The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: Slavery and Racism – A Beginning

Those darned 19th century American abolitionists! They had this idea that the truth will set you free, and so they kept forcing people to look at something very unpleasant. That caused a lot of trouble.

The trouble still is ongoing today, in spite of all the ways we modern Americans have developed to not think about it. For some of us, the basic avoidance tactic is to identify the turmoil over race and slavery in America as a strictly historical thing and to pretend that we are a different people today. For other Americans, it isn’t that easy.

Of course we must deal with it during any look back at the Civil War. It’s most appropriate to deal with it during 2012, as President Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862.

It also seems to me that the northern president was working especially hard toward a workable form of emancipation after the death of his son. I am no Lincoln scholar, and maybe that impression isn’t correct, but just looking at things as a human being, I might dwell on simple ideals to explain the ugly state of the world to my young children, if I were a new President of the United States on whose election a sizable chunk of the country had promptly seceded, and and if I were a member of political party so young that it didn’t yet have a handy philosophy in place yet that I could use to explain my job, which included raising armies to go out and kill and be killed.

I might justify all that to my dying 12-year-old son with a promise to emancipate the Negroes. Or maybe, I would work toward emancipation as a way to reestablish meaning in a cruel world where not even children were spared horrible deaths.

Who knows how Lincoln evolved in the months leading up to his historic proclamation. We only know that he did.

Sharecropper youth in Georgia, 1937.

Sharecropper youth in Georgia, 1937. (Library of Congress)

Slavery and racism

I have held off on getting into the slavery issue until now, because it is still volatile and I didn’t know how to get started until now.

Today I was washing out some clothes in the bathtub and noticed how modern detergents pretty much clean clothes all by themselves. There’s not much work to it.

There would be, though, if those detergents didn’t exist, if electricity to run machines didn’t exist, if washing machines hadn’t yet been invented, et cetera. People wear clothes and those clothes have to be cleaned. Who would clean them? Well…look at human history, and at the situation still in many parts of the world today where the overall human condition is such that there are no washing machines and fancy detergents.

How much would women’s lib count in a world where the clothes had to be cleaned by hand? So fragile is that liberation!

A similar mental exercise will take you back to the conditions of late 18th and early 19th century America, where everything had to be done by hand and often by scratch. These were conditions that humanity was familiar with, down through the ages, and slavery was one of the ways humanity dealt with the question of who has to do what work.

Certainly it was the Industrial Revolution that first shifted things, but what was the status quo which it affected? Slavery was a human institution and therefore quite complex – I doubt very much that the abolitionists gave us a complete picture.

And what was the role of racism in it all? There have been slaves down through history, and while (again) I’m no expert, it doesn’t seem to me that those slaves were often spoke of solely as things the way former residents of Africa were spoken of in mid-19th century America – if that perception is correct, why was it like that?

And why didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 rearrange things in America so that the 13-year-old resident of Americus, Georgia, pictured above would never have had to work in the field like that 74 years after the Proclamation became law?



So it begins. Darn those abolitionists!

This subset of the Civil War series will not be as regularly posted as the main weekly series, but I am going to try to take a look at the institution of slavery in human history and as it was in early and antebellum America. It would also be helpful to have a general idea of the state of race relations in Europe and early America.

Then somewhere around January 2013, 150 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became the law of the land, I am going to shift perspective, not limiting myself to the war years, and try to trace what that proclamation and other well-meaning efforts down through the centuries resolved or partially resolved and what they thus far have failed to address.

We knew the truth back in the 1860s, yet skin color still matters greatly in many parts of America. Why are we, as a nation, not yet free in the sense the abolitionists may have intended?

Categories: American Civil War

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