Friday, May 17, 2013

Once upon a time, the U.S. fought a war at home

Thoughtful Ta-Nehisi Coates suggested that if a person wanted to learn more about the U.S. Civil War era, one had to read the historian James McPherson. I have been doing this and will do more. I began with an anthology of his short articles: This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War. I was bowled over by my emotional reaction to this book.

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:
… the new vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution" of Southern independence.

...The old confederation known as the United States, said Stephens, had been founded on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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 on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…"
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.
"Merely by the accidents of climate, soil, and geography," wrote Charles A. Beard, doyen of the Progressive school, "was it a sectional struggle" -- the accidental fact that plantation agriculture was located in the South and industry mainly in the North. … For some Progressive historians, neither system was significantly worse or better than the other -- "wage slavery" was as exploitative as chattel bondage.
Southern historians claimed, influentially, that it had all been about their ancestors attachment to "state's rights." McPherson demolishes this:
Of all these interpretations, the states-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, state's rights for what purpose? State's rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle. … In the antebellum South, the purpose of asserting state sovereignty was to protect slavery from the potential hostility of a national majority against Southern interests -- mainly slavery.
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.
… state sovereignty was a fallback position. A more powerful instrument to protect slavery was control of the national government. Until 1861 Southern politicians did this remarkably well. They used that control to defend slavery from all kinds of threats and perceived threats. They overrode the rights of Northern states that passed personal liberty laws to protect black people from kidnapping by agents who claimed them as fugitive slaves. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861, the presidents of the United States were Southerners -- all of them slaveholders. … Two-thirds of the Speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tern of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861, a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners.

This domination constituted what antislavery Republicans called the Slave Power and sometimes, more darkly, the Slave Power Conspiracy. … By 1850, when the number of free and slave states was equal at fifteen each, the free states contained 60 percent of the population and 70 percent of the voters but sent only 50 percent of the senators to Washington. [The three fifths compromise, counting Negro slaves as 3/5 of a person, embedded in the Constitution,] gave slave states an average of twenty more congressmen after each census than they would have had on the basis of the free population alone. The combined effect of these two constitutional provisions also gave slave states about thirty more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have entitled them to have.

Southern politicians did not use this national power to buttress state's rights; quite the contrary. In the 1830s Congress imposed a gag rule to stifle antislavery petitions from Northern states. The Post Office banned antislavery literature from the mail if it was sent to Southern states. …
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.
Lincoln and most of the Northern people were not willing to accept the nation's dismemberment. They feared that toleration of disunion in 1861 would create a fatal precedent to be invoked by disaffected minorities in the future, perhaps by the losing side in another presidential election, until the United States dissolved into a dozen petty, squabbling, hostile autocracies. The great experiment in republican government launched in 1776 would collapse, proving the contention of European monarchists and aristocrats that this upstart republic across the Atlantic could not last.
I've been thinking for several weeks about why this book touched off strong emotional reactions in me. I read widely on a good many pretty disturbing subjects, but this evoked real feeling. Some thoughts:
  • 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.
No wonder pondering the last great rift in U.S. history renders me anxious and angry.

McPherson's essays are so rich I think I'll be writing at least a couple more posts jumping off from them.

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