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Sunday, September 15, 2013
While there is much I disagree with in John L. Cahoon’s commentary (“Committed to too many causes,” Sept. 3), I feel the need to question his interpretation of slavery, emancipation and the Civil War.
According to Cahoon, many Americans, including “reasonable Southerners,” admitted that slavery was morally wrong. Afraid that newly freed slaves might exact vengeance against their former masters, these “reasonable” men proposed gradual, rather than immediate, emancipation.
In contrast, Cahoon argues, “arrogant New England abolitionists” rejected such notions out of hand, and were consumed by “their condescending hatred of the South.” They and John Brown drove “men of reason” away from any discussion of emancipation. In the end, Southerners could not abide staying in a “Northern-inspired environment of hatred,” and took to the battlefield to forestall a “feared abolitionist-inspired slave uprising.”
In Cahoon’s interpretation, abolitionists caused the Civil War. Had they been more reasonable, they would have worked with Southerners toward gradual emancipation. Instead, abolitionists tried to foment rebellion and drove a fearful South into a reluctant secession.
Although I am no expert on abolitionists, I believe that their burning hatred was directed not at Southerners, but at slavery. If abolitionists had no desire to talk about gradual emancipation, it was because they believed slaves deserved to be free — not in 10 years, not after a period of indentured servitude, but immediately.
Should we, as Cahoon seems to suggest, exalt “responsible Southerners” and “Virginians of good will” who proposed gradual emancipation — that is, those who proposed to keep men, women and children in chains, to whip and rape them, to tear families asunder, until masters finally decided that slaves were ready for freedom?
Is it “arrogant” to demand that people held in bondage be freed without restriction, without delay?
In his list of fire-breathing abolitionists, Cahoon curiously omits men and women like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. These and many others who had lived under the lash passionately demanded that their brothers and sisters be free. Were they unreasonable and arrogant to fight for an immediate end to slavery?
Whether or not the Civil War could have been prevented through the adoption of gradual emancipation is, perhaps, a legitimate historical question. It is quite another matter to condemn those who passionately opposed slavery and to praise those who wished to extend slavery’s existence.
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