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Myths of History, Part 4, Chickens come home

By Gerry Fischer

 On January 1st, 1863 the Preliminary Emancipation of the slaves became permanent, but only if the Union won the war, the Supreme Court ignored “stare decisis,” and if the border states did not block a constitutional amendment to free the, slaves. The question is, “how many slaves were there January 1st 1863, and how many were freed. There were less than 4,000,000 enslaved. No slaves were freed in the border states, or in what is now West Virginia and none in certain counties and parishes in Virginia, and Louisiana. The only slaves freed were those who escaped, or were in southern territory the Union occupied and only for the duration of that contended occupation. Perhaps 25,000 to 75,000 slaves were freed. The truth is no one knows for sure, but 10% is not a bad guess for how many were emancipated. The riskiness of this political decision meant all those freed could be re-enslaved after the war. Knowing this, Lincoln did the only thing he could. He began drafting the 13th amendment banishing slavery. He also had been sending slaves to Liberia as opportunities allowed, and continued that practice. His actions on behalf of the slaves were noble, and since he had only four months and a few days to live he used his time very well. We should always remember, Lincoln’s actions, political though they were, led to ratification of the 13th amendment and the freeing of the slaves. We should also remember he gambled, and promised some 4,000,000 enslaved people a freedom he knew might be impossible to deliver. Risky at best, fortuitously Lincoln’s gambit paid off, and in December of 1865 slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment, eight months after his death, and it was 1867 before the slave population found freedom. This is not taught in school, but I taught it to my students.

 In 1876, 11 years after Lincoln’s death, the Emancipation Memorial was set in Washington D. C., and was dedicated by Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglas, a runaway slave and abolitionist who escaped north and saved enough money to buy his freedom. In so doing he championed the abolitionist movement, became a celebrity and led its charge. The memorial was paid for by donations from former slaves led by a free woman of color, Charlotte Scott. Those contributing had no input into the design sculpted by Thomas Bell. The freedman in the statue was modeled after a man of color, Arthur Alexander.

Why then would Black Lives Matter and the Antifa people want to tear down this statue to honor Lincoln? Perhaps these folks no longer believe the myth that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation Freed the slaves, because it took over eleven months longer to ratify the 13th amendment, and then two additional years to make freedom a reality. The people who paid for the statue, at least a portion of them, had no apparent approval over the artists creation. Some, and likely Douglas himself, were discontented with the depiction of the freedman on his knees looking humbly up at Abe, Lincoln towering over him. Although I have been to Washington D.C. several times, I had not seen this statue. When I saw it televised, I truly felt it was demeaning. We tell our children stories and even teach them things in school that are historic fiction. Maybe, just maybe, if we taught what really happened and how Lincoln’s political adroitness allowed him to remove foreign interference, perhaps end the war, gain seats in congress, and buy time to make emancipation a reality, instead of creating this mythical being depicted as father Abraham, finding out the truth wouldn’t be so traumatic.

 Recently I was asked by a retired educator, “Did I really want to tell people what they don’t know?” My answer was, “Absolutely!” I believe a writer should be an educator and honest. Why teach a slanted half-truth, instead of extoll the fact Lincoln’s intellect and reasoning, coupled with an astute political action, devious and risky though it was, won emancipation?! The noble end, justified the means. Now, according to the D.C. Park Service there is evidence that Frederick Douglas didn’t approve of the statue because it lacked dignity for the enslaved.

 I agree with Douglas’s assessment. Maybe the chickens are coming home to roost, because we’ve not been teaching “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” I hate gilding a lily.