Monthly Archives: April 2015


When I accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington in 1988, I anticipated that my teaching responsibilities would lie primarily in the fields of American economic history and the history of the United States in the twentieth century.  After accepting the position, however, I was “invited” (a euphemism for “required”) to teach an upper-division course on the American Civil War.  The retiring faculty member whom I was replacing had long taught such a course to robust enrollments, and my department hoped to see the class continue.  I was genuinely happy for the opportunity, even though my knowledge of the Civil War was distressingly thin.  I had been trained as an economic historian in graduate school, and my study of the war had focused almost exclusively on the conflict’s economic causes and consequences.  I had read a lot of popular works on the Civil War as I was growing up (reflecting the fact that I was not simply an intellectual nerd but a southern intellectual nerd), but I had almost no exposure to the vast academic literature on the war’s political, military, social, and international dimensions.

McPhersonBattleCryThankfully, there was James McPherson.  The same year that I arrived in Seattle, the Princeton historian came out with what, in my opinion, is still the best one-volume history of the Civil War: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988).    Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the book combined gripping prose with scholarly insight, a sense of wonder, and responsible moral engagement.  It’s a tour de force.  Although my future students didn’t know it, James McPherson provided the framework and much of the substance of “my” course on the Civil War for years to come.

McPherson is now retired from Princeton after a long and distinguished career in which he authored or edited more than thirty books, served as president of the American Historical Association, and twice received the prestigious Gilder Lehrman Prize, which annually recognizes the best scholarly book on the Civil War era.  Though in his late 70s, McPherson shows no signs of slowing down, as evidence by last month’s release of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (Oxford University Press, 2015).  This anthology brings together a dozen of McPherson’s more recent essays on the war and exhibits the range of focus and depth of insight that are his hallmarks.

I was invited to review the collection for the print edition of Christianity Today, and as of yesterday my review is accessible online as well.  You can check it out here, if you are interested.



A few days ago I shared some suggestions about ways to relive the events of April 19, 1775.  Before April 19th gets too far in our rear view mirror, I want to offer a few thoughts about another momentous event in American history that occurred on that date.  If you read any news feeds at all on the 19th, you probably already know what I have in mind.

It was twenty years ago Sunday that twenty-six-year-old army veteran Timothy McVeigh parked a rental truck packed with homemade explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  The subsequent explosion at 9:02 a.m. killed one hundred sixty-eight men, women, and children and injured more than six hundred others.  The atrocity was, and remains, the costliest act of domestic terrorism in U. S. history.

By his own account, McVeigh’s choice to strike on the 19th of April had nothing to do with the events at Lexington and Concord two hundred twenty years earlier.  April 19, 1995 was the second anniversary of the fiery culmination of a 51-day standoff in Waco, Texas between federal agents and the followers of Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh.  McVeigh committed mass murder to protest what had happened there, and as a “counterattack” against a federal government which, in his twisted view, was already at war against its citizens.

And yet a connection between the events still calls out.  For several years before the bombing, McVeigh had immersed himself in a gun-show culture that often drew parallels between its adherents and the patriots of 1776.  What is more, McVeigh had taken to memorizing passages from the writings of patriot leaders, and when he was arrested within ninety minutes of the bombing, he was wearing a t-shirt with this sobering quote from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  Thus it may have been a coincidence that McVeigh struck his purported blow for liberty on the day that most historians date as the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, but McVeigh would surely have thought it a happy coincidence.

Timothy McVeigh's t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt is now on display at the Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum.

This is why Timothy McVeigh will always be linked in my mind with Thomas Jefferson and the Lexington Minutemen.  I only wish that McVeigh could have understood both better.

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

Thomas Jefferson, 1786, by artist Mather Brown

First, regarding Jefferson: The quote that McVeigh wore on his back as he positioned explosives underneath a daycare center has to be understood in context.  Let me be clear before I go farther: I’m not all that interested in defending Jefferson.  To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the “Sage of Monticello.”  He was brilliant, undoubtedly, but also deeply flawed.  For someone who claimed all his life to be guided by reason, Jefferson was “capable of living with massive contradictions” when it came to his own belief and behavior (to quote his biographer, Joseph Ellis).

Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal” but owned one hundred fifty human beings as he penned those words.  He championed democracy but lived a life of privilege and–for his day– almost unequaled luxury.  He praised industry and frugality but denied himself nothing that his eyes desired.  (When he returned to the states from several years’ service as ambassador to France, he brought with him more than one hundred crates of wine, artwork, books, and other souvenirs of his stay abroad.)  He could be disingenuous to the point of duplicity, and he suffered from self-conceit that bordered on hubris.  (The best example of the latter was his approach to the New Testament: taking scissors in hand, he purged the gospels of the slightest scent of the supernatural and turned Jesus into an Enlightenment philosopher.  As one writer puts it, “by the time Jefferson was through with Jesus, Jesus looked a lot like Jefferson.”)

A final flaw of Jefferson’s–and this brings us back to the quote on McVeigh’s t-shirt–was a penchant for making irresponsible moral pronouncements that he never expected to see the light of day.  I call them “irresponsible” because Jefferson made them with no expectation that he himself would have to live up to them.  The “tree of liberty” comment is a case in point.

In context, Jefferson’s much quoted aphorism grew out of his concern about the likely fallout from Shay’s Rebellion.   From his post in France, Jefferson received reports of how, beginning in the late summer of 1787, popular discontent had begun to percolate in rural Massachusetts.  A depressed economy and a shortage of circulating currency was making it increasingly difficult for farmers to pay their property taxes.  The “Rebellion” (named for one of several leaders, a war veteran named Daniel Shays) involved disgruntled small landowners marching on courthouses to prevent foreclosures and sheriff’s sales.  The state militia confronted the rebels on two occasions in January and February 1787–killing five of their number and wounding a couple dozen more–and the protests waned rapidly thereafter.

John Jay, courtesy National Portrait Gallery

John Jay, courtesy National Portrait Gallery

Jefferson first heard of the commotion in late December 1786, when he received a letter from New York’s John Jay, who was then serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation.  Jay informed Jefferson that “a Spirit of Licentiousness has infected Massachusetts” and that this might soon prompt the majority to call for more vigorous government.  Fearful of the mob, “the rational and well intentioned” portion of the population would become willing to trade “the Charms of Liberty” for “Peace and Security.”  If the rebels continued to promote anarchy, Jay concluded, “Tyranny may raise its Head, or the more sober part of the People may even think of a King.”

At this point Jefferson was absolutely opposed to any effort to strengthen the central government, and  in his correspondence he repeatedly emphasized that the uprising in Massachusetts was of trivial import.  In no way should it justify a radical departure from the weak central government embodied in the Articles.  “I was not alarmed at the humor shewn by your countrymen,” he wrote to Abigail Adams shortly before Christmas.  “On the contrary, I like to see the people  awake and alert.”  The “commotions” in America “offer nothing threatening” he placidly informed the president of Yale College in a letter penned three days later.  “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”

Abigail Adams, unidentified artist, circa 1795

Abigail Adams, unidentified artist, circa 1795

A month later he shared his opinion with James Madison that “the late troubles in the Eastern states . . . do not appear to threaten serious consequences. . . . I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” Jefferson opined blithely.  “It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”  And to Abigail Adams, who had written to inform Jefferson that he totally misunderstood the “Mobish insurgents” wreaking havoc in Massachusetts, Jefferson reiterated his view that “the spirit of resistance to government” must “be always kept alive.”  In sum, he informed Abigail, “I like a little rebellion now and then.”

Later that year Jefferson’s worst fears were realized as he began to receive reports of the work of the Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia.  The most troubling revelation was that the assembly of “demi-gods” had agreed to allow the executive to be eligible for perpetual reelection.  From France, Jefferson could smell the first whiff of a conservative counterrevolution; so soon liberated from the tyranny of George III, the nation was rushing to reestablish monarchy.  Convinced that the new Constitution was a tragic overreaction to a trivial “tempest” in Massachusetts, he ratcheted upward the rhetorical intensity and bravado.  Writing in November 1787 to John Adams’ son-in-law, William S. Smith, Jefferson blurted, God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion.  . . . What country can preserve it’s [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?  Let them take arms. . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Far from an exhortation to future Timothy McVeighs, Jefferson was trying to influence the debate over the U. S. Constitution.  Politics in 1787 was still a gentleman’s affair, and political campaigning still consisted primarily of privileged elites writing to other privileged elites in an effort to sway their opinion.  His goal in this context was to minimize the perceived threat posed by Shays’ Rebellion, and he did this in two ways.  First, he suggested that better education of the masses would make such uprisings more and more scarce.  The rebels’ motives were “founded in ignorance,” he told Smith.  Their acts were “absolutely unjustifiable,” he explained to James Madison.  “The spirit of resistance to government . . . will often be exercised when wrong,” he conceded to Abigail Adams.  I haven’t seen that on a t-shirt lately.

Second, he tried to reassure his correspondents that small-potatoes uprisings like Shays’ Rebellion were actually “proof that the people have liberty enough,” as he wrote to Yale president Ezra Stiles.  In a free society, such expressions were occasionally to be expected.  And what was the shedding of “a little blood,” the significance of “a few lives lost,” if it kept alive the spirit of liberty?

In our mind’s eye we need to see Jefferson writing such statements in his rented villa in the French countryside, seated at his writing table in slippers, sipping on sherry and waited on by servants (including Sally Hemings, who arrived with his eight-year-old daughter in June 1787).  Jefferson was not the radical that Timothy McVeigh must have imagined.  He was an armchair revolutionary at best, making bold statements about the shedding of blood without having to worry that any blood that might be shed to refresh the tree of liberty would be his own.

How different the fathers and sons who stood in the predawn cold at Lexington Green two hundred forty years ago this past Sunday!  They were not Enlightenment Epicureans given to bold but hypothetical pronouncements.  They were simply accustomed to governing themselves.  In the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party the British Parliament had shut down their town meeting, and now British soldiers were invading the town itself.   And so they had gathered on the common green to look the invader square in the eye, knowing full well what it might cost them.  They waited for their enemy to fire first, and when they did, a fourth of the minutemen fell.

Their courage has inspired generations of Americans.

And no children died at their hands.

The Battle of Lexington, as sketched by Ralph Earl and engraved by Amos Doolittle, 1775

The Battle of Lexington, as sketched by Ralph Earl and engraved by Amos Doolittle, 1775




Two hundred forty years ago last night, forty-year-old silversmith Paul Revere crossed the Charles River by rowboat, borrowed a horse in Charlestown, and set off for the villages of Lexington and Concord to inform the countryside that British regulars were coming their way in search of stockpiled weapons and ammunition. And the following dawn, two hundred forty years ago this morning, sixty to seventy militiamen assembled on Lexington Green to stare down the advancing British column. We will never know who fired first that April morning, but the shots that rang out changed the course of American history. The Declaration of Independence was still more than fourteen months in the future, but the Revolutionary War had begun.

If you’re interested in revisiting these critical few hours in the American past, here are four recommendations from four very different genres:

Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow in 1860, portrait by Thomas B. Reed

Henry Wadsworth, Longfellow in 1860, portrait by Thomas B. Reed

First, consider reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poetic account, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The Cambridge resident and former Harvard professor was fascinated by New England’s history and was given to long romantic poems that brought to life episodes in the region’s past, albeit with a fair measure of poetic license. (See, for example, “The Song of Hiawatha” or “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” both penned in the 1850s.) Longfellow began his retelling of Revere’s adventure in the spring of 1860 and finished the poem in time to get it published in the January 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. As he wrote, he almost certainly was mindful  of the sectional crisis that then jeopardized the nation, and literary experts suspect that the poem’s closing lines were intended as a wake-up call to contemporary patriots:

In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

"Paul Revere's Ride," wood engraving by Charles Green Bush,  New York Public Library

“Paul Revere’s Ride,” wood engraving by Charles Green Bush, New York Public Library

Longfellow’s poem was historically inaccurate in several respects: Revere was not the lone rider commissioned by patriot leaders in Boston to sound the alarm in the countryside; the lighting of two candles in the Old North Church was not a signal to Revere but from him; and perhaps most egregiously, Revere did not make it to his ultimate destination of Concord.  (He was arrested by a British patrol outside of Lexington and released a few hours later.)  And yet Longfellow’s poem is worth our attention because, in a real sense, it is Longfellow who made Paul Revere a fixture in American memory. Before 1861 Revere was comparatively a minor player in the drama of the American Revolution as Americans imagined it. After 1861 Revere became an American icon, and the silhouette of the solitary rider galloping from house to house would become one of the enduring symbols of American patriotism. (If you don’t believe me, just ask Rush “Revere” Limbaugh.)

Helen Crump thanks Andy Taylor for renewing her students' interest in American History.

Helen Crump thanks Andy Taylor for renewing her students’ interest in American History.

Second–and here I’m going from the sublime to the somewhat-less-than-sublime in popular culture–check out this clip from The Andy Griffith Show.  The episode “Andy Discovers America” originally aired on March 4, 1963 and is one of my all-time favorites.  I’m a huge TAGS fan to begin with, so how could I resist this scene where Andy Taylor tells Opie, Barney, and some of Opie’s schoolmates how our country began?  In four and a half minutes you’ll get a classic southern storyteller’s account of both Paul Revere’s ride and the showdown on Lexington Green.  It’s only slightly less historically accurate than Longfellow’s poem and, depending on your taste, a lot more fun.

Paul Revere's 1775 deposition concerning the events of April 18-19, 1775

Paul Revere’s 1775 deposition concerning the events of April 18-19, 1775

Third, why not go to the source and read Paul Revere’s own account of his activities on the night of April 18, 1775?  Revere recorded his experience in detail on two occasions.  Shortly after the war broke out he gave a formal deposition, probably in response to a request from the Massachusetts provincial congress, which was trying to prove that the British had fired the first shot at Lexington.  (Revere made his way back to Lexington after his release and was on the scene by dawn, but he swore that he did not see who fired first.)  Then more than twenty years later he wrote a lengthy letter to the secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society recounting his actions on the 18th and 19th.

Finally, if you have the time, you would never regret reading David Hackett Fischer’s marvelous retelling Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford University Press, 1995).  Fischer, now retiring from Brandeis after a long and distinguished career (winning the Pulitzer Prize, among other awards), is one of my favorite historians, and Paul Revere’s Ride is one of my favorite works of history.  Fischer is a master narrative historian–there aren’t many of those around any more–and he combines gripping prose with an absolutely scrupulous attention to factual evidence.  You’d love it.

Within the narrative structure of the book—which is bounded tightly by the opening months of 1775—Fischer uses the twin figures of Revere and British commanding general Thomas Gage to drive the story and embody key ideas. Fischer writes, “For Thomas Gage, the rule of law meant the absolute supremacy of that many-headed sovereign, the King-in-Parliament. For Paul Revere it meant the right of a free-born people to be governed by laws of its own making. . . . Their differences were what the American Revolution was about.”

After devoting a chapter to each, the author then gradually broadens his focus to include an ever-increasing circle of characters. By the time that Fischer gets to the 19th of April, he is shifting back and forth (a chapter at a time) from the colonists to the British Army, and I marvel at how he so effectively offers the perspectives of both. In the process, he brilliantly enables the reader to see the drama as it unfolds. Indeed, one of my favorite sections in the whole book is an extended section in which he discusses how the British regulars were uniformed and armed.


Because of the book’s narrative structure it is not overtly argument driven, but I think that there are at least two main points that Fischer thinks it important to make. First, he repeatedly stresses that the colonists were working together in advance of the battles at Lexington and Concord. And so when the regulars marched toward Lexington, the countryside did not spontaneously erupt as individuals unilaterally reached for their hunting rifles and headed toward the sound of the fighting. Instead, there was organization in Boston and much prior planning for a variety of contingencies. When the British acted, Revere and other messengers did not simply ride from house to house awakening the countryside. Rather, they worked through community institutions—militia and churches—to mobilize the populace. Fischer drives home the significance of this distinction: “Paul Revere and his fellow Whigs of Massachusetts understood, more clearly than Americans of later generations, that political institutions are instruments of human will, and amplifiers of individual action. They knew from long experience that successful effort requires sustained planning and careful organization. The way they went about their work made a major difference that night.”

A second theme—implied more than explicitly stated, and yet woven throughout the story—involves the disjuncture between how the common people understood the events that were unfolding and how the story of the coming of the Revolution is usually told in the history books. Fischer makes very little mention of what might be called formal political philosophy. There is no allusion to taxation without representation, no discussion of the Stamp Act and Tea Act, no reference to natural rights or to the writings of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson. The characters who figure in this story simply believed that they should regulate their own affairs, and they bitterly resented British efforts to interfere with that. As they saw things, liberty “did not derive from abstract premises, but from tradition and historical experience.”  Fischer concludes, “In America, it has always been so.”

Throughout, Fischer makes clear that there are things that we can learn from the revolutionary generation, and more than once he calls attention to ways that their values are different from those of the United States of 2015. Most prominently, Americans in 1775 tended to stress collective rights and individual obligations, whereas two hundred forty years later we have pretty much reversed that, stressing individual rights and collective obligations. “We have much to learn from these half-remembered men,” Fischer observes, “a set of truths that our generation has lost or forgotten. In their different ways, they knew that to be free is to choose. The history of a free people is a history of hard choices. In that respect, when Paul Revere alarmed the Massachusetts countryside, he was carrying a message for us.”


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. Since that time more than 16,000 books have been written about Lincoln—one for every three and a half days since his death—and so I’m not going to try to dash out anything new about Lincoln’s role in the preservation of the Union or his proper place in American history more broadly, but I do want to share a thought about how Lincoln’s death was commemorated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination.

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Such conflation of the sacred and the secular continued in the days following, as the nation mourned and the slain president’s funeral procession made its way slowly from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. When the procession finally arrived at the grave site in early May, the assembled throng joined their voices in a hymn composed for the occasion:

This consecrated spot shall be
To Freedom ever dear
And Freedom’s son of every race
Shall weep and worship here.

What does it mean to “worship” at the tomb of a departed president?

"Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis)," J. A. Arthur, 1865

“Washington and Lincoln (Apotheosis),” J. A. Arthur, 1865

The Christ analogy was also popularized in a series of prints showing what was labeled as the “apotheosis” of Lincoln after his death. One definition of “apotheosis” is “ascension into heaven,” and these prints do regularly show Lincoln being received into the heavenly realm. But another synonym for “apotheosis” is “deification” or “elevation to divine status,” and this definition may apply as well. Significantly, Lincoln is regularly shown being met and embraced by George Washington, who may serve as the gatekeeper into heaven, but might also be effectively a proxy for God the Father. (In the image above, Washington seems to be bestowing on Lincoln a martyr’s crown.)  Indeed, banners during Lincoln’s funeral procession were seen to proclaim “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.” Given the common symbolism of Washington as the Founder of the country and Lincoln as its martyred messiah, it’s not much of a stretch to see these images as symbolizing the ascension of the Son (Lincoln) into heaven where he will be seated on the right hand of the Father (Washington).

I admire Abraham Lincoln a great deal, almost as much as any public figure in our nation’s past. But however well intended these images may have been, they can only be described as “patriotic heresy.”


At the encouragement of the National Park Service, yesterday churches, temples, schools, courthouses and other public buildings took part in “Bells Across the Land,” ringing their bells in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, an event usually remembered as signaling the end of the American Civil War.

My institution, Wheaton College, had planned to participate up until the last minute, when a tornado watch convinced the administration that it probably wasn’t wise to send someone up into the bell tower of Blanchard Hall, which was erected just before the Civil War began.  Even so, the event got me to thinking about how we remember the end of the war.

I’ve been teaching on the Civil War to college students for more than a quarter of a century now, and one of the things I always stress is that it’s utterly unhistorical to end any history course in 1865.  The reason for this is simple.  Although northern victory in that conflict had guaranteed the preservation of the Union, it was not at all clear what kind of union had been preserved.  Two crucial and closely related questions had not been resolved and would not be resolved for years to come.

The first was the question of what northern victory would mean for white southerners.  How would the place and power of the South in national affairs be affected? What would become of the prewar planter class?  Would there be a fundamental alteration in the structure of southern society?  Would the relation between whites and blacks in the former slave states change appreciably, and if so, how?

The second question, inextricably related to the first, concerned the meaning of northern victory for the former slaves.  By the time that Lee and Grant sat down in Wilmer McLean’s parlor to discuss terms of surrender, slavery’s imminent demise was obvious to almost everyone.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 had already effectively liberated at least a third of the Confederacy’s slave population.  Then in January 1865 the U. S. Congress had followed Lincoln’s decree with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  When that measure was ratified, and it almost inevitably would be, the institution of slavery would be constitutionally prohibited throughout the land.  And yet what would “freedom” mean for southern blacks?  Would the federal government act to protect the former slaves from the white majority?  Would the “freedmen,” as they came to be called, have a recognized right to choose their own employers and be paid fairly for their labors?  Would “freedom” include a modicum of civil equality–equal access to education and the courts, for example?  Might “freedom” possibly include the right to vote, at least for black males?

Not one of these questions had been determined by the time that the weary veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stacked their arms and headed for home.  We tend to forget that fact–if we were ever aware of it–or maybe we just don’t care.  At any rate, it is unlikely that Americans will lavish nearly as much attention on the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, a point nicely made by Columbia historian Eric Foner in this New York Times editorial.

All of this brings to mind one of my most favorite books about the Civil War, and I’ll close by recommending it enthusiastically to anyone at all interested in what happened after the shooting stopped.  The book I have in mind is A Year in the South, by Stephen V. Ash.  A Year in the South is one of those rare books that works on numerous levels.  It is a meticulously researched monograph by a first-rate academic historian that simultaneously reads like a novel and commands a broad audience.

Year in the South

Ash subtitles his book “Four Lives in 1865,” and his goal is to recreate the experiences of “four ordinary people in an extraordinary time,” the twelve months in 1865 that witnessed the death of the Old South and the gradual dawning of a new order.  The author follows the lives of four very different civilians who left detailed memoirs or, in one case, a wartime diary. Samuel Agnew was a minister and son of a wealthy Mississippi slaveholder; Yankee troops raided his community countless times and a pitched battle was fought on the family plantation. Louis Hughes began the year laboring as a slave in the Alabama state salt works and ended it as a free man in Ontario, Canada, having determined that he could never truly be free on American soil. Cornelia McDonald was a middle-aged war widow living as a refugee in the upper Shenandoah Valley; the war had destroyed her comfortable, middle-class existence, and by 1865 she and her seven children lived on the brink of starvation. John Robertson was a teenager from East Tennessee, a Confederate sympathizer in a staunchly Unionist region.  Early in the war Robertson had served in a secessionist home guard unit that terrorized local loyalists, and by 1865 he had become a target of revenge-minded Unionists and feared for his life.

The late eminent historian David Potter once observed that hindsight is both the historians “chief asset” and “main liability.”  Because we know what came afterward, it is almost impossible for us to regain the sense of uncertainty and contingency that historical figures experience as they live their lives one day at a time.  In A Year in the South, Stephen Ash masterfully recaptures that sense of uncertainty.  None of these figures has the slightest idea what Confederate defeat will mean for their lives.  In driving this point home, Ash powerfully conveys the ubiquitous sense of upheaval and uncertainty prompted by the collapse of the Old South and the gradual, chaotic emergence of a new social order. Above all, he conveys the extremes of emotion unleashed by this ambiguous transformation: exultation, indignation, anxiety, hope.

A Year in the South engages the heart as well as the mind. Readers will feel as well as think along with these four southerners, vicariously exploring a crucial historical period from the perspective of human beings who lived through it.


We’ll get back to the American Revolution in a few days, but before we head in that direction I’d like to share some concluding thoughts about the Texas license plate case recently argued before the Supreme Court. In a previous post I suggested that, whatever the constitutional merits of their case, the history promulgated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans is simply awful. The SVC’s position is that the Confederate battle flag should be viewed as devoid of racial connotations. It’s a symbol of “the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are,” in the words of SVC spokesman and former U. S. congressman Ben Jones. The SVC concedes that the flag has been hijacked in recent decades by a variety of hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, but they insist that the Confederate soldiers who originally fought under that banner were motivated by the highest ideals, ideals that had nothing to do with the defense of slavery or white supremacy.


The technical term for this kind of historical argument is “hogwash.” It is utterly a-historical to separate the issue of slavery from the American Civil War. Certainly few contemporaries tried to do so. That effort began after the last shots were fired, when white southerners began to fashion the myth that the conflict had had nothing to do with their peculiar institution. One of the first to set the mold was Alexander Stephens, the former vice-president of the Confederacy. In his 1868 work A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Stephens insisted that the struggle between North and South was a struggle over state sovereignty and independence. The issue of slavery was of “infinitely less importance,” Stephens declared, a “mere drop in the ocean” compared with the other constitutional issues involved.

The Confederate soldiers who laid their lives on the line knew better. As historian Colin Woodward notes, “their struggle was about protecting slavery . . . and they knew that going in.” And so did Stephens, by the way. (The Confederate vice-president was a “revisionist historian” if ever there was one.) Only seven years earlier, he had defined the sectional crisis as entirely about slavery. But not just slavery alone. As Stephens had explained to a cheering audience at Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, the struggle to preserve slavery was first and foremost a struggle to preserve the racial hierarchy that slavery perpetuated. Deriding the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal,” Stephens had observed that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.”

This is why I observed in my last post that the SCV’s version of history requires a willful blindness to historical evidence. It is false history, or more accurately, it is myth masquerading as history. And yet I don’t want to make such a negative pronouncement and just leave it at that. There’s always more at stake in our encounters with the past than simple accuracy about the past. I’m at least as concerned with how these conclusions about the past affect us. Some of you, I realize, may be offended (particularly if, like me, you have southern roots), but that’s not what troubles me. Having our convictions challenged isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and may even turn out for our good. No, paradoxical as it may sound, I’m primarily concerned about those of you who agree with my historical conclusions.

Let me explain what I mean with reference to a parable that Jesus told. In Luke 18:9-14 we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. According to Jesus,

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”

To make sure that we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus drove home the moral of the parable with this concluding observation: “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

If we pay careful attention to our hearts, I think we’ll find that the serious study of history is always teaching us either humility or pride. We can’t study the past for long without encountering individuals whose beliefs or values or actions strike us as ignorant or foolish or immoral. And when that happens, our hearts and minds will lead us down one of two paths: toward self-exaltation—“God, I thank you that I am not like other men”—or toward a deeper awareness of our need for grace—“God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

This is part of what I had in mind when I said in my last post that there is a moral dimension to the current controversy over the meaning of the Confederate battle flag. Most obviously, there is the moral question of how the law of love should constrain both parties to the dispute. (My opinion would be that, whatever the Supreme Court eventually rules in the Texas license plate case, if there are Christians among the Sons of Confederate Veterans, they should relinquish the perceived “right” to display a symbol that is so deeply hurtful to many of their Christian brothers and sisters.) But in addition to this there is the moral issue of how our hearts will be affected as we follow the debate.

Whichever side of the debate we come down on, there will be a temptation to respond in self-righteousness. (When do such debates ever promote humility?) Let me focus, though, on the side of the controversy that I most sympathize with. I’ve left no doubt in your minds, I trust, that I find the SCV’s historical arguments indefensible. Intellectually, I cannot honestly arrive at any other conclusion. But with this legitimate intellectual judgment comes the temptation to illegitimate moral judgment. We can be accurate about the past and still be good Pharisees.

Let me give you just one example of what I have in mind. In debating the connotations of the Confederate battle flag, we may be reminded of those individuals from a century and a half ago that the SCV venerates, the Confederate soldiers who went into battle tragically believing that in defending slavery they were being true to America’s Founding and faithful to America’s God. “God, I thank you,” we will be tempted to say, “that I am not like these Confederates who were blind to such gross immorality!”

Before judging white southerners of the Civil War era, however, let’s conduct two quick thought experiments. First, imagine that we could go back in time and survey every white person living in the United States in 1860 (just before the rupture of the Union). What variable do you think would best predict whether an individual defended or condemned slavery? Second, let’s imagine that we could survey every white person who ever lived in the United States from 1776 to the present. What variable do you think would best predict an individual’s attitude about racial equality?

So what answers did you come up with? Without embracing determinism or denying individual moral responsibility, I can say without hesitation that the answer to question #1 is where the individual was born. With the same caveats in place, the indisputable answer to question #2 is when the individual was born. On the eve of the Civil War, no factor did more to influence thinking about slavery than regional heritage. Individuals born south of Pennsylvania would almost always have defended slavery. Those born farther north would have either opposed slavery per se or stood against its expansion.

But note that, when evaluated against the entire sweep of American history, place of birth hasn’t been nearly as important as date of birth in predicting one’s thinking about racial equality. In 1860, whites in the North and South may have differed about slavery, but they shared a common belief in white supremacy. The latter has been an American, not a regional trait for most of our history. Thankfully, that has been changing in recent generations, but the larger generalization prevails. Show me someone who unthinkingly accepts the principle of racial equality, and the odds are overwhelming that that person has been born since WWII.

So on what grounds can we condemn white Confederates or feel smug about our own more enlightened views? Can we really take credit for when we were born? To pose the question is to answer it.


As many of you will be aware, last week the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case pitting the state of Texas against the southern “heritage” organization Sons of Confederate Veterans. The case centers on the state’s extensive vanity plate program and whether its Board of Motor Vehicles has the right to reject messages on those plates that it deems offensive. The issue arose in 2011 when the Texas division of the SCV proposed that the state produce license plates stamped with the SCV logo, which includes at its center a replica of the Confederate battle flag.


After some initial hemming and hawing, the Board of Motor Vehicles rejected the proposal on the grounds that “a significant portion of the public associates the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.” The SCV sued the state of Texas for violating their constitutional rights of free speech, Texas countersued, and in the end the case—Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc.—made it all the way to the nation’s highest court. A decision is expected sometime in June.

The controversy strikes me as having at least three distinct dimensions, each fascinating in its own way. First there is the constitutional question of whether the free-speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have been violated. Second is the historical question of what the Confederate battle flag has symbolized over the past century and a half. Finally there is the moral question of how the law of love might speak to the dispute.

I’m far from an expert in constitutional law, so I’m going to pass over the first question, even though it is the one that dominated the opposing arguments before the Court last Monday. (For what it’s worth, among the dozen or so pieces I’ve read about the case, I think that this one does the best job of succinctly summarizing the issues before the court, while this one is best in laying out the complexity of the case in an accessible way.) As a historian, though, I can’t pass up the second dimension, and in the essay that follows I’d like to address it. As a Christian historian I’d also like to share a thought about the third dimension as well, but I will save that for a subsequent post.

As best as I can tell, the history of the Confederate battle flag was a non-factor in arguments before the court. This was because the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is intrinsically offensive was not at issue. Boiled down, the question the justices have to figure out is this: should official state license plates be thought of as a forum for the expression of public opinion? If the answer is “yes” the SVC wins, because the Court has long held that government cannot limit speech merely on the grounds that it is offensive.

Outside of the courtroom, however, the question of whether the Confederate battle flag is offensive is absolutely central to the controversy. In the words of Dallas columnist Michael Lindenberger, should we see the battle flag as a “symbol of racism or an emblem of Southern pride”? Not surprisingly, it depends on who you ask. In the mind of the Reverend George Clark, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Austin, Texas, the flag “represents hate,” pure and simple. To Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, “it’s a powerful symbol of the oppression of black people.” According to Texas state senator Royce West, an African-American and long-time Democratic leader from Dallas, the flag is a reminder of “a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape, [and] mass murder.”

Not so, say the representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” proclaims the website of the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.” And slavery? Racial oppression? Not even mentioned. But why should they be? As Ben Jones, a former Congressman and national spokesman for the SVC puts it, the Confederate battle flag “represents the independent spirit of the South, no matter what race you are.”

Could the two sides be any more polarized? When it comes to competing interpretations of the same artifact, I’d say that the chasm between “rape and mass murder” and “liberty and freedom” is pretty hard to beat. Clearly, all nuance has gone out the window, but then complexity and soundbites rarely go together, do they?

But which side is right—or at least closer to the truth? It may surprise you to hear it, but I’m tempted to dismiss the question entirely—not because it’s hard, but because it’s inappropriate. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol. Symbols aren’t precise things that we can label as “true” or “false.” They’re unavoidably vague and squishy, and the connotations that they evoke are unavoidably subjective. This means that they can, and frequently do, mean different things to different people. Does the Confederate battle flag stand for slavery and white supremacy? Yes! . . . in the minds of some people. Does it stand for a noble defense of liberty and freedom? Absolutely! . . . in the minds of others. As a symbol, the Confederate flag is literally meaning-less—devoid of one, objective, intrinsic meaning—and the meaning we impute to it is just that: the meaning we impute to it.

But as a historian I’m not prepared to stop here, for much of the debate about what the Confederate battle flag “stands for” today is really a debate about the values and motives of those in the past who have willingly waved it, worn it, or followed it. Here we move from the realm of symbols to the world of historical figures, and there is more than enough historical evidence at our disposal to adjudicate between the contending sides.

If we focus on the uses of the Confederate battle flag in the recent past, there is really no argument. During the latter half of the twentieth century, the flag became the symbol of choice of countless white supremacist organizations, most notably the Ku Klux Klan. But note that this development unfolded generations after Lee surrendered to Grant. A good book to read on this point is The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, by John M. Coski.

CoskiCoski, chief historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, notes that white southerners rarely displayed the battle flag between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which existed briefly during the early years of Reconstruction, was not popularly associated with that emblem. After the Klan was reborn during World War I, in part because of the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s notorious movie Birth of a Nation, Klan rallies regularly featured not the Confederate battle flag but the U. S. Stars and Stripes.

The Ku Klux Klan Marching Down Pennsylvania Avenue, September 13, 1926

The Ku Klux Klan Marching Down Pennsylvania Avenue, September 13, 1926

The popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, although Coski speculates that the influence of Gone With the Wind might be part of the answer. Whatever the cause, when South Carolina’s Governor Strom Thurmond walked out of the 1948 Democratic national convention in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that he helped to found quickly embraced the Rebel banner. When the fledgling party met in convention in Birmingham later that year, state delegations entered the convention hall waving Confederate battle flags.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention

From that point on, whenever white southerners wanted to protest federal policies promoting integration, they unfurled the Confederate battle flag. In 1956, a year after the Supreme Court ordered southern school districts to dismantle segregation “with all deliberate speed,” the all-white Georgia legislature defiantly voted to incorporate the battle flag into the Georgia state flag. In 1962, South Carolina’s all-white legislature voted to raise the flag atop the state capitol in Columbia. A year later, Alabama governor George Wallace “toss[ed] the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny,” declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and raised the Confederate battle flag over the Alabama statehouse. When African Americans like Reverend Clark, Ms. Ifill, and Senator West view the battle flag as a symbol of racial oppression, they have very good reasons to do so. How could they not?

But the question isn’t quite that simple. For their part, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans insist that it’s not their fault if white supremacist groups have hijacked a noble symbol. According to the SCV, their purpose is to honor the memory of ancestors who fought for the Confederacy a century and a half ago. The official website of the national headquarters prominently features a 2010 resolution in which the SCV “denounce[s] the use of the Confederate Battle Flag . . . by any hate group.” The resolution goes on to contend that “the misuse of the Confederate Battle Flag by any extremist group or individual espousing political extremism and/or racial superiority degrades the Confederate Battle Flag and maligns the noble purpose of our ancestors who fought against extreme odds for what they knew was just, right, and constitutional.”

Boiled down, the SCV position is this:  On the one hand, the advocacy of racial superiority in the latter half of the twentieth century is reprehensible and the organization in no way condones it. On the other hand, the cause of the South a century earlier had nothing to do with racial superiority but was in actuality “just and right.” I’m sorry guys, but the latter claim’s untenable.

Was every man and boy who put on the Confederate uniform motivated primarily by the desire to defend white supremacy? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice. But the idea that the commitment to white supremacy can be easily separated from the Confederate cause requires a willful determination to ignore a host of contemporary voices to the contrary.

Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy

Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy

The most famous was that of Georgia’s Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy. Speaking at a rally in Savannah, Georgia in March 1861, Stephens derided the view held by at least some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens declared. “Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

In defining the Confederate undertaking in racial terms, Stephens was picking up a theme perfected by the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for southern rights in the run-up to Abraham Lincoln’s election. In an October 1860 editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission,” the Mercury had advocated secession in the event of a “Black Republican” victory on the grounds that “the ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves,” would mean the loss of “everything that makes life worth living.” At roughly the same time in Knoxville, Tennessee (a town I have studied closely—you can buy my book here), advocates of secession denounced “the inglorious platform of the black republican party, that places the African negro on an equality with you and every white man.”

After Lincoln’s election, voices from across the South interpreted the Republican victory as an assault on the South’s racial hierarchy. S. F. Hale, an Alabama politician sent to Kentucky to try to persuade that state to secede, declared that the new government in Washington would strike down “the sovereignty and equality of the States, . . . resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.” If the South should meekly submit, Hale prophesied, “degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate—all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes, stand side by side with them at the polls, and fraternize in all the social relations of life. . . . Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder?”

MarchingMastersThere is no reason to believe that these views were confined to civilians. Here a good book to read would be Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, by Colin Edward Woodward. Woodward is no carpetbagger or liberal Yankee academic. He holds the PhD from Louisiana State University, one of the premier centers for the study of southern history, is currently an archivist at the Arkansas Center for History and Culture, and got his book published by the press of the University of Virginia.

Woodward begins with a survey of how the slavery question informed Confederate soldiers’ understanding of the southern cause. He finds that the two were inseparable. Whenever Confederates reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. Rebels worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Above all, they feared becoming “slaves” themselves.

As the author points out, slavery was never just an economic arrangement or an institution for racial control in the Old South, although it was both those things. In the minds of white southerners, it was also a powerful metaphor for dependence and degradation, and the black slaves that surrounded them became the embodiment of what would happen to whites if the southern cause did not prevail. Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a “rich man’s war” on behalf of the master class. “The proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes,” he contends, and expressions of class resentment were rare. “The struggle was about protecting slavery,” Woodward sums up matter-of-factly, and all ranks “knew that going in.”

Writing at the end of the 1960s, the eminent American historian David Potter, a Georgian by birth, remarked that the South was a land that remembered the past “very vividly [but] somewhat inaccurately, because the present had nothing exciting to offer, and accuracy about either the past or the present was psychologically not very rewarding.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans fit that template to a tee. I can’t speak to their constitutional argument that they have a legal right to require the state of Texas to print their logo on a license plate. But I can say this about their historical argument: It’s awful.


As I was backing out of the driveway this morning, I was distressed to see a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of our very dear next-door neighbors. I backed down the street to where I could see the sign more clearly and discovered, to my relief, that it read as follows: “FOR SALE BY OWNER,” and then in much smaller, handwritten print, “One Day Only: April 1st, 2015.”

April Fools’ Day. I’ve hated this day all of my life.

At any rate, the prank got me to thinking about April Fools’ Days in American History, and my thoughts went to one of the most ominous April 1sts in our past. It was April 1st, 1861, and the United States was perched precariously on a precipice. (How’s that for alliteration?) Since the election of Abraham Lincoln as president the preceding November, seven southern states had issued resolutions purporting to sever their ties with the Union. A half dozen more were sorely tempted to follow suit, and would very likely do so if the Federal government took steps to restore the Union by force. As the country waited for the inauguration in March of its new Republican president, the seceding states took steps to constitute themselves the Confederate States of America and set to work confiscating all federal property—forts, arsenals, customs houses, and mints—within their borders. By the time Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4th, 1861, the Union was visibly collapsing and the authority and prestige of the U. S. government was at its nadir.

Lincoln in 1860Lincoln and his cabinet—which included four of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—were deeply divided as to how to respond to the crisis. In his inaugural address, the president had tried to show both moderation and resolve. On the one hand, he had gone out of his way to try to reassure his southern critics that they need not fear a Republican presidency. On the other, he had insisted that “secession is the very essence of anarchy” and declared that the Union is “perpetual.” Drawing a line in the sand, he had pledged (somewhat redundantly) to “hold occupy, and possess” all federal property within the rebellious states. Implicitly, this seemed to obligate the new president, at the very least, to do all within his power to maintain control of the federal forts in the lower South not yet in Confederate hands—most notably Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston harbor.

William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State

William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State

The ranking member of Lincoln’s cabinet—Secretary of State William Seward—led a faction within the administration that sought to avoid a showdown if possible. Seward had much more experience in national politics than Lincoln and had been the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, before losing out to Lincoln on the 3rd ballot. It is quite possible that he had accepted the State Department post—historically the most prestigious and influential cabinet appointment—with the intention of serving as the de facto head of the administration, pulling the strings behind the scenes while the inexperienced Lincoln played the role of puppet and figurehead. Toward the end of March, Seward had met secretly with representatives of the Confederate government, assuring them that the government would not use force to uphold its authority and promising—without Lincoln’s knowledge or approval—that the Union troops assigned to Fort Sumter would soon evacuate the installation.

As March drew to a close, and as it became increasingly evident to Seward that Lincoln intended to uphold his inaugural pledge, the secretary drew up one of the most remarkable memoranda ever given to a sitting president by a high-ranking government official. Because Seward forwarded the memorandum—titled “Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration”—on April 1st, historians have commonly referred to the document as Seward’s “April Fools’ Memorandum.” In truth, the proposals it contains are so outlandish that it is tempting to conclude that the secretary was pranking the president, but he wasn’t. He was in dead earnest.

After criticizing Lincoln for having failed to define a clear policy, “either foreign or domestic,” Seward went on to repeat his recommendation that Sumter be evacuated. In Seward’s mind, this sort of concession to the South was the best way both to keep the upper South in the Union and avoid the tragedy of civil war.

Page 3 of Seward's April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Page 3 of Seward’s April 1, 1861 memorandum to President Lincoln

Then came the clincher. Under the heading “For Foreign Nations,” the Secretary of State recommended to the president that the administration “demand explanation from Spain and France, categorically, at once.” Spain had recently sent troops into Santo Domingo, while France was casting its eyes on Mexico, and Seward was proposing to challenge both on the grounds that they were in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. “If satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France,” Seward went on, the president should “convene Congress and declare war against them.” Although he didn’t spell out his rationale for the president, Seward clearly believed that the best way to unify the country was to provoke a war with one of the major powers of Europe.

But what if Lincoln was not prepared to take the lead on such a drastic policy? The Secretary of State concluded his memorandum with the following presumption:

Whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it. For this purpose, it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly. Either the President must do it himself and be all the while active in it, or devolve it on some member of his Cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide. It is not in my especial province but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.

Lincoln replied in writing to Seward the same day, although it is not clear whether his brief note was ever actually delivered. What is clear is that Lincoln ignored Seward’s proposal of provoking a European war. He also effectively declined the Secretary of State’s polite offer to take over the management of his administration. If something “must be done,” the president wrote in his reply, I must do it.”