Lincoln Frees the Slaves by Charles Chilton

Contact Us

Lincoln Frees the Slaves on Radio 4 Extra

BBC Radio 4 Extra, 9 January 2014
First broadcast in 1972, this programme was originally part of a Radiovision project for schools, in which learners looked at a series of slides while listening to the sound documentary.  This form of programming lasted from 1964 till 1990.
As with much of Chilton's work, Lincoln Frees the Slaves combined music and song to tell the story of the origins and progress of the American Civil War, and Lincoln's role within the conflict.  The emphasis was very much on collective responses: many of the songs dramatized significant elements in the war and the personalities involved - John Brown, Generals Lee and Grant, General McKinley as well as Lincoln himself.
While Chilton recognized Lincoln's contribution to the cause of civil rights, he nonetheless implied that one man could only have a limited influence in determining the cause of the war.  There were just too many competing interests and ideologies: the gap between Northern and Southern values was just too great.  Each territory had different understandings of what the concepts of "slavery" represented, shaped by their ways of life - the South, for instance, was very much a farming community, in which slaves were almost inevitably indentured to a wealthy landowner.  The landowners claimed they were treating the slaves "well," but could not understand what the concept of "freedom" represented.
Caught between the bourgeoisie of North and South, the slaves had little or no opportunity for self-expression.  Lincoln Frees the Slaves suggested that many African-Americans were simply press-ganged into the Civil War and slaughtered like cattle, while the rich Euros could buy themselves out of serving altogether. 
All in all, the programme adopted a "bottom-up" perspective by suggesting that, while Lincoln's reforms had a certain influence in reforming slavery, it was the slaves themselves who had to initiate change.  As such, they were prevented from doing so by their (white) employers, who inhibited their actions out of self-interest.