IS THE PAST REALLY DEAD AND GONE?

In my last post I shared the plot of one of Stephen King’s lesser known works and asked whether it might contain a helpful metaphor for thinking about the concept of the past. King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers actually contains not one but two extended metaphors for the past. The first—we can call it Metaphor A—emerges when the surviving passengers of a jetliner that has inadvertently passed through a “time rip” arrive at Bangor Airport. Unwittingly having traveled fifteen minutes back in time, they enter a terminal that is still, gray, silent, and lifeless—a place of shadows but no substance.

The second metaphor—Metaphor B—appears soon thereafter, when King has a horde of vicious monsters devour the pale remnants of the past, leaving in their wake only nothingness. As I read them, Metaphor A evokes a past that can be visited with effort (sort of like a foreign country), albeit one that is lifeless and mute until the historian reanimates it and gives it voice. Metaphor B seems to go further. It describes a past that it would be inconceivable to visit because it has simply ceased to exist.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King's novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness when thy are through.

A scene from the 1995 TV miniseries based on King’s novella. The Langoliers are consuming the pale remnants of the past, leaving utter nothingness behind them..

I’m still wrestling with both metaphors, still going back and forth about their usefulness, and still interested in any thoughts you might have. In the meantime, I want to respond to a couple of good comments that have come in from readers who appear troubled by Metaphor B, and perhaps even more so by my comment that it correctly “hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone.”

Pamela and Gary make strikingly similar observations. Pamela notes that the symbols of the past are “still alive within us;” Gary maintains that the past “is well and alive in each one of us.” Pamela writes that the past is “a part of who we are”; Gary alludes to “who we are because of the past.” Implicitly, both Pamela and Gary take their stand with William Faulkner, who once famously declared that “the past is never dead.” (In a lesser known passage that I like even better, Faulkner also wrote that “yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.”)

Boiled down, Metaphor B doesn’t work for Pamela and Gary (as it would not have worked for Faulkner) because the idea of a past that is “dead and gone” evokes a past that is wholly inconsequential to the present, a past that leaves no mark on our lives today. If that’s how the rest of you interpret the metaphor then I’ll abandon it immediately, because that’s the last message I’d ever want to convey.

Our lives are profoundly influenced by what has gone before us; that’s what makes our cultural obsession with the present so debilitating and so frustrating. Perhaps I should have written something like “The past is gone for good,” and left “dead” out of it. (Would that have made a meaningful difference to the message?) But I’m not quite ready to concede that to say the past is “dead and gone” is the same as pronouncing it irrelevant and meaningless.

Consider this example: My grandfather was one of the most significant people in my life as I was growing up. He lived in my home town, I saw him almost every day until I went away to college, and it is but a slight exaggeration to say that he helped raise me. I cherish his memory, I’m fond of telling his story (at age nineteen he began teaching grades 1-8 in a one-room Appalachian schoolhouse), and to this day I carry in my Bible a picture of the two of us on his back porch when I was in graduate school and he was in his late 90s. I also know that his influence on me is undeniable. I inherited his sense of vocation and likely his temperament as well. His positive influence over the first thirty years of my life helps to explain who I am today.

And yet, my grandfather has been dead nearly a quarter-century. Must I deny this in order to acknowledge his continuing influence on my life? Before you say it, I know that one way out of the dilemma is the Hallmark-movie sentiment that my grandfather really isn’t dead as long as he is a part of me and all whose lives he touched. (Digression here: No disrespect to anyone, but I’ve always despised this cliche. I suspect it’s a comforting figure of speech embraced by a culture that no longer really believes in the immortality of the soul but recoils from the implications.)

This expression may be harmless enough at funerals or on a sympathy card, but when we apply it to the past it’s misleading. In particular, by asserting that the past is “alive,” we lose a crucial distinction between the thing itself and our memory of the thing. In so doing, I fear we perpetuate the common misconception that the historian studies the past directly, which leads in turn to the erroneous conclusion that “history” and “the past” are synonymous. History is not the past itself but the remembered past, to quote historian John Lukacs, a distinction that is critical to thinking historically. Whatever its shortcomings, King’s Metaphor B keeps us from forgetting this crucial difference.

I can think of one other possible advantage to Metaphor B: Thinking of the past as dead may also serve to remind us that the people from the past that we are trying to get to know are also (in most instances) dead as well. As Christian historian Beth Schweiger writes, the goal of the historian is “to see and to know the dead,” even to “make a relationship with the dead.” Think for a minute about what this conveys. Faulkner’s sense of the past as “never dead” calls attention to its power; Schweiger’s reminder that the historian works almost exclusively with the dead evokes a past that is vulnerable, even helpless. How could the latter be true? When it comes to historical memory, the dead are always at the mercy of the living. Their ability to define the meaning of their lives ended at the grave. How they are remembered, why they are remembered, whether they are remembered is all up to the living, at least until Judgment Day.

Perhaps in the end we have to hold these two ostensibly contradictory understandings in tension with each other. Part of the historian’s job is to help the present see the powerful influence of the dead upon the living; a different part is to be a speaker for the dead, lest the past fade into oblivion.

Those are my two cents, at least for now. And if you recognized in the last sentence the title of a novel by Scott Orson Card, you know where I’m headed next.

Back soon.

WHAT STEPHEN KING CAN TEACH US ABOUT HISTORY

In the history courses that I teach here at Wheaton, my students and I spend a lot of time wrestling with basic concepts that seem simple until we really start to think about them. Foremost among these is the term history itself, but I don’t like to start there. I think we have to meditate on the idea of the past first, so that’s where we begin. We’re not after a dictionary definition of the term, by the way. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that concepts like these are best understood through metaphor. Metaphors are less precise than simple declarative statements, but they are also immeasurably richer. They are more open-ended and evocative than anything Webster’s can provide. They are also better at stimulating our thinking, our imagination, and even our sense of wonder.

Nor do we have to decide on one and only one metaphor for each concept we are trying to understand. We can alternate between any number of metaphors that each point toward a particular facet or function of the concept we’re trying to wrap our minds around. The Scriptures do this all the time. The descriptions of Jesus in the gospel of John would be a classic example. The writer tells us that Jesus is “the vine,” “the door,” “the way,” “the good shepherd” etc. We’re not supposed to choose between them like on a multiple choice exam. (“Circle the answer that best describes . . .”) Rather, we can find value in all of them, believing that each points us toward a crucial truth.

When it comes to the past, historians’ favorite metaphor is drawn from a little–known British writer from the mid-twentieth century named L. P. Hartley. Hartley opened his 1953 novel The Go-Between by observing “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The metaphor warns us against the trap of viewing figures from the past as if they were our neighbors dressed in funny clothes. We should expect a degree of culture shock when we go to the past, and much of the value of studying history is lost when we remake peoples from the past in our own image.

The “foreign country” metaphor reminds us of one fundamental truth about the past: it was often profoundly different from the present. I regularly draw on a metaphor from C. S. Lewis to convey a different, equally critical point. In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis observed that

“A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion.”

By likening the past to a roaring waterfall “fall[ing] off the world into total oblivion,” Lewis was underscoring an epistemological truth about the past: the vast majority of it is beyond our knowing. As Lewis put it, “It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

I just finished a book that makes (possibly?) a somewhat similar point about the past, although I’m still working through what I think about it. I suspect not many of you have read Stephen King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers. Let me say up front that I generally despise horror movies and novels, and I’m not a fan of King’s work overall. And yet The Langoliers makes a fascinating argument about the passage of time. Rather than offering a pithy metaphor for the past, it is more accurate to say that the entire book (or almost the entire book) is an extended metaphor that challenges the way that we naturally (and often unconsciously) think about the past when we are studying history. When I ask my students to tell me what makes a work of history interesting, often the highest compliment they can offer is that it “makes the past come alive.” If I wanted to summarize what King does in The Langaliers, I would say that he puts the past to death.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

The Langaliers tells the story of American Pride flight #29, a red-eye flight from southern California to New England. During the flight, a handful of passengers who had been asleep awaken to discover that most of the two hundred other passengers have disappeared and the remainder are flying over a dark, desolate, and apparently uninhabited continent. As the story unfolds, we viscerally feel their surprise, then their terror, as they gradually come to realize what has happened to them. What they eventually figure out (spoiler alert!) is that they have flown through some kind of “time rip” over the Mojave Desert and have actually traveled backward in time, although only by a very few minutes.

As the sun is coming up the pilot lands the jet in Bangor, Maine, although nothing about the airport there seems quite right. The terminal is empty, still, eerily quiet—there are no sounds, no smells, no movement of any kind. The colors of the décor seem faded, the beer in the snack bar is flat, the sandwiches taste like sawdust. Everything about them is oppressively, utterly lifeless.

King speaks through a passenger named Bob Jenkins (a mystery writer) to explain what they have encountered. “I think we’ve gone into the past and discovered the unlovely truth of time-travel,” Bob speculates. “You can’t appear in the Texas State School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, and put a stop to the Kennedy assassination; you can’t watch the building of the pyramids or the sack of Rome; you can’t investigate the Age of the Dinosaurs at first hand.” Bob then raises his arms wide and gestures all around them: 

“Take a good look around you, fellow time-travellers. This is the past. It is empty; it is silent. . . . I believe we may have hopped an absurdly short distance in time, perhaps as little as fifteen minutes—at least initially. But the world is clearly unwinding around us. . . . It feels old and stupid and feeble and meaningless.”

In sum, King turns the lifeless Bangor airport into an extended metaphor for the past. It is devoid of everything that gives life: empty, silent, meaningless.

If we stop here, it might be possible to think of the metaphor as entirely consistent with our hope of making the past “come alive.” The metaphor would underscore the truth that historical facts never “speak for themselves.” It would also call attention to the indispensable role that the historian plays in generating historical insight. The surviving shadows of the past lie lifeless and inert until the historian comes along and breathes life them; only then, and only in this way, can the past ever “come alive.”

King, however, doesn’t stop here. Maybe the predicament that his characters faced wasn’t sufficiently terrifying; maybe he wanted to make a more disturbing point about the past. Enter the Langoliers. We first hear of them through one of the story’s central characters, a deeply disturbed young businessman named Craig Toomey. Craig’s father had been a desperately ambitious businessman who died of a heart attack when Craig was nine. The elder Toomey had thought that the greatest offense in life was to waste time, and so he had raised his son on bedtime stories about monsters called Langoliers who come to eat up lazy children.

But then the passengers of American Pride flt. #29 discover that Langoliers really exist, billions and billions of them. These small, insatiable, razor-toothed eating machines race perpetually around the world from east to west, consuming the gray shadow of existence that remains after the past becomes the past. Their next stop, of course, is the Bangor airport.

After a couple of grizzly deaths, the passengers manage to take off again with the Langoliers fast on their heels, and as they zoom into the clouds they get a glimpse of the monsters at work below. They watch as the Langoliers eat their way through “the rotten fabric of the dead past,” gulping huge chunks of past reality and leaving nothingness in their wake. Bob Jenkins again explains what they are seeing:

“Now we know, don’t we? . . . what happens to today when it becomes yesterday, what happens to the present when it becomes the past. It waits—dead and empty and deserted. It waits for them. It waits for the time-keepers of eternity, always running along behind, cleaning up the mess in the most efficient way possible . . . by eating it.”

Weird, huh? It’s a bizarre story, but King has given us a metaphor that hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone. In isolation, its message is too dark, too pessimistic about our ability to learn about and from the past. But it might be a healthy corrective to the more common popular view that exaggerates our ability to know the past with minimal effort. I think I’ll share this story with my students this fall and see what they make of it. In the meantime, what do you think?

WHY I’M GLAD SALLY JENKINS WASN’T PRESIDENT IN 1865

Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here, here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.

FROM MY COMMONPLACE BOOK: RAY BRADBURY’S “LOVE LETTER TO BOOKS”

I have one more set of reflections I want to share with you concerning the Confederate battle flag controversy, and I promise that I will get to them, but my recent experience on “my” bench at Lake Ellyn called to mind a marvelous novel that I finally got around to reading earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Quite a number of its passages are now in my commonplace book, and I thought I would share a few while they are fresh in my mind.

Many of you are probably familiar with Bradbury’s 1953 classic, but in case you aren’t, it’s easy to summarize the plot. It’s a dystopian novel, set some time after the year 2020 (the only year ever mentioned), at a time when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set them. Specifically, they burn books, almost all of which are now illegal. The novel explains retroactively how such a state of things came to be and meditates on the incalculable human cost that ensued. At its most basic, it’s a “love letter to books.”

Fahrenheit 451

Years after writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury identified himself as “a preventer of futures . . . not a predictor of them.” The book is speculative fiction, imagining what would happen if men and women succumbed wholly to the lure of empty entertainment and simply stopped reading, or at least stopped reading books of substance. According to a recent reviewer, the novel’s remarkable staying power stems from its ability “to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

As the novel unfolds we learn the chilling truth that “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Although the prohibition of reading is now officially enforced by the state, it originated with the people themselves, and throughout the book individuals who are hiding books are caught because they are turned in by neighbors rather than because of extensive government surveillance. The local fire chief reveals the genesis of the oppressive regime to the novel’s protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag whose eyes are opening to the heart-emptiness and soul-sickness that surrounds him: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Chief Beatty exults. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!”

The majority preferred to be amused rather than stimulated, titillated rather than educated, affirmed rather than challenged. Above all, they preferred to be happy rather than wise.  Because books might threaten these values, the safest course was to give up books entirely and reduce life to two dimensions: work and entertainment. The path to this impoverishment led directly through the schools, as Chief Beatty explained: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” No firemen will set our books aflame, but doesn’t this mindset pervade our society? A generation ago, Neil Postman offered a trenchant critique of how modern media feeds our cultural obsession with entertainment in his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has exposed the ways that higher education is actively exalting the other pillar of Bradbury’s dystopia, the grossly misguided conviction that higher education should focus primarily on knowledge that generates income. In her work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum exposes how both politicians and university administrators are evincing a willingness to sacrifice the liberal arts as peripheral subjects that don’t produce the same obvious public benefits as investment in science and technology. Both groups, Nussbaum writes, “prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

All across the country today, state legislatures and boards of trustees are concluding that the humanities are peripheral to education. Rejecting the heart of the western intellectual tradition and following the example of nations like India and Japan, they are choosing to allocate precious resources disproportionately to STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on the grounds that the primary purpose of education is to promote national competitiveness in the global economy. Boiled down, they now champion a vision of education that teaches students how to make a living rather than learn how to live, that helps students to create technology but not to think deeply about it, that trains them to think about things but rarely the meaning of things. Bradbury saw this coming sixty-plus years ago.

As a historian (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I can’t help but notice that this glorification of the pragmatic—life is immediate, the job counts—is also a mindless exaltation of the present, a marvelous example of what C. S. Lewis long ago labeled “chronological snobbery.” Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury makes the point that it is in books that we most commonly connect with the generations that have preceded us. Professor Faber, an out-of-work literature professor who went into hiding after the final liberal arts college was shut down, explains to Guy Montag that books were a “type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

Toward the end of the novel, Montag—who is fleeing for his life after being caught with books and forced to burn them himself—joins a band of hobo intellectuals in the distant countryside. Each individual has memorized all or part of an important book, and they wait for the day when they can return to print what they carry in their minds. Until that day comes, they are a living library, the world’s surviving, secret connection to the best that has been thought and said in humanity’s now forgotten history. The group’s leader explains their thinking to Montag as the novel closes, shortly after a nuclear attack has devastated the nearby city:

“Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”

“EVERY GOOD AND EVERY PERFECT GIFT . . .”

I’m going to interrupt my observations on the Confederate battle flag controversy to share a simple pleasure that I enjoyed night before last. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog (and if you are, “bless your heart,” as my mother would say), you know that one of my greatest joys is to sit and read in the summer in a park near the college. There have been summers when I have read thirty to forty books on the same lake-side bench, and the anticipation of being able to return to “my” bench is part of what gets me through our brutal Chicago winters.

"My" bench at Lake Ellyn Park

“My” bench at Lake Ellyn Park

For a variety of reasons I haven’t gotten to spend much time on my bench this summer, but I did sneak in a couple of hours a few evenings back. It was unseasonably cool for July—not much over seventy—the sky was almost painfully blue, there was just a hint of breeze, the mosquitoes had mysteriously gone elsewhere, and the park was quiet except for the distant sounds of children on the playground. Does it sound too mystical to say that it was a deeply religious experience—a fleeting moment of peace and beauty that both filled me with joy and left me longing for more? I was thankful—and because I believe that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights”—I worshiped.

RACISM IN THE CIVIL-WAR NORTH

I shared in my last post the concern that the recent scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag may simply end up replacing one myth about the American Civil War with a different one. On the plus side, most of the online chatter has rightly dismissed the postwar southern invention that the conflict had little to do with slavery. On the minus side, much of the editorial opinion I’ve read implicitly promotes the postwar northern fiction that the conflict was first and foremost a moral struggle over the institution. Both views are wrong, and both prevent us from reckoning honestly with our nation’s racial history.

As I explained last time, the Civil War was never a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery. While the white South was nearly unanimous in its defense of human bondage, the North was badly divided. To generalize broadly: the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided it, badly blurring the distinction between the two sides.

For different reasons, it’s likewise true that the war was never an unambiguous contest over racial equality. On this issue, the opinions of whites in North and South were almost—if not quite—interchangeable. The range of attitudes was undoubtedly greater in the North than in the South, but in both regions the vast majority of whites took white supremacy for granted and denounced all appeals for racial equality. Much of the condemnation of white southern racism during the debate over the Confederate battle flag has left the mistaken impression that the men who marched under the Stars and Stripes had significantly different views.

I won’t take the time to overload you with examples, but here are just a few observations that hint attest to the pattern I am describing. I’ll concentrate on white northern attitudes:

Let’s begin in the late 1850s. In many of the eighteen free states, adults could easily remember a time when bondage had been legal in their own neighborhoods. Slavery had been legal in all of the original thirteen colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, but the northern states began to phase out the institution after the achievement of independence. They typically did so very gradually, however, commonly passing what are known as “post-natal” statutes that only freed slaves not yet born. Pennsylvania was the first to act in 1780 and set a pattern that was widely followed. The Pennsylvania law stipulated that no slaves currently living would ever be freed, but that any future children born to enslaved mothers would be freed on their twenty-eighth birthday. Other northern states followed suit, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 when it declared that all slaves not yet born would be free when they reached adulthood. This gradual approach minimized the financial impact of emancipation on slaveholders and insured that slavery would linger in the North, although in increasingly small numbers, all the way up to the Mexican War.

As enslaved African Americans made the transition from slavery to freedom in the North, they quickly discovered that “freedom” did not mean equality. Five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Oregon) legally prohibited free blacks from settling within their borders or required them to post prohibitive bonds for “good behavior.” In the remaining states, blacks were relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs; consigned to segregated schools, when schools for blacks even existed; often prohibited from giving testimony in courts; always barred from serving on juries; and in the vast majority of cases, disqualified from voting explicitly because of their race. (When the Civil War ended, nineteen of twenty-four Union states still disfranchised black voters. Those that allowed blacks to vote were typically New England states with minuscule black populations. Overall, only 6-7 percent of adult black males could legally vote in the North at war’s end.)

In northern politics, race was a combustible theme throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Both major parties recognized its power. Generalizing broadly, northern Democrats sought to score points with northern voters by convincing them that the reason Republicans opposed the extension of slavery was that they favored racial equality. Republicans tried to deflect such charges by assuring northern voters that they were as committed as anyone to white supremacy. Where both parties clearly agreed was in their reading of the northern electorate. No political movement could expect broad success across the North if voters became convinced that they questioned the hierarchy of the races.

Such racially charged politics pervaded the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In their contest for a U. S. Senate seat from Illinois, the two future presidential candidates perfectly modeled the larger strategy. For his part, the Democrat Douglas continually charged that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a bunch of abolitionist fanatics with radical views on race. According to Douglass, the Republicans

Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

“really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negroes, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others—when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”

This was race-baiting with a vengeance. While I find no evidence that Lincoln ever similarly pandered to white racism—intentionally trying to whip up a crowd with cheap racist remarks—he understood full well that he had to convince voters that Douglas was wrong if his campaign was to survive. And so he sought to persuade the audience that it was possible to oppose slavery without favoring the end of all racial distinction. Lincoln confessed his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.” He admitted his opinion that the black man had just as much right as the white to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” But this need not lead to complete racial equality, Lincoln explained.

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Northern racism kept the Republican Party on the defensive throughout the war. By all accounts, it was more virulent in the lower North than in the upper North, stronger in the Midwest than in New England, more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, more common among immigrants and blue-collar workers than among native-born Americans and farmers. Catholic archbishop John Hughes spoke for New York City’s massive Irish population when he insisted that Catholics “are willing to fight to the death for the support of the Constitution, the government, and the laws of the country. But if . . . they are to fight for the abolition of slavery,” he declared, “they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.”

Class animosities also figured prominently in attacks on the Republican campaign against slavery. New York City’s Democratic newspapers argued that emancipation would eventually lead to a mass exodus of newly freed bondsmen from the South to northern cities, where they would compete for jobs with working class whites and drive down wage levels. Campaigners in 1862 for New York gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour announced that “a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern Negroes.” Such working-class resentment of blacks reached its pinnacle in July 1863 when New Yorkers rioted for four days in protest of the new federal Conscription Act. During the New York City Draft Riots, as they are known, angry Irish laborers trashed African-American homes, burned an African-American orphanage to the ground, and lynched a half-dozen black New Yorkers.

This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper's Weekly later in 1863

This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper’s Weekly later in 1863

Racism was almost as pronounced in the Midwest. Republican politicians from the region lamented that it was ubiquitous. Republican Congressman George Julian of Indiana confided in a letter, “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.” Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois agreed. “There is a great aversion in the West . . . against having free negroes come among us,” Trumbull conceded. “Our people want nothing to do with the negro.” The Chicago Times spoke for a broad swath of Midwestern sentiment when it blasted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Alluding to Lincoln’s allusion to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the Times editorialized:

“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Race continued to be a powerful weapon in the presidential campaign of 1864. Seeking to protect themselves from Democratic charges that they favored black equality, the Republicans took two steps aimed at redirecting the voters’ attention away from the controversial emancipation policy. First, they temporarily abandoned the “Republican” label and ran instead under the banner of the “National Union” Party, a transparent attempt to make loyalty to the Union, rather than support for emancipation, the defining issue of the campaign. Second, they scratched the current vice-president from the ticket. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was widely perceived as a man of radical racial views, and some Democrats had even insinuated that the supposedly swarthy Hamlin was a mulatto. To replace him the Republicans opted for an individual that no one ever accused of liberal racial views, the current military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A staunch southern unionist who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, Johnson would later publicly proclaim in his 1867 State of the Union address that blacks  possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

While the Republicans tried to soft-pedal emancipation in the campaign, northern Democrats did everything they could to emphasize the issue, always linking Republican support for emancipation to the party’s supposed commitment to full racial equality. There was no subtlety in Democrats’ playing of the race card. They lampooned Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and insisted that he and his Republican Party wanted nothing so much as a thoroughgoing intermixture of the races on terms of complete equality. Democrats coined a new term in the 1864 campaign—miscegenation—and informed voters that the creation of a mongrel race that was neither black nor white was the Republicans’ true objective. Democratic pamphlets and broadsides told voters that the Republicans wanted ex-slaves and Irishmen to intermarry, and Democratic artists imagined a ballroom of interracial couples celebrating a Republican victory.

No, the Civil War was not a referendum on racial equality.  Next time we’ll talk about what to make of this fact.

EXCHANGING ONE MYTH FOR ANOTHER? OUR ONE-SIDED MEMORIES OF THE CIVIL WAR

If you are like me and don’t have to earn an honest living during the summer, perhaps you had the opportunity to watch last week as the Confederate battle flag was lowered from its flagpole near the South Carolina state house. The ceremony marked the culmination of an extraordinary three weeks of national conversation about American history, and especially the power of race in the American past (and present). It began with the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag. Since then, politicians and pundits from across the spectrum have weighed in, debating not only the symbolism of the flag, but also the nature of the Confederacy and the larger meaning of the Civil War. Much of their claims have been superficial and sensational, but their instinct to look to the past for understanding is dead on. There are times when “we cannot escape history,” as Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, and this has been one of them.

lowering battle flag

One of the positives of the public debate has been to hold up to close scrutiny the tired assertion that the Civil War was caused by a dispute over states’ rights rather than slavery. As I wrote earlier, that view is indefensible–preposterous even. It’s not just that modern-day historians widely condemn it; more to the point, white southerners between 1861 and 1865 didn’t believe it. The statesmen and journalists who shaped the southern justification for secession made their motives abundantly clear. Disunion was necessary, they declared repeatedly, in order to preserve both slavery and “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.”

When black Americans view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, they absolutely have history on their side. The point is not that every rebel soldier marched into battle thinking about slavery and white supremacy. No academic historian that I’m aware of would argue that. The point is rather that it is utterly ahistorical to depict the defense of slavery as somehow incidental or peripheral to the Southern cause. All Americans understood that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war,” President Lincoln observed as the war was winding down. He was right.

But now let’s complicate things. There’s been a lot of righteous indignation coming from online pundits who remind us that the South seceded in defense of human bondage. “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy,” Vox’s Dave Roberts tweeted. “The Confederate battle flag is an American swastika,” wrote Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, “the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime.” Nationally-syndicated columnist Harold Myerson writes of “the South’s vile history” and “the grotesque reality that was the antebellum South.” “Barbaric.”  “Totalitarian.”  “Vile.”  “Grotesque.”  These aren’t exactly nuanced arguments.

For most of the last century and a half, two competing regional myths have struggled to shape popular American memory of the conflict. Boiled down to its essence, the southern myth depicts the war as the culmination of a philosophical struggle over the rights of states in the American Constitutional system. Slavery was at best coincidental to this struggle, which might just as well have come over mules, as one southern apologist famously contended near the close of the nineteenth century. In contrast, the northern myth defines the war as a moral crusade to remove, at long last, the blight of human slavery from the American republic. This is the view embodied in the 1876 Freedmen’s Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.  It’s the view that poet Carl Sandburg popularized in his rapturous (if wordy) 2,800-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the view that Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker perpetuates when she describes the Federal invasion of the South after Fort Sumter as “noble” and insists that “no one would argue otherwise.” As she put it recently, “Wars to liberate people from human bondage don’t come any nobler.”

Freedman's Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Despite the glaring difference at their center, these regional myths actually share a lot of common traits. For one thing, both became popular ways of viewing the war after the shooting stopped, not before. Both are self-serving and self-justifying, placing one or the other section in the best possible light. Both are also grossly simplistic, portraying the war as a kind of Manichaean struggle between good and evil. According to the southern myth, the war was a contest between zealous defenders of the Constitution and those who would trample the country’s founding charter beneath their feet. According to the northern myth, the conflict pitted advocates of human bondage against champions of human freedom. Finally, most importantly, both regional myths are wrong.

I’m worried that, in their rush to remind us of the centrality of slavery to the sectional struggle, many of the critics of the Confederate battle flag are simply replacing the southern myth about the Civil War with the northern one. For the most part, they’re not doing this explicitly. (Kathleen Parker’s gushing tribute to the Union army is the exception to the rule in what I have read.) Rather, they are doing so implicitly by focusing  on the Confederacy in isolation. One of the cardinal rules of sound historical thinking is that it is imperative to pay attention to context. We cannot claim to understand any individual or group or event or belief system from the past when we have ignored the historical context. “Know context, know meaning,” I constantly remind my students. “No context, no meaning.”

Most of the anti-flag editorials that I have read ignore this foundational principle. If they allude to the Confederacy at all, they tend to focus on it exclusively.  They identify its prevailing values, measure them against twenty-first century mores, and draw their blistering conclusions. Along the way—whether intentionally or not I cannot say—they perpetuate the impression that the attitudes of the North and South regarding slavery and racial equality were diametrically opposed.  This is a fundamental tenet of the northern myth, and it is wrong. Careful attention to context shows that nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is important to broaden our focus to include the Civil-War North, but not primarily to rehabilitate the reputation of the Old South. I have no patience with southern apologists who think that they somehow exonerate the South by proving that the North was racist also. No, we need to bring the wartime North into the conversation because it affects the story that we tell about America’s racial history. In their indignant condemnations of a “vile,” “barbaric” Confederacy, writers like Jenkins and Meyerson are actually reinforcing a perspective that has long been an obstacle to racial progress in this country. This is the view that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past. By making the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem, the rest of the country has been able to reassure itself that racism is an aberration, a pathology limited to the country’s one sick region.

A careful attention to the broader context of the Civil War does nothing to weaken the conclusion that the Confederacy was conceived in a determination to defend slavery and white supremacy. It does, however, show us that the war itself was never a clear-cut struggle over the morality of slavery, much less the injustice of white supremacy. I’ll address the first in the remainder of this post and turn to the second in a few days.

The Civil War was not a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery for one simple reason: while the South was nearly unanimous in its defense of the institution, the North was badly divided. Let’s start with the most obvious reality: throughout the Civil War “the Union” included four states where slavery remained legal—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. With the exception of Delaware, these states had large slave populations and large pro-slavery majorities that would have bolted to the Confederacy if the new Republican administration threatened to strike immediately at slavery. Although we sometimes fall into the bad habit of describing the struggle between North and South as a struggle between slave and free states, it was never that clear-cut.

Next we have to consider the Constitution: On the eve of the secession crisis, one of the things that northern whites shared in common with southern whites was that both groups believed unquestionably that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery within states where state law already recognized it. The leaders of the Republican Party, which emerged exclusively within the North during the latter half of the 1850s, accepted this view to a man. They sought to use the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but they acknowledged that they were prevented from attacking it where it was already entrenched. Northern Democrats, who represented just under half of the Union-state electorate, thought that the white population of the territories should determine whether slavery was legal or illegal there, but they agreed with the Republicans in maintaining that the federal government must leave slavery alone within the states where it was already legally recognized.

And so it was that, when states of the lower South began passing secession resolutions in the winter of 1860-1861 in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, one of the ways that northern congressmen tried to assuage southern fears was to support a proposed amendment to the Constitution that stated explicitly that the federal government could not touch slavery within a state:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

This proposal—which if ratified would have become, ironically, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—was passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress at the beginning of March 1861, but the shooting began before more than two states (Maryland and Ohio) could approve it. Once blood was shed, the momentum for ratifying an amendment designed to pacify the South came to a screeching halt.

Even so, the belief that the war was not a war to end slavery was the near unanimous position among northern officeholders during the first year of the conflict. In his first major address to Congress after war had begun, Abraham Lincoln vowed that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists.” A few weeks later Congress passed a joint resolution that staked out the same ground. Named in honor of its primary sponsors, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution of July 22, 1861 was the closest thing to a formal declaration of war ever approved by the U. S. Congress. According to the wording of the resolution, the war was not being waged

in any spirit of oppression or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or . . . of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of . . . States. . . . [The goal of the war is to] defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several states unimpaired; and . . . as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

Put simply, abolition was not to be a goal of the northern war effort, according to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Whenever the southern states ended their rebellion the war should stop immediately, and their “established institutions”—a euphemism for slavery—should remain undisturbed.

Historians who have closely studied the values of Union soldiers have determined that they professed similar views during the war’s first year. For example, in his study of the correspondence and diaries of nearly six hundred Union soldiers, eminent Princeton historian James McPherson concluded that in 1861 fewer than one out of ten were motivated primarily by the desire to end slavery.

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

The highest ranking officers in the Union forces tended to show the same indifference—if not outright hostility—to the cause of emancipation. More than a year into the war, Major General George McClellan, for instance—at the time the commander of the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war—wrote to Abraham Lincoln to express his view that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Although he surely overstated the case, McClellan further warned Lincoln that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Now without a doubt, much changed after the war’s first year. One of the most important developments in all of U. S. history was the transformation of northern war aims between 1861 and 1863, as a war that began as a war exclusively for Union evolved into a war that linked Union with emancipation. Part of the reason for this transformation was a new understanding of the president’s authority in time of war, in particular the belief that the rebellion had created a Constitutional window of opportunity that allowed the commander-in-chief to strike at slavery as a military measure to restore the government’s authority.

But the transformation of war aims rested on more than just a shift in technical Constitutional interpretation. There was also a profound change in popular sentiment in the North, particularly among those in uniform, that the events of the war brought about. To prevent this already lengthy post from becoming ridiculously long, I won’t go into a full explanation of how this came about. Imitating Inego in The Princess Bride, rather than explain fully, “let me sum up”:

For many Union soldiers who were exposed first-hand to the reality of southern slavery as they marched through the South, the war quite genuinely revolutionized their thinking. Some became wholly converted to the cause of emancipation as a moral obligation and readily embraced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. And yet the evidence is clear that a large portion of the Union army felt betrayed by the redefinition of Union war aims. James McPherson found that, for every Union soldier who welcomed the emancipation policy in the winter of 1862-1863, another declared it to be “unconstitutional and illegitimate.” Fairly typical of the latter were the Indiana private who wrote that “if emancipation is to be the policy of this war . . . I do not care how quick the country goes to pot”; the soldier in the 12th Maine who wrote, “I do not want to hear any more about negroes when I get home”; and the Illinois private who confessed to his parents, “I am the boy that Can fight for my Country, but not for the Negros” [sic].

Although support for emancipation in the Union Army grew gradually and significantly over time, McPherson finds that it was frequently couched in the most pragmatic of terms, so much so that he labels most supporters of emancipation in the army as “practical abolitionists.” These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war. “We have been playing with traitors long enough” was a typical viewpoint. Believing that slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and the primary source of wealth of the planters who had fomented the southern rebellion, these soldiers agreed with the Yankee private who concluded that “the war will never end until we end slavery”; with the Union surgeon who decided that “slavery must be cleaned out” because “the only way to put down this rebellion is to hurt the instigators and abettors of it”; and with the Minnesota officer who declared that “crippling the institution of slavery is . . . striking a blow at the heart of the rebellion.”

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

A consummate politician, Abraham Lincoln correctly understood that the way to build broad support for emancipation was to link it to the cause of Union. After studying, teaching, and writing on the Civil War for a quarter-century, I am persuaded that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as immoral was absolutely genuine. But it is also clear that he took seriously his role as leader of the Republican Party and the consequent obligation to frame the policies of his administration in a way best designed to perpetuate his party’s success at the polls. A viable majority could never be built in support of emancipation as a moral crusade, Lincoln recognized, but it might be politically possible to forge a majority willing to swallow emancipation as a pragmatic measure necessary to save the Union. In the summer of 1863, Lincoln famously defended his proclamation against northern critics in a public letter that embodied such a pragmatic strategy:

You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—I think differently. I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy?

When Lincoln was re-elected president in the fall of 1864, 55 percent of the northern electorate supported him, but 45 percent cast Democratic ballots, supporting a party whose platform condemned the war as a failure and renounced emancipation as a war aim. Emancipation divided the North through the Civil War’s bitter end. Concentrating solely on the Confederacy obscures that crucial reality.

Back with more soon.