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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.