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"What Shall We Do with the Negro?"

"What Shall We Do with the Negro?": Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    "What Shall We Do with the Negro?"
    Book Description:

    Throughout the Civil War, newspaper headlines and stories repeatedly asked some variation of the question posed by the New York Times in 1862, "What shall we do with the negro?" The future status of African Americans was a pressing issue for those in both the North and in the South. Consulting a broad range of contemporary newspapers, magazines, books, army records, government documents, publications of citizens' organizations, letters, diaries, and other sources, Paul D. Escott examines the attitudes and actions of Northerners and Southerners regarding the future of African Americans after the end of slavery. "What Shall We Do with the Negro?" demonstrates how historians together with our larger national popular culture have wrenched the history of this period from its context in order to portray key figures as heroes or exemplars of national virtue.

    Escott gives especial critical attention to Abraham Lincoln. Since the civil rights movement, many popular books have treated Lincoln as an icon, a mythical leader with thoroughly modern views on all aspects of race. But, focusing on Lincoln's policies rather than attempting to divine Lincoln's intentions from his often ambiguous or cryptic statements, Escott reveals a president who placed a higher priority on reunion than on emancipation, who showed an enduring respect for states' rights, who assumed that the social status of African Americans would change very slowly in freedom, and who offered major incentives to white Southerners at the expense of the interests of blacks.Escott's approach reveals the depth of slavery's influence on society and the pervasiveness of assumptions of white supremacy. "What Shall We Do with the Negro?" serves as a corrective in offering a more realistic, more nuanced, and less celebratory approach to understanding this crucial period in American history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3046-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    In the tragic aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Americans began to reexamine basic assumptions about their nation’s foreign policy. Several decades ago the diplomat George F. Kennan undertook the same task and reached important conclusions. Kennan identified a persistent, unrealistic strain of thought in American diplomacy. Throughout the United States’ history as a world power, he wrote, Americans have been attracted to “professions of high moral and legal principle” as the basis of U.S. diplomatic practice. Kennan noted several ill effects of this attitude, among them a tendency to feel a “moral superiority” over other nations and the fact...

    (pp. 1-26)

    What was the Civil War about?

    This simple question has produced an unending debate in American culture. Because so many soldiers died in the war, because the war left deep scars in the body politic, and because human behavior is inherently complex, it is not surprising that individuals argue passionately about the answers even today. Beyond these reasons, however, lies an intensely complicating fact: the institution of slavery — America’s greatest civil wrong — was at the heart of the conflict. Abraham Lincoln reflected in his Second Inaugural Address that the slavery interest “was somehow the cause of the war.”¹...

  6. Part One Northern Developments

      (pp. 29-64)

      War is the preeminent agent of change, a potent force that alters institutions, beliefs, and social customs to create a new and unanticipated reality. The Civil War shook the bedrock of American institutions and beliefs, forcing both North and South to entertain ideas that had been unthinkable. Under the coercive force of events, leaders and ordinary citizens would resist the new and hang on to old ways of thinking, slowing but not stopping the current of change.

      In the North the universal conviction that slavery in the states was not to be disturbed came under question with surprising swiftness. Only...

      (pp. 65-93)

      The North had no plan to discover the capabilities and preferences of the freedmen. Neither policymakers nor the public foresaw that the war itself would create a gigantic proving ground from which abundant and highly relevant information would be available. But while Abraham Lincoln gave thought to colonization efforts in Chiriqui and Haiti, extensive free-labor experiments came into being in the Southern states. Reacting to the pressure of events, government officials in the occupied South learned a great deal about African Americans as farmers, soldiers, and people. A multitude of reports and observations generated the raw material for intelligent policymaking,...

      (pp. 94-118)

      While war was creating major changes in the South, 1863 proved to be a crucial year for policymaking in Washington. Military events continued to be of primary concern, but the progress of the war was not the only issue on people’s minds. President Lincoln was eager to begin the process of bringing rebellious Southerners back into the Union. In addition, that central and flawed question that troubled whites — “What shall we do with the negro?” — was forcing its way into public debate and into policy. Undeniably, the march of armies and the Emancipation Proclamation signaled a changed society...

      (pp. 119-142)

      The year 1864 was a presidential election year, and not surprisingly, politics tested the limits of policy. When policies and popularity are in conflict, the resulting collision reveals where a leader really stands. Such political dynamics buffeted Abraham Lincoln as he sought reelection. They tested his resolve on the crucial issues of the war, especially emancipation, and cast light on his priorities. To survive politically, he trimmed and modified his position on emancipation in a way that testified to the abiding strength of white racism.

      In the spring and summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln found himself in grave political danger....

    • Illustration gallery
      (pp. None)
  7. Part Two Southern Developments

      (pp. 145-170)

      Southern slaveholders gained wealth and power from human bondage, but the institution of slavery made their world complex. Living economically in a world of progress and profit, they were menaced ideologically by an Atlantic culture that increasingly condemned the foundation of their wealth. Loyal to a Revolutionary past that had managed to combine freedom and slavery, they encountered a changing present that steadily grew more hostile to that contradiction. In addition to this ceaseless and dangerous external criticism, internal doubts sometimes surfaced. Asserting that timeless truths supported slavery, slaveholders recalled that their region’s position on slavery had changed quite recently....

      (pp. 171-198)

      The Confederacy came into being as a slaveholders’ republic. Faced with the election of a “Black Republican” and alarmed by the strength of a party they deemed hostile to slavery, secessionists sprang into action and carried the day. Focusing on one state after another, these “fire-eaters” led the Lower South out of the Union and established a government designed to serve more reliably the peculiar interests of slaveholders. Under the new Confederate administration, they believed, state rights would be respected, the central government would be restricted, slaveholders would be secure, and slavery would be protected. The South’s institution of racial...

  8. Part Three Confluence

      (pp. 201-225)

      In the early weeks of 1865 a hunger for peace gripped both the North and the South. For different reasons the people of both sections reached out eagerly for any chance to bring the bloody war to an end. Many Southerners had reached a point of desperation. Dismayed by the losses they had already suffered, groaning under the burdens they were carrying, and pessimistic about their prospects, Confederates were naturally eager to see the fighting stop. The spirits of Northerners, on the other hand, were soaring. Victory now was in sight, but its appearance on the horizon only increased people’s...

      (pp. 226-246)

      With the assassination of President Lincoln and the surrender of the Confederate armies, the United States faced a new and uncertain future. The four-year convulsion of killing was over. An enormously destructive war had made some things clear and left other important issues unanswered. The Union would be preserved, for the South was defeated and had lost its bid for independence. In both North and South, most people also accepted the fact that slavery was coming to an end. Abraham Lincoln had adopted emancipation as a tool of conquest, and despite much hairsplitting and various conciliatory offers from the summer...

    (pp. 247-250)
  10. NOTES
    (pp. 251-276)
    (pp. 277-292)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 293-304)