Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Ambiguous Anniversary (UPDATE)

Today is the sesquicentennial of the opening shots of the American Civil War. No event in our history, with the exception of our founding, is the source of more historical and popular curiosity, debate, discussion, general interest, and controversy. In part because post-bellum academic historical reflection on the causes of the Civil War was dominated by southern historians who combined an agrarian romanticism with a collective professional mendacity that is breathtaking in its thoroughness, generations of Americans were taught that, while certainly misguided, the southern secession and resulting conflict were far more the result of northern perfidy than southern intransigence on slavery. At this historical juncture, thinking again about the day-long shelling of St. Sumter in Charleston, SC harbor (an event, unlike the resulting conflict, that left no one dead), it might be nice to read one of the documents the state of South Carolina produced to defend its decision to secede from the union.
The ends for which the Constitution was framed are declared by itself to be "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.

We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
The entire declaration, it should be noted, does not mention a generalized adherence to "State's Rights", the insistence upon which so many post-bellum Confederate apologias have centered. Such an abstract principle is not, nor could ever have been, the cause of any conflict. As this declaration by the people of South Carolina through their representatives makes clear, the sole reason for secession and war was the right of southern states to keep and hold other human beings as chattel.

One point should be noted regarding their view of Abraham Lincoln. This document, produced in December, 1860, four months before the attack on Ft. Sumter, the legislators declared that Pres. Lincoln had every intention of waging aggressive war to destroy slavery. This, despite repeated statements to the contrary by Lincoln during the campaign, and his many statements regarding restoring Union as his sole purpose. Furthermore, the idea of "The War of Northern Aggression" begins right here, in the sincere, if erroneous belief, that the entire war was planned, from the start, and that the attack on federal troops in South Carolina was a pre-emptive action on the part of South Carolinians.

With all the nonsense currently swirling around concerning Pres. Obama - he's a Marxist Muslim anti-American radical born in Kenya - and the actions of the federal government - they want to steal our money and our guns to impose socialism, Sharia, and gay marriage that will destroy the real institution and the country in the process - has a dangerous precedent in our history. That nearly half of those who are self-declared Republicans believe that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii should trouble anyone who cares about America. Our nation was rent asunder by people who exploited lies and phony conspiracy theories to bolster their own economic and political agenda. Over half a million Americans died because a powerful, relatively small number of slave holders across the south feared the end of their hold on power.

Anything else, any other excuse, any other alleged reason, is a lie. One hundred fifty years later, we need to remember so that they truly will not have died in vain.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coats has this on another persistent lie about the Civil War.
It's worth considering how this claim lingers. James McPherson is a Pulitizer-Prize winning historian, one of the titans of his field. Bruce Levine wrote a highly readable investigation into the charge. Historians from the Park Service have debunked the myth. There is a website specifically devoted to further debunking the myth. And yet it does not simply linger, it thrives and actually spreads to reputable places like The Takeaway. The information is widely available. We simply can't cope with it.

That black people are participants in the spread of this myth doesn't mean much to me. I'm sure somewhere there are Jews who deny the Holocaust. All this says to me is that it is extremely painful--for blacks and whites--to face up to the fact that Civil War was about the right of white people to pilfer the labor of blacks. We really need to believe that our ancestors were better than this. But they weren't. And, as proven by our inability to accept the truth, neither are we.
See, if blacks fought for the Confederacy, then the war had nothing to do with slavery. But the war had everything to do with slavery, and no blacks fought for the right of states to hold their fellow blacks as chattel. Lies piled on top of lies.

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