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.


If you are like me and don’t have to earn an honest living during the summer, perhaps you had the opportunity to watch last week as the Confederate battle flag was lowered from its flagpole near the South Carolina state house. The ceremony marked the culmination of an extraordinary three weeks of national conversation about American history, and especially the power of race in the American past (and present). It began with the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag. Since then, politicians and pundits from across the spectrum have weighed in, debating not only the symbolism of the flag, but also the nature of the Confederacy and the larger meaning of the Civil War. Much of their claims have been superficial and sensational, but their instinct to look to the past for understanding is dead on. There are times when “we cannot escape history,” as Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, and this has been one of them.

lowering battle flag

One of the positives of the public debate has been to hold up to close scrutiny the tired assertion that the Civil War was caused by a dispute over states’ rights rather than slavery. As I wrote earlier, that view is indefensible–preposterous even. It’s not just that modern-day historians widely condemn it; more to the point, white southerners between 1861 and 1865 didn’t believe it. The statesmen and journalists who shaped the southern justification for secession made their motives abundantly clear. Disunion was necessary, they declared repeatedly, in order to preserve both slavery and “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.”

When black Americans view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, they absolutely have history on their side. The point is not that every rebel soldier marched into battle thinking about slavery and white supremacy. No academic historian that I’m aware of would argue that. The point is rather that it is utterly ahistorical to depict the defense of slavery as somehow incidental or peripheral to the Southern cause. All Americans understood that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war,” President Lincoln observed as the war was winding down. He was right.

But now let’s complicate things. There’s been a lot of righteous indignation coming from online pundits who remind us that the South seceded in defense of human bondage. “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy,” Vox’s Dave Roberts tweeted. “The Confederate battle flag is an American swastika,” wrote Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, “the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime.” Nationally-syndicated columnist Harold Myerson writes of “the South’s vile history” and “the grotesque reality that was the antebellum South.” “Barbaric.”  “Totalitarian.”  “Vile.”  “Grotesque.”  These aren’t exactly nuanced arguments.

For most of the last century and a half, two competing regional myths have struggled to shape popular American memory of the conflict. Boiled down to its essence, the southern myth depicts the war as the culmination of a philosophical struggle over the rights of states in the American Constitutional system. Slavery was at best coincidental to this struggle, which might just as well have come over mules, as one southern apologist famously contended near the close of the nineteenth century. In contrast, the northern myth defines the war as a moral crusade to remove, at long last, the blight of human slavery from the American republic. This is the view embodied in the 1876 Freedmen’s Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.  It’s the view that poet Carl Sandburg popularized in his rapturous (if wordy) 2,800-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the view that Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker perpetuates when she describes the Federal invasion of the South after Fort Sumter as “noble” and insists that “no one would argue otherwise.” As she put it recently, “Wars to liberate people from human bondage don’t come any nobler.”

Freedman's Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Despite the glaring difference at their center, these regional myths actually share a lot of common traits. For one thing, both became popular ways of viewing the war after the shooting stopped, not before. Both are self-serving and self-justifying, placing one or the other section in the best possible light. Both are also grossly simplistic, portraying the war as a kind of Manichaean struggle between good and evil. According to the southern myth, the war was a contest between zealous defenders of the Constitution and those who would trample the country’s founding charter beneath their feet. According to the northern myth, the conflict pitted advocates of human bondage against champions of human freedom. Finally, most importantly, both regional myths are wrong.

I’m worried that, in their rush to remind us of the centrality of slavery to the sectional struggle, many of the critics of the Confederate battle flag are simply replacing the southern myth about the Civil War with the northern one. For the most part, they’re not doing this explicitly. (Kathleen Parker’s gushing tribute to the Union army is the exception to the rule in what I have read.) Rather, they are doing so implicitly by focusing  on the Confederacy in isolation. One of the cardinal rules of sound historical thinking is that it is imperative to pay attention to context. We cannot claim to understand any individual or group or event or belief system from the past when we have ignored the historical context. “Know context, know meaning,” I constantly remind my students. “No context, no meaning.”

Most of the anti-flag editorials that I have read ignore this foundational principle. If they allude to the Confederacy at all, they tend to focus on it exclusively.  They identify its prevailing values, measure them against twenty-first century mores, and draw their blistering conclusions. Along the way—whether intentionally or not I cannot say—they perpetuate the impression that the attitudes of the North and South regarding slavery and racial equality were diametrically opposed.  This is a fundamental tenet of the northern myth, and it is wrong. Careful attention to context shows that nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is important to broaden our focus to include the Civil-War North, but not primarily to rehabilitate the reputation of the Old South. I have no patience with southern apologists who think that they somehow exonerate the South by proving that the North was racist also. No, we need to bring the wartime North into the conversation because it affects the story that we tell about America’s racial history. In their indignant condemnations of a “vile,” “barbaric” Confederacy, writers like Jenkins and Meyerson are actually reinforcing a perspective that has long been an obstacle to racial progress in this country. This is the view that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past. By making the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem, the rest of the country has been able to reassure itself that racism is an aberration, a pathology limited to the country’s one sick region.

A careful attention to the broader context of the Civil War does nothing to weaken the conclusion that the Confederacy was conceived in a determination to defend slavery and white supremacy. It does, however, show us that the war itself was never a clear-cut struggle over the morality of slavery, much less the injustice of white supremacy. I’ll address the first in the remainder of this post and turn to the second in a few days.

The Civil War was not a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery for one simple reason: while the South was nearly unanimous in its defense of the institution, the North was badly divided. Let’s start with the most obvious reality: throughout the Civil War “the Union” included four states where slavery remained legal—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. With the exception of Delaware, these states had large slave populations and large pro-slavery majorities that would have bolted to the Confederacy if the new Republican administration threatened to strike immediately at slavery. Although we sometimes fall into the bad habit of describing the struggle between North and South as a struggle between slave and free states, it was never that clear-cut.

Next we have to consider the Constitution: On the eve of the secession crisis, one of the things that northern whites shared in common with southern whites was that both groups believed unquestionably that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery within states where state law already recognized it. The leaders of the Republican Party, which emerged exclusively within the North during the latter half of the 1850s, accepted this view to a man. They sought to use the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but they acknowledged that they were prevented from attacking it where it was already entrenched. Northern Democrats, who represented just under half of the Union-state electorate, thought that the white population of the territories should determine whether slavery was legal or illegal there, but they agreed with the Republicans in maintaining that the federal government must leave slavery alone within the states where it was already legally recognized.

And so it was that, when states of the lower South began passing secession resolutions in the winter of 1860-1861 in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, one of the ways that northern congressmen tried to assuage southern fears was to support a proposed amendment to the Constitution that stated explicitly that the federal government could not touch slavery within a state:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

This proposal—which if ratified would have become, ironically, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—was passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress at the beginning of March 1861, but the shooting began before more than two states (Maryland and Ohio) could approve it. Once blood was shed, the momentum for ratifying an amendment designed to pacify the South came to a screeching halt.

Even so, the belief that the war was not a war to end slavery was the near unanimous position among northern officeholders during the first year of the conflict. In his first major address to Congress after war had begun, Abraham Lincoln vowed that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists.” A few weeks later Congress passed a joint resolution that staked out the same ground. Named in honor of its primary sponsors, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution of July 22, 1861 was the closest thing to a formal declaration of war ever approved by the U. S. Congress. According to the wording of the resolution, the war was not being waged

in any spirit of oppression or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or . . . of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of . . . States. . . . [The goal of the war is to] defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several states unimpaired; and . . . as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

Put simply, abolition was not to be a goal of the northern war effort, according to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Whenever the southern states ended their rebellion the war should stop immediately, and their “established institutions”—a euphemism for slavery—should remain undisturbed.

Historians who have closely studied the values of Union soldiers have determined that they professed similar views during the war’s first year. For example, in his study of the correspondence and diaries of nearly six hundred Union soldiers, eminent Princeton historian James McPherson concluded that in 1861 fewer than one out of ten were motivated primarily by the desire to end slavery.

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

The highest ranking officers in the Union forces tended to show the same indifference—if not outright hostility—to the cause of emancipation. More than a year into the war, Major General George McClellan, for instance—at the time the commander of the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war—wrote to Abraham Lincoln to express his view that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Although he surely overstated the case, McClellan further warned Lincoln that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Now without a doubt, much changed after the war’s first year. One of the most important developments in all of U. S. history was the transformation of northern war aims between 1861 and 1863, as a war that began as a war exclusively for Union evolved into a war that linked Union with emancipation. Part of the reason for this transformation was a new understanding of the president’s authority in time of war, in particular the belief that the rebellion had created a Constitutional window of opportunity that allowed the commander-in-chief to strike at slavery as a military measure to restore the government’s authority.

But the transformation of war aims rested on more than just a shift in technical Constitutional interpretation. There was also a profound change in popular sentiment in the North, particularly among those in uniform, that the events of the war brought about. To prevent this already lengthy post from becoming ridiculously long, I won’t go into a full explanation of how this came about. Imitating Inego in The Princess Bride, rather than explain fully, “let me sum up”:

For many Union soldiers who were exposed first-hand to the reality of southern slavery as they marched through the South, the war quite genuinely revolutionized their thinking. Some became wholly converted to the cause of emancipation as a moral obligation and readily embraced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. And yet the evidence is clear that a large portion of the Union army felt betrayed by the redefinition of Union war aims. James McPherson found that, for every Union soldier who welcomed the emancipation policy in the winter of 1862-1863, another declared it to be “unconstitutional and illegitimate.” Fairly typical of the latter were the Indiana private who wrote that “if emancipation is to be the policy of this war . . . I do not care how quick the country goes to pot”; the soldier in the 12th Maine who wrote, “I do not want to hear any more about negroes when I get home”; and the Illinois private who confessed to his parents, “I am the boy that Can fight for my Country, but not for the Negros” [sic].

Although support for emancipation in the Union Army grew gradually and significantly over time, McPherson finds that it was frequently couched in the most pragmatic of terms, so much so that he labels most supporters of emancipation in the army as “practical abolitionists.” These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war. “We have been playing with traitors long enough” was a typical viewpoint. Believing that slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and the primary source of wealth of the planters who had fomented the southern rebellion, these soldiers agreed with the Yankee private who concluded that “the war will never end until we end slavery”; with the Union surgeon who decided that “slavery must be cleaned out” because “the only way to put down this rebellion is to hurt the instigators and abettors of it”; and with the Minnesota officer who declared that “crippling the institution of slavery is . . . striking a blow at the heart of the rebellion.”

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

A consummate politician, Abraham Lincoln correctly understood that the way to build broad support for emancipation was to link it to the cause of Union. After studying, teaching, and writing on the Civil War for a quarter-century, I am persuaded that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as immoral was absolutely genuine. But it is also clear that he took seriously his role as leader of the Republican Party and the consequent obligation to frame the policies of his administration in a way best designed to perpetuate his party’s success at the polls. A viable majority could never be built in support of emancipation as a moral crusade, Lincoln recognized, but it might be politically possible to forge a majority willing to swallow emancipation as a pragmatic measure necessary to save the Union. In the summer of 1863, Lincoln famously defended his proclamation against northern critics in a public letter that embodied such a pragmatic strategy:

You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—I think differently. I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy?

When Lincoln was re-elected president in the fall of 1864, 55 percent of the northern electorate supported him, but 45 percent cast Democratic ballots, supporting a party whose platform condemned the war as a failure and renounced emancipation as a war aim. Emancipation divided the North through the Civil War’s bitter end. Concentrating solely on the Confederacy obscures that crucial reality.

Back with more soon.

SLAVERY AND FREEDOM (American Revolution #5)

No context, no meaning. Know context, know meaning.

In my last post, I explained that if we want to understand the causes and meaning of the Revolution to American colonists, we need to place the events that get into the textbooks—the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the shots fired on Lexington Green—into the larger fabric of their lives. This will necessarily involve figuring out what was going on in their lives at the same time as the highly publicized political events that we tend to remember. But we will also need to investigate what has gone on before those events—maybe even long before them. Both dimensions of context are essential.

But context is not something you simply uncover in the archives. When historians speak of historical context, they don’t simply mean “other things going on at the same time or earlier.” They have in mind details that have explanatory power—events or patterns or beliefs that help us to understand our subject more fully. As educational psychologist Sam Wineburg reminds us, the word context is derived from the Latin contexere, “to weave together.” Determining the context of a key historical event like the American Revolution requires that we “engage in an active process of connecting things in a pattern.” Historians will not always agree on what contextual details are important. You and I may not either.

When it comes to the American Revolution, certain contextual details are undeniably crucial. Academic historians agree that it is impossible to understand the beginning of the American Revolutionary War without taking into consideration the way that the relationship between England and her North American colonies was changed by the repercussions of the French and Indian (or Seven Years’) War that ended in 1763. There’s no avoiding the familiar back-and-forth of Parliamentary policies and colonial protests between 1763 and 1776, and we’ll get to that, eventually.

But first I wanted to spend half a week or so discussing the labor systems of colonial America. To get their attention, I told them that I didn’t think it would be possible to understand the larger meaning of the American Revolution without wrestling with the prevalence of slavery and indentured servitude to the colonial world. Can I say this dogmatically? No. Remember, I am learning about the American Revolution along with my students. But is there good reason to think this might be true? Absolutely, and the reason is simple: as the struggle with Great Britain unfolded, the colonists over and over and over again referred to slavery in describing what was happening. To hear them tell it, King George III had determined to make them slaves. If they meekly submitted to his yoke, they would be behaving like slaves. In slavery, the colonists found a powerful metaphor for explaining the imperial crisis.

Here are just three examples from an almost limitless supply: In 1774, the First Continental Congress condemned more than a dozen acts of King or Parliament and concluded that these “tyrannical” measures were evidence of “a system formed to enslave America.” The following year Virginia statesman Patrick Henry employed similar imagery in an impassioned address to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Most of us would recognize Henry’s emphatic conclusion—“Give me liberty or give me death!”—but moments earlier the silver-tongued orator had told his colleagues, “It is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in chains and slavery.” A year later, when the Revolutionary War was well under way and going poorly, the famous pamphleteer Thomas Paine exhorted patriots to persevere in these “times that try men’s souls.” If they chose the path of submission, Paine warned, then “slavery without hope” awaited them.

Slavery was a powerful metaphor because the colonists could relate to it. They could relate to it because it permeated their world. By the 1760s the kind of slavery we remember was largely limited to the colonies from Maryland south. In those colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia), Africans and the descendents of Africans comprised roughly two-fifths of the population, and almost all of them labored as slaves for life, the property of white masters who had a legal claim both to them and their offspring. In the tobacco and rice fields of the southern colonies, they worked from dawn to dusk producing the staple crops that made Britain’s North American colonies so valuable to the Empire.


In contrast, by the eve of the Revolution black slaves were scarcely 2 percent of the population in the northern colonies. But this was not the only kind of “slavery” prevalent in the colonial world. Long before African slavery loomed large in the colonial economy, white Englishmen like Richard Frethorne were toiling on American plantations as indentured servants. In theory, indentured servants forfeited their freedom for a period of years (typically between four and seven) in exchange for some sort of remuneration. (Most commonly, they labored to repay the costs of their transportation from Europe to North America.) Indentured servitude differed from slavery in two crucial respects: its duration was finite—adult indentured servants rarely owed more than seven years’ service—and it was not hereditary. As important as these differences were, this much must be understood: indentured servants were not free.

Indentured servants had few legal rights, could be whipped without recourse, could not marry or own property without the permission of their masters, might be separated from family members, and could be bought and sold during the duration of their terms of service. Nor should we fool ourselves by saying that, at the very least, indentured servants had willingly chosen to forfeit their freedom for a time in the hope of eventually improving their lives. Many, like Richard Frethorne, were sold into indentured servitude by their parents, presumably to pay off debts or provide for other family members. (Months before his death in Virginia, Frethorne wrote to his parents to beg them to “redeem me suddenly,” to have mercy on him and “pity my miserable case.”) Countless others sold themselves into servitude as an act of economic desperation. For all these reasons, historians frequently group slavery and indentured servitude into a larger category of “unfree” labor. In truth, there are enough similarities to define slavery as “permanent servitude” and servitude as “temporary slavery.”

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

Advertisement for the sale of indentured servants, Virginia Gazette, 1774

For reasons that historians are still trying to unravel, in the southern colonies white indentured servitude declined dramatically toward the end of the seventeenth century, but it remained crucial to the economy of the northern colonies right up to the Revolution. To illustrate the latter point, I have my students read a collection of advertisements from the 1750s from the Pennsylvania Gazette, the newspaper of colonial America’s most famous publisher, Benjamin Franklin. “TO BE SOLD,” shouts one ad, “a likely Irish Servant Girl, about 19 years of Age, fit for Country Work.” “TO BE SOLD,” announces another, a “Dutch servant boy . . . and a Dutch servant woman.” “SERVANTS,” proclaims a third, “just imported . . . from Ireland, and to be sold by Conyngham and Nesbitt, a PARCEL of young men, women, and boys.”

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

This ad for a runaway servant appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette in April 1754.

To supplement these impersonal advertisements I ask my students to read a portion of a detailed memoir by a German immigrant who came to Philadelphia in 1750 on a ship carrying more than four hundred indentured servants. The writer, Gottlieb Mittelberger, condemned what he labeled “this traffic in human flesh” and described it as follows:

The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day Englishmen, Dutchmen and High-German people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places, in part from a great distance, say 20, 30, or 40 hours away, and go on board the newly arrived ship that has brought and offers for sale passengers from Europe, and select among the healthy persons such as they deem suitable for their business, and bargain with them how long they will serve for their passage-money, which most of them are still in debt for. When they have come to an agreement, it happens that adult persons bind themselves in writing to serve 3, 4, 5 or 6 years for the amount due by them, according to their age and strength. But very young people, from 10 to 15 years, must serve till they are 21 years old.

Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle; for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained; but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going, it often happens that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.

When we combine the number of slaves and indentured servants in colonial America, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the “peopling” of Britain’s North American colonies centered primarily on the unfree, both black and white. Between 1607, the year when the first permanent English settlement in North America was established at Jamestown, and 1775, when the first shots of the Revolutionary War rang out on Lexington Green, nearly three quarters of a million individuals came, willingly or unwillingly, to America’s shores (not counting convicts). Of these, 311,600 were African slaves; 200,200 were indentured servants; and 217,900 were free men, women, and children. In percentage terms, nearly 43 percent of the total came as slaves and 27 percent came as indentured servants. Only three in ten immigrants to the future United States arrived as free individuals.

So what are we to make of this? I’d be interested in hearing what you think.


In my last two posts I have been talking about the dangers of grounding essentially religious arguments about the present in historical assertions about the past.  Drawing examples from the writings first of Peter Marshall Jr. and David Manuel and then of Francis Schaeffer, I have argued that such an approach has awful consequences.  The worst is that these writers effectively backed themselves into a corner in which it was impossible to admit historical errors.  Any mistakes in their interpretation of the American past would seem to undermine their religious critique of the American present.  In Schaeffer’s case, at least, this led him to group critics of his interpretation of U. S. history with “weak Christians” who don’t fully believe the Scriptures.

It is easy for us to condemn this as unbridled arrogance, but let me check that impulse with this reminder: In books like The Light and the Glory and How Should We Then Live?, Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer were courageously calling American evangelicals to think deeply about the surrounding culture, to “take very thought captive in obedience to Christ.”

Schaeffer, in particular, was contesting a deeply entrenched fundamentalist tendency to be suspicious of intellectual pursuits.  He challenged American Christians, instead, to think Christianly about science and philosophy, art and architecture, music and medicine and politics.  His writings about history were  a seamless part of this larger project, and even Christian historians who are skeptical of his historical interpretations–and almost all of them are–give Schaeffer credit for motivating a generation of believers to take the life of the mind more seriously.  That is a huge accomplishment.

And yet good intentions without discernment can still do much harm.  My point in these posts has not been to provide a “final answer” about the degree to which the American founding was Christian (as if that were possible!), as important as that question is.  No, my goal has been to call attention to the damage we can do in conflating the authority of Scripture with the force of our own fallible interpretations of the American past.

Toward that end, I want to share one final illustration of how not to argue historically.  The work I have in mind is a booklet from the 1990s titled Southern Slavery as It Was, authored by two prominent Reformed pastors, Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins.

Of the two, Wilkins, a Presbyterian pastor from Louisiana, is probably less well known today, but Wilson is growing in name recognition.  For decades he has been a prominent figure in the Northwest, having founded a church, grammar school, college, and press in his home base of Moscow, Idaho.  Of late he has increased in national stature, thanks especially to his well publicized debates with the (now deceased) atheist Christopher Hitchens, to his growing prominence within the Gospel Coalition, and by his recent authorship of the satirical novel Evangellyfish, which Christianity Today named the best work of fiction in 2012.


Southern Slavery as It Was is a textbook example of the danger of grounding religious arguments in historical interpretations.  Unlike Marshall and Manuel and Schaeffer, who linked their critique of the contemporary U. S. to debatable assertions about the American founding, Wilson and Wilkins went into battle wielding a contentious interpretation of slavery and the Old South.

“The South has long carried the stigma of racism and bigotry,” the authors declare in the booklet’s first sentence.  “The institution of slavery has so blackened the Southern position that nothing about the South can be viewed as good or right. . . . We have all heard of the heartlessness–the brutalities, immoralities, and cruelties–that were supposedly inherent in the system of slavery. . . . The truthfulness of this description has seldom been challenged.  The point of this small booklet,” the authors explain, “is to establish that this impression is largely false.”

In a preemptive strike against those who would challenge their interpretation,  Wilson and Wilkins conclude the booklet’s introduction by exhorting readers to relinquish all false belief about slavery and the South.  “Because we have resolved to abandon sin,” they declare ominously, “this must include the sin of believing a lie” [italics in the original].  The pastors gave their readers a simple choice, in other words: agree with us or be guilty.

By why is it of such paramount importance to know the truth about southern slavery?  Wilson and Wilkins answer by sharing anecdotes of public debates in which liberals dismissed arguments against homosexuality or abortion by observing that the Bible condoned slavery.  The implicit argument in such retorts was that, because slavery is evil and the Bible allows for slavery, then the Bible is obviously an unreliable moral guide.  Reminding us that Christians must never “be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God,” the pastors then make an utterly illogical leap: they seek to defend the Scripture’s apparent allowance of slavery by defending the treatment of slaves in the American South.

The author’s justification is an egregious non sequitur.  The entire argument of Southern Slavery as It Was is unnecessary and irrelevant to their stated objective.  There is a substantive theological argument that they might have offered, but I am not a theologian, and I want to keep our focus on how they used history.

The desire to help Christians to understand and not be embarrassed by biblical teaching on slavery did not require Wilson and Wilkins to defend slavery as it existed in the American South.  If Beethoven is not on trial when a junior-high band plays his Fifth Symphony, neither is the Bible on trial when we evaluate the godliness of southern slaveholders.

To return to the anecdotal example of the liberal champion of homosexuality or abortion who dismisses the Bible because it tolerates slavery, sincere Christians engaged in contemporary debates have a ready answer with regard to slavery in the American context.  “If the Bible seemingly allows for slavery,” we might answer, “it also condemns racism and enjoins masters to do as they would be done by.  To the degree that southern slavery was racist (and it was, systemically so), or that masters transgressed the Golden Rule, the Bible cannot be interpreted to condone it.”

Wilson and Wilkins do not follow this course, unfortunately.  Implying that anything less than a robust defense of the Old South would weaken the Scriptural argument against homosexuality or abortion, they insist that southern slavery’s “sad realities” were overshadowed by its more admirable features.  Here is a sampling of what they contend:

* “Slavery as it existed in the South . . . was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence.  There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”

* “Slaves were well treated and often had a deep loyalty to, and affection for, their masters.”

* “One could argue that the black family has never been stronger than it was under slavery.”

* Slaves lived “a life of plenty, of simple pleasures.”  Enslavement was a “pleasant . . . experience for the majority.”

* “Most southern blacks (slave and free) supported the southern war effort.”

* “Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”

The damage inflicted by such an argument is immense.  To begin with, it will understandably constitute an enormous stumbling block for many black Christians.  (For elaborations of this point which refer to a later work by Pastor Wilson, see here, here, and here.)

Second, the authors’ argument teaches Christians, black and white, that unless they agree with the authors’ views on southern slavery (not on Biblical principles, mind you, but on American history!) that they are simply part of the problem, helping to undermine any argument against homosexuality or abortion.  (Several years ago, when I forwarded a lengthy critique of SSAIW to Wilson through the elders of my church, Wilson noted in his lengthy reply to my elders, “When a homosexual couple move in next door to Dr. McKenzie, and they are just as married in the eyes of the state of Washington as he is, he should take note of the fact that we have been fighting this kind of thing for years.”)

Finally, the authors’ argument will rightly be a stumbling block to sincere seekers who don’t yet accept the gospel.  When the booklet predictably became a lightning rod for controversy early in the last decade, non-Christians who followed the resulting furor observed the embarrassing spectacle of zealous Christians linking scriptural orthodoxy with the dogmatic insistence that southern slaves were content and well cared for.  What a tragedy.

Let me stress my belief that both Wilson and Wilkins–like Schaeffer and Marshall and Manuel–were honorably motivated.  When I see their zeal and courage, I am honestly convicted.  Thus in criticizing their use of history, I am in no way impugning their character.  I simply see Southern Slavery as It Was as a sad illustration of the consequences that regularly ensue when Christians seek to wield history as a weapon in the culture wars, and I want to do everything that I can to help us learn from the example.

Like Marshall, Manuel, and Schaeffer before them, Wilson and Wilkins were in a dilemma of their own making: any acknowledgment of historical error on their part would be seen as undermining their critique of contemporary culture.  As a Christian historian in a northwestern congregation much influenced by Doug Wilson’s teaching, I wrote privately to Pastor Wilson back in 1996, not long after the publication of Southern Slavery as It Was, to share my opinion that it was marred by numerous errors of fact and logic.  In 1998 I wrote again to him privately, and then five years later, as attacks on the booklet from local critics were rising to a crescendo, I forwarded a 30+ page critique of SSAIW through the elders of my church.  Finally, with the moral support of one of my elders, I flew to Moscow, Idaho and met personally with Wilson, trying one last time to convince him that his approach was wrongheaded.

Wilson was gracious to me in all of these private interactions, but he made it clear that if I disagreed with him publicly I would be undermining his work for God’s kingdom.  As he wrote in one e-mail, “either you remain out of the fracas,” referring to the tempest then swirling around the booklet, “or you fight alongside me, or you get co-opted by their side,” referring to the secular “intoleristas” who opposed his ministry.  In sum, unless I was willing to endorse his views or remain silent, I would inevitably aid the cause of his enemies–and his enemies were God’s enemies.

I was reminded of this position on numerous occasions in the coming months.  When I finally decided to share my concerns at my church’s men’s meeting, one of the members in attendance interrupted my presentation to say that I was “sinning” by questioning Wilson’s historical teaching.  Then when I criticized Wilson’s scholarship in a brief letter to World magazine (in response to an article on the controversy in Moscow that quoted me), one of the elders at Wilson’s church e-mailed my pastor (copying me) to say that “God’s enemies really love this stuff.”

How does it come to this?  How do we reach the point where views on American history can be a litmus test of spiritual faithfulness?  We must train ourselves to resist any and every effort to proclaim a particular interpretation of non-Biblical history as the Christian understanding.  Where God has not spoken, we must not pronounce our own opinions as final.

I am reminded of the words of Puritan John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, Holland before their emigration to New England.  “Err we may, alas! too easily,” Robinson lamented from the pulpit.  Reminding his congregation of the human propensity “to err and be deceived in many things,” he enjoined them to cultivate a “modesty of mind” and be willing to learn from those with whom they disagreed.

Nearly four centuries later, that’s still good advice.  Much is at stake.  Evangelical intellectual life will never flourish until we can disagree among ourselves without questioning each others’ character.

Lincoln, the Movie

While the Thanksgiving season was upon us I took the opportunity to share three posts pertaining to the history of the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.”  I want to turn now to Abraham Lincoln, and that may seem like a pretty abrupt shift.  If you need a smoother segue, I could note that Lincoln issued numerous thanksgiving proclamations during the Civil War and that his proclamation in the fall of 1863 is remembered as initiating the unbroken tradition of annual national Thanksgiving holidays that continues to the present.  I could note that, but I won’t, because the real reason that I am bringing him up is because of the current popular movie bearing his name.  On the whole, academic historians have praised the movie (for a sampling of academic reactions, see here), and I generally concur.   Lincoln can be criticized for numerous factual inaccuracies (most of them minor), but by Hollywood standards, the film makes room for an unusual degree of historical complexity.

To cite but two examples, the entire structure of the film drives home the complicated interrelationship between the issues of slavery and race in mid-nineteenth century America.  As I regularly tell my students when we reach the era of the Civil War, the single most important thing they have to understand about the sectional crisis is that southern whites tended to believe that the defense of slavery and white supremacy were inseparable, while northern whites thought otherwise.  As the sectional crisis intensified, southern whites tended to see any criticism of slavery as an assault on racial hierarchy.  Northern whites, in contrast, were divided on the matter.  While northern Democrats regularly condemned abolitionism as part of a fanatical crusade for racial equality, northern Republicans went out of their way to separate the issues of slavery and race.  Indeed, they had no choice if they wanted any kind of political future.  Northern voters were not ready to embrace racial equality, even as a hypothetical goal, but the majority, at least, might be convinced to support the end of slavery if emancipation did not seem to threaten the privileged position of whites in American society.  Lincoln makes this point wonderfully in the scene in which Pennsylvania Republican congressmen Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones) disavows support of political or social equality for former slaves, even though he had long been a supporter of both.  The clear message of the scene—a historically accurate one—is that passage of the Thirteenth Amendment required that the party of Lincoln frame the racial implications of emancipation as conservatively as possible.

Second, the movie nicely illustrates the considerable diversity within the Republican Party itself with regard to emancipation and racial equality.  Whereas scenes situated in the House of Representatives commonly pit Republicans against Democrats, many of the movie’s more intimate conversations—in the president’s cabinet room, the executive office, even the White House kitchen—were designed to highlight differences of opinion among Republicans themselves.  So, for example, we see Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens chiding Lincoln for his timidity and telling the president that the only acceptable course is to free the slaves, expropriate the land of their masters, and totally remake the southern social and racial structure.  But we also listen in as Maryland Republican Francis P. Blair (played by Hal Holbrooke) lectures Lincoln that conservative Republicans will never support emancipation at all unless they can convince their constituents that the measure is absolutely necessary to win the war.  The movie does an outstanding job in helping us to imagine just how difficult a task it was for Lincoln to satisfy the disparate factions of his own party and still fashion a reasonably coherent public policy.

Yes, Lincoln gets a lot of its history right, and in a medium in which that rarely occurs.  Hearing this opinion, my students have asked me where it is factually incorrect, but for the purposes of helping us to think Christianly about American history, I would rather concentrate on what the movie leaves out.  I am doubtful that Lincoln was a Christian by any orthodox definition, but he made at least two important claims in his public statements about slavery that we would do well to meditate on.  I’ll share those soon.