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Required Reading: Coates on Zinn on the Civil War Counter-factuals

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I read the blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates for many reasons. One of the primary ones is his writing on the Civil War. That’s where we’re going today.

Yesterday, Coates posted about  Civil War counter-factuals that have arisen in the past 150 years, questioning the necessity of such a bloody conflict to end slavery. He is responding in this post to Howard Zinn asking: “Is it possible if slavery could have been ended without 600,000 dead? We don’t know for sure. And when I mention these possibilities, you know, it’s very hard to imagine how it might have ended, except that we do know that slavery was ended in every other country in the western hemisphere. Slavery was ended in all these others places in the western hemisphere without a bloody civil war.” Previously Coates wrote about Ron Paul’s similar sentiment.

His response is  required reading.

Too often I find that this argument is based in high-minded generalizations, and not in the tiny, hard facts of history. The history of emancipation attempts in Delaware and the South never come up. No one looks at how Sojourner Truth’s son was sold into slavery in Alabama, after New York went with gradual emancipation. Instead we just get “war is bad.” But some of us were already at war.

What most saddens me about this argument is the sense that Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly advocated for peaceful means to end slavery, many of which were opposed by African-Americans (and rightfully so,) is somehow cast as a kind of war-monger. To put this in perspective, consider that Abraham Lincoln had to come to Washington on a secret train for fear that he would be killed. When he got there, he said this upon his inauguration:

He was answered, a month later, when Confederates fired on federal property. The next five year took a toll on Lincoln which I can scarcely imagine. His wife was bipolar. His son died from typhoid fever. And Lincoln, himself, was murdered by an unrepentant white supremacist.

There’s something distasteful, and cynical, about asking why Lincoln couldn’t prevent a war, that was thrust upon him a month after he became President. Of course we could flip the question and ask why slaveholders elected to expand their war against black people to the entire country. But we already know the answer. The truth is so very terrible.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 13, 2012 at 15:31