By LaKeshia Myers
A few weeks ago, the Black Student Union at the University of Wisconsin demanded the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue. The students outlined many hard truths about Lincoln such as his policies pertaining to Native American tribes as well as his candor regarding emancipation of the formerly enslaved. However, many—including UW-Madison Chancellor, Rebecca Blank—were unwilling to part with the statue, an iconic bastion of the UW campus landscape. Chancellor Blank, in her remarks regarding the statue, offered a measured response to her the campus community stating, the former president’s history should not be erased, but, “examined.” Thank you, Madam Chancellor, as a former history teacher, I will help begin the examination process.
If you were to take a straw poll and ask any American high school student what the cause of the Civil War was, they all would probably say, “North versus South” or “the north was antislavery and the south wanted slavery”—or some variation thereof. This is true of most Americans; we automatically assume that every northerner was antislavery and that every southerner was pro-slavery. However, when you delve deep into the historical context of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, it is quite interesting the narrative that one uncovers. The idea that northerners could be vehemently pro-union, but anti-emancipation was mind-boggling.
According to James McPherson, “the military, diplomatic, and political maneuvers during the first two years of the war took place in the sometimes-unacknowledged context of the slavery issue” (McPherson, 1981). While slavery was the fundamental cause of the sectional conflict that led to war, the North suffered more disunity over the war’s aims. The South fought for independence. So long as the North fought for restoration of the union, Northern unity was impressive—but the more difficult question was, “what type of union were we to become?” Was it to be a union without the institution of slavery as abolitionists had hoped or was the union to return to the status quo?
In reading the article “Emancipation, Negrophobia and Civil War Politics in Ohio,” author W. Sherman Jackson, assuages that while northern Republicans were vehemently intent on keeping the union together, they were divided as to whether or not emancipation of slaves was part of the “new union” (Jackson, 1980). In giving readers a brief profile of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Blackiston, author of “Lincoln’s Emancipation Plan,” we learn that slavery existed in the Northwest Territory during the time a young Abe Lincoln moved there with his family.
Blackiston writes, “after separating from the Indiana Territory, Illinois legalized slavery by indenture, provided for the hiring of slaves from Southern states to supply labor in its various industries, and at the same time passed a stringent law to prohibit the immigration of free Negroes into that state” (Blackiston, 1922). Blackiston also notes, “Such slavery as existed in Illinois, however, differed widely from that in the south where it had become economic rather than patriarchal as it then existed in certain parts of the North” (Blackiston, 1922).
When the Civil War was underway, northern Border States like Ohio (which bordered the slave states of Kentucky and Virginia) were concerned that the war was being fought to end slavery; this produced mass hysteria among some residents. According to Jackson, “Because they feared an exodus of former slaves into the state, white Ohioans visualized an Africanization of their race” (Jackson, 1980). This widespread Negrophobia—the fear of Africans and their descendants—gave rise to a sharply divided north. Politically, the Negrophobes aligned themselves with the growing Copperhead movement. The Copperhead Democrats were a growing faction within the Democratic Party that were made up of Northern democrats who were opposed to the Civil War. They wanted an immediate peace settlement with the Confederates. Republicans started calling anti-war Democrats “Copperheads”, likening them to the venomous snake.
The Copperhead movement continued to grow in the North as the war continued. Skillful politicians used the issues of Negrophobia and miscegenation (interracial marriage) to enhance the political fortunes of Copperhead candidates and supporters. This, coupled with President Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 had a dramatic impact on Ohio politics. “Copperheads campaigned hard against Lincoln’s military edict which proposed to free all slaves whose masters were still rebelling against the Union on January 1, 1863” (Jackson, 1980). The Copperheads used as their campaign slogan, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the Negroes where they are” (Voegeli, 1968).
I would be remised if I did not take a moment to acknowledge that this divisive rhetoric was astounding to me. It is reminiscent of the tone used by many in the alt-right movement today. While the Copperheads were effectively supportive of slavery, the alt-right is supportive of closing the borders and building a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out of the country. Near identical messages used 150 years later; one can only wonder, what we’ve learned in the interim.
While many historians have speculated as to whether or not emancipation was always apart of Lincoln’s agenda [his July 4, 1861, speech to Congress where he stated he would not, “directly or indirectly interfere with slavery, in the states where it exists”] what is undisputable is that Lincoln exercised extreme caution and was methodical in his approach to the subject. Lincoln’s use of executive orders was also fascinating during this period. McPherson assuages that, “Lincoln’s actions during the first 80 days of the war established the tone for his use of executive power” (McPherson, 1981). For example, Lincoln’s proclamation of blockade, was in effect a declaration of war. He also removed money from the treasury, expanded both the army and navy, and issued a call for military volunteers—all of these measures traditionally required approval of Congress.
This level of activism was necessary; had it not been for these earlier instances of executive action, the confiscation law would not have been implemented. The belligerent right of confiscation was incorporated into a law signed by Lincoln in August of 1861. The law authorized the seizure of all property, including slaves, used in military aid of the rebellion.
The confiscation act applied only to a few slaves, but, as McPherson states, “it was the thin edge of the wedge of emancipation” (McPherson, 1981). With the enactment of the confiscation act, Northern Democrats went into frenzy; fueled by salacious headlines from the media, many of them feared that tens of thousands of confiscated blacks would move into their towns and threaten the local economy. The Cincinnati Enquirer even reported, “and will either be competitors with our white mechanics and laborers, degrading them by the competition, or they will have to be supported as paupers and criminals at the public expense” (McPherson, 1981). With the threat of emancipation looming, Republicans had to acknowledge that racism infected even the northern states. “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not supreme hatred” said Congressman George Julian of Indiana. These thoughts would also translate to the union soldiers who would now be tasked with fighting not only to preserve the union, but to free slaves.
Negrophobia during this period laid the groundwork for northern segregation and Jim Crow that was to follow. It was the precursor to redlining, restrictive housing covenants, hyper-segregation of schools, race-based policing policies etc. All things that were prevalent in northern cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago; and all of which are at the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement today.