The Antislavery Bulwark: The Antislavery Origins of the Civil War – Intro & Keynote

The Antislavery Bulwark: The Antislavery Origins of the Civil War – Intro & Keynote

– Good evening, good evening and welcome. Welcome to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. My name is Chase Robinson and I’m the president
of the Graduate Center, but I’m also an historian. I’m a specialist, as it happens,
in early Islamic history, and so what that means
is that I’ll presume to be among friends and I’ll spare you the detailed introduction that I might ordinarily make to the Graduate Center. Suffice it to say that we are a graduate school of arts and sciences, a center of advanced learning,
scholarship and research, a platform for public discussion,
debate and performance, and the doctoral granting heart of the extraordinary enterprise that is the City University of New York, with its 280,000 students pursuing degrees and another quarter of a million students doing non-degree work. Ours is a remarkable faculty,
and as part of their training, our students teach about
200,000 CUNY undergraduates every year, bringing the very
best research and learning to virtually every neighborhood in every borough of the city. What a bracing and important moment in and I think for the study
of slavery in the Civil War, and what better way to set the scene than by setting the words
of another historian, the celebrated Marc Bloch,
words that I regard to be especially apposite this evening. The nature, he wrote, the nature
of our intelligence is such that it is stimulated far
less by the will to know than by the will to
understand, and from this, it results that the only sciences which it admits to be authentic
are those which succeed in establishing explanatory
relationships between phenomenon. The rest is, as Malebranche
puts it, mere polymathy. Now, as many of you will
know much better than I, we are in the midst of
a fast-moving revolution in the way historians think about slavery, about antislavery and the Civil War. Generations of historians
have marginalized the abolitionists and
ignored or dismissed the idea that the Civil War had
antislavery origins. That familiar orthodoxy is
now crumbling before our eyes. Intellectual battle
lines are being redrawn, and books published five years
ago suddenly seem obsolete. This conference organizes,
advertises and celebrates that revolution, and you’ll
understand if I cannot resist saying that the Graduate
Center is at the vortex of the historiographic
upheaval taking place. We can boast a past that
includes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Lawanda Cox, Hans Trefousse, Richard Wade, Herbert Gutman, Eric
Foner and Jack Diggins. We can boast a present that
continues that tradition with several colleagues,
including, but certainly not only Jonathan Sasse, David
Waldstreicher and Jim Oakes, in addition to several students. The program looks
extraordinary across the board. It assembles a remarkable
group of scholars and students, all working in a variety of
state of the art approaches. You’ll indulge me, however, if, as an historian of early
Islam, I make a special plug for the second paper
in the second session, Like the Veiled Prophet of Khorossan: Salmon P. Chase and the Meaning
of the Antislavery Platform, which will be presented
by our own Jill Murphy. There on that throne to which
the blind belief of millions raised him sat the prophet
chief, the great Mokanna. O’er his features hung the veil, the silver veil which he had flung. So wrote Thomas Moore, the
mid 19th century Irish poet, alluding to the late eighth
century prophet revolutionary in what was then an early Islamic empire. Who knew? Certainly not I. Who knew how intertwined were
American slavery and politics, European Romantic poets,
and Abbasid sectarianism? One of the most famous of
those Romantics, Shelley, wrote that poets are the unacknowledged
legislators of the world. Even a historian might grant that. I would now like to introduce Jim Oakes, one of our most distinguished
faculty members, who will have the honor of introducing
tonight’s keynote speaker. Jim Oakes is one of the leading historians of 19th century American history. He has an international
reputation for pathbreaking and idol smashing scholarship. In a series of influential
books and essays, he’s tackled the history
of the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War. His pioneering books
include The Ruling Race, Slavery and Freedom: An
Interpretation of the Old South, The Radical and the
Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph
of Antislavery Politics, and Freedom National: The
Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861 to 1865. The latter two garnered, respectively, the 2008 and 2013 Gilder
Lehrman Lincoln Prize, an annual award for the finest
scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or
the American Civil War. An alumnus of Baruch College,
Professor Oakes holds MA and PhD degrees from the
University of California, Berkeley. He’s been on the faculty of
the Graduate Center since 1997 and the holder of the
Humanities Chair since 1998. Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Oakes. (audience applauding) – It’s a good thing I don’t
have to give a speech tonight. I’d never live up to that. Before we begin, before I
introduce tonight’s speaker, I have the obligation, the
pleasant obligation of thanking many of the people and institutions that made this conference possible, beginning with my
co-organizer, John Stauffer, who instantly agreed with
me that this was something we should and could and,
in fact, needed to do, and has been with me since the beginning. John succeeded in getting his
home institution of Harvard to co-sponsor this conference. The New York Historical Society also co-sponsors this conference and we’d like to thank Louise Mirrer for that, but mostly, I would
like to thank personally my home institution, both the
City University of New York, the previous interim chancellor
of which was generous in his support for this conference, and my home institution here,
the Graduate Center, beginning with Chase, the provost, Louise Lennihan, and in particular, Don Robotham of the Advanced Research Collective. These people all co-sponsored
it, made it possible, and I wanna thank them from
the bottom of my heart. They made it easy and expressed enthusiasm right from the beginning. Finally, I need to thank Joe Murphy, who handled all the details
and made this whole thing even easier, so thank you all. It is an honor and also a pleasure for me to introduce tonight’s
speaker, David Blight. David is the class of ’54, right? ’54, right? 54, I presume that’s 1954. Professor of history at Yale. Could be 18, it’s Yale, could be 1754. Professor of history, he is the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Resistance. I’m not sure I got the title right. That’s close enough. What’s impressive to me about David is how many different hats he wears
and how well he wears them. I mentioned that he’s the director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and in that capacity, as a
kind of academic intellectual, academic administrator and
intellectual entrepreneur, he has maintained that center, the very highest standards
of intellectual achievement. Made it and kept it as
probably the leading center for the study of slavery and antislavery, probably in the world, I think, and he’s been very successful at that and almost everyone in my field has, in some way or another,
benefited from that. He is also a very distinguished
scholar in his own right, and even as a scholar, he
wears several different hats. He is, to my mind, one
of the two or three, if not the leading students
of Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century
abolitionist, probably the most prominent African
American in the 19th century. He has a new book coming
out on Frederick Douglass. He is also a leading promoter
and presenter to the world of slave narratives and
expert on slave narratives and slave autobiographies, but
he’s best known to scholars as a student of the
memory of the Civil War, most particularly in his
magnum opus, Race and Reunion, on the way the Civil War was
remembered and misremembered in the late 19th and early 20th century, an issue we continue to
live with to this day. And finally, David wears another hat that is at least as important. He is one of those rare
academic historians who manages and is committed
to translating the work of the scholarly academic field
to a broad public audience. You’ve all seen him on
TV a thousand times. Every time I email him or talk to him, he’s going to some place,
giving a talk here. He speaks at museums and
a million different kinds of public venues and he
is masterful at that, and it’s one of the most
important things a scholar can do, and one of the things
he does so successfully. So with that, let me introduce
to you tonight’s speaker. He’s the ideal person to
introduce this conference. We’re thrilled that he was able to do it. David Blight. (audience applauding) – Well, thank you, Jim. President Robinson, any event
that begins with a quote from Marc Bloch is kinda
downhill from there. A hero, or thought to be a
hero to all of us, Marc Bloch. Thank you, Jim, for that
amazing introduction. In case there’s any confusion, I was not part of the class of ’54 at Yale. I was in swaddling clothes,
but I’ve been several times, well, actually, twice, where
somebody looked over afterward and said, “And you’re
looking very good, sir.” I thought that’s where this was going, but Jim can count better than that. I have no good idea why I’m
invited to give this keynote. Any number of 10 others here could have. In fact, I tried to recommend that to Jim when he asked me to do
this in a vulnerable moment when I was feeling safe and comfortable in England, writing my book. Okay, it’s a long time away. But of course, when you plan a conference around your own great ideas
and your own big project, you can’t be your own keynote. Jim had to have somebody, you know. I’m filling in for Oakes
tonight, and no jokes, Shawn. I know Jim Oakes and you know Jim Oakes. I know that’s what you’re thinking. Anyway, this afternoon, I had
the pleasure of attending, none of the rest of you other
than the dozen or so people giving papers at this
conference could attend what was a seminar over at the
New York Historical Society, but virtually all the people
giving papers tomorrow, they shopped their papers with each other, read them all ahead of time. I had not read them all ahead of time ’cause I just didn’t get
time, but it was amazing. It was one of those transcendent
two and a half hours, in some ways, where we just debated, where the story of antislavery,
origins of the Civil War, in the long term, is going,
and where it ought to go with the book that Jim and John are gonna edit out of this conference. It really was, and
actually, it was at least two generations in that
room, in this field. I say at least, I don’t wanna
accuse anybody of being old as now third generation, ’cause
I’m getting there myself, but it was a special moment
for me in that sense. I’m sure the rest of you
might’ve thought it too. Now, there’s an array of
abolition scholars here tonight that many of you know, so if
I don’t quote you, you know, it’s because I didn’t have
space, and if I do, no offense. For historians, wrote Isaiah
Berlin in a famous essay, turned into a book in 1954
called Historical Inevitability, for historians, wrote Isaiah Berlin, determinism is not a serious issue. Yet unthinkable as it may be
as theory of human action, specific forms of the
deterministic hypothesis have played an arresting, if limited role, in altering our views
of human responsibility. Now, a lot of you have
read Berlin, and you know, he had particular concerns
about certain kinds of determinism at that point in history, but my concern in this talk
tonight, for better or worse, is the way, perhaps often unwittingly, forms of determinism and
forms of moral certainty can creep into our
interpretations of this huge, old, extremely important
question of just how and why the Civil War happened when it happened. Moral certainty. An issue, I’m gonna use
an example out of fiction. You’ll approve, I hope, anyway. In the novel by Geraldine Brooks that some of you surely have read, it was justifiably
popular, book called March. If you’ve read it, you’ll
remember it’s a rewriting of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Main character, March, is
Louisa May Alcott’s husband, and there’s a scene where Marmee, who is sort of the Louisa
May Alcott character, is throwing this kind of
spirited, moralistic near fit just before they’re all about
to go walk up the street to hear a speech by John Brown, and she just is in everybody’s face because some of them don’t
wanna go hear John Brown. He’s just too radical, he’s too crazy. They can’t abide, and
she’s in everybody’s face, and March, her husband,
is getting really upset, as he always does at
the spirit of his wife and her radicalism, and
then Geraldine Brooks takes us into the scene
where John Brown is giving a speech in Concord, Massachusetts on his fundraising campaigns
among the abolitionists, and we hear this quote from John Brown. “I tell you this,” says John Brown. This is fiction. “The two most sacred
documents known to man “are the Bible and the
Declaration of Independence. “Better that a whole generation
of men, women and children “should pass away by
violent death than that “a word of either should be
violated in this country.” This drew a scattering of applause, from the voice of March now, the narrator. Scattering of applause, he says, although not from me, he announces. I was not so profligate with the lives of women and children as he. I glanced at Marmee, but
instead of the disapprobation I expected, her black eyes
were warm and approving. Here, then, was a man intemperate as she, a man whose measure matched her own. Lifting up his voice, Brown proclaimed that he had no doubt it would
be right in opposing slavery, not only to accept a violent
death, but also to kill. I felt my face settle
into a scowl at this. If there is one class of person
I have never quite trusted, it is a man who knows no doubt. Of course, the great irony
of that moment in the book is that March, who goes off to be
a chaplain in the Union Army, becomes exactly that, a man with no doubt, and his abolitionism,
his radical abolitionism, his inability to understand
why people just don’t get it, that the war’s all about slavery gets him into one terrible situation after another, and eventually all but kills him. Most of us have spent much of our lives, at least the historians here, studying and essentially admiring abolitionists, I’m one of ’em, for their righteousness, their farseeing demands that America immediately or even gradually
end the evil of slavery, remake its institutions,
reform its hearts, conquer its racism. They formed the prototypical American radical reform movement, and in our broad historical
memory, they won. At least, they won in the
decades following, the 1960s, rehabilitation of their reputation. Indeed, it is sometimes remarkable how many of today’s right wingers, who do not really believe in
government or racial equality or an openness to immigration, or genuine democracy at the ballot box, or federal supremacy over states’ rights, or science and research,
and I could go on, will, when they have to, in public forums, declare themselves descendants
of the abolitionists. We are all abolitionists now,
in case you haven’t noticed, as long as we keep the
subject superficial, triumphal, and somehow in the service of American exceptionalism,
that term that is once again getting another riotous revival. It is always worth recalling how unpopular abolitionists were in their
own time, lest we forget. It’s also worth remembering
or asking how many of us would ever want to spend a week, a month, or even a long day out
on the lecture circuit, and all those stagecoaches
and sooty railroad cars and the backs of wagons
behind stinking horses with some of the most
doctrinaire of the abolitionists. As skeptical scholars and teachers, even if activists in our own ways, we would not have found it
an easy time necessarily to be next to Stephen Foster, Abby Kelley, Parker Pillsbury, Maria Weston Chapman, or maybe even William Lloyd
Garrison himself at times, although he could be charming. Even Frederick Douglass, few
of us would have wanted perhaps to be around the embittered personal and ideological rivalries
that went on between him and, say, the black Garrisonians,
such as Charles Remond. It is remarkable how they
could condemn each other viciously one day and appear
at the same lectern the next. They did manage, and when
Douglass flared his nostrils, thumped his fists on pulpits
and rostrums, and let forth the rage inside of him at
slavery and its defenders, we might not want to be
on the receiving side. Angry, doctrinaire, absolutist idealists, especially those scarred by slavery itself were rarely easy companions. Moral absolutists can surely inspire us, but they’re not always fun. In his entry in Who’s Who,
the late Nathan Huggins, a marvelous historian some of us here knew and a mentor to me at a time in my life, wrote this about our craft. I find, said Nathan, in
the study of history, the special discipline which forces me to consider peoples and ages not my own, it is the most humane of disciplines, and in ways, the most humbling, for one cannot ignore those
historians of the future who will look back on us in the same way. I had that feeling this afternoon, sitting in this amazing
seminar we were having, charting this new book of essays, all this rich, incredible
new work on abolitionism and thinking, 25 years from
now, some of us will be dead, but there will be another
group of historians looking back on us and thinking, God, they got this wrong and
they got that wrong. How could they not realize? I’ve always loved Nathan’s call
for humility in what we do. We may all be abolitionists
now, and we certainly all are revisionists, of course,
in one way or another, and we love a good interpretive fight. Our question here this weekend, the origins and causes of the Civil War, underlying, long term and immediate, has long had fundamental
and fruitful disagreement. Moreover, if we admitted we
are all probably in this field because it is a history
completely intertwined with the central drama
of our country’s past. Slavery, emancipation, and
the war and reconstruction that reinvented, well, destroyed first, the original United States
and had to reinvent another. It’s a field where we’ve
always had commitments to make. I can still remember being
accused in a graduate seminar of practicing history
as a neo-abolitionist because of the subjects I chose by a student who chose other subjects, and I don’t remember now,
never trust your memory, but I don’t remember
how I reacted to that. Probably proud, oh, hadn’t
been called that before. I also hadn’t read Reinhold
Niebuhr yet by then. In 1949, Niebuhr left this caution about how we make judgments
about history and justice. The processes of historical
justice, said Niebuhr, are not exact enough to
warrant the simple confidence of the moral character of history. Moral judgments are executed in history, but never with precision. Every execution of moral
judgments in history, said Niebuhr, is inexact,
because of its necessary relation to the morally irrelevant fact of power. In January and February
1863, Frederick Douglass took an extraordinary speech on the road and delivered it many times
across parts of the north. The address is entitled The
Proclamation and a Negro Army, and he gave it here in New York to a huge audience at the
Cooper Institute in February. Of the thousands of times
Douglass stepped to a lectern, a church pulpit, on a stump
or held forth under a tree in a field, this speech ranks
among, in my humble opinion, his four or five most
important and revealing. It is not quite the
rhetorical masterpieces of structure and argument
of the two great jeremiads, the Fourth of July speech or
the Freedmen’s Memorial speech that he gave in 1876, but as a statement about that historical moment,
right after the Proclamation, of his own historical worldview and of the antislavery origins as well as character of the Civil War in its midst, it’s a remarkable work. This is the speech where Douglass assessed the meaning of the
Emancipation Proclamation right after Lincoln had issued it. 22 years after first entering the formal public antislavery movement,
the 45 year old Douglass called emancipation,
including Lincoln’s edict, the greatest event of
our nation’s history, if not the greatest event of the century. As many here know, this is poignant given the things Douglass
had said about Lincoln in the previous year and
a half or so of the war. He said he could scarcely conceive of a more complete revolution. It was, he said, as though
England was no longer ruled by a king, Austria had become a republic, and the pope had turned Protestant. Because of the Proclamation, Douglass declared himself a citizen. “I stand here tonight
not only as a colored man “and an American, but
as a colored citizen, “having in common with all other citizens “a stake in the safety, prosperity, “honor and glory of a common country.” Just whether he was truly a legal citizen at that moment was yet to be determined. Then came a line in the
speech so often quoted by us, by historians; we love
to quote this passage. “We are all liberated
by this proclamation,” proclaimed Douglass. Everybody is liberated. The white man is liberated,
the black man is liberated, the brave men now fighting
the battles of their country against the rebels and
traitors are now liberated. He had a point, and after
these opening strokes of celebration, Douglass
got down to some philosophy and some interpretation of
the history they were living. He went on at length to
lay out his millennialist and apocalyptic vision of history, a quite deterministic
conception of human affairs, driven by what he called the laws of God and the laws of nature
and a doctrine of progress that flowed ultimately
out of breaks in time, rendings and destructions
from which peoples and nations find regenerations
and new beginnings. Douglass was a determinist,
and Douglass never lacked for moral certainty in these matters. He spoke over and again, as
though America was playing out a tragic, irrepressible
destiny of conflict. A moral chemistry, he said,
his words, was at work, forcing southern slaveholders
to stand up to slavery. Their dream and delusion of
a slaveholders’ republic, he portrayed as a kind
of gift from history. This tremendous war, he said,
is but the ripened fruit of past condition; our
present, horrible as it is, is the legitimate child of
our previous condition. History, according to
Douglass, was happening by some mysterious but inexorable design. Drawing from his old and
deep King James biblical well of ideas and stories, Douglass announced, “I believe in the millennium, “the final perfection of the race, “and hail this Proclamation,
though wrung out “under the goading lash of
stern military necessity, “as one reason of the
hope that it is in me. “It is a grand moral necessity.” The speech is also an
especially poignant example of Douglass as the
bloodthirsty war propagandist that he gladly became in
1861 to 1863, as well as this grand apocalyptic sense of the war, but embedded in its middle is one striking, non-deterministic statement about abolitionists and the
coming of the Civil War. The passage merits reading
as a kind of caution for the entire topic of this conference. “History will accord the
abolitionists,” said Douglass, “a large measure of wisdom and
heroic courage and fortitude “in assailing slavery in its
strongholds of church and state “but it cannot award to
them that prophetic vision “that sees the end from the beginning. “It is fortunate,”
Douglass went on, “I think “that they did not see it, fortunate “that they walked by
faith and not by sight.” Here, he seemed to be
saying that it was good that they could exploit,
they, abolitionists, could exploit the political
and moral aftermath of Antietam, but not have to see it, know about Fredericksburg, but not witness the burial crews on the
slopes above the Rappahannock. “Could they have foreseen
their country torn,” said Douglass, “and rent
by the giant footsteps “of this terrible rebellion, “could they have seen a million
men confronting each other, “discussing the question
of slavery with cannons, “could they have seen
the rivers red with blood “and the fields whitened with human bones, “they might have shrunk
back from the moral contest “and thus only have postponed
this contest to a future day “and on a more dreadful scale
than the one now going on.” Was Frederick Douglass
an early revisionist? No, not really, but here
is that kernel of the old needless war revisionist
school of thinking. Could not this monstrous
problem have been settled with less slaughter and cost of life, at least, as a question? In 1980, in the preface to
Kenneth Stampp’s book of essays called The Imperiled Union,
and as he was introducing his own very important essay in that book called The Irrepressible Conflict, Stampp wrote, quote, Kenneth
Stampp, Jim’s mentor, “Sooner or later, a
historian with my teaching “and research interest
is bound to try his hand “at explaining what really
caused the Civil War,” and he underlined really. It would appear that one of Stampp’s most distinguished students, our host, Jim Oakes, has now really done just that, or that’s what we’re
here to debate, anyway. Stampp acknowledged that the question of the war’s irrepressibility
or inevitability was already then, he said, an
old one, and that historians had argued it, he said,
to near exhaustion. This was 1980, but he
forged on for 55 pages, claiming that the historiographical debate was then worth having because, one, it had such important public
dimensions outside the academy. God, does it still. Two, his generation, he said,
had not yet resolved it, and three, because
embedded in each element of the irrepressible question were somehow the ultimate answers
of Civil War causation. Are Stampp’s suggestions and claims about the historiographical saliency of The Irrepressible
Conflict still true today? 34 years later, this problem
is an even older one, and haven’t we too argued
it to near exhaustion? Apparently not, here we are. If there’s one thing we ought to all read, and there are many things we
ought to all read or reread, when contemplating the overall
question of this conference, it might be Stampp’s essay,
Irrepressible Conflict. It’s worth going back to. Historiographical essays
are rarely a great read, except to the nerdiest of us historians. We write those for each
other, but this one is a tour into and out of this
deterministic concept, which is what Stampp called it, of repressibility or irrepressibility, and therefore of all those
counterfactual questions that have always driven it. Stampp’s primary subject is revisionism, that awful, unfortunate label that stuck to a certain school of historians, which means the needless war,
repressible conflict school of interpretation of
the American Civil War made so prominent for
decades by Avery Craven, James Randall, Frank
Owsley, Charles Ramsdell in the 1930s through the
’50s, even into the 60s, and to some extent by
David Potter, David Donald, and Michael Holt beyond the ’60s. I hope Mike’s not here tonight
’cause I’m gonna quote him. It is so easy now to
dismiss their arguments, those old revisionists,
about a blundering generation of fanatical politicians of the 1850s, pious cranks, as Avery Craven called them, contending for power and place, but not really arguing
about any real issues. The original revisionists
Stampp reminded us back there in 1980 were
the 1850s politicians, especially Stephen A. Douglas, who led a cadre of moral indifference about slavery and its territorial future. Stephen Douglas would
become a kind of hero among those modern revisionists, who saw a sectional conflict
that should or could, in their view, have been compromised, were it not for scheming
and ambitious politicians bent on using polarization to gain power, especially those northern radicals, and what were they revising, of course? They were revising the then
decades old interpretation that goes back well into the 19th century that the Civil War came about
as an irrepressible conflict between two evolving, clashing
cultures and societies, one rooted in slavery and
the other in free labor. That slavery cultural
thesis, as Stampp called it, was also as old as the 1850s, as witness William H. Seward’s famous speech on the irrepressible conflict, reinforced by James Ford Rhodes in the
1890s to the early 20th century and culminating in, among
other works, Allan Nevins’s great eight volume Ordeal of
the Union, which Stampp called a monument to the
slavery cultural concept. What really caused the Civil War to those needless war folks? Many in here know this. Agitation by radical abolitionists was, of course, their answer. Yes, they blamed the abolitionists for the coming of the war. Whether of the Garrisonian
or the political abolitionist brand, they engineered
a bitter verbal assault of exaggerated and violent abuse, according to one revisionist. For Avery Craven, the
antislavery origins of the war was a matter of tracing,
he said, the steps by which the south was pounded
into self-consciousness and moved to ultimate secession. The abolitionists made them do it. The south’s increasingly
militant response to the north happened only, said the revisionists, to repel a fanatical attack. Propaganda by what
Michael Holt once called the party gladiators was the real root of the conflict and eventually of the war. The compromises could not be heard over the din of irrational fury. The horrors of war and the
traditionally dismal view of Reconstruction as
a colossal failure led those historians of their generation, according to Don Fehrenbacher, to this revolt against determinism. The war was repressible, avoidable, and they had plenty of
counterfactuals in their arsenal, but Kenneth Stampp turned all
the blundering generation idea on its head with his own long litany of counterfactuals in reverse. The real irrational, abnormal
blunderers, said Stampp, were the southern
politicians, the fire eaters bent on independence to protect
slavery and racial order. Revisionists were by and large
apologists for the south. and for a pro-slavery
society, argued Stampp. It was southerners who would
have had to alter their tone and tenor and purpose
in defense of slavery. They would have had to
fundamentally change the treatment of slaves themselves, and had they stayed in the Union and waited for the next election, rather than secede
after Lincoln’s victory, the Republican party, argued Stampp, would have been weak and ineffectual. But fear and race control
drove them to their revolution, and Americans into war. Was it all inevitable in the
end, Stampp finally asked. The conflict, yes, he said, but the war itself, not necessarily, and then after 55 pages, he said the question was unanswerable Sometimes, that’s what we still say. In that same year, 1980, pardon
one little personal story, I was a teaching assistant
for Richard Sewell at the University of Wisconsin. Brought Dick’s book tonight. One day, Dick came to observe
me in my section as a TA. I have a couple former grad
students here and they will probably remember the
day I came to your class. I hope this didn’t happen. That day, in my section, we were assessing Lincoln’s secession and emancipation. God, it was my favorite
subject, and by that year, Dick was assigning Stampp’s
Imperiled Union, the essays. That day in my section, I conducted what seemed like a fantastic discussion. Students were really
on, they were into it, and I felt so good by the rousing debate. In my gentle but firm direction of them, I had a version of Lincoln
the reluctant emancipator that laid on, and I had
pushed them to think about whether the seceding south in
1861 had misunderstood Lincoln and the Republicans’ pledge to not threaten slavery in the existing states. I may have been, I suppose,
even arguing that on some level, wasn’t this all just some
horrible misunderstanding in 1861? At that time, I was a relatively
fresh, and one might add, fairly ignorant former high school teacher out of seven years of
high school teaching, and only getting my feet
with the historiography of the politics of
abolition and emancipation, as it stood circa 1980. There might even have been
some kind of Vietnam generation view of war that came out of me that day. I don’t know; never trust your memory, but on the way back to
Dick’s office, I do remember he complimented me on
running a good section and being a mature
teacher and yadda, yadda, and I was really feeling
good, and then he said in his gentlemanly way,
“Come into my office.” He softly but unmistakably prodded me about this business of
the reluctant emancipator. Dick said something to the effect, you should really reconsider that idea, and when it comes to secession especially, the southerners actually
interpreted Lincoln dead right. Then he gave me a paperback
copy of his master work, Ballots for Freedom: Antislavery Politics in the United States, which he had just published four years earlier, and he said something like
you might wanna read that when you have time, and I did. Rereading Sewell in anticipation of this has been rewarding, to say the least. Dick’s now 85 and in decent health, and I can’t wait to send
him this piece, I think. I’m not sure if I’m gonna
send him this piece. Especially the final couple
chapters of Sewell’s work, where he showed, as had
Eric Foner before him, the subtle and complex
ways that Republicans were a conflicted, if
steady coalition by 1860. Dick exposed how the trickiest issue in explaining Republicans that year, not unlike it would be
two and three years later in the midst of the war, was
their simultaneous commitment to free soil, moral antipathy to slavery, and the cordoning off
strategy for the territories, but also abiding elements of racism, all in the same coalition. Judgements that whites and
blacks could never really live in equality in America sent
Republicans careening off into various schemes of colonization, relocating blacks out of the country. A wide variety of Republicans vigorously supported colonization,
including Abraham Lincoln. It is true that almost all, Edwards Bate was one real exception, believed that repatriation
of black Americans somewhere else should be voluntary. Whether it was voluntary usually didn’t matter to most
blacks but nevertheless. It is also true that
colonization never made it into the Republican
party platform in 1860, although largely due
to a strategic decision by Frank Blair and others
to avoid a certain fight it would have caused in their ranks, but what was not addressed back in that wonderful 1970s scholarship was just how blacks themselves responded to the Republicans’
colonizationist perception of them. The deep white supremacy at the root of so many pro-colonizationist
statements by Republicans emerged in language frankly
similar to Justice Roger Taney’s in the infamous Dred Scott decision, which the Republican party, of course, vehemently protested and
in opposition to which the party built part of its very identity. Republicans did not have
to worry in the least about the cloud of black
votes in the north. There weren’t that many. Hence, they really did not care how a Frederick Douglass might respond to such pronouncements of Frank Blair’s when he said, “Whether
as a slave or a free man, “the presence of multitudes
of the black race “is found to be fatal to
the interests of our race. “Their antagonism is as
strong as oil and water.” As Sewell says, the
language of colonization was never benign. Blair again, “The sable race,” he said, “bred in the pestilence of Africa, “is a blot on the fair
prospect of our country.” We have always, for good
reason, assessed and judged the Republicans’ racial beliefs
and policies on many issues within the context of their own times, within the changing
patterns of white supremacy, but we have not always assessed them in relation to how black
people themselves process those beliefs and policies
in their hearts and minds. Given the choices, the
Republicans were a vision of hope, to say the least in 1860,
compared to what Sewell called the brutish Negro phobia of the Democrats. The antebellum Republicans
were not freedom writers, as Sewell put it, but they were not Stephen Douglas or James Buchanan or Jefferson Davis or
James Henry Hammond either. As Frederick Douglass said in
1860, in that election year, if the Negro should
discriminate between the various organized forces of this
country against him, he would point to the
Democratic party as preeminent in unscrupulous malignity
and heartless cruelty, attracting to itself all
that is low, vulgar, coarse, brutal and mobocratic in this country. Douglass safely threw his own
vote away in New York in 1860, as some of you know,
giving it to Gerrit Smith and that minuscule
Radical Abolition Party, but he was already a Republican. He cautiously rejoiced
nonetheless in Lincoln’s success, which had demonstrated, said Douglass, the possibility of electing,
if not an abolitionist, at least an antislavery reputation to the presidency of the United States. Above all, Dick Sewell’s
Ballots for Freedom carefully analyzed how there were many
efforts at fusion politics in the late 1850s to try to
head off this terrible storm, and efforts at various kinds
of compromises that might blunt the antislavery vision
of the Republican party. Because of fear of disunion
and out of genuine conservatism and gradualism on the part
of some coalition members, they sought middle ways that,
in the end, just didn’t work. By trying to stress
local issues, the tariff, the economic impact of the Panic of 1857, and merely by moderating rhetoric, some Republicans thought the
ship of state could be saved if southerners would bend,
and all would be well, since slavery in the western territories might never be a real issue anyway. Horace Greeley, for one,
he even tried to concoct a whole new party out of Whigs
and know-nothing nativists and border state people and
just enough Republicans. The eccentric Greeley
wanted his border state national ticket, as he called it, to be, and I love this, frankly but inoffensively hostile to the extension of slavery. Misjudgments abounded all around. As it turned out, the overwhelming
majority of Republicans essentially rejected all
forms of fusion politics on the key issue, slavery’s extension and the idea of property and man. For the deep south, there was simply no inoffensive hostility
to slavery’s future. Ultimately, Sewell concluded,
using numerous sources, quoting him, that only a
platform clearly offensive to slaveholders would satisfy
the party’s rank and file. Although Sewell did not
engage very directly the old irrepressible question,
and I can even remember reviews of his book now
that wonder why he didn’t, he left little doubt that
the Republican’s strong stand made the conflict, if
not the war, unavoidable. Somewhere between Dred
Scott, Harpers Ferry and the election of 1860, this train wreck had been made unstoppable by human choice. In recent times,
variations on a skeptical, avertible war thesis have come from two very distinguished
historians of the south, the Civil War, and American
literary and cultural history. I doubt one of them is here tonight. The other might be, we’ll see. They are, by the way, Edward
Ayers and Andrew Delbanco. Both scholars want us
to think, again, hard about any consensus regarding the roots of the conflict about abolitionism itself. In 2005, Ed Ayers worried that
after the combined influence of Jim McPherson’s
great narrative history, Battle Cry of Freedom, and Ken Burns’s PBS film series of 1990, we
might collectively, said Ayers, stop worrying about the
Civil War altogether. A kind of standard liberal
nationalist conception of the war became, in Ayers’s view, deeply embedded in our popular memory. I think it was already
there, to be explicit. The Civil War had become an event with enduring clear
meanings, argued Ed Ayers. Thousands of acres of sacred ground, demanding some form of redemption, an inspiration to the
nation, a bloodletting that made the country
greater through suffering. In the popular imagination,
the war, Ayers said, could now be protected from
cynicism, and a kind of national atonement for
the huge sin of slavery. Ayers said the flood of new scholarship, especially from the
social history revolution, had demolished the old revisionism from the ’60s through the ’80s. The idea of a needless war
had become all but laughable, but what had replaced it,
Ayers thought, was an epoch that took on the shape, he
said, of an elaborate play, a melodrama full of a new
load of what Robert Pen Warren had called the Treasury of Virtue. I quote Ayers. “White southerners had been
permitted limited access “to parts of the treasury,
handed the keys to the rooms “that contained honor, bravery “and maybe even idealism,
though not justice. “Black Americans have
finally been acknowledged “as agents in their own freedom, “but it is white northern
men who come off best “in these stories, martyrs for union “and liberty of other people.” Now, these are bold strokes by Ayers, a historian I have enormous respect for, and his respectful nod
to the old revisionists and their antipathy to moral
absolutism is a bit dubious without also looking at their motives. Indeed, even his lumping
of Burns and McPherson into the same neat package
might be a little overstated, but when you got an argument to advance, you know, you gotta state
it, but he does prod us, and we need it, to keep thinking beyond our comfortable,
seemingly self-evident, persistently redemptive
stories and plot lines. As for what caused the war,
Ayers offers a sophisticated social historian’s revival
of the old revisionists. He never calls the war
needless or avoidable, but in arguing for what
he calls deep contingency, Ayers utterly rejects
any notion of inevitably and says American political
culture in the late 1850s collapsed into a frenzied, his words, misunderstanding, confusion
and miscalculation. There is a certain sweet reason here. The union did, after all, fall apart. The gears of the northern
political mechanism, writes Ayers, spun around many axes, of
which slavery was only one, and not always the most important one. Now everyone seems to
declare for contingency. Who can be against that? That’s like being against evidence. But Ayers rewarms the old revisionist idea of a political system
fueled by mass market partisan newspapers on
an unprecedented scale that had self-fostered conflict and war. In an aggressive argument that we should return to the whole modernity
problem, in explaining the coming of the war,
Ayers comes close to saying what James Randall did in
the Blundering Generation. Furious politics, out of control, sent the country into secession
as much as any real issue. Ayers, again, quote,
“Maybe the conflict stemmed “from a struggle over a
hypothetical railroad, “a novel written by an obscure woman, “an act of symbolic terrorism “and a media war over
a distant territory.” He concludes that the
Civil War must be seen with its taproot in slavery,
but can never be understood apart from its many extended
roots in print culture, in raging, sensationalized newspaper wars. There is much to fuss with and argue with in Ayers’s breezy essays, but
as a misanthropic provocateur, he reminds us that nothing
is truly inevitable, and we ought never give in
completely to the notion that the Civil War came about
through a comfortable fable about what he calls a familiar
sequence of political events that crashed into one
another in a chain reaction like so many billiard balls. For his part, Andrew
Delbanco challenges us to think critically all over again about abolitionists,
and not merely celebrate and appropriate them to our own ends. In the abolitionist imagination, which I thought was by
and large brilliant, provocative as well as contrarian, Delbanco’s primary concern
is the changing reputation of abolitionists over time
and how they have so often been a mirror or a test
of what is acceptable or effective in radicalism in America. He reminds us that contrary to now, when the abolitionists are
widely, if superficially and nostalgically admired
in popular memory, the term was hardly representative
of virtue in its own time. As most of us know,
their numbers were small. They were widely feared and hated, an opprobrium they often sought, but their influence could
be well out of proportion to their numbers, and
as Eric Foner has shown, radical abolitionists did over
time have profound influence on moderate politicians like Lincoln, perhaps more importantly than
they did on ordinary people, but Delbanco troubled
some of his respondents by wondering forthrightly why
we so easily dismiss those in the late antebellum period who yearn for a middle way, for compromises that might have averted
the slaughter of the war. In other words, he too seeks
to break us of our habits of thinking of irrepressibility,
even as we deny we do. He celebrates Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s and Herman Melville’s oblique approach to slavery,
although Melville gets the higher ground there, and he should. Of course, we should pay
close attention to literature, from novels to poetry
to the slave narratives, as windows into the sectional crises, but Hawthorne and Melville,
and I would here add, of course, forcefully, Frederick Douglass and others, saw Armageddon coming. The difference is that Douglass
wanted, indeed, ached for it where the other writers feared it. Douglass had no good clue the actual form some Armageddon would
take, but make no mistake. He wanted it to come. Both Melville and Hawthorne
grasped the heart of tragedy and its consequences, unlike
so many American historians who just don’t like the idea of tragedy and don’t know how to write about it. Hawthorne hoped that
moderation would prevail, writes Delbanco, this is a quote. Melville, though, expected it, and one might add that the
political abolitionists who formed the Republican
party and forged an ideology that did in part drive the
nation to conflict and war very much hoped, as Jim Oakes has shown, that moderation would prevail. In the end, they were
willing and unwilling makers of that tragedy, and that
is why Delbanco reminds us to take seriously the
problem of ambivalence in historical action and thought, even if it comes from a Lionel Trilling or an exasperating Edmund Wilson. Wilson’s passionate antiwar,
instinctively conservative search for anti-centrist,
anti-mythic writers and his hatred of moral absolutism and that brilliant, if
confounding book, Patriotic Gore cannot fit nicely or maybe at
all into our post-Civil Rights black history centered
vision of the United States, but there is a great deal
of grinding, cruel, terrible human nature to be found
by keeping our minds open to that contingency as well. Above all, Delbanco meditates
on the recurring idea of an abolitionist
disposition, he calls it, or temperament in American
history, an interesting idea, and the many forms on left
and right that it has taken. Sam Brownback can stand today
in the Kansas state capital in Topeka, in front of those
magnificent John Brown murals and try to eliminate taxes
in one of the boldest moves of the far right wing seizure
of power in recent years. He too claims to be an abolitionist. Unpopular as it might seem,
Delbanco too boldly cautions against all those in history
who exude moral certainty, who are happy to make moral
judgments for the rest of us. Beware all advocates
of holy war in any era, he seems to be saying,
even if in long retrospect, we can pick our winners and
we can pick our holy wars with whom and with which we want to ally. Sounding a good deal
like Robert Penn Warren on abolitionists for
several pages of his essay, Delbanco finally quotes Warren. “The abolitionists,” wrote
Warren in 1961, “provided,” his words, “the saddening spectacle of men “courageously dedicated to a worthy cause, “letting their nobility grow
so distempered by impatience, “and sometimes, it is
difficult to distinguish “love of liberty from
their lust of blood.” Warren, if you didn’t know,
didn’t like abolitionists. One person’s distempered
impatience, however, is another’s justifiable
outraged anger and heroism. But Warren did capture quite
accurately in that passage what Frederick Douglass had become in the late antebellum period, an advocate of righteous
collective violence in the service of emancipation
and a fierce promoter of war on the south and slaveholders
once Fort Sumter came, although he’d been
rehearsing that a long time. Even more than Delbanco surmised
just a couple of years ago, recent books showing a darker
and even more destructive Civil War than we might have long imagined may or may not make us reconsider the nature of that
abolitionist disposition. Ironically, Delbanco
asked the same question Douglass did in his earlier 1863 speech. He asked his readers,
especially baby boomers of the Vietnam generation, to
become a we, he says, in 1861. Quoting Delbanco, “If we
could’ve known in advance “the scale of the ensuing carnage, “would we have sided
with those who considered “any price worth paying to
bring an end to slavery, “or would we have voted
for patience, persuasion, “diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions, “the alternatives to
war that most liberal,” I’m still quoting, “most liberal
minded people prefer today “in the face of manifest
evil in far away places,” and Andy wrote that, of course, well before any of us
had ever heard of ISIS. So did the abolitionists
cause the Civil War after all? I will end with this. Especially the political ones. Yes, forcefully, however,
often unwittingly, argues Jim Oakes, in his tour
de force, Freedom National, and now in the more succinct
book, The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the
Coming of the Civil War. Oakes demonstrates more
thoroughly than anyone before how the Republicans of the
late 1850s devised an ideology and a strategy that would draw
a legal and political cordon around slavery, restricting its expansion, eliminating it wherever
federal jurisdiction ruled, and ultimately bringing it
to an ultimate extinction in Lincoln’s famous words. Although Oakes too argues that nothing is utterly inevitable in history, and that counterfactuals are
ultimately not very useful. He makes an aggressive argument
about how irreconcilable, his favorite word that he uses
over and over, irreconcilable the sectional conflict was,
even if the war was not. I think what we have here is
The Irrepressible Conflict, once again, but maybe on steroids. The Republicans believed
that the slave society of the south would ultimately
die by the scorpion’s sting, gradually eroding first
under outside persuasion and then from the center
out, thus killing itself when surrounded by a girt of fire. That scorpion metaphor
was indeed used repeatedly by a wide range of Republicans. What Oakes posits is a kind of political abolitionist moral-suasion. That’s not his term, that’s mine. They believed in gradualism. Southern states would
themselves abolish slavery, beginning with the border states, and ultimately after an
internal antislavery party was gonna somehow emerge
within the deep south, slaveholders would come to
their moral and pragmatic political senses and
institute emancipation. My God, what a different American history we would’ve had had that ever played out. This, they would do, the Republicans. I’m sorry, this, they,
the southerners, would do rather than face the horrors of war and a forced military
emancipation that would come. This would, in the end, happen peacefully, so the Republicans believed, without war, or at least it would be some
kind of violence short of war. Oakes argues further that there
has been too much emphasis on military emancipation, that is, emancipation by the Union Army, as the ultimate means of
abolition, and not enough on this longer term preparation
of the political terrain by Republicans and their predecessors for the preferred scorpion sting or self-immolation theory of abolition, but that is just what it was, a theory, and in some ways, an
extraordinarily naive theory. This notion of self-emancipation
by the southern states due to northern anti-slavery
pressures has to rank as one of the most
profound miscalculations of American political history. Republicans across the board, says Oakes, took a conciliatory posture
during the secession crisis, and people like William
Seward and Carl Schurz and many others seemed
to sincerely believe that somehow, an antislavery
wave of farsighted reason would sweep over the
clear minded in the south and abolition with a preserved
union would come about without violence and without war. After all their years of
banging their heads into and haranguing the slave power, how could they genuinely
believe in this theory of homegrown antislavery
in the slave south? We need to look at that. And were the Republicans
really as collectively unified on all these issues as sometimes implied? A majority did support
the Corwin Amendment, the pledge of a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of slave ownership as property in the existing slave states as a potential compromise
to stave off war. And what about Lincoln’s repeated pledge to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law as long as the fugitives
were allowed due process? Some radicals, like Frederick Douglass, were appalled at this. Quoting Oakes, “Republicans
clearly understood,” he says, “that southerners either had
to accept a peaceful program “of gradual abolition within the union “or secession followed
by the horrors of war “and immediate violent
military emancipation.” Jim is so right when he says intentions do not guarantee outcomes, but is this not reading
the ultimate results sometimes backward onto the reality? How many Republicans really
had this all figured out? Especially the second
part of that equation, that secession would necessarily result in violent military emancipation. Oakes has done a tremendous
and provocative service in reading morality back
into this historiography. Stressing how the Republicans
injected the debate over the right and wrong
of property and man deep into the crisis, Jim
asserts, viewed in this light, the familiar cliche
might easily be reversed I’m quoting. The Civil War was only superficially a dispute over slavery in the territories. In reality, it was a fundamental conflict over slavery itself. Okay, thanks for the prod. The territorial problem as
superficial clangs a bit. How do we account, then, for
the entire Free Soil impulse? How do we understand Lincoln’s
own reemergence into politics in 1854 to challenge Stephen
Douglas in Kansas and Nebraska? How do we even assess, then, the nature of the Republican coalition,
which, let’s remember, a white supremacist like
David Wilmot willingly joined? Moral certainty is a very slippery thing. Even when we think we
have it in our hands, it can call apart, and
especially when we remember we’re dealing with deeply
divided, flawed human beings. Again, Oakes does force us, though, to see the two fundamentally
different conceptions of natural law and natural
rights were at stake in the sectional secession crisis. Indeed, that may be the
deepest root, ultimately, of a revived irrepressible
conflict thesis, whether we call it that or not, and his discussion of Republican
racial views is rigorous and open minded, but the
secessionists’ constant, fearful harping on Republican
beliefs and racial equality in the boiling political
atmosphere of 1861 does not necessarily make it so. In a profound statement, Jim concludes, the irreconcilable conflict
over slavery was inescapably an irreconcilable conflict
over racial equality. Well, in the long run,
that’s definitely true, but here’s where we have to listen to our own demands for
contingency, and I know Jim does. He makes a great argument for contingency. The Lincoln of the Peoria speech or the House Divided Speech
or the First Inaugural is not the same Lincoln as January 1863. Growth and change in the
midst of this result, so fundamental and astounding, and the remorseless revolutionary
struggle of the war itself as Lincoln famously called
it, have to make us push back at our own tendencies to
see ends from beginnings, even as we admit that
our subjects could not. Thank you. (audience applauding)

5 thoughts on “The Antislavery Bulwark: The Antislavery Origins of the Civil War – Intro & Keynote

  1. These arguments trying to assign some form of blame for the Civil War on abolitionists always lack a sense of symmetry. It is argued that abolitionists should have done this or that. None of the suggestions are guaranteed to succeed, nor are they even more morally defensible (more on this later). On the other hand, compare that to what the slavers could have done to avoid war: stop owning human beings as if they were cattle. No, the slavers are still completely to blame for the Civil War and all of the ensuing loss of life.

    The abolitionists weren't even as morally rigid as they are argued to be. What would a morally rigid person advocate instead? They would have argued for the immediate arrest of all slave-owners, backed by full-scale war as necessary for as long as needed. The allusion to ISIS is misleading: if ISIS was operating within the US, we would all immediately advocate for their capture. This is to say that neither did the abolitionists advocate doing what we all now know was morally required of everyone at the time: to do everything they could to end slavery, immediately.

    With this in mind, no one has been able to explain an alternative strategy for the abolitionists which wasn't morally obtuse. The complaint is that the Civil War resulted in a great loss of life. To that, I say good. Those people deserved to die. Everyone alive who was not a slave at the time was guilty, guilty of allowing slavery to occur while they did nothing. For this reason I find the suggestion that the abolitionists should have "waited out" the South to be morally repugnant, because it is an argument to trade the suffering and death of innocent (slaves) for the deserved punishment of the guilty (everyone else).

  2. If you believe that your views make your future you would realize this guy is the biggest racist in the US possibly the world.

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