Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My American History term paper

I'd like to apologize in advance for the length of this post, but I am fairly proud of myself for having written this paper and felt like sharing it here. I learned a lot in my research and I think anyone willing to read this paper would benefit knowledge-wise from doing so!

   Abraham Lincoln is widely considered to have been the greatest president the United States of America ever elected. The reasons given for this distinction vary greatly depending on the contemporary issues when such statements are made. Nearly every election year a politician or his respective campaign will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln with explanations of how a particular policy falls in line with what Lincoln would have done. Many of Lincoln’s speeches and quotes are still used to this day in efforts to gain support for a cause or raise morale of a group. Possibly the most quoted of his speeches being the Gettysburg Address, which begins with the now iconic “Four score and seven years ago…” and has been used in countless films, documentaries, and even elementary school plays. In recent years however, the most commonly cited reason for Lincoln to be considered the greatest president is his Emancipation Proclamation. This document along with a North victory in the United States Civil War during his time as President of the United States began the long, slow journey toward freedom and equality for African Americans in the United States of America. While the reasoning behind the abolition of slavery has been hotly contested since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and is in fact still a point of disagreement among historians, most historians agree that the decision was neither as sudden nor as easy as is often depicted. Lincoln himself had to overcome obstacles and opposition in order to abolish slavery, arguably the most important of which are explained in brief in the proceeding pages.

   One factor in the abolition of slavery that is often overlooked by modern scholarship is the work which had been done prior to Lincoln’s presidency and indeed prior to his birth. As Polgar indicates in “To Raise Them to an Equal Participation” the early stages of the abolitionist movement were well underway by the time Lincoln was born in 1809. These early stages included attempts to educate former slaves to the point where they could be productive and responsible citizens, as well as attempts to educate the public and overcome white prejudices. These early efforts are important to consider when attempting to gain proper historical context for the Emancipation Proclamation, as they raised awareness among both cultural elites and freed former slaves. While it would be difficult to argue that these early movements affected Lincoln’s beliefs directly, as he considered himself to be “naturally antislavery” they did lay the foundation on which he would later build his argument for abolition of slavery. In order for Lincoln to abolish slavery he would first have to gain political and public support. These early abolitionist movements alongside other factors helped to increase public opposition to slavery by educating the white population to overcome the falsehoods about African Americans which had been culturally engrained. 

   As the white public became more educated and aware of the fallacy that was the belief in African Americans being inferior, public discussion of emancipation increased. While the common perception in modern discussions of this era is that only the Confederate southern states were against the abolition of slavery, as Weber points out this assumption is far from accurate. Many Northern citizens were still racially prejudiced and others “...feared that freedmen would take their jobs.” That there was still public and political opposition within the loyal Northern states meant Lincoln would have to wait until he could justify emancipation from a political standpoint or he would risk alienating border states. Many of these states were ideologically opposed to slavery but feared the repercussions of freeing the slaves and openly opposed the idea of doing so during such a tumultuous time for the nation. As the emancipation of the slaves became a more realistic and inevitable future, the debate within the aforementioned border states began to intensify. While this resistance to emancipation may seem barbaric or even racist in retrospect, the border states’ fear was not born entirely out of ignorance. As Binnington indicates, many feared that the emancipation of slaves would lead to a massive migration to the North by those recently freed. The expected result of this massive migration was that much of the land along the path would be destroyed. While this is not an entirely unreasonable assumption due to the large number of slaves in the South, this prediction did not account for those slaves who would continue to work and live in the southern states. Fears such as these were simply one more obstacle on Lincoln’s path to abolishing slavery.

   While gaining public support for the abolition of slavery was of great importance, it was far from the only major obstacle to the freeing of the slaves. According to Finkelman, the most crucial aspect to the abolition of slavery was “...the actual possibility of a military victory.” As this was no certainty at the beginning of the Civil War, Lincoln needed to time his move to abolish slavery to take place at a time where the North had gained the upper hand in battle. To attempt to abolish slavery and subsequently lose to the South would effectively negate previous abolitionist efforts while simultaneously creating backlash from the loyal northern states, many of which were less than fully supportive of the war from the beginning. As Don Green alludes to in “Constitutional Unionists: The Party That Tried to Stop Lincoln and Save the Union” a major factor in the secession of the South was Lincoln being elected president. These Unionists had predicted that the South would hold true to their threats of secession should Lincoln be elected and attempted to gain a political victory over him to prevent such events from occurring. With the benefit of hindsight an argument can be made that what these Unionists were doing was attempting to prevent the abolition of slavery. This is not likely correct as Lincoln, though antislavery had not yet made public his plans to emancipate the slaves, and would not do so until well after he was elected President. While this opposition from what was essentially the third party during the election was a small hindrance, it was indicative of the larger issues at hand as Lincoln maneuvered toward emancipation. 

   Shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected to the office of the President of the United States of America, in fact during his inaugural address, he acknowledged that he had “no lawful right” to attempt to end slavery at the level of state governments. This statement, while technically true was likely an attempt to dissuade the southern states from seceding as Lincoln was well aware that secession would lead to war and further complicate the emancipation process. Although the South would secede in spite of Lincoln’s apparent efforts to prevent it from doing so, this would eventually give President Lincoln the legal right to free slaves from their masters. From a modern perspective it may seem as though freeing the slaves should have been undertaken immediately following the secession of the South, however the laws of the time considered slaves to be legal property of their owners. This legal protection of slaves as property, and the constitutional Fifth Amendment protection of personal property prevented Lincoln from acting with the immediacy that his critics both contemporary and modern would have preferred. The system of checks and balances in place within the structure of the United States government limited Abraham Lincoln’s power in this situation. Essentially this meant that those states which had remained loyal to the Union would have to abolish slavery internally and of their own accord. While the institution of slavery would eventually be destroyed following Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, it was abolished in a way that was legally justifiable and followed shortly thereafter by a constitutional amendment to further legitimize the abolition of slavery. 

   Perhaps the most often overlooked aspect of the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln is the pace at which the emancipation of African American slaves took place. Popular culture seems to believe that the Emancipation Proclamation immediately ended slavery in the United States of America, history however paints a much more difficult and lengthy process. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states which refused to rejoin the Union and instead chose to remain in rebellion. The details of the document and the states to which it applied meant that those border states which still recognized the legality of slavery while remaining loyal to the Union were unaffected. These border states would not be legally required to free their slaves until Amendment XIII to the Constitution of the United States of America. Resolved and passed by Congress of the United States of America, "January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865," stated that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment signified what was the beginning of a tumultuous and often dangerous period for the former slaves as they attempted to integrate into what was predominantly a white society. However, President Lincoln had achieved his goal of ridding the United States from the embarrassment and horror that was human slavery.

   Lincoln has been widely praised as a great man and a great president for his actions not only in freeing hundreds of thousands from the bonds of slavery, but for leading the United States of America through arguably its’ most violent period. However, he is not beyond criticism and the merits and reasons for the aforementioned actions have been a constant topic of debate from his contemporary critics as well as modern historians and political scientists. These criticisms largely arise from the myth of Abraham Lincoln as some sort of flawless man of unassailable character, but do not negate the major strides toward human equality that Lincoln achieved during his relatively short period of political prominence. When considering in proper historical context the obstacles which Abraham Lincoln was forced to overcome in order to abolish slavery in the United States, the potential reasons behind the decision seem inconsequential. 

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