Barbara Fields’ groundbreaking essay “Ideology and Race in American History” has changed the way historians have approached race and racism. More specifically, Fields overthrew the assumption “that race is an observable physical fact, a thing,” and replaced this misconception with the argument that race is “a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological” (144). Race, in other words, is not a physical trait, but a social construct. Like all historical products, race originated “at a specific and ascertainable historical moment” (151). Fields convincingly shows that race did not develop when Europeans first encountered Africans, but over time, as questions were raised about the morality of African chattel slavery during the Age of Revolution. Fields illustrates, in short, how race was (and still is) socially constructed differently across space and time.
More than thirty years after the publication of Field’s essay, her work still influences how historians think about race and racial ideologies. In fact, the initial excitement surrounding the bourgeoning field of Whiteness Studies arose from works investigating the subjectivity of race and how it had been constructed differently throughout history. Peter Kolchin’s “Whiteness Studies” provides a broad historiographical overview of this field, and how it has garnered significant consideration by scholars in the last several years. Kolchin, however, criticizes scholars in this field for losing sight of both the historical and historiographical context, which has led many of these historians to view race and racism in isolation, or as an American phenomenon. Kolchin suggests that Whiteness Studies historians need to look beyond the United States to fully comprehend the development of “racial thought” throughout history (171).
Outside of Whiteness Studies, Fields’ essay has also influenced a number of other fields and scholars such as Martha Hodes. Hodes’ article “The Mercurial Nature and Abiding Power of Race: A Transnational Family Story,” later turned into a book titled The Sea Captain’s Wife, examines the life of a New England working-class female, Eunice Connolly. Like Fields, Hodes demonstrates the malleability of race over space and time. By following Connolly’s life from New England to the British Caribbean, Hodes introduces her audience to the various understanding of race that Connolly encountered during her travels. Once again, we see race as a social construct, which held various meanings for different people.
Paul Escott’s “What Shall We Do With the Negro?” serves as the central focus of this blog, and marks another work that engages with Fields’ understanding of race. Escott’s main objective in this work is to “present an undistorted, accurate analysis of Civil War policies and thoughts related to the future of race relations and the future status of African Americans” (xv). In short, Escott examines the question that plagued Unionists, Confederates, and President Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War: “What shall we do with the Negro?” Escott challenges, rather viciously, three major public assumptions about the Civil War: First, he argues against the belief that the South entered the war for the protection of state’s rights, and not for the perseveration of slavery. Second, he contests the assumption that northerners were proponents of “human equality” and entered the war to emancipate slaves. Finally, he decries the characterization of President Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”
At the beginning of the war, Escott argues, the Confederates wanted to keep African Americans enslaved. By 1864, however, Jefferson Davis contemplated emancipating slaves if they fought for the Confederacy. Unionists, according to Escott, refused to address this question, until it was forced upon them. President Lincoln was more concerned with reuniting the Union, than emancipating slaves. Nevertheless, when forced to decide on the future of the slaves, he considered several possibilities. Lincoln believed strongly in gradual and compensated emancipation, which would be accompanied by colonization of freedmen in either Liberia or Texas. He also considered emancipating slaves and giving them limited rights and land in the South, but this option received little support from northern whites.
Although Escott demonstrates the connection between racist stereotypes and ideologies between the Civil War Era and the Black Codes and de jure segregation of black people during the Jim Crow Era, he pushes his argument beyond an unbiased approach. First, Escott replaces old “celebratory generalizations” with his own new, but equally problematical, generalizations. While demonstrating that northern whites were just as racist as southern slaveholders, for example, he asserts that the North held “the universal conviction that slavery in the states was not to be disturbed” (30). I am sure northern white and black abolitionists, along with a significant portion of the Radical Republicans (Thaddeus Stevens and Salmon P. Chase perhaps), would disagree with this bold claim.
Furthermore, Escott states that he will “illuminate attitudes and policies affecting the future status of the freed people rather than focus on the decision of emancipate” (xv). Such a tactic is interesting, especially when considering that both issues were closely tied together. Nevertheless, he defends this approach by arguing that it provides “a more realistic and less celebratory story” (xv). Throughout his work, Escott hammers historians whose “agendas” have promoted a celebratory narrative of the Civil War, Lincoln, and emancipation. Ironically, however, his work is just as agenda-driven as those studies produced by historians such as James McPherson and Eric Foner.
Escott, for example, illustrates Lincoln not as the “Great Emancipator” but as a capricious politician who was not willing to address the issues of slavery and race, until he has forced to make a decision. And that decision, according to Escott, would, if necessary, sacrifice African Americans’ rights and freedoms for the preservation of the Union. Although this approach is refreshing, he bolsters his arguments with outlandish claims, especially when he argues that Jefferson Davis “took political risks that were greater than any Abraham Lincoln had run and braved a storm of disapproval that was more withering than any Lincoln faced in the North” (xviii). Again, Escott does little to hide his agenda. Lincoln, according to Escott, had no desire to “educate the public away from it long established racism. He had an overriding devotion to reunion, a practical pessimism about America’s racial attitudes, and the calculus of political advantage in American society convinced him that other goals were more feasible and more important” (95). Escott provides selective evidence to support these claims, and overlooks that fact that Lincoln supported the idea that blacks were entitled to “natural rights” (the protection of individual liberty and security of person and property), which he commonly referenced throughout his campaign speeches in 1857-58. Furthermore, Escott fails to mention that Lincoln refused to exchange Civil War prisoners with the Confederacy, until they treated black Union captives humanely.
As for the issue of Lincoln and his refusal to engage with the issues of race in American society, I agree with Eric Foner, who aptly observed, “Race is our obsession, not Lincoln’s” (The Fiery Trial, 120). Lincoln showed little interest in contemporary racial theorizing, especially with its predictions about racial destines, debates over ethnography, and polygenesis beliefs. In other words, Escott makes a case that Lincoln was acutely aware of the debates surrounding race, but refused to take a position out of fear of angering southern slaveholders. I believe, however, this exaggerates the importance of race in Lincoln’s thinking. For Lincoln, debates over free labor, the power of the federal government, the way slavery violated American morals and values, held little connection to the nineteenth-century debates surrounding race.
Despite the serious flaws in Paul Escott’s “What Shall We Do With the Negro,” he raises new questions about how we understand race and the legacies of emancipation and the Civil War. Although he pushes his arguments too far, he does successfully demonstrate how the ideology of race was constructed differently in the North and South, something the Eunice Connolly encountered during her travels throughout the United States. Although Fields’ essay is more than thirty years old, her work still influences historians today. She was completely correct in asserting that race is not a physical attribute, but a social construct created subjectively by every society.