11. Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War?


Professor David Blight:
So what caused the Civil War? Somebody said “slavery.”
Can I hear a “states’ rights?” Can I hear a “conflicting
civilizations?” Can I hear “unctuous fury?”
Can I hear “fanaticism?” Can I hear “fear?”
Can I hear “stupidity?” Can I hear “Goddamn Yankees?” Or Jefferson Davis may have
captured the kind of toxin that was in the air,
around southern secession, in late 1860 and into this
“distracted, sad year,” as Whitman called it,
of 1861. Jefferson Davis,
soon to be the first president–only president–of
the Confederate States of America;
senator–former senator–from Mississippi;
former commandant of West Point; former Secretary of War. He tried to capture what the
South was doing with secession with a certain dignified reserve
here. This is at the very end of
1860, before Mississippi had seceded, but it’s not far away.
He said, the South now, quote, “is confronted by a
common foe. The South should,
by the instinct of self-preservation,
be united. The recent declarations of the
candidate and leaders of the black Republican Party,”
–and southerners made no–missed no opportunity to
rename the Republican Party a thousand times,
“the Black Republican Party.” At any rate,
“The recent declaration of the candidate and leaders of the
Black Republican Party must suffice to convince many who
have formerly doubted the purpose to attack the
institution of slavery in the states.
The undying opposition to slavery in the United States
means war upon it, where it is,
not where it is not.” That is, the Republicans did
not simply oppose slavery in the territories, they opposed
slavery in the slave states, and they would not stop until
they had obliterated it. “And the time is at hand when
the great battle is to be fought between the defenders of the
constitutional government and the votaries of mob rule,
fanaticism and anarchy.” Yes.
Davis seemed to think a little bit was at stake,
for the South, in 1861.
However, after the war, Jefferson Davis wrote what is
probably the longest, most turgid,
belabored, 1200 page defense of a failed political revolution in
the history of language. 1,279 pages is his memoir,
entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate
Government. And by the time he wrote that,
or published it, in 1882, he was arguing
everywhere, on storied, famous,
legendary tours of the South, the war had absolutely nothing
to do with slavery. Listen to just one passage of
that 1200 page defense of his Constitutional Movement.
“Slavery,” said Jeff Davis, by 1882, “was in no wise the
cause of the conflict but only an incident.
Generally African-American”–excuse
me–“Generally Africans were born the slaves of barbarian
masters, untaught in all the useful arts
and occupations, reared in heathen darkness,
and sold by heathen masters. They were transferred to shores
enlightened by the rays of Christianity.”
Now he goes on, and I quote him. Blacks, said Jeff Davis,
had been, quote, “put to servitude,
trained in the gentle arts of peace and order and
civilization. They increased from a few
unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers.
Their servile instincts rendered them contented with
their lot, and their patient toil blessed the land of their
abode with unmeasured riches. Their strong local and personal
attachments secured faithful service.
Never was there happier dependents of labor and capital
on each other. The tempter came,
like the Serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the magic
word, freedom. He put arms in their hands and
trained their humble but emotional natures to deeds of
violence and bloodshed, and sent them out to devastate
their benefactors.” Now I could go on and on with
this particular, incredible passage.
What you have there in that 1882 passage is the core,
the life blood of the Lost Cause tradition. In 1861–and you’ve read
Charles Dew’s book on this–in 1861 southern leadership,
at least until after Fort Sumter, argued every day and
every way that they were about the business of preserving a
slave society–a civilization based on slave labor,
a racial system ordered by slavery–now threatened by these
anti-slavery black Republicans. In the wake of the Civil War,
however, so much energy will be exercised, not only by
southerners, over time, to try to convince
the American people and the rest of the world that this event was
not about slavery. In a speech in 1878–like many
other speeches he gave in the last third of his
life–Frederick Douglass was at that point,
1878, already fed up with Lost Cause arguments about what the
war had been about. He was also already,
early in the process, fed up with the ways in which
Americans were beginning to reconcile this bloody,
terrible conflict around the mutual valor of soldiers,
and in his view forgetting what the whole terrible thing might
have even been about. And at the end of a magnificent
speech he gave at a veterans reunion he said this:
“The Civil War”–this is Frederick Douglass–“was not a
fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts,
a mere display of brute courage and endurance,
it was a war between men of thought,
as well as of action, and in dead earnest for
something beyond the battlefield.” He went on and on and on then
to declare that the war had been about ideas, and he described
the difference between those ideas,
as he put it, was the difference between,
quote, “barbarism and civilization.” Now, I’m going to spend this
lecture just reflecting with you on, first, secession,
because I left you hanging in the air about the various
explanations of secession, interpretations over time;
and I want to re-visit that at least briefly.
And then I want to take you through a little quick survey of
the interpretations of Civil War causation over time.
It’s fascinating to understand how in the past,
now nearly a century and a half,
Americans have gone through this topsy-turvy,
twisting inside out, changing view of what caused
that war. But back to secession.
I left off with saying I was going to offer you five
different explanations. I don’t think they’re all
equal, necessarily, but they’re there.
In some ways they kind of fold into one another.
And I’d already talked about how the preservation of slavery,
a slave society, a society ordered by slave
labor and so forth, was a principle,
if not the principle, purpose of this secession
movement, at least in the Deep South, where it succeeded.
Remember now, there are still eight slave
states that have not seceded from the Union.
As of March 1861, when Lincoln was to be
inaugurated, the majority of the slave states are still in the
Union, not out; only South Carolina over to
Texas, the whatever-color-that-is of the
Deep South, was the Confederate States of America.
Had it remained only those seven states it’s hard to
imagine exactly how the Confederacy would’ve mounted a
war effort, conducted and created a foreign
policy, and managed if the Lincoln government decides on
war–or coercion as the South will call it–it’s hard to
imagine how the Confederacy would’ve survived,
as long as it did. The four states that will join
it–we’ll come to this on Thursday–do not secede,
of course, until after Fort Sumter.
Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas,
in their initial secession legislatures or conventions,
either did not–chose not to vote, or voted secession down,
which Virginia decisively did–before Fort Sumter.
And it’s only after the firing on Fort Sumter in April of ’61
that Virginia will vote secession;
and it’s crucial, of course, given it’s–that
it’s Virginia, and the size of Virginia,
the significance and symbolism and power of Virginia,
the geographical location of Virginia and so on.
A second explanation of secession though is what I would
call the fear thesis; fear of many kinds.
And now this is, now, of course,
deeply related to the first explanation of preserving a
slave society but in some ways this was a racial fear as well.
If you look into those secession conventions,
and if you look deeply into all those quotations in Charles
Dew’s book–and he loads them on you doesn’t he?–there’s an even
more immediate kind of racial fear among southern
secessionists, that they live on the potential
of a racial powder keg, of the potential of slave
insurrection over time, especially if the South and if
slavery continues to shrink within itself.
There’s the phrase they kept returning to in Abraham
Lincoln’s House Divided Speech from 1858.
They never let him forget it, that he and the Republican
Party, they said, were going to put slavery on a,
quote, “course of ultimate extinction.”
That’s fairly clear isn’t it? “We’re going to make your
system extinct–how do you like that?”
“Oh, not a problem.” Fear of the radicalism,
now of John Brown. John Brown had sort of made
this equation, that had always been there in
the southern mind in vague ways, explicit.
If the Republican Party in the North had succeeded in selling
this slogan of a slave-power conspiracy,
well southerners now, the planter class and the
secessionists, are very successful,
especially in the wake of John Brown’s raid,
of selling a mutual or a counter-conspiracy theory.
And that conspiracy simply is “abolition emissaries.”
There are lots of labels it goes by but the idea that if the
Republican politicians themselves aren’t going to lead
bands into the South to attack the South,
they will end up nevertheless politically stimulating more and
more John Browns to make visitations on the South.
All over the rhetoric of secession you find the language
of–or the word frankly–of submission;
submission, we will not submit and so on.
Let me give you just one example. In Charleston,
South Carolina, the editor of its most radical
newspaper, its most secessionist newspaper,
was a man named Robert Rhett, the Charleston
Courier–I’m sorry, the Charleston Mercury
is what he edited–and he ran a series of articles under the
heading the, quote, “Terrors of Submission,”
during the secession winter. And in one of those pieces
Robert Rhett wrote, and I quote:
“If the South once submits to the rule of abolitionists by the
general government there is probably an end of all peaceful
separation of the Union. We can only escape the ruin
they meditate for the South by war.
The ruin of the South by the emancipation of her slaves is
not like the ruin of any other people.
It is not a mere loss of liberty, but it is a loss of
liberty, property, home, country,
everything that makes life worth living.” Rhett was full of some unctuous
fury, without a doubt. There were southern
secessionists who absolutely believed that even any
discussion of slavery’s future in the U.S.
Congress should be suppressed, that they would no longer live
in a union that even discussed what to do about the future of
slavery. And I would say there’s not
only a kind of racial fear, a fear of loss of slavery by
the planter class, but there’s a certain kind of
political fear going on as well, and that is the fear that
southern polls now had–they’d had this for years,
hadn’t they? The fear was the growing,
or the growth now for them of a kind of minority status,
that that Republican Party in the North now had the potential,
given the population of the North,
this sectional, anti-slavery party,
had the potential to really take over the House of
Representatives, in huge numbers.
Then you get Lincoln in the White House for four years–and
what if you get him for eight?–and he appoints the next
two, three, four,
five members of the Supreme Court.
And he can control the diplomatic corps around the
world, and even more importantly he can control patronage of the
post office system, which in those years,
believe it or not, was very powerful;
nobody gives a hoot about who runs the post offices now but
boy they did then. And what was at stake?
And we can see this all over their letters and their diaries,
their speeches in secession conventions,
was a loss ultimately for the slaveholding class of what James
Roark and other scholars have called “planter control.”
So to say secession is about slavery is accurate,
but there are layers beneath it, in what I’d call a kind of
fear thesis. A third explanation is what we
might call–or a motivation for southern secession–we might
call southern nationalism, a sense of southern unity,
a dream for some southern secessionists–they were a
minority surely over time and they’re even a minority,
I think, in the midst of the secession crisis–but a dream
over time of a southern nation, an independence,
of developing their own boundaries and their own
potential expansionist foreign policy,
where they would no longer ever be dependent on the United
States Federal Government, on one compromise after another
with northerners. And now to many southern
secessionists it would be compromises with people they
couldn’t even conceive of compromising with,
these free soil, anti-slavery,
they believed, abolitionist Republicans. These southern nationalists
were led by people like Edmund Ruffin of Virginia,
William Lowndes Yancey of Georgia, Robert Rhett of South
Carolina, James D.B. DeBow, who published the
DeBow’s Review, a very important southern
magazine out of New Orleans. It was a vision now of an
independent southern nation. In fact, Edmund Ruffin was so
determined to try to gather the spirit of an independent
southern nation that in the wake of John Brown’s raid,
he got himself to Harpers Ferry and managed to collect 15 or 20
of Old John Brown’s pikes; you know, these spear things
that John Brown was going to give to slaves after his
rebellion. And Ruffin sent one of those
pikes to the governor of every southern state.
These people were into symbolism.
Now, it’s interesting that this sense of a southern nationalism,
if you like, was born more,
I would argue, of fear of an enemy than it
actually was of any kind of planned vision of an organized
nation. As numerous,
brilliant scholars of southern nationalism, from Drew Faust to
John McCardell and others have argued–and I will come back to
this in a couple of weeks–a southern nation did come out of
this confederacy, but it was born almost
overnight, and not by a lot of long-term planning.
It was born more in resentment and defensiveness of knowing
what they were against and who their enemy might be than it was
actually born of a thought-out plan of what they were for. And it’s also– there was also
a theory at the root of this kind of southern nationalist,
fledgling as it was in the Secession Crisis,
that–and it’s right there in the secession debates.
It’s rooted in the shrinking south theory,
it’s rooted in the desire to preserve a slave society–but
it’s the idea that the South’s ultimate welfare would be better
outside of the union than in, requiring a certain thinking
about how to create a new nation.
A fourth possible explanation– though I wouldn’t hang too many
hats on this one because it’s rather vague;
it used to have a lot of purchase among historians–is
what we might call agrarianism, the agrarian thesis,
the idea of King Cotton ideology, or King Cotton
diplomacy, or put more deeply,
a kind of Jeffersonian yeoman idealism.
This is the vague theory that secession was to protect an
agrarian, agricultural, planter civilization.
That the South was ultimately–they liked to think
of themselves, even the leadership–as a
people or a republic of farmers, small farmers.
Now the majority of them were small farmers.
The real South, this argument was,
was not in the slave owning master class but in the men of
the soil, protecting a way of life
against all that ignoble, go-getter, money grubbing,
Yankee individualism. And there’s something to this.
You can find these arguments all over the secession debates
as well. “Separate from those New
Yorkers, they’re going to take your wallet;”
or as the saying went, you could hit a Yankee,
he wouldn’t hit you back, but he would sue you.
This had a real vogue back in–this interpretation–back in
the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, even into the 1950s and
beyond, among historians like Frank Owsley and others.
And its spirit, if you like,
is there in the Confederate Anthem–not Dixie,
but the other Confederate Anthem, the Bonnie Blue
Flag. You don’t hear that as much,
but there’s a verse in Bonnie Blue Flag that the
soldiers sang all the time. It goes like this,
and listen for its ironies: “We are a band of brothers,
native to the soil, fighting for the property we
gained by honest toil.” Whose honest toil?
Property. Well, for a yeoman farmer that
lyric made good sense. And fifth, you can also argue
that secession is deeply rooted in some–some have argued this;
certainly Bertram Wyatt-Brown has and others–is rooted in
this notion of a tradition of southern honor.
The thesis that at the heart of the southern planter class,
in particular, at the heart of their cohesion,
their self-understanding, and their worldview,
was a set of values by which men,
especially planters, defined themselves,
and therefore their society, and when those values were
threatened they circled the wagons in defense. And these were the manly
virtues, the argument went, of honesty, trustworthiness,
entitlement, social rank,
the willingness to defend one’s honor, blood,
lineage, family, and especially home or
homeland, to defend one’s community against not only
invasion but also insult or humiliation;
to save face in the presence of one’s critics,
one’s enemies. Nothing could be worse,
said the honor code, than public humiliation.
Disputes to the man of southern honor were personal,
not a matter of law. And there comes a time,
the argument went, when to hell with the Supreme
Court, to hell with compromises in congress;
“this is personal,” they said. Now, this one’s hard to throw
darts at and make it stick. You can see the language in the
secession movement–“we must defend our honor,
we must defend our society.” When is the southern
secessionist planter speaking from honor, and when is he
speaking from the preservation of the slave society,
and when is he speaking from his sense of agrarianism?
When is he speaking from a vision of an independent
southern national future, is never easy to know,
but you can hear it in a James Jones, for example,
a leading South Carolina secessionist in the South
Carolina Secession Convention who got up at the end of the
arguments and he said, well folks, quote,
“If we fail we have saved our honor and lost nothing.”
Now, think of the logic there. Of course he doesn’t really
know precisely yet what they’re going to fail at.
If a whole civilization goes down in ashes,
if a society will be destroyed at its root, you’ve lost
nothing. Some of these same guys who
were so caught up in defense of honor, of course,
loved Shakespeare. They especially loved plays
like Henry IV, when Prince Harry is lecturing
his soldiers to die with honor, because if you die with honor
you’ve lost nothing. Now, in your more modern
sensibilities life usually doesn’t equate with nothing.
But mix all those explanations up together and fold in a little
ambiguity, and you can begin to explain secession.
A final parting word though, did the South have the right to
secede? Let’s just have a show of
hands, just to show, just a poll,
did the southern states have the right to secede in 1861?
Yes? All right.
No? Bunch of Yankees.
[Laughter] Not sure? You people are honest because
this is a constitutional theory that is very old and never
ending. But not sure,
down here in the front–a teaching assistant is not sure.
So, and he’s remaining not sure. David Huyssen is a prophet of
ambiguity. You got to watch him,
he burns question marks on your front porch if you’re not
careful. [Laughter]
I usually save that joke for Unitarians, but I–anyway,
never mind. Okay, sorry, sorry.
[Laughter] Very quickly though,
in 1861, of course, people had to make huge
decisions here, not the least of which was
Lincoln and his circle of Republican advisors.
But Lincoln was very clear on this.
We’re going to come back on Thursday to this whole question
of what Lincoln’s policy was there in April 1861 and why he
moved with some force against the South.
But first of all, Lincoln’s view,
and the nationalist unionist view of secession,
was essentially this. And you can read this closely
in your Lincoln Reader, in many places.
But it was basically that the Union of the United States,
so the argument went, was created by the people not
the states. Now I know this gets a little
bit like constitutional hairsplitting,
but a lot of hairs were at stake here.
So you had to split some of them.
The Union was created, said this argument,
by the people, not by the states.
The Union was therefore older than those states that agreed to
join it, in the American Revolution and in the U.S.
Constitution. “We the people in order to form
a more perfect union,” some unionists argued,
meant secession really is not possible.
There was the practical argument against secession.
A Union cannot survive, the argument went,
if it can be broken at will whenever someone gets upset.
I don’t like this law and that law;
well I like these but I don’t like those;
I will nullify those and not participate.
Hum, the argument is, that’s not a good practical way
to run a republic. And some unionists–and Lincoln
was of course brilliant at this, eventually,
as you read his speeches–would argue against secession from a
position–sort of civil religion,
of almost mysticism. What did Lincoln refer to at
the end of that first inaugural? That magnificent phrase about
the “mystic chords of memory, from every battlefield and
patriot grave, would yet swell the chorus of
the Union.” That’s about music and memory,
not about the Constitution. Unionists would invoke the
fathers, just like the secessionists will,
of course, and those fathers of the
Constitution and the American Republic, they would argue,
were nationalist. They wanted a more perfect
Union, out of a Union that wasn’t at all perfect.
And sometimes they would even directly invoke Chief Justice
John Marshall, the Virginian,
the first great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for
twenty-five, thirty years, and the forging of that
institution of the Supreme Court into a national institution of
cohesion and a certain power. Now, the states’ rightists,
the secessionists, of course, will argue,
“no; no.” They will say,
constitutionally, the Union, they will argue,
is a federal union; federal in the sense that it
was a compact, a contract between its
founders, and the founders were the states that chose to join
it. And they will argue that states
voted. In the Continental Congress
states voted on the Articles of Confederation,
states voted to approve the U.S.
Constitution or not. States voted to ratify the
Constitution and so on. Then they will go to the
Reserve Clause of the Constitution–all powers not
given to the Federal Government in the Constitution,
in Congress, are, quote, “reserved for the
states.” That beautiful,
wonderful, tortured and ambiguous, but,
in some ways brilliant, provision of the Constitution.
They will go to the language of experiment in republicanism.
They will say the American Republic has been an experiment;
it’s been a fascinating, wonderful, world historical
experiment. But you know what they’ll say?
It’s just failed, and let us show you the reasons
why and the way, and let us go in peace;
it is our right. They will argue for the right
of secession, based on essentially the notion
of a contractual theory of government,
and that a contract in this sense, they will argue,
can be broken. Now as Allan Nevins once said,
secession though, after all the constitutional
historians and the lawyers have worked it though,
is a matter of power, and as Nevins said,
who has the most guns. I’ll leave that hanging for a
moment. We’ll come back to secession in
the wake of Fort Sumter and the beginning of the war on
Thursday. But let me take you through a
quick survey of what historians have done with this story over
time. I love this kind of stuff,
the historiographical debates of historians is probably why
some of use become historians– we like the arguments.
Before I leave states’ rights though, it’s of course a theory
that’s not going to at all die in the Civil War.
Secession may have died; well maybe, never say never,
who knows? Kosovo just seceded from Serbia
and Russia is making a big stink over it.
And I was listening to a Canadian radio station last
night–don’t ask me why but it’s what comes on right after NPR
goes off [laughter]–and the Quebecois in Quebec are using
the Kosovo model now to rev up once again the possibility of
Quebec secession from Canada. So watch out;
got to follow this. And there’s always threats
after some of our elections, somebody’s deciding they want
to secede, which usually means they just
want to move to New Zealand; but New Zealand has strong
immigration laws, so don’t even think it.
[Laughter] States’ rights is a theory,
I’m going to argue, a theory of the proper
relations of the levels of government,
how power is distributed between those levels of
government. It is a theory of the nature of
federalism. But–and I think this is the
crucial point and you can argue this, we can argue this forever,
and we probably will if we’re Americans–but I would argue
that the significance of states’ rights is always and everywhere
in the cause to which it is employed.
States’ rights for what? A state’s right to do what?
In the interest of what? Now throughout our history some
things have happened first in states.
Women’s suffrage happened in states first,
and then grew over time into finally a federal right to vote
for women. There are many other cases.
States’ rights is not always a conservative or reactionary
idea. It is sometimes a progressive
idea. One might believe in more local
state control–but to what end, for what purpose,
to advance what issue, cause, what principle?
Just make your list of issues. And where would you start
first, for stem cell research, for gay marriage,
for or against? Where did the right begin?
School curriculums, the right to vote,
women’s economic rights, reproductive freedom,
collective bargaining for unions;
and on and on and on. Old-age pensions began first in
some states in the progressive era, before we ever had a
national Social Security. The Civil War didn’t eliminate
states’ rights. It has this sloganeering power
to it that never gets much analysis.
Well all right. Now, somewhere on this outline
I listed–Well, in the wake of the Civil War,
of course, and for that generation, there were unionist
and confederate blame laying, interpretations of the war.
It’s a fascinating collection of writing, there’s a lot of it.
Much of it is score settling, of course, it’s vindication on
the part of southerners, it’s the forging of this Lost
Cause tradition–and I’ll speak a lot more about that at the
very end of the course, because the lost cause became
an elaborate ideology over time, especially a racial ideology.
A lot of the debate among the generation that fought the war
over what had caused it got all caught up in labeling.
Was the war “The War of the Rebellion,” which was the
official, northern, federal definition and label of
the war? This was not called the
American Civil War by the Federal Government,
it was called the War of the Rebellion.
If you go out and look at Civil War monuments on battlefields,
put up in the 1880s and ’90s, it’s called the War of the
Rebellion, if it’s a Union monument.
In the south, it was early called “The War
Between the States.” It was sometimes called “The
War for Southern Independence.” It was sometimes called “The
War of Northern Aggression;” that sometimes is used now as a
euphemism. My favorite label,
and it wasn’t just southern, but by the 1890s and turn of
the twentieth century a label that got into the press and
people loved it as a throwaway joke line,
was, quote, “the late unpleasantness.”
[Laughter] You want to start dissolving
conflict–we had some late unpleasantness here and
slaughtered all these people, but never mind.
Now, I’ll pass on examples of this unionist and confederate
tradition and perhaps we’ll just re-visit this at the end of the
course, because that’s perhaps where it
belongs anyway. But by the late nineteenth
century, the 1890s to be exact, and into the early twentieth
century, one historian,
named James Ford Rhodes, and this kind of nationalist
tradition in which he wrote, had a tremendous impact on the
way the vast majority of Americans would come to
understand Civil War causation. Rhodes was a gifted amateur,
a gentlemen scholar. He was born in Cleveland,
Ohio in 1848. So he was a boy and a teenager
during the Civil War, but too young to have fought.
But he grew up helplessly fascinated with this event that
forged his life, his world.
He was very wealthy. He retired to Beacon Hill in
Boston, and between 1893 and 1907, a fourteen-year period,
he published his seven volumes, a series called History of
the United States from the Compromise of 1850.
They didn’t worry about boring titles in the nineteenth
century. That title would never fly
though a publisher today, but that’s what it was called.
Seven volumes Rhodes wrote. Now, on the one hand Rhodes
said the Civil War was caused–he developed the sole
cause theory, and he said the sole cause is
slavery; make no mistake, it’s slavery.
But it’s what Rhodes did with this that is really important,
and it is still alive and well in our culture and you can’t
kill it. He said the war was caused by
slavery, it was an irrepressible conflict, but he focused on
slavery as a system, on cotton and the cotton gin,
not upon any moral element to the story of slavery and/or
abolition. Slavery was a national curse,
he called it, never a national crime.
Slavery was a broad force, almost like climate,
it was almost like bad weather, and no one is to blame for bad
weather. Southerners deserved,
in Rhodes’ view, sympathy and not censure.
Slaveholders, he argued, should be absolved
because they were themselves the victims of this system and
therefore the victims of history–a tragic lot,
destined to try to preserve a civilization that the world was
beginning to pass by. He greatly admired antebellum
southern society and civilization,
and there’s a certain nostalgia in Rhodes’ work for my God what
we lost, in the great planters world.
He rose Robert E. Lee to the status of national
hero; he didn’t do it alone,
there were a lot of people helping him with that by
1900–that’s Robert E. Lee who led the Confederate
armies to national hero, I just thought I’d point that
out. I was in Richmond two weeks ago
giving a lecture. A woman came up afterward from
New York or Boston, born and raised in the North,
and she has just moved to Richmond.
Oh, she’s just full of enthusiasm and she’s the
cultural attaché director or something for the
city of Richmond now. And I was speaking at this new
museum about the Civil War and she came up to me and she said,
“I want to know what you think of my idea.
I think the first thing we need to do in Richmond is just tear
down all those Confederate monuments.”
I said, “Oh.” Oh dear.
[Laughter] Oh dear. I didn’t even know what to tell
her. She said, “If they can just
take down that Robert E. Lee statue and then that
Stonewall Jackson statute. Just take them down.
Wouldn’t everything be all right?”
I went over in the bookstore, I got her a copy of Race and
Reunion, this book I did on Civil War memory,
and I said, “Here ma’am, just start here.”
[Laughter] According to James Ford Rhodes
both sides had fought nobly, both sides had fought well.
There was to be no blame, in this historical verdict of
seven volumes and something like 3000-and-some pages,
in Rhodes’ history. Now, this put in place–and
I’ll leave it there–a kind of nationalist, reconciliationist,
quasi-scholarly, popular historical tradition
through which most other interpretations of the Civil War
causation would now have to pass or breathe or move.
And then came Charles Beard and Mary Beard, by the
1930s–early–in the ’20s. How to sum up Beard.
Charles Beard, the great progressive
historian, so-called–and by that label we mean those
historians who came of age around the turn of the twentieth
century, first decade or two of the
twentieth century, and were still writing into the
1950s; some of them even into the ’60s.
They tended to see the world–especially by the
1930s–they tended to see the world through a frame of the
Great Depression. Well the frame of World War One
and then a frame of the Crash of ’29, and the worldwide Great
Depression of the ’30s. They tended to see history as
essentially a story of economics, essentially a story
of capital and labor, of wealth as an engine,
or the pursuit of it as an engine of history.
Charles Beard wrote a great book, in many ways–we now can
look at it and see all kinds of holes in it–a book called
The Economic Interpretation of the American Civil War.
He saw the South and the North as essentially two
economies–two civilizations, two economies.
There are rarely any people in Charles Beard’s work,
there are economies, there are systems,
there are economic forces; there’s cotton and free labor,
and there’s shipping and merchants in the North,
and there are planters in the South.
There’s the telegraph spreading across the North.
There are canals and there are railroads.
And in his interpretation the South rebelled to try to
preserve its economic way of life.
And ultimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view,
wasn’t really about any particular ideology–that is,
any racial ideology or any pre-slavery or anti-slavery
ideology–it was two economic systems living together in the
same society, the same nation,
and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways;
forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash.
Beard is laden with inevitability,
as any great economic determinist usually is.
He called the American Civil War, famously,
the “Second American Revolution.”
But by that he didn’t mean what Bruce Levine and Eric Foner and
other, many other historians of well my generation and the
generation before have called it,
when we’ve called it a second American Revolution.
What Beard meant by that is a kind of great dividing line
between an agricultural era and an industrial era. All right, my clock says I’m
running out of time. I’m going to leave you hanging
on this limb of wondering what the “needless war school” people
argued. They thought it was needless,
actually. But I want to end with this,
as a lead-in to Thursday. Walt Whitman wrote a poem about
this year. He called it “1861.”
And here are just a few lines of it, to give you a sense–I
think Whitman, as no one else could,
captured what was in the heads of northerners and southerners.
“Arm’d year–year of the struggle, No dainty rhymes or
sentimental love verses for you, oh terrible year.
Not you as some pale poetling seated at a desk lisping
cadenzas piano. But as a strong man erect,
clothed in blue clothes, advancing, carrying a rifle on
your shoulder, With well-gristled body and
sunburnt face and hands, with a knife in the belt at
your side. As I heard you shouting loud,
your sonorous voice, ringing across the continent.
Year, that suddenly sang by the mouths of the round-lipp’d
cannon. I repeat you,
hurrying, crashing, sad, distracted,
year.” See you Thursday.

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