Over the weekend, I finished reading Ed Ayers’s most recent book The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Ayers’ Bancroft Prize winner, In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863. Picking up where its predecessor left off, The Thin Light of Freedom examines the war and its aftermath in two communities in the Great Valley: Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania. (These two communities also provided the source material for Ayers’s groundbreaking digital history project, The Valley of the Shadow, first launched more than a quarter-century ago.)
Although Ayers does step outside his focus on Augusta and Franklin to place local events in the broader context of the war, the book exercises a relatively light touch when it comes to interpretation. As one reviewer of the book noted, although Union victory is often seen as inevitable, “Ayers’s intimate, chronological approach allows him to challenge that thesis.” Through his careful excavation of the “on the ground” response to events as they unfolded, Ayers reminds his reader that the figurative road to Appomattox (and beyond) took many twists and turns. Still, the argument is subtle.
Despite giving interpretation a fairly wide berth in this book, Ayers has previously argued that the Civil War was a thoroughly modern conflict. In his 2005 book, What Caused the Civil War?, Ayers writes that to understand the war’s origins, “we need to set aside a formula that has come to seem obviously true: The war as a conflict between a modern North and a pre- or antimodern South. . . . The role of modernity might be better understood as a catalyst for both the North and the South rather than as a simple difference between them” (pp. 138-139). In particular, he argues, two “critical components of modernity” are essential to understanding the Civil War: print and popular politics.
He returns to these themes in The Thin Light of Freedom. Indeed, I repeatedly found myself struck by continuities with the present. Although Ayers never drew the comparison directly, it’s hard to imagine that he was not aware of them as he wrote, for instance, “Joseph Waddell kept a close eye on the war. He had learned not to believe much of what he read in the papers and even less of what he heard on the streets of Staunton. Throughout late June, Waddell had monitored the news for reports from Vicksburg, Richmond, and Pennsylvania. The Virginia newspapers, like their Northern counterparts, selected articles from the enemy press that not only presented in the enemy in the worst light but also presented the enemy trying to present its own enemy in the worst light, a hall of mirrors compounding the distortion” (pp. 58-59, emphases added). Similarly, “The Staunton Vindicator claimed not to have room to publish Abraham Lincoln’s annual message in December , but little regretted the omission, ‘there being but little in it of interest to us’” (p. 294).
North of the Mason-Dixon Line, meanwhile, political enmity reached a fever pitch in the run-up to the election of 1864.
While the Democrats did everything within their power to spin up party feeling, spirit, and devotion in the fall of 1864, the Republicans denied altogether the legitimacy of party politics during wartime. They portrayed the Democrats’ partisan efforts as near-treason when so much was at stake, when the North needed unified support for the men in the field. The Democrats raged with frustration at such a posture . . . With over two million men enlisted in the army over the course of the war, the party in power, its opponents charged, disguised narrow political ends as the purposes of the nation. Soldiers received a steady stream of pamphlets and copies of the pro-administration Harper’s Weekly, paid for by supporters of the party and distributed through the national post office (pp. 254-255)
This offers some historical perspective to the conventional wisdom that the U.S. has “never been so divided” as it is today. Even setting aside the obvious divisions between North and South, Ayers demonstrates that in the 1860s, the nominally united United States was no model of social harmony.
The Democrats invented a new word in 1864 to capture and feed the disgust of Northern whites: ‘miscegenation.’ Two New York Democratic newspapermen wrote a pamphlet under that title—an invented pseudoscientific phrase—to make it appear that Republicans advocated the interbreeding of white and black people. The secret authors solicited endorsements from leading abolitionists, hoping to trick them into support for a ‘policy’ the Democrats would use to tar the entire Republican party (p. 193).
Finally, although many 21st century Americans lament the bitter partisanship of our time, Ayers also points out that many of the signal achievements of the Civil War era came only as a result of partisan politics. Describing the first congressional vote on what would eventually become the Thirteenth Amendment, Ayers writes, “As in the electorate as a whole, Democrats in Congress dug in against any initiative identified with the Republicans: 78 Republicans had voted for the amendment, while 58 Democrats had voted against it, with only one member of each party defying his party” (p. 284). Even with the departure of their southern colleagues following secession, Democrats held enough political power to prevent the abolition of slavery. What turned the tables was the election in November, in which Republicans gained seats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, thus claiming a mandate for abolition.
Revealing the contingencies upon which the U.S. of today rests, Ayers thus throws “the thin light of freedom” into sharp relief.