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[Detail] Soldier and Two Women.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: William Allen's Speech

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed African Americans from the bonds of slavery and called for their enlistment in the Union Army as a means to end the Civil War. Congressman William Allen of Ohio argued against a bill calling for the use of African-American soldiers in his speech to the House of Representatives on February 2, 1863.

Cartoon - General Grant and African American Soldier

General Grant and African American Soldier," 1892. "The Guard, Being Under Instructions, Would Not Permit Even Grant to Pass Before He Had Thrown Away His Cigar."

Allen claims that this legislation threatens to "destroy the relation of master and slave in the slaveholding States" even though "[i]t was admitted before the war began that Congress had no right to interfere with this institution." The Congressman also argues that Lincoln's Republican Party "has presented for the admiration of the American people the negro in nearly every attitude which it was thought might win popular favor, and the last act in the great 'drama' is the negro playing soldier." (Page 5 (external link) [Transcription (external link)])

Allen contrasts this last act of the Republican "drama" with its previous acts, which he describes as a committment to the improvement of African Americans at the expense of white soldiers:

It is not probable that commanding officers who permit ambulances and army wagons to be used to aid 'contrabands' in their exodus from the South, while weary, exhausted white soldiers march on foot, would place the contrabands in the front ranks of the Army for the purpose stated; or that a department of the Government that feeds, clothes, and provides so amply for fifty or sixty thousand of these persons, who, in the language of the President, 'do nothing but eat,' while our white soldiers are frequently on half rations, and their families at home suffering from want, would place the negro in any hazardous position for the purpose of shielding the white man from harm."

Page 6 (external link) [Transcription (external link)]

  • What are Allen's arguments against the Emancipation Proclamation and the enlistment of African-American soldiers?
  • Who is Allen's audience and what tone does he take in addressing them? How do these factors influence the interpretation of his speech?
  • How is Allen's audience supposed to feel about government provisions of food to African Americans considering the President's characterization that they "do nothing but eat"?
  • What is the effect of Allen quoting Abraham Lincoln in this way?
  • How is the audience supposed to feel about the white soldiers and their families "suffering from want"?
  • How is the audience supposed to feel about the President who allows this to occur?
  • In addition to the Emancipation Proclamation, what else does Allen really seem to be criticizing?
  • What does he hope to accomplish by giving this speech?
  • How might Lincoln respond to Allen's speech?