Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another Slog Over The Same Bloody Ground

My text for today is this article that uses the latest Confederate history flap as an excuse for a refresher course on the causes of the Civil War, why secession happened, etc. [Warning: this is a long one, maybe the longest thing I've ever posted here.]

I suppose the deliberately provocative title of the article is asking for these kinds of responses, but I got a little depressed reading the comments section (actually, a lot of comments sections have that effect on me these days).  145 years on, people have not grown tired of arguing about the causes of the Civil War.  I'm not sure if that's a healthy thing or a troubling sign of ignorance or division, but I hate to see the argument being conducted in crude, contemporary "liberal vs. conservative" terms (indeed, there seems to be nothing that cannot be discussed in these terms [via]).  Isn't it possible to be a "conservative" in contemporary political terms while also believing that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, the election of a President with anti-slavery views was the trigger for secession, and that the preservation of the slave-based system of agricultural production was both the goal of secession and, whether they knew it or liked it, the underlying "cause" that the brave-but-doomed Confederate soldiers were fighting for?  (One example of why the answer to that question is "yes, it is possible")

High school history classes, popular histories, movies, and TV documentaries inevitably focus on the events of the war itself - the sequence of battles, the parade of generals, the charges and retreats - mostly ignoring the crucial years leading up to and following the war.  These are the controversial periods and the ones most people are either ignorant of or harbor strange notions about.  I've seen Ken Burns' Civil War probably twice through, at least, but when I started reading up on the periods before and after the war, I realized I didn't know shit about shit.  The text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates are an education in themselves - and they're all online.  Another must-read primary source document is Confederate VP Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Speech" of 1861 (from the brief period between secession and the start of serious fighting), which contains the following choice nuggets:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution."

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth" 

(Also check out Stephens backpedaling from these statements in 1865.  At that time, he still maintained that "slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession", but tried to lay the blame on northern states' refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law.  Even today, considerable intellectual effort is spent trying to soften the edges of Stephens' words, to make a case that they're something less than they appear to be.)

The obvious question for a civic-minded person to ask in considering these ongoing Civil War controversies: if we can't agree on this stuff, 145 years later, how can we hope to reach anything close to a consensus on the not insignificant issues of our own time?  [Insert your own thoughts on blue/red polarization, enclaves, self-segregation based on education level and political affiliation HERE]  Some of the reasons people have for continuing to deny (or at least massage/spin) the fact that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War are easy to understand, and even to sympathize with.  I can understand why a Southerner, especially one whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, would not want to believe or admit that his state and his ancestors were fighting on the side of slavery.  And why they wouldn't want to feel that they were being lectured by Northern "liberals" on what to believe about "their" history, or worse, being called (implicitly or explicitly) racists for the nth time.

While I do believe that there are right and wrong, true and false answers to these historical questions, I admit that many of them are not as clear-cut as those on both sides sometimes make them out to be.  The statement "slavery was and is wrong" is, thank God, generally agreed to be true.  While I believe the statement "slavery was the root cause of the Civil War" to also be true, parsing it requires a degree of nuance that the previous statement does not.  It's one of those statements, like "Lincoln freed the slaves", that lends itself to the following "arc of understanding" (I think I just made that up):

1. School children and people relying on a purely "received", shorthand knowledge of history believe the statement to be unquestionably true.
2. Some people, when they acquire a bit more information or discuss the question with "better informed" friends, begin to question the statement.  They believe they've learned that "a lot of the stuff you learn in school is wrong" and that they have pierced the veil of untruth, a veil woven by those with political or ideological agendas. People in this stage of the "understanding arc" will often exhort those who disagree with their half-informed beliefs to "read some history" when posting internet comments.
3. A further reading of history, especially primary source documents, reveals that the original statement is true, though perhaps not in the way it is commonly understood to be.  For example, it is true that the Emancipation Proclamation did not completely abolish slavery in the United States.  A constitutional amendment was required to finish the job, something Lincoln successfully pushed for in the last year of his life.  So, while emancipation was not the work of one man alone, no man was more responsible for it than Lincoln.

Likewise, slavery was not the only cause of the war.  Other states'-rights-related issues entered in, but the issue of slavery was so pervasive in the politics of the period, so entangled with every other dispute between North and South, as to be unquestionably the issue that caused the "rupture".  It's true that once the first shots were fired, the Union was fighting primarily to hold the nation together and the Confederacy was fighting for its independence, but slavery was, as Stephens said it was (quoting Jefferson's prediction), "the rock upon which the old Union would split".

While I consider the "root cause" issue to be historically settled, I think there are more troubling and difficult questions to be asked about the Civil War: was the cost, in all senses, of preserving the Union worth it?  Should Lincoln have let the Confederacy go, allowed them to split off and form their own nation?  If he could have somehow known in advance how many hundreds of thousands would die, the extent of the suffering that would be inflicted, would he still have fought the war?  It's easy to assume we know the answers to these questions, but I sometimes have my doubts. 

We're living in a time when information is more readily and widely available than ever before, and in spite of (or because of) this, people seem to be just as susceptible to crackpot theories that play to their existing prejudices and fears as they were in the 1860s.  The "Birther" "movement" is just the great-great-grandbaby of the "Abe Lincoln is John C. Calhoun's illegitimate son" meme (which is still alive and kicking!).  We're also living in a time when secession is a semi-serious political issue in Texas, and Oklahoma legislators are trying to start a state-sanctioned private militia to defend the state from the power-usurping, 10th Amendment-violating federal government.  I'm not saying this is the 1850s all over again - far from it - but I think I'd feel more hope for the future if we had a common understanding of what happened in the 19th century to use as a foundation for our civic discussions in the 21st.

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