A serious, conscious mind today resembles a person sitting under a waterfall, squatting compactly with drowned hair, eyes tightly shut, mouth gasping and spitting while all around the foul water furiously boils.
Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, et al., pose very real dangers to mental health, and with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, one fears that we are once again to be subjected to yet another deluge of toxic sludge.
A disquieting omen of a fresh onslaught began in a recent Parade Magazine when Jon Meacham, former Newsweek writer and now a Random House editor, decided to take a deep breath and vent on the subject apparently without bothering to take much thought. The Civil War is America’s Iliad, but Meacham cheapens its meaning by focusing on current political divisions. With the South holding “Secession Balls,” he observes that the war is being seen by some political conservatives as “a struggle against Big Business with only tangential relations to slavery,” and that proposed cuts in health care reform and climate change laws are further efforts by followers of Jefferson Davis and the other secessionists of the 1860s.
This is bad enough, but then Meacham suddenly mounts some strange pedestal of certainty and proclaims, “At such a charged moment, we must remember our nation’s history fully, not selectively.” He concludes with the grand declaration that the war was about “slavery and the definition of human liberty.”
Unfortunately, this statement manages to ignore everything of importance about the conflict; it conveys nothing of value. Meacham is a fathead.
To begin to understand the complexities of the war, it pays to remember that economic interest is the major source of political faction, as James Madison said. In our history, each faction has had its roots in a specific spot of geography. After all, it was a coalition of southern planters and northern businessmen called Federalists who wrote our Constitution.
John Adams, by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, basically agreed to suppress civil liberties to perpetrate the power of Northern business. But this act drove the southern planters to unite with western farmers and the small holdings of the northern business class to drive the Federalists from office.
The result was Thomas Jefferson, author of one of the first of five great programs that proposed states’ rights and the reduction of federal power (much like the Tea Party today). But Jefferson went back on his principles with his Louisiana Purchase, which greatly expanded federal power, especially when Jefferson ruthlessly ignored the congressional amendment that such a purchase required. He later admitted this.
Andrew Jackson further expanded federal power by his highhandeddestruction of the U.S. Bank, and by 1860, the Jeffersonian coalition had broken down. As Lincoln’s election approached, the Democratic Party was under the exclusive control of slave-owning cotton planters. The refusal to open the West to free landholders and homesteads, intensified the conflict with slavery, hardening the North’s resolve to prohibit slavery’s spread. Western farmers quickly aligned themselves with the Northern interests because they saw in slavery a threat to free labor.
The free labor question is important. After Lincoln’s election, the Republicans were quick to enact homestead, banking, tariff and railroad subsidy legislation which Lincoln’s supporters saw as their main goal.
The South had violently recoiled at Lincoln’s election. Even before he took office, seven states had left the Union. This did not precipitate war – war came only after the firing on Ft. Sumter, but partisans of the North were incensed, viewing the action as that of a sectional interest that refused to accept its loss in a national election.
In any case, it should be stressed that the South’s secession was legal under terms of the federal Constitution. Too often this is ignored by Liberals, and the South is treated as wickedness incarnate. Alexander Stephens wrote a whole
book on this question of secession and the Constitution, saying that “no man was a citizen of the United States, but the citizen of a state.” Lincoln and others saw this as a major error, maintaining that the Union came first and that the states had evolved from the Union rather than the other way around.
But a key point rests on the fact that Lincoln never saw the war as a war against slavery but a war for free labor and the maintenance of the Union. Lincoln was a slippery politician and could talk out of all sides of his mouth to get votes, in one location saying that equality between the black man and the white was inevitable, and in another location proclaiming it was impossible.
Lincoln, however, never saw the war as an anti-slavery crusade. In fact, as Richard Hofstadter points out, Lincoln wanted to pursue a policy that recognized “negrophobes and anti-slavery men.” Slavery remained at the edge of his thought.
Jefferson Davis made the mistake of thinking the conflict a war between two governments when it was a war of distinct social groups which, because of climate, outlook and occupation, had developed into two peoples with very different interests and aims. The South was “agricultural and static,” refined, gallant, highly civilized yet home to slavery, while the North was industrialized and mobile, “commercial, matter-of-fact...self seeking, practical,” according to the great military writer Maj. Gen. John Fuller.
Meacham scorns states’ rights without seeming to realize their tragedy – that by proclaiming states’ rights, Davis embraced a doctrine that would act to cripple any chance of unified, coherent action by the South against the North. For example, not only did the states have to contribute men to the Confederate Armies, they had to set up irregular and local forces in each state that were little better than bands of brigands. The result was a waste of men, due to desertions, and a waste of treasure and blood spent trying to put the rogues down. The doctrine that individual states had a right to control their own destiny was a disaster for the South.
The war goal of the South was to put up enough resistance to induce foreign governments to recognize the Confederacy, chiefly because of southern cotton. The goal of the North was to restore the union by force of arms, not free the black man.
Throughout the early part of the war, Lincoln saw the issue in terms of free labor. He was thoroughly middle class in his ideas, believing that hard work, frugality and resourcefulness would allow men of ability to rise. Every man he said deserved an equal start in the race of life. The man who labored for another today, would labor on his own account tomorrow. However, the men uppermost in Lincoln’s mind were always white men.
Only slowly did Lincoln realize the innate absurdity of fighting a war to save the Union – in other words, restore a national status quo which, after all, had brought about the war. And only slowly and under pressure did he sign the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in rebellious states – a document which H.L. Mencken says had all the moral grandeur of “a bill of lading.”
Again, I emphasize that I am in no way an expert on these matters, just anxious not be stupid on a topic of such great importance.
The high-sounding bray of Meacham about the war being “the definition of human liberty” sounds very fine but it does not take us anywhere.