McPherson's lead essay -- it gives the book its title -- is devoted to the historiography of the conflict -- essentially to dismissing various, sometimes quite influential, historical theories that the Civil War was about anything but whether this would be a country that continued to endorse racially demarcated human slavery. Contemporaries were clear about this:
Yet after the Union victory, many historians worked hard to promote alternative explanations for a conflict that killed over 600,000 soldiers. Former Confederate rebels wanted back into the U.S. national narrative without the moral stigma of having fought for what was now considered an immoral social system; over time, the victors too wanted to forget the bitterness. By the early 20th century, many Progressive Era historians promoted the idea that the fight was really over incompatible economic systems.
Southern historians claimed, influentially, that it had all been about their ancestors attachment to "state's rights." McPherson demolishes this:
In fact, McPherson works to clarify that Southern politicians only gave primacy to "states' rights" arguments when they were losing what had been a vise-like grip on the federal government.
Because we read history with hindsight generated by outcomes, what's not easy to recapture is that when the Civil War began, the North as well as the South was gripped by a strong feeling of having been unjustly treated by the other side. If Southerners felt insulted because Northerners labeled their slavery "immoral and unworthy," Northerners felt Southern willingness to break up the country would be a repudiation of what their ancestors have won in the Revolution, a democratic republic of (white, male) equality.
- My ancestors were Union partisans. Though they mostly avoided actually fighting, they were active Republicans, political supporters of Lincoln. One was a U.S. diplomat in France, working to discourage Napoleon III from jumping in on the Confederate side.They believed their ancestors had fought against injustice and won -- and I was raised to think they had carried on that heritage in the Civil War.
- As a young student of history, I recall being alternatively confused and attracted by the various strains of Civil War historiography. Growing up during the African-American freedom struggle in the South, I never put much stock in the states-rights/War Between the States version of the story. That seemed sectional sleight of hand. But I do remember being much attracted by the Beard clash of economic systems paradigm, if only because it seemed to treat Northern workers as if they mattered. But, really, I have no attachment to any of the historical explanations that erase slavery. Come on -- four million black people in bondage unequivocally mattered!
- But what really sets me off is that contemporary Republicans seem bent on recreating the "Slave Power Conspiracy" in modern dress. The Senate is even more unrepresentative now than then: 38 million Californians get the same two votes in the 100 member body as 564,000 residents of Wyoming? And then there's the filibuster; with the current party breakdown, states with just a third of the country's population can block legislation or Presidential nominations. States are again attempting nullification of federal laws they don't like, such as any gun control measures. Our unrepresentative institutions can't do what majorities understand needs to be done, so our politics are consumed with insignificant media-driven kerfuffles. We can't even take up the real challenge to our system and the world -- abrupt climate change. Before the Civil War, our ancestors put off dealing with slavery and its implications for the nation for two generations; we still have too many of their busted governmental institutions and we don't have 70 years to waste before taking measures to limit the havoc unconstrained carbon emissions are wreaking.
McPherson's essays are so rich I think I'll be writing at least a couple more posts jumping off from them.