As New York’s State Historian, I often say that New Yorkers have long provided the country with some of its most informed leadership. Why? Because they understand and appreciate their state’s place in American history.
Take as a case in point the 100th anniversary of the American Civil War (1961-65). This was a time when some Americans were using their heritage to defy federal desegregation efforts. New York’s Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, however, used his state’s history for a far better purpose. He promoted civil rights and racial equality in America by joining with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in celebration of the 100th birthday of a document owned by the New York State Library—Lincoln’s draft Emancipation Proclamation.
Like George Orwell—who wrote “He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”—Rockefeller knew that anniversaries were as much about the present and future as they were the past.
I mention this now, because earlier this year Americans began celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This time, the draft Emancipation Proclamation will be available to the public in conjunction with a major Civil War exhibition opening at the New York State Museum on September 22, 2012. And once again, Empire State citizens will have an opportunity to use their history to help move the nation in a positive direction.
New Yorkers can start by making the case that their antebellum ancestors—like Americans today—were anything but unified: at odds over race, equality, religion, immigration, jobs, and more.
Life was indeed complicated before the war. Some in upstate New York were uncompromising abolitionists caught up in the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening. They only constituted a relatively small percentage of the state’s population, however—as did African Americans—and most New Yorkers were indifferent or resistant to the notion of racial equality. There were actually more instances of open hostility toward Catholic immigrants.
New Yorkers nevertheless supported the principle of free labor, especially in the territories—where they favored government-supported homesteading and railroad development.
Many downstate New Yorkers did business with aristocratic plantation owners, meanwhile, and saw no reason to oppose slavery. Urban immigrants believed that emancipation would threaten their jobs and neighborhoods. And as war threatened to break out, New York City’s mayor even proposed that the city secede from the United States and become a free port.
After the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, however, New York supported the Union cause with more men, money, and materiel than any other. Why? Because a majority of New Yorkers believed in the Founding Fathers’ vision of a united government “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Americans today often take their form of government for granted, but this was by no means the case in the mid-19th century. By 1850, democratic revolutions in Europe had ended badly, and New Yorkers and their fellow Unionists were alarmed that slave-owning oligarchs might destroy the world’s only remaining democracy. They understood exactly what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.”
Union supporters did more than defend their government, too. By defeating a rebellion of slave owners, they liberated four million people from bondage and enabled what Lincoln described as “a new birth of freedom.”
The Civil War may be over, but Americans are still divided over many of the same issues that brought them to blows 150 years ago: federal vs. state authority, race relations, the meaning of American freedom, and America’s place in the world.
“The past is never dead,” as William Faulkner once famously wrote, “It’s not even past.” Certainly, that was the case in the South that Faulkner knew so well. Even today, many righteously justify secession and slavery with tales of a historical epic they call the “War of Northern Aggression.”
But New Yorkers know better. Like Nelson Rockefeller, they understand that the documents and artifacts in the New York State Library, Archives, and Museum and in cultural institutions around the state tell a different story than the one portrayed in films such as Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation.
So as the current Civil War anniversary unfolds, it is important to understand that historical memories do indeed help shape the nation’s future. It is equally important for a new generation of New Yorkers to ensure that those memories are based in fact and not fiction.
Illustration: A Union soldier reads the Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves. After Lincoln signed the Proclamation, celebrations took place throughout the country. Courtesy national Archives.