Barbara Fields and James McPherson on Lincoln the Emancipator

Well as we know, historians disagree on just about everything. And it's a good thing too - if we didn't - there would only be one book on the Civil War...we would all read it...and that would be it. Not too exciting. The subject of "who freed the slaves" generally stirs up a lively debate - here's what two prominent scholars have to say about it. Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 11.33.15 AMColumbia University historian Barbara Fields insists that Lincoln’s dedication to freedom was superficial and never strayed from the confines of war necessity. Relying heavily on the oft-quoted words of Lincoln himself, Fields reminds readers that the president would have eagerly saved the Union “without freeing any slave.”

Fields attempts to show how Lincoln adopted a strictly limited policy of emancipation only as an attack on the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. A great many bondsmen, including those enslaved in loyal states or those residing in areas already occupied by United States forces, remained enslaved. Further, those laboring deep in the Confederacy, far from liberating Union lines, remained beyond the reach of the proclamation’s power. Fields admits that the Emancipation Proclamation was significant, but rather than illustrating a crucial development with roots in Republican ideology, she asserts that slaves provided the impetus for such a policy through self-emancipation. The slaves themselves forced the issue and convinced Republicans to attack the institution where it existed. “No human alive,” she comments, “could have held back the tide that swept toward freedom.”

Princeton University historian James McPherson answers this challenge by pointing out that LincolnScreen shot 2014-03-12 at 11.33.33 AM and the Republican Party were not only committed to thwarting the expansion of slavery into the territories, but also that containment was the “first vital step toward placing it in the course of ultimate extinction.” Well before the outbreak of war, McPherson illustrates, Lincoln made it abundantly clear that a man governing another man was despotism, that the relation of masters and slave was a violation of the principle of equality embedded in the founding documents, and that the slave system undermined the “principles of progress.” Although Lincoln knew he lacked the authority to tamper with slavery where it already existed, he hoped that when the Union became either “all one thing or all the other,” that slavery would have met its demise. McPherson adds a further cautionary note in answer to Fields’s assertion of an inevitable “sweeping tide.” Her conclusions depend on a Union victory – a victory hardly foreordained in 1861.

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