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.”
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.