Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 5, 2013

More on the Civil War

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg this week has occasioned some discussion of the origins and causes of the Civil War. On one level, it does seem amazing that questions like “How did the Civil War start?” or “Why did the Southern states secede?” should still be controversial 150 years later. As Prof. Ransom says (in the article I quoted two days ago), “The facts of the Civil War are not mysterious to us. But they are, evidently, too brutal for of us to take. And so we find ourselves into a soloutionism premised on the idea that we are smarter than our forefathers. We are not. The Civil War is a fact. It happened for actual reasons. Those reasons do not change because they make us uncomfortable…”

On the other hand, there are still deep disagreements about such questions as the causes behind the fall of the Roman Empire. Supposedly, someone once asked Zhou Enlai what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution, and he replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

A difference, of course, when it comes to the American Civil War, is that no one alive today had a great-great-grandfather among the Visigoths who crossed the Rhine.

So, at the Volokh Conspiracy, Ilya Somin has a post marking the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg. In that post, Prof. Somin points to this earlier post discussing “Libertarianism and the Civil War.” Somin identifies “three types of libertarian perspectives on the Civil War. Many libertarians actually support the war, some condemn it without defending the Confederacy, and some are actually pro-Confederate.” (The first groups encompasses those libertarians who “actually agree with the conventional wisdom on the conflict: that, although it caused great harm, it was ultimately beneficial because it led to the abolition of slavery.”) Somin points to a couple of essays by Jonathan Blanks (here and here) that set forth good arguments for why libertarians should not endorse the Confederacy’s attempt to secede from the United States. Blanks and Somin both point to the official statements of reasons for secession issued by several of the seceding states in 1861 (see also here and here), as well as to statements by such figures as Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the CSA. All of these sources are instructive. This blogger also has a short post looking at the reasons behind the South’s decision to secede.

Somin makes one point that is worth remembering:

Even if you do endorse any secession that is supported by a majority of the population in a given state, you should still condemn the Confederacy. Southern secession can only be defended on majoritarian grounds if you discount the views of southern blacks. As of 1860, African-Americans constituted about 40% of the population of the states that formed the Confederacy. It’s a safe bet that they were overwhelmingly opposed to secession. When you combine this overwhelming black opposition with that of the substantial minority of southern whites who also wanted to stay in the Union, it is highly likely that a majority of southerners in 1861 opposed secession. Once you recognize that blacks count too, it becomes clear that Confederate secession was anti-majoritarian as well as proslavery.

Somin also has this post about a speech by Frederick Douglass in 1871 concerning how we should remember the Civil War. From that speech (emphasis added):

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Douglass gave this speech at the end of May, 1871. I find especially interesting what I take to be a reference to the Paris Commune of 1871, which had just been violently suppressed by the French Army in the Bloody Week earlier that same month. The references to Paradise Lost and to Psalm 137 also struck me as nice rhetorical flourishes. (I wonder if many modern speakers would dare to be so subtle – most, I suspect, would feel the need to identify the source texts explicitly for the sake of a public that otherwise would likely miss the references.)

On a similar note, Upworthy points to an occasion, nine years before the Civil War, when the city of Rochester, NY asked Douglass to speak at a Fourth of July celebration. The people who invited Douglass most likely did not get what they expected. Danny Glover gave a performance of the speech (about six minutes) that is worth watching. (H/T: Chris Bowers.)

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