May Days and Freedom Walks

May Days and Freedom Walks

Spinozablue welcomes the poetry and fiction of A.J. Huffman and Charles Tarlton, plus new work by returning champions Donal Mahoney and Steve Klepetar.

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The Fiery Trial, by Eric Foner

I’m currently reading a fantastic history by Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial.  It’s a biography of Lincoln in a sense, but focuses on his relationship to slavery and its abolition. Two hundred pages in, I’m reminded of just how far we’ve come, and how incredibly, tragically long it took us to get here. I had forgotten, for instance, that Lincoln’s views — which evolved over time — were considered by many to be too radical, while actual radicals and abolitionists considered him far too accommodating on the issue. At least until 1863. Within his own party, he was considered a moderate, and he worked hard to assuage the fears of the South and, later, Unionist slaveholders. He was against slavery, it appears, from the start, but he was also against forcing the South to give up its disgusting, unconscionable institution. He, along with most in the anti-slavery camp, wanted to stop the expansion of slavery, but were against doing much of anything about slavery where it actually existed. They typically supported laws that empowered slaveholders, like the Fugitive Slave Act, and thought the Constitution prevented them from enacting full emancipation of all slaves. Even after the start of the Civil War, Lincoln tried to assure the country that he had no desire to end the South’s way of life, or that of the Unionist slave states. Though this began to change roughly in 1862.

Those who opposed slavery in America were, until the Civil War, a minority. But those who also wanted to grant equal rights, voting rights, and full citizenship to blacks, along with emancipation were a minority within that minority. A sizable portion of the anti-slavery movement pushed for colonization, in fact, and actually wanted America to remain a land dominated by whites. Lincoln supported this for most of his life. He supported the idea of sending blacks to Central or South America, or Liberia in Africa. It’s amazing to think that even this, when coupled with ending the spread of slavery, was considered too radical by so many. But full emancipation, with equal rights, was a bridge too far for most. Eric Foner does an excellent job of showing the difference between radicals and abolitionists and those, like Lincoln and Henry Clay, who pushed for colonization.

Looking back from the perch of 2013, it seems abundantly, patently clear that the abolitionists, who were hated, persecuted, murdered and scorned in the 18th and 19th centuries, were on the right side of history from the start, whereas Lincoln appears behind the times relative to them. Even within the anti-slavery movement, they were easily the only people on the side of the angels. Those who wanted to stop the spread of slavery were, of course, infinitely better on this issue than those who wanted to keep things as they were. But it’s not really a great moral victory, or a revolutionary change in one’s moral compass, to push for an end to the spread of that reprehensible institution, while also advocating for colonization. As The Fiery Trial progresses through Lincoln’s last years, we will see how far he evolves on the subject. Again, the book is excellent.                         


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