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On Lincoln

by dan on January 12, 2013

Amid all the talk about Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln, I thought I’d share the back-story to the movie and sketch out Lincoln’s earlier positions on slavery.

In 1861, Lincoln expressed his belief that slavery was legal and constitutional, and he expressed supported the passage of a Constitutional amendment to clarify that legal position.  In his first inaugural address, Lincoln declared: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.  I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”  He goes on to discuss a proposed 13th amendment to the Constitution, which, in his words, proposed “that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.”  Lincoln expressed his clear support not just for the legal principal but for the passage of such an amendment. ” To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”  Lincoln not only did not support emancipation, he favored enshrining slavery explicitly in the Constitution.

By 1862, Lincoln’s position had evolved slightly.  In his 1862 annual message to Congress, Lincoln advocated the adoption of a plan of gradual emancipation that would take “thirty-seven years” and would be compensated by the delivery of “bonds of the United States.”Lincoln justified his proposal on three grounds: that it would palliate “those who favor perpetual slavery,” that it would bring about peace and prosperity, and that it would improve the wages of white laborers. Lincoln believed that gradual emancipation and compensation would appeal to slave owners because he believed the duration of time and the quality of the compensation would make up their dissatisfaction at losing their slaves.  “The time spares both races from the evils of sudden derangement – in fact, from the necessity of any derangement – while most of those whose habitual course of thought will be disturbed by the measure will have passed away before its consummation,” wrote Lincoln.  The wording of this argument reveals Lincoln’s attitude towards immediate abolition: he saw it as an “evil” and a “derangement” – derangement being a word synonymous with disorder and confusion.  The prospect of the immediate and total liberation of the slaves was not one that Lincoln favored.  As to compensation, Lincoln puts his argument in traditional terms.  “The measure is both just and economical,” Lincoln writes about compensation. “In a certain sense, the liberation of slaves is the destruction of property – property acquired by descent, or by purchase, the same as any other property.”  Lincoln does not challenge the conception of slaves as property, or argue that it is wrong or absurd.  He was sympathetic to the idea.

In May of 1862, Major General David Hunter issued a general order proclaiming “Slavery and martial law in a free country altogether incompatible; the persons in these three States – Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina – heretofore held as slaves, are therefore declared forever free.”  Lincoln revoked this order.  He would later annul other general’s efforts to free slaves in occupied territory or to enlist them in military service.

In January 1863, Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation freeing slaves in all areas of the United States not under the control of the Union Army. Lincoln’s reasons were pragmatic, not idealistic. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” he wrote. “What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”  Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation freed slaves only in areas not under Union control (i.e. excluding places like New Orleans), and was thus meant as an incentive for the slave owning class to surrender.

I share these earlier positions of Lincoln with the intention of hopefully providing more nuance to idealized portrayal’s of Lincoln in the media.  His position on slavery was a far cry from absolute abolitionism, and his views expressed at the time of the passage of the actual 13th amendment were significantly “evolved” from his earlier positions.


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Why I write about slavery

by dan on February 25, 2011

A few days ago, I recieved an interesting email through this website.  Debra wrote, “First, honestly and exactly what is your true motivation for having chosen to study slavery in American? Second, what is your religion and the background of your American and European ancestors? Third, should you be unwilling to honestly answer my two aforementioned  questions, I’ll have my answers anyway.  Peace!” 

Debra is not the first to ask this question.  A few weeks ago, Kwaku in New Orleans sent me an email saying, “your efforts are simply the expropriation of the long and hard efforts to usurp and idea and make it palatable to the dominate White Power Structure of Louisiana…. I understand…  just why you were able to get such media coverage, especially from long entities of White Supremacy & Racism like The Times Picayune.”  And in a comment on this blog, Karl writes, “I’m curious about the seeming disconnect about your own privileged station, your elite education, your easy path to success, and the theme of revolt you’re promoting.”

So why am I writing about slavery as a 24-year-old white male born in Washington, DC?  Is there some contradiction or hypocrisy – or as Debra and Kwaku suggest – some hidden agenda in my writing about the heroes of the 1811 revolt?

I don’t think so.  I am a historian interested in American history – in the past of this nation in which I grew up and love.  And I have chosen to write about that history through the lens of slavery, a lens through which the true color and drama and good and evil in this country’s past are brought into sharpest relief.  I believe history shouldn’t be segregated and that, white or black, we are all Americans and should know the truths about our past. 

My favorite movie growing up was Braveheart, and I fell in love with stories of men and women fighting for freedom and justice in the face of great oppression. And when I happened upon the story of the 1811 rebels, I knew I had found the perfect topic to write about – a story of real American heroes whose actions stood as a testament to the best ideals of this country and yet were tortured and executed for their beliefs in those ideals.  I see Charles Deslondes and Kook and Quamana as important figures in American history (not just black history or slave history) who students should learn about just as they learn about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  All of these men are part of the story of America, and we cannot understand who we are today without facing those contradictions. Black or white, rich or poor, young or old, I believe these stories matter and that you cannot truly understand our past without reckoning with the politics of the enslaved and with the story of the 1811 revolt. 

I think my generation thinks about these issues differently than our parents generation or their parents generation.  When I think about America, I don’t only think about white politicians, but about the full spectrum of the men and women that made up this country.  And the reality is that much of this country’s wealth was built on slave labor – cotton accounted for the majority of US exports from 1800 through 1935.  Jean-Noel Destrehan noted that without chattel slavery, “cultivation must cease, the improvements of a century be destroyed, and the great river resume its empire over our ruined fields and demolished habitations.”  New Orleans – and the country at large – would not be what it is today without the political, social, and economic contributions of enslaved men and women.

And so I think we need to move past segregated histories, to acknowlege and celebrate the accomplishments of Americans of all hues.  Learning the stories of the martyrs of 1811 and acknowledging their contribution to America is just one small step in that direction.

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Thank You – and what you can do to help

by dan on February 22, 2011

I wanted to write and thank you for your wonderful emails and support for my book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. I’ve been so honored and uplifted by your reactions and I could not have imagined a better response. I set out to publish this book with two overriding goals in mind. First, I wanted to put the 1811 revolt on the map, to make sure the revolt was in every textbook and that young people won’t be able to graduate from high school without at least hearing the story of the heroic men who fought and died for liberty on the cane fields turned killing fields of the German Coast. And second, I wanted to change the way we think about slavery and the American past, to remember the bravery of the men and women who not only built this country economically but fought and died for freedom and equality – people whose actions stand as a testament to the best ideals of this country – rather than just feeling ashamed and guilty and thinking of enslaved people as victims. The good news is that the word is getting out and the book and the story are being shared and passed around and I think are making a difference. I wanted to ask all of your help in trying to continue this positive momentum and continue the fight to restore the memory of the 1811 uprising and of its leaders and participants. There are a number of things you could do to help, and I would be really grateful to you for your support:

1) Share the book with your friends, especially friends with the ability to influence others: teachers, writers, and politicians

2) Tell and re-tell the story both in person and online, through blogs and websites and twitter and facebook

3) Review the book on or on other book websites to encourage them to read it and learn this story.

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A Re-Trial

by dan on February 9, 2011

group of organizations in New Orleans, led by the Greater New Orleans Louis A. Martinet Legal Society, will be hosting a re-trial of the slave rebels who fought and died for their freedom in 1811.  I wish I was down in New Orleans to see this amazing event!  Congratulations to all the sponsors on bringing this together and check out the attached flyer.


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New York Times Bestseller!

by dan on January 30, 2011

I was thrilled to find American Uprising on the New York Times bestseller list. Thank you to everyone who has bought the book – I’m really thrilled that the story is catching on.

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