Monday, January 12, 2009

Reconstruction and You

I once thought poorly of Abraham Lincoln, believing the Civil War had been fought over states' rights. And states' rights lost. Once I studied the issue in depth, my perception of Lincoln as a leader and man changed dramatically.

The North did not fight the Civil War to combat slavery. They fought to keep the Union intact. The South did fight over states' rights - but the "right" in question was always slavery, and the Southern States seceded when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and the South feared losing its slaves. If you look at the Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s and 60s, you will see a reoccurence of this theme. Ergo, the Civil War was indeed fought over slavery.

When John Wilkes Booth used his derringer and bowie in Ford's Theater, he destroyed the best chance the South had for a productive reintegration with the Union. Under Andrew Johnson's leadership, the stage was set for a bitter battle among Radical Republicans, Johnson, and Southerners who would soon scapegoat blacks for the troubles in which they found themselves.

Quickly check your knowledge of this era with my study guide.


charlotte g said...

Arrgh! I once could have answered every question correctly, but today only remembered about half. Use it or lose it in veritas. Frankly, that one study guide is more comprehensive than most high school students seem to get here in Texas. History, like geography, has so much to do with where a country is at any given time.

J.R.Shirley said...

True enough, for both statements. Grades on the test ranged from 12-109 (plus additional bonus points for answering questions in class).

Jenny said...

Fun study guide... though the word bank kinda answers most of the questions on its own, given a cursory knowledge of the period. :)

I have to admit, I'm still none to comfortable with Lincoln and hold to your original viewpoint of "fought over states rights"... with the honkin' big caveat yes that it was a darned poor "right" that led to the struggle in the first place.

Thus, I still think "the South did the right thing* for the wrong reason... vice versa the North."

Lest that be taken too much as weasel wording, I'd say - we came from the same root culture. If the issue was cut and dry right and wrong, there would never have been a war at all.

Yes, today we thankfully universally see slavery as the horrible evil it is. I have to temper that though that it's incredibly easy to turn a blind eye - or even defend - those evil institutions we grow up with.

I'd posit though that there are institutions of our own time that future generations will look upon us as cruel and barbaric for ignoring (or sanctioning) as well. Maybe it will be abortion and institutionalized welfare, maybe it will be drug prohibitions and civilian disarmament, maybe it will be animal husbandry or religion - I won't begin to hazard a (public) guess. But that our posterity will regard us hateful barbarians over something seems pretty certain sure. That's the human way, to say "we've come so far." :)

So - while continuing to hold slavery a frightful evil - I'm inclined to give the Southern farmboy the benefit of the doubt that he was doing the right thing best he could make out - heck, a good many of the "gentlemen" as well.

If your pastor feeds you the "children of Ham" line your whole life, and every culture on the face of the earth has known slavery for all of recorded history... that's a difficult mental bridge to cross.

Even if your heart tells you something isn't right, the "tiger by the tail" argument can hold a fearsome sway living in a slaveholding State.

That doesn't make slavery right. That doesn't make the Federal usurpation right.

Wars, like arguments, are tricky things.

* by "the right thing" I mean "secede from the Federal compact when the conditions of remaining in it become untenable."
by "the wrong thing" I mean "force other States to remain in the compact against their will."
Slavery of course being the (biggest) reason for the conflict in the first place.

J.R.Shirley said...

Speaking of pastors~you may want to check out this sermon from President Wilson's father. I understand what you're saying about cultural relativism. (!)

The "peculiar institution" was always wrong. Allow me to quote from the VP of the Confederacy: we are passing through one of the greatest revolutions in the annals of the world-seven States have, within the last three months, thrown off an old Government and formed a new. This revolution has been signally marked, up to this time, by the fact of its having been accomplished without the loss of a single drop of blood. [Applause.] This new Constitution, or form of government, constitutes the subject to which your attention will be partly invited.

In reference to it, I make this first general remark: It amply secures all our ancient rights, franchises, and privileges. All the great principles of Magna Chartal are retained in it. No citizen is deprived of life, liberty, or property, but by the judgment of his peers, under the laws of the land. The great principle of religious liberty, which was the honor and pride of the old Constitution, is still maintained and secured. All the essentials of the old Constitution, which have endeared it to the hearts of the American people, have been preserved and perpetuated.... So, taking the whole new Constitution, I have no hesitancy in giving it as my judgment, that it is decidedly better than the old. [Applause.] Allow me briefly to allude to some of these improvements. The question of building up class interests, or fostering one branch of industry to the prejudice of another, under the exercise of the revenue power, which gave us so much trouble under the old Constitution, is put at rest forever under the new. We allow the imposition of no duty with a view of giving advantage to one class of persons, in any trade or business, over those of another. All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged in ....

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other-though last, not least: the new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions-African slavery as it exists among us-the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the Constitution, was the prevailing idea at the time. The Constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly used against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it-when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.