Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

With Charity for All: What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach us About Religious Freedom

There's a reason everybody quotes Lincoln: he was just so damn thought-provoking.

There’s a reason everybody quotes Lincoln: he was just so damn thought-provoking.

Abraham Lincoln is by far the most famous of American presidents, and not just because he cut an impressive, bearded and stovepipe-hatted figure that forever gave historical reenactors and drunk Halloween party-goers a reason to get out of bed every morning.

Lincoln was the president who saved the Union from the southern slaveholders’ insurrection (with a little help from the United States military), and he died as a martyr for that most American of notions: that all men (and women) really are created equal. Plus, according to at least one scholar, he single-handedly fought off hoards of vampires. April 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination by actor, Confederate sympathizer, and monumental buzzkill, John Wilkes Booth. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton truly said it best (if he said it all) when he remarked upon Honest Abe’s violent death that, “Now he belongs to the ages.” The current age could learn a lot from Lincoln’s wisdom and honesty.

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47 Vallandighams: The GOP’s Iran Letter and the Shadow of Civil War Treason

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP collegues don't take kindly to Obama being president of 'Murica.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R-Confederacy) and his GOP colleagues don’t take kindly to Obama being president of ‘Murica.

What exactly is treason? Well that’s an easy one, innit? Treason is when a scheming, disloyal jerk betrays a sacred oath they took to their country, usually in the service of an enemy power or for shallow, partisan, political gains. It’s one of those concepts that everyone intuitively understands, but it gets really thorny when brought under the parsing nuance of the law.

Thus, when 47 members of the Republican-dominated Senate sent “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” (seriously, they used a generic salutation more akin to an editorial in a local newspaper) for the express purpose of undermining the Obama Administration’s ongoing diplomatic nuclear talks with Iran, they probably weren’t concerned about committing treason against the United States (besides, Obama’s from Kenya anyhoo, right?). And while their boneheaded attempt to score political points with their war-happy, right-wing base by giving said knuckle draggers yet another collective, foreign-conflict buzz may or may not constitute treason in a constitutional sense, there’s another conception of treason — the popular conception — that’s played a major role in U.S. history, and 47 GOP senators have skirted this line closer than Cubans in a missile crisis.  Continue reading

Confederate Echoes: The Ugly History Behind Questioning Obama’s Patriotism

Former Republican Mayor of New York City thinks that there colored boy is only three-fifths "Murican.

Rudy Giuliani, the Former Republican Mayor of New York City, apparently thinks that thar colored boy don’t love ‘Murica.

Remember when everyone liked Rudolph Giuliani? The former “Mayor of the World” was, after all, Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yeah, I remember that too. But Giuliani is also a right-wing dunce.

Case in point: he recently stirred the endlessly bubbling American political chamber pot when, at a private gathering of like-minded conservative Oompa Loompas held for Wisconsin Koch Brothers organ-grinder monkey Scott Walker, he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani babbled, “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” Translation: Obama’s black different; we’re not; Anti-Americanism follows. But questioning a political rival’s love of country is an old American political tactic, and it hasn’t gotten any less vile over time.  Continue reading

Why Some Americans Just Can’t Handle the Truth About Slavery

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify  human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

A slave market in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. The right to commodify human beings is something Americans defended for generations. Deal with it.

Americans like to think of themselves as exceptional people. As the world’s dominant economic and cultural power for much of the last century, they tend to puff their chests and proclaim that, “We’re the best! Look at our wealth! Look at our military power! There are McDonalds restaurants in China!” But for all of America’s power, the idea of American Exceptionalism wouldn’t hold as much appeal if it wasn’t backed by a clear belief in American moral superiority. After all, plenty of civilizations have dominated the world in the past, but a key component to American Exceptionalism is the idea that, unlike those past powers, the U.S. achieved peaceful world domination via the exportation of freedom, democracy, and capitalism – not necessarily in that order.

No matter that the idea of a benign American Exceptionalism is patently untrue; what matters is that people believe it to be true, and this belief influences their interpretations of the American past. This is especially true of conservatives, particularly some fuzzy little libertarians who are always insisting that if we only found that pot of free market gold at the end of Ayn Rand’s rainbow, the U.S. would be a perfect society. Because humans are such rational actors that we’d never do anything to pull the rug out from under the glorious market utopia we work so hard to construct. But I digress.

Among those many libertarian leprechaun chasers is Fox News turnip Andrew Napolitano. In a recent segment, the judge and legal analyst got all hot-and-bothered over the Civil War. You see, Napolitano thinks that Abraham Lincoln was America’s “first dictator” and that the Civil War was unnecessary. In a recent segment for Fox News squawkfest “The Independents,” the self-proclaimed Lincoln “contrarian” employed a series of bogus arguments, which historians debunked about 50 years ago, to claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The judge’s  statements are worth quoting in full so you can fully grasp the epic stupidity contained therein:

At the time that he [Lincoln] was the president of the United States, slavery was dying a natural death all over the Western world. It had just been expired by legislation in England. It had just died a natural death; that is, it was no longer economically feasible in Puerto Rico and Brazil, and the southern plantation owners were on the cusp of it dying here. Instead offer allowing it to die, or helping it to die, or even purchasing the slaves and then freeing them — which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost — Lincoln set about on the most murderous war in American history.

Napolitano then dropped this mind-blowing piece of nonsense:

Look, it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession. Largely, the impetus for secession was tariffs!

Now, I could go on and on about the many falsehoods Napolitano packed into a few short statements, but much of what the judge said has already been brilliantly ripped apart in a segment by the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which you absolutely must watch (Canadian readers can view the Daily Show segment here). Instead, allow me to focus on his contentions that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, his idiotic claim that slavery would have died a “natural death,” and how a belief in American Exceptionalism demonstrates why folks like Napolitano can’t handle the truth human bondage.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano has never actually been right about anything.

First off, let me put it as plainly as I can: the Civil War was about slavery. One-hundred percent about slavery. You got that? Every other issue that arose during the build-up to the war was also directly related to slavery. Oh, but what about “State’s Rights?” you may ask. Let me be clear on this as well: humans don’t go to war over abstract concepts alone. These concepts need to be reflected in real-world, day-to-day issues. Thus, when southerners complained about “State’s Rights,” they referred to state’s rights to own slaves; rights they believed would be taken away by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party.

I’ve discussed the southern states’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession in previous posts (which you can read here and here), but allow me to once again provide some choice quotes from these documents that were written by the seceding states explicitly for the purpose of explaining to the world that they seceded over the right to own slaves and perpetuate slavery.

Mississippi stated that, “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” Texas boldly claimed in a very Texas-y way that, “the controlling majority of the Federal Government” was bent on “acquiring sufficient power…to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.” Georgia likewise noted that the South held “numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” And good ole’ South Carolina whined that the northern states “have united in the election of a man [Lincoln] to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” Unlike modern-day Libertarians, Confederates in 1860-61 weren’t shy about admitting that the South seceded to protect the “peculiar institution.” Seriously. Go read the whole documents at the links. Slavery was a big thing.

So why, if the historical evidence is overwhelming that the Civil War was fought over slavery (just check any scholarly book on the Civil War written in the last half-century) do people like Napolitano claim that slavery wasn’t the cause of the conflict and that it would have died out were it not for the meddling of Dishonest Abe? The answer lies in a discomforting fact: slavery was a deeply American institution that flourished because of – not despite – American values.

This is where American Exceptionalism makes some people want to ignore the uglier aspects of U.S. history. If you believe, as Peter Beinart of the National Journal writes, “that America departs from the established way of doing things, that it’s an exception to the global rule,” then something as un-freedom-like as slavery can be pretty hard to accept. Of course, it seems that slavery is antithetical to American values. Doesn’t the Declaration of Independence say that “All men are created equal”? Isn’t slavery the very antithesis of freedom, which is the most cherished of all American ideals? The answer to both of those questions is “yes,” but with some very essential qualifications.

The Declaration of Independence is a statement of values and intent, not a binding legal document. The Constitution, by contrast, is the binding legal document in America, and for 78 years it stated that holding slaves was perfectly legal. The Constitution made slavery legal because the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that outlawing slavery was an attack on their property rights. You see, whenever you discuss freedom, you have to consider what “freedom” actually means. “Freedom” as a concept always has qualifications (freedom for whom? freedom to do what?), and when the U.S. embraced an ideal of freedom that was intrinsically bound up with the Lockean emphasis on private property rights, that property included human beings.

These individuals, known as "Tariffs," were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

These individuals, known as “Tariffs,” were so important to the South that it waged a bloody war to protect them.

For better and for worse, Americans have always linked capitalism to their interpretation of freedom. Simply put, capitalism is an American value. The right to free exchange of goods and services in an open, competitive marketplace has always been essential to American identity. Capitalism, however, is also distinctly amoral: its has no intrinsic values of its own, and its consistent need to commodify everything leads it to reduce human interactions to an endless series of monetary exchanges. Capitalism, like any other human-devised system, can be used for good or bad. Yet its tendency towards unequal wealth concentration, and the way it bequeaths political power to those it enriches, is precisely why slavery flourished in America, and why those who benefitted the most from slavery fought so hard to preserve it.

If you reason, as the did the slaveholders (and most Americans, for that matter), that freedom cannot exist without property rights, then you’ll understand why the Confederate States of America existed and why some people still have a hard time accepting that hundreds-of-thousands of Americans fought for the freedom to deny freedom to others. Among the many dangers of equating capitalism with freedom is that doing so risks valuing the right to market exchange over the right to human flourishing. Slavery was first-and-foremost an economic institution that existed because Americans believed that the right to buy, sell, and own property extended to the buying, selling, and owning of other humans. For pro-slavery Americans, this right trumped African-Americans’ right to flourish as free individuals. So valued was the trade in black bodies that modern Americans often find it difficult to believe that a value they still hold dear – the right to market exchange – once underpinned slavery.

Furthermore, slavery was about more than just economics. Never underestimate the very real – and very dark – human desire for domination over others. Slavery was an economic system, but it was also a social institution that gave one group of people total legal power over another group. As historian Walter Johnson observes in his book Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, people’s’ identities “as masters and mistresses, planters and paternalists, hosts and hostesses, slave breakers and sexual predators were all lived through the bodies of people who could be bought and sold in the market.”*

Thus, while you can put a dollar value on slavery – the total value of southern slaves in 1860 was 3 billion, nearly equal to the combined value of all northern industry and railroads – you can’t put a dollar value on the appeal of domination.* Yes, slaves were property, but they also provided unlimited concubines for planter men and served as literal punching bags onto which plantation mistresses unleashed their frustrations over the existence of “mulatto” children that looked suspiciously like their husbands. Finally, even for common, non-slaveholding southern whites, the existence of black slaves provided comfort in the knowledge that even the poorest cracker was socially and economically superior to the lowly negro.

While slavery as an economic institution gave southern whites political power, it also gave them the power to absolutely dominate millions of people in the most intimate of personal spaces. Those given such power over others are seldom in a rush to give it up. This is why, Andrew Napolitano’s claims notwithstanding, slavery wouldn’t have died “a natural death:” too much of southern – and American – identity was bound up in human bondage. Such facts don’t fit the black and white moral framework of American Exceptionalism. Nonetheless, the things that many people believe make America exceptional: its commitment to market capitalism, its Constitution, and its love of freedom were all used to justify and uphold black slavery. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate mind can recognize this fact. Andrew Napolitano and his ilk cannot.  

* See Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 16.

* See James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 28-29.

Abe Lincoln, cross-dressing and the American way: The real history of Thanksgiving


Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!

Big Government and Race: An American Saga

Tea Party protectors are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which the prviledged complain about stuff.

Tea Party protesters are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which privileged white people complain about stuff.

With the Republican Tea Party-backed congressional orcs continuing to lay siege to the Helm’s Deep of the federal government, there’s been a lot of discussion of late, especially by Salon’s Joan Walsh and Think Progress’ Zack Beauchamp, about how deeply entrenched issues of racial resentment are at the heart of the government shutdown. Both point to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” that for several decades now has effectively convinced insecure white people that “Big Government,” steered by the Democrats, will redistribute state-supported goodies like tax benefits and welfare from the truly deserving ivory nobles to the allegedly mooching dusky rabble.

As I noted in a previous post, there’s a whole lot of truth to Walsh and Beauchamp’s points. Over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore cites recent focus group studies by Stanley Greenberg of Tea Party supporters to frame the current shutdown over Obamacare as the logical end-point of a conservative ideology driven in large part by fear of redistributive government policies. As Kilgore notes, Greenberg’s study concluded that:

[The argument against Obamacare that] is the most important and elicits the most passions among Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans—that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency—the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent.

Greenberg’s Republican Tea Partiers are terrified that black and brown minorities, whom they view as undeserving, will use “Big Government” to take from the deserving (read: whites). Don Swift of the Rag Blog echoed this argument during the 2012 presidential election, linking Tea Party nutbaggery to what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style in American politics,” in which self-described white “Real Americans” freak out over the thought of variously defined foreign elements taking what they perceive as rightfully theirs. The benefits up for grabs have ranged from tax breaks to suffrage, but the sentiment of “I earned it, you’re taking it” remains the same.

Swift sees the Tea Party, the current vice around the quivering gonads of the congressional Republican caucus, as part of a long streak of fringe, right-wing weirdo groups in U.S. history that also includes the John Birch Society and various Militia movements. These groups, Swift notes, “react against change,” and “they see the government as an agent of unwanted change and they set out to disrupt and replace it.”

The Tea Party is indeed radical, and nuttier than a Planter’s factory, but on thing they are not is fringe. Lest you need reminded of Tea Party conservatism’s political legitimacy, I point to Exhibit A: the Republican Party. There’s a bunch of historical factors that led up to the Tea Party movement, but the most significant of those factors is the resiliency of anti “Big Government” sentiment in American history.

Americans have always had a complicated relationship with government power. Often they have been, and continue to be, justifiably sceptical of it, but just as frequently, Americans of various stripes have embraced “Big Government” when it ensured that state power would be used to benefit white Americans at the expense of non-white minorities. This was especially true in the 19th century with regards to Native Americans and African-Americans. By contrast, when whites have perceived that state benefits would flow to non-whites, they have tended to rail against “Big Government” as the agent of tyranny. Thus, American fears of “Big Government” have been historically intertwined with racial prejudice, the Tea Party being only the most recent example.

Far from being a fringe idea, anti “Big-Government” paranoia is a deeply influential, deeply American cultural sentiment, with roots in the 19th century and wrapped in historical cloaks of hypocrisy and status anxiety. Its staying power attests to its long tradition.

A few glaring examples of this phenomenon should suffice. Take one of the most odious instances of racial injustice of the 19th century: the removal of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. The policy of Indian Removal had its greatest champion in one the towering figures of limited government: President Andrew Jackson. For the most part, Jackson favored laissez-faire economics, states’ rights over federal power, opposed a national bank, and mouthed a general distrust of a government monopoly by “elites.” But, like nearly all Americans of his time, Jackson also believed in white cultural and racial superiority, and was willing to use federal power to enforce those beliefs.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

In the 1820s and 30s, the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, Chickasaw, and Seminoles still lived on the lands of the Old Southwest (GA, AL, MS, LA, AK) that had been guaranteed by federal treaties which (ostensibly) recognized Indians as sovereign people. White Americans in these southern states, however, regarded “savage” Indians as barriers to white settlement and economic gain, and resented federal Indian policy as an affront to white democracy and states’ rights. Whites, especially in Georgia, complained that the federal government lacked the authority to recognize sovereign peoples within states and demanded that it kick the Indians out.

When the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, upheld Indians’ rights to occupy southern lands and denied the states’ rights to kick them out, President Andrew Jackson defied the court’s orders, supposedly sneering, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Jackson thus emerged as the champion of white grievances. After signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law, he ordered the “savage” tribes to remove to Oklahoma, threatening to use Federal power in the form of the U.S. army if they refused to voluntarily relocate. The tragic “Trail of Tears” is Jackson’s legacy.

In one of those great and shameless historical ironies, Jackson, the small government proponent, used big government to enforce the racial and economic whims of states’ rights favoring white southern Americans, who were all too happy rely on federal power to open up lands for white settlement.

White southern Americans, erstwhile supporters of “Big Government” when it was used to their advantage against “savage,” non-white Indian “others,” nonetheless threw the biggest political fit in U.S. history when, in 1860, it appeared that Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party would gain control of the federal government and use it to force the emancipation of slaves and subsequent “negro equality” on the helpless white South. To prevent this impending doom, white southern secessionists decided that “Big Government” was now the enemy, and leaned on states’ rights as the last buffer against Lincoln’s coming tyranny.

The Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama were the first to secede from the Union in 1860-61. In an effort to convince other slaveholding southern states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia to follow their lead, the already seceded states sent secession commissioners out to convince the rest of the Slave South to join the southern Confederacy. Historian Charles Dew documents the secession commissioners’ work in his stellar book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

South Carolina's Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed "Big Government" as the diabolical agent of "negro equality."

James Orr, South Carolina’s Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed “Big Government” as the diabolical agent of “negro equality.”

The secession commissioners gave mind-blowingly racist speeches to convince white southern good ole’ boys that the Republican Party would use the government to enforce black whims as whites’ expense. Take the following lines from a December 17, 1860 speech delivered in Georgia by Mississippi commissioner William Harris. “Our fathers made this government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race,” Harris stated. “This new [Lincoln] administration comes into power, under the solemn pledge to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union…and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”*

A December 27, 1860 letter written by Alabama commissioner Stephen Hale to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin framed a Republican domination of government in equally apocalyptic racial terms. “If the policy of the Republicans is carried out,” Hale warned, “the slave-holder  and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes…stripped…of that title to superiority over the black race.*

Its nary much of stretch to compare the rhetoric of the 19th century secession commissioners, who warned that the Republican Party would use its control over the federal government to force “negro equality” on the beleaguered white South, to that of contemporary Tea Party Republicans, who warn that the Democratic Party will take money from hard-working (read: white) Americans and give it to undeserving, shiftless black and Latino minorities. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party draws most of its strength from the old Southern Confederacy; like the southern secessionists, they fear that state benefits will be transferred from “us” to “them.”

The circumstances have changed, but the broader sentiments remain: “Big Government” is fine when it gives land to white settlers, enforces white racial superiority, and gives “earned” benefits like Medicare and Social Security to whites. But its tyrannical when it threatens to recognize Indians’ rights, mess with slavery, or extend state benefits like Obamacare to lazy racial “others.”

This is why, as CBS news’ Timothy Noah reported last year, Tea Partiers supported arch Ayn Rand drone Paul Ryan (R-WI), despite his plans to destroy Medicare and Social Security: because 70-75% of them are AARP eligible. The Tea Party geriatrics, Noah writes, “are against government benefits for other people,” but rely on anti-government rhetoric  to “convince themselves that Medicare and Social Security benefits are different because they’ve already paid for them through payroll taxes (when in fact beneficiaries take out far more than they put in; that’s why both programs need periodic adjustments).”

By supporting “Big Government” for themselves while denying it to “others,” Tea Party Republicans are continuing a long, mainstream American tradition in which views about state power have been highly contingent on who draws the benefits of state power. As the ruling demographic majority during the United States’ entire existence, white people have been able to walk a hypocritical line, embracing state power in the name of caucasian rights while rejecting the federal government as tyrannical and antithetical to states’ rights when it threatens to serve Indians, Blacks, and Latinos.  But don’t accuse conservative white America of hypocrisy in this matter because…FREEDOM!

* Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 98-99.