Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Time to Remember the Civil War -- without the spin!

For the next several years our nation will observe the 150th anniversary of the the Civil War.  We will remember the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the shelling of Fort Sumter, the formation of the Confederate States of America, the many battles and the more than 600,000 who died as a result of the war (I saw recently that in terms of percentage of population, that figure today would be around 6 million), and finally we will remember the signing of the treaty to end the war at Appomattox and the assassination of the President by John Wilkes Booth.  

The way we remember this event may be determined in part regionally.  I must say up front, that I have lived my life on the West Coast, in Bleeding Kansas, and now in Michigan.  The way I remember and understand this war may differ from one born and raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  I know that down there they refer to this not as the Civil War, but as the "War of Northern Aggression."  We can have debates about aspects of this war, but I think that it is essential that we not spin it so that the war becomes about something other than it was.  These states that formed the confederacy did so for one reason -- to protect slavery.  That was, as E.J. Dionne notes in a column, the reason given by the founders of the Confederacy in defense of their actions.  Oh, they spoke of defending states rights, but only after the war was lost and slavery was no longer "defensible."   

Consider carefully the rationale given for the formation of the Confederacy by Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, in a speech given in 1861 just before the war commenced.   

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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.

I think that as we remember this war that it is essential that we as a nation acknowledge that a moral cancer was present in the very founding of the nation.  Because it was deemed necessary to appease southern colonies dependent on slaves for their agrarian way of life, the Constitution was drawn up in such a way as to allow for its presence.  Over time it became clear that the nation could not remain united with these two very different understandings of slavery present. 

One of the reasons why it's important that we acknowledge that this was a war about slavery is that the ideas of nullification and secession and states rights have become increasingly popular.  I see in the Tea Party crowds, not only those "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but Confederate Battle Flags as well.  I think that these flags are, in my estimation, an affront to the nation.  Not only do they represent racism and slavery, but they represent an act of treason against the nation.  The shelling of Fort Sumter could easily be classified as a terrorist act on the part of the South Carolina secessionists. 

I know that this posting is provocative.  It's meant to be, because I think we need to keep focused on the true reasons for this war.  I think we need to beware of revisionist history that excuses the moral cancer that ate away at our nation until it was impossible to stay together.  I also need to say, that this critique of revisionist history, should not be taken as excusing the racism that was present in the North then and today.  It doesn't excuse others who kept slaves either -- including Native Americans.  It is no a justification of every act on the part of the Union Government.  General Sherman was correct in his assessment -- "War is Hell" and he operated out of that understanding in ways that should give us pause. 

As we start this discussion it's important that we begin by acknowledging the essential causes of this War.  Were there economic issues involved?  Yes, but most of those issues were tied up with slavery.  Were there issues of clarification about the rights of states?  Well, probably, but again the rights at stake was the preservation of and expansion of slavery in the nation.

Over time I hope to comment on these issues more fully and I invite your responses (just keep them "civil").

5 comments:

Allan R. Bevere said...

Bob, a good post... and you are right, we need to keep the focus of the war on the main reason... slavery. Having said that, and as a student of this period and back to the Revolution, the states rights issue was used by the south prior to and at the beginning of the war itself. Of course, it was employed precisely in support of slavery. Your quote is just one of many persons with others having a different take. Indeed, the issue of states rights vs. federal authority was a huge issue during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 over other issues as well. Slavery, of course, was the elephant in the room.

Those who want to minimize slavery as the reason for the Civil War by emphasizing states rights are indeed engaging in revisionist history. But we need not in response do some revising ourselves and suggest the states rights issue was not swirling in the mix as well.

To those who minimize slavery as the issue, I respond, if it hadn't been for slavery there would have been no Civil War. The South would not have gone to war over states' rights concerning trade. At the same time one has trouble understanding this whole period of time without the tension between the states and the federal government that had been in place for many decades prior.

In the midst of our just desire to keep the focus where it should be, we need to be careful that we do not engage in the simplification of history as those with whom we disagree.

And if I may be just as provocative for a moment. You write, "I see in the Tea Party crowds, not only those "Don't Tread on Me" flags, but Confederate Battle Flags as well. I think that these flags are, in my estimation, an affront to the nation. Not only do they represent racism and slavery, but they represent an act of treason against the nation."

In reference to these flags I agree with you concerning the former; I could care less about the latter. Jesus was crucified for treason. And while I am not remotely connecting Jesus to the Tea Party movement my only point is that considering the beginning of our Christian movement, the issue of treason is not something that I worry about when it concerns my behavior.

If this post doesn't generate some good discussion, nothing will.

Allan R. Bevere said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret said...

Thank you for your thought provoking post.

I do think it is important that we not minimize the role of slavery. Yet we also have to caution against binary, good and bad, right and wrong thinking. I know that I was raised in CA thinking that the "good" north went and defeated the "bad" south in order to end slavery. Just as abolitionist views were not universal in the north nor were pro-slavery views universal in the south. Both sides contributed to to the conditions leading to the Civil War.

Also we need also remember that the North had insatiable greed for cheap raw materials. The demand to keep prices low of course reinforced slavery. Also Northerners treated the newly emancipated African Americans very poorly..often leaving them to starve. I would encourage people to watch the film "Traces of the Trade" for an exploration of how the north contributed to the creation and continuation of slavery.

It would be helpful to hold complexity and paradox. The south and its history, even its Civil War history are not all bad and northern history is not all good.

John said...

Bob,

You quote: "Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man."

While these words were said 150 years ago about those who supported the civil rights of people of color, they were repeated 100 years ago about those who supported civil rights for women and are being repeated again today about contemporaries who support civil rights for homosexuals.

It is also worth noting that those who support the rights of others are viewed by the speaker as crazy ("insane") fanatics. This from the guy who says: "This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth [i.e., that the white men are naturally (= from God) superior]."

Lest we forget a continuing teaching from Scripture is that God is truly impartial - in God's eyes there is no superior race, gender or other identifyable group - we are all God's children and all loved and cherished by our creator.

John

Doug said...

Wow... I had NO idea! geez