Friday, December 14, 2012

Freedom Didn't Necessarily Mean Equality

Recently, my wife and I went to see the new Steven Speilberg movie, Lincoln. If, by the way, you haven't seen it, Lincoln is a fantastic movie which I would highly recommend. The movie is based in part on a book called Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. After seeing the movie, I felt compelled to read the book. I haven't finished the book yet, but it has been a excellent read thus far. However, it did open my eyes to some new aspects of this country's past. Now, I know a thing or two about the past, and the Civil War in particular. I know about the struggle between the north and the south over slavery in this country. But, Team of Rivals helped to enlighten me on one or two points.

At that time, there were those who were fighting to free slaves, and those who wanted to not only keep slaves, but expand slavery to other parts of the country. The ongoing controversy had been going on for years before the Civil War ever began. Members of Congress waged war through words over and over again, one side denouncing slavery, and the other demanding that the institution of slavery be left alone. Abolitionists cried again and again for the release of all slaves so that they may live free.

Sounds just like what I learned in history class in high school. Now, here is where my education veers away from reality. You see, freedom in those days didn't necessarily mean equality. According to Goodwin, many prominent abolitionists were all in favor with freeing the African American population from slavery, but very few of them were interested in giving them equal rights. There are even documented statements from well-known abolitionists stating that they would like to free the slaves ... In order to ship them back to their own country. According to Goodwin, even Lincoln had once said: "My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and then send them back to Liberia, - to their own native land."

Goodwin goes on to explain that many white Americans still saw the African Americans as being inferior. They felt that slavery was wrong, but they weren't willing to see the African American as their equal. Even Abraham Lincoln, was not fighting for equal rights. He simply wanted to bring an end to slavery. In her book, Goodwin quotes Lincoln when he said: "What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? But once freed, could they be made politically and socially, our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not."

What I am finding so interesting in this book is the amount of bigotry that existed, even among those who wanted to free the slaves. There was such a push by abolitionists to bring an end to slavery, but give equality to the African Americans? That was unheard of in that time.

I feel like this is a piece of history that is often left out of history classes in school. We are taught how the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, but we are never taught about how that freedom didn't necessarily mean equality. The same abolitionists who were in favor of freeing the slaves, were also against giving those freed slaves the right to vote, the right to sit on a jury, or even intermarry with whites.

What Lincoln's true feelings were about equality, we don't know. According to Goodwin, scholars have meticulously investigated every aspect of his life, and failed to find a single act of racial bigotry on his part. But, according to the famous African American, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln was "the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color."

I have not finished the book yet. I am only up to Lincoln's victory in the presidential election of 1860. I have quite a way to go. But, I am looking forward to more revelations as I go forward. I will say that, in my opinion, Lincoln was among the best Presidents that this country has ever had.

When I finish reading the book, I will post my thoughts on the book as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not so sure I'd equate the sentiment to re-patriate back to Africa with bigotry in this particular case. Our current political climate makes this seem like the "immigration debate" and the calls for mass deportations, but the circumstances are radically different. People held against their will being returned to their homeland is hard to see as a bad idea. Perhaps if it had gotten more traction at the time, the endless cycles of injustice against the African-American community which has [rightly] refused to assimilate into WASP culture might have been avoided.