By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Jonathan Davis
Ironically, it seems timely to read Battle Cry of Freedom because of current events in America. It is difficult to believe anyone in America ever believed one human could be another’s personal property. James McPherson shows, as late as the 19th century, many Americans believed it. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson writes, “all men are created equal”. America sought independence and fought a civil war to affirm that belief. One might ask how long it will take Thomas Jefferson’s statement to be a reality. One wonders if discrimination is baked into the character of human beings.
McPherson clearly explains maintaining the union; not slavery is Lincoln’s primary concern in the Civil War. As principled and wise as Abraham Lincoln is about slavery, he is willing to preserve the South’s right to treat slaves as property, if it would save the Union. However, as the war progressed and the South’s rebellion seemed unlikely to succeed, Lincoln returns to the issue of slavery and makes emancipation a keystone of his administration.
McPherson never suggests Lincoln changes his mind about the institution of slavery but it seems a tacit acceptance by Lincoln of an ugly side of human nature; i.e. that part of human nature wants to feel one racial, ethnic, and/or religious group is better than another. In spite of Jefferson’s high-minded rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence, he is a slave holder and remains a slave holder throughout his life. Even Washington, the equally high-minded American’ patriot, is a slaveholder.
The South is not alone when it comes to belief in the classification of human beings as property but slaves constituted a large part of individual wealth for Southerners. McPherson explains much of the Southern’ economy is based on slave trade and labor which encouraged southern discrimination. McPherson notes the irony of slave labor is that it retarded economic growth in the south. Northern economic growth far outstripped southern growth in the nineteenth century.
McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is the coda of the Civil War. Freedom is the heart-felt desire of every Union and Rebel soldier, every White and Black man, every woman and child. This desire for freedom has not changed in eleven thousand years of man’s enslavement by man. The only change seems to have been in who is classified as slave; i.e. that “other-than-me” unequal human being.
McPherson offers an entertaining and educational history of the Civil War in Battle Cry of Freedom. There are many insights to the generalship of the war, the political opinions of the time, the personalities of great and infamous leaders, and the many steps taken toward American’ freedom. However, like other strides America has taken for freedom, they seem small steps toward erasing the ugly side of human nature.