The same happened with Abraham Lincoln. I thought highly of him in school because I was taught to think so. Then some people told me he was a hypocrite and he only freed slaves for ulterior motives not because he wanted to do so. The same slaves that Thomas and George had. Still here. Still an issue.
They remained an issue through the Civil War (April 1861 - April 1865). The hard part about history is that it’s hard. Can I be any more redundant. I think it’s the hardest humanities discipline. It involves the craft of historicity with the art of interpretation. Getting the events is one thing, but interpreting them is an entirely different issue. Look at current events, we have such a hard time with figuring out why we as a country just did something, why we went to war, why we didn’t sign an international agreement, why there’s no official statement about policy on this issue. And one reason is that you can do the same action for many different reasons. Sometimes you don’t want the public to know those reasons. Sometimes you say the opposite of what is true or you hide what is true in public speeches or public receptions. This makes history hard because if you want to know the true motive of people and presidents and groups, you sometimes have to infer and dig around. But when you do, often you can be accused of making things up, creating conspiracy theories, or similar actions. But, in reality, such work is necessary because it’s not as it all seems. I mean, look at how difficult the issue of Iraq was for the American people. Why did we go? Why did we not go to Rwanda in 1994 under Bill Clinton? Why are we in Columbia? Why do the same two parties have control most of the time? Who, what, when, where, and how is hard enough in this day of classified information with the FBI and CIA, but why? That is the toughest part and history’s hardest endeavor. It’s hard.
I mean if a class of students cannot even agree about what the a book, a novel from literature, is trying to say how much harder to determine the hearts of men in the events of the world.
Then arrives what’s called revisionist history (I call it that, anyway), when a historian returns to some bit of history to re-envision it and rewrite it differently. It may not be that new facts have surfaced or new records found, but rather re-interpretation of the facts. Or maybe it is just new facts that causes a direct reinterpretation. Or maybe it’s both.
I remember growing up and hearing that Civil War was fought over slavery. Then I remember studying it in high school and being told that it was fought over slavery and states’ rights, but mainly states’ rights. I, of course, considered this revisionist history, which it was. But it was convenient revisionist history. If you go back and read documents leading up to the civil war and study the historical record, it was definitely fought over slavery and slavery alone. So now I’ve come back full circle. You can only say it was fought over states’ rights as an incomplete statement. The complete statement is that it was fought over the states’ right to have slaves. Complete statement. Ultimate reason. After the civil war there was a concerted revisionist effort to recolor the history in a more favorable light for southern states. This does not mean discrimination or racism didn’t occur in the north, I’m just speaking of slavery at the moment.
I walk past an old Presbyterian church in DC sometimes. I like it a lot, partly because I love history, but partly because it was Abraham Lincoln’s church. I can walk past the theatre he was shot at, the church he attended, and the area he ran the country from. I think of him often as I visit the Lincoln Memorial anytime visitors are in town. He’s an enigma. I first learned he freed the slaves because it was the right thing to do. Then I learned he freed the slaves for political reasons but not because he actually wanted to; he didn’t care about slaves or Black people. A type of revision of history. Now, though I don’t know for certain, I’m beginning to rewrite that in my head.
History is so hard, but it’s so good. I love it. I think I love history so much because you learn so much from it. Man, as a rule, doesn’t really learn from history and we just repeat the same mistakes. But as an individual I can learn a lot from it. I include biographies in this as well. Read biographies and histories and really imbibe the lessons because it’s good for the digestion of your life, what you create, what legacy you leave.
Lincoln was a man of history, too. And he struggled. He struggled at an amazingly tough time in the history of this country. I don’t envy it and don’t want to trade places. One thing I’ve learned about history is that proper interpretation (what is proper anyway?) requires context in order to reach the subtext and avoid pretext that allows anyone to proof text. I don’t think I understood what I just said, but I know of a wishy-washy letter he wrote once where people point and say “Look, he didn’t outright blast slavery as wrong and immoral.” Looking at the context of the letter, he was writing to slave-supporting, powerful men, and it makes sense that he would use a guarded in tone in trying to achieve his ends. Context is everything.
I remember the story of someone asking him about the Civil War. The person asked “How do you know God‘s on your side?” Lincoln said something like “I don’t. I just hope and pray I’m on His side.” I love that humble approach quite honestly. They story goes that Robert E. Lee was called to Washington and had an audience with the president in which he was asked to lead the Union troops. It’s believed if Lee said yes, the war would not have lasted 4 years; it would have been shorter. General Lee, however, took time to think about it and took a boat back to his residence across the river in Virginia. He later sent word that he would have to decline and he went to lead the southern forces. And the war lasted 4 years.
I’m looking at a picture of Lincoln delivering his 2nd inaugural address. In it can be seen John Wilkes Booth, his assassin; Booth’s co-conspirators are there as well. It’s a blurry picture and you can’t really see individuals well, but the speech is amazing. It’s one of my favorite of Lincoln’s and of all American speeches. It touches on subjects I discuss a lot in philosophy, theology and religious studies. Here’s an excerpt
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'.
Isn’t that amazing. He says both sides chose war for different reasons--one as an alternative to loosing the union, the other as an alternative to keeping the union.
He then continues this ability to see both sides and says both prayed to the same God, both invoked God’s help against the other. And then he calls it strange and daring and then quickly retracts so as not to judge. But he sees the ludicrousness of it. It’s theology as anthropology. We worship God in our own image. Remember the quote where he said he was trying to be on God’s side? I love that understanding and nuance. He knows the prayers of both cannot be answered and neither received their full answer. He kind of sees both sides as wrong to do such (enlist God in a Godless endeavor).
But can you imagine what he says next? He postulates that perhaps this -- this war -- is some type of woe, some type of punishment for the sin of slavery, that perhaps the war won’t end until the total cumulative profit from the business of slavery has been wrung from the pockets of this country through the war and perhaps until enough men have died from the war as have died through slavery and the slave trade. Can you imagine the thought? I would never have thought it, I don’t’ think. But he thinks it and suggests it in an inaugural address. Are you kidding? That’s humility if I’ve never seen it. I don’t know how that is supposed to be political or win you fans on any or either side, but it’s very humbling.
That speech has probably the most valued element I seek in a speech -- honesty.