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

by Paul D. Escott
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Award-winning historian Escott takes up the persistence of racism in 19th-century America by arguing that Abraham Lincoln especially has been miscast in American memory as an unduly enlightened thinker on matters of racial equality, when in fact he was conflicted at best and complicit too often in the common racial attitudes of his day. In his most assertive sections, Escott argues that, as President, Lincoln had an "overriding devotion to reunion," as well as doubts about changing American racial attitudes and fears of losing political support by endorsing more than emancipation, all of which led to a minimalist policy on race, rights, and proposed reconstruction. At the same time, Escott continues, the Confederacy paradoxically was forced by need to propose arming and freeing some slaves to win independence, preserve slavery, and ensure white men's rule. In sum, Escott insists that events rather than philosophy or principles directed, even dictated, much of American policy on slavery and freedom, and racism remained embedded in American life. A forceful, necessary corrective to much of the recent literature and highly recommended for university and large public libraries.
—Randall M. Miller

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780813930466
Publisher:
University of Virginia Press
Publication date:
03/03/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
328
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

"" 'What Shall We Do with the Negro?' is the work of a veteran scholar who knows the primary and secondary sources of the Civil War era. This book will make a mark in the crowded field of Lincoln scholarship."--Joseph P. Reidy, Howard University, author of From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South: Central Georgia, 1800-1880" --

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