This illustrated envelope dates from the 1860s. Depicting a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a poem, the iconography prominently features “The Fence that Uncle Abe built.”
From the U.S. Civil War Papers, ca. 1850-1917. Box 7. Columbia University, Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
I am currently enrolled in a MOOC, HIST1.1x The Civil War and Reconstruction – 1850-1861, taught by respected historian, Eric Foner. Each week our online student body analyzes a primary resource, an activity I enjoy immensely. This week’s challenge was the above envelope. Who was the audience for this 1860s product? What message was it trying to convey? How did it reflect the symbolism and policies of the nascent Republican party?
so I posted:
Last year, when I took the course the first time, I am sure that I saw a clear appeal to the demographic that embraced free labor in an expanding country. Now, all I can see is an appeal to white men, who had the privilege of dreaming about being their own boss, marking their own territory, building their own factory/workshop. Blacks, enslaved or free, and Asian immigrants didn’t have the opportunity to set up boundaries, either physical or mental. Indigenous peoples measured territory and property with a whole different paradigm. The nascent Republican party was appealing to the common man, as long as he was white. The economic and cultural revolutions may have broadened the concept of “good” labor, but the political system was still attempting to reinforce white supremacy.
The discussion that followed had me return, reflect, and drill down into the free labor/free soil ideology, a fascinating and confusing exercise that only got productive when I harnessed my roaming mind to my own family history.
I can say with reasonable certainty, that my cattle drover ancestor, John Pearson Minor, regarded land as the ultimate asset, not only for the stock that could be raised on top of it and sold to expanding markets but also for the coal, salt, and other mineral resources beneath it that could be mined and sold to expanding markets. From his base in Southwestern Pennsylvania he speculated in land in what became West Virginia, Illinois, and Iowa. Extended family swept westward through this free soil era as well.
Letters reveal that the free labor concept of “work hard and rise to the top” was a core piece of this westward impulsion. Other documents indicate that these same people aligned themselves with the Democratic party. Republicans may well have captured the votes of some of this crowd, but only in as much as the Republican-defined property rights aligned with their own self interest. And that self-interest was what white men could define, legally describe, control, and profit from.
In as much as enslavers demeaned the very work that such cattlemen/farmers/entrepreneurs conducted, I speculate that my ancestors viewed slaveowners with contempt, and the ultimate insult would be to not acknowledge their social structure, the cornerstone of which was human chattel. And Native Americans worked from a whole different paradigm regarding property and community with a degree of stewardship of resources that was alien to the white, Protestant mind.
This one branch of my family demonstrated that an American could be an advocate of free labor and agitate for “free” or deeply discounted soil, and yet remain committed to a hierarchical, racist social structure, that codified a particular definition of property–fenced in by white folks.