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For Liberty and Union: An interview with James McPherson

Originally published in
Platypus Review 53 | February 2013

Spencer A. Leonard

Spencer A. Leonard interviewed noted Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), to discuss the new Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The interview was broadcast on January 29, 2013 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This constituted an important culmination in the long struggle for the abolition of slavery. What, in brief, is the background to the Proclamation in terms of the long struggle for free labor in North America stretching back to the Revolution and into colonial times? Was the destruction of slavery in America simply a matter of coming to terms with an original American sin or a lingering hypocrisy? Or had the course of history in the 19th century posed the question of chattel slavery in a way that it had not done for the generation of the American Enlightenment and Revolution?

James McPherson: Well, in the first place, slavery was not a uniquely American sin. It had existed in many societies over many centuries even prior to its first introduction into Virginia in 1619. In subsequent decades, slavery took deep root in all of the British North American colonies, as it did in the Caribbean and in South America, where in fact slavery was much more deeply entrenched than it was in most parts of North America.

But starting in the third quarter of the 18th century, a variety of forces began to call the morality and validity of slavery into question — cultural forces and intellectual forces and economic forces. The Enlightenment and, with it, the Age of Revolution — the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America — these began to attack the philosophical and economic underpinnings of slavery. In the northern states of the new American nation, the Revolution led to a powerful anti-slavery movement which by about 1800 had eliminated slavery or had begun to eliminate slavery from all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Haitian Revolution beginning in the 1790s liberated that island, albeit violently.

So, there was a gathering movement against slavery in the Western world that had a significant effect in the United States, generating a strong anti-slavery movement first among the Quakers, then spreading. It extended not only to the North but to the South as well, reaching a kind of culmination in the 1830s with the beginning of the militant Abolitionist movement — William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Gradually, that impulse spread into a political movement, first with the Liberty Party in 1840 and then with the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in the middle 1850s. Together these developed what historian Eric Foner talked about many decades ago as a “free labour ideology.” That politics created a sense of two socioeconomic orders in the United States: One in the North based on free labour with social mobility, a dynamic entrepreneurial society; the other in the South based on slavery, which since the 1780s had become more deeply entrenched.

In the 18th century there was a widespread sense that slavery would disappear. The Founding Fathers, who formed the Constitution in 1787, assumed that slavery would soon die out. This is why they were willing to make certain compromises with the slave states to get them to join the new nation. Though the Constitution-makers assumed that slavery would probably die out soon, quite the opposite happened in the South, starting in the 1790s and early 1800s with the spread of the Cotton Kingdom, which meant that in the very decades that slavery was disappearing in the North and a strong anti-slavery movement was developing in the first half of the 19th century, the institution was becoming much more deeply entrenched in the South. That generated a whole series of cultural, social, and political justifications for the institution of slavery. By the middle of the 19th century the two sections had come to a kind of face-off with each other over the question of the expansion of slavery, which had been made an acute problem by the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War. A bitter struggle ensued, starting in 1854, over the territories that had originally been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the whole question of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories that were not yet states became acute in the 1850s. So, in a sense, the anti-slavery impulse that had deep roots going back into the latter part of the 18th century was coming into a collision course with a pro-slavery impulse that had become pretty powerful by the 1830s and 1840s in the slave states. This led to the showdown in 1860, with Lincoln’s election and the secession of the southern states. Continue reading