In “What Shall We Do With the Negro,” Paul D. Escott explores the efforts, or often the lack of effort, of northern and southern governments to confront and address the issue of race, and racial inequality. Escott expends a great deal of effort to eschew what he sees as the tendency of historians to look at the Civil War era, and Lincoln in particular, through rose-tinted glasses, and attempts to “illuminate attitudes and policies affecting the future status of freed people” in both the North and the South. Escott argues that any racial “progress” that occurred during the Civil War period (emancipation, for instance) occurred as a result of unanticipated events, namely the war itself, rather than the egalitarian vision of great leaders. Both northern and southern governments took complex, roundabout routes to dealing with issues of racial equality, and even then they dealt with many other questions before addressing the future of African Americans.
Escott, like others, for Lincoln, emancipation was an unintended consequence of war. Escott goes further than many though, spotlighting Lincoln’s negative view of African Americans, arguing that Lincoln would have preferred peace and union over an elevation of the status of blacks, and that his priorities in terms of racial equality were far different than those ascribed by popular culture to the “Great Emancipator.” Even in 1865, when Oakes argues Lincoln had become more radically egalitarian as a result of the war, Escott argues that Lincoln’s expectations for the improvement of the status of free people was modest at best, and only came to the national agenda as a result of the events of the Civil War.
Escott’s ultimate goal seems to be to reconcile celebrations of the Civil War era, and put them more squarely in line with the low points of Jim Crow. He feels that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of Lincoln, and towards a celebration of the racial progress of the mid-nineteenth century. He argues that the real story of race in the Civil War-era—where changes in racial policies only occur as reactions to unanticipated events—properly highlights America’s racist past, and is “tragically consistent” with the Jim Crow era. Escott’s title, a question asked by many Americans during the Civil War period, highlights the fact that many believed African Americans were never equals, and instead were a problem that whites were entitled to deal with as they saw fit.