As I continue reading through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I really am stuck by what a totally amazing thing it is that the citizens of the United States elected an African-American as president in 2008.
Goodwin’s book explores the many tumultuous issues surrounding slavery that were churning in the mid-19th Century in America. What is also very clear is that even the abolitionists had no good plan for what to do with the millions of slaves once they were free. The Northern states were adopting “Black Laws” – laws which sharply curtailed the rights and freedoms of blacks in those states. Illinois itself had adopted a law making it illegal to bring into the state anyone whose was even one-quarter black. No wonder the Southern States in which more than one third of the population was slave were alarmed at what the abolition of slaves would mean for them.
Lincoln and his cabinet and the Republican Party’s anti-slavery ideas mostly wanted to limit slavery to the South, not abolish it everywhere in America. They were not abolitionists and in their own speeches distanced themselves from the abolitionists. When Stephen Douglas warned white America that voting for Lincoln meant submitting themselves to black voters and judges, Lincoln denied that he was advocating such a thing.
Slavery was abhorrent to Lincoln and his Republican cohorts, but they were only advocating that blacks be treated as humans, not as citizens. Basically the main argument was being fought between the pro-slavery people who framed the argument in terms of state rights (and thus could appeal to the War for Independence and Constitution as the basis of their convictions) and the anti-slavery folk who were pushing for human rights for blacks not the rights of full citizenship for them. The anti-slavery Republicans wanted “all men” to be treated as “equals” meaning as human beings, but that didn’t mean to them that blacks should be given full citizenship or seen as equal to the whites in terms of voting or political power.
Stephen Douglas said to cheering crowds:
“the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negro, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fejee Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men… I hold that this government was established.. for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and and should be administered by white men, and none others.”
What truly amazes me is that in America, the land of the free, just 90 years before I was born slavery was still practiced. When I was born, there were people still alive who had been born when slavery existed. When my parents were born there would still have been alive former slaves. The slavery issue is not something from the distant past of America but has had its repercussions right down to the present.
One black American I know always told his children, “you can be anything you want in America, except for President of the United States.” Though he is a pro-life, Republican voting conservative, he told me that the election of Barack Obama has truly shattered the shackles of slavery for all people of color in this country. That is something for conservative Americans and Republicans to think about. It is not the policies of Obama they need to embrace, but they need to consider he does represent symbolically the end to the limits slavery imposed on every black American. Argue against his policies, but give recognition to the fact that he does represent what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, sweated and “slaved” over to save these United States from tyrannizing over anyone.
As we approach our Independence Day holidays, we can be humbled by the land of the free’s willingness to enslave a people. The strength and wealth of America was built upon denying freedom to millions. We also can be amazed at the American ability to end adversity and overcome adversaries by spreading freedom to all. Freedom comes with a price, freedom is invaluable, and it is worth giving freedom to every American.
Giving the black man freedom, electing a black man as president, doesn’t mean that we will have greater oneness of opinion, but we have been strengthened as a nation by the competitiveness and cross pollination of ideas which comes with giving full recognition to our ideal “that all men are created equal.” The united part of the United States is formed into a more perfect union by granting freedom and citizenship to all.
And I will say that I think the example of the debate and the issues which swirled around slavery give us an example and a hope for recognizing the humanity of and citizenship to the children in our country conceived and yet unborn. It was a painful and hard fought battle to recognize black Americans as humans let alone as citizens. I think we will awaken to the truth that all are created equal, and that each child conceived deserves to be treated as a human being deserving the rights and protection which our Constitution guarantees for all citizens. Abortion is no more a right than is owning a slave. One day we may come to recognize this self evident truth that we do not limit citizenship nor humanity to landowners, to the educated, to whites, or to males. Neither should we limit them to those children conceived and living in their mother’s wombs.