If you’re starting here, you might care to first read my new Wall Street Journal op-ed about the ruckus over Confederate monuments. If you started there, then welcome to here. I assume you’re either pleased or outraged or puzzled. Me too. About a lot of things.
So I don’t have a structured narrative for this post, it’s just that in the course of crushing my thoughts into an 832-word essay1 I gathered various tangents and quotes that I thought maybe you’d like to see. I provide headings so you can skip to whatever you care about without slogging through the whole mess.
What Caused the War?
Let’s start with what is likely the most contentious contention in my essay, namely that Confederates were “motivated by grievances beyond slavery.” The vulnerability of such a statement is that it sounds like a chestnut you might hear from your marginally racist uncle who dresses up like Stonewall Jackson and shoots muzzle-loaders on the weekends. The war was really about the North wanting to maintain an economic chokehold on the South. Slaves actually had a pretty good life. Hey, did you know some of them actually served in the CSA? And so on.
There’s a cottage industry in that nonsense, and so the reaction of reputable historians like James M. McPherson is rhetorical overkill. “Slavery was the primary cause” becomes “Slavery was the cause.”2
Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes the seeming historical consensus as a unified view “that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them.”
It’s almost undeniably true3, and yet entirely misleading, which is signature Coates at his worst.4 While his statement is certainly true of many individuals who found themselves arrayed on either side, it’s inaccurate to suggest that there were just two groups, one in the South wholly bent on slavery as its organizing principle, and the other in the North, uniformly dedicated to putting a stop to this injustice.
So where we’re at is that if you assert that some combatants (especially common soldiers) were motivated by reasons other than slavery, you’re likely to be labeled a Lost Causer, a slavery denier, and so on. Witness the spectacle of Yale historian David Blight psychoanalyzing the brilliant Edmund Wilson to explain away the latter’s conclusions, after reading scores of Confederate diaries, that the South really did have justifications—at least in their own minds—for seceding that had nothing to do with slavery.5 And you don’t even have to dig that deeply—the SPLC and Atlantic Monthly essayists and others cite Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s execrable post-secession speech to illuminate how central slavery was to Southern secession, as well as the white supremacist vision that he said was the “cornerstone” of the Confederate constitution. If you’ll just go read the offensive thing, rather than settling for the same two sentences they all like to quote, you’ll see that Stephens spent the first half of his speech enumerating objections to U.S. governance that echo not just his contemporaries, but the 18th-century Anti-Federalists.
And let’s not even get started on Northern mobs who murdered abolitionists, burned their presses, and happily participated in citizen enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. My point is that the unprincipled Southern slavers versus the noble Northern abolitionists narrative is unnecessarily simplistic. Historian Edward Ayers puts it this way:
“No respected historian has argued for decades that the Civil War was fought over tariffs, that abolitionists were mere hypocrites, or that only constitutional concerns drove secession. Nor does any historian argue that white Northerners, suddenly discovering that slavery was a gross injustice to African Americans, rose up in 1861 to sacrifice 350,000 of their sons, brothers, and fathers to emancipate the slaves. Yet one still hears the old explanations in virtually any discussion of the Civil War.”6
Black and white, good and evil, we certainly do love our morality plays. And if you question the script, it’s the monument battle played out all over again—yer either with us, or agin us.
And see, there’s no empathy in this mentality, and if nothing else, the humanities ought to be characterized by empathy. It was empathy that got me started on the path to this essay, because I read right in a row several pieces that reduced Robert E. Lee to this small-minded, grasping, traitorous thug, which I don’t think is a fair assessment of his motivations, regardless of your belief about the net effects of his actions. I don’t understand why the latter forces us to construct simple-minded narratives about the former, as if we’re unable to deal with a world in which good intentions lead to shitty consequences, though now that I write it out I think I see exactly why we do this, because it’s a back-door way of excusing our own stupidity and self-service and mistakes, by crediting our good intentions, which we juxtapose with the wicked motivations of all those bad, bad people in history.
Which puts me in mind of this wonderful remark by Clive James in Cultural Amnesia, regarding people who harshly judge artists who compromised with this or that authoritarian regime:
“Young readers…will try to convince themselves that they would have behaved differently. But the way to avoid the same error now is not through understanding less. It can only be through understanding more. And the beginning of understanding more is to realize that there is more than can be understood.”
Or maybe we should keep in mind what Jesus said, referenced by Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address regarding the rebels: Judge not, lest ye be judged, which we shouldn’t take to mean that we have to get out of the business of calling evil by its rightful name7, but rather that we should be mindful of our impulse to make demons of others in order to make angels of ourselves.
On Disintegrating Culture
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray describes how American elites once consumed a set of cultural experiences—music, TV shows, vacation spots—that were very similar to those available to the middle and even lower classes. That’s all changed (one telling example: say the word Branson to average Americans, and they’re liable to think you mean the Missouri vacation destination, whereas upper-class coastals will think of the Virgin CEO), and with it we see this growing political tribalization and bitterness, and a general inability of schools to impart much from history other than a randomized and increasingly guilt-laden mush, and what this all means is that we just don’t agree any more about who or what is worth memorializing. Add in our Puritanical ad hominem attack instinct, and you can’t even propose a statue to Mother Teresa without some group coming forward to note that her position on birth control was problematic.
And maybe that’s all fine, I mean look at the Romans—they were lousy with statues at the end, and they did them no good. But this is a symptom, right? We can’t agree on what virtue is, or who exemplifies it, and we can’t get past this facile need for pure heroes and utterly befouled villains, such that Milton’s Lucifer is even too sympathetic for us, and so here we are, in our endless cycle of hero worship and heroes falling and new heroes springing up to replace them, all our heroes fresh and new and disposable and thus more like toilet paper than actual humans that our children can learn something from.
Something I didn’t get around to noting in the essay, when listing errors in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s database of Civil War monuments, is that nobody’s asking whether the periods when Confederate monuments went up saw a surge in monument-building in general. The SPLC’s contention, uncritically repeated in this Atlantic Monthly essay, is that Jim Crow racism was the primary driver of Confederate monument building, and to substantiate this they point to the timeline of dedications.
But consider this: Of North Carolina’s 160 Revolutionary War monuments, 139 were built after 1900.8 Maybe there were other factors, in other words, that drove a spate of monument-building. Three possibilities I’ve heard are: 1) Changing cultural tastes that made such memorials more desirable, 2) Changing economics that made them more affordable, and 3) A devastating WWI sparked an impulse to commemorate.
I read about an old boy in rural NC who hauled stone in his pickup to an empty spot in the town square, then had a Confederate monument built there at his own expense, with an inscription stating in no uncertain terms that the war had NOT been about slavery. He’d had a kinsman who’d served in the Confederacy, and who’d recently died. So how do you break that down? Do you just write him off as one more redneck bigot looking to oppress someone?9
- In Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson observes that while the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin carries us on a journey through the South which reveals the complexity of voices and beliefs in that region, various plays based on the book compress all that action into New Orleans, while at the same time sentimentalizing and flattening the characters, which is kind of a description of what’s happening around there around the monuments, if you think about it.
- The demonic picture of Richard Spencer, that avatar of White Supremacist Chic, holding a torch amidst his fellow race fetishists beside the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA, put me in mind of Will Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee, where he recounts his father’s senatorial campaign against race-baiting Mississippi populist James Vardaman, who “stood for all he considered vulgar and dangerous.” Percy’s entire book is really about the passing of an age and a small group of Southern elites within that age, and most people today would probably say “good riddance,” but what interests me here is his prediction of what was coming as honor (a Southern myth, according to Prof. Blight) faded from the field: “a new-born, golden age of demagoguery…of proletarian representatives of the proletariat.” Clever men would rise up to appeal to their fellows’ worst instincts. Of this new constituency of ignorance and hatred, Percy wrote: “They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards. They were undiluted Anglo-Saxons. There were the sovereign voter.”
- Penultimately, a quote from Ulysses Grant at Appomattox: “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.”
And finally, a poem by Walt Whitman:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
- Remember back in school when a 500-word essay sounded like a death sentence?
- It’s important right off the bat to note that there’s a difference between asking: 1) What caused the war; 2) What contemporary rationales each side gave for taking up arms; and 3) What really motivated each side to take up arms. And notice how (2) and (3) basically assume that there are a unified set of causes with a roughly equal cardinal ordering for all combatants who possessed some decision-making authority over whether to join said combat, which is a really big and ridiculous kind of stretch that lends itself to oversimplification, which I suppose is acceptable in blog posts but basically inexcusable for academics, who get rewarded by the publication pound. And even though this is a footnote, the more I think about it this is the crux of the matter, because the “Slavery was the sole cause” types are focused on (1), whereas the “Southerners had honorable motivations” crowd really leans on (2) and (3), though there’s so many amateur hack historians on their side that they can’t help but venture into (1), where they tend to make fools of themselves.
- Depending on how one interprets “wholly premised”
- If you want his best regarding the Lost Cause and its consequences for Southern white culture, read this post, which even if you don’t agree with it is pretty darn thoughtful
- Blight has bigger fish to fry. He’s spent years and barrels of ink polishing up the following equation: Opposition to Federal power = States Rights = Confederate sympathies = white supremacy. So if you think D.C. has too much power, you’re probably cool with segregated water foundations.
- Michael Woods has a nice rundown of relatively recent thinking about Civil War causation among historians
- Our last best defense against cutthroats, as Unabomber victim David Gelertner noted
- You can check out the data for yourself here
- This is a moment when I think again of Ta-Nehisi Coates, trying to raise his son in a world where he could very well get shot in a Wal-Mart without doing anything wrong other than waking up with the wrong color skin, and I imagine Coates reads a sentence like this and thinks: “Motherfucker I don’t have time to crawl inside the head of every cracker who ever lived and grok every feeling he ever felt about his mama and the Great Old South and how one time a black boy stole his bicycle and another time some white boys were picking on a black girl and he stood up for her, because I’m living right here in the right now, and this comfortable arrangement of yours isn’t working for me and mine.”