Freedom from Above or Below
The fourth lesson of the Civil War unit is titled Freedom from Above or Below. As always, we got an essential question that needed to be answered by the end of the lesson. The essential questions are; "Who 'gave' freedom to enslaved Americans? Did freedom come from above or below? To what extent were Abraham Lincoln's actions influenced by the actions of enslaved Americans?". To start off, we looked at an image called Freedom to the Slaves, which is the image on the right. We analyzed it and noticed that it really was not very realistic. The slaves would not be that thankful and Lincoln would be more humble about freeing the slaves. This image is an example of freedom from above. Now, onto 'freedom from above' and 'freedom from below'. The term 'freedom from above' means that people of higher authority and people that are high up on the social pyramid help out slaves and help make a difference. When talking about freedom from below, slaves themselves help each other out and gain freedom by working together and not having to involve people of higher social levels. Next, we got into groups and analyzed the Lincoln Documents that were provided to us. For each document, we needed to find quotes that provided us with information on the goal of the war, Lincoln's position on freeing slaves, and evidence of his personal feelings on slavery. As an example, I will use the excerpt from Lincoln's open letter to Horace Greeley in 1862. The goal of the war was to save the union, and a quote proving that was "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery". Lincoln's position on freeing slaves was that he freed the slaves just to save the Union, and it came second to saving the Union. A quote proving that was; "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." Lastly, evidence of personal beliefs from this open letter. A good quote to represent that was "What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union...I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." We then watched a Ken Burns Civil War video and had to answer these two questions; 'How did fugitive slaves influence the government’s and Lincoln’s actions on slavery?' and 'What did Lincoln claim that he did not do more for abolition at this point in the war?'. To answer the first question, the fugitive slaves made themselves a nuscence and a problem that needed to be dealt with. It's forcing the government to face facts that the war is about slavery bc the slaves are making themselves an issue. To answer the second question, Lincoln was afraid because the North is not fully pushing for equality - most people didn't want African American neighbors. Lincoln was worried about losing the support of many people fighting with him at the stage of the war. We also were provided with documents X and Y, which both represented freedom from below. Freedom came from both above and below, and Lincoln's actions were influenced by enslaved Americans.
Freedom from Above
As I said before, freedom from above means that those with more power and those that are higher up on the social pyramid helped enslaved people gain freedom. There were definitely times when President Lincoln stepped in and helped slaves. One example is the document I mentioned previously, the open letter to Horace Greeley. Lincoln clearly says "What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union...I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." This proves that the main goal for him really is to save the Union, and it is clear that he is responsible for freeing the slaves - a true example of freedom from above. Another example can also be found on the document we received, the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a very clear example of freedom from above, because Lincoln freed the slaves with this Proclamation; "...all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free". Next, the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Lincoln proved that all men are equal when he said; "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal". This showed proof of Lincoln caring about the slaves and knowing they are equal to everyone else and deserve freedom. He also personally believed that men fought to free slaves; "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." Even though there are many examples of freedom from above, freedom from below also existed.
Freedom from BelowFreedom from below was also a huge part of slavery during the Civil War. Again, freedom from below is when slaves themselves make a difference by working together and not having to include those with higher authority. Documents X and Y are both examples of freedom from below. First, document X, the Letter from General Ambrose E. Burnside to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on March 21, 1862. "They seemed to be wild with excitement and delight— they are now a source of very great anxiety to us; the city is being overrun with fugitives from surrounding towns and plantations— Two have reported themselves who have been in the swamps for five years..". This quote proves that the slaves did their job of causing a scene to make a difference, and is an example of freedom from below. They are basically forcing people to pay attention to them, which is their goal. Document Y, the photo on the right, is also representing freedom from below. It is an Engraving titled Slaves from the plantation of Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrive at Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi from 1863. This image is powerful because it shows slaves taking action and trying to make a difference by working together.
My Opinion + How This Relates to Today
In my opinion, slaves gained freedom mostly because of people with high authority. I truly think freedom from above was more common and a bigger reason for emancipation. However, I also think Lincoln's actions were heavily influenced by enslaved American's actions. Emancipation happened because of both the slaves themselves and Lincoln, but I think Lincoln ended up using his power to make big changes. How does all of this relate to today? Recently, the news has covered the Baltimore Riots a lot. These riots were in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a black male who died in police custody a week after being arrested. Many incidents have happened in the past year that involved police unfairly treating black men in particular. These riots relate to freedom from below because people are joining together to try to make a scene and make a difference. Even though the level of violence involved is not the best strategy to get attention, the rioters have a reason. Let us learn from these riots and treat everyone equally, as it should be.
- Excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln’s Reply to an Open Letter from Horace Greeley, New York Tribune, 1862.
- The Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863 (Excerpts).
- Gettysburg Address, November 19th 1863.
- Reprinted in Berlin, Ira, Barbara Fields, Steven Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds. Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom and the Civil War. New York: New Press, 1992, pp. 34–35.
- Engraving, “Slaves from the plantation of Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrive at Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi,” 1863.