Elephant in the Room!

[1]

            When I think of the Lost Cause myth and how it chooses to deal with the issue of slavery, I am usually appalled by the casual way the South likes to disregard what an unusual institution slavery really was.  The South, with the Lost Cause myth, chooses to view their slaves as faithful servants…but I have a hard time rationalizing that with my brain.  I just can’t rationalize a group of human beings that were born into a world of servitude without the possibility of social mobility and free will.  I try to think that if I were born under different circumstances, how would I end up?  Would I be where I am today?  And then, there’s always the question…is where I am today the best I can be?  I am never satisfied with the answers I come up with to my hypothetical questions, but it’s an interesting exercise I try to do every once in awhile to make sure I’m happy with my life.  Thank goodness I have that ability, unlike the slaves of the South during the mid 1800s. 

            The South, has it seems, can’t decide how it wants to deal with slavery.  The Lost Cause has its version of the story, so do history books, so do historians, and so do the common folk of all geographic origins.  Like Dr. Epps said in class this week, “there’s always a but, when it comes to slavery.”  I think that’s true from all the multitudes of perspectives on the subject, not just when you ask Southerners. 

            I also have a difficult time negotiating that Abraham Lincoln was some sort of messiah that all African Americans hold in high esteem.  The Emancipation Proclamation was just a piece of paper.  It’s the defeat of the Confederacy that makes that piece of paper have meaning.  It’s clear that Lincoln did not regard African Americans as equal to white Americans.  He believed that Africans were an inferior race in comparison to his own.  The fact that Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865 is a convenient exit out of the mess he helped create.  His assassination opens the door to numerous ‘what if’ questions that will never be answered.

            The cartoon I have posted above shows that not only Southerners, but also Northerners struggled with what to do with the newly freed slaves.  First of all, talk about the elephant in the room!  This cartoon attacks that saying full force.  It seems as a nation, the United States struggled to deal with the freed slaves.  As many former slaves fled the South, the North was overwhelmed with their presence.  From this cartoon, it is clear that not only Northerners, but specifically the Union Army had no idea how to negotiate such a social change.   

            What is the memory of the North regarding the emancipation of slaves?  When examining the implementation of Jim Crow laws, the South clearly determines the social order that will dominate Southern society for the following century.  But, the North struggles too.  Can the North establish a social hierarchy based on race that is different than Jim Crow?  Can the North, during the mid 1800s, believe that African Americans were not inferior to the white race?  It’s easy to idealize the North as being equal when dealing with different races, but that is not the case.  There were many forms of discrimination among Northerners.  According to this cartoon, it only reinforces the reality of how the North dealt with race issues.   

[1]” African American Soldiers in Combat: Examining the Role of African American Soldiers in the U.S. Military,” 6/21/12, http://nlaguins.edublogs.org/the-civil-war/.

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5 comments
  1. chrisrivera1985 said:

    It is paramount that historians embrace trepidation when mixing anachronistic, analogous, or anomalous phenomenon. Being as such, it is difficult to answer questions in a subjunctive mood of possibility. The peculiar institution is peculiar for a reason. Stating that the Northerners had racist feelings towards blacks is pendantic. What really ought to be addressed is paragraph three. Abraham Lincoln must be looked upon as Historian Allen C. Guelzo describes him, “His was a typically Enlightenment kind of optimism.” (Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, 2006, 166) The Emancipation did much more than suggested in your work of existing as pressed wood into white sheets. It defined the purpose of Civil War, Republicanism, and most importantly, Jeffersonianism. It also demonstrates a suave politician creating a document in line with the Constitution not to be challenged by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, and came after a victory, albeit not a decisive one, on the battlefield. It is easy to fault in shortcomings. One can blame the Founders for not dealing with slavery in 1787, one can blame the Founders for not resolving the issue of states’ rights in 1787, and one can go so far as to blame the Founders for not defining ‘high crimes’ as a morality issue, that would have most assuredly thrown the Supreme Court into question after the Dred Scott (1857) case. But one can’t. But one can be enlightened, progressive, and as suggested, having optimism. As historians we must be weary of being pro-anything. But seeing the Emancipation as a positive doesn’t make Lincoln a messiah, it just recognizes that he grappled with the same issues you grapple with, or me, or any of us: what to do with the republic we have been give. There is a famous moment in history when someone asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government we had established in 1787 and he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Lincoln embraced that, and moved to keep it. That doesn’t make him a messiah, and doubt every African American holds in such a regard as you have noted. No document in 1860 was going to ‘free the slaves’. Taney certainly would have went crazy over such a thing. Suggesting the Emancipation is “just a piece of paper” and that the Union’s victory gave meaning to that document, diminishes the bigger picture. That Republicanism can embrace change through enlightened individuals. True Jeffersonianism, if you will.

  2. drobnicker said:

    Great political cartoon you found, it definately expresses the situataion of what to do with the African American after emmacipation. I must agree with Chris the problem of states rights and slavery should have been nipped in the bud earlier by our founding fathers. The south threatened succession earlier in the nineteenth century but the federal government appeased them instead of standing up to them so as not to stir up the hornets nest if you will. It took Lincoln to do that. He is not a messiahbut he did begin the change and motivate the black’s to understand that there was hope for freedom, even if it took another 100 years to achieve equality.They still ahave reason to celebrate on Juneteenth.

  3. I like the image-political cartoon. I think the South struggles with the issue of slavery because it is a scar that will forever show. On top of that the culture in the region is so rich that people probably try to avoid thinking about how evil their ancestors really were. On the other hand, slavery was something that so many were taught to accept, kind of the way some individuals are taught to settle for mediocrity/poverty. I see this all the time in the schools-children who see their parents living off of welfare programs and manipulating the system as a way to get by. Then when you ask their children what their gonna do with their lives they too seem to think that its okay to live the way their parents did. I’ve even heard them say things like “they’re doing just fine” or “its enough to get by.” I know some people use these ends as a way to survive but there are people out there who manipulate or take advantage of the system because they are too lazy to work. Anyhow, they teach it to their youth the way slavery was taught to the Southern children from the beginning.

  4. 10ectim said:

    Let’s start with Lincoln. Yes, I think most freed slaves viewed Lincoln a their deliverer; their Moses. He was the face of freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation meant different things to different people. To slaves it was the prophecy of freedom and deliverance. To the abolitionists it was finally a step in the righteous direction. To southerners it was a way to create disorder and force the South to direct more of their meager resources in keeping their slaves under control. It was also a vindication of their secession. To most Northerners it was a war strategy designed to weaken the Confederacy. By making emancipation an issue of the war, England was no longer a threat to ally with the South. When the proclamation goes into effect Lincoln also allows blacks to enlist in the Union army. Thousands of highly motivated and determined black soldiers helped to turn the tide of the war. Did Lincoln believe in equality for blacks at the time? Probably not. Would he reach that conclusion? Maybe, but we will never know.
    I did appreciate your insight about how the North did not know what to do with the freed blacks either. I don’t agree with the idea that the North was flooded with freed blacks. In many places in the North blacks were banned and in a lot of other places they were not welcome. Most freed blacks stayed in the South. It is difficult to relocate without any resources.
    It seems that some are under the impression that many in the South today would still like to have slavery. It is true that many southerners will defend their ancestors’ decision to have slaves “but” I don’t know of anyone that still believes slavery is appropriate (except some of the Horwitz’s nuts). Don’t get racism and equality confused with condoning slavery. Racism is certainly a problem in the South and in many other places in America but that doesn’t mean that there is some sort of desire to return to slavery. Certainly the level of racism in the South is a serious issue and it will take time for that to be overcome.

  5. Kristen Epps said:

    I don’t want to overstep and speak for Erin, but I don’t think anyone in our class believes white people in the South want to return to slavery. However, many do want to keep the social hierarchy in place. There is a distinction there that is not lost on your fellow students. Although I know you disliked Horwitz’s book, not everyone is out to “get” the South. He happened to be looking for those with “unconventional” beliefs because those were the people most dedicated to the LC.

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