Saturday, July 4, 2009

O Captain! My Captain! Rise Up And Hear The Bells!

The Revolution was fought to procure "freedom" for the inhabitants of America. But it was eighty years before that freedom was extended to a very large segment of the American population.

Somehow much of the white population was content to live in the freedom that we had gained, but felt no need to see that freedom made universal. Really that isn't much different than the Church, is it? Don't we all to often get comfortable in our own freedom but feel little need to see that freedom made universal? If the apathy of the majority of Americans in our first eighty years seems pathetic (and it does!) then what of our own apathy?

One man and one woman were unable to get comfortable with that apathy. Abraham Lincoln spent the greatest part of his life working for the abolition of slavery. (I know textbooks today gloss over this.) Fearing that their "freedom" to own slaves was in jeopardy, seven states seceded when Lincoln was elected. Within a month of his entering office there were eleven states in the Confederacy. They were fighting for their "freedom." But Lincoln and the north had a different vision of what "freedom" really means.

That vision had come in large part from a remarkable book written in tiny chapters and published serially in a magazine. In UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, Harriet Beecher Stowe taught the imagination of the nation to feel the evil of American slavery from the inside. Without her monumental work, it is doubtful that Abraham Lincoln could have been elected. Everyone knew that electing Lincoln would mean war, and few wanted that! But Uncle Tom's Cabin electrified such a great portion of the voting public that he was. And when the war started, Stowe's book pressed countless Union men into volunteering for the army.

Without her book, the war would likely not have happened. And given that it began, without her book the north would very likely have lost. The United States would no longer be united; we would now be at least two separate countries. And slavery would have persisted in America indefinitely. Just as Thomas Paine was the "Father Of The Revolution," Harriet Beecher Stowe was the "Mother Of The Civil War." Each of them accomplished these enormous feats through their words! Through their words they altered the imaginations of a whole nation. They made us what we are.

When he met her Abraham Lincoln greeted her with the words, "So this is the little lady who made this big war." Had she not known the righteousness of her cause those words could have drowned her!

But unlike Thomas Paine's diatribes, Stowe's book led to sincere contemplation, to soul searching on the part of the nation. He sought to engender overarching pride; she to humble us to repentance. He enflamed selfish rage; she indignation at injustice.

The war proceeded. Over 600,000 died. Slavery was abolished. The union was preserved and the Confederacy disbanded. But four weeks before the war ended, Abraham Lincoln was shot. The end was well in sight. It was all but certain. But he never saw it.

Suddenly this great nation, newly restored to wholeness, far from healed of the evils of slavery, full of anger and resentment on both sides; suddenly this great nation was without its leader. Could the union be preserved without him? Would the south in fact become in reality what it already was by fiat, a group of free states among all the other free states? The thought that the war she had caused might have been for nothing must have terrified Stowe!

Walt Whitman well captures the lostness that both the north and the south must have felt at hearing of Lincoln's death.


O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red.
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up−for you the flag is hung−for you the bugle trills,
For you the bouquets and ribboned wreaths−for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.



Teri said...

Doug, I would love to recommend Sheldon VanAuken's wonderfully written and excellently document book The Glittering Illusion. While it is a book intending to elucidate England's sympathies for the South it also serves as a fine primer on the (so-called) Civil War.

Thanks again for this amazing blog.

Doug P. Baker said...


Great to see you! VanAuken's book sounds intriguing! I'll look it up.

I would have expected their sympathies to lie with the north, because they had already abolished slavery thanks to Wilberforce.