Still worrying about the Civil War

A few days ago President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly told Fox News that the Civil War was caused by the “lack of an ability to compromise”, that it was “fought by men and women of good faith on both sides” and that General Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man.” Frankly, it would be pretty amazing if an elderly white man who took a job with Trump did not hold such assumptions about the Civil War. The more interesting point is that up until very recently most public figures in American life, including liberals, said much the same sort of thing–especially about the “honor” and “decency” of “Bobby Lee” and his ilk. Indeed, the White House cited as the “source” of Kelly’s views Ken Burns’ landmark 1990 TV documentaries which was the ultimate modern “mainstream” encapsulation of the war.

So what’s new here is not Kelly’s predictable understanding of history (given his age and race), but the fact that it caused such a firestorm of protest. The politics obviously matter: his Fox-friendly foray into historical analysis fed the narrative of the Trump administration as not-so-closet white supremacists. But something else is at work here too: the egregious, retro-racism of the Republican Party has galvanised a more forceful attack on anything that smacks of the “Lost Cause” than anything that’s been seen before.

The “Lost Cause” however, is a moving target. So far as I know it’s only in the last few months that anyone has accused Burns’ films of peddling a Lost Cause view of the war. On the contrary, an influential 1998 essay entitled “Worrying about the Civil War” by the historian Ed Ayers bracketed the Burns films with James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom as examples of a neo-Abolitionist view of the war.

In fact, Ayers was “worrying” about the Civil War for two reasons. One was the issue that has since become so problematic — the stubborn refusal of huge numbers of white Americans to accept that the war was about slavery. The other reason, however, was the self-congratulatory tone of post-Civil Rights movement liberal historiography. Ayers worried about a then-hegemonic interpretation that dramatised

…the ways that antislavery opinion, progress, war, and national identity intertwined at the time of the Civil War so that each element became inseparable from the others. Slavery stands as the antithesis of progress, shattering nation and creating war; war is the means by which antislavery feeling spreads and deepens; the turn against slavery during the war re-creates national identity; the new nation is freed for a more fully shared kind of progress.

So Ayers was depressed by the dogged resistance of the public to accept the centrality of slavery, but he was also uncomfortable with historians’ (and Ken Burns’) seemingly teleological view of the war as an engine of racial progress.

A number of scholars have taken an “antiwar” turn since Ayers’ essay, acknowledging the moral complexities of the conflict. Yet the reaction to Kelly’s comments make me think think both Ayers’ worries are still valid. Kelly’s romanticisation of the Confederacy is wrong, but some of his critics romanticise the war too.

It is altogether fitting and proper (as Abraham Lincoln might have put it) that Americans are finally waking up to the nasty political legacy of white supremacists. It is an astonishing testimony to the continuing power of racism in American society that anyone could doubt that the only reason eleven slave states seceded was to protect slavery. This really should not be controversial: slavery was explicitly mentioned in every single one of the Confederate state’s declarations of secession!

That so many Americans refuse to accept an uncontestable truth is testimony, as Adam Serwer has pointed out in the Atlantic, of the incredible, enduring success of the propaganda campaign waged by the white South and its fellow travelers. And quite apart from the physical monuments to the leaders of the Proslavery party, there remain many, many ways in which the language we use to describe that mid-nineteenth century conflict panders to John Kelly’s romantic notion of honorable men fighting over a misunderstanding. The very term Civil War came into vogue only in the early twentieth century as a way of retrospectively neutralizing the politics of the South. Up until then Northerners called it the “War of the Rebellion” or the “Slaveholders’ Rebellion”, which were accurate terms. I have always thought the veneration of Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson politically toxic, and the idea that the war was somehow caused by something called “states rights” utterly fatuous. And so when I read this peroration to Adam Serwer’s article, I silently cheer him on:

It is fair to ask…why [Chief of Staff John] Kelly believes that there could have been compromise over the issue of slavery, that a war over human bondage could have contained “men and women of good faith on both sides,” and that a man could have killed thousands of his countrymen and still be honorable, but that a Gold Star widow who feels disrespected by the president’s words, that a congresswoman who defended her and was slandered by Kelly himself, and that the athletes who refuse to compromise on the question of black personhood should be given no quarter.

And yet I still worry.

Serwer thinks it “strange” that the “circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union are regarded as tragic.” The end of slavery was obviously not tragic — and, to bend over backwards to be fair, I don’t suppose even John Kelly thinks so. But I do think a war that killed perhaps three quarters of a million people was tragic, and, like Ed Ayers, I am left feeling uncomfortable about the implication that it was always going to turn out for the best.

The problem with Kelly’s remarks is not that he said that the war came because people wouldn’t compromise — after all, all wars come about because on some level people chose war rather than to compromise. The problem was that he implied compromise could–and perhaps should–have been possible over slavery. Of course, as Kelly perhaps doesn’t know, compromise with the Slave Power had been tried repeatedly and had failed. But even so, almost all Northerners in 1861, including Lincoln and the Republican Party, would still have been prepared to make some sort of compromise that kept slavery in existence. The one thing they wouldn’t compromise was the territorial integrity of the nation state.

I worry that Serwer (and Ta-Nahisi Coates and many others) give the impression, intentionally or otherwise, that the war was fought because enslaved people and white abolitionists rose up to challenge the power of the slaveholding elite. Everyone in the North knew that the war was about slavery, in the sense that it was the “Slave Power” (aka the slaveholding plutocrats who were used to running the Federal government) who were waging war to protect their interests. Northerners went to war, with enthusiasm, to prevent slaveholders breaking up the Union. Many of them also hoped to destroy slavery forever. But those two goals–abolition and the preservation of the territorial integrity of the nation state–were intertwined in the minds of Northerners. Slavery was a curse on their otherwise perfect republic; by destroying it they would not only save their “last best hope of earth” but make it “forever worthy of the saving” by cleansing it of sin.

Tempting as it is to make it one, the Civil War (or whatever we should call it) should not be a morality tale. It should not be reduced either to a story of good triumphing over evil, or of “honorable men” engaged in noble struggle. Like all wars, it was messy, contradictory and horribly bloody. Of all the ways in which a regime of chattel slavery came to an end, this was the worst. Adam Serwer writes that, in contrast to the “hand-wringing” about the Civil War, “few regret that George Washington and King George III didn’t sit down at a table and hash out a compromise.” Well I am one of those few. As Serwer rightly says “the issues debated on the eve of the Revolutionary War were more amenable to compromise than those that rent the Union in two in 1861.” And after all if compromise had been reached in 1775, maybe the history of human enslavement in North America would have been different too. It was the Constitution of 1787 that gave slavery such gold-plated protection that even the most fervent abolitionists could not conceive of any realistic route to abolition short of war.



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