Book review: The Fiery Trial

The Fiery Trial both traces the evolution of Lincoln’s ideas and polices about slavery and that of the nation’s from the 1830s through the end of the Civil War. As usual what I thought I knew about Lincoln, slavery, and abolition turned out to be a bit simplistic. Reality is always more nuanced and complicated.

Foner provides a detailed walkthrough of the politics, history, and views about slavery from Lincoln’s time in Illinois through the remainder of his life. At times it did feel like I was trying to drink from a firehose. Foner patiently lays out the details, walking the reader through the ideas percolating in the nation and swirling around Lincoln. The details can be overwhelming and feel ploddingly tedious. But he is laying out an argument based on letters, speeches, and newspaper articles to show how Lincoln did not start out as the Great Emancipator. Far from it.

The picture painted of Lincoln is of a man with little interaction with blacks—slave or free. He just didn’t have opportunity to interact with them or give slavery much more than a passing thought until he moved into the presidency. Yes, he expressed that he personally was opposed to slavery, but fighting slavery was not his concern.

Lincoln was a product of his time and place. His time was one of slavery, the view that whites were superior, and that the Constitution protected slavery and states’ rights. In contrast, he was a firm believer in the Union and protecting it at all costs.

This book disabused me of many ideas. Nothing was black and white, so to speak. Rather than the war being about North vs. South, abolitionists vs. slaveowners, Foner shows a very nuanced political and social country. Democrats existed in the North. Some Democrats, like the future vice president and president Andrew Johnson, were Unionists, who sided with the North despite being racists, slaveowners, or supporters of slavery.

Not all Republicans were against slavery, or at least not strongly. Conservative, modern, radical. Lincoln fought to keep all stripes of Republicans united, not necessarily an easy task. He leaned to the conservative side, it seems, though led anyone who met him to walk away thinking that Lincoln believed what he himself believed.

Those who were against slavery varied too. I thought the US was divided between abolitionists and those who supported slavery. Ah, but that is too simplistic. The abolitionists were the radicals, the fringe element it seems in the North. Not all of those opposed to slavery were abolitionists, who wanted immediate, complete freedom of the slaves. Many advocated for gradual emancipation, where slaves would be freed over decades and generations—in one case slavery would die out by 1907!

And those supporting emancipation (not necessarily the same as being an abolitionist) didn’t always agree. Some advocated for compensated emancipation. In the modern era, compensation and slavery mentioned together refers to compensation paid to descendants of slaves for their labor. Nothing could have been further from this during the mid-1800s. Discussions, deals, and proposed laws covered how much to compensate slaveowners for their emancipated slaves. (In 1833, Britain abolished slavery and compensated slaveowners.)

Even if Americans believed in abolition or emancipation, they mostly did not want blacks to remain in the US. Blacks and white living in the same society was simply inconceivable to most Americans. The American Colonization Society was formed in 1817 and was going strong through Lincoln’s life. Lincoln himself was a strong proponent, unable to envision a non-white society. It wasn’t until near the end of the Civil War, after alternative lands to ship blacks to failed to be viable, that he quietly dropped the push for colonization. Of course, throughout all of this time very few blacks had any interest in emigrating. They saw themselves as Americans and wanted birthright citizenship and equality before the law in the US rather than colonization elsewhere.

I also had assumptions about emancipation, that freedom was tied to rights. But that was far from the truth. For Americans at the time, emancipation did not naturally lead to rights. Rights itself was a loaded term. Which rights? Most Americans who believed in emancipation or abolition agreed that blacks had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Blacks were allowed to be free laborers. (At least in theory. In practice, things were a bit different.)

Few Americans wanted blacks to enjoy equality before the law or be citizens. And social equality? That was beyond anything that most Americans could handle. For blacks to be considered or treated as equals with whites was unthinkable to most.

The ways that rights were divided (economic, political, or social) and supported or not supported rather surprised me. I realized that I assumed that abolitionists were pro-black rights in my modern-day sensibilities. And yet the nuances make sense.

Despite Americans being opposed to slavery, they were still very racist. Racism was rampant whether in the South or the North, in abolitionist circles or colonization circles. This legacy haunts us today.

Lincoln, on the whole, comes out looking pretty darn conservation. He did not want a social or political revolution. He wasn’t looking to free the slaves or not free the slaves. For most of the time, abolishing slavery seemed irrelevant to him. He wasn’t necessarily more enlightened than his fellow countrymen. In fact, he seemed very cognizant of not getting ahead of public opinion. Abolitionist views slowly pushed him along, eventually dragging him to their views from decades earlier.

He really did what was expedient in a particular time and place. He let generals accept runaway slaves in some cases, turned a blind eye elsewhere, or removed them when they went too far by granting freedom. He weighed everything, I dare say, against what would have the best chance of keeping the Union together.

He did seem to carefully consider things and his thoughts did evolve with time—he eventually allowed blacks to serve in combat. But he did cling to ideas long past when he should have, such as the olive branch he extended to the border states for years to try to lure them into voluntary, gradual emancipation.

Often I wonder what post-Civil War America would have been like, what Reconstruction would have been like had Lincoln not been assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist Democrat from Tennessee who ascended to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination, seemed to undo the promises of emancipation and the abolition of slavery. But after reading The Fiery Trial, I am not so sure that Reconstruction under Lincoln would have been the utopia I would have wished for. I suspect Lincoln would have been a lot more cautious, a lot more conservative than the myth of the Great Emancipator that arose after his death.

Movie review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)

My timing of watching this movie was perfect, though not intentional—a few days after the anniversary of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs that took place on September 21, 1973.

Movies that depict an historical event where the end result is well known can go horribly awry or lead up in anticipation to a critical moment. Battle of the Sexes is more the latter. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat when watching the actual tennis match—the match seemed to be beside the point. But the events leading up to the match unfolded in a way that kept my attention.

What was amazing to me was watching a twenty-something woman so self-possessed and strong-willed to be able to go up against the established tennis tournament and a middle-aged male tennis superstar. Not that Billie Jean isn’t portrayed as having some doubts, but the movie shows her of having the stamina and will that I do not quite remember having in my twenties. Sure, all twenty-somethings have the strength that comes from naivete concerning how the world works—the young take on the world in ways that older generations do not. The latter are often too beaten down to fight against the way of the world or are too complicit in it to attack it.

The movie covers the period of time that spans when Billie Jean started a rival women’s tennis tournament circuit to the match against Bobbie Riggs. In between we see her struggle in her personal life and with her personal identity. Although not too far removed in time, Billie Jean came of age and rose as a star tennis player in a world that did not respect or reward female tennis players (or women in general). The language used about and to women in the movie is a stunning reminder of how much things have changed in less than 50 years.

The crap that women put up with so that we enjoy a better world is humbling. I am not sure that I would have had the inner strength to put up with what women in the 1970s (not to mention earlier eras) did. To constantly struggle is exhausting. But either you struggle against a system, or you submit and let it destroy you.

It was satisfying to see women form a rival tennis tournament when the official tennis organization would not take their demands for equal pay seriously. I am sure what they went through was no bed of roses. They had no idea of the outcome of their endeavors or that they weren’t ending their careers. But bless them for their struggle.

It was even more satisfying to see Billie Jean go up against the arrogant Bobbie Riggs….and win. The outcome was less than certain at the time, even though there was a 25+ year gap in their ages. It’s hard to imagine a 55-year-old man as being at the height of his athletic prowess, but that is what the male establishment decided to throw against women who dared to question their place and financial position in the world. ­

From the vantage point of several decades later, it seems odd that such a battle needed to take place. My reaction though is telling about how far we have come. Watch the movie for the great acting as well as the snapshot of the era that it depicts. And then see for yourself if you are not impressed by what women went through to move the ball forward.

Thank you, Billie Jean and team mates. You fought for women to be taken seriously and compensated equal to men. Without your struggles, I would be unable to watch Battle of the Sexes and marvel at the progress made. Much still needs to be done, but we wouldn’t be where we are without you.

Quest for existence

Quote

“A section of the white population, perceiving Negro pressure for change, misconstrues it as a demand for privileges rather than as a desperate quest for existence.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”  Saturday Evening Post (pdf). November 1964.

Equal justice

Quote

“There can be no equal justice until a black life is worth the same as a white life.”  ~ James H. Cone, “Theologians and White Supremacy: an interview with James H. Cone“, in America: The National Catholic Review, 11/20/06

Buying a train ticket

I reread the sentence. Yes, I read it correctly. A woman was trying to buy a train ticket but couldn’t. Not because she didn’t have the money for the ticket. Not because she didn’t know where she wanted to go. Not because she was underage.

No, she was an adult. A mother. With children in tow. She knew exactly where she wanted to go. She had the money to buy the tickets.

So why couldn’t she? Because she was a she.

Excuse me? Was this in a non-Western country that denies rights to women? No, this was in the US.

That sounds so…eighteenth century. You know, back when women were property. But wait, that is the point. She was property. The children were property. For all the clerk at the ticket counter knew, this woman was running from her husband. (Back when laws didn’t protect women and children leaving abusive situations. You know, because both were property of the man.)

It hasn’t been all that long since women were considered property, witness laws that recognized spousal rape (which wasn’t recognized as a crime in all 50 states until 1993). Or on a more mundane level, women, as property and not individual beings, couldn’t apply for credit and have credit cards in their names until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Some could argue that without full agency over their bodies, women are still considered property. Just now they are property of the state—that seeks to limit women’s access to reproductive health care and choices—rather than an individual man.

It seems absurd. But if you assume that women aren’t individuals, then no, they cannot have credit cards or buy train tickets. And by extension, if women aren’t individuals, then they don’t have full agency over their bodies. They cannot be raped by spouses or, in the 2000s, they cannot decide whether to bear a child or not.

We may have progressed beyond these seemingly insane ideas that women cannot buy train tickets (1940s) or have credit cards in their names (1970s), or even be raped by spouses (1990s). But the idea of women lacking agency still exists today and can trace its heritage to this not too distant past.

So what happened to that woman in 1942 who was trying to buy train tickets (as it turns out, to join her husband in San Diego)? She grabbed a nearby sailor to stand in as her husband so she could buy the train tickets. Likely she didn’t fool anyone, but she managed to get what she needed by playing along. A woman with children buying train tickets without a man? What madness! She could have been running away with the husband’s children. Property stealing property. That just wouldn’t do.