No, seriously, I don’t avoid things that disagree with me, but I tend to read a lot of historical non-fiction, so a simple retelling of the past is hard to dispute. Something I have read lately changed my views on an important historical issue, however: Abraham Lincoln, the Abolitionist.
The papers I was reading were assigned as part of a free, online history course in American Heritage, offered by Hillsdale College online.hillsdale.edu in Michigan. During the course of the readings, I studied Lincoln’s campaign speeches, inaugural addresses, and personal writings. I found that he was much more stridently abolitionist than I had previously believed. His wartime speeches and correspondence give the impression of a man who simply wants to preserve the Union, at whatever cost to all things but the most basic of American values. One of those values is freedom, which, of course, at that time, did not include complete freedom for much of anyone except white landowners. As late as 1865 (the war ended in April 1865), there were still many, many people in the North opposed to emancipation and abolition. Many Northern states still tolerated slavery, and many Northern officers were as vehemently opposed to the “rights” of “colored” people as in the South, just as parts of the South (most notably western Virginia and eastern Tennessee) remained staunchly Unionist throughout the war. Any discussion of Lincoln’s view of slavery inevitably includes the quote from a letter to abolitionist newspaperman Horace Greeley:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”But the quote in question does not reflect the predominance of Lincoln’s opinion on the issue. Rather, it reflects the practical expediency of a man sending young men to their deaths by the tens of thousands, and who desires only to end the bloodshed without presiding over the destruction of the nation he governs. Lincoln argues forcefully and persuasively for an end to slavery, while recognizing that his is not the only viewpoint. It was a new perspective on Lincoln’s slavery views that all of my wide reading on the subject had not brought to light.