Last December 20 marked the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Next week will mark anniversary for the attack on Fort Sumter, setting in motion the events that would result in the most destructive war our country has ever suffered. Predictably, a number of pundits weighed in shortly after the secession anniversary, starting with one Edward Ball in the New York Times, followed soon by our local Dallas Morning News editorial board member Nicole Stockdale, who suggested it as a talking point, and, today, Washington Post regular contributor E. J. Dionne. More followed and still more undoubtedly will.
Mr. Ball and Ms. Stockdale ask us, particularly those in the South, to reflect that the Civil War was about slavery, and we should beat our breasts with appropriate shame. Mr. Dionne, surprisingly, is more balanced, but still concerned that Confederate apologists will attempt to “whitewash” the secession and War. After 150 years, one would think we would be past recriminations, but the sanctimonious among us will not have it so.
What was the Civil War all about?
“All wars are sacred, to those who have to fight them. If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight? But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war. And that is money. All wars are in reality money squabbles. But so few people ever realize it. Their ears are too full of bugles and drums and the fine words from stay-at-home orators. Sometimes the rallying cry is ‘save the Tomb of Christ from the Heathen!’ Sometimes it’s ’down with Popery!’ and sometimes ‘Liberty!’ and sometimes ‘Cotton, Slavery and States’ Rights!’” – Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind (speaking through her character Rhett Butler).
Yes, all wars are fought over money. A recent work by York University historian Mark Egnal, Clash of Extremes performs a detailed and painstaking analysis of the events leading up to it, and empirically validates Mitchell’s thesis as to the reasons we had a Civil War. It was all about money, or, more accurately, wealth, and how it is produced. The War was an epic struggle between the ancient feudal agrarian economic system, and the burgeoning free market capitalism made possible by the scientific-technological-industrial revolution which flowed from the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the large picture, in a process which is still going on, the War was a step in the dismantling of the ancient and medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, which held that everyone was born into an immutable class: the king and his nobles at the top, and serfs and slaves at the bottom. This process was the long, and often rough and painful, transition from caste defined by the accident of birth to the concept that “all men are created equal.”
We should reject the notion that any one of us today should have shame for slavery as it existed in the 19th Century and before. Why? For the same reason we should not feel shame (or necessarily take pride) in something we have had nothing to do with. There is no one alive on this Earth who does not have ancestors who were oppressed – or oppressors. By today’s moral standards, human bondage is wrong. That is a standard which has only gained acceptance in the past 200 years or so. Compare that it was once considered moral and even laudable to burn suspected witches alive, and inflict fiendish punishments on others who thought differently. For millennia, slavery was acceptable as part of an economic system that had been universally approved, and only became morally suspect with the liberation of the human mind by the Reformation, Age of Reason, and Enlightenment. Its entrenchment in the United States – which occurred prior to the time the last witches were hanged in Massachusetts – was not limited to the Southern states, although it persisted there because of the plantation economy. In fact, it was in many ways the welfare system of many bodies politic. It took care of the least functional members of the populace in return for menial labor. It still exists today in some backwater countries.
The Southern leaders who brought about secession ill-served their constituencies. They wished to maintain slavery because it was the bulwark of the economic system that they knew, and, while becoming increasingly morally suspect, was not considered the abomination that we, with the benefit of hindsight, regard it today. They sought to preserve an archaic system, and in so doing, coupled with the clumsy manner in which they reacted to Lincoln’s election, precipitated a disastrous war. (For more on this topic, see another recent work: Nelson Lankford’s Cry Havoc: The Crooked Road to Civil War).
Those who actually fought for the Confederacy — the poor men who fought the rich men’s war — were less cognizant of the economic reasons, but they understood the invasion of their homeland by outsiders – foreigners, really. Today we forget that what some historians have referred to as the “tyranny of distance” made one much more likely to identify with their state and region more than with the huge nation America was becoming. They, and even those who led the secessionist movement, did not fight to establish slavery – they were defending their homeland against a perceived invasion – which included defending the status quo they inherited, and which only a small minority of Americans wanted to abolish when the War began.
As for Abraham Lincoln, he was much more interested at first in preserving the Union for economic purposes than he was in ending slavery. He understood that ending slavery was necessary to preserve and foster the free-market capitalist system, which was a moral purpose of its own. During the War, Lincoln came to realize that making the War explicitly a crusade against slavery was all the more useful because the moral value of free-market capitalism and destroying an institution that held men in bondage have the same underpinning – human freedom. That is what our country – all of it, North and South, East and West, however imperfectly – has been about since its inception.
It really makes no more sense to vilify those who would commemorate the service of their ancestors in the Civil War – on either side. When it comes down to combat, soldiers don’t fight for their country, for ideals, even for money, they fight to stay alive, and, if they can do that, to help keep their buddy next to them in the trenches or foxholes alive. That by itself is honorable, but when it comes down to the reason they were there in the first place: it’s the money.
More to come.