Sunday, April 18, 2010

A History Lesson

Did you know it's Confederate History Month? Because the largest group of traitors in American history - a group whose sole purpose was to defend and expand human slavery - is somehow a group worth celebrating for some people, that's why.

Honestly, sometimes it seems like the world is just trying to push my buttons.

The Civil War is one of those double-edged swords when it comes to teaching history. On the one hand, it is an endlessly fascinating event that gets people interested and excited about the American past. It is one of the gateway drugs of American history, in fact, right there alongside WWII, and as such it holds a special place in my heart. On the other hand, it is a beacon for the obsessive and the ignorant, and on a practical level this does create difficulties.

The obsessives are easier to work with.

When I teach, I tell my students that there are two basic questions in history. The first is "What?" It's all the journalistic questions that you have to ask - when did this happen? Where? Who? How many? It's the facts, or as we historians like to say, the evidence. Evidence is the core of history, but as someone once said, the core is not the most appealing part of the apple. The interesting question is the one everyone asks but not everyone answers - "So What?" Who cares? Why is this important? What does it mean? How does it connect with anything? That's interpretation, and that's what makes history interesting.

The obsessives tend not to remember that.

There is a recognizable sub-variant of human being known as the Civil War Buff. The Buff is all about the What - they can tell you the pattern on every button on every uniform used on either side, they know exactly how each unit of both armies was deployed for every battle, and they know, to three decimal places, the proper way to pitch a nineteenth-century military tent under field conditions. But they have no idea why any of that matters, what it might mean in any larger context, or why such questions are at all interesting. The facts alone are interesting enough for the Buff, and the rest they do not care about nor do they understand why you might devote class time to it that might otherwise be used to discuss button patterns. Forget the forest - the Buff can't even see the trees for the cellular structure of the bark.

Buffs can be redirected if you try hard enough, since getting them from What to So What is largely a matter of broadening their horizons and refocusing their already evident interest onto broader issues.

The ignorant, though - they're problematic.

I'm not talking about the normal run of ignorance. Ignorance just means that you don't know, and it's cured by finding out. That's what people go to school to do, after all, and if my students were not more ignorant than I am on the subject I'd be out of a job. And if they remain that ignorant when the course is over, then I will have failed. Ignorance is curable, and curing it is fun.

But willful ignorance - the kind of mental gaps that come from staring reality in the eye and daring it to exist in some way contradictory to your own private fantasies - those are unforgivable and almost impossible to do anything about. None so blind as they who will not see, and all that.

And thus we come to Confederate History Month, at long last.

I will never understand why people want to celebrate the Confederacy. First of all, they lost. Americans as a group generally have no patience for second place - especially not second place in a two-horse race - and this adulation for losers is therefore something of an unexplained aberration in American culture. It's probably not coincidental that the Confederacy surrendered unconditionally in April. Beyond that, though, there is the critical fact that they deserved to lose - that the Confederacy was a blot on human existence, that the United States in particular and humanity in general is better off for it having been destroyed, and that at most it ought to be remembered as a cautionary example of what can happen when the worst instincts of humanity are allowed to form their own government.

And at the bottom of this is slavery.

Yes, Virginia, the Confederacy was in fact all about the slaves.

This tends to be - you will excuse the pun - whitewashed these days. Anyone who takes the time to point out this obvious fact these days will be deluged by morons insisting that the Confederacy was about Southern heritage, or economic interests, or - my favorite - "states rights." This is pure, unmitigated horse byproduct.

Certainly the Confederates themselves thought so.

John Mosby, one of the Confederacy's most feared military leaders, was quite blunt about it, in fact. “We went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about. I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery. Men fight from sentiment. After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.”

Late in his life he returned to this point, in a 1907 letter to Samuel Chapman. After criticizing the tendency of Southerners to deny the obvious fact that slavery was the core value of the Confederacy and substitute fanciful theories designed to make them look less like the evil overlords they were, a tendency that was apparent even that early, Mosby put it clearly: "The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war - as she said in her Secession proclamation - because slavery would not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. ... I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery - a soldier fights for his country - right or wrong - he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in. ... The South was my country."

Here was a man who risked his life every day for four years in the service of the Confederate States of America, someone who could be taken for an expert on the subject, in fact, and the issue didn't seem all that unclear to him.

Nor was it unclear to Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America for the entire time that it cast its pestilent shadow on the world. As he put it in a description of the new Confederate Constitution in 1861,

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government 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.

Yep, something to celebrate, all right.

This is why all the protests from neo-Confederates about how their little pet cause was really about something else are just so much self-serving nonsense. The people who were there understood it, even if their modern defenders distort the historical record to avoid the obvious.

When Virginia's governor issued his late unpleasant proclamation requesting that the rest of us follow along with this charade, he was no doubt surprised by the outrage that followed, particularly since he neglected to mention slavery anywhere in that proclamation. Whoa! he said - I'm just trying to commemorate the actions of Virginians in that war! That half a million Virginians were treated as property at the time didn't seem to concern him, and even though he has beaten a strategic retreat on the matter I doubt he has changed his mind. From what I can gather from diving into the murky depths of the hopped-up conservative outrage on the matter, their general consensus is that this is a giant hoax perpetrated by liberals to besmirch Southern heritage.

No, folks, it is not, and I would appreciate it if the reality-challenged would stop telling me it's raining even as my boots turn yellow.

Repeat after me, folks: The Confederacy was founded on slavery. All that "Southern heritage"? Slavery. The only "states right" they cared about? Slavery.

The Confederacy was nothing to celebrate.

It should be remembered, yes, in the way that all the evil that men do should be remembered, as a warning about what happens when we think we can treat human beings as things. It should be remembered as a warning to traitors who would take up arms against the government of the people, by the people and for the people in the name of human bondage, traitors who would destroy the Union that the Founding Fathers set up in the name of their own greed, that they cannot do such things with impunity, that they will be crushed and they will be judged. It should be remembered as the tragedy it was.

Not really a popcorn sort of moment, as far as I can see.

5 comments:

Katherine McKay said...

How un-PC of you! Revisionist history - an American tradition! Great post!

David said...

All good history is revisionist, because the goal is always to find a better interpretation that explains more of the evidence than the one you already have. Even if you're just filling in the gaps.

This isn't really revisionist so much as reversionist, though - I'm tired of neo-Confederates substituting their own fantasies (fantasies that deny rather than explain evidence) in place of the obvious truths of the matter.

The Confederacy was about slavery, and no amount of yammering on about "pride" or "heritage" or "states' rights" can change that fact, nor should it be allowed to obscure that fact. The people on the ground in 1861 knew very well why they were doing what they were doing, and we need to take them seriously.

Jack Lynch said...

You and your War of Northern Aggression. You should be ashamed of yourself.

A lovely episode of The Simpsons has Apu taking a citizenship test. The proctor says, "All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?" "Actually," says Apu, "there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--" "Wait, wait," interrupts the proctor. "Just say slavery." "Slavery it is, sir!"

Tria said...

test message from Tria

David said...

Jack - well there were numerous causes that played into secession, but the only one that was critical was slavery. And even that was more complicated than just abolitionists vs. anti-abolitionists - northerners were willing to tolerate slavery in the South but not the West; Southerners insisted western slavery was critical to southern slavery's survival. And so on.

But the bottom line is that if you take away the slavery, the Civil War doesn't happen. International finance is not generally a strong enough force to induce mass treason.