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A Truly Extraordinary Book

The compelling thing about A People's History of the United States is the way it challenges your assumptions and makes you re-think what you had previously taken to be fact. The passages on Lincoln, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation illustrate this quite vividly. Note the following positions taken by Zinn, all of which would have been considered heresy in my public-school American History classes.

Lincoln Was Not an Abolitionist, Nor Did He Believe in Racial Equality
Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician, indulging in what today would be condemned as pandering. During his 1858 campaign for the Senate, he said the following in Chicago:

"Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior...let us...unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal."

But just two months later, speaking in considerably more pro-slavery southern Illinois:

"I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races...I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Thus he clearly tailored his message to whatever would be the most well-received by his audience. His position on slavery was unequivocally stated in his first Inaugural Address, in March 1861:

"I have no purpose...to inferfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

...It was only after the war grew more bitter, the casualties mounted, desperation to win heightened, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered coaltion behind Lincoln that he began to act against slavery. (Richard) Hofstadter puts it this way: "Like a delicate barometer, he recorded the trend of pressures, and as the Radical pressure increased he moved toward the left." Wendell Phillips (a prominent black abolitionist) said that if Lincoln was able to grow "it was because we have watered him."

More on Lincoln from Wendell Phillips:

"Not an abolitionist, hardly an antislavery man, Mr. Lincoln consents to represent an antislavery idea. A pawn on the political chessboard, his value is in his position; with fair effort, we may soon change him for knight, bishop or queen, and sweep the board."

The Civil War Was Not Fought To End Slavery
Congress passed a resolution in mid-1861 which stated the following:

"...this war in not waged...for any purpose of...overthrowing or interfering with the rights of established institutions of those states, but...to preserve the Union."

Read "established institutions" as "slavery." The following year, Lincoln reinforced Congress' resolution in a reply to a critical letter from newspaper editor Horace Greeley:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it...What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union."

The Emancipation Proclamation Was Not a Call for the Absolute Abolishment of Slavery
This is perhaps Zinn's most devastating revelation:

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union (which it listed very carefully), and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines...The London Spectator wrote concisely: "The principle is not that a human being cannot justly own another, but that he cannot own him unless he is loyal to the United States."

In other words, any Confederate state which submitted to the Union could continue practicing slavery. Business as usual, as it had been in the South for centuries.

The implications of Zinn's book, while always thought-provoking, often becoming overwhelming in impact. Thus I've decided to not read it cover-to-cover. Instead, I'll finish the section on the Civil War and return it to the library, and resume reading at some later date. But when I do resume reading, it will be with a copy that I personally own. This magnificent book unquestionably deserves a permanent place on my bookshelf, as well as that of everyone else who cares about this country and how we got to where we are today.

February 26, 2004 in Books | Permalink


Lincoln's story goes to show the power of getting in good with the press, so to speak. I'm also certain that Lincoln's election sparked the Civil War, if only because the whole South thought he was anti-slavery. Or something like that.

Posted by: tim at Feb 26, 2004 2:43:29 PM

That gives you a lot to chew on...

Posted by: Cole at Feb 26, 2004 5:26:34 PM

It's one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. Definitely a keeper.

Posted by: Pete at Feb 27, 2004 8:46:07 AM