From TPM Reader PT …
In a remarkable bit of good timing, I’ve been re-reading Shelby Foote’s history of the Civil War, in particular his first volume (covering 1861-1862). It provides some much-needed perspective on the current situation with health care reform.
Like President Obama, President Lincoln was seen by many of his supporters as something of a disappointment once in office. This was largely due to the number and types of compromises he needed to make, most notably with the institution of slavery. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln came out and said that he was not bound and determined to end slavery, that the President does not in any case have the power to unilaterally change the law of the land, and that his first priority was the preservation of the Union, even if the price of that preservation was to accept the continuation of slavery. During the war, when pressed by a group of ministers about why he had not more forcefully worked to end slavery, he reiterated that his overriding priority was to preserve the Union, and added that there were four slave states which had stayed loyal and which were currently contributing 50,000 soldiers to the war effort; these, he pointed out, were states and soldiers which he could not afford to lose in a dispute over slavery.
When Lincoln finally issed the Emancipation Proclamation, its scope was remarkably circumscribed: it did not call for the emancipation of slaves in loyal states (for this, Lincoln would need the participation of Congress, and in any event, as described above, he did not seek such an act for fear of worsening the Union’s position in the war); it did not call for the emancipation of slaves in those areas under military control by the Union; it limited emancipation to those areas which would be brought under military control subsequent to January 1, 1863, which was about 3 months after the Proclamation itself was issued. As one historian noted, this meant the Proclamation carefully excused all of the slaves which the United States actually had any authority over at the time of issuance! As another historian noted, the Proclamation was in essence the offer of a bribe: any state then in rebellion which would lay down its arms and return to the Union would not be compelled to give up its slaves; any state conquered by force of arms after January 1, 1863 would be so compelled.
Needless to say, the Proclamation was seen by anti-slavery partisans of the time as wholly unacceptable, a compromise too far, and yet more evidence of the unfitness of their elected standard-bearer in the White House. And yet, as Foote points out, Lincoln is today hailed as the preserver of the Union, which he was, but as The Great Emancipator, which he was not. This is because the Proclamation, while useless in a practical sense at the moment of issuance, was the crucial starting point for the abolition of slavery, a project which was completed just a few years later.
I trust that the parallels with our own current situation are apparent (though I think that the Senate HCR bill is far more immediately useful now then the Emancipation Proclamation was then). I would also note that after winning election both Lincoln and Davis were widely condemned by their supporters as weak, stupid, cowardly, vain, and tyrannical by their supporters, who wondered aloud why they had ever voted for those people and what was to become of a nation led by such a man. Apparently intense dissatisfaction with elected officials you have heretofore supported is an American tradition.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.