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Tracing President Lincoln's Thoughts On Slavery
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Although one of the things Abraham Lincoln is celebrated for is the
Emancipation Proclamation he issued in 1863, he didn't always believe
that all slaves should be freed or that they should be granted
citizenship after they were freed.
There was a period when he found it impossible to envision a biracial
society, and he thought that former slaves should leave America and
return to Africa.
The evolution of Lincoln's ideas about slavery is the subject of the
book "The Fiery Trial" by Eric Foner. This month, he won this year's
Lincoln Prize for the book. Foner will receive the prize in May.
Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and has
written many books about the Civil War period. He's past president of
the American Historical Association and the Society of American
On this Presidents Day, we're going to feature the interview I recorded
with Foner last October, after the publication of his book "The Fiery
Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
Eric Foner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did Lincoln always see slavery as
Professor ERIC FONER (Columbia University): Lincoln said during the
Civil War that he had always seen slavery as unjust. He said he couldn't
remember when he didn't think that way, and there's no reason to doubt
the accuracy or sincerity of that statement.
And even early in his political career, when he was in the Illinois
legislature, he went out on a political limb considerably to issue a
statement saying that slavery was unjust.
The problem arises when - with the next question: What do you do about
slavery, given that it's unjust? And Lincoln, like many, many other
Americans, took a long time to really try to figure â to figure out
exactly what steps ought to be taken given that you thought it was
GROSS: I want you to read a statement that he made in the speech in
Peoria in 1854. And just, like, let's start with the significance of
Prof. FONER: Well, 1854 is when his great rival, Stephen A. Douglas,
forces through Congress the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which opens up a
considerable portion of the Trans-Mississippi West to the possible
expansion of slavery.
And Lincoln, like many other Northerners, is quite outraged by this, and
he comes back into public prominence as a leading spokesman against the
westward expansion of slavery.
In doing so, he talks about the evil of slavery in and of itself, not
just its westward expansion but why he considers slavery fundamentally
GROSS: There's a paragraph in which he describes that, in which he lays
that out, that I'd like you to read.
Prof. FONER: Right. He - this is Lincoln's words at Peoria, referring to
Douglas's willingness to see slavery spread into the West. Lincoln says:
This declared indifference, but as I must think covert, real zeal, for
the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the
monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our
Republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the
enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as
hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity
and especially because it forces so many really good men among ourselves
into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty,
criticizing the Declaration of Independence and insisting that there is
no right principle of action but self-interest.
You know, that little paragraph somehow condenses so much of Lincoln's
thinking about slavery. Slavery is a monstrous injustice. You know,
that's the language of abolitionists, not of politicians. It's a very
extreme statement against the institution.
But then he goes on to other, you might say, more practical issues. It
makes the United States look ridiculous in the world. We claim, ever
since the American Revolution, to be the exemplar of freedom and justice
in the world, and yet we have this giant slave system, and it enables
the enemies of democracy to say, well, these Americans are just
hypocrites. They don't really believe in their own founding principles.
GROSS: So hearing this, you might think, well, so Lincoln wanted to
abolish slavery. But he wasn't, as you pointed out, he wasn't then an
abolitionist. And in another paragraph from the same speech, he says
some things that I think will surprise many Americans, surprised me.
Prof. FONER: Right, well, he goes on to say, well, okay, slavery is
wrong. What should we do about it? And here he candidly admits that he
doesn't have the answer to that question: If all the earthly power were
given to me...
GROSS: You're going to read another excerpt from the speech here?
Prof. FONER: Yeah, right. This is from the Peoria speech again. By the
way, the Peoria speech is the longest speech Lincoln ever gave. Many of
his speeches, like the Gettysburg Address, are models of succinctness. I
think the Gettysburg Address took two minutes. The Peoria speech took a
couple of hours. And Lincoln is kind of thinking through his own
position on slavery here. And this is what he said: 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. But a moment's reflection
would convince me that whatever of high hope, as I think there is, there
may be in this, in the long run its sudden execution is impossible.
What then - free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it
quite certain that this betters their condition? 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. It does seem to me that systems of gradual
emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will
not undertake to judge our brethrens of the South.
Again, here are some remarkable comments by Lincoln, which really
epitomize his views until into the Civil War. Slavery ought to be
abolished, but he doesn't really know how to do it. He's not an
abolitionist who criticizes Southerners. He says: I'm not going to judge
these Southerners for not taking action.
His first impulse, he said, is to free them and send them back to
Liberia. At this point, Lincoln does not really see black people as an
intrinsic part of American society. They are a kind of an alien group
who have been uprooted from their own society and unjustly brought
across the ocean. Send them back to Africa, he says. And this was not an
unusual position at that time.
GROSS: Yeah, let me stop you here. We'll get more into this idea of
colonization a little bit later. Now, you mentioned that Stephen
Douglas, who was Lincoln's adversary, interpreted the Declaration of
Independence as applying to white people. Even though it didn't
explicitly say that, that's what the Founding Fathers meant. That's what
But I'm wondering how Lincoln interpreted the Declaration of
Independence when it said all men are created equal. Did he think it
meant all white men?
Prof. FONER: No, Lincoln always insisted that that phrase meant
everybody. The question is: What does it mean when you say they're
And during the great Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas constantly is
badgering Lincoln, saying Lincoln is a believer in Negro equality. That
was like the nuclear weapon of politics back then.
And Lincoln had to deny it, and he did deny it. The statements that most
disturb Lincoln's admirers come out of the Lincoln-Douglas debates,
where he explicitly denies believing in blacks having the right to vote,
right to serve on juries, right to intermarriage with white people.
Well, what then did equality mean? Lincoln says - he's very specific
about it - equality means the right to improve your condition in life,
as he had, of course, growing up from very modest circumstances.
Black people, he always insists, should have the right to the fruits of
their labor, the right to improve their condition in society. That's why
slavery is wrong, and on that ground, he said, they are equal to
But these other rights, political rights, civil rights, are conventional
rights, which the majority of society, you know, has a right to
regulate. So women, for example, do not have the right to vote, but that
doesn't mean they should be slaves.
Now, so Lincoln makes that distinction. To us it sounds like an
untenable distinction, really. How can you improve your condition in
life if you lack all legal rights, as blacks in Illinois basically did?
And Lincoln had not yet thought that through. It's not until well into
the Civil War that Lincoln really begins thinking seriously about the
future role of black people in American society.
But on this question of black equality, he's walking a tightrope between
his belief in a basic equality of all people and on the other hand his
unwillingness to challenge the racist views of his state, which was a
deeply racist state, Illinois, at that time.
You know, it was illegal for black people to enter the state of Illinois
in the 1850s. The white population of Illinois did not want any blacks
around, slave or free.
GROSS: Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was a supporter of
colonization. Why don't you explain the concept of colonization for
Prof. FONER: Colonization was the belief that former slaves should
become free. It's an anti-slavery position. It's a way of abolishing
slavery. Slaves should be freed and, depending on who you are, either
encouraged or required to leave the United States. They should be sent
to Africa, to Central America, to Haiti.
Lincoln did not believe in involuntary deportation, but he certainly
advocated policies which envisioned the large majority of the black
population leaving for some other place. And from about 1852, when he
first publicly advocated this, until the Emancipation Proclamation over
10 years later, Lincoln consistently made clear his belief in this
Colonization, you might say, was a way of envisioning the end of slavery
without confronting the question of America as a biracial society. In
other words, you would eliminate the black population, and therefore you
didn't have to think about what their status would be once slavery
And Lincoln's two great political heroes, Henry Clay and Thomas
Jefferson, were strong advocates of colonization. Clay and Jefferson
were both anti-slavery slave owners. They owned slaves, they hated
slavery, they came up with this scheme, which doesn't seem very
realistic to us, obviously, that slavery could be gradually abolished
with the colonization of the freed slaves. And Lincoln adopts that
policy as the 1850s goes on.
GROSS: So with colonization, was the idea that African-Americans in the
North, who weren't slaves, would also be expected to leave for Liberia
or South America or the Caribbean?
Prof. FONER: Well, yes. In the hands of many people, and Lincoln urged
free black people to leave also, absolutely. Lincoln was a member of the
Illinois Colonization Society. In fact, he was on its board of managers.
And that urged black people in Illinois, who were free people, to go to
Liberia in the 1850s.
Now, what's interesting about Lincoln's colonization - and I am not
trying to defend this. As I say, it's basically just a way of escaping
the whole question of race and race relations - is that some
colonizationists, like Henry Clary, refer - said the reason blacks
should leave is they're a dangerous group, they're criminally inclined,
or they're just not up to being citizens in the United States.
Lincoln never referred to them that way. Lincoln said the reason they
should leave is white people are so racist that blacks will never be
accorded equality in this country. They are entitled to these natural
rights of mankind, but they should go somewhere where they can actually
So Lincoln did not use colonization in order to, you know, denounce
black people, to say they were somehow less capable than white people.
His belief in colonization, at least publicly, stemmed from this idea
that you could not have racial equality in the United States.
This is not to excuse his belief in colonization. And, of course, the
problem was most black people did not want to leave the United States.
They thought of themselves as Americans, and their demand was for equal
rights here in the land of their birth. So that was the, you know, the
obstacle against which all plans of colonization eventually came up.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner, and
we're talking about his new book, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and
American Slavery." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about Abraham Lincoln and his views of slavery in
America and how those views evolved before he signed the Emancipation
Proclamation. My guest is historian Eric Foner. His new book about this
is called "The Fiery Trial."
We talked a little bit about how Abraham Lincoln, before signing the
Emancipation, believed in colonization, that all African-Americans in
the United States, including freed slaves, should be sent to Africa or
South America or the Caribbean because whites in America weren't ready
to accept African-Americans as equals.
Lincoln also believed in gradual emancipation. What was his idea of
gradual emancipation? And this was, again, before he signed the
Prof. FONER: Well, you know, gradual emancipation was the way
emancipation generally happened in the 19th century. That's how it had
been abolished in the Northern states, very gradually, over decades.
You know, in New York state the law for emancipation was passed I think
in 1799, and slavery didn't really totally end until 1827. That's almost
30 years of emancipation.
In many Latin American countries, after the wars for independence there,
these gradual emancipation laws were passed. In other words, the
immediate emancipation of large numbers of slaves was seen by many
people as something that would be so disruptive to society and the
economy that it would be very dangerous and counterproductive.
So before the Emancipation Proclamation, that was also Lincoln's idea,
that gradual emancipation meant that basically the children of slaves
would become free after a certain date, maybe 20 years in the future or
something like that.
Now, the thing we have to remember about emancipation, you know, we
think of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but before
that, there was no way to emancipate the slaves of the United States
without the consent of slave owners.
Slavery was protected by the Constitution. It was protected by state
law. The federal government couldn't just say okay, the slaves are
freed. To get the consent of slave owners, people like Lincoln thought
you had to A) do it gradually, B) pay them compensation, monetary
GROSS: Pay the slave owners.
Prof. FONER: To the owner, not the slave, the owner for the loss of his
property right in his slaves. The British had done that when they
abolished slavery in the West Indies. And colonization is also part of
that. In other words, you assure these slave owners that they won't have
a large free black population around, which most of them didn't want to
So that's Lincoln's position, and it's Henry Clay's position, and it's
the position of many people up to the Emancipation Proclamation. What's
interesting about the Emancipation Proclamation is it completely
repudiates all of those previous ideas. It's a new departure for
It's immediate, not gradual. There is no mention of compensation. The
slave owners are not going to get any money anymore. And there is
nothing in it about colonization. After the Emancipation Proclamation,
Lincoln says nothing publicly anymore about colonization.
He does think, well, yeah, if people want to leave voluntarily, that's
up to them, and maybe as a kind of safety valve, yeah, let them go
somewhere. But it's no longer a government policy that he is promoting.
So the Emancipation Proclamation represents a complete reversal of
Lincoln's previous views about how to get rid of slavery.
GROSS: So what led to that reversal in his ideas about how to get rid of
Prof. FONER: Well, that's what my whole book is about. Many, many
things. Many, many things. I think the failure of his previous plan. You
know, the problem was he presented his previous plan to the border slave
states, the four slave states that remained in the Union: Kentucky,
Missouri, Delaware and Maryland. And they said no, absolutely not.
For two years he tried to get them to adopt this gradual plan, and they
said no, Lincoln, you don't understand. We don't want to get rid of
slavery. We want to keep our slaves. So we're not interested in any plan
that envisions the end of slavery.
Moreover, black people, as I said, by and large did not want to leave
the country. So in other words, this plan - the people who were to be
involved in this plan, both slave owners and slaves, said no, we don't
like this idea of Lincoln's.
Second of all, slavery was already disintegrating in the South. No
matter what Lincoln said, as soon as the Union Army went into the South,
slaves began running away from plantations to Union lines. And this
forced the question of slavery onto the national agenda.
Almost from the very beginning of the Civil War, the federal government
had to start making policy, and quickly they said: Well, we're going to
treat these people as free. We're not going to send them back into the
slave-holding regions. So a policy is sort of getting out of control
because of events.
And finally, very important, as the war goes on, Lincoln begins to
realize that they need more and more manpower. And one of the things
about the Emancipation Proclamation is it opens the Army to the
enlistment of black men for the first time, really.
And by the end of the Civil War, 200,000 black men have served in the
Union Army and Navy. And envisioning blacks as soldiers fighting for the
Union is a very, very different vision of their future role in American
society than saying, well, you should leave the country.
And it's the black soldiers and their role which I think really begins
as the stimulus to Lincoln's change in racial attitudes and in attitudes
towards America as an interracial society in the last two years of his
GROSS: Because they fought so well...
Prof. FONER: They fight for the nation. In other words...
GROSS: They did such a good job, yeah...
Prof. FONER: Yeah, fighting for the nation gives you a stake in
citizenship. Lincoln comes to believe that, as many, many Northerners
do. The role of black soldiers is critical in changing attitudes about
what their status is going to be after the war is over.
GROSS: So are you saying that there was a kind of like ulterior motive,
in a way, to the emancipation, to be enabled to enlist African-Americans
in the Union Army?
Prof. FONER: Well, that's part of it. Lincoln always says, you know, why
should they enlist unless we give them the promise of freedom? You know,
and then later on, when people are urging Lincoln to rescind the
proclamation, Lincoln says: How can I do that? We have promised these
men in the Army freedom. How can we go back on that now that they have
risked their lives and fought and died for the Union?
So it's not exactly an ulterior motive. It's a motive. It's pretty
straightforward. It's not ulterior at all. The Emancipation Proclamation
was a recognition that the previous way of fighting the war had failed,
the previous policy on dealing with slavery had failed, and if there's
one element of greatness in Lincoln, it's this willingness to change,
this ability to grow, this not being, you know, wedded to a policy once
it is proven to have failed.
And Lincoln has this tremendous open-mindedness, this willingness to
listen to criticism, and this, you know, ability to change his course
when he sees that the old policy is just not working.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Eric Foner in the second
half of the show. His book, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and
American Slavery," was awarded the Lincoln Prize this month. We recorded
the interview last October, when the book was published. Foner is a
professor of history at Columbia University. I'm Terry Gross and this is
(Soundbite of music)
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with more of our interview with
Eric Foner, author of the book "The Fiery Trial," which is about the
evolution of Abraham Lincolnâs ideas about slavery and how he came to
issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in 1863 during the
Civil War. Foner is a professor of history at Columbia University and
the author of many books about the Civil War and the period of
Were there constitutional questions that were raised by Lincolnâs
opponents about freeing the slaves? Wasnât the Constitution seen as
Prof. FONER: Well, slavery is in the Constitution. The word slavery is
not there until the 13th Amendment, which abolishes it. But it certainly
- I mean the fugitive slave clause says slaves have to be sent back if
they escape, the three-fifths clause gives the South added
representation for part of its slave population. There's no question
that as a state institution, slavery is protected by the Constitution.
And so what gives Lincoln the authority to issue this order freeing most
- not every single one - but most of the slaves in the South and, of
course, it is issued as a military order. Lincoln issues it as
commander-in-chief, in other words, it's to promote the military success
of the Union Army. And Lincoln says that is what gives me the authority
to take military measures and emancipating the slaves is a military
measure to undermine the ability of the Confederacy to fight this war.
There were those, including Lincoln himself, at some points, who say
that maybe the Supreme Court might even overturn this in the future. In
fact, that's why eventually they abolished slavery through the 13th
Amendment, a Constitutional amendment which is, you know, beyond
reproach as a way of getting rid of the institution of slavery. But in
the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln's position is, I have the ability,
as commander and chief of the armies, to take any step that is necessary
to ensure military victory, and this is one of them.
GROSS: A lot of people think that President Lincoln freed all the slaves
in the United States with the stroke of a pen - all the slaves in the
United States and the Confederacy with a stroke of a pen. But you say it
really wasnât quite that way, that it didnât free all the slaves.
Prof. FONER: No, hardly. Lincoln hardly freed all the slaves. It didnât
apply to the border states, and it didnât...
GROSS: Why not?
Prof. FONER: Because they were still in the Union. In other words, this
is a military measure aimed at winning the war. The border states are
not at war with the United States, right? They are members of the Union,
so therefore, they still preserve the constitutional protections of
slavery. Then Lincoln exempted a few areas of the Confederacy, the whole
state of Tennessee, a couple of other areas. That was mostly to try to
win over support from white southerners who might come back to the
Union, he felt, if they might keep their slaves. So if you look at,
there were three 3.9 million slaves at this time, in the U.S. The
Proclamation applies to about 3.1 million of them. So there's 800,000
who just are not declared free at all.
Then, of course, its hard to implement the Proclamation at the time itâs
issued because it's the Union Army that has to enforce it and the Union
Army is not present in much of the South. But what the key to the
Proclamation is, it makes this a - now a responsibility of the Union
Army. Wherever the Union Army ventures, part of their job, now, is to
protect the freedom of the former slaves. So it makes abolition an aim
of the Civil War, which it had not been up to the issuing of the
GROSS: What power did Lincoln even have over the South and over slave
owners and slaves? Because these states had seceded. They weren't...
Prof. FONER: Well...
GROSS: They didnât see themselves as part of the United States anymore.
Prof. FONER: Lincoln, of course, denies that these states have legally
seceded. Succession is not legal, he says. They are part of the United
States, he argues. But, of course, he's also waging war against them as
a belligerent power. So ultimately, the power is military. You know,
that's it. If the Union wins the war the nation will be preserved and
the slaves will be free. If the Confederacy wins the war, which is
certainly not impossible, the nation will be severed and slavery will
continue to exist. There's absolutely no question that had the
Confederacy won, slavery, despite all the pressures it was under,
would've continued to exist for a long, long time. You know, so this was
really a, you know, in the balance, as the Civil War was being fought.
GROSS: You wrote a whole book on Reconstruction, the period after the
Civil War and after the end of slavery in the United States. You must
spend so much time wondering how Reconstruction would've been different
had Lincoln not been assassinated. And I'm wondering if you could just
speculate a little bit, how you think America might have been different?
Prof. FONER: Well, of course, whenever I lecture on Lincoln I'm asked
that question, which is totally understandable. And, indeed, even though
many historians, including myself, are skeptical of what we call
counterfactual history like this, in this book I actually gave in and
ended with some speculations about what might have happened - they're
set off, they're speculations.
I think the tragedy is Lincoln was seceded by a man who was perhaps the
worst president in all of American history, Andrew Johnson. He lacked
all the qualities, that Lincoln had, of greatness. Johnson was deeply
racist, was unwilling to change, stubborn. He was out of touch with
Northern public opinion, out of touch with the political majority in
Congress. Lincoln was a savvy politician, he knew where public opinion
was, and over the course of the war, he had developed, I think, a
genuine compassion for the former slaves. He hadn't become an
abolitionist, but he had moved very far toward envisioning America as a
society with some modicum of racial equality.
It's impossible to imagine Lincoln getting into the fix that Andrew
Johnson did. You know, just breaking with Congress, vetoing every
measure that they passed, and getting himself impeached and almost
removed from office.
I think what would've happened would've been what happened during the
Civil War. There would've been a lot of disagreement between Congress
and Lincoln and they would've worked out an agreement. They would've
worked out a policy that all Republicans could support. And it probably
would've looked something like what was passed in 1866, the Civil Rights
Act, which gave basic civil rights to the former slaves; the 14th
Amendment, which put that principle of equal citizenship into the
Constitution, maybe limited black suffrage.
You know, at the end of his life, Lincoln publicly called for giving the
right to vote to some blacks in the South, particularly the former
soldiers. And this wouldnât have been as radical as the way
Reconstruction eventually developed with full black suffrage, but maybe
it would've stuck longer. You know, maybe a united Republican Party, a
united North, with Lincoln and Congress promoting this policy, would've
discouraged the violent resistance that took place in the South, you
know, the Ku Klux Klan.
I mean Andrew Johnson was - spent his presidency encouraging violent
resistance to the law in the South, which is not what the president is
supposed to do. So, you know, this is pure speculation and who knows
what would've happened, but I think you would not have seen the
disastrous presidency that Andrew Johnson had if Lincoln had lived out
his second term.
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is historian Eric Foner. His
new book is called "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American
I want to talk a little bit about the present, after we take a short
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Letâs get back to the interview I recorded last October with
historian Eric Foner, after the publication of his book "The Fiery
Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
Now one of the things that happened as a result of the Emancipation
Proclamation was the 14th Amendment. And just sum up for us what the
14th Amendment says. Because the 14th Amendment has become very
controversial in this election - in 2010.
Prof. FONER: Yes. Yes. As a historian, I'm quite surprised that the 14th
Amendment is sort of back on our agenda almost 150 years after it was
ratified. The 14th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1866 and then
ratified by the states in order to A: establish the citizenship of black
people - the former slaves. You know, the Dred Scott decision before the
Civil War had said no black person could be a citizen of the United
States. Whether they're free, slave, it doesnât matter, citizenship is
only for white people. The 14th Amendment puts in our Constitution this
principle of citizenship for all. Not just - it doesnât mention blacks.
It says anybody born in the United States, with one or two little
exceptions, is a citizen of the United States. And then puts in this
principle of equal protection. All those citizens, regardless of their
race or background are to enjoy the equal protection of the laws. You
can no longer have one set of laws for black people and one set of laws
for white people, as they did in virtually every state before the Civil
Then there were many other parts of the 14th Amendment which are
irrelevant today, certain white Southerners are barred from holding
office and it bans paying the confederate debt and things like that
that. But it also ends with a very important clause, giving Congress the
power to enforce the amendment. In other words, it exerts the power of
Congress over the states. If states violate the rights of citizens, the
federal government can intervene in order to protect those citizens. So
it shifts the power in our federal system, very strongly, toward the
national government, away from the states. So its citizenship, equality
and national power to protect those principles are the basic purposes of
the 14th Amendment.
GROSS: So talk to us a little about the 14th Amendment, which after
Civil War extended citizenship to freed slaves, to everybody born in the
United States. There is a movement, now, to repeal or to change the 14th
Amendment. Congressman John Boehner, who might become the majority
leader of the House, said that repealing it is worth considering.
Senator Lindsey Graham said he'd consider changing the Constitution so
it doesnât automatically give citizenship to everyone born here.
Looking at the history of the period of the 14th Amendment, what's your
reaction to seeing this movement, including our elected leaders, this
movement to change or to repeal the 14th Amendment?
Prof. FONER: Well, I'm appalled, frankly. I think that these statements
are a repudiation of one of the basic principles of American society
which comes out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and that we take
great pride in today; which is that anybody can be a good American
citizen. You donât have to be a particular religion, you donât have to
be a particular race, you donât have to be a particular ethnic group.
And, you know, that notion of birthright citizenship sets us apart from
most of the other countries in the world. You could be born in Germany,
if your parents are Turkish immigrants, youâre not automatically a
German citizen, for example.
But I think this notion of openness, of willingness to accept anybody as
a citizen of the United States is part of what we are as a multiracial,
multicultural society. And that's what the people who wrote the 14th
Amendment intended. It was mainly intended to give the citizenship to
blacks, but not entirely. They knew, and they said explicitly, that, for
example, Chinese on the West Coast, who were quite despised then, their
children - they could not become naturalized citizens then - but
children born in the United States would be citizens of the United
States. And it was that general principle of birthright citizenship that
Congress, in 1866, wanted to put into the Constitution. And I think that
starting to fiddle around with the 14th Amendment, which is a critical
part of the Constitution, really just is a serious, serious mistake.
GROSS: Now, we're also in a time, historically, when several of the
Supreme Court justices believe in originalism - and this includes
Justice Scalia, Clarence Thomas - which means that the Constitution
should be interpreted as literally as possible, and as much - as closely
as the founding fathers originally intended.
Now, as a scholar of history, who studies the period of the Civil War
and Reconstruction, knowing that the Constitution actually had clauses
supporting slavery, how does that affect your opinion of the originalist
interpretation of the Constitution?
Prof. FONER: Well, you know, it's interesting. The originalists try to
go back to the original Constitution, but they have little to say about
the Civil War amendments, 13th, 14th and 15th, which actually
fundamentally changed the Constitution by wrenching slavery out of the
Constitution and trying to put this principle of equality in it. Many
recent Supreme Court decisions by these so-called originalists
completely misunderstand the original purposes of the 14th Amendment.
Theyâve adopted a very cramped view of it.
As I said, the Congress at that time was looking toward a broad
principle of equality. But to these originalists what the 14th Amendment
means to them is color blindness, which is not at all what the Congress
intended back in 1866. So, in fact, the Supreme Court has been much more
solicitous of the claims of white people who claim to be discriminated
against by Affirmative Action or things like that, than African-American
seeking greater social justice, which is what the 14th Amendment was
intended to do. The greatest non-originalist point of view, which we see
now, a lot in the Supreme Court, is this idea that corporations are
entitled to the protections of the 14th Amendment.
We just saw this in the case about, you know, corporations being allowed
to contribute as much money as they want to political campaigns because
they enjoy the freedom of speech of individuals, et cetera. There's no
evidence, whatsoever, that the Congress in 1866 was thinking of
corporations. That idea was tacked on 20 years later, to the 14th
Amendment. If you really are an originalists, let's get rid of the idea
of corporations being protected by the 14th Amendment. But I donât
expect Scalia and these others to do that at any time soon.
GROSS: Are there still things in Lincoln's views of slavery that you
just can't reconcile with the Emancipation Proclamation?
Prof. FONER: You know, I think the key about Lincoln is not to see his
career as simply leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation. You know,
we know that, but he didnât know that. And I think Lincoln before the
Civil War is like many, many people who simply can't quite figure out a
way of dealing with the institution of slavery within the existing
political and Constitutional system.
If youâre an abolitionist like William Lloyd Garrison, you donât care
about the existing system. Garrison burned the Constitution because of
its clause of protecting slavery. Well, Lincoln is a politician, a
lawyer. He actually reveres the Constitution. So what do you do if
youâre trapped in a political system which protects what you think is an
unjust system? You look for other ways to get around it, like this
gradual emancipation, colonization.
But, you know, we should not see Lincoln's career as a straight line
heading toward the Emancipation Proclamation. That's the problem with a
lot of the literature on Lincoln. It kind of reads everything backwards.
In this book I try to read it forwards, with Lincoln not knowing what is
going to happen next. So there are detours and there are false paths,
and there are these efforts to promote colonization, which strike us as
really reprehensible, as they were, really. But, you know, Lincoln
didnât know he was going to be the Great Emancipator until it actually
GROSS: Eric Foner, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. It's
always a pleasure to talk with you.
Prof. FONER: I'm always delighted to be here, Terry.
GROSS: Eric Foner is the author of the new book "The Fiery Trial:
Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." Our interview was recorded last
October when the book was published. This month he won the Lincoln Prize
for the book. Heâll receive the award in May. You can read an excerpt on
our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward does its part to give sinker
Ella Mae Morse her due. She recorded Capitol Recordsâ first hit, âCow-
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Ella Mae Morse: The Voice Of Capitol's First Hits
(Soundbite of music)
TERRY GROSS, host:
When a group of songwriters, a music store owner and a film producer got
together to start Capitol Records in 1942, they were in urgent need of a
hit. It came from a most unlikely place - a young woman named Ella Mae
Morse - whose place in pop music history has never really been given its
Rock historian Ed Ward tells us her story.
(Soundbite of song, âJump Back, Honeyâ)
Ms. ELLA MAE MORSE (Pop singer): (Singing) Jump back, jump back, honey,
jump back. Jump back, honey, jump back, jump back, honey, jump back.
My baby seen me home last night. Jump back, honey, jump back. Held me
long and squeezed me tight. Jump back, honey, jump back. Heard him sigh
a little sigh. Seen the lovelight in her eye. And a smile that mystify,
Jump back, honey, jump back.
ED WARD: When Ella Mae Morse was nine and living in Paris, Texas, she
went to the grocery store with her mother and heard someone playing
guitar out back. She'd grown up with music - her mother was a singer and
her father, who was British, had been a dance-band drummer - but this
music was different.
Uncle Joe, the blues guitarist she met that day, encouraged her natural
talent for blues, as did her mother. Her father had left when she was
younger. Soon, she was singing on Paris's radio station, and in 1936,
she and her mother moved to Dallas, where she got another regular radio
slot after winning a talent contest.
She auditioned for Jimmy Dorsey, telling him she was 19, and he hired
her immediately. He fired her shortly thereafter, when the Dallas School
Board told him he would be responsible for his new 14-year-old
vocalist's education. But she'd already met Dorsey's pianist, Freddie
Slack, and in 1942, after she and her mother had moved to San Diego, she
re-met him, now fronting his own band. Soon afterwards, he was signed to
Capitol, and went into the studio with his new singer. A smash was born:
the "Cow-Cow Boogie."
(Soundbite of song, âCow-Cow Boogieâ)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Out on the plains down near Santa Fe, I met a
cowboy riding the range one day. And as he jogged along I heard him
singing a most peculiar cowboy song. It was a ditty, he learned in the
A comma ti yi yi, yeah. Comma ti yippity yi, ay. Get along.
WARD: Not long after "Cow-Cow Boogie" came out, a Musicians Union strike
shut down the recording industry, but Capitol knew they'd have to settle
if they were going to survive, and spent the next few years recording
Ella Mae singing bland material that didn't sell. It was only when Slack
reunited with her in 1946 that anything hit, though.
(Soundbite of song, âHouse of Blue Lightsâ)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Do-do-do-do-dodiliada lada. Do-do-do-do-dodiliadee.
Mr. DON RAYE (Vaudevillian and songwriter): (Spoken) Well, wha-ah-ahtcha
say, Baby? You look ready as Mr. Freddie, this black. How 'bout you an'
me going spinning at the track?
Ms. MORSE: (Spoken) What's that, Homey? If you think I'm going dancing
on a dime, your clock is ticking on the wrong time.
Mr. RAYE: (Spoken) Well, what's your pleasure, Treasure? You call the
plays, I'll dig the ways.
Ms. MORSE: (Spoken) Hey, Daddio, I'm not so crude as to drop my mood on
a square from way back. I'm in there and have to dig life with Father.
And I mean Father Slack.
Mr. RAYE: (Spoken) Well, Baby, your play gives my wig a solid flip. You
snap the whip, I'll make the trip.
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Well, lace up your boots and we'll broom on down,
to a knocked-out shack on the edge of town. There's an eight-beat combo
that just won't quit. Keep walking till you see a blue light lit. Fall
in there and we'll see some sights, at the House of Blue Lights.
There's fryers and broilers and...
WARD: Along came another union strike, but Morse's five-year absence
from the studio after "House of Blue Lights" was explained by her
getting married - for the second time - and relocating to Boston, where
she and her doctor husband raised their three kids. But Capitol needed
her, and in 1951, she agreed to try pop takes on the currently
fashionable hillbilly boogie style and the results were red hot.
(Soundbite of song, âOkie Boogieâ)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Now listen here friends, I wanna tell you, 'bout a
brand new dance that you got to learn to do; it's called the Okie
Boogie, you do it Okie style. That mean old Okie Boogie is bound to
drive you wild.
Well it's got to be fast, you can't go too slow. If you hear that rhythm
you got to dosey-doe. When you do the Okie Boogie, and do it Okie style,
that mean old Okie Boogie is bound to drive you wild.
Old Man Mose, on a cane and a...
WARD: From there, Capitol decided to try her on R&B material, initially
from the '40s, and she scored with Amos Milburn's "Greyhound" and Hadda
Brooks's "Jump Back Baby."
This worked well enough that, in 1953, Ella Mae became one of the
singers now derided by orthodox rock historians for covering black
artists' hits. One listen to the results of these sessions, though,
shows that it's not exactly like Pat Boone covering Little Richard.
(Soundbite of song, âDaddy, Daddyâ)
Ms. MORSE: (Singing) Daddy, Daddy, Daddy love me strong. I don't mind it
if it's all night, Daddy.
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy right or wrong, I'm gonna need you for a long time,
Daddy. Got to love me, Daddy, from now on. That's what you got to do.
When you thrill me like you thrill me with a touch that always fills me
with a love so fine. Hoo. In the morning...
WARD: But times were changing, very few of these numbers charted, and by
the time of Morseâs recorded her last sessions for Capitol in 1955 and
1956, record buyers were more comfortable with the original artists.
Some attempts at rock 'n' roll novelties flopped, and her personal life
fell apart at the same time.
In 1958, she married one last time, and although Capitol let her go, she
performed regularly around Southern California and toured with all-star
bands from time to time. She retired in 1978 and died in 1999, at which
point her pioneering hits had been rediscovered by a new generation.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. The music he played by Ella
Mae Morse is from âElla Mae Rocksâ on Bear Family Records. You can
download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
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