Lincoln long fantasized about joining the pantheon of America’s founding fathers or perhaps lamented the seeming impossibility of joining it. His law partner, Herndon, said his brain was constantly preoccupied with his political calculations. Amazingly Lincoln overcame his obscurity and willed himself to become not only one of them but perhaps the first among equals. It’s a tight race as called by historians between Abe and George but Abe told more jokes and George was burdened by his portraits with the grimace inducing false teeth.
I have wondered since elementary school why Lincoln insisted on Union when it required such force of arms to secure. He had precedent to hide behind and democrat party precedent at that. Andy Jackson, President 7, threatened to use the nation’s army to crush South Carolina’s brash secession talk. He was a hard man. He killed a man in a duel and marched the Cherokee nation out of the South on foot in the dead of winter under armed guard and in defiance of the Supreme Court. Long accused of dismissing the court with this tart rebuke of its Chief Justice,” John Marshall has made his decision now let him enforce it?” That’s not quite what he said but it’s an attitude echoed by Joseph Stalin snear, “How may battalions does the Pope have?” In other words, might, not the law, makes right. So why did Lincoln not let the South go in peace with its dirty little peculiar institution? I think it’s because it would have plunged the pantheon back to Earth and placed a bushel basket over the shining City on the Hill that America was to its citizens.
Whatever the legal foundations for secession the Civil War settled the issue once and for all time and the war’s copious spilt blood became an atonement for the sin of slavery. This notion of penance first struck the little lady said to have started I all, Harriet Beacher Stowe and subsequently to Lincoln himself in his call to give more meaning to the fallen dead of Gettysburg. Despite all the Republicans now signing sescesh petitions on the White House Web Page it ain’t going to happen even if Texas’s has no connection with the rest of the Nation’s electrical grid.
Imagining the world as it would have turned out had there not been a Lincoln is one of those irresistible hypotheticals. Intriguing as this question is it is hardly less fascinating than the actual history that followed the war. It is a history that is remarkably unknown to the Average American. For instance, ten years ago, a friend repeated the old canard that the Civil War was fought over economic principles not slavery. This clap trap was injected into text books by Southern sympathizers long after the war to salve their still wounded egos. My Grandfather was at the center of this conspiracy when it was hatched.
To become a school superintendent my Grandfather needed prestigious credentials. While public school teachers of the time only needed two years of college from a normal school like Duluth’s (Now UMD) or Mankato’s (now MU at Mankato) George Robb needed a graduate degree from a more prestigious school. In the Midwest he could have attended one of the big state land grant universities in Missouri, Kansas or Colorado. He chose to do them one better and enrolled in the Ivy League spending two seminal years just a stone’s throw from Grant’s famous tomb. Now, as then, Columbia University has one of the most preeminent history faculties in the nation.
Among his professors was one William A. Dunning a leader of a cabal of history teachers who were busily re-imagining the Civil War along the lines of Gone with the Wind a celluloid version of which America would fall in love a quarter century later. It was a celebrated and child forbidden book that my teenage Mother and her older sister secretly sneaked into their rooms to read. Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War was not the product of slavery, but a grand lost cause. Its romanticized slavery was fully justified because it was good for its pathetic creatures, subject as they were to their animal natures. Besides, just like the Bible the U.S. Constitution took slavery for granted and who but a madman like John Brown would dare to argue with either sacred text. Furthermore, to the Southern Democrats “state’s rights” seemed to have been inadvertently left out of theBill of Rights although they have managed to introduce it to the Republican Party’s raison d’etre (meaning of life).
The Dunning cabal was active at the turn of the 19th Century just as the lives of the last living Civil War veterans, much like today’s World War II vets, began winking out. It was a time when the nation wanted to bind up its ancient and much revered wounds. To accomplish this it was convenient to forget the real cause of the Civil War which had been freely expressed by Southerners leading up to and during the war. Slavery! Such was southern righteousness that prior to the war they were well on the way under the whip of a new Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger B. Taney, to imposing slavery on the whole nation. To its credit the North vigorously opposed this perversion of the exceptional nation they believed they lived in. Had it not been for Lincoln and his war separation would have nullified the American Revolution.
The hideous historical fantasy created by Dunning and his brethren was echoed and propounded by an even more influential film than GWTW. Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith played in New York in 1915 and futilely decried by the City’s ghettoized black leaders as my Grandfather wrote his modest thesis on Samuel Adams. Griffith’s film’s apish black actors leered at white women and clowned in the halls of their reconstructed southern state legislatures. The film cemented an image of African Americans that lived on in the minds of my generation of white kids who watched Step n Fetchit on our black and white televisions through the Sixties. For Dunning, the white South and Southern Democrats it was an effective antidote to Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom.
I have no doubt that the film’s message of dim-witted blacks misruling the South fully imprinted itself on the sheltered white population of far off Duluth by the time, five years later, that ten thousand of its good citizens took the law into their own hands and battered down the City jail to lynch three innocent black men on ginned up rumors that they had raped an innocent white girl.
If Birth of a Nation had that kind of effect even in Duluth it is not surprising that my Grandfather’s natural conservatism made it necessary for him to refrain from pushing Civil Rights. It was more comfortable for him to quietly attest to the courage of black soldiers so long as they were “properly officered” by white officers like, for instance, George Robb.
Other than Larry Lapsley my Grandfather had little experience with African Americans until he was sent to the French trenches to replace the black officers who were unceremoniously booted out of the 369th by General Pershing at the insistence of the southern white officer corps that could not abide them and who refused to recommend black soldiers for anything as coveted as a Congressional Medal of Honor. The subsequent much deserved award to my Grandfather was probably a sop to the white New York gentlemen who had organized the original 15th New York Infantry for political ends. At least that’s what my Grandfather suspected.
As the wonderful new movie, Lincoln, makes clear the Great Emancipator, much like my Grandfather, had little idea what black people were all about so separated were they from white society. In the end, he may have come to Thaddeus Steven’s outlandish conviction that they were the equal of white men. However, this was certainly was not his conviction prior to the war and his presidency. Before the Emancipation Proclamation he freely said that blacks were not the equal of whites. Lincoln had no intention of overturning the apple cart and neither did my Grandfather, even if poor old Lapsley had been castrated by his slave master. Perhaps the best judge of whether Abe turned the corner in his racial convictions was Frederick Douglas, often a strong Lincoln critic. Before the assassination Douglass was struck by Lincoln’s treatment of him as a man and equal something he felt he had not been accorded even by many of his fellow abolitionists. As for my Grandfather, perhaps his best judge was his house keeper Lilly.
I’ll never know just what my Grandfather thought about the Civil Rights movement. I never asked him. He was a great admirer of Barry Goldwater who was no friend of Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation. Grandfather probably thought Martin Luther King was a trouble maker although I’m sure that he understood that King had good reason to fight injustice. As with Lincoln who for years clung to the fantastical solution of shipping the nation’s millions of blacks back to Africa my Grandfather probably saw no easy solution to the White America’s intractable Birth of a Nation prejudices. Unlike the slippery LBJ. who was swinging for the history books much like Lincoln, my Grandfather was not inclined to compel southern states to honor the Declaration of Independence’s clarion call to treat all men, black included, as equals. To my knowledge, he did not even voice a complaint about the South’s failure to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment’s right to vote.
Despite my Grandfather’s disdain for Thomas Jefferson, for hypocrisy he wasn’t any more of an idealist than Lincoln who expected the races to stay their separate course. I know this from personal experience. When I was in high school, our family hosted a black African student for a year. Bedru Beshir was the first black student to attend Mankato High School in anyone’s memory. When, at the end of the year, we took Bedru on a short family trip we brought him to Iowa to meet our cousins whose Father was an even more ferocious conservative than our Grandfather.
Today I know my uncle spouts cruel and careless racial epithets loudly and regularly. On a visit to my Mother some years back she was horribly embarrassed and upset that he would make rude comments about blacks he saw from his car as they drove along with the car’s windows rolled down.
This was not the Uncle I knew. He was thoroughly gracious when Beds came to visit. It was only after the visit, that I heard from our Mother that her father had been upset for his other son-in-law that we would threaten his job by taking a black man to his house. Although it was years later that my Uncle revealed his prejudices it was my Grandfather’s attitude I found truly arresting. He wasn’t about to let civil rights ruffle anyone’s feathers.
At the time, I was only a little surprised to learn this although it was disappointing. Grandfather was far more comfortable with another more conventional arrangement that put the races in contact like having a hired black woman tending to his household.
I have had the luxury of rooting for changes that my Grandfather knew, just as Lincoln knew, would not come easy. No one ever threatened me with a burning cross. Still, I’d prefer to think that my Grandfather would be on my side today rather than my Uncle’s prejudices. That’s because I’m convinced that George Robb held Lincoln in higher esteem than Thomas Jefferson. In the end, it was Lincoln who was lofted into the founder’s firmament when he put a higher premium on all men being created equal than the man who first those the words on paper. I suspect that more travelers to Washington D.C. visit his Memorial on the tidal basin than visit Jefferson’s.
There was one more thing Jefferson put in the Declaration’s parchment beside equality that has given the GOP’s body snatchers fits. Ever since “the pursuit of happiness” appeared among the rights of men there were those who argued that it be replaced with the single word “property.” Although they did not succeed in 1776 the successors to those advocates are fully in control of the Republican establishment today. Had that sober and tangible word been included in the Declaration that Civil War inducing clause about the equality of man might not have proven so troublesome.
Today the body snatchers are doing their level best to elevate property to the position to which they think it’s entitled. It once trumped equal rights. Now it often trumps health, safety, and even global warming. Its bastion is the current Supreme Court which has extended it to the mother’s milk of politics in its Citizen’s United decision. Never has private wealth exerted such influence on our government and flowed so copiously.
Someday wealth’s monomaniacal worshipers may rue their overreach.