Tag Archives: American Civil War

PRESIDENT TRUMP AND THE CAUSE OF THE CIVIL WAR

Had Trump been President in 1860, Would He have Prevented the Civil War, or Caused It?

Although I’ve been doing my best to take a break from this blog (as much as I enjoy it) while on sabbatical at Wheaton, the headlines announcing that President Trump had speculated about the causes of the Civil War in a recent interview were too much to ignore.  If you missed it, here is what Trump had to say in an interview with the Washington Examiner released just this morning:

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.  He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.  He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’  People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?  People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”

The president’s liberal critics have been quick to jump on his remarks, extracting his rhetorical question about why the Civil War occurred as evidence that he is utterly clueless about it.  (You can read a sampling here.)  There have been countless condescending tweets suggesting that the president should read up on something called slavery and figure out what the rest of the world already knows.

I’m convinced that President Trump is largely clueless about U. S. history (ask Frederick Douglass, if you don’t believe me), but these particular jibes are unfair.  In context, what the president was really getting at was the question not of the causes of the Civil War but of its inevitability.  Might the war have been avoided?  Could more effective political leadership have addressed the national blight of slavery while avoiding the bloodiest war in the nation’s history?  This is a much harder question to answer, and one that academic experts on the conflict continue to debate to this day.  It’s not a stupid question.

Having defended President Trump on this point, I have to say that his observations about Andrew Jackson’s concern for “what was happening with regard to the Civil War” are just ridiculous.  As others have pointed out, Jackson died sixteen years before the war erupted.  Less patently absurd is the president’s speculation that, had Jackson served as president some years later, he might have successfully averted the war during his administration, at least.

“Counterfactual” History

This is what historians call a counterfactual hypothesis–speculation about the likely consequences of a set of historical circumstances that never existed.  By definition, a counterfactual hypothesis cannot be proved correct, so academic historians almost always avoid them, but they can be intriguing, and they sometimes can lead to fruitful insight.

Not in this case, however.

While southern politicians were convinced that Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 posed a direct threat to the preservation of slavery–and so responded by advocating disunion–slaveholders had nothing to fear from a Jackson presidency.  While Lincoln’s Republican Party denounced slavery as a moral wrong and called for its eventual demise, Jackson’s party took the position that it was no business of the federal government to interfere with slavery.  While Lincoln denounced slavery as a “moral, social, and political wrong,” the slaveholding Jackson was outspoken in his condemnation of northern abolitionists and, as president, even allowed southern postmasters to confiscate and destroy abolitionist literature.  In sum, it seems highly unlikely that the South would  have attempted to secede under Andrew Jackson’s watch, but not because of Jackson’s strong leadership or skill at negotiation.

But as long as we’re playing the counterfactual game, let’s not stop here.  President Trump has repeatedly compared himself with Andrew Jackson (whose portrait he had installed in the Oval Office), and his suggestion that Jackson could have avoided the Civil War is, in this sense, a backhanded self-compliment, i.e., “the president who most resembles me is the one who could have saved the nation’s from its bloodiest war.”  Is there any reason to think that the nation might have fared better in 1861 with Donald Trump, and not Abraham Lincoln, in the White House?

Lincoln Would have Seen Donald Trump as Part of the Problem

Although it is inconceivable to imagine the Civil War occurring had the institution of slavery not existed on American soil, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Civil War was inevitable or that, even if it was inevitable, that it had to break out at the time and in the manner that it did.  The Civil War, if it signified anything, was a blaring testimony to the failure of the American political system.  Historians believe that the system failed, in large part, because of a massive crisis of popular confidence in the nation’s political institutions.

One of the great ironies of the Civil War is that both the North and the South believed that they were under attack by the other.  As I stress to students when we wrestle with the coming of the Civil War, by the close of the 1850s common folk in both regions could ironically agree on two things: 1) the other region was committed to an agenda that would undermine their way of life, and 2) the political process was powerless to protect them from the threat.  The moral controversy over slavery had something to do with this, but so did politicians on both sides who regularly exaggerated the threat posed by the other region because of the partisan benefits that resulted when their constituents were afraid.

Nearly a quarter-century before the first cannon boomed at Fort Sumter, a young Abraham Lincoln had warned about precisely this kind of political danger.  In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln, then an Illinois state congressman, told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

Lincoln went on to make three key points: First, the “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”  Second, free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”  And third, what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

What is the solution?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

How would a President Trump have acted during the run-up to the American Civil War?  We’ll never know, of course, but anyone who listened to his speech in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania just two days ago heard a president who excels in doing precisely what Lincoln warned against: fueling popular contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, LIBERAL DEMOCRAT?

(I’m teaching a course this semester on the American Civil War, and so I’m doing my best to immerse myself in that subject, reading works on the conflict as much as time allows. In the review below I share my opinion of a book that I purchased at the recent annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I didn’t like it. I might even detest it. Read on to find out why.)

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A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

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I’ll start with a compliment. Overall, academic historians long ago abandoned any sense of social responsibility to the larger society. There are admirable exceptions, but for the most part, academic history is an inward-focused conversation that academic historians have with each other about the academic questions they find of academic interest. And if the public beyond the walls of the Academy equates academic with “arcane,” “elitist,” or “irrelevant”—a pretty logical inference—well, that’s the public’s problem, not ours. Our job is to advance the boundaries of knowledge after all, not to communicate with the masses.

Just and Generous NationTo their credit, Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle have written A Just and Generous Nation with a broad audience in mind (as its publication by a trade press, Basic Books, underscores). The book tries to make the past relevant to the present, and I applaud that. It deals with big questions, and I applaud that also. It’s written in an engaging manner—always a plus—and the authors unabashedly point out lessons they think we should learn, a trait I admire.

In sum, I really like the conception of the historian’s task that underlies A Just and Generous Nation. It’s the authors’ execution of the task that drives me crazy.

The book’s thesis is clear, in part because the authors’ repeat it monotonously. Until his final breath, Abraham Lincoln was animated by the conviction that the United States had been uniquely founded on the “vision of a just and generous economic society.” The Founders, Lincoln believed, “brought forth a new nation” in which all would have an equal chance to rise into the middle class. This is why he sought to save the Union. This is why he acted to emancipate slaves. Neither were ends in themselves. The Civil War, Holzer and Garfinkle contend, was always primarily a struggle over “what kind of economy the nation should have.” More precisely, it was a war for “the American Dream,” for the triumph of a society that gives “all a chance” and allows “the weaker to grow stronger.”

OK. This is a provocative thesis, but not beyond the realm of possibilities. Historians have debated Lincoln’s motives for a century and a half. Some have suggested that Lincoln was propelled by an almost mystical veneration of the Union bequeathed by the generation of 1776. Some have pointed to his conviction that slavery was “a moral, social, and political wrong,” a stain on the national fabric. Others have stressed Lincoln’s conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of the viability of democracy, a bloody trial to determine whether common people could govern themselves. And some have portrayed the war as a monumental clash of economic systems, a conflict between agricultural and industrial societies for national dominance. The Columbia University historian Charles Beard made that argument nearly a century ago, and there are faint echoes of that claim in A Just and Generous Nation.

But the heart of the authors’ argument isn’t really about Lincoln’s conception of the “American Dream.” It’s about his purported vision for the role of the federal government in promoting it. And Lincoln’s vision, Holzer and Garfinkle insist with undisguised admiration, was breathtakingly expansive and modern. “Lincoln was the first president to use the federal government as an agent to support Americans in their effort to achieve and sustain a middle class life,” they gush. He “never changed his view that government should engage proactively to build, expand, and provide opportunities for working people to improve their economic status.”

This is what the Civil War was about. This is why nearly eight hundred thousand men died and more than a million more were maimed: to secure for future generations an activist role for the federal government as the guarantor of middle-class prosperity.

Almost all historians acknowledge that Lincoln advocated an active role for government in promoting economic development and economic opportunity. Probably the first political speech he ever gave called for state aid to dredge the Sangamon River in order to help local farmers get their crops to market. He quickly embraced the new Whig Party’s commitment to what Whig leader Henry Clay called “the American System.” This included a national bank to facilitate economic exchange, a high protective tariff to promote industrialization, and government aid to “internal improvements”—subsidies for the construction of railroads, canals, and the improvement of waterways—in order to accelerate the development of a market economy. Evaluated in the context of the mid-1800s—when the federal government was minuscule and the only federal employee that most Americans ever met was the mailman—Lincoln was undeniably a champion of active government.

But he wasn’t a modern-day big-government Democrat, although Holzer and Garfinkle do their best to convince us otherwise. They may be right when they claim that “Lincoln’s domestic policies provided the first clear example of the positive role that could be played by the federal government to encourage the economic growth of the nation.” The Republican-controlled Congress passed a series of landmark economic measures during the war. Through the Morrill Act, the Transcontinental Railroad Act, and the Homestead Act, the Congress used the nation’s vast untapped resources of western lands to promote higher education, railroad construction, and increasing farm ownership.

But it’s at least debatable whether these measures all benefited, or at least primarily benefited, the middle class. The Morrill Act helped to create land-grant colleges across the West, but generations would pass before as much as five percent of the white male population would attend. The building of the first transcontinental railroad undoubtedly expanded the national economy and indirectly aided many, but it set a precedent of gargantuan subsidies to private corporations in the process. (Between 1862 and 1871, the federal government granted land subsidies to private railroad companies of nearly two hundred million acres—roughly the size of England, France, and Scotland combined.)

You can even question whether the Homestead Act was all that helpful in aiding upward mobility into the middle class. Although the act provided “free” farms to settlers who would improve the land for five years, economic historians have found that few working-class households had the resources to move west, erect buildings and fences on a homestead, and feed and clothe themselves for months while waiting for the first crops to come in.

If it’s debatable to characterize these measures as unalloyed victories for the middle class, it’s preposterous to describe the enormous military expenditures that the war demanded as “the federal government’s stimulus programs.” Yet Holzer and Garfinkle do so, in keeping with their determination to portray Lincoln as the founding father of twenty-first-century liberalism. To drive home their point, in the second half of the book they trace the decline and rebirth of Lincoln’s progressive vision in the century and a half since his death. As they tell the story, in the late-nineteenth century the GOP turned its back on Lincoln’s dream for America and become the party of the one percent. Theodore Roosevelt tried to restore the GOP’s moral center, but it was the Democratic Party that eventually became, in vision if not in name, the true party of Lincoln.

The central agent in this transformation was Franklin Roosevelt. The authors pair FDR with Lincoln as the two most important promoters of the American Dream in U. S. history. Lyndon Johnson was also a worthy heir of Lincoln when he sought to use the federal government to build the “Great Society.”  So was Barack Obama, who during his second term finally began “girding his loins to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps and take new steps to use the power of the presidency to improve the status of middle-class and working-class members of the American community.”

In sum, Lincoln would have been an enthusiastic advocate of social security, welfare, affirmative action, and the Affordable Health Care Act. Apparently, he also would have looked for economic guidance to Sweden and Denmark, where public spending and tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is double what it is in the U. S. The authors conclude A Just and Generous Nation with an extended tribute to both nations, leaving us to conclude that, while Lincoln’s vision may be withering in the United States, it’s alive and well in Scandinavia.

You can draw your own conclusions about the authors’ policy proposals. There are arguments for and against them, with intelligent and decent people on both sides of the debate. As a historian, however, I have to say that A Just and Generous Nation is bad history, and I don’t say that lightly, given that Holzer is widely recognized as a leading Lincoln scholar. And yet the book is riddled with inaccuracies. I won’t bore you with the details, except to say that the authors misstate or misrepresent the facts concerning the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the meaning of Lincoln’s “house divided” metaphor, his vision for slavery’s “ultimate extinction,” the significance of Congressional compromise proposals in 1860-1861, Lincoln’s stance on the Second Confiscation Act of 1862, the implications of the Wade-Davis bill of 1864, the end of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the relationship between postwar peonage and convict labor. The book can be sloppy at times.

It is also relentlessly one-sided. The authors regularly ignore evidence that would weaken their argument. (In a masterpiece of understatement, a New York Times review notes that the book “flattens out a story that has some uncomfortable complexities.”) While praising Lincoln’s commitment to the working class, for example, the authors fail to mention that by the 1850s Lincoln was essentially a corporate lawyer who earned the lion’s share of his living representing wealthy commercial concerns: insurance companies, banks, and railroads. His single largest client was the Illinois Central Railroad, the longest railroad in the world at the time and one of the world’s largest corporations. (Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, would later joke, “Much as we deprecated the avarice of great corporations, we both thanked the Lord for letting the Illinois Central Railroad fall into our hands.”)

Nor do the authors find occasion to mention Lincoln’s well-documented response when his brother-in-law, a subsistence farmer named John D. Johnston, wrote Lincoln in 1848 and asked to borrow $80 to pay off some pressing bills. “What I propose is,” Lincoln wrote Johnston, “that you shall go to work ‘tooth and nails’ for some body who will give you money [for] it.” “Follow my advice,” Lincoln lectured his brother-in-law, “and you will find it worth more than eight times eighty dollars to you.”

Most problematic of all is the authors’ reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which can most charitably be described as imaginative. After paying tribute to those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live,” Lincoln had challenged the assembled throng “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” to “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Although his audience didn’t know it (nor did the Union soldiers Lincoln was praising), the “cause” was not the preservation of the Union. It was not the eradication of slavery and a “new birth of freedom.” It was the promotion of the American Dream grounded in activist government. “Looking to the aftermath of the Civil War,” the authors explain, Lincoln “was defining the nation’s ‘unfinished work’ as the new task of providing all citizens a government committed to helping all citizens build a middle-class life.”

A Just and Generous Nation is a textbook example of what I call “history as ammunition,” an approach to the past as a storehouse of illustrations for proving predetermined points. When politically conservative amateur historians appeal to America’s Founders to promote a conservative contemporary agenda, academic historians are quick to protest. Only anti-intellectual populist yahoos—“historical fundamentalists,” to use Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s condescending phrase—would naively do such a thing. But it’s apparently fine for two prominent scholars to ask WWLD?—“What Would Lincoln Do?”—as long as the answer points in the direction that most academics are already headed.

Let me be clear: I’m not frustrated by this book because I disagree with the authors’ liberal politics. Their politics are irrelevant. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I have regularly called to account conservative Christians when they have done something similar. As a historian of the United States, my frustration is with those who distort our past while claiming to honor it. And as a historian of the American Civil War more specifically, I can only say that Holzer and Garfinkle have so contorted that crucial conflict that few of the men who fought in it would recognize it.

WEST POINT HISTORIAN MIXES TRUTH AND MYTH, GOES VIRAL

A reader called to my attention this short video by a West Point historian addressing the question “Was the Civil War about Slavery?”  Colonel Ty Seidule, head of the History Department at the United States Military Academy, recently answered this question at the invitation of so-called “Prager University.”  You should check it out.

P.U. (an unfortunate acronym when spoken aloud), is the creation of conservative radio host Dennis Prager.  Its website promises “free courses for free minds” capped at five minutes each. At Prager University you will never have to endure “long, boring, can’t-keep-my-eyes-open lectures.”  Just click on the play button and enjoy “clear, life-changing insights and ideas from world-renowned thinkers” who have mastered the art of getting “right to the point.”  Five minutes later you’ll have definitive information, clarity, and “a true-value added component of a Prager University education – wisdom.”  Quite the bargain.

Since its release five days ago, more than four million of us have given it a look, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.  A whiff of scandal may have lured some.  There have been a few critical notices online, calling into question whether a high-ranking officer at West Point should have lent his name to such a high-profile, politically conservative personality.  I’m not sure what to think about that.  The “courses” in P.U.’s catalog are predominantly conservative in their slant, but I noticed nothing overtly partisan in Colonel Seidule’s presentation, and by his own account (to Stars and Stripes), he knew nothing of Prager’s politics when he agreed to make the video.

I suspect a more important factor was the lingering effects of the Confederate battle flag controversy and the sense that Colonel Seidule offers a definitive refutation of the tired claim by the flag’s defenders that the Civil War was a struggle over state rights.  Most of the online sites that have reposted the video have taken that tack.  They preface the link with bold-face proclamations that Seidule “slammed” or “destroyed” the states’ rights argument.  (The prize for subtlety goes to Salon.com: “Was the Civil War fought over slavery?” the online magazine asks.  “Here’s the video to show idiots who think the answer is ‘No.'”)

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of "Prager University"

Col. Ty Seidule of West Point addressing the students of “Prager University”

My guess is that this is a classic example of being deeply impressed by the force of an argument agreeing with what you already believe.  Much of the online acclaim trumpets Colonel Seidule’s role as head of the History Department at West Point, and the fact that he delivered his remarks in full dress uniform surely added to their gravitas.  The unstated assumption seems to be that a historian at West Point, by definition, should be able to speak authoritatively about the causes of the Civil War.  Colonel Seidule’s official bio indicates that he earned a PhD in history from Ohio State University, but his expertise is in the history of the art of war and, again according to his official West Point bio, his area of specialization is the history of West Point itself.  This does not automatically establish him as an expert on the political causes of the Civil War or any other conflict.

Having said that, Colonel Seidule is right in insisting that the neo-Confederate claim that the Civil War was not about slavery is insupportable by the evidence.  There is nothing novel in this.  Academic historians have held to this view almost unanimously for at least three generations.  But in “destroying” the southern myth that the war was all about states’ rights, the colonel falls into the trap of perpetuating the dominant northern myth about the conflict, implying that it was first and foremost a moral struggle over the legitimacy of human bondage.

He does this primarily in the conclusion of his five-minute “course.”  After acknowledging that the North did not initially embrace the liberation of southern slaves as its reason for fighting, he implies that the war gradually morphed into a moral crusade.  He does this by focusing on Abraham Lincoln exclusively, observing that the opportunity to end slavery grew more and more important in Lincoln’s mind as the war progressed.  That is true, but Lincoln also knew that millions of northerners did not share his view, including a significant percentage of soldiers.  This is why Seidule’s conclusion, though stirring, is grossly misleading:

“Slavery is the great shame of America’s history.  No one denies that.  But it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery. . . . In its finest hour, soldiers wearing this blue uniform , almost two hundred thousand of them former slaves, destroyed chattel slavery, freed four million men, women, and children, and saved the United States of America.”

The claim that America “fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” is a masterful enunciation of what I have previously labeled the northern myth of the Civil War.  If you want a detailed explanation of why Colonel Seidule’s statement is misleading, please take a few minutes (warning: it might take more than five) to read my post “Exchanging One Myth for Another? Our One-Sided Memories of the Civil War.”

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Without belaboring the details, it is important to remember that emancipation was almost as controversial among Union soldiers as it was among northern civilians.   Some of the most prominent Federal generals in the war openly opposed the policy.  Major General George McClellan, who for sixteen months commanded the largest Union army, is a prime example.  McClellan advised Lincoln that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment” and warned that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, who was more responsible than any other single officer for Lincoln’s reelection, thanks to his successful campaign for Atlanta, repeatedly resisted orders from Washington to enlist former slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation made that a possibility.  “I would prefer to have this a white man’s war,” he explained in a letter to his wife in April 1863.  And when the Army Chief of Staff pressed the matter in late 1864, Sherman wrote to Henry Halleck to explain why he would not comply.  “I am honest in my belief that it is not fair to our men to count negroes as equals,” he began.  But “is not a negro as good as a white man to stop a bullet?” Sherman asked.  His answer: “yes, and a sand bag is better; but can a negro do our skirmishing and picket duty? . . . Soldiers must do many things without orders from their own sense,” he lectured Halleck.  “Negroes are not equal to this.”

Although some Union generals were genuinely committed both to emancipation and to the enlistment of black soldiers on moral grounds, taken as a whole, the policy of Union commanders in the field with regard to slavery was pragmatic, based first and foremost on military exigencies.  And although exposure to the realities of slavery often converted the men in the ranks to support of emancipation, historian James McPherson–after reading thousands of pages of soldiers’ correspondence–concluded that most supporters of emancipation in the Union army are best understood 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.

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Colonel Seidule is correct that President Lincoln genuinely embraced the opportunity to strike at slavery as a long-delayed moral obligation, but even Lincoln regularly justified emancipation and black recruitment on the most pragmatic grounds in order to make it more palatable to northern opinion.  “The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property,” the president wrote in a public defense of the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1863.  “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 when a year later he faced widespread criticism over the use of slaves as soldiers, he again defended his policy on the most pragmatic grounds.  “Any different policy in regard to the colored man deprives us of his help, and this is more than we can bear,” Lincoln wrote to a Unionist critic in September 1864.  “This is not a question of sentiment or taste, but one of physical force which can be measured and estimated as horse-power and steam power. . . . Keep it and you can save the Union.  Throw it away, and the Union goes with it.”

Colonel Seidule’s claim that “it is to America’s everlasting credit that it fought the most devastating war in its history in order to abolish slavery” misses the mark badly.  And more than just historical accuracy is at stake.  As I have noted before, this kind of caricature unwittingly perpetuates the falsehood that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past.  Southern slavery was the country’s “great shame.”  The North, to its “everlasting credit,” fought to abolish it.  For generations, this northern myth has made the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem.  Just like the southern states’ rights myth, the northern myth has been an obstacle to an honest confrontation with our past.

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.

MEDITATIONS ON THE “HALLOWED GROUND”–PART I

(Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the beginning of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the one below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

1-Park Sign

The morning after I returned from my road trip to Gettysburg, I took my wife and older daughter out to breakfast to catch up with them and share a bit of my experience. As soon as we had placed our order, my wife leaned across the table and asked, “So what spiritual insights did you come home with?”

She knows me well. History is an almost inexhaustible storehouse of compelling human stories, but I am convinced that if the study of history is to be truly educational, it must be much more than that. Authentic education does not merely put knowledge into our heads that wasn’t there before. It alters the way we think. It challenges our hearts. It changes who we are.

At its best, our encounter with the past should be a seamless part of a larger quest for a heart of wisdom, a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” in the words of historian David Harlan. We shouldn’t settle for less. Genesis 32 tells how Jacob wrestled with God the whole night through, telling the Lord, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (v. 26). I can’t begin to plumb the depths of that story’s meaning, and yet I think of it often in my role as a historian and a teacher. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury and an accomplished historian, encourages us to believe “that there will always be gifts to be received from the past.” We must seek them persistently, insistently. Like Jacob, we must resolve not to turn loose until the Lord has blessed us.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we pray for special revelation from God, asking him to disclose hidden meanings from the past. . . . I find no promise in scripture that the Holy Spirit will reveal American history to us.  The Bible is clear, on the other hand, that the Spirit is given in order to convict us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). So when I propose that we wrestle with the past until the Lord blesses us, I have in mind studying history in such a way that it ultimately exposes our hearts. Our highest goal is not to understand the past for its own sake, nor to learn lessons from the past that help us get what we want in the present. Rather, our ultimate goal is to see both God and ourselves more clearly, to the glory of God and for our sanctification.

The point, in other words, is to get wisdom. As Proverbs 4:7 puts it, “Wisdom is the principal thing.”And if wisdom is our goal, we must figure out how to make scrutiny of the past lead to scrutiny of our own hearts in the light of God’s revealed Word. That, I am almost ready to conclude, is the essence of what it means to think “Christianly” about history.

I am still trying to work out what this looks like concretely, but I would like to share with you some of the thoughts that I had while roaming the ground at Gettysburg. They are examples of the kind of reflections I have in mind. You may be able to come up with other, better ones, and I welcome your suggestions and reactions. For now, I’ll share just a couple of observations, with more to follow soon.

First, the palpable weight of the past at Gettysburg is jarring. As I mentioned in my last post, as I walked the battlefield I felt the almost tangible presence of the nearly 170,000 men who clashed there a century and a half ago. I don’t mean literally that their spirits hovered there (although there are a number of “Gettysburg Ghost Tours” that claim precisely that). As I observed last time, there is something about being physically present at the site of a famous historical event. The experience enlivens our imaginations; sharing a common landscape somehow seems to connect us viscerally to those whose footsteps we follow.

That sensation, at least for me, has the effect of jolting me out of my own narrow frame of reference. For all the current talk of “globalization,” most of us really live in tiny worlds, don’t we? The universes we inhabit don’t have room for much: home, work, school, the mall, perhaps church. We pretend to expand our worlds through “virtual” reality but only isolate ourselves even more. It’s comparatively easy to believe that the world revolves around us when the island kingdoms that we rule over are so miniscule. And then we walk the field at Gettysburg, or some similar locale, and the landscape reminds us of the hosts that have gone before, and suddenly we can feel very small. That’s a good thing. If an integral component of wisdom is self-knowledge, “the first product of self-knowledge,” as Flannery O’Connor realized, “is humility.”

Second, as I thought about the men who fought there, I was immediately struck by the chasm that separates us from them. I’d love to be a tour guide at Gettysburg, but I wouldn’t be a very popular one, because I think one of the most important things to tell tourists is how little we know about what happened there. That’s not a message we care to hear. We want history that makes the past “come alive”–what I call You Are There history–and being reminded that “we see through a glass, darkly” when we peer into the past interferes with our fantasies of omniscience.

But call to mind what C. S. Lewis wrote about the vast disparity between the actual past–which is dead and gone–and history, which is not the past itself but our halting efforts to reconstruct it. “The past,” Lewis observed, “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.” The difference between the past and history, then, “is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

This is always true when we try to reconstruct an episode from the past, even an event of such scale and significance as the battle of Gettysburg. Take, for instance, the battle’s famous conclusion–Pickett’s Charge. As historian Carol Reardon has shown, even the most basic factual claims about the attack are actually just educated guesses. We don’t really know precisely when the bombardment preceding the attack began, how long it lasted, or why it proved ineffective. We don’t know exactly how many men were involved in the charge, and we certainly don’t know which Confederate unit got the farthest or precisely where on the field they were turned back. (At least three southern states claim that their troops advanced the farthest, and each has installed historical markers on Cemetery Ridge to position their sons at the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.”) We don’t even know for sure what George Pickett was doing during the charge. (There were even controversial claims after the war that he had skulked in the rear until the bloodbath was over.)

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett's Division on July 3rd, 1863.  His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

Looking west from Cemetery Ridge at the field crossed by George Pickett’s Division on July 3rd, 1863. His men formed for the attack in the line of trees in the distance.

When we move beyond establishing the factual details to the thornier tasks of explanation (why did the attack fail?) and re-creation (what was it like to take part?) our dearth of knowledge becomes all the more apparent. As Reardon explains, each kind of existing evidence about the battle has its own problems. Official reports were biased, self-serving, and frequently not composed until months afterward. Most of the letters and diaries of common soldiers at Gettysburg were never preserved, and those that survive are less revealing than we would hope. Individual soldiers saw only a tiny part of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often retained a kaleidoscope of impressions and sensations more than a coherent narrative of their experience. In writing to loved ones, they often gave up on the possibility of conveying what they had seen and experienced to civilians.

Newspapers covered the battle extensively (there were dozens of correspondents at Gettysburg), but reporters typically knew little about military matters and, like modern historians, were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad of conflicting individual perspectives that they could glean from interviews. To compound the challenge, they were under great pressure to rush their stories into print in order to scoop their rivals. As a result, “wishful thinking ran wild” and “no bit of hyperbole seemed excessive.”

But why stress how much we don’t know? The author of Proverbs provides our answer: “For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). It would be an oversimplification to say that what we think reflects our hearts and how we think shapes our hearts, but it’s not far from the truth. From best-selling popular works to the boring textbooks we’re assigned growing up, much of the history that we consume exaggerates our capacity to know the past and unwittingly promotes intellectual arrogance. Herbert Butterfield, one of the premier Christian historians of the last century, trenchantly identified intellectual arrogance as “the besetting disease of historians.” Christian writers are not immune to this malady, and we cannot guard against it unless we are aware of it.

More to follow soon.

WHY THE CIVIL WAR STILL MATTERS

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.

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