When I heard Obama's invocation of the Proclamation last week, it immediately struck me as wrong -- but for different reasons. This letter, written to President Lincoln in 1864, has always stuck with me:
Belair [Md.] Aug 25th 1864
Mr president It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore. my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free. and what i can do. I write to you for advice. please send me word this week. or as soon as possible and oblidge.
When I read this I was basically of Obama's view -- that the Proclamation was a necessary compromise, the sort of thing that is essential to American democracy. But I also thought it was important to always remember that compromise, whatever its virtue, isn't an abstract concept. It's the compromising of the lives of actual people. But in the course of researching the column I came to a somewhat different opinion -- that the Proclamation actually went further than I thought.
Better people here will know this, but my understanding is that there really was no constitutional mechanism by which Lincoln could -- with a wave of his pen -- emancipate the slaves of loyal owners. Thus there never really a choice between, say, ending slavery everywhere and ending just in disloyal states. The compromise was whether the Proclamation would cover all formerly rebel areas that had fallen under union control -- occupied areas of Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina and Louisiana for instance. And the Proclamation did actually exempt some of those areas.
But on the other side of the ledger there's the fact that Lincoln immediately affected the largest act of manumission in American history with a stroke of the pen. I haven't come across a precise number, in terms of who was immediately freed by the Proclamation. But it was in the thousands, and Foner estimates that it may well have ranged into the tens of thousands. Other states had emancipated slaves--but almost always gradually. Nothing like this -- an immediate grant of freedom to thousands of slaves--had happened before.
This is to say nothing of those slaves who were freed as the Union Army pushed South. To me, that really is the heart of the Proclamation's genius. Remember that it was not an act of kindness, but hard-nosed policy of belligerence put forth by a country trying to win a war. The Proclamation necessarily united that war for the Union with the destruction of slavery. It's almost impossible to imagine a Union in which slavery was destroyed in the deep South but somehow thrived in the border states. Finally, and least appreciated in my view, the Proclamation brought, at final count, almost 200,000 black men into the Union Army.
It's worth considering that the Proclamation was not the act of
Lincoln moving closer to the slave-holders, but to their opponents. From
Eric Foner's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Fiery Trial:
Emancipation Proclamation differed dramatically from Lincoln's previous
policies regarding slavery and emancipation, some of which dated back
to his days in the Illinois legislature and Congress. It abandoned the
idea of seeking the cooperation of slaveholders in emancipation, and of
distinguishing between loyal and disloyal owners. It was immediate, not
gradual; contained no mention of monetary compensation for slaveowners,
did not depend on action by the states, and made no reference to
colonization (in part, perhaps, because gradualism, compensation, and
colonization had no bearing on the "military necessity"
that justified the document.) Lincoln had long resisted the enlistment
of black soldiers; now he welcomed them into the Union Army. The
Proclamation addressed slaves directly, not as the property of the
country's enemies but as persons with wills of their own whose action
might help win the Civil War.
want to hammer down on Foner's point about arming blacks. In the summer
of 1862, Lincoln said that he feared if he armed blacks "in a few weeks
the arms would be in the hands of the rebels." A year later, he was
arguing that in military matters, black were...
greatest available, and yet unavailed of force for restoring the
union. The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black
soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at
There is some bravado here,
no doubt, But it's important to understand that this isn't just about
the violence itself. It's difficult to understand, in today's society,
what it actually meant to recognize another human's right to hold a gun.
The right to bear arms was, in previous centuries, directly tied to
citizenship, as was military service. To open the Army to men of all
colors was to admit the possibility of expanding the franchise, and
perhaps even political office, across the color line. It was to grant
that America's broad aristocracy would not be forever color-bound.
is exactly what happened. It may not come across in my writing, but I
have deep roots in America's radical tradition, in general, and the
black radical tradition specifically. Like a lot of people of that ilk,
there was a tendency in me to write off the Proclamation as a weak-kneed
compromise proffered by another racist president. By last week, I was
past that point. Still the research really affirmed something for
me -- those of us who are radicals, whether practicing or not, shouldn't
downplay the Proclamation, we should take credit for it. As Douglass
did. As Phillips did. The Proclamation and all that followed is a
textbook example of what a dose of radicalism can do for democracy.
started this letter musing about an enslaved black woman whom Lincoln's
compromise left in limbo. She should be remembered--but she shouldn't
be remembered alone. Again from Foner:
its palpable limitations, the proclamation set of scenes of jubilation
among free blacks in the North and contrabands and slaves in the South.
At Beaufort on the Sea Islands, over 5,000 African-Americans celebrated
their freedom by singing what a white observer called "the Marseillaise
of the slave"; "In that New Jerusalem, I am not afraid to die; We must
fight for liberty in that New Jerusalem." In the North, blacks gathered
in their churches. "I have never witnessed," the abolitionists Benjamin
R. Plumly wrote to Lincoln from Philadelphia, "such intense, intelligent
and devout Thanksgiving..." When one person suggested that Lincoln
might pursue 'some form of colonization; a woman shouted, "God won't let
Indeed God didn't.
Finally, I think Lincoln's own words give some sense of how to handle
such momentous events with humility--"I claim not to have controlled
events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."
P.S. In addition to Foner's The Fiery Trial, his Free Soil, Free Labor Free Men and James Oakes' The Radical and The Republican were essential to all of my thinking.
Know your history, as they say.
MORE: The author of The Radical and The Republican is James Oakes, not Stephen Oates. My sincerest apologies for the botch.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
After a pair of poor showings in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina drop out of the race.
The Republican race is headed to South Carolina with two fewer candidates. The day after finishing sixth and seventh in the New Hampshire primaries, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina announced on Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns.
Fiorina was always a long shot—she was practically a political newcomer, having only run one unsuccessful Senate campaign. And while her record at HP was vulnerable to attack, Republican figures saw in her both private-sector experience and a woman who could counter Hillary Clinton’s monopoly on a “historic” woman’s candidacy. While many political professionals sniffed at Fiorina’s candidacy, remembering that 2010 Senate race, she broke out after a commanding performance in the undercard to the first Republican debate. That earned her a promotion to the main stage at the next debate, where she scored another victory. But it was all downhill from there. Dogged by questions of honesty and unable to earn media attention, her campaign faded quickly.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
For decades, some psychologists have claimed that bilinguals have better mental control. Their work is now being called into question.
In one of his sketches, comedian Eddie Izzard talks about how English speakers see bilingualism: “Two languages in one head? No one can live at that speed! Good lord, man. You’re asking the impossible,” he says. This satirical view used to be a serious one. People believed that if children grew up with two languages rattling around their heads, they would become so confused that their “intellectual and spiritual growth would not thereby be doubled, but halved,” wrote one professor in 1890. “The use of a foreign language in the home is one of the chief factors in producing mental retardation,” said another in 1926.
A century on, things are very different. Since the 1960s, several studies have shown that bilingualism leads to many advantages, beyond the obvious social benefits of being able to speak to more people. It also supposedly improves executive function—a catch-all term for advanced mental abilities that allow us to control our thoughts and behavior, such as focusing on a goal, ignoring distractions, switching attention, and planning for the future.
This morning I went on Democracy Now to discuss my critique of “class-first” policy as a way of ameliorating the effects of racism. In the midst of that discussion I made the point that one can maintain a critique of a candidate—in this case Bernie Sanders—and still feel that that candidate is deserving of your vote. Amy Goodman, being an excellent journalist, did exactly what she should have done—she asked if I were going to vote for Senator Sanders.
I, with some trepidation, answered in the affirmative. I did so because I’ve spent my career trying to get people to answer uncomfortable questions. Indeed, the entire reason I was on the show was to try to push liberals into directly addressing an uncomfortable issue that threatens their coalition. It seemed wrong, somehow, to ask others to step into their uncomfortable space and not do so myself. So I answered.
Issued last summer, the rules are the centerpiece of the White House’s climate-change-fighting agenda, and they play a big part in the recent, tepid optimism about global warming. Without the proposal of the plan, the United States couldn’t have secured the Paris Agreement, the first international treaty to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions, last December. And without the adoption of the plan, the United States almost certainly won’t be able to comply with that document. If the world were to lose the Paris Agreement—which was not a total solution to the climate crisis, but meant to be a first, provisional step—years could be lost in the diplomatic fight to reduce climate-change’s dangers.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.
— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature, and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done to some person or other, and some other man receives damage by his transgression: in which case he who hath received any damage, has, besides the right of punishment common to him with other men, a particular right to seek reparation.
The ancient civilization may have tracked Jupiter using sophisticated methods, but their reasons for stargazing were very different than ours.
We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. That there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a full circle, are all echoes of the Babylonian preference for counting in base 60. An affinity for base 12 (inches in a foot, pence in an old British shilling) is also an offshoot, 12 being a factor of 60.
All this suggests that the Babylonians had a mathematics worth copying, which was why the Greeks did copy it and thereby rooted these number systems in Western tradition. The latest indication of Babylonian mathematical sophistication is the discovery that their astronomers knew that, in effect, the distance traveled by a moving object is equal to the area under the graph of velocity plotted against time. Previously it had been thought that this relationship wasn’t recognized until the fourteenth century in Europe. But since historian Mathieu Ossendrijver of the Humboldt University in Berlin found the calculation described in a series of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing in Babylonia during the fourth to the first centuries B.C.E., where it was used to figure out the distance traveled across the sky by the planet Jupiter.
Everything that was supposed to be silenced is suddenly being said.
The tight grip of oligarchy upon the American political system slipped a little last night in New Hampshire.
On the Democratic side, voters cast their ballots for one of the most implausible candidates in modern presidential history—less because his rhetoric was so mesmerizing or his program so inspiring than as a protest against an expected winner perceived as a lavishly compensated servitor of organized wealth.
In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton boasted of her small donors. More than 70 percent had given less than $100, she claimed: “I know that doesn’t fit with the narrative.” As Ken Vogel of Politico immediately tweeted, the claim also distorts the facts. Clinton may have a lot of donors, but the bulk of the value of her donations—85 percent—has come from the biggest givers. And her family’s personal wealth, and its foundation’s assets, can also be seen as built on the largesse of banks, corporations, and foreign governments.