Friday, August 10, 2007

Did Lincoln Make a Deal With God?

This picture appears in many textbooks, tradebooks, and it also is presented online at the website Old Pictures, a repository of images from days gone by. This picture was brought to my attention by Ed Darrell from Millard Fillmore's Bathtub sometime after I mentioned in a post I had added Old Pictures to my resource blogroll at History Is Elementary.

Here's a link to the picture as it is presented at the website.Go take a look at it and read the caption provided there.

One of the things educators often worry about is heavily biased websites that we might send students to for research purposes. Students should be shown biased websites and should be given tools to utilize in order to determine the slant or agenda a particular site might have when researching the Internet at school or independently at home. While the caption at Old Pictures is basically accurate it also leaves out important information.

I would utilize, however, Old Pictures and the picture in particular when constructing a content laden lesson, which is a nice way to refer to the much derided but necessary teacher lecture, as well as a part of an independent project such as a webquest.

True, anytime religion is mentioned, teachers, especially in the public school arena, need to evaluate the religion component for its relevance. So, the question in this instance should be is the mention of Lincoln’s deal with God relevant to the students’s understanding of the content?

First, a little background…..

Ask the average American about the causes of the Civil War and more than likely the answer you will receive will be that the war was fought over slavery. The South used slaves, and the North wanted to free them. If the average American is referring to to the months of the war following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation I’d agree with them. If they are using slavery as a cause from the first shot fired upon Ft. Sumter I’d have to say no. The original focus of the war was not to free the slaves, but to preserve the Union.

During the fourth debate with Stephen Douglas Lincoln said that he was not in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. In his book, Lincoln, David Herbert Donald states [Lincoln’s] objection to slavery was in opposition to the political power the South held through what is often referred to as slave power. However, as the war was well into its second year Lincoln knew he had to do something to change tactics. The Union had had some heavy losses, Lincoln was loosing ground with political factions and the media, and he was unable to find a leading general that suited him. The English and French question hung in the air. Would they go to the aid of the Confederacy?

Lincoln was heavily pressed upon by abolitionists, whose origins were based in religious morality, to free the slaves as soon as he took office; however, Lincoln was unsure of the constitutionality of such an action.

In his book, American Gospel, Jon Meachum provides that in a note contained in Lincoln’s papers he wrote, In great contests each party prevails to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time….By His mere quiet power on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. Meacham further provides Lincoln’s God is neither benign not sunny but a Lord calling his people to account. In Lincoln’s second inaugural address he states, If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences 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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always subscribe to Him? Is Lincoln saying that Americans were being called to account for its sins against the enslaved. Meachum thinks so, and I believe I do as well.

Ultimately Lincoln’s soul searching led him to the events of July 13, 1862 when the President shared his Preliminary Proclamation to Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. The Preliminary Proclamation outlined the provisions of the section which would actually take effect in January, 1863. Seward believed such an action could lead to great problems in the South, and there was concern about how Europe would react to such an action.

On July 17, 1862 the Second Confiscation Act was passed by Congress. It freed the slaves of every state that was in rebellion, however it did not provide for any civil rights. In actuality the legislation called for freed slaves to be transported to a tropical location beyond the limits of the United States where they could live in freedom. The actions of Congress evidenced a growing public sentiment that the slaves should be free and this paved the way for Lincoln to act though he actually used his war powers as a basis for issuing the Proclamation.

Lincoln brought the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation up in a Cabinet meeting on July 22, 1862. There was a mixture of cabinet member opinions. Secretary of State, William Seward, thought the document should be released after a victory. Secretary of War, Stanton, saw Lincoln’s proclamation as a military measure. A major resource of slave labor would be denied to the Confederacy, and a provision of the Emancipation Proclamation provided that freed slaves could indeed join the Union Army. Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, was concerned about public reaction and the effects the document would have on the fall elections while the Attorney General, Edward Bates, expressed concern regarding the civil and political equality for Blacks which he was against.

Getting back to that deal with God…..

I believe when documentation exists, expecially primary documents, educators are compelled to share the whole story with students as long as the content matches the maturity level of the student.

Many teachers today are concerned about bringing up religion in the classroom, but I’m concerned that if we don’t we are leaving out pertinent details to our nation’s story. These details further explain the whys and hows of history. For example, a former textbook I used in the classroom for the last several years explains that the Quakers were very instrumental in the workings of the Underground Railroad. Are we to expect nine and ten year old children to understand what a Quaker is and how their beliefs shaped the choices they made as a collective group? No, we must tell them. When we discuss Spanish exploration and conquest the words “Pope” and “Catholic” invariably come up. I’d be concerned about a classroom where they didn’t. I’m not going to throw those words out to students and not give an explanation.

Often though, this type of mention or explanation can lead a teacher down a treacherous path. A November, 2002 NEA Today article titled Navigating Religion in the Classroom
recounts the experience of a state history teacher in Utah who advised her student they they would be learning about the Mormon migration. Immediately a student told her if she said the word “Mormon” again his father would sue her. Unfortunately, you can’t teach Utah state history without the M-word. The NEA article further states, Public school education must tread what is at times a nebulous line---teaching neutrally about religion, honoring the student’s personal views on religion, and observing their own beliefs privately. The key, the article states is to teach it where it naturally occurs in the curriculum.

In the case of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln’s belief in God and God’s hand in controlling events was tantamount to Lincoln’s decision to sign the Proclamation especially once he could join his fervent desire to reunite the Union and the issue of freeing the slaves.

Lincoln referred to his belief in God often. In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861 he asked for intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this land. In the book Lincoln Observed: the Civil War Dispatches of Noah BrooksLincoln is quoted as saying, “ have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for the day.”

Personally I can’t even begin to image the burden Lincoln carried during the war. In a letter to Horace Greely dated August 22, 1862 Lincoln wrote, I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." ... My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. 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 the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.

Antietam, though it was a tactical victory for the North, had come at a very high price on September 17, 1862. It was the first battle on Northern soil and saw the bloodiest day in American military history with almost 23,000 casualties. Nonetheless it was the victory Lincoln needed as Northerners were celebrating the fact that the Union had repelled a Confederate invasion.

During a cabinet meeting on September 22, 1862 Lincoln advised cabinet members regarding why the time of the emancipation document had come. We have Lincoln’s words preserved in the form of diary entries from two Cabinet members. Meachum’s book recounts an entry from the diary of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury where he writes Lincoln said when the Rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation…I said nothing to anyone, but I made a promise to myself, and (hesitating a little) to my maker.

Meachum also quotes Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells, who recalled, He had he said made a vow, a covenant, that if God gave us the victory in the approaching battle [Antietam] he would consider it his duty to move forward in the cause of Emancipation Proclamation.

So, is the fact that Lincoln wrestled with his religious convictions over the Emancipation Proclamation and made a deal with God relevant to students? I believe so. While others arrived at military and political reasons Lincoln determined it was simply the right thing to do morally. The only problem I have with the picture caption at Old Pictures it leaves out some of the less religious motives for the proclamation and its effects. It can and should be interpreted as a strategic political move. If slavery became an issue France and Britain would be less willing to assist the Confederacy. Freeing the slaves began a process of chaos in the southern states as slaves began to leave plantations and the Confederacy’s economy was further disrupted. Militarily the Proclamation was a necessity. Freed slaves went from doing manual labor for the Confederate forces to joining the Union army. Finally, it was the one action which eventually could unite the Union “as it was before”.

1 comment:

Rupert Piston said...

Outstanding article, and very scholarly in citing sources. I appreciate the balance and bent towards appropriate educational ethics, as well as your approach to the subject.
I found this entry by searching about the very subject you've written about, based on the same image at Old Pictures you refer to. It's helping me to settle something I've long chosen not to address or take issue with, largely through ignorance and lack of solid education.
Thanks for your solid and scholarly approach.