Thursday, January 6, 2011

Being civil about the Civil War

This year our nation will recognize the sesquicentennial of one of the ugliest chapters in its history -- the beginning of (take your pick, depending on your perspective) the Civil War, the War Between the States or the "War Against Northern Aggression." And with that, the old debate continues: Was it over slavery, as we're taught here, or "states' rights," which many Southerners still believe?

The answer is: Probably a little of both.

One book that gave me food for thought was "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America," written seven years ago by now-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and which began to explain the complicated relationship between not just the races but even regions within that part of the country. Webb tried to make the case that, while many Southerners, specifically in Appalachia, actually opposed slavery on moral grounds, the Scots-Irish who settled in the mountain regions in the 1600s were so individualistic and anti-authoritarian that they resented any "outsiders" telling them how things should be run -- which is why the South had no problem mustering armies against the hated "Yankees."

But what about the Southern politicians who said that they intended to maintain slavery as the backbone of their society? Well, remember that they were just that -- politicians doing the bidding of their patrons, the slavers who paid for their campaigns. Anyway, the mountaineers weren't so crazy about those élites, who ran the state governments, either; the same rebellion that caused Southerners to rebel against Washington, D.C. also led to the breakup of the state of Virginia (which is why we now have a West Virginia) and a near-secession of the western part of North Carolina.

On the other hand, you could argue that Abraham Lincoln, who ascended to the presidency that year, was the reason 11 slave states left to form the Confederacy. The Republican Party, which formed specifically for abolition, wasn't even on the ballot in those states, which is likely why they considered Lincoln's presidency illegitimate. (And to this day you will have a hard time finding memorials to Lincoln south of the Mason-Dixon Line.)

And even Lincoln, who certainly did oppose slavery, didn't come to an all-out assault on that immoral institution right away. He had tried to broker a compromise, allowing one free state to be admitted to the Union for every slave state (when I was last in the border state of Kansas in 2002, I visited a museum that displayed a flag that bore the clause "Admit me free"). Two things happened that caused Lincoln to use his position to abolish slavery: 1) The British and French were set to recognize the Confederacy due to their citizens' demand for cotton goods, which threatened his stated purpose of saving the Union; and 2) his 1862 conversion to Christianity (he was reared without formal religious training and had attended a Unitarian church while in office).

Anyway, let's keep in mind that racial equality and reconciliation wasn't an issue back then. Lincoln, as well as many abolitionists, believed that black and white couldn't live together in peace and blacks should be shipped back to Africa -- that wasn't as far-fetched as things may sound, as the state of Liberia in western Africa was founded in 1820 for that purpose (its capital, Monrovia, was named for then-President James Monroe) and Jamaican national Marcus Garvey began his "back-to-Africa" movement in the early 20th Century.

Clearly, there are no cut-and-dried answers to the question "Why?" Let's just thank God that chattel slavery -- I'm in this country because of it -- is dead and gone.

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