lincoln_douglas_debates1

Concluding (un)pedantic post-script

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So in the follow-up to the little feud concerning my response to his review of Lincoln, Aaron Bady grew quite upset. Now, I’ve been quite up front about the fact that I’m not myself a specialist on nineteenth-century US history. What little I do know has been mostly cobbled together from introductory texts on the subject in high school and college, Lenin’s detailed study comparing the Southern slave system to serfdom in Russia, and then from numerous conversations with friends who actually are studying the subject for their doctoral research. Despite these numerous disclaimers, Bady insisted that I was “hiding behind someone else” and didn’t know what I was talking about.

More specifically, he wrote:

Aaron Bady: [C]alling Abraham Lincoln an abolitionist is wrong; he was against slavery, but he wasn’t an abolitionist. Someone who knew what they were talking about would know the difference.

This tactic is rather old hat, trying to intimidate potential critics by invoking supposedly hard-and-fast technicalities about the correct usage of terms. The takeaway from this lesson is supposed to be “Wow, this guy is obviously a specialist. I’m not; I don’t even know the most basic nomenclature! I’d better lay off, lest I put my foot in my mouth again.”

Just to hammer this point home, Bady took it further by repeating the procedure a second time:

Aaron Bady: Do you literally not know what Abolitionist means? It doesn’t mean “opposed to slavery.” “Moderate abolitionist” isn’t a thing. Like the vast majority of northern whites, Lincoln spent his life adhering to the free labor principles of Henry Clay, a near majority position that was NOT the same thing as abolitionist. To use the word in its actual meaning, abolitionist means abolishing slavery now, which was a minority position.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed him trying to give me the rhetorical runaround. There was another discussant in the thread who was wise to this schtick, who messaged me writing:

Unnamed Discussant: Wow, this Aaron Bady guy is a knob. Never had a new social historian pull the “I’m an authority on this, peasant” on me before.

I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Still, I was determined to continue arguing ad rem, without having to resort to the usual polemical barbs. I calmly clarified what I’d meant by “moderate abolitionist” and defended its usage:

Ross Wolfe: The term “moderate abolitionist,” whether a misnomer or not, was used at the time and continues to be used.

Though I’d tried to remain polite, all this did was elicit more self-satisfied snark on his part.

Aaron Bady: Are there a lot of moderate abolitionists around, these days?

Unfortunately for him, this final bit of pedantry was bound to backfire. Not only did I spell out his willful misreading of what I wrote:

Ross Wolfe: Not used to refer to a political position that exists in the present, but rather presently used to refer to a political position that existed in the past.

I also decided to twist the dagger, just for good measure. The image says it all:

A snippet from the proceedings.

From The British Controversialist, Vol. 1 (1864)

Next time he might want to think twice before adopting such a haughty, imperious tone. Maybe not.

There was also some idiotic back-and-forth on Twitter after his girlfriend took it upon herself to weigh in on whole affair, pronouncing him (shockingly!) the winner of the exchange.

If you’re not in the mood to read more of that idiocy, just go ahead and skip to reading Connor Kilpatrick’s response in Jacobin“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s a far better and more accurate piece.

6 thoughts on “Concluding (un)pedantic post-script

  1. If Kilpatrick is right that slavery could have gone on indefinitely why did not in other societies? At a certain point, the pseudo-radicalism and the defense of the valor of liberalism together are mirrors of each other, informed, mostly by whose distinction one wants to appeal to. As for the particular disagreement with Andy Bains, I am with you in the main although I think you direly overstate the importance of Lincoln’s abolitionism to the motivations of the Union in the early stages of the war.

  2. defense of the valor of liberalism together are mirrors of each other, informed, mostly by whose distinction one wants to appeal to. As for the particular disagreement with Andy Bady, I am with you in the main although I think you direly overstate the importance of Lincoln’s abolitionism to the motivations of the Union in the early stages of the war.

    • You’re certainly right about Lincoln’s abolitionism not being the key motivating factor in terms of the war. The South forced the issue early on, though radicals like Thaddeus Stevens were calling for action earlier than that.

      I’m sticking with the category I assigned Lincoln as a “moderate abolitionist.” It may not have been the most widespread term, but it was not unknown, as the above examples should make clear. Also, Lincoln’s apparent hesitancy to come down on more controversial issues was often merely tactical, as many (including Marx) noticed:

      President Lincoln never ventures a step forward before the tide of circumstances and the general call of public opinion forbid further delay. But once “Old Abe” realises that such a turning point has been reached, he surprises friend and foe alike by a sudden operation executed as noiselessly as possible. Thus, in the most unassuming manner, he quite recently carried out a coup that half a year earlier would possibly have cost him his presidential office and only a few months ago would have called forth a storm of debate. We mean the removal of McClellan from his post of Commander-in-Chief of all the Union armies. Lincoln first of all replaced the Secretary of War, Cameron, by an energetic and ruthless lawyer, Mr. Edwin Stanton. An order of the day was then issued by Stanton to generals Buell, Halleck, Butler, Sherman and other commanders of whole areas or leaders of expeditions, notifying them that in future they would receive all orders, open and secret, from the War Department direct and, on the other hand, would have to report directly to the War Department. Finally, Lincoln issued some orders which he signed as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy”, an attribute to which he was constitutionally entitled. In this “quiet” manner “the young Napoleon” was deprived of the supreme command he had hitherto held over all the armies and restricted to the command of the army on the Potomac, although the title of “Commander-in-Chief” was left to him. The successes in Kentucky, Tennessee and on the Atlantic coast propitiously inaugurated the assumption of the supreme command by President Lincoln.

      Marx wrote this in 1862, so it’s not as if he had some sort of long-term secret teleology in mind. But I agree that defending the honor of liberalism becomes dicey around this point. Already in Europe liberalism had become utterly reactionary, to such an extent that even former abolitionists like like Francois Guizot (as Jennifer Pitts rightly observed) had come out against the revolutionary tide of 1848. The peculiarity of the US’ situation was such that many (including the “Founders”) expected slavery would gradually just rot away and become superfluous by the early nineteenth century. But with the cotton gin and a number of other factors, slavery became even more widespread and more barbaric as the first half of the century dragged on. Eugene Genovese made this point extremely convincingly. The same thing more or less holds true with the situation of the serfs in Russia.

      Had it not been for the absurdly backwards and reactionary remnants within Russia and even more so the US, state action really could not have proved as emancipatory and progressive as it did. I mean, Lincoln and his generals basically set up a military dictatorship that ruled over the South with total executive command over the subject-populations. It lasted fifteen years. And they were fully justified in doing so. In any state in Western Europe, such a move would have been Bonapartist in the extreme. Because it was charged with the removal of an outmoded system, which had become only further barbarized after being perversely kept alive by the planter class, the State was able to intervene under extraordinary circumstances to force the South to be free.

  3. Let me concede the point that “moderate abolitionism” is “a thing.” Technically, you are right; you trolled me, I got upset, and I overspoke on twitter. Well done. But I don’t think you’ve ever understood or even tried to understand the point I was trying to make. It was this. Before the civil war, anti-slavery opinions broke into two basic camps: people who wanted to stop the expansion of slavery and people who wanted to directly abolish slavery in the south. The former were a majority in the north, and because they wanted to contain slavery and cause it to gradually diminish over time (basically, to let History do its work) they were not, to my mind, abolitionists. The latter wanted to actually abolish slavery everywhere, and that was a minority position that Lincoln never endorsed.

    Now, you got upset when I said that people who called themselves “moderate abolitionists” were not really what they said they were. But I have an explanation for why I make that judgement: they were not abolitionists because they wanted to keep slavery from spreading and let The March of History do the work of abolishing it. They didn’t want to abolish it directly, therefore I say that they weren’t abolitionists,

    Now, you also made a claim of this sort. You call Lincoln an abolitionist, a “moderate” one. I think it’s actually very significant that *he* never did. And the reason he never called himself an abolitionist is that being an “abolitionist” (as opposed to being a free labor white supremacist, which is what he and most northerners were for the vast majority of his life) was a very radical position to take in the politics of the time. As the slave controversy accelerated, it became more and more mainstream, but to declare that Lincoln was an abolitionist, even softened by the adjective “moderate,” requires you to make the retroactive judgement that he was not what he said he was.

    What is the basis for that judgement? Where is your evidence that Lincoln’s self-evaluation was wrong? To my mind–since you admit that this is not your field–you’ve relied on two sources as authoritative: your girlfriend and Karl Marx. Since the former has not published her explanation, I can only ignore it. And since the latter had virtually no access to what was going on at the time, since he was operating from very limited evidence, a continent away, I don’t find him particularly persuasive.

    Where does that leave us? To my mind, it leaves us back where we started. All of this began when you accused me of being lazy, of distorting history, and of operating in bad faith. And though I’ve repeatedly asked you to explain what it is in the Jacobin post that you find to be distorted history, you have never substantiated what you said. You feel comfortable making broad allegations without offering any proof; you feel comfortable admitting that it’s not your field and then attacking me, whose field it *is,* for distorting history without actually providing the slightest bit of substance for that claim. You say I was haughty in my response. Maybe. But I would never presume to lecture you on your field without doing my homework first.

    I don’t know you. Maybe you’re a nice guy. And maybe your girlfriend knows her stuff. But this exchange has left me with the distinct impression that you are primarily interested in narcissistic posturing, that you are operating in bad faith, and that you don’t actually care about the things that I care about. So I’m at a loss as to why I’ve wasted as much time as I have arguing with you, and I don;t plan to continue doing so. Which, again, brings me back to where I started: you trolled me. Well done.

    • Nobody’s perfect.

      Just for the record, I’m not claiming that this minor terminological point in any way weakens your argument. Really the only reason I brought it up was because you kept insisting that I’d made some rookie mistake in using a phrase that “no one who really knew what he was talking about would make.” This, I felt, was more or less a ruse to evade criticism. So I thought it would be appropriate to call you out on it.

      Which is a shame, because it seems are able to defend your interpretive claims without resorting to such cheap tactics. I tend to view Marx’s appraisal of Lincoln as accurate, as it was fairly close to that of Frederick Douglass and others who occasionally criticized or were impatient with the President but who steadfastly supported him nevertheless. But your skepticism regarding the accuracy of the information Marx was working with, and consequently his judgment of what was going on in the US, is perfectly legitimate. I certainly can’t verify how accurate or inaccurate that information was.

      Also, your objection — that I haven’t adequately backed up some of the polemical claims I made regarding your treatment of the facts or tendentiousness — stands for now. You’re perfectly justified in dismissing it. Pam will write something that covers this, I hope, though she’s doing her finals right now at NYU and so it may take a couple weeks. You don’t have to take my word for it; there’s no reason you should believe or disbelieve me on this.

      I like to think that my criticisms regarding the equation of Lincoln with Obama hold up. Kilpatrick echoed many of my sentiments. Lincoln was a moderate (whether technically an “abolitionist” or not), while Obama is a reactionary. There’s nothing even remotely progressive about him. He’s a knave and a Bonapartist, just as other supposedly “progressive” Democrats over the last century or so have been — i.e., Lyndon Johnson, FDR, Woodrow Wilson. Lincoln fully deserved the support of Marx and the First International. He objectively played an emancipatory role in history, I’d argue, though you might dispute this. None of these subsequent figures deserved anything resembling support from the Left.

  4. Ross,

    If Pam gets around to writing her take on this, it would be nice if she could address Charlie Post’s interpretation, a short version of which was offered as a reply to Jacobin. I continue to find his account in The American Road to Capitalism persuasive. That book is just a series of four or five previously published papers, the first of which is here.

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