Monday, July 18, 2011

President Obama on the Emancipation Proclamation - really amazing, and not in a good way

The White House has been pushing this video of President Obama talking about he virtues of compromise, compromise, compromise. The most amazing thing about it to me is what he says about Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. This is from the White House YouTube channel. It was posted July 14 but is from a meeting of March 8. As the White House caption explains, "On March 8th 2011 President Obama surprised and took questions from a group of Boston Area College Democrats, Republicans and Independents after his speech at Tech Boston Academy in Dorchester, MA."

Obama's historical revisionism on the Emancipation Proclamation is astonishing to me. The Emancipation Proclamation in his telling was mainly about compromising with slavery! This actually is one of the neo-Confederates' big talking points: see, Lincoln didn't  free all the slaves and that shows what a big ole hypocrite he was!

And Lincoln making a strategic compromise with pro-Union border states in the middle of a Civil War is just like, say, Obama caving in to industry lobbyists on the public option before it even came to a vote in Congress? Please.

For a reality-based account of the Emancipation Proclamation, see historian John Hope Franklin's The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice Prologue 25/2 Summer 1993

Franklin addresses the reaction of Frederick Douglass, who was a great admirer of the radical-democratic, violent revolutionary John Brown and the best known African-American opponent of slavery before and during the Civil War, to the Proclamation. One has to wonder if Douglass's association with violent anti-slavery seditionists would makes Douglass just like the Huffington Post in the President's view. After all, Van Jones and Elizabeth Warren are far too leftie for Obama's taste.

Douglass called the Emancipation Proclamation "the first step on the part of the nation in its departure from the thraldom of the ages." Douglass, unlike Obama in that video, actually understood the political and military significance of the Proclamation, though he certainly continued to push for full emancipation. Lincoln before he was murdered supported for the 13th Constitutional Amendment barring slavery everywhere in the US.

Obama sneers in that video that the Huffington Post in 1863 would have been demanding to "run a third party guy" and so on. In fact, there was serious consideration among many Republicans of running Charles Frémont against Lincoln in the Republican primaries. Not only because of his perceived weaknesses on slavery but also because of the military problems the North was experiencing in suppressing the Confederate slaveholders' revolt.

Just to be clear: this does not illustrate how Obama, in caving and caving against to Republicans on core Democratic issues was just like Lincoln, waging a Civil War to destroy slavery and defend the American Constitution. The comparison is downright silly. What it illustrates is that the antislavery movement was serious and had real political clout and was willing to put major political pressure on the President of their own Party to fully eradicate slavery. And, to take up another of Obama's points in the video, with the 13th Amendment, the Abolitionists actually did get 100% of what they wanted in ending chattel slavery.
Franklin writes:

It is worth observing that there was no mention, in the final draft, of Lincoln's pet schemes of compensation and colonization, which were in the Preliminary Proclamation of September 22, 1862. Perhaps Lincoln was about to give up on such impracticable propositions. In the Preliminary Proclamation, the President had said that he would declare slaves in designated territories "thenceforward, and forever free." In the final draft of January 1, 1863, he was content to say that they "are, and henceforward shall be free." Nothing had been said in the preliminary draft about the use of blacks as soldiers. In the summer of 1862 the Confiscation Act had authorized the President to use blacks in any way he saw fit, and there had been some limited use of them in noncombat activities. In stating in the Proclamation that former slaves were to be received into the armed services, the President believed that he was using congressional authority to strike a mighty blow against the Confederacy.
To present the Proclamation, as Obama does in that video, as mainly about compromising with slaveowners, is just nuts. Or, more specifically, grotesquely ahistorical.

Franklin continues:

The trenchant observation by Douglass that the Emancipation Proclamation was but the first step could not have been more accurate. Although the Presidential decree would not free slaves in areas where the United States could not enforce the Proclamation, it sent a mighty signal both to the slaves and to the Confederacy that enslavement would no longer be tolerated. An important part of that signal was the invitation to the slaves to take up arms and participate in the fight for their own freedom. That more than 185,000 slaves as well as free blacks accepted the invitation indicates that those who had been the victims of thraldom were now among the most enthusiastic freedom fighters.

Meanwhile, no one appreciated better than Lincoln the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation had a quite limited effect in freeing the slaves directly. It should be remembered, however, that in the Proclamation he called emancipation "an act of justice," and in later weeks and months he did everything he could to confirm his view that it was An Act of Justice. And no one was more anxious than Lincoln to take the necessary additional steps to bring about actual freedom. Thus, he proposed that the Republican Party include in its 1864 platform a plank calling for the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment. When he was "notified" of his renomination, as was the custom in those days, he singled out that plank in the platform calling for constitutional emancipation and pronounced it "a fitting and necessary conclusion to the final success of the Union cause." Early in 1865, when Congress sent the amendment to Lincoln for his signature, he is reported to have said, "This amendment is a King's cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up."

Despite the fact that the Proclamation did not emancipate the slaves and surely did not do what the Thirteenth Amendment did in winding things up, it is the Proclamation and not the Thirteenth Amendment that has been remembered and celebrated over the past 130 years. That should not be surprising. Americans seem not to take to celebrating legal documents. The language of such documents is not particularly inspiring, and they are the product of the deliberations of large numbers of people. We celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but not the ratification of the Constitution. Jefferson's words in the Declaration moved the emerging Americans in a way that Madison's committee of style failed to do in the Constitution. [my emphasis in bold]
This is the first thing I've heard Obama say that sounds like something that could have come from Shrub Bush's mouth. Up until now, he has been awfully frustrating and disappointing for progressives. In this video, he's starting to sound downright pitiful.

See also Emancipation Proclamation Mr. Lincoln and Freedom website (Lincoln Institute/Lehrman Institute; not dated, accessed 07/18/2011)

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