Chapter 6. John Brown and Abraham Lincoln: The Invisibility of...
It is not only radical or currently unfashionable ideas that the texts leave out—it is all ideas, including those of their heroes.
You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now. But this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet.
—John Brown, 1859
I am here to plead his cause with you. I plead not for his life, but for his character—his immortal life; and so it becomes your cause wholly, and is not his in the least.
—Henry David Thoreau, "A Plea for Captain John Brown," 1859
We shall need all the anti-slavery feeling in the country, and more; you can go home and try to bring the people to your views, and you may say anything you like about me, if that will help. . . . When the hour comes for dealing with slavery, I trust I will be willing to do my duty though it cost my life.
—Abraham Lincoln to abolitionist Unitarian ministers, 1862
Perhaps the most telling criticism Frances FitzGerald made in her 1979 survey of American history textbooks, America Revised, was that they leave out ideas. As presented by textbooks of the 1970s, “American political life was completely mindless,” she observed.
Why would textbook authors avoid even those ideas with which they agree? Taking ideas seriously does not fit with the rhetorical style of textbooks, which presents events so as to make them seem foreordained along a line of constant progress. Including ideas would make history contingent: things could go either way, and have on occasion. The “right” people, armed with the “right” ideas, have not always won. When they didn't, the authors would be in the embarrassing position of having to disapprove of an outcome in the past. Including ideas would introduce uncertainty. This is not textbook style. Textbooks unfold history without real drama or suspense, only melodrama.
On the subject of race relations, John Brown's statement that “this question is still to be settled” seems as relevant today, and even as ominous, as when he spoke in 1859. The opposite of racism is antiracism, of course, or what we might call racial idealism or equalitarianism, and it is still not clear whether it will prevail. In this struggle, our history textbooks offer little help. Just as they underplay white racism, they also neglect racial idealism. In so doing, they deprive students of potential role models to call upon as they try to bridge the new fault lines that will spread out in the future from the great rift in our past.
Since ideas and ideologies played an especially important role in the Civil War era, American history textbooks give a singularly inchoate view of that Struggle, Just as textbooks treat slavery without racism, they treat abolitionism without much idealism.< Consider the most radical white abolitionist of them all, John Brown.
The treatment of Brown, like the treatment of slavery and Reconstruction, has changed in American history textbooks. From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he regained his sanity. Since Brown himself did not change after his death, his sanity provides an inadvertent index of the level of white racism in our society. In today's textbooks, Brown makes two appearances: Pottawatomie, Kansas, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Recall that the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act tried to resolve the question of slavery through “popular sovereignty.” The practical result of leaving the slavery decision to whoever settled in Kansas was an ideologically motivated settlement craze. Northerners rushed to live and farm in Kansas Territory and make it “free soil.” Fewer Southern planters moved to Kansas with their slaves, but slaveowners from Missouri repeatedly crossed the Missouri River to vote in territorial elections and to establish a reign of terror to drive out the free-soil farmers. In May 1856 hundreds of proslavery “border ruffians,” as they came to be called, raided the free-soil town of Lawrence, Kansas, burning down the hotel and destroying two printing presses. The American Tradition describes Brown's action at Pottawatomie: “In retaliation, a militant abolitionist named John Brown led a midnight attack on the proslavery settlement of Pottawatomie. Five people were killed by Brown and his followers.” Discovering American History describes Brown's 1859 Harpers Ferry raid:
)ohn Brown, son of an abolitionist, envisioned a plan to invade the South and free the slaves. In 1859, with financial support from abolitionists, Brown made plans to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, to establish a free state in the Appalachian Mountains, and to spread the rebellion through the South. On October 16, 1859, Brown and eighteen of his men captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in the present state of West Virginia. . . . He and his men were captured by a force of marines. Brown was brought to trial and convicted of treason & against Virginia, murder, and criminal conspiracy. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.
In all, seven of the twelve textbooks take this neutral approach to John Brown.7 Their bland paragraphs don't imply that Brown was crazy, but neither do they tell enough about him to explain why he became a hero to so many blacks and nonslaveholding whites.
Three textbooks still linger in a former era. “John Brown was almost certainly insane,” opines American History. The American Way tells a whopper: “[L]ater Brown was proved to be mentally ill.” The American Pageant characterizes Brown as “deranged,” “gaunt,” “grim,” “terrible,” and “crackbrained,” “probably of unsound mind,” and says that “thirteen of his near relatives were regarded as insane, including his mother and grandmother.“ Two other books finesse the sanity issue by calling Brown merely ”fanatical.” No textbook has any sympathy for the man or takes any pleasure in his ideals and actions.
For the benefit of readers who, like me, grew up reading that Brown was at least fanatic if not crazed, let's consider the evidence. To be sure, some of Brown's lawyers and relatives, hoping to save his neck, suggested an insanity defense. But no one who knew Brown thought him crazy. He favorably impressed people who spoke with him after his capture, including his jailer and even reporters writing for Democratic newspapers, which supported slavery. Governor Wise of Virginia called him “a man of clear head” after Brown got the better of him in an informal interview. “They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman,” Governor Wise said. In his message to the Virginia legislature he said Brown showed “quick and clear perception,” “rational premises and consecutive reasoning,” “composure and self-possession.”
After 1890 textbook authors inferred Brown's madness from his plan, which admittedly was farfetched. Never mind that John Brown himself presciently told Frederick Douglass that the venture would make a stunning impact even if it failed. Nor that his twenty-odd followers can hardly all be considered crazed too." Rather, we must recognize that the insanity with which historians have charged John Brown was never psychological. It was ideological. Brown's actions made no sense to textbook writers between 1890 and about 1970, To make no sense is to be crazy.
Clearly, Brown's contemporaries did not consider him insane. Brown's ideological influence in the month before his hanging, and continuing after his death, was immense. He moved the boundary of acceptable thoughts and deeds regarding slavery. Before Harpers Ferry, to be an abolitionist was not quite acceptable, even in the North. Just talking about freeing slavesadvocating immediate emancipationwas behavior at the outer limit of the ideological continuum. By engaging in armed action, including murder, John Brown made mere verbal abolitionism seem much less radical.
After an initial shock wave of revulsion against Brown, in the North as well as in the South, Americans were fascinated to hear what he had to say. In his 1859 trial John Brown captured the attention of the nation like no other abolitionist or slaveowner before or since. He knew it: “My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right.”10 In his speech to the court on November 2, just before the judge sentenced him to die, Brown argued, “Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, it would have been all right.” He referred to the Bible, which he saw in the JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN . j6j courtroom, “which teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further, to remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. I endeavored to act up to that instruction.” Brown went on to claim the high moral ground: “I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of His despised poor, I did no wrong but right.” Although he objected that his impending death penalty was unjust, he accepted it and pointed to graver injustices: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance ofthe ends ofjustice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say, let it be done.”
Brown's willingness to go to the gallows for what he thought was right had a moral force of its own. “It seems as if no man had ever died in America before, for in order to die you must first have lived,” Henry David Thoreau observed in a eulogy in Boston. “These men, in teaching us how to die, have at the same time taught us how to live.” Thoreau went on to compare Brown with Jesus of Nazareth, who had faced a similar death at the hands of the state.
During the rest of November, Brown provided the nation graceful instruction in how to face death. In Larchmont, New York, George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary, “One's faith in anything is terribly shaken by anybody who is ready to go to the gallows condemning and denouncing it.”13 Brown's letters to his family and friends softened his image, showed his human side, and prompted an outpouring of sympathy for his children and soon-to-be widow, if not for Brown himself. His letters to supporters and remarks to journalists, widely circulated, formed a continuing indictment of slavery. We see his charisma in this letter from “a conservative Christian”so the author signed itwritten to Brown in jail: “While I cannot approve of all your acts, J stand in awe of your position since your capture, and dare not oppose you lest I be found fighting against God; for you speak as one having authority, and seem to be strengthened from on high.”14 When Virginia executed John Brown on December 2, making him the first American since the founding of the nation to be hanged as a traitor, church bells mourned in cities throughout the North. Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Walt Whitman were among the poets who responded to the event. “The gaze of Europe is fixed at this moment on America,” wrote Victor Hugo from France. Hanging Brown, Hugo predicted, "will open a latent fissure that will finally split the Union asunder. The punishment ofJohn Brown may consolidate slavery in Virginia, but it will certainly shatter the American Democracy. You preserve your shame but you kill your glory.
Brown remained controversial after his death. Republican congressmen kept their distance from his felonious acts. Nevertheless, Southern slaveowners were appalled at the show of Northern sympathy for Brown and resolved to maintain slavery by any means necessary, including quitting the Union if they lost the next election. Brown's charisma in the North, meanwhile, was not spent but only increased due to what many came to view as his martyrdom. As the war came, as thousands of Americans found themselves making the same commitment to face death that John Brown had made, the force of his example took on new relevance. That's why soldiers marched into battle singing “John Brown's Body.” Two years later, church congregations sang Julia Ward Howe's new words to the song: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”and the identification ofJohn Brown and Jesus Christ took another turn. The next year saw the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment parading through Boston to the tune, en route to its heroic destiny with death in South Carolina, while William Lloyd Garrison surveyed the cheering bystanders from a balcony, his hand resting on a bust ofJohn Brown. In February 1865 another Massachusetts colored regiment marched to the tune through the streets of" Charleston, South Carolina.
That was the high point of old John Brown. At the turn of the century, as southern and border states disfranchised African Americans, as lynchings proliferated, as blackface minstrel shows came to dominate American popular culture, white America abandoned the last shards of its racial idealism. A history published in 1923 makes plain the connection to Brown's insanity: “The farther we get away from the excitement of 1859 the more we are disposed to consider this extraordinary man the victim of mental delusions.” Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s was white America freed from enough of its racism to accept that a white person did not have to be crazy to die for black equality. In a sense, the murders of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in Mississippi, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo in Alabama, and various other white civil rights workers in various other southern states during the 1960s liberated textbook writers to see sanity again in John Brown. Rise ofthe American Nation, written in 1961, calls the Harpers Ferry plan “a wild idea, certain to fail,” while in Triumph ofthe American Nation, published in 1986, the plan becomes “a bold idea, but almost certain to fail.”
Frequently in American history the ideological needs ofwhite racists and black nationalists coincide. So it was with their views ofJohn Brown, During JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN
the heyday of the Black Power movement, I listened to speaker after speaker in a Mississippi forum denounce whites. “They are your enemies,” thundered one black militant. “Not one white person has ever had the best interests of black people at heart.” John Brown sprang to my mind, but the speaker anticipated my objection: “You might say John Brown did, but remember, he was crazy.” John Brown might provide a defense against such global attacks on whites, but, unfortunately, American history textbooks have erased him as a usable character.
No black person who met John Brown thought him crazy. Many black leaders of the day-Martin Delaney, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and othersknew and respected Brown. Only illness kept Tubman from joining him at Harpers Ferry, The day of his execution black-owned businesses closed in mourning across the North. Frederick Dou glass called Brown “one of the greatest heroes known to American fame.” A black college deliberately chose to locate at Harpers Ferry, and in 1918 its alumni dedicated a memorial stone to Brown and his men “to commemorate their heroism.” The stone stated, in part, “That this nation might have a new birth of freedom, that slavery should be removed forever from American soil, John Brown and his 21 men gave their lives.”
Quite possibly textbooks should not portray this murderer as a hero, although other murderers, from Christopher Columbus to Nat Turner, get the heroic treatment. However, the flat prose that textbooks use for Brown is not really neutral. Textbook authors' withdrawal of sympathy from Brown is perceptible; their tone in presenting him is different from the tone they employ for almost everyone else. We see this, for instance, in their treatment of his religious beliefs. John Brown was a serious Christian, well read in the Bible, who took its moral commands to heart. Yet our textbooks do not credit Brown with religiositysubtly they blame him for it. “Believing himself commanded by God to free the slaves, Brown came up with a scheme . . . ,” in the words of Ldnd ofPromise. The American Pageant calls Brown “narrowly ignorant,” perhaps a euphemism for overly religious, and “God's angry man.” “He believed that God had commanded him to free the slaves by force,” states American History. God never commanded Brown in the sense of giving him instructions; rather, Brown thought deeply about the moral meaning of Christianity and decided that slavery was incompatible with it. He was also not “narrowly ignorant,” having traveled widely in the United States, England, and Europe and talked with many American intellectuals of the day, black and white.
By way of comparison, consider Nat Turner, who in 1831 Jed the most important slave revolt since the United States became a nation. John Brown and Nat Turner both killed whites in cold blood. Both were religious, but, unlike Brown, Turner saw visions and heard voices. In most textbooks, Turner has become something of a hero. Several textbooks call Turner “deeply religious.” None calls him “a religious fanatic.” They reserve that term for Brown. The closest any textbook comes to suggesting that Turner might have been crazy is this passage from American History: “Historians still argue about whether or not Turner was insane.” But the author immediately goes on to qualify, “The point is that nearly every slave hated bondage. Nearly all were eager to see something done to destroy the system.” Thus even American History emphasizes the political and social meaning of Turner's act, not its psychological genesis in an allegedly questionable mind.
The textbooks' withdrawal of sympathy from Brown is also apparent in what they include and exclude about his life before Harpers Ferry. “In the 184s he somehow got interested in helping black slaves,” according to American Adventures. Brown's interest is no mystery: he learned it from his father, who was a trustee of Oberlin College, a center of abolitionist sentiment, if Adventures wanted, it could have related the well-known story about how young John made friends with a black boy during the War of 1812, which convinced him that blacks were not inferior. Instead, its sentence reads like a slur. Textbook authors make Brown's Pottawatomie killings seem equally unmotivated by neglecting to tell that the violence in Kansas had hitherto been perpetrated primarily by the proslavery side. Indeed, slavery sympathizers had previously killed six free-soil settlers. Several years before Pottawatomie, at Osawatomie, Kansas, Brown had helped thirty-five free-soil men defend themselves against several hundred marauding proslavery men from Missouri, thereby earning the nickname “Osawatomie John Brown.” Not one textbook mentions what Brown did at Osawatomie, where he was the defender, but eight of the twelve tell what he did at Pottawatomie, where he was the attacker.'
Our textbooks also handicap Brown by not letting him speak for himself. Even his jailer let Brown put pen to paper! American History includes three important sentences; American Adventures gives us almost two. The American Pageant reprints three sentences from a letter Brown wrote his brother. The other nine books do not provide even a phrase. Brown's words, which moved a nation, therefore do not move students today.
Textbook authors have an additional reason to avoid Brown's ideas: they are tinged with Christianity. Religion has been one of the great inspirations and JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN
explanations of human enterprise in this country. Yet textbooks, while they may mention religious organizations such as the Shakers or Christian Science, never treat religious ideas in any period seriously.20 An in-depth portrayal of Mormonism, Christian Science, or the Methodism ofthe Great Awakening would be controversial. Mentioning atheism or Deism would be even worse. “Are you going to tell kids that Thomas Jefferson didn't believe in Jesus? Not me!” a text book editor exclaimed to me. Treating religious ideas neutrally, nonreligiously, simply as factors in society, won't do either, for that would likely offend some adherents. The textbooks' solution is to leave out religious ideas entirely.21 Quoting John Brown's courtroom words“whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them”would violate the taboo.
Ideological contradiction is terribly important in history. Ideas have power. The ideas that motivated John Brown and the example he set lived on long after his body lay a-moldering in the grave. Yet American history textbooks give us no way to understand the role of ideas in our past.
Conceivably, textbook authors ignore John Brown's ideas because in their eyes his violent acts make him ineligible for sympathetic consideration. When we turn from Brown to Abraham Lincoln, we shift from one of the most controversial to one of the most venerated figures in American history. Textbooks describe Abraham Lincoln with sympathy, of course. Nonetheless they also minimize his ideas, especially on the subject of race. In life Abraham Lincoln wrestled with the race question more openly than any other president except perhaps Thomas Jefferson, and, unlike Jefferson, Lincoln's actions sometimes matched his words. Most of our textbooks say nothing about Lincoln's internal debate. If they did show it, what teaching devices they would become! Students would see that speakers modify their ideas to appease and appeal to different audiences, so we cannot simply take their statements literally. If textbooks recognized Lincoln's racism, students would learn that racism not only affects Ku Klux Klan extremists but has been “normal” throughout our history. And as they watched Lincoln struggle with himself to apply America's democratic principles across the color line, students would see how ideas can develop and a person can grow.
In conversation, Lincoln, like most whites of his century, referred to blacks as “niggers.” When responding 10 Stephen Douglas's race-baiting in the Lincoin-Douglas debates, Lincoln himself sometimes descended into explicit white supremacy: “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing ofperfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I as well as Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position,“” Only one textbook quotes [his passage; the rest censor Lincoln's racist ideas, as they censored Douglas's.;J Lincoln's attitudes about race were more complicated than Douglas's, however. The day after Douglas declared for white supremacy in Chicago, saying the issues were “distinctly drawn,” Lincoln replied and indeed drew the issue distinctly: “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to itwhere will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why does not another say it does not mean some other man? If that Declaration is not . . . true, let us tear it out! [Cries of ”no, nol“] Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly by it then.”24 No textbook quotes this passage, and every book but one leaves out Lincoln's thundering summation of what his debates with Douglas were really about: ”That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principlesright and wrongthroughout the world,
Lincoln's realization ofthe basic humanity ofAfrican Americans may have derived from his father, who moved the family to Indiana partly because he disliked the racial slavery that was sanctioned in Kentucky, Or it may stem from an experience Lincoln had on a steamboat trip in 1841, which he recalled years later when writing to his friend Josh Speed: “You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or twelve slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was continual torment to me, and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slaveborder.” Lincoln concluded that the memory still had “the power of making me miserable.”26 No textbook quotes this letter.
As early as 1835, in his first term in the Illinois House of Representatives, Lincoln cast one of only five votes opposing a resolution that condemned abolitionists. Textbooks imply that Lincoln was nominated for president in I860 because he was a moderate on slavery, but, in fact, Republicans chose Lincoln over front-runner William H. Seward partly because of Lincoln's “rock-solid antislavery beliefs,” while Seward was considered a compromiser.
As president, Lincoln understood the importance of symbolic leadership in improving race relations. For the first time the United States exchanged ambassadors with Haiti and Liberia. In 1863 Lincoln desegregated the White House staff, which initiated a desegregation of" the federal government that lasted until Woodrow Wilson. Lincoln opened the White House to black callers, notably Frederick Douglass, He also\tontinued to wrestle with his own racism, asking aides to investigate the feasibility of deporting (euphemistically termed “colonizing”) African Americans to Africa or Latin America,
Six of the twelve textbooks mention that Lincoln opposed slavery. Two even quote his 1864 letter; “If slavery isn't wrong, then nothing is wrong.”28 However, most textbook authors take pains to separate Lincoln from undue idealism about slavery. They venerate Lincoln mainly because he “saved the Union,” By far their favorite statement of Lincoln's, quoted or paraphrased by nine of the twelve books, is his letter of August 22, 1862, to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune;
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.... I have here stated tny purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free.
Most textbooks don't let students see all of the above quotation; seven of the nine leave out the last sentence,29 Thus they present a Lincoln who was morally indifferent to slavery and certainly did not care about black people. Ironically, this is also the Lincoln whom black nationalists present to African Americans to persuade them to stop thinking well of him.
Every historian knows that the fragment of Lincoln's letter to Greeley that most textbooks supply does not represent his intent regarding slavery. Lincoln wrote the letter to seek support for the war from Northern supporters of slavery. He aimed it not at Greeley, who wanted slavery to end, but at antiwar Democrats, antiblack Irish Americans, governors of the border states, and the many Republicans who opposed emancipating the slaves. Saving the Union had never been Lincoln's sole concern, as shown by his 1860 rejection of the eleventhhour Crittenden Compromise, a constitutional amendment intended to preserve the Union by preserving slavery forever." Every textbook writer knows that a month before Lincoln wrote to Greeley, he had presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet as an irreversible decision, but no textbook makes this clear. Not one explains the political context or the intended audience for the Greeley letter. Nor does a single textbook quote Lincoln's encouragement that same summer to Unitarian ministers to “go home and try to bring the people to your views,” because “we shall need all the anti-slavery feeling in the country, and more.” If they did, students might understand that indifference was not Lincoln's only response to the issue ofslavery in America.
When textbook's discuss the Emancipation Proclamation, they explain Lincoln's actions in realpolitik terras. “By September 1862,” says Triumph ofthe American Nation, “Lincoln had reluctantly decided that a war fought at least partly to free the slaves would win European support and lessen the danger of foreign intervention on the side of the Confederacy.” Triumph has forgotten its own earlier judgment: “President Lincoln had long believed slavery to be wrong.“ For if Lincoln opposed slavery, why would he emancipate ”reluctantly” and merely for reasons related to international politics?
To be sure, international and domestic political concerns did impinge on Abraham Lincoln, master politician that he was. But so did considerations of right and wrong. Political analysts then and now believe that Lincoln's September 1862 announcement of emancipation cost Republicans the control of Congress the following November, because Northern white public opinion would not evolve to favor black freedom for another year.32 Textbook authors suppress the possibility that Lincoln acted at least in part because he thought it was right. From Indian wars to slavery to Vietnam, textbook authors not only sidestep putting questions of right and wrong to our past actions but even avoid acknowledging that Americans of the time did so.
Abraham Lincoln was one of the great masters of the English language. Perhaps more than any other president he invoked and manipulated powerful symbols in his speeches to move public opinion, often on the subject of race relations and slavery. Textbooks, in keeping with their habit of telling everything in the authorial monotone, dribble out Lincoln's words three and four at a time. The only complete speech or letter any of them provide is the Gettysburg Address, and only four of the twelve textbooks dispense even that. Lincoln's three paragraphs at Gettysburg comprise one of the most important speeches ever given in America and take up only a fourth of a page in the textbooks that include them. Nonetheless five books do not even mention the speech, while three others provide only the last sentence or phrase from it: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Lincoln understood that fighting a war for freedom was ideologically more satisfying than fighting simply to preserve a morally neutral Union. To JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOLN
save the Union, it was necessary to find rationales for the war other than “to save the Union.” At Gettysburg he provided one.
Lincoln was a fine lawyer who knew full well that the United States was conceived in slavery, for the Constitution specifically treats slavery in at least three places. Nevertheless he began, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Thus Lincoln wrapped the Union cause in the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, which emphasized freedom even while many of its signers were slaveowners.35 In so doing, Lincoln was at the same time using the Declaration to redefine the Union cause, suggesting that it ultimately implied equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln continued, “testing whether that nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Again, Lincoln knew better: by 1863 other nations had joined us in democracy. For that matter, every European nation and most American nations had outlawed slavery. How did our civil war test whether they could endure? Here Lincoln was wrapping the Union cause in the old “last best hope of mankind” cloak, a secular version of the idea of a special covenant between the United States and God.i4 Although bad history, such rhetoric makes for great speeches. The president thus appealed to the antiwar Democrats of the North to support the war effort for the good of all mankind.
After invoking a third powerful symbol-“the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here”-Lincoln closed by identifying the cause for which so many had died: “that this nation, under Cod, shall have a new birth of freedom.” To what freedom did he refer? Black freedom, of course. As Lincoln well knew, the war itself was undermining slavery, for what began as a war to save the Union increasingly had become a war for black freedom. Citizens at the time understood Lincoln perfectly. Indeed, throughout this period Americans purchased copies of political speeches, read them, discussed issues, and voted at rates that now seem impossibly high. The Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper, denounced the address precisely because of “the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Union dead, claimed the Times, “were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that Negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”
Textbooks need not explain Lincoln's words at Gettysburg as I have done. The Gettysburg Address is rich enough to survive various analyses.5" But of the four books that do reprint the speech, three merely put it in a box by itself in a corner of the page. Only Li/e andLiberty asks intelligent questions about it.57 As a result, I have yet to meet a high school graduate who has devoted any time to thinking about the Gettysburg Address,
Even worse is textbook treatment of Lincoln's Second Inaugural. In this towering speech, one of the masterpieces of American oratory, Lincoln specifically identified differences over slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, then in its fourth bloody year.)B “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?” Lincoln continued in this vein by invoking the doctrine of predestination, a more vital element of the nation's idea system then than now: “Fondly do we hope-fervently do we praythat this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman'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.'” This last is an astonishing sentence. Its length alone astounds. Politicians don't talk like that nowadays. When students read this passage aloud, slowly and deliberately, they do not fail to perceive it as a searing indictment of America's sins against black people. The Civil War was by far the most devastating experience in our nation's history Yet we had it coming, Lincoln says here. And in his rhetorical context, sin or crime, not mere tragedy, is the fitting and proper term. Indeed, this indictment of U.S. race relations echoes John Brown's last note: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”
Lincoln's Second Inaugural made such an impact on Americans that when the president was shot, a month later, farmers in New York and Ohio greeted his funeral train with placards bearing its phrases. But only The United Slates-A History ofthe Republic includes any of the material quoted above. Five other textbooks restrict their quotation to the speech's final phrase, about binding up the nation's wounds “with malice toward none,” The other six textbooks ignore the speech altogether.
Like Helen Keller's concern about the injustice of social class, Lincoln's concern about the crime of racism may appear unseemly to textbook authors.
The strange career of the log cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born symbolizes in a way what textbooks nave done to Lincoln. The actual cabin fell into disrepair probably before Lincoln became president. According to research by D. T. Pitcaithley, tbe new cabin, a hoax built in 1894, was leased to two amusement park owners, went to Coney Island, where it got commingled with the birthplace cabin of Jefferson Davis (another hoax], and was finally shrunk to fit inside a marble pantheon in Kentucky, where, reassembled, it still stands. The cabin also became a children's toy; Lincoln Logs, invented by Frank Lloyd Wright's son John in 1920, came with instructions on how to build both Lincoln's log cabin and Uncle Tom's cabinl The cabin still makes its archetypal appearance in our textbooks, signifying the rags to riches legend of Abraham Lincoln's upward mobility. No wonder one college student could only say of him, in a much-repeated biooper, “He was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands.”
Must we remember Lincoln for ibat? Let's leave it out! Such an approach to Lincoln might be called the Walt Disney interpretation: Disney's exhibit at the 1964 New York World's Fair featured an animated sculpture of Lincoln that spoke for several minutes, choosing “his” words carefully to say nothing about slavery.
Having disconnected Abraham Lincoln from considerations of right and wrong, several textbooks present the Civil War the same way. In reality, United States soldiers, who began righting to save the Union and not much more, ended by righting for all the vague but portentous ideas in the Gettysburg Address, From 1862 on, Union armies sang “Battle Cry of Freedom,” composed by George Root in the summer of that year:
We will we/come to our numbers the loyal true and brave, Shooting the battle cry of freedom. And although he may be poor, no! a man shall be a slave. Shouting she battle cry of freedom.'"
Surely no one can sing these lines even today without perceiving that both freedom and the preservation of the Union were war aims of the United States and without feeling some of the power of that potent combination. This power is what textbooks omit: they give students no inkling that ideas matter.
The actions of African Americans played a big role in challenging white racism. Slaves fled to Union lines. After they were allowed to fight, the contributions of black troops to the war effort made it harder for whites to deny that blacks were fully human.1“ A Union captain wrote to his wife, ”A great many [whites] have the idea that the entire Negro race are vastly their inferiorsa few weeks of calm unprejudiced life here would disabuse them, I thinkI have a more elevated opinion of their abilities than I ever had before."42 Unlike historians of a few decades ago, today's textbook authors realize that trying to present the war without the actions of African Americans makes for bad history. All twelve current textbooks at least mention that more than 180,000 blacks fought in the Union army and navy. Several of the textbooks include an illustration of African American soldiers and describe the unequal pay they received until late in the war. Discovering American History mentions that Union soldiers trapped behind Confederate lines found slaves to be “of invaluable assistance.” Only The United StalesA History ofthe Republic, however, takes the next step by pointing out how the existence and success of black troops decreased white racism.
Triumph of the American Nation includes this evocative photograph of the crew of the USS Hunchback in the Civil War. Such racial integration disappeared during the nadir of race relations in the United States, from 1890 to 1920.
The antiracist repercussions of the Civil War were particularly apparent in the border states. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the Confederacy. It left slavery untouched in Unionist Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. But the war did not. The status of planters became ambiguous: owning black people was no longer what a young white man aspired to do or what a young white woman aspired to accomplish by marriage. Maryland was a slave state with considerable support for the Confederacy at the onset of the war. But Maryland held for the Union and sent thousands of soldiers to defend Washington. What happened next provides a “positive” example of the effects of cognitive dissonance: for Maryland whites to fight a war against slaveowners while allowing slavery within their own state created a tension that demanded resolution. In 1864 the increasingly persuasive abolitionists in Maryland brought the issue to a vote. The tally went narrowly against emancipation until the large number of absentee ballots were counted. By an enormous margin, these ballots were for freedom. Who cast most absentee ballots in 1864 in Maryland? Soldiers and sailors, of course. Just as these soldiers marched into battle with “John Brown's Body” upon their lips, so their minds had changed to favor the freedom that their actions were forging.
As noted in the previous chapter, songs such as "Nigger Doodle Dandy" reflect the racist tone of the Democrats' presidential campaign in 1864. How did Republicans counter? In part, they sought white votes by being antiracist. The Republican campaign, boosted by military victories in the fall of 1864, proved effective. The Democrats' overt appeals to racism failed, and antiracist Republicans triumphed almost everywhere. One New York Republican wrote, "The change of opinion on this slavery question ... is a great and historic fact. Who could have predicted ... this great and blessed revolution?" 44 People around the world supported the Union because of its ideology. Forty thousand Canadians alone, some of them black, came south to volunteer for the Union cause.
Ideas made the opposite impact in the Confederacy. Ideological contradictions afflicted the slave system even before the war began, John Brown knew that masters secretly feared that their slaves might revolt, even as they assured abolitionists that slaves really liked slavery. One reason his Harpers Ferry raid prompted such an outcry in the South was that slaveowners feared their slaves might join him. Yet their condemnations of Brown and the “Black Republicans” who financed him did not persuade Northern moderates but only pushed them toward the abolitionist camp. After all, if Brown was truly dangerous, as slaveowners claimed, then slavery was truly unjust. Happy slaves would never revolt.
White Southerners founded the Confederacy on the ideology of white supremacy. According to Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy: “Our new government's foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slaverysubordination to the superior raceis his natural and normal condition.” Confederate soldiers on their way to Antietam and Gettysburg, their two main forays into Union states, put this ideology into practice: they seized scores of free black people in Maryland and Pennsylvania and sent them south into slavery. Confederates maltreated black Union troops when they captured them. Throughout the war, “the protection of slavery had been and still remained the central core of Confederate purpose.” Textbooks downplay all this, probably because they do not want to offend white Southerners loday.
Illustrating “PUBLIC LIBERTY and PRIVATE RIGHT,” Nast shows the New York City draft riot of 1863: white thugs are exercising their “right” to beat and kill African Americans, including a child held upside down.
The safeguarding of states' rights, often mentioned as a motive for the establishment of the Confederacy, was for the most part merely an accompanying rationale. Historically, whatever faction has been out of power in America has pushed for states' rights. Slaveowners were delighted when Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney decided in 1857 that throughout the nation, irrespective of the wishes of state or territorial governments, blacks had no rights that whites must respect. Slaveowners pushed President Buchanan to use federal power to legitimize slaveholding in Kansas the next year. Only after they lost control of the executive branch in the 1860 election did they advocate limiting federal power.
As the war continued, neither states' rights nor white supremacy proved adequate to the task of inspiring a new nation. As early as December 1862, Pres. Jefferson Davis denounced states' rights as destructive to the Confederacy, The mountainous counties in western Virginia bolted to the Union. Confederate troops had to occupy east Tennessee to keep it from emulating West Virginia, Winn Parish, Louisiana, refused to secede from the Union. Winston County, Alabama, declared itself che Republic of Winston. Unionist farmers and woodsmen in Jones County, Mississippi, declared the Free State of Jones, Every Confederate state except South Carolina supplied a regiment or at least a company of white soldiers to the Union army, as well as many black recruits. Armed guerrilla actions plagued every Confederate state. (With the exception of Missouri, and the 1863 New York City draft riots, few Union states were afflicted with such problems.) It became dangerous for Confederates to travel in parts of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The war was fought not just between North and South but between Unionists and Confederates within the Confederacy (and Missouri).50 By February 1864 President Davis despaired: “Public meetings of treasonable character, in the name of state sovereignty, are being held.” Thus stales' rights as an ideology was contradictory and could not mobilize the white South for the long haul.
The racial ideas of the Confederate states proved even less serviceable to the war effort. According to Confederate ideology, blacks liked slavery; nevertheless, to avert revolts and runaways, the Confederate states passed the “twenty nigger law,” exempting from military conscription one white man as overseer for every twenty slaves. Throughout the war Confederates withheld as much as a third of their fighting forces from the front lines and scattered them throughout areas with large slave populations to prevent slave uprisings.1 When the United States allowed African Americans to enlist, Confederates were forced by their ideology to assert that it would not work-blacks would hardly fight like white men. The undeniable bravery of the 54th Massachusetts and other black regiments disproved the idea of black inferiority. Then came the incongruity of truly beastly behavior by Southern whites toward captured black soldiers, such as the infamous Fort Pillow massacre by troops under Nathan Bedford Forrest, who crucified black prisoners on tent frames and then burned them alive, all in the name of preserving white civilization.
Contradiction piled upon contradiction. After the fall of Vicksburg, President Davis proposed to arm slaves to fight for the Confederacy, promising them freedom to win their cooperation. But ifservitude was the best condition for the slave, protested supporters of slavery, how could freedom be a reward? To win foreign recognition, other Confederate leaders proposed to abolish slavery altogether. Some newspaper editors concurred. “Although slavery is one of the principles that we started to fight for,“ said the Jackson Mississippian, if it mim be jettisoned to achieve our ”separate nationality, away with it!” A month before Appomattox, the Confederate Congress passed a measure to enroll black troops, showing how the war had elevated even slaveowners' estimations of black abilities and also revealing complete ideological disarray. What, after all, would the new black soldiers be fighting far? Slavery? Secession? What, for that matter,
would white Southern troops be fighting for, once blacks were also armed? As Howell Cobb of Georgia said, “If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”
In part owing to these contradictions, some Confederate soldiers switched sides, beginning as early as 1862. When Sherman made his famous march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah, his army actually grew in number, because thousands of white Southerners volunteered along the way. Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of the Confederate army opposing Sherman disappeared through desertion,54 Eighteen thousand slaves also joined Sherman, so many that the army had to turn some away. Compare these facts with the portrait common in our textbooks of Sherman's marauders looting their way through a united South!
The increasing ideological confusion in the Confederate states, coupled with the increasing ideological strength of the United States, helps explain the Union victory. “Even with all the hardships,” Carleton Deals has noted, “the South up to the very end still had great resources and manpower.” Many nations and people have continued to fight with far inferior means and weapons. Beals thinks that the Confederacy's ideological contradictions were its gravest liabilities, ultimately causing its defeat. He shows how the Confederate army was disbanding by the spring of 1865 in Texas and other states, even in the absence of Union approaches. On the home front too, as Jefferson Davis put it, “The zeal of the people is failing.”
Five textbooks tell how the issue of states' rights interfered with the Confederate cause,5 Only The American Adventure gives students a clue of any other ideological weakness of the Confederacy or strength of the Union. Adventure tells how slavery broke down when Union armies came near and that many poor whites in the South did not support the war because they felt they would be fighting for slaveowners. Ac/venterf also quotes original sources on the evolution of Union war aims and asks, “How would such attitudes affect the conduct and outcome of the war?” No other textbook mentions ideas or ideologies as a strength or weakness of either side. The Civil War was about something, after all. Textbooks should tell us what.
This silence has a history. Throughout this century textbooks have presented the Civil War as a struggle between “virtually identical peoples.” This is all part of the unspoken agreement, reached during the nadir of race relations in the United States (1890-1920), that whites in the South were as American as whites in the North.58 White Northerners and white Southerners reconciled on the backs of African Americans, while the abolitionists became the bad guys.
In the 1920s the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans, complained that American history textbooks presented the Civil War with “no suggestion” ihat the Union cause was right. Apparently the United Daughters of the Confederacy carried more weight with publishers,“ The UDC was even able to erect a statue to the Confederate dead in Wisconsin, claiming they ”died to repel unconstitutional invasion, to protect the rights reserved to the people, to perpetuate the sovereignty of the states"60 Not a word about slavery, or even disunion.
History textbooks still present Union and Confederate sympathizers as equally idealistic. The North fought to hold the Union together, while the Southern states fought, according to The American Way, “for the preservation of their rights and freedom to decide for themselves.” Nobody fought to preserve racial slavery; nobody fought to end it. As one result, unlike the Nazi swastika, which lies disgraced, even in the North whites still proudly display the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy on den walls, license plates, T-shirts, and high school logos. Even some (white) Northerners vaguely regret the defeat of the “lost cause.” It is as if racism against blacks could be remembered with nostalgia.61 In this sense, long after Appomattox, the Confederacy finally won.
Five days after Appomattox, President Lincoln was murdered. His martyrdom pushed Union ideology one step further. Even whites who had opposed emancipation now joined to call Lincoln the great emancipator.62 Under Republican leadership, the nation entered Reconstruction, a period of continuing ideological conflict.
At first Confederates tried to maintain prewar conditions through new laws, modeled after their slave codes and antebellum restrictions on free blacks. Mississippi was the first state to pass these draconian “Black Codes.” They did not work, however. The Civil War had changed American ideology. The new antiracism forged in its flames would dominate Northern thinking for a decade. The Chicago Tribune, the most important organ of the Republican party in the Midwest, responded angrily: “We tell the white men of Mississippi that the men of the North will convert the state of Mississippi into a frog pond before they will allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.“65 Thus black civil rights again became the central issue in the congressional elections of 1866. ”Support Congress and You Support the Negro,“ said the Democrats in a campaign broadside featuring a disgusting caricature of an African American. ”Sustain the Presi dent and You Protect the White Man.“64 Northern voters did not buy it. They returned ”radical“ Republicans to Congress in a thunderous repudiation of Pres. Andrew Johnson's accommodation of the ex-Confederates. Even more than in 1864, when Republicans swept Congress in 1866 antiracism became the policy of the nation, agreed to by most of its voters. Over Johnson's veto, Congress and the slates passed the Fourteenth Amendment, making all persons citizens and guaranteeing them ”the equal protection of the laws.” The passage, on behalf of blacks, of this shining jewel of our Constitution shows how idealistic were the officeholders of the Republican Party, particularly when we consider that similar legislation on behalfofwomen cannot be passed today.
During Reconstruction a surprising variety of people went to the new civilian “front lines” and worked among the newly freed African Americans in the South. Many were black Northerners, including several graduates of Oberlin College, This passage from a letter by Edmonia Highgate, a white woman who went south to teach school, describes her life in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.
The majority of my pupils come from plantations, three, four and even eight miles distant. So anxious are they to learn that they walk these distances so early in the morning as never to be tardy.
There has been much opposition to the School. Twice I have been shot at in my room. My night school scholars have been shot but none killed. A week ago an aged freedman just across the way was shot so badly as to break his arm and leg. The rebels here threatened to burn down the school and house in which I board yet they have not materially harmed us. The nearest military protection is 200 miles distant at New Orleans.
Some Union soldiers stayed in the South when they were demobilized. Some Northern Republican would-be politicians moved south to organize their parry in a region where it had not been a factor before the war. Some went hoping to win office by election or appointment. Many abolitionists continued their commitment by working in the Freedman's Bureau and priva[e organizations to help blacks obtain full civil and political rights. In terms ofparty affiliation, almost all of these persons were Republicans; otherwise, they were a diverse group. Still, all but one of the twelve textbooks routinely use the disgraceful old tag carpeibaggers, without noting its bias, lo describe Northern white] Republicans who lived in the South during Reconstruction.
The white woman at left, whom textbooks would call a “carpetbagger.” could hardlyj expect to grow rich teaching school hear Vicksbutg, where this illustration was done. | This woman risked her life to bring basic literacy to African American children and'j aduIts during Reconstruction.
Many whites who were born in the South supported Reconstruction.! Every Southern state boasted Unionists, some of whom had volunteered for ilic Union army. They now became Republicans. Some former Confederates,! including even Gen. James Longstreet, second in command under Lee at Gettys-. burg, became Republicans because they had grown convinced that equality for | blacks was morally right. Robert Flournoy, a Mississippi planter, had raised a company of Confederate soldiers but then resigned his commission and returned home because “there was a conflict in my conscience.” During the war he was once arrested for encouraging blacks to flee to Union lines. During Reconstruction he helped organize the Republican party, published a newspaper, EqudRights, and argued for desegregating the University ofMississippi and the new state's public school system.hs Republican policies, including free public education, never before available in the South to children of either race, convinced some poor whites to vote for the party Many former Whigs became Republicans rather than join their old nemesis, the Democrats. Some white Southerners became Republicans because they were convinced that black suf frage was an accomplished fact; they preferred winning political power with blacks on their side to losing. Others became Republicans to make connections or win contracts from the new Republican state governments. Of the 113 white Republican congressmen from the South during Reconstruction, 53 were Southerners, many of them from wealthy families.69 In sum, this is another diverse group, amounting to between one-fourth and one-third of the white population and in some counties a majority. Nevertheless all but one textbook still routinely apply the disgraceful old tag scalawags to Southern white Republicans,
Carpetbaggers and scalawags are terms coined by white Southern Democrats to defame their opponents as illegitimate. Reconstruction-era newspapers in Mississippi, at least, used Republicans far more often than aaperbaggffi or scdlawags. Carpeibaer implies that the dregs of Northern society, carrying all their belongings in a carpetbag, had come down to make their fortunes off the “prostrate [white] south.” Scalawag means “scoundrel.” Employing these terms would be appropriate if textbook authors made clear that they were terms of the time and explained who used them and in what circumstances. But textbooks incorporate them as if they were proper historical labels, with no quotation marks, in preference to neutral terms such as Reconstruction Republicans.
Consider these sentences from The United StatesA History ofthe Republic: “In Mississippi the carpetbaggers controlled politics. In Tennessee the scalawags did.” Or this from The American Tradition: “Despite southern white claims to the contrary, the Radical regimes were not dominated by blacks, but by scalawags and carpetbaggers.” In reality, “scalawags” were Southern whites, of course, but this sentence writes them out of the white South, just as die-hard Confederates were wont to do. Moreover, referring to perfectly legal governments as “regimes” is a way of delegitimizing them, a technique Tradition applies to no other administration, not even the 1836 Republic of Texas or the 1893 Dole pineapple takeover in Hawaii.
To be sure, newer editions of American history textbooks no longer denounce Northerners who participated in Southern politics and society as “dishonest adventurers whose only thought was to feather their own nests at the expense of their fellows,” as Rise of the American Nation put it in 1961. Again, the civil rights movement has allowed us to rethink our history. Having watched Northerners, black and white, go south to help blacks win civil rights in the 1960s, today's textbook authors display more sympathy for Northerners who worked with Southern blacks during Reconstruction.71 Here is the paragraph on “carpetbaggers” from Rise's successor, Triumph ofthe American Nation:
The carpetbaggers came for many different reasons. Some sincerely wanted to help the freed slaves exercise their newly acquired rights. Some hoped to get themselves elected to political office. Some came to make their fortunes by acquiring farmland or by starling new businesses. However, some came for reasons of pure greed or fraud, Horace Greeley the editor of the New York Tribune, wrote that such carpetbaggers were “stealing and plundering, many of them with both arms around the Negroes, and their hands in their rear pockets, seeing if they cannot pick a paltry dollar out ofthem.”
And here is the paragraph on “scalawags”:
Some of these native-born southerners had the best of motives. Having opposed slavery and secession, they had sympathized with the Union during the war. Now they believed that the best way to restore peace and prosperity to the South and to the nation was to forgive and forget. However, others were selfish and ambitious individuals who seized any opportunity to advance their own fortunes at the expense of their neighbors.
The new treatment is kinder. The authors are trying to be positive about white Republicans, even if they cannot resist ending each paragraph by invoking greed. Of course, textbook authors might use the notion of private gain to disparage every textbook hero from Christopher Columbus and the Pilgrims through George Washington to Jackie Robinson. They don't, though. Textbooks attribute selfish motives only to characters with whom they have little sympathy, such as the idealists in Reconstruction, The negatives then stick in the mind, cemented by the catchy pejoratives carpetbaggers and scalawags, while the qualifying phrases“some sincerely wanted ...”are likely to be forgotten. No textbook introduces us to idealists such as Edmonia Highgate, facing down white violence, or Robert Flournoy, casting his lot with black Republicans because he believed in justice. Everyone who supported black rights in the South during Reconstruction did so at personal risk. At the beginning of Reconstruction, simply to walk to school to teach could be life-threatening. Toward the end of the era, there were communities in which simply to vote Republican was life-threatening. While some Reconstructionists undoubtedly achieved economic gain, it was a dangerous way to make a buck. Textbooks need to show the risk, and the racial idealism that prompted most of the people who took it,
Instead, textbooks deprive us of our racial idealists, from Highgate and Flournoy, whom they omit, through Brown, whom they make fanatic, to Lincoln, whose idealism they flatten. In the course of events, Lincoln would come to accomplish on a national scale what Brown tried to accomplish at Harpers Ferry: helping African Americans mobilize to fight slavery. Finally, like John Brown, Abraham Lincoln became a martyr and a hero. Seven million Americans, almost one-third of the entire Union population, stood to watch his funeral train pass,73 African Americans mourned with particular intensity. Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy, walked the streets of Washington at dawn an hour before the president breaihed his last and described the scene: “The colored people especiallyand there were at this time more of them perhaps, than of whiteswere overwhelmed with grief.” Welles went on to tell how all day long “on the avenue in from ofthe White House were several hundred black people, mostly women and children, weeping for their loss,“ a crowd that ”did not appear to diminish through the whole of that cold, wet day” In their grief African Americans were neither misguided nor childlike. When the hour came for dealing with slavery, as Lincoln had surmised, he had done his duty and it had cost his life.74 Abraham Lincoln, racism and all, was blacks' legitimate hero, as earlier John Brown had been. In a sense, Brown and Lincoln were even killed for the same deed: arming black people for their own liberation. People around the world mourned the passing of both men,
Bui when I ask ray (white) college students on the first day of class who their heroes are in American history, only one or two in a hundred pick Lincoln,“ Even those who choose Lincoln know only that he was ”really great"they don't know why. Their ignorance makes sense-after all, textbooks present Abraham Lincoln almost devoid of content. No students choose John Brown. Not one has ever named a white abolitionist, a Reconstruction JOHN BROWN AND ABRAHAM LINCOL/S Republican, or a civil rights martyr. Yet these same students feel sympathy with America's struggle to improve race relations. Among their more popular choices are African Americans, from Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass to Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
While John Brown was on trial, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips spoke of Brown's place in history. Phillips foresaw that slavery was a cause whose time was passing, and he asked “the American people” of the future, when slavery was long dead in “the civilization of the twentieth century,” this question: “When that day comes, what will be thought ofthese first martyrs, who teach us how to live and how to die?”7fi Phillips meant the question rhetorically. He never dreamed that Americans would take no pleasure in those who had helped lead the nation to abolish slavery, or that textbooks would label Brown's small band misguided if not fanatic and Brown himself possibly mad.
Antiracism is one of America's great gifts to the world. Its relevance extends far beyond race relations. Antiracism led to “a new birth of freedom” after the Civil War, and not only for African Americans. Twice, once in each century, the movement for black rights triggered the movement for women's rights. Twice it reinvigorated our democratic spirit, which had been atrophying. Throughout the world, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, movements of oppressed people continue to use tactics and words borrowed from our abolitionist and civil rights movements. The clandestine early meetings of anticommunists in East Germany were marked by singing “We Shall Overcome.” Iranians used nonviolent methods borrowed from Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., to overthrow their hated shah. On Ho Chi Minh's desk in Hanoi on the day he died lay a biography ofJohn Brown. Among the heroes whose ideas inspired the students in Tienanmen Square and whose words spilled from their lips was Abraham Lincoln.78 Yet we in America, whose antiracist idealists are admired around the globe, seem (o have lost these men and women as heroes. Our textbooks need to present them in such a way that we might again value our own idealism.
In Vicksburg, Mississippi, these African Americans gathered at the courthouse to hear the news of Lincoln's death confirmed, to express their grief, and perhaps to seek pro tection in the face of an uncertain future.