The Mythologies of American Wars

by Dec 17, 2009Foreign Policy0 comments

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman repeats the myth: We had a civil war in America in the mid-19th century because we had a lot of people who believed bad things — namely that you could enslave people because of the color of their skin. The implication is that the war fought to free […]

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman repeats the myth:

We had a civil war in America in the mid-19th century because we had a lot of people who believed bad things — namely that you could enslave people because of the color of their skin.

The implication is that the war fought to free the slaves. This is simply not true. It is a myth. Here’s what Abraham Lincoln had to say about it in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere 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.

Lincoln also pointed out that the Constitution had a provision intended to have “fugitive slaves” forcibly returned to their slave masters and reiterated his duty to uphold every part of the Constitution. So why fight the war? Here was his reason:trans

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

Lincoln did not wage war on the South to free the slaves. He did so to maintain the Union. That was his singular purpose. Whether his argument that no State had the right to secede is correct or not is debatable, but what is really not debatable is that he did not wage the war to free the slaves.

It’s not that Lincoln agreed with slavery. He did not. He said:

I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself.

But neither is it that Lincoln believed blacks were equals and deserving of equal treatment and rights. On the contrary, as far as he was concerned, he would like to ship them all back off to Africa:

If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.

Lincoln also expressed his own racist views.

What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery, at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.

In fact, when he made these remarks, it was while vociferously reiterating his racist view against what he perceived as a political attack — the claim that he believed the negro was the white man’s equal:

Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any greater length; but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the instruction of slavery and the black race. This is the whole of it; and anything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horsechestnut to be a chestnut horse.

He continued:

I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere 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. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence,—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects,—certainly not in colour, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.

So what about the Emancipation Proclamation? Well, as the National Archives online observes, it “did not end slavery in the nation”. Moreover:

It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

The fact of the matter is the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. It was fought because Lincoln believed no member of the Union had the right to secede. The issue of slavery and the movement to free the slaves served only later as a rallying point around which to garner support for the ongoing war effort. As the Archives introduction to the document candidly observes:

From the first days of the Civil War, slaves had acted to secure their own liberty. The Emancipation Proclamation confirmed their insistence that the war for the Union must become a war for freedom. It added moral force to the Union cause and strengthened the Union both militarily and politically.

In other words, “emancipation” was not given to the slaves as a gift from a benevolent government fighting out of good will and concern for their well being — the story we were taught, or at least led to believe, in school. On the contrary, this part of the war, the war for freedom from slavery, was fought by blacks themselves, against the government of the North, and it was only through their perseverance and determination that a reluctant government acted in some small measure to lessen the amount of injustice perpetrated against them.

Returning to Friedman, why does he bring it up? Well, he’s reiterating a common theme in his writing. We act out of goodwill and benevolence (like the North fighting the South in the Civil War, or so according to his mythologized view of that conflict). They are either evil or immorally tolerant of evil in their midst:

So please tell me, how are we supposed to help build something decent and self-sustaining in Afghanistan and Pakistan when jihadists murder other Muslims by the dozens and no one really calls them out?

His view of the nature of the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan is even more mythologized than his view of the Civil War. He calls on Muslims to act in a manner that would suit their interests as well as the U.S.’s.

They aspire to, are able to and must be challenged to take responsibility for their world.

You won’t find him acknowledging the U.S. role in helping to create the conditions that fuel extremism and oppression. You won’t, for instance, find Friedman writing about how, historically, U.S. propping up of dictators (e.g. Saddam Hussein) served to deny Muslim peoples the very aspirations he here calls upon them to stand up for, as though Muslims in the Middle East need Thomas L. Friedman to tell them to stand up for their own dignity and self-respect.

I doubt very much, say, the Palestinian people, would take kindly to hearing Thomas L. Friedman preach at them about how they need to take the bull by the horns and shape their own destiny while he is silent about the actions of his own government while it financially, militarily, and diplomatically supports Israeli policies that deny the Palestinians the very aspirations he calls upon Muslims to embrace.

In the case of Afghanistan, he seems to be suffering no slight case of amnesia, apparently forgetting the U.S. role in backing the most radical extremists there in their jihad against the Soviet occupiers, with consequences for the country Friedman does everything to deny with strawmen arguments such as:

A corrosive mind-set has taken hold since 9/11. It says that Arabs and Muslims are only objects, never responsible for anything in their world, and we are the only subjects, responsible for everything that happens in their world.”

The killing of a million Afghans, for instance. The creation of three million refugees. The creation of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Friedman does have a valid point. Muslims are responsible for their own actions. But the larger point he so often, and so hypocritically, misses is that we in the West, and we as Americans, are also responsible for our own actions and the predictable consequences of those actions.

But Friedman is a firm believer in the state religion, clinging to that mythologized view of the U.S. as a nation that, sure, sometimes makes mistakes — but it always acts out of benevolence and goodwill towards other people of the world.

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

My writings empower readers with the knowledge they need to see through state propaganda intended to manufacture their consent for criminal government policies.

By recognizing when we are being lied to and why, we can fight effectively for liberty, peace, and justice, in order to create a better world for ourselves, our children, and future generations of humanity.

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