"No period of American history makes greater demands on the historian than that of the Civil War," C. Vann Woodward once wrote. That being true, then historian James M. McPherson's achievements are manifold. In 1988, his book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era moved beyond the pillars of academia and into the public realm. Although historians had been McPherson at Gettysburg writing about the Civil War for decades, McPherson's book broke ground in combining the complexities of the war while maintaining the narrative that made it appealing to the American public. Battle Cry went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and has since sold more than six hundred thousand copies.
Battle Cry of Freedom helped launch an unprecedented national renaissance of interest in the Civil War. Because of it and other books, followed closely by Ken Burns's documentary, now thousands of Americans every year choose to visit historic battlefields and homes of Civil War generals and leaders. New histories, biographies, miniseries, novels, and reenactments continue to capture the American imagination about the turbulent years between 1861 and 1865, partly because, as McPherson explains, the issues that caused the war are still with us. "Even though the war resolved the issues of Union and slavery, it didn't entirely resolve the issues that underlay those two questions," McPherson says. "These issues are still important in American society today: regionalism, resentment of centralized government, debates about how powerful the national government ought to be and what role it ought to play in people's lives. The continuing relevance of those issues, I think, is one reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War."
Born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota, McPherson's first fascination with the Civil War began as a graduate student in 1958 under the mentorship of C. Vann Woodward at Johns Hopkins University. But it was not the war McPherson focused on then. McPherson writing his dissertation. His subject for study were the abolitionists whose passions and protests helped put Abraham Lincoln in office and shape the social reforms brought about by the war. While McPherson was in Baltimore, events similar to the abolition movement he was studying were taking place all around the country. "I was struck by all of these parallels between what was a freedom crusade of the 1860s and a freedom crusade of the 1960s. My first entrée in Civil War scholarship focused on that very theme," says McPherson. His dissertation about the abolition movement went on to be published in 1964 as The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction.
He has since written several books about abolition, the war, Abraham Lincoln, and Reconstruction. His latest work, which won the Lincoln Prize for 1998, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, delves into the hearts and minds of the soldiers on both sides. "Three million soldiers fought in the Union and Confederate armies. How does a historian discover and analyze the thoughts and feelings of three million people?" asks McPherson. To begin, McPherson went to the letters and diaries of the soldiers themselves and combed through twenty-five thousand of them. What he found were a group of men who were deeply religious, fatalistic, and true believers in ideas of freedom. "A great tragedy, in many ways, is that both sides look back to the same revolution of 1776 as the inspiration for the liberty that they were fighting for from 1861 to 1865," says McPherson. "The Northern definition of liberty was the preservation of the Union. . . .the South professed to be fighting for self-government."
One catalyst for his interest in the private lives of the Civil War volunteer soldiers came out of the yearly tours to battlefields that he makes with his students at Princeton University. McPherson has taught at Princeton since 1962 and is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History. He lives in New Jersey with his wife of forty-three years, Patricia. They have one daughter. While visiting the battlefields and re-examining the gruesome events there, his students often ask, "Why were men willing to cross this territory when they knew that may of them would not come back?"
Knowing the value of place and memory in the process of history has made McPherson a crusader for preservation. He was appointed in 1991 by the United States Senate to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, which determined the major battle sites, evaluated their conditions, and then recommended strategies for their preservation. He has since argued publicly against the commercial exploitation of historic sites and continues to guide new students and the general public through the sites of our nation's bloodiest war.
Six hundred and twenty-five thousand men died in the Civil War, nearly as many as all the Americans who lost their lives in all of the American wars combined. That alone makes it is no surprise that it would be the subject of weighty scholarship and also public fascination. The wonder is that McPherson is able to bridge both worlds as few historians have. "There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself, some positive, some negative," says McPherson. "I think that one job of a historian is to try to cut through some of those myths and get closer to some kind of reality."
BY GARY W. GALLAGHER
On a splendid late October day in 1996, Jim McPherson and I rode our bicycles through the battlefield at Cedar Creek. The battle of Cedar Creek, the last major encounter of the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, had taken place in an October one-hundred-and-thirty-two years earlier, just weeks before the presidential election. Union General Philip H. Sheridan won a smashing triumph Gallagher and McPherson get ready to ride Brandy Station battlefield over Jubal A. Early's Confederate army. Sheridan's victory, coming as it did just before Northern voters cast their ballots, buoyed Union morale and helped guarantee Abraham Lincoln's re-election.
On the battlefield that long ago day, there had been a striking change in momentum. Early's soldiers had driven much of the Union Army from the field in morning assaults, only to collapse in the face of Northern counterattacks late in the afternoon. Over the years, a variety of writers had accused Early of losing his nerve, halting his victorious men, and trying to hold onto initial gains rather than pressing his advantage. Jim and I had discussed whether that had been the case, and we hoped a close examination of the ground would illuminate this and other questions relating to the battle.
This was our third such bicycling excursion in Virginia. We previously had gone to Brandy Station, scene of a cavalry action during the initial stage of the Gettysburg campaign, and to Petersburg, where we logged about fifty-five miles to examine the siege lines held by Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in 1864-65. We found the rides to be useful in assessing military leadership and working out tactical details impossible to coax out of written accounts or maps. We also discovered that cycling around battlefields inspired fruitful exchanges about connections between military campaigns and other dimensions of the war.
We spent our first hour at Cedar Creek traversing some gently rolling ground before reaching a part of the field where the road rose sharply. Jim pulled well ahead as I labored to match his pace. I reached the crest of one ridge to find him surveying a spectacular view. The green bulk of Massanutten Mountain loomed immediately to our south, the north fork of the Shenandoah River wound its way across our front, and the landscape appeared much as it had to Union and Confederate soldiers. Out of breath as I peddled up to Jim, I announced that I found climbing the hills very taxing. "It's good for you," he said, and set off to examine more ground.
That moment captures much about Jim McPherson. He possesses an unshakable dedication to improving his understanding of the past-as well as a muscular work ethic. He was determined to explore as much terrain and consider as many questions as possible at Cedar Creek. By the time I collapsed in my motel room that evening, we had ridden more than thirty miles and discovered a good deal about the battle's tactical ebb and flow. The immense scale of the battlefield stood out sharply (it encompasses more than a dozen square miles), as did the obstacles Early's soldiers faced. The Confederates had marched all night to get into position for assaults at dawn and fought for several hours before Early halted the action. We decided that exhaustion among the Confederates, at least as much as any timidity in Early's leadership, helped explain why the Southern force lost its edge.
There were few indications in Jim's early career that suggested that he would become a serious student of Civil War military history. The Civil Rights Movement and the influence of C. Vann Woodward, his mentor in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, shaped his early work. Jim's first four books, published between 1964 and 1975, explore abolitionism, emancipation, race, and civil rights. Subsequent scholarship focuses more and more on the centrality of black Americans to the national upheaval of the mid-nineteenth century.
Jim eventually moved to a broader Civil War canvas and in 1988 published Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which became the most widely read modern history of the conflict. It captures the vast complexity of the Civil War and underscores the myriad ways in which battlefront and home front influenced each other. "I have tried to integrate the political and military events of this era with important social and economic developments to form a seamless web . . . ," he explains in the preface. Referring to "these years of successive crises, rapid changes, dramatic events, and dynamic transformations," he adds, "A topical or thematic approach could not do justice to this dynamism, this complex relationship of cause and effect, this intensity of experience, especially during the four years of war when developments in several spheres occurred almost simultaneously and impinged on each other so powerfully and immediately as to give participants the sense of living a lifetime in a year."
Jim has placed people at the center of his work, seeking to illuminate their actions and attitudes within the context of their own experience. Mindful that the outcome of the war was not preordained, he stresses that military events and political decisions could have unfolded in different ways. "There was nothing inevitable about Northern victory in the Civil War," he observes in one of his essays. "Nor was Sherman's capture of Atlanta any more inevitable than, say, McClellan's capture of Richmond in June 1862 had been. There were several major turning points, points of contingency when events moved in one direction but could well have moved in another." Because historians and readers alike too often embrace Southern surrender as the only logical ending, the importance of Jim's point about the role of contingency cannot be overstated.
Rigorous discipline has been the key to Jim's productivity over a period of more than thirty-five years. He works efficiently and steadily, juggling an array of teaching, writing, and speaking commitments. In a world where scholarly history is too often written in jargon, the solid research, analytical rigor, and grace of Jim's books stand out. His writings also convey a passionate interest in the great questions of the Civil War era. Would slavery live or die? What did the concept of freedom mean to different Americans? How would relations between central and local authorities be defined?
His abiding interest in the war's participants, whether they be Abraham Lincoln and other leaders or the men and women who filled the ranks of the armies and endured varying hardships behind the lines, adds a human dimension that resonates with a large popular audience.
Few historians take more seriously the need to spread the findings of scholarship beyond the academy. At public forums, he goes beyond the often-raised speculation about what would have happened if Lee had won the battle of Gettysburg or if Stonewall Jackson had lived after the battle of Chancellorsville. Jim invites listeners to consider different perspectives, while challenging them to question much of what they think they know about the conflict.
Jim's commitment to battlefield preservation stems from a conviction that such sites offer outdoor classrooms in which to explore the many facets of the war. His battlefield tours do far more than explain which regiments fought where. He seamlessly weaves into his walking tours a great deal of information about why the men were fighting, how soldiers on different sides chose to remember the war, and how military operations influenced events behind the lines.
In the most publicized preservation struggle of the 1990s, he joined C. Vann Woodward and other historians and writers in an effort to stop a proposed Disney theme park near the national battlefield at Manassas, Virginia. He and the others conceded Disney's right to build such a park but insisted that it should not be placed so close to priceless historic land. They argued that the additional development that would accompany a theme park would overwhelm the surrounding countryside and diminish the quality of the battlefield's potential as an educational tool.
In his work as a board member of two major Civil War preservation organizations, he has again and again taken a mediating role in talks where preservationists decided how confrontational they should be in trying to save historic lands. His influence more than once helped break an impasse and was crucial in shaping a consensus relating to strategies for sites near Richmond, at Brandy Station near Culpeper, Virginia, and elsewhere.
Few fields of inquiry match the Civil War in terms of their potential to embrace a national audience. No one in our generation has explored that potential as well as James M. McPherson. He is a splendid national resource whose example of engaged scholarship sets a very high standard for others to emulate.
Battle Cry of Freedom
The surrender completed, the two generals saluted somberly and parted. "This will live in history," said one of Grant's aides. But the Union commander seemed distracted. Having given birth to a reunited nation, he experienced a post-partum melancholy. "I felt . . . sad and depressed," Grant wrote, "at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, thought that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought." As news of the surrender spread through Union camps, batteries began firing joyful salutes until Grant ordered them stopped. "The war is over," he said; "the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations." To help bring those former rebels back in the Union, Grant sent three days' rations for 25,000 men across the lines. This perhaps did something to ease the psychological as well as physical pain of Lee's soldiers.
So did an important symbolic gesture at a formal ceremony three days later when Confederate troops marched up to stack arms and surrender their flags. As they came, many among them shared the sentiments of one officer: "Was this to be the end of all our marching and fighting for the past four years? I could not keep back the tears." The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honor for Little Round Top, had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain's brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee's hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson's old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men with "his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance," Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dipped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms. These enemies in many a bloody battle ended the war not with the shame on one side and exultation on the other but with a soldier's "mutual salutation and farewell."
BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA. Copyright ©1988, Oxford University Press, New York, NY. Reproduced by permission.
For Cause and Comrades
"This contest is not the North against South," wrote a young Philadelphia printer six days before he enlisted. "It is government against anarchy, law against disorder." An Indiana lawyer who rose to brigadier general during the war and secretary of state after it told his pacifist wife in April 1861 that "it is better to have war for one year than anarchy & revolution for fifty years-If the government should suffer rebels to go on with their work with impunity there would be no end to it & in a short time we would be without any law or order." An immigrant working in a Philadelphia textile mill explained to his father back in England why he had enlisted in the 3 New Jersey. "If the Unionists let the South secede," he wrote, "the West might want to seperate next Presidential Election . . . others might want to follow and this country would be as bad as the German states. . . . There would have to be another form of a constitution wrote after it was written who would obey it?"
Union volunteers invoked the legacy of the Founding Fathers. They had inherited a nation sanctified by the blood and sacrifice of that heroic generation of 1776. If disunion destroyed this nation, the generation of 1861 would prove unworthy of the heritage of republican liberty. "Our fathers made this country, we their children are to save it," wrote a young lawyer to his wife who had opposed his enlistment in the 12th Ohio, leaving her and two small children behind. "If our institutions prove a failure and our Country be numbered among the things that were but are not . . . of what value will be house, family, and friends?" Civil war "is a calamity to any country," wrote a recruit in the 10th Wisconsin, but "this second war I consider equally as holy as the first…by which we gained those liberties and privileges" now threatened by "this monstrous rebellion."
Relatively few Union volunteers mentioned the slavery issue when they enlisted. But those who did were outspoken in their determination to destroy the "slave power" and to cleanse the restored Union of an evil they considered a mockery of American ideals of liberty. The main purpose of "this wicked rebellion," wrote an Iowa volunteer, was "to secure the extension of that blighting curse-slavery-o'er our fair land." An Ohio artillery officer believed in June 1861 that the war "will not be ended until the subject of slavery is finally and forever settled. It has been a great curse to this country." A Massachusetts infantry captain, a Harvard graduate, wrote to his mother in November 1861 that "Slavery has brought death into our own households already in its wicked rebellion. . . . There is but one way [to win the war] and that is emancipation…I want to sing 'John Brown' in the streets of Charleston, and ram red-hot abolitionism down their unwilling throats at the point of the bayonet."
Some Confederate volunteers did indeed avow the defense of slavery as a motive for enlisting. A young Virginia schoolteacher who joined the cavalry could not understand why his father, a substantial farmer and slaveowner, held out so long for preservation of the Union when reports in Southern newspapers made it clear that the Lincoln administration would "use its utmost endeavors for the abolishment of slavery." After all, Lincoln himself "has declared that one of the peculiar institutions of the South, which involves the value of four billions . . . is a 'a moral evil.'" No true Southerner could hesitate. "Better, far better! endure all the horrors of civil war than to see the dusky sons of Ham leading the fair daughters of the South to the altar." A slave-owning farmer enlisted in the 13th Georgia because "our homes our firesides our land and negroes and even the virtue of our fair ones is at stake," while a young Kentucky physician told his slaveholding relatives that he would join the Confederate forces "who are battling for their rights and for an institution in which Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee are [as] interested" as the lower South. "The vandals of the North . . . are determined to destroy slavery . . . We must all fight, and I choose to fight for southern rights and southern liberty."
FOR CAUSE AND COMRADES: WHY MEN FOUGHT IN THE CIVIL WAR. Copyright © 1997 Oxford University Press, New York, NY. Reproduced by permission.
Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution
As Lincoln phrased it in his famous public letter to Horace Greeley in August 1862, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. . . . What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union." By the time he wrote these words, Lincoln had made up his mind that to save the Union he must destroy slavery. The means always remained subordinated to the end, but the means did become as essential to the northern war effort as the end itself. In that sense perhaps we could describe Lincoln as a pragmatic revolutionary, for as a pragmatist he adapted the means to the end. Thus we can agree with the historian Norman Graebner who was quoted earlier as stating that Lincoln "accepted the need of dealing with things as they were, not as he would have wished them to be." But instead of concluding, as Graebner did, that this made Lincoln a conservative, we must conclude that it made him a revolutionary. Not an ideological revolutionary, to be sure-Lincoln was no Robespierre or Lenin with a blueprint for a new order-but he was a pragmatic revolutionary who found it necessary to destroy slavery and create a new birth of freedom in order to preserve the Union.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Copyright© 1991 by James McPherson. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, New York.
We Cannot Escape History
Lincoln's eloquence in December 1862 anticipated the Gettysburg Address. "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history," he told Congress-and the American people. "The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." For America, Lincoln insisted, this was the crossroads of history; this was where "we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth."
What did Lincoln mean? Why did he consider the Union to be the last best hope of earth? The last best hope for what?
Like other political leaders of his generation, Lincoln was painfully aware of the fate of most republics through history. Some Americans alive in 1861 had seen two French republics rise and fall. Republican governments in Latin America seemed to come and go with bewildering frequency. The hopes of 1848 for the triumph of popular governments in Europe had been crushed by the counterrevolutions that brought a conservative reaction in the Old World. The brave experiment launched in Philadelphia four score and seven years before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg seemed fragile indeed in this world bestrode by kings, emperors, czars, dictators, theories of aristocracy, and inequality. Would the American experiment also succumb to the fate of most republics and collapse into tyranny or fall to pieces?
Not if Lincoln could help it. The central vision that guided him was preservation of the United States as a republic governed by popular suffrage, majority rule, and the Constitution. If the Confederate rebellion succeeded in its effort to sever the United States, popular government would be swept into the dustbin of history. The next time a disaffected minority lost a presidential election, as Southern Rights Democrats had lost in 1860, that minority might invoke the Confederate precedent to proclaim its own secession. The dis-United States would fragment into a dozen petty, squabbling fiefdoms. "The central idea pervading this struggle," said Lincoln in 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves." Nor was this struggle "altogether for today," Lincoln told Congress in 1861. "It is for a vast future also." It "embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy . . . can, or cannot maintain its territorial integrity." If it could not, the forces of reaction in Europe would smile in smug satisfaction at his proof of their connection that the upstart republic launched in 1776 could never survive-that government of, by, and for the people had indeed perished from the earth.
WE CANNOT ESCAPE HISTORY: LINCOLN AND THE LAST BEST HOPE OF EARTH. Copyright © 1995. University of Illinois Press, Champaign. Reproduced by permission.
Drawn with the Sword
In the process of preserving the Union of 1776 while purging it of slavery, the Civil War also transformed it. Before 1861 the words United States were a plural noun: "The United States are a large country." Since 1865 United States has been a singular noun. The North went to war to preserve the Union; it ended by creating a nation. . . .
The old decentralized republic, in which the post office was the only agency of national government that touched the average citizen, was transformed by the crucible of war into a centralized polity that taxed people directly and created an internal revenue bureau to collect the taxes, expanded the jurisdiction of federal courts, created a national currency and a federally chartered banking system, drafted men into the army, and created the Freedmen's Bureau as the first national agency for social welfare.
DRAWN WITH THE SWORD: REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR. Copyright © 1996 by James McPherson. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, New York.
The Struggle for Equality
A few abolitionists acquiesced in the northern abandonment of Reconstruction, but most of them protested strongly against it. Not many northerners, however, listened to their protests after 1875. Abolitionists were not slow to discern and deplore the North's return to apathy. It was startling "to realize how completely the antislavery struggle is forgotten by the people, and how even the terrible expenditure of blood and treasure, which followed it, is fast sinking into oblivion," wrote Lydia Maria Child in 1878. "The lamentable misfortune is that emancipation was not the result of a popular moral sentiment, but of a miserable "military necessity." It was not the 'fruit of righteousness,' and therefore it is not 'peace.'" Five years later Frederick Douglass declared that "as the war for the Union recedes into the misty shadows of the past, and the Negro is no longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is . . . of less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war to the Negro. As the one has risen, the other has fallen."
Abolitionists had done their best to rally the conscience of the nation, but in the final analysis the nation refused to follow their leadership. Was this a "failure of the American abolitionists," as one historian has called it? Perhaps. Such abolitionist techniques as incisive criticism, harsh language, and moral absolutism may have been ill-suited to the conversion of conscience. But in a larger sense, their failure was the failure of the American people, and the United States has yet to measure up to the ideals of the abolitionist crusade. The civil rights movement of today has a greater chance of permanent success than did its counterpart in the 1860's. But whatever success the contemporary movement finally does achieve will be built partly on the foundations laid down more than a century ago by the abolitionists. They were the first "freedom riders," and their spirit still pervades the struggle for racial justice. The victories of Martin Luther King and his followers are in a very real sense, victories of the abolitionist crusade.
THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY: ABOLITIONIST AND THE NEGRO IN THE CIVIL WAR AND RECONSTRUCTION. Copyright ©1964 Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. Reproduced by permission.
NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talked with McPherson about the historical figures and foot soldiers of the Civil War.
Ferris: You are known primarily as a Civil War historian, but unlike many Civil War historians reared in the old North and South, you come from Minnesota. How does a Minnesota boy get interested in the Civil War?
McPherson: Growing up in Minnesota in the 1950s, I became fascinated by the South, which I had never visited, just because it seemed different and exotic and a little bit puzzling. In college my interest was kind of generic, primarily American history, because that's what was offered. Then, as a graduate student, I chose Johns Hopkins, which had C. Vann Woodward on the faculty, probably the preeminent Southern historian. I moved to Baltimore in the fall of 1958.
While I was in Baltimore, all kinds of interesting things were going on there as well as nationally. These were the years of Little Rock, New Orleans desegregation, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, really the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I became increasingly fascinated by the parallels and similarities between the time in which I was living in a border-state city, which was in the process of trying to change its race relations, and the events that had happened a hundred years earlier-confrontation between the national government and Southern political leaders who vowed massive resistance to federal-law; violence in the South over the race issue; Martin Luther King, Jr. urging President Kennedy to take action against discrimination in the same way that black leaders and abolitionists had urged Lincoln to take action against slavery-King even calling on Kennedy, in this case unsuccessfully, to issue a new Emancipation Proclamation on the one hundredth anniversary of the original. One of the motives, I think, for the March on Washington later in 1963 was Kennedy's reluctance to do so. And, of course, in the March on Washington, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. I was just struck by all of these parallels between what was a freedom crusade of the 1860s and a freedom crusade of the 1960s. My first entree into Civil War scholarship focused on that very theme. I did my Ph.D. dissertation on people that I called-perhaps with a little bit of exaggeration-the civil rights activists of the 1860s, the abolitionists, both black and white.
Ferris: Your best-known book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is Battle Cry of Freedom, a study of the origins of the Civil War and its aftermath. Can you talk about how you came to write that book?
McPherson: Back in the 1950s, Van Woodward and Richard Hofstetter conceived of the Oxford History of the United States, which was to be modeled on the Oxford History of England, a series of volumes each written by a different historian.
In the mid-1970s, Woodward asked me if I would do the post-Civil War volume covering 1865 to 1900. Then the person who was to write the Civil War and antebellum volume fell ill, and I asked to change assignments to the 1848 to 1865 period. I started working on it in the 1980s and it came out in 1988.
Ferris: To say the origins of the Civil War have been hotly debated would probably be an understatement. How do you explain the origins?
McPherson: I see a three-stage process in the origins of the Civil War. The first stage is a growing diversity between the economic and social systems of the North and the South. When the country was founded, all states had the institution of slavery and all were overwhelmingly rural and agricultural in character. But slavery was relatively marginal in the Northern states, and during and after the Revolution, they abolished it. Their economy began to develop in the direction of a more diversified, free-labor, commercial and industrial as well as agricultural economy, while the cotton boom in the South fastened slavery more firmly than ever on that section and kept the South overwhelmingly rural, overwhelmingly agricultural, and primarily dependent in its economy on slave-grown agricultural crops. The paths of development increasingly diverged over the first half of the nineteenth century and, in the process, generated increasingly polarized ideologies about what kind of society and what kind of nation the United States ought to be. And that focused on the institution of slavery, which by the 1830s was being increasingly attacked by the Northern abolitionists as contrary to the ideals of liberty that the country had been founded on, and as contrary to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence; while the South grew increasingly defensive and turned aggressive in its defensiveness, defending slavery as a positive good and as the basis for a far superior society to what they increasingly portrayed as a chaotic, disorganized, unjust, exploitative, free-labor society in the North.
National political debates focused on the question of whether slavery ought to continue to expand, as it had expanded from the admission of Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1790s right on through the annexation of Texas in 1845. With the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War in 1848, the debate about whether slavery should be allowed in any more territories sharpened to a mortal conflict. You had Northern and Southern congressmen drawing weapons on each other or threatening to do so on the floor of Congress, and South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks beating unconscious Senator Charles Sumner in 1856; and the rise of a new major party, the Republican Party, out of the earlier Free Soil Party, whose platform stated that there should be no more slave territories.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860 on that platform, without the vote of a single slave state, Southern leaders saw the handwriting on the wall. They saw that they had lost control of the national government--which they had enjoyed most of the time before 1860s owing to their leverage in the Democratic Party--and probably would never be able to regain it. And they decided that the fate of their society, their institution, their economy, their way of life-to use the phrase that was often used at the time-was in jeopardy under a United States government completely in the hands of people who opposed the expansion of slavery and whose leaders branded slavery a moral wrong that must eventually disappear from American society. So they seceded. These are the first two stages: the increasingly divergent Northern and Southern societies, and the institution of slavery as the focal point of that divergence.
The third and final stage is the nationalism of the Northern people, or a majority of them. They held the conviction that if any one or any group of states could secede from the United States in response to the election of somebody they didn't like as President of the United States, the United States would in fact cease to exist, that a constitutional republic based on majority rule and on free elections could not survive under a system where a state could secede when it didn't like the outcome of that constitutional process. Lincoln expressed his determination and was supported by the majority of the Northern people not to recognize the legitimacy of secession.
The trigger point was Fort Sumter, where Confederate leaders claimed they could not tolerate a foreign fort in the harbor of one of their principal ports, Charleston, South Carolina. The Lincoln Administration was determined to hang on to Fort Sumter as a symbol of what it considered to be federal sovereignty. When the Confederates decided to attack the fort and seize it before the ships sent to resupply the garrison could get there, that was the spark that set off the war.
Ferris: The title, Battle Cry of Freedom, refers to the fact that both the North and the South believed that they were fighting for freedom. How did their definitions of freedom differ?
McPherson: The South professed to be fighting for self-government. The thirteen colonies had seceded from the British Empire based on a philosophy of the freedom of people to choose their own form of government The Southern leaders in 1861 said they were fighting for the same rights. That was their definition of liberty.
There was a corollary to that definition. An essential component of liberty is the protection of private property. Slaves, of course, were property. To deny Southerners the right to take their slaves into new territories acquired by the United States would be a violation of their rights of property, therefore of their liberty. So they could, with perfect sincerity, claim that they were fighting for liberty even though part of that liberty was their right to hold slaves and to take them into any part of the territories acquired by the United States in the same way they could take personal property or livestock or anything else.
The Northern definition of liberty was the preservation of the Union, the nation, based on that revolution of 1776. They feared that recognizing the right of secession would undermine the whole concept of a government based on majority rule, constitutional procedures, and democratic elections. So they were fighting for their concept of liberty.
A great tragedy, in many ways, is that both sides look back to the same revolution of 1776 as the inspiration for the liberty that they were fighting for from 1861 to 1865. An irony is that both sides, at the beginning of the Civil War, did not include freedom for the slaves. Halfway through the war that became a Northern war aim as well, not only for an ideological reason, but probably even more for the practical reason that slavery was one of the most important institutions supporting the South and the Confederate war effort. A strike against slavery was a way of undermining the economic strength of the Confederacy and winning the war.
Ferris: How prevalent and influential was antiwar sentiment in the North and the South?
McPherson: Opposition to the government's war policies was a significant factor in both North and South. In the South, most of the people who opposed the war effort were those people who lived in regions where slavery was not an important part of their society and the economy: Western Virginia, which actually detached itself from the rest of Virginia and became the new state of West Virginia in the middle of the war; eastern Tennessee, which was mostly small farmers without slaves; western North Carolina, the Ozark plateau in Arkansas, and other parts of the South. These areas, if not Unionist, were for the most part reluctant supporters of the Confederacy. There was opposition to the draft and to other measures in these regions, and a lot of Unionism that manifested itself in overt antiwar acts-sabotage, resistance, and so on.
In the North, a large portion of the Democratic Party, which had been allied politically with the South before the Civil War, became increasingly alienated from the Lincoln Administration's concept of total victory as a way to restore the Union. These became known as the Peace Democrats or, more pejoratively, the Copperheads. Northern Republicans likened them to the poisonous copperhead snake that struck in the dark to undermine the Northern effort to win this war and preserve the nation. These Copperheads or Peace Democrats were not necessarily disloyal in the sense that they supported Confederate victory in the war. Rather, they opposed the effort to restore the Union by military victory and called for some armistice and peace negotiations. But, any kind of armistice or peace negotiations would be tantamount to a de facto recognition of the Confederate states of America as a legitimate government and contrary to what the North was fighting for.
The Peace Democrats were probably a more powerful factor in weakening the Northern war effort than were the antiwar faction in the South. I happen to think that the people in the eleven states that formed the Confederacy were probably more united and more determined in support of their government's war efforts than were the people in the North in support of the Lincoln Administration's efforts.
Ferris: You begin your book with the Mexican-American War. What influence did that conflict have on why and how the Civil War was fought?
McPherson: It had two major kinds of influence. It reopened the question of the expansion of slavery that had already been opened by the annexation of Texas in 1845. The situation led to the divisive debates that underlay the eventual Compromise of 1850, and then also played a part in reopening those debates in the middle 1850s over whether or not slavery should be expanded into the territories. This issue increasingly drove the free states and the slave states farther and farther apart and helped to bring on the war.
The Mexican War also influenced the manner in which the Civil War was fought. Most of the men who became generals on both sides in the Civil War had been junior officers in the Mexican War. The Americans had won every battle in the Mexican War. They had won it by daring offensive tactics, by assaults that overran defensive positions, by tactical aggressiveness, and, indeed, by strategic aggressiveness. Invasions deep into enemy territory influenced commanders on both sides even long into the Civil War at a time when the technology had changed between 1847 and 1861 to favor the defensive. The development of the rifle musket, which gave defenders an advantage against attacking troops, the expanded use of railroads and telegraphs and steam-powered warships and other benefits of modern technology meant that the tactics and even some of the strategic lessons carried into the Civil War by those men who had fought in the Mexican War would have to be changed. But generals are always fighting the last war. It takes a long time for them to realize that conditions have changed. I think some of the heavy casualties from frontal assaults, even flank attacks such as those at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg or Chickamauga in the Civil War were in part the consequence of the wrong lessons learned by the commanders in the Mexican War.
Ferris: Why did the Union ultimately win?
McPherson: I have argued that the North's overwhelming superiority in industrial resources and manpower and logistical capacity was a necessary condition for Northern victory. But that is not a sufficient explanation. Victory doesn't always go to the side that is stronger in numbers and resources, as we well know from the Vietnam War, and, indeed, as Americans knew in 1861 when they looked at the history of their conflict with Britain.
While the North could not have won the war without that kind of superiority, I think in the end that was not the total explanation. I think that it had more to do with the gradual development in the North of a coherent strategy for victory Richmond in ruins and the gradual rise of military commanders under Lincoln's leadership-leaders like Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and George Thomas, who were willing to put in place the kind of hard-war strategy, a strategy of all-out military conflict to destroy Confederate armies, but also an all-out effort to destroy the economic and social infrastructure that supported the Confederate war effort, to destroy the railroads, the factories, the farms, the economic infrastructure of the Confederacy, including the institution of slavery. It wasn't until the Northern leadership was willing to grasp the necessity of fighting this kind of a war against a determined and skillful foe that they were able to achieve ultimate victory.
The reason why industrial and population superiority was a necessary condition is that, to win the war, the North had to invade, conquer, occupy the South and destroy its capacity to wage war. That is a far harder task than what was necessary for the Confederacy to win the war, which was merely to defend what they already had in 1861; that is, military and political control of an existing government and a population willing to support that government. But it was the emergence of the right strategy and the leadership to carry it out that was in the end the sufficient condition for Northern victory.
Ferris: How would you describe the Civil War's legacy?
McPherson: The Civil War resolved two big issues left over from the Revolution and the Constitution. The first issue was whether a republic like the United States could survive in a world where most republics had eventually collapsed from within or had been overthrown from without. Americans were acutely aware of the uncertain fate of republics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In fact, Americans alive in the 1850s had seen two French republics rise and fall and be replaced by empires or kings. They had seen republican governments in Latin America come and go. The United States was the one outstanding example, but it was vulnerable to the same kind of fate that had overtaken other republics through history, going all the way back to Rome. Americans lived with the uncertainty of whether their nation, as one nation indivisible, based on a constitution and a republican form of government, would survive. The Civil War ensured that it would, and, indeed, since 1865, no state, no region, has seriously threatened to secede from the United States.
The other festering unresolved issue left from the Revolution was the institution of slavery. This was a government based on a charter that said that all men are created equal, with an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but a society which by the nineteenth century was the largest slave-holding country in the world. Was that inconsistency, that mockery of the ideals of liberty on which the country had been founded, was that going to endure? Lincoln said the country couldn't endure permanently half slave and half free in his famous "House Divided" address of 1858. In some ways, that was the fundamental underlying issue of the Civil War, and the outcome of the Civil War resolved that issue, too. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
I think there was a third legacy of the war. It is a little bit less obvious, but up until 1860 there had been two competing visions of the "good" society or of the future form of American society: the Southern vision of an agricultural society based on rural institutions, rural values, values of noblesse oblige, a caste system ruled by an elite on the one hand, and the Northern vision of a more messy democratic, urbanizing and industrializing society. When we look back, it seems inevitable that the Northern model of a free-labor democratic, competitive, capitalist society would prevail, but up until 1861, it was not clear to Americans which of these two visions of the good society would prevail. Northern victory in the Civil War assured that it would be the Northern vision, the Northern model.
Ferris: In writing your book, you wrestled with some of the war's great figures like Lincoln, Grant, Lee and Douglas. Are there some of those that you admired and others you were a little suspicious of or perhaps disliked?
McPherson: Well, I have never been able to conceive much affection for Stephen Douglas. I think that his misjudgments in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, his efforts to placate Southerners in the Democratic Party, had a lot to do with bringing on the increasing divisiveness of North and South. And as Lincoln charged him with in the 1858 debates, Douglas had no moral opposition to slavery.
I think Douglas's lack of moral concern about slavery and his deference to the South till too late, when he finally made a stand against Southern domination of the Democratic Party, was a factor that helped to bring on the war. Douglas died early in the war, so he didn't play a major role there.
In some ways--and perhaps this is what you were referring to--the other man named Douglass, Frederick Douglass with two s's rather than one, Frederick Douglass, is somebody I do admire. He was a leading black spokesman in the North, and he was one who relentlessly pushed the Lincoln Administration to move in the direction of making it a war for freedom. He also played a major role in helping to persuade the Administration that blacks ought to be allowed to fight for the Union and for freedom, and he helped to recruit some of the earliest black regiments. His two sons of military age joined one of the first regiments that was formed, the famous Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. So I do have a lot of admiration for that Douglass.
I do also for Lincoln. I think that comparing Grant and Lee is an interesting exercise. I think Grant had a better grasp of the overall strategic dimensions of this war, and when he was put in place as general-in-chief in 1864, he worked out a coordinated strategy for all of the Union armies to operate in such a way as to bring maximum pressure on the Confederacy at all points. Lee, until the very end of the war, never had that kind of authority over all of the Confederate armies, but, rather, was commander of the foremost army, the Army of Northern Virginia. He was probably the best tactical and perhaps theater strategic commander in the war. In some ways, Lee's superiority in that respect may have hurt the overall Confederate military effort because he was so good in his theater that many of the Confederate resources were poured into that theater in Virginia at the expense of other theaters of the war. So there is a kind of ironic dimension to Lee's superiority in that it may have come at the expense of other Confederate armies whose success was necessary if the Confederacy was to succeed.
Ferris: Your more recent book, For Cause and Comrades, takes a close look at the average soldier and why he fought the war. Where did the idea for that book come from?
McPherson: I grew increasingly impressed with the willingness of common soldiers on both sides to risk their lives as volunteers. Most soldiers on both sides, and certainly the most effective soldiers, were volunteers who had enlisted from civilian life early in the war before either side imposed conscription. It was a do-it-yourself mobilization on both sides by a democratic society that must have believed deeply in what it was fighting for to be willing to make the kinds of sacrifices and to deal with the enormous casualties that it did.
As a consequence, I formed a desire to find out what made these guys tick. What did they think they were fighting for? That kind of question was reinforced by the questions that people would ask me, especially my students here at Princeton, when I would take them on tours of Civil War battlefields. As we would walk over the terrain at Little Round Top or over the open fields where the Pickett-Pettigrew assault occurred at the climax of the battle on the third day, students would ask me, "Why were men willing to cross this territory when they knew that many of them would not come back? What enabled them to do it?" Well, I decided that I would try to answer these questions, and that the first and best place to look for answers was in their letters, in their diaries. There are thousands of letters from Civil War soldiers in research libraries and in private collections all around the country. They are a wonderful resource. There was no censorship of soldiers' letters in the Civil War. And while soldiers may not be 100 percent candid when they're writing to loved ones at home about what is happening to them and what is going on, nevertheless, they are the best way I know of to get at what they felt, what they thought.
So I went to these letters with a series of questions about what motivated them to enlist in the first place, what motivated them to persist in the army, what motivated them to face the music, as they themselves described it, in time of battle--to go forward under a hail of bullets and shells and risk their lives. That seems to me one of the most interesting and certainly one of the most important questions in studying the American Civil War. These were not like twentieth-century armies when the coercive power of the state to force men into the armed forces is powerful, or like eighteenth-century British redcoats or the soldiers of Prussia under Frederick the Great where the men were more afraid of their officers than they were of the enemy. These were volunteer civilian soldiers, citizen soldiers from a democratic society.
Ferris: Now, how did the soldiers who fought the Civil War compare to the citizen soldiers of World War II?
McPherson: They differed in that most of them were volunteers rather than draftees. I think Civil War soldiers differed from World War II soldiers also in that they had a firmer grasp on and were able to articulate more clearly what they were fighting for. And they were far more willing to write and talk about what they were fighting for. World War II soldiers in the United States had a general idea that they were fighting against fascist tyranny and they were fighting for democracy. But they didn't go very far beyond that, according to studies of World War II soldiers. They for the most part avoided much talk about the cause with a capital C for which they were fighting. Civil War soldiers tended to go much more deeply into why they were fighting, to define their understanding of liberty, nationalism, and constitutional rights.
American troops wade through water and Nazi gunfire as part of the D-Day invasion I think that is partly because this was a civil war, after all. It would determine the fate of two societies and two governments, Union and Confederate. It was fought right here in the United States and, by its very nature, that kind of war is much more ideological than a war fought thousands of miles away. The fate of European countries and of Asian countries was at stake in World War II, but probably not the fate of the United States, and that makes a big difference in the sharpness of concern and the sharpness of articulation on the part of soldiers as to what they are fighting for.
Ferris: Now, the soldiers who fought in the Civil War were very religious. What role did religion play in their daily lives and on the battlefield?
McPherson: Civil War soldiers were a product of what has been called the second Great Awakening in American religious history, that wave of evangelical Protestant revivalism in the early part of the nineteenth century.
I think most Civil War soldiers were quite literal in their Christian beliefs. Many of them would say in their letters that they had put their fate in God's hands. They were religious fatalists on the battlefield. They would write home and say, "I'm under God's protection whether I'm on the battlefield or at home in front of my fireside, and if it is His will to take me home to his bosom, He can do that as easily at home by my fireside as He can on the field of battle." I think this kind of fatalism and this sense that God's will would determine their fate, rather than their own will, made them better soldiers. They were willing to put their fate in the hands of God, willing to go forward in time of battle, whatever happened.
I found in looking at their letters that many of them held a literal belief in salvation, in a life after death, that this life here on earth is merely a preliminary to eternal life and to a much better life after the death of the physical corporeal body. Many of them said that they were unafraid of death because death was not the end of everything, and they looked forward, if they died on the battlefield, to being reunited with their loved ones in a future life. I think that made them much more willing to face the possibility of their physical death.
Ferris: After all this time, the Civil War still captures people's imaginations. You have called it the war that never goes away. How do you explain this enduring fascination with it?
McPherson: Well, one reason is the continuing salience of many of the issues over which the war was fought. Even though the war resolved the issues of Union and slavery, it didn't entirely resolve the issues that underlay those two questions. The relationships between the national government and regions, race relations, the role of government in trying to bring about change in race relations-these issues are still important in American society today: regionalism, resentment of centralized government, debates about how powerful the national government ought to be and what role it ought to play in people's lives. The continuing relevance of those issues, I think, is one reason for the continuing fascination with the Civil War.
Ferris: Jim, you wrote a wonderful piece in a New York Times book review recently in which you encouraged academics to write more for the reading public. Why don't they write more popular history?
McPherson: There is a tendency to look down on popular history in academia. The word "popularization" is a word that can be almost a kiss of death for young faculty members trying to get ahead, trying to gain tenure. There is more emphasis placed on archival research, on innovative methodology, on new breakthrough interpretations, on methodology in academia, and increasing specialization. There is increasing focus on fields like environmental history and women's history and social history and cliometrics, which is a sort of quantitative economic history with a specialized language. All of this makes what a lot of academic historians write either unintelligible or uninteresting to a broad lay audience. But it is what earns promotions, what earns tenure, what earns grants.
Look at the large membership in the history book club, the interest in the History Channel on television, and the interest in documentaries by Ken Burns and by other historical filmmakers. There is a real hunger out there which is not always reached by academic historians. I think they ought to reach out more than they do, and that is what I try to do.
Ferris: I agree. I would like your thoughts on how you've been able to straddle that line and both please your colleagues in history and strike a note of interest with the reading public.
McPherson: That is not an easy question to answer. In part it has to do with the stage of my career. Early in my career, I wrote more specialized works and worked my way up the academic ladder. Once having achieved a certain amount of security and status within the academic community, it is possible for me to reach out without necessarily jeopardizing my career within the community. So that is part of the answer.
I don't think it is the whole answer. I think it's possible to break new ground or offer new interpretations or to write a narrative work of history in such a way as it can appeal to a general audience, but also have something for a more academic and specialized audience. It has something to do with being convinced that history is a story of change over time, with a beginning, a development, a climax of consequences, and writing that story in such a way as it will retain the interest of a broad audience, but also have something new and interesting in the way of insight or interpretation for the specialist as well. It is not easy to explain. I just try to do it, and sometimes I think I've succeeded.
Ferris: Vann Woodward, one of the deans of American history in the twentieth century, was your teacher and advisor. What did he teach you about writing history?
McPherson: He taught me mostly by example and then by being a very good critic of what I did write in dissertation draft chapters and other things over the years. Vann Woodward reached out to a broad audience with his biography of Tom Watson, the populist leader in Georgia; with his Origins of the New South; and especially his Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that in many ways had a major impact on the whole Civil Rights Movement. All of that was happening when I was studying at Hopkins with Vann Woodward. I was much impressed by his ability to reach a broad audience at the same time that he was offering the kind of interpretation that established new paradigms in Southern history, especially with his book, Origins of the New South.
Ferris: What do you think makes for a compelling history volume?
McPherson: First and foremost, it has to be readable. If the writing is awkward, jargon ridden, narrow, if the prose is dull or dead, then people aren't going to read it.
Second, it has to be accurate. It has to be based on thorough research and on an honest effort to present the story as objectively as possible. Nobody can be 100 percent objective, but it has to be fair-minded.
Third, I think it does have to be a story. It has to have dramatic tension. It can't merely be about large economic or social or cultural forces without real people in there with whom the reader can identify. These are some of the important things that will engage the reader and keep him from saying, "This is dull, this is uninteresting. I'm not going to waste my time on this book."
Ferris: That is a wonderful way to conclude this conversation. I really appreciate your taking this time to visit with me.
McPherson: I've enjoyed it myself a great deal. It has helped me think through some of these questions more fully than I have in the past.
"For A Vast Future Also": Lincoln and the Millennium
BY JAMES M. MCPHERSON
March 27, 2000
When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton intoned: "Now he belongs to the ages."
Stanton's remark was more prescient than he knew, for Lincoln's image and his legacy became the possession not only of future ages of Americans but also of people of other nations. On the centenary of Lincoln's birth in 1909, Leo Tolstoy described him as "a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity." An Islamic leader projected a more militant image of Lincoln, declaring that America's sixteenth president "spoke with a voice of thunder. . .and his deeds were as strong as the rock." When Jacqueline Kennedy lived in the White House, she sought comfort in the Lincoln Room in times of trouble. "The kind of peace I felt in that room," she recalled, "was what you feel when going into a church. I used to feel his strength, I'd sort of be talking to him."
Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to persuade Jacqueline Kennedy's husband to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation on the hundredth anniversary of the first. John Kennedy demurred. So King went on his own. When he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 to deliver his "I have a Dream" speech, King declared: "Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flames of withering injustice."
Lincoln could not anticipate the reverence that millions would feel for him in future ages. But he was intensely aware, as he told Congress in December 1861 when America was engulfed in a tragic Civil War, that this struggle to preserve the Union "is not altogether for today--it is for a vast future also." More than any other President of the United States except perhaps the one for whom this lecture is named, Abraham Lincoln had a profound sense of history. He did not acquire it by formal education. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, Lincoln did not have a Ph.D. He did not study history in college or high school; indeed, he did not study it in school at all, for he had less than a year of formal schooling, which included no history courses. The only work of history Lincoln seems to have read as a boy was "Parson" Weems's famous filiopietistic biography of George Washington, with its apocryphal story of the hatchet and cherry tree.
This book had made a lasting impression on Lincoln. Forty years after he first read it, President-elect Lincoln addressed the New Jersey legislature in Trenton, near the spot where George Washington's ragged troops had won a victory the day after Christmas 1776 that saved the American Revolution from collapse. Lincoln told the legislators: "I remember all the accounts" in Weems's book "of the battle-fields and struggles for the liberty of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton. . . .The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event. . . .I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."
These words were not merely an exercise in nostalgia. As always, Lincoln invoked the past for a purpose. On this occasion he shifted from the Revolution to the present and future. Prospects for the United States in that present and future were dark. The country of which Lincoln would become President eleven days later was no longer the United States, but the dis-United States. Seven slave states, fearing for the future of their peculiar institution in nation governed by the new antislavery Republican party, had seceded from the Union in response to Lincoln's election. Several more slave states were threatening to go out. Even as Lincoln spoke in Trenton, those first seven states were meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, to form the independent nation of the Confederate States of America. Civil War, or a permanent division of the country with its dire precedent for further division, or both, loomed on the horizon. Thus it is not surprising that when Lincoln shifted from his discussion of the Revolution to the present, he began: "I am exceedingly anxious" that what those men fought for, "that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world [for] all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle was made."
The next day, Washington's birthday, Lincoln spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he spelled out more clearly what he believed was at stake both in the Revolution and in the crisis of 1861. "I have often inquired of myself," said Lincoln, "what great principle or idea it was that kept this [union] so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land, but that sentiment in the Declaration [of Independence] which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." At this point in Lincoln's remarks, the newspaper text indicated "Great applause" from the audience, which included the city council and leading citizens of Philadelphia. Lincoln told them: "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence" ("Great cheering," according to the press). The ringing phrases that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," said Lincoln in 1861, "gave promise" not just to Americans, but "hope to the world" that "in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. (Cheers.)"
The sincerity of many in the audience who cheered Lincoln's egalitarian sentiments might be questioned. But Lincoln was quite sincere in his endorsement of them. He was, of course, painfully aware that many Americans enjoyed neither liberty nor equality. Four million were slaves, making the United States--the self-professed beacon of liberty to oppressed masses everywhere--the largest slaveholding country in the world. Lincoln grasped this nettle. "I hate. . .the monstrous injustice of slavery," he said in his famous Peoria speech of 1854. "I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world--enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites."
As for equality, said Lincoln on another occasion, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the founding fathers who signed it clearly "did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects." They did not even "mean to assert the obvious untruth" that all men in 1776 were equal in rights and opportunities. Rather, "they meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be. . . .constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."
Like Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln asserted a universality and timelessness for the principle of liberty, equal rights, and equal opportunity on which the nation was founded. And Lincoln acknowledged his intellectual debt to Jefferson--not Jefferson the slaveholder, not Jefferson the author of the Kentucky resolutions of 1799 asserting the superiority of state over federal sovereignty, not even Jefferson the President--but Jefferson the philosopher of liberty, author of the Northwest Ordinance that kept slavery out of future states comprising 160,000 square miles at a time when most existing states of the Union still had slavery, and the Jefferson who, though he owned slaves, said of the institution that "he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just." This was the Jefferson, said Lincoln in 1859, who "in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document"--the Declaration of Independence--"an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times."
Universal and timeless this truth may be, but in Jefferson's time it remained mostly as Lincoln described it--abstract. Fate decreed that it fell to Lincoln, not Jefferson, to give substance and meaning to what Jefferson had called a self-evident truth. Ironically, it was the slaveholders who provided Lincoln the opportunity to do so, for by taking their states out of the Union they set in train a progression of events that destroyed the very social and political order founded on slavery that they had seceded to preserve.
Secession transformed the main issue before the country from slavery to disunion. When Lincoln became President, he confronted the question not what to do about slavery, but what to do about secession. On this question, Lincoln did not hesitate. Branding secession as "the essence of anarchy," he insisted in 1861 that "the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of providing that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whether they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves."
Lincoln had come a long way in his understanding of history since his boyhood reading of Weems's biography of Washington. Like other thoughtful Americans, he was acutely conscious of the unhappy fate of most republics in the past. The United States stood almost alone in the mid-nineteenth century as a democratic republic in a world bestrode by kings, emperors, czars, petty dictators, and theories of aristocracy. Some Americans alive at midcentury had seen two French republics rise and fall. The hopes of 1848 for the triumph of popular government in Europe had been shattered by the counterrevolutions that brought a conservative reaction in the Old World. Would the American experiment in government of, by, and for the people also be swept into the dustbin of history?
Not if Lincoln could help it. "Our popular government has often been called an experiment," he told a special session of Congress that met on July 4, 1861. "Two points in it, our people have already settled--the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains--its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it." If that attempt succeeded, said Lincoln, the forces of reaction in Europe would smile in smug satisfaction at this proof of their contention that the upstart republic launched in 1776 could not last.
Many in the North shared Lincoln's conviction that democracy was on trial in this war. "We must fight," proclaimed an Indianapolis newspaper two weeks after Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter. "We must fight because we must. The National Government has been assailed. The Nation has been defied. If either can be done with impunity neither Nation nor Government is worth a cent. . . .War is self preservation, if our form of Government is worth preserving. If monarchy would be better, it might be wise to quit fighting, admit that a Republic is too weak to take care of itself, and invite some deposed Duke or Prince of Europe to come over here and rule us. But otherwise, we must fight."
The outbreak of war brought hundreds of thousands of Northern men to recruiting offices. A good many of them expressed a similar sense of democratic mission as a motive for fighting. "I do feel that the liberty of the world is placed in our hands to defend," wrote a Massachusetts soldier to his wife in 1862, "and if we are overcome then farewell to freedom." In 1863, on the second anniversary of his enlistment, an Ohio private wrote in his diary that he had not expected the war to last so long, but no matter how much longer it took it must be carried on "for the great principles of liberty and self government at sake, for should we fail, the onward march of Liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings, and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever."
Some foreign-born soldiers appreciated the international impact of the war more intensely than native-born men who took their political rights for granted. A young British immigrant in Philadelphia wrote to his father back in England explaining why he had enlisted in the Union army. "If the Unionists let the South secede," he wrote, "the West might want to separate next Presidential Election. . . .others might want to follow and this country would be as bad as the German states." Another English-born soldier, a 40 year-old corporal in an Ohio regiment, wrote to his wife in 1864 explaining why he had decided to re-enlist for a second three-year hitch. "If I do get hurt I want you to remember that it will be not only for my Country and my Children but for Liberty all over the World that I risked my life, for if Liberty should be crushed here, what hope would there be for the cause of Human Progress anywhere else?" An Irish-born carpenter, a private in the 28th Massachusetts Infantry of the famous Irish Brigade, rebuked both his wife in Boston and his father-in-law back in Ireland for questioning his judgment in risking his life for the Union. "This is the first test of a modern free government in the act of sustaining itself against internal enemys," he wrote almost in echo of Lincoln. "If it fail then the hopes of millions fall and the designs and wishes of all tyrants will succeed the old cry will be sent forth from the aristocrats of Europe that such is the common lot of all republics." It is worth noting that both this Irish-born private and the English-born Ohio corporal were killed in action in 1864.
The American sense of mission invoked by Lincoln and by these soldiers--the idea that the American experiment in democracy was a beacon of liberty and democracy for oppressed people everywhere--is as old as the Mayflower Compact and as new as apparent American victory in the Cold War. In our own time this sentiment sometimes comes across as self-righteous posturing that inspires more resentment than admiration abroad. The same was true in Lincoln's time, but the resentment then was expressed mainly by the upper classes, especially in Britain. Many spokesmen for the middle and working classes in Europe echoed the most chauvinistic Yankees. During the debate that produced the British Reform Act of 1832, the London Working Men's Association pronounced "the Republic of America" to be a "beacon of freedom for all mankind," while a British newspaper named the Poor Man's Guardian pointed to American institutions as "the best precedent and guide to the oppressed and enslaved people of England in their struggle for the RIGHT OF REPRESENTATION FOR EVERY MAN."
In the preface to the twelfth edition of his Democracy in America, written during the heady days of the 1848 democratic uprisings in Europe, Alexis de Tocqueville urged the leaders of France's newly created Second Republic to study American institutions as a guide to "the approaching irresistible and universal spread of democracy throughout the world." When instead of democracy France got the Second Empire under Napoleon III, the republican opposition to his regime looked to the United States for inspiration. "Many of the suggested reforms," wrote the historian of the French opposition, "would have remained utopic had it not been for the demonstrable existence of the United States and its republican institutions." The existence of the United States remained a thorn in the side of European reactionaries, according to a British radical newspaper, which stated in 1856 that "to the oppressors of Europe, especially those of England, the [United States] is a constant terror, and an everlasting menace" because it stood as "a practical and triumphant refutation of the lying and servile sophists who maintain that without kings and aristocrats, civilized communities cannot exist."
Once the war broke out, French republicans, some of them in exile, supported the North as "defenders of right and humanity." In England, John Stuart Mill expressed the conviction that the American Civil War "is destined to be a turning point, for good and evil, of the course of human affairs." Confederate success, said Mills, "would be a victory for the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the sprits of its friends all over the civilized world."
Some European monarchists and conservatives did indeed make no secret of their hope that the Union would fall into the dustbin of history. The powerful Times of London considered the likely downfall of "the American colossus" a good "riddance of a nightmare. . . .Excepting a few gentlemen of republican tendencies, we all expect, we nearly all wish, success to the Confederate cause." The Earl of Shrewsbury expressed his cheerful belief "that the dissolution of the Union is inevitable, and that men before me will live to see an aristocracy established in America." In Spain the royalist journal Pensamiento Espanol found it scarcely surprising that American were butchering each other, for the United States, it declared editorially, "was populated by the dregs of all the nations of the world. . . .Such is the real history of the one and only state in the world which has succeeded in constituting itself according to the flaming theories of democracy. The example is too horrible to stir any desire for emulation." The minister to the United States from the Czar of all Russia echoed this opinion in 1863. "The republican form of government, so much talked about by the Europeans and so much praised by the Americans, is breaking down," he wrote. "What can be expected from a country where men of humble origin are elevated to the highest positions?" He meant Lincoln, of course. "This is democracy in practice, the democracy that European theorists rave about. If they could only see it at work they would cease their agitation and thank God for the government which they are enjoying."
Clearly, opinion in Europe supported Lincoln's conviction that the very survival of democracy was at stake in the Civil War. But in the first year and one-half of the war, the problem of slavery muddied the clarity of this issue. The Confederacy was a slave society, which should have strengthened the Union's image abroad as the champion of liberty and equal rights. As Lincoln put it in a private conversation in January 1862: "I cannot imagine that any European power would dare to recognize and aid the Southern Confederacy if it became clear that the Confederacy stands for slavery and the Union for freedom." The problem was, at that time the Union did not stand for the freedom of slaves. Constitutional constraints plus Lincoln's need to keep Northern Democrats and the border slave states in his war coalition inhibited efforts to make it a war against slavery. This restraint puzzled and alienated many potential European friends of the Union cause. An English observer asked in September 1861: Since "the North does not proclaim abolition and never pretended to fight for anti-slavery," how "can we be fairly called upon to sympathize so warmly with the Federal cause?"
Lincoln recognized the validity of this question. In September 1862 he agreed with a delegation of antislavery clergymen that "emancipation would help us in Europe, and convince them that we are incited by something more than ambition." When he said this, Lincoln had made up his mind to issue an emancipation proclamation. The balance of political forces in the North and military forces on the battlefield had shifted just enough to give this decision the impetus of public support. Basing his action on the power of the commander in chief to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States--slaves were property and their labor was essential to the Confederate war economy--Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and the final Proclamation on January 1, 1863, justifying it as both a "military necessity" and an "act of justice."
The Emancipation Proclamation not only laid the groundwork for the total abolition of slavery in the United States, which was accomplished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. It also emancipated Lincoln from the contradiction of fighting a war for democratic liberty without fighting a war against slavery. Emancipation deepened Lincoln's sense of history. As he signed the Proclamation on that New Year's Day 1863, he said to colleagues who gathered to witness this historic occasion: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper. If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it."
Lincoln here connected the act of emancipation with the future, as he had earlier connected the war for the Union with a past that had given Lincoln's generation the legacy of a united country. Just as the sacrifices of those who had fought for independence and nationhood in 1776 inspired Lincoln and the people he led, their sacrifices in the Civil War would leave a legacy of democracy and freedom to future generations. It was in his first annual message to Congress--we call it today the State of the Union Address--that Lincoln declared "the struggle of today is not altogether for today--it is for a vast future also." Lincoln sent his second annual message to Congress in December 1862, just before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. On this occasion he defined the war's meaning by linking past, present, and future in a passage of unsurpassed eloquence and power. "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history," he said. "We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. . . .The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . .We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. . . .The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. . . .In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free. . . .We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
I said a moment ago that Lincoln's eloquence in this passage was unsurpassed. But he did surpass himself nearly a year later, in the prose poem of 272 words that we know as the Gettysburg Address. In this elegy for Union soldiers killed at the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln wove together past, present, and future with two other sets of three images each: continent, nation, battlefield; and birth, death, rebirth. The Gettysburg Address is so familiar that, like other things that we can recite from memory, its meaning sometimes loses its import. At the risk of destroying the speech's poetic qualities, let us disaggregate these parallel images of past, present, future; continent, nation, battlefield; and birth, death, rebirth. To do this will underscore the meaning of the Civil War not only for Lincoln's time but also for generations into the future, indeed for the new millennium we have just entered.
Fourscore and seven years in the past, said Lincoln, our fathers brought forth on this continent a nation conceived in liberty. Today, our generation faces a great test whether a nation so conceived can survive. In dedicating the cemetery on this battlefield, the living must take inspiration to finish the task that those who lie buried here so nobly advanced by giving their last full measure of devotion. Life and death in this passage have a paradoxical but metaphorical relationship: men died that the nation might live, yet metaphorically the old Union also died, and with it would die the institution of slavery. After these deaths, the nation must have a "new birth of freedom" so that government of, by, and for the people that our fathers conceived and brought forth in the past "shall not perish from the earth" but live into the vast future, even unto the next millennium.
Although Lincoln gave this address at the dedication of a cemetery, its rhetoric was secular. As the war went on, however, Lincoln's efforts to come to grips with the mounting toll of death, destruction, and suffering became more infused with religious inquiry. Perhaps God was punishing Americans with "this terrible war" for some great sin. By the time of his inauguration for a second term, Lincoln believed he had identified that sin. "Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away," said Lincoln in his second inaugural address. "Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."
Fortunately, the war lasted only another few weeks after Lincoln's second inauguration. In this new millennium, we may well wonder if we are still paying for the blood drawn with the lash of slavery. But the impact abroad of Union victory was almost immediate. In Britain a disgruntled Tory member of Parliament expressed disappointment that the Union had not broken in "two or perhaps more fragments," for he considered the United States "a menace to the whole civilized world." A Tory colleague described this menace as "the beginning of an Americanizing process in England. The new Democratic ideas are gradually to find embodiment." Indeed they were. In 1865 a liberal political economist at University College London, Edward Beesly, who wanted the expansion of voting rights in Britain, pointed the moral of Union victory across the Atlantic. "Our opponents told us that Republicanism was on trail" in the American Civil War, said Beesly. "They insisted on our watching what they called its breakdown. They told us that it was forever discredited in England. Well, we accepted the challenge. We staked our hopes boldly on the result. . . .Under a strain such as no aristocracy, no monarchy, no empire could have supported, Republican institutions have stood firm. It is we, now, who call upon the privileged classes to mark the result. . . .A vast impetus has been given to Republican sentiments in England."
Queen Victoria's throne was safe. But a two-year debate in Parliament, in which the American example figured prominently, led to enactment of the Reform Bill of 1867, which nearly doubled the eligible electorate and enfranchised a large part of the British working class for the first time. With this act the world's most powerful nation took a stride toward democracy. What might have happened to the Reform Bill if the North had lost the Civil War, thereby confounding liberals and confirming Tory opinions of democracy, is impossible to say.
The end of slavery in the re-United States sounded the death knell of the institution in Brazil and Cuba, the only other places in the Western Hemisphere where it still existed. Commending the Brazilian government's first steps toward abolition of slavery in 1871, an abolitionist in that country was glad, as he put it, "to see Brazil receive so quickly the moral of the Civil War in the United States."
Even without Northern victory in the war, slavery in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba would have been unlikely to survive into the next millennium. But it might well have survived into the next century. And without the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which like the Thirteenth were a direct consequence of the war, and which granted equal civil and political rights to African-Americans, the United States might have developed into even more of an apartheid society in the twentieth century than it did.
These amendments consummated a new interpretation of liberty in the American polity, an interpretation that may be the most important legacy of the Civil War for the new millennium. Lincoln played a crucial role in the evolution of this new concept of liberty. In April 1864 he chose the occasion of a public speech in Baltimore to define the difference between two meanings of this word that is so central to America's understanding of itself. "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty," Lincoln declared in this state that still had slavery but was about to abolish it. "We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty." As he often did, Lincoln went on to illustrate his point with a parable. One of the first books he had read as a child was Aesop's Fables, and throughout his life Lincoln told apparently simple stories about animals to make subtle and profound points about important matters. "The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat," he said, "for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as a destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep is a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty."
The shepherd in this fable was, of course, Lincoln himself; the black sheep was the slave, and the wolf his owner. The point of the fable was similar to a barbed comment Lincoln had made a decade earlier about Southern rhetoric professing a love of liberty. "The perfect liberty they sigh for," said Lincoln on that occasion, "is the liberty of making slaves of other people." More subtly, Lincoln in this parable was drawing a distinction between what the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as "negative liberty" and "positive liberty." The concept of negative liberty is perhaps more familiar. It can be defined as the absence of restraint, a freedom from interference by outside authority with individual thought or behavior. Laws requiring automobile passengers to wear seatbelts or motorcyclists to wear helmets are a violation of their liberty to go without seatbelts or helmets. Negative liberty, therefore, is best described as freedom from. Positive liberty can be defined as freedom to--freedom to live longer and better because wearing a seatbelt or helmet has saved one from death or inquiry.
The example of freedom of the press perhaps provides a better illustration. This freedom is usually understood as a negative liberty--freedom from interference with what a writer writes or a reader reads. But an illiterate person suffers from a denial of positive liberty. He is unable to enjoy the freedom to read or write whatever he pleases not because some authority prevents him from doing so, but because he cannot read or write anything. The remedy lies not in removal of restraint but in achievement of the capacity to read and write.
Another way of defining the difference between these two concepts of liberty is to describe their relation to power. Negative liberty and power are at opposite poles; power is the enemy of liberty, especially power in the hands of a central government. Negative liberty was the preeminent concern of Americans in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Many feared the federal government as the main threat to individual liberty; some still do today. Americans fought their Revolution against the overweening power of King and Parliament. They fragmented power among the three branches of the federal government, between the two houses of Congress, and between the national and state governments. But even this was not enough, in James Madison's words, to prevent the "tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty." So the founders wrote a Bill of Rights which, in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, imposed limits on the power of the federal government.
Throughout early American history, political leaders remained vigilant against concentrations of power. Andrew Jackson vetoed the charter renewal of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832 because, he said, such a combination of private wealth and government power would cause "our liberties to be crushed." In 1854 the famous reformer of mental hospitals, Dorothea Dix, persuaded Congress to pass a bill granting public lands to the states to subsidize improved facilities for the mentally ill. President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill because, he wrote in his veto message, if Congress could enact such a law, "it has the power to provide for the indigent who are not insane, and thus…the whole field of public beneficence is thrown open to the care and culture of the Federal Government." This would mean "all sovereignty vested in an absolute consolidated central power, against which the spirit of liberty has so often and in so many countries struggled in vain." Therefore a law to improve mental hospitals, concluded Pierce, would be "the beginning of the end…of our blessed inheritance of representative liberty."
Owners of slaves also relied on this bulwark of negative liberty to defend their right of property in human beings. John C. Calhoun and other Southern political leaders constructed an elaborate structure of state sovereignty and limitation on national power. No exercise of federal power escaped the censure of these proslavery libertarians. As Senator Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina explained: "If Congress can make banks, roads, and canals under the Construction, they can free any slave in the United States."
The ultimate manifestation of negative liberty was secession. Southern states left the Union in 1861 because they feared that sometime in the future the growing Northern antislavery majority embodied in the Republican party would exercise its power to free the slaves--a form of positive liberty that might even go so far as to empower them to read and write, to vote, and to aspire to equality with whites--a truly frightening scenario of positive liberty. Yet ironically, by seceding and provoking a war, Southern whites hastened the very achievement of positive liberty they had gone to war to prevent. By 1864, when Lincoln told his parable about the shepherd protecting the black sheep from the wolf, that shepherd wielded a very big staff as commander in chief of the largest army yet known in the United States. It took every ounce of this power to accomplish the "new birth of freedom" that Lincoln invoked at Gettysburg.
Tragically, Lincoln did not live to oversee advancement toward that goal. His earlier definition of equality as a "maxim for free society. . .even though never perfectly attained. . .constantly labored for. . .and thereby constantly spreading the deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors" suggests the policies of positive liberty he would have pursued had he lived. But at Ford's Theatre, John Wilkes Booth ended that possibility as he shouted Virginia's state motto, "sic semper tyrannis" (thus always to tyrants)--the slogan of negative liberty.
Lincoln's party carried on the tradition of positive liberty with its efforts to legislate and enforce equal civil rights, voting rights, and education during Reconstruction. As Congressman George Julian noted in 1867, the only way to achieve "justice and equality. . . .for the freedmen of the South" was by the "strong arm of power, outstretched from the central authority here in Washington." Or as Congressman James Garfield, a future Republican president, put it also in 1867, "we must plant the heavy hand of …authority upon these rebel communities, and. . .plant liberty on the ruins of slavery."
That is what the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution tried to do. These amendments radically transformed the thrust of the Constitution from negative to positive liberty. Instead of the straitjacket of "thou shalt nots" imposed on the federal government by the Bill of Rights, the Civil War amendments established a precedent whereby nine of the next fourteen Constitutional amendments contained the phrase "Congress shall have the power" to enforce the provisions. Lincoln himself set this precedent by helping to draft the Thirteenth Amendment, which was the centerpiece of the platform on which he was re-elected in 1864.
Lincoln's party continued its commitment to positive liberty at least through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. In the twentieth century, however, the two major parties gradually reversed positions. The Democratic party, once the bastion of negative liberty, state's rights, and limited government, donned the mantle of positive liberty while most Republicans invoked the mantra of negative liberty. How these matters will play out in the new millennium remains to be seen. But whatever happens, Lincoln's legacy of one nation, indivisible, with freedom for four million slaves and their descendents, seems likely to persist far into the millennium.
A few years ago the Huntington Library sponsored an essay contest on Lincoln for high school students in connection with its major Lincoln exhibit. One of the finalists was a seventeen year-old girl from Texas, whose forebears had immigrated to the United States from India. She wrote that "if the United States was not in existence today, I would not have the opportunity to excel in life and education. The Union was preserved, not only for the people yesterday, but also for the lives of today."
Lincoln would surely have applauded this statement. In 1861 he said that the struggle for the Union involved not only "the fate of these United States" but also "the whole family of man." It was a struggle "not altogether for today" but "for a vast future also." We are living in that vast future. Lincoln's words resonate in the twenty-first century with as much relevance as they did sevenscore years ago.