Blogs > Jim Loewen > "The Other Civil War": Howard Zinn, Abraham Lincoln, Lerone Bennett, Stephen Spielberg, and Me

Dec 29, 2012 8:25 pm

"The Other Civil War": Howard Zinn, Abraham Lincoln, Lerone Bennett, Stephen Spielberg, and Me



Two years ago Michael Signorelli, an editor at Harper/Collins, asked me to write an introduction to a little book that Harper/Collins was spinning off from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It would include chapters 9, on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and 10, "The Other Civil War," about the class warfare of the late nineteenth century. A marketing ploy to tie in with the sesquicentennial, it would carry "The Other Civil War" as its title. I had just written the introductions to the documents in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, so I had been thinking about the issues Zinn addresses. Besides, my name alone would convince some bookstore browsers to buy the little volume, Signorelli said.

No stranger to marketing ploys and always susceptible to flattery, I agreed to write the introduction. I warned Signorelli, however, that I was not a Zinn partisan; my introduction would probably include some negatives as well as positives. The editor assured me that would pose no problem. I set to work.

"I'm delighted that HarperCollins asked me to preface a stand-alone book on the Civil War extracted from Howard Zinn's massive bestseller, A People's History of the United States," I began. "Personally I'm pleased, because Zinn's blurb for Lies My Teacher Told Me helped it become a bestseller, and Dr. Zinn was generous in his praise of my later works too."

I went on to praise Zinn's larger work for "the effect that People's History has had on legions of readers." I told how, after my talks lamenting how badly history is taught in most high schools, an audience member often came up afterward to tell me that their history teacher was different. "She assigned us People's History as well as the regular textbook, and her course was interesting." I also noted that The Other Civil War supplies "a stellar introduction to the difficult topic of slavery."

The Other Civil War says almost nothing about secession, however, so I filled that gap, also a problem in most mainline textbooks. I noted that Americans give four answers when asked today why the South left the Union:

(1) slavery

(2) states' rights

(3) the election of Lincoln

(4) tariffs and taxes.

Invited to vote, more than half then choose states' rights. Another 10 percent to 20 percent select tariffs and taxes. Unfortunately, both of those answers are dramatically wrong. As the secession statements collected in The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader show, Confederates were against states' rights. They seceded for slavery, not states' rights. Nor did they complain about tariffs. Why would they? The South had helped write the tariff under which the U.S. was functioning.

I went on to explain why I had spent so much time on the matter:

"I supply the foregoing because in an unfortunate sentence, Zinn writes, 'The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution -- most Northerners did not care enough about slavery to make war over it. He is right that the North did not make war to end slavery but to hold the nation together. Most white Southerners, on the other hand, were outraged at abolitionists' moral attacks on slavery. They indeed cared enough about the institution -- and its allied ideology of white supremacy -- to secede, knowing that war would likely result....”

Thus, from the South's point of view, secession and ensuing war were about slavery.

Signorelli asked me to tone down some of my language criticizing Zinn. I pointed out that what I wrote would hardly affect sales, because few bookstore browsers would get into the interior of the preface before deciding whether to buy the book. Signorelli said he was fearful of the reaction my introduction might draw from Zinn's heirs. I listened to his specific complaints and softened my language somewhat. For example, he wanted "unfortunate sentence" removed from the foregoing paragraph. I acquiesced. Now it just reads, "Zinn writes, 'The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution...."

I went on to critique Zinn's analysis of emancipation as inadequate. Zinn claimed slavery ended "only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North." I noted that conspiratorial thinking marred his treatment of emancipation from the beginning. Zinn implied that a cabal within the Northern upper class directed emancipation and later clamped limits on the extent of black freedom. In reality, the events of 1860-65 spiraled out of the control of any elite. Besides, the elite was split. Many Northern business and banking men had ties to slaveowners and were Democrats, even Copperheads, during the war. They hardly directed Republican policy.

With a few changes to which I agreed, HarperCollins published my introduction intact to this point, and I believe it helps readers to question Zinn's interpretation. I also gave Howard Zinn credit for going beyond the textbooks to quote a critical sentence of Abraham Lincoln's letter of August 22, 1862, to Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. As Lies My Teacher Told Me notes, this letter is textbook authors' favorite Lincoln quotation, used by fifteen of the eighteen textbooks I surveyed. But they excerpt only these two sentences:

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.

Thus textbooks present a Lincoln unconcerned about slavery, concerned only to save the nation. Zinn gives readers what Lincoln wrote next:

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere could be free.

So far, so good.

"Nevertheless, Zinn derides Lincoln's views on slavery," I went on to note. "He points to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Proclamation but fails to note that even with its limitations, it was too radical for most Northern voters and cost the Republicans dearly in the November, 1862, election. He needs to show that if Lincoln got too far ahead of the electorate, he would cease to have followers."

The foregoing was too much for HarperCollins. Instead of publishing what I wrote, they wrote and published this:

"What's more, Zinn questions Lincoln's views on slavery, He points to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Proclamation and notes that even with its limitations, it was too radical for most Northern voters and cost the Republicans dearly in the November, 1862, election. Lincoln always understood that if he got too far ahead of the electorate, he would cease to have followers."

The changes are subtle but substantive. "What's more" puts me on Zinn's side when he questioned Lincoln. I was not. I did not claim that Zinn had noted "that even with its limitations, it was too radical for most Northern voters and cost the Republicans dearly in the November, 1862, election." Zinn never said anything of the sort; I had claimed that he should have. Zinn never credited Lincoln for understanding that he could not get too far ahead of his followers; again, he should have. He might have quoted Lincoln's reply to Charles Sumner in the fall of 1861, when the senator from Massachusetts tried to get him to end slavery then: "It would do no good to go ahead any faster than the country would follow." But he didn't.

Around the same time that I was writing my introduction for HarperCollins, I also wrote a new introduction to the Chinese edition of my bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me. As I did with HarperCollins, I agreed to write the new piece but informed the editor that he might not like the result. They agreed either to publish it as I wrote it or not to publish it at all. As with HarperCollins, the Chinese publisher asked me to soften some language. As with HarperCollins, I was persuaded to make some changes. Even so, however, my preface was too much for them, and the Chinese firm decided not to publish it, leaving me free to publish it elsewhere. They chickened out, but at least they maintained their honor.

I am outraged that HarperCollins would change my words and publish the result without my approval. In so doing, HarperCollins maintained neither their honor nor my own. I am now on record, in print -- and in hard copy, not an ever-changing on-line edition -- praising Howard Zinn for something he did not write. Any reader can skim the next few pages of The Other Civil War and see that I am either a fool who misreads Zinn or a knave who misrepresents him. HarperCollins has damaged my reputation as a scholar -- even as a competent reader. In fact, the fault was HarperCollins's, and they are either fools or knaves. Signorelli claims the former: the rewrite happened somehow by accident. I suspect the latter: the changed words happened somehow to be in their interest.

Unlike what "my" introduction says, Zinn cuts Lincoln no slack. He even blames him for going to war: "Lincoln initiated hostilities by trying to repossess the federal base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina," which would have been news to Jefferson Davis, who in fact initiated hostilities by firing on Sumter, which federal forces had never vacated. About slavery, Zinn goes on, only U.S. desperation prompted Lincoln to act.

Zinn's take on Lincoln parallels Lerone Bennett's in Forced Into Greatness. Indeed, Bennett may have influenced Zinn. People's History debuted in 1979. In 1968 Bennett wrote the seminal Ebony article, "Was Abraham Lincoln a White Supremacist?" that grew later into Forced Into Greatness. Back during the Black Power movement, many African Americans insisted that Lincoln was no friend of theirs, indeed, that no white folks were friends of theirs. In 1971, Muhammed Kenyatta, later to win some fame during a trip to Hanoi, thundered at a Black Power rally at Tougaloo College, "They are your enemies. Not one white person has ever had the best interests of black people at heart." (John Brown sprang to my mind, but Kenyatta anticipated my objection: "You might say John Brown did, but remember, he was crazy." I have written about Brown elsewhere.)

Today three different schools of thought attack Lincoln for not giving a damn about slavery: left-wingers like Zinn, militant African Americans like Bennett, and neo-Confederates like Thomas DiLorenzo. Given this lineup, it's refreshing to see a movie like Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln, which shows the president genuinely concerned to end bondage, as indeed he was.

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Copyright James Loewen




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