A Necessary Lesson for Dems
A new book by historian James Oakes comes just in time. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 brings us an important new interpretation for the crucial events of our American Civil War. Focusing less on the battles of that most deadly of conflicts, this book goes behind the scenes to show what Congress was doing, what Union commanders in the field were doing, and what abolitionists and the slaves themselves were doing to bring about what Lincoln poetically called "this great consummation."
Democrats need this book. MSNBC recently apologized for calling the late Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace a Republican. It's an understandable mistake on their part. They are so used to the Democratic talking points -- Democrats for civil rights, good. Republicans stand in the schoolhouse door, bad. Except that the only ones who ever stood in any doors to deny civil rights to black Americans were Democrats.
No one should minimize the great role of President John F. Kennedy in introducing the most far-reaching civil rights legislation, or diminish the role of Sen. Hubert Humphrey in shepherding this measure through the Congress, or deny that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the great Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965. All of these leaders were Democrats.
But it is also true that virtually all the opponents of these vital measures, certainly the most determined and effective opponents for more than a century, were Democrats. The Stephen Spielberg movie, Lincoln, has won deserved praise. It gives us the most eerily accurate picture of Abraham Lincoln we are likely to see on screen. And the movie also shows us the indispensable role played by grizzled, grarled old Thad Stevens, the irascible chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Both men were Republicans, as was. Secretary of State William Seward. Seward is shown as a major string-puller in the behind-the-scenes negotiations to achieve congressional approval -- by a necessary two-thirds majority -- of the Thirteenth Amendment that finally abolished slavery in America. But while the movie does show Lincoln, Stevens, and Seward as Republicans, and the villainous and racist New York Congressman Fernando Wood as a Democrat, the screen version still lets linger the false idea that those pesky moderate Republicans were a thorn in Lincoln's side.
Historian Oakes shows us that the Thirteenth Amendment was a Republican initiative from the start. So, too, were the other wartime emergency measures embodied in the first and second Confiscation Acts. Oakes lets us see Lincoln's immortal Emancipation Proclamation not as a parchment floating down from Heaven into the hands of Father Abraham, but as a policy statement authorized and bidden by the activist Republicans in Congress.
This in no way detracts from Lincoln's inspired statesmanship. Nor does it deny the element of the Divine. Lincoln himself said he had "made a promise to my Maker" that he would issue the proclamation if the Union won the Battle of Antietam.
What Oakes' wonderful work does is to show how Lincoln's Republican colleagues supported, prodded, pleaded and applauded his every step on the path to emancipation. If he is deservedly the Great Emancipator, they are to be honored as his loyal partisans. If Lee's Lieutenants deserve to be remembered in classic historical works, then surely Lincoln's Lieutenants are more worthy of our esteem as we reflect on our country's tortured path to Freedom National.
Lincoln said as much himself. He appealed to Congress in 1862 in these unforgettable words:
The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just -- a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.
What James Oakes has done is to light down in honor those Republicans who aided the Union generals in the field and who supported the slaves in their dash toward freedom. Only about 15% of the slaves, however, had "self-emancipated" themselves a year after Lincoln's Proclamation. Lincoln and his congressional Republican allies knew it would take more. That was what the Thirteenth Amendment was for.
So why should Democrats want to know all this? Because the truth is important and cannot be long suppressed. It is not just embarrassing for a party and a movement to be caught up in lies, it is ultimately unsuccessful. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was prompted by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's demand that that America's promised check be redeemed. Democrats finally had to redeem that check and did so sincerely.
Republicans need this book because they need to stop apologizing to black Americans for their past. They need to know their own past. They can also find in the actions of those early Republicans a model for strength and commitment to purpose in tumultuous times that is too often missing in today's GOP. Yes, it may be true that Lincoln was often exasperated with the impatience and impracticality of some of those Republicans. "They are the unhandiest set of men," he said. Unhandiest meaning lacking practical wisdom.
But, Lincoln finally conceded, "their faces are set Zionward." To Lincoln's America, there was no mistaking his meaning. Those Republicans were on the side of the angels.
Not a bad place for politicians to be.
Ken Blackwell and Bob Morrison are senior Fellows at the Family Research Council, in Washington, D.C.