"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" (Lincoln 1992). These are the words with which Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) chose to open his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863. He directed his audience's attention to the creation of not only a new nation, but a new idea: that a government could truly be "of the people, by the people, and for the people," with all men holding a stake and possessing a voice regardless of property or standing. The birth pangs of that new nation included a long and grueling revolution, followed by a period of what might be called identity formulation. The new government, experiment that it was, developed hand-in-hand with a new people, as its citizens made the transition from Englishmen to Americans and sought a firmer grasp of just what that meant, politically and culturally. This formulation was first spurred from without, as Americans struggled physically against the British—a conflict which still echoed a generation later, in the War of 1812.
As the new nation was not only established but began to stretch its borders, however, other questions arose. They were not new questions, necessarily, many of them having been asked since the American Revolution (1776–1783), but they took on a new life—the necessities of warfare and the formation of a political system had required that their answers be postponed. They could not be postponed indefinitely, however, for they were intrinsically bound into the fabric of the new nation. What was this nation, ultimately; what was liberty, and who was entitled to it? By the 1820s some were asking if the inalienable rights Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) had written of might not be possessed by women, or by Native Americans. The most problematic factor in the discussion of liberty in America, though, was the most obvious, for it was a glaring contradiction in a nation claiming freedom as its heritage: slavery.
What was to be done about this paradox? Efforts to spin bondage into paternalistic kindness were increasingly unsatisfactory, especially once debates about the institution's expansion—and protocol concerning runaway slaves—took center stage in national politics. The Fugitive Slave Act, in particular, brought the realities of slavery home to many whites living in free states, making them legally complicit in the enslavement of other human beings whether they wanted to be or not. Many came to agree with the sentiments that Lincoln expressed in a letter in 1864: "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel" (1992). Many also saw the truth in Lincoln's words in Springfield, Illinois, on June 16, 1858, during his unsuccessful senate campaign: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other" (1992).
By the mid-nineteenth century, everyone knew that slavery was not a question but a critical problem, a problem whose solution would define the nation that their great grandparents' generation had founded—but no one really knew what that solution was. Return to Africa proved ineffective (not to mention undesirable for many African Americans who were generations removed from that continent), and territorial restrictions on slavery led to regional friction. Slave owners, whose citizenship, after all, was uncontested, could claim that such restrictions on their property challenged their constitutional rights. The final outcome—a horribly destructive war—was never exactly inevitable, but neither did it come as a surprise. It was the worst nightmare of some citizens, a final option that some had hoped and prayed to avert (and which others clamored for)—but not a surprise. The greater part of the nineteenth century would revolve around questions of American liberty; it could not remain undefined, and the institution of slavery could not be ignored any longer.
It should not be assumed that the Union army, as of 1861, was a massive abolitionist force setting forth with the express intent of emancipating the slaves. Many Union soldiers held prejudiced views about blacks, and some of those from the border states were slave owners themselves. By Lincoln's second inauguration, however, he was able to sum up the reason for the conflict: "One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war" (1992).
As the Union army advanced into Confederate territory, the question of slavery became unavoidable. Although the Yankees' intention may not have universally been the emancipation of slaves, many Confederates believed that it was, and their rhetoric in the buildup to war reflected that belief. Slaves were not stone gargoyles; they heard the expression of their masters' fears and took it to heart. Many of them believed that the arrival of the Union army would mean freedom—and a large number of slaves took the initiative, running to Union lines. Both sides claimed to be fighting in the name of the Constitution; would Union forces, then, acknowledge existing laws and return escaped slaves to their Confederate masters? This problem was temporarily solved by treating liberated slaves as contraband, enemy property justly confiscated and not liable to return. That, however, did not concretely identify these slaves' status. This was done in 1863 with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in disloyal states and made allowances for their military service. Blacks serving in the U.S. military was not a new concept; many served with distinction in the American Revolution particularly, as well as other conflicts. This time, however, they were fighting not just for their own individual freedom, but also for the freedom of family, friends, and fellow African Americans in general. Their service, and the service of those Union soldiers who fought beside them by the end of the war, made this conflict more a war for liberty, in many ways, than the War of Independence had been those four score and seven years earlier.
Burton, Orville Vernon. The Age of Lincoln. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
Lincoln, Abraham. Selected Speeches and Writings. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Litwack, Leon. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage, 1980.
McPherson, James. Marching toward Freedom: The Negro in the Civil War, 1861–1865. New York: Knopf, 1967.
McPherson, James. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Troy D. Smith