Monday, April 16, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 16: Lost Cause issues

This older article which as of this writing is available online for free, The Cult of the Lost Cause by C. Vann Woodward New York Review of Books 09/25/1980 issue, covers some of the major issues that have been disputed over the antebellum history that led up to the Civil War.

Woodward is reviewing a collection of essays by the historian Kenneth Stampp, The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War (). Using the language of battles, kind of a tongue-in-chief device that doesn't work entirely well, Woodward explains the basis of Stampp's eminence as an historian:

Nearly twenty-five years ago Stampp opened a reassessment of slavery with his book The Peculiar Institution. It challenged and reversed the view of slavery as essentially benign and the slaves as largely contented, stressed the hardships and brutalities of the system, and emphasized the resistance short of rebellion that slaves used against their exploiters. Three years later, in 1959, Stanley M. Elkins presented a counter-thesis that pictured the typical plantation slave as a placid, childlike, and contented Sambo. He was no less oppressed than Stampp's slave, but he reacted to oppression by conforming to the submissive role demanded by his masters and partially internalizing their values. Contrasting Elkins's Sambo with Herbert Aptheker's earlier picture of the slave as an activist rebel, Stampp trains his guns on both. A few well-placed shots on misused sources and shaky scholarship dispose of the activist prototype, and the main critical barrage is concentrated on the Sambo image. Already weakened by other attacks during the past twenty years, the defenses of this hypothesis are left by Stampp in general disarray.
In addition to this running controversy over the nature of slavery and extent of slave resistance, Woodward also discusses a now largely-forgotten flap from the 1976os over a book called Time on the Cross, in which a couple of historians used a lot of quantitative data and crunched them with computers (something not so common at the time) to argue that slavery was far more economically efficient than historians had previously thought, and generally presented a benign and proslavery view of the Peculiar Institution. Since the authors had made some serious errors in their usage of data, the book was pretty much totally discredited.

Another long-running dispute that continues today is over the role of racism in the antebellum Republican Party. As Woodward observes, "The issue at stake here is how much wind the racism of Republicans and abolitionists takes out of the sails of their moral pretensions." This is actually a staple of Lost Cause advocates: "Look, Lincoln and the Repubicans said all this racist stuff. So they couldn't possibly have been really interested in freeing the slaves". This pitch mainly has plausibility because of the radical changes that have taken place in American whites' general views of race since the 1850s. The historical milestones in those changes were the Civil War itself, the Second World War and the postwar civil rights movement (which itself owed more to the experience of black veterans in the Second World War than is generally recognized). Yes, the public statements of antebellum Republicans and the general attitudes of Northern whites were racist. But white racism wasn't incompatible with a desire to get rid of slavery. In actual fact, opposition to slavery and opposition to the presence of blacks were often seen as the same thing. The search for purity and moral inspiration in the study of history is one of those "searching for a needle in a haystack" undertakings.

Another matter of dispute was Lincoln's position on the Fort Sumter defense. Woodward summarizes it this way:

The lines are more sharply drawn in the struggle over determining President Lincoln's intentions over relieving Fort Sumter and starting the war. On one side are those who call his policy war-like and describe it as cynically designed to maneuver the South into firing the first shot. His purpose was not only to unite the North but also to save his administration and his party. On the other side are those who believe his intentions were peaceful and that the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter represented a defeat instead of a victory for Lincoln's policy. Stampp takes a third position. Sumter was a triumph for Lincoln: "With consummate skill he had at once hamstrung the South, satisfied the great majority of Northerners that he contemplated no aggression, and yet conveyed his determination to defend the authority of the federal government." National interest was made to coincide with party and personal interest. Whether the South attacked or submitted, Lincoln's purpose would prevail. In the end, the Confederates like the Unionists chose war over submission.
On the question of the causes of war, Woodward notes that Stampp comes down solidly on the side of those who focus on the central conflict of slavery. In Woodward's words, "it all boiled down to the compulsions of proslavery and antislavery forces". Stampp rejected the arguments of both conservative historians that blamed the war on Northern fanatics or various and sundry other villains, and also the left historians who looked for other economic determinants.

This part of Woodward's comments on the issue of why the South lost the Civil War is well worth quoting:

Stampp offers the hypothesis that many southerners—"enough to affect the outcome of the war—who outwardly appeared to support the Confederate cause had inward doubts about its validity, and that, in all probability, some, perhaps unconsciously, welcomed its defeat." In the first place he believes there was no "genuine southern nationalism," and that except for slavery, southern whites had little in the way of distinctive culture, either in the stock of their population or in their political and religious beliefs. They were driven to secession not out of nationalism, but by fear and anger, as a last painful resort. Hating the Yankees was not the same as hating the Union. Indeed, they blamed the Yankees for driving them out of the Union and for questioning their fidelity to American traditions, which they vowed to give better protection than did the Union. Some of them seem to have regarded secession as a means of eventually negotiating a better position in the old Union than could be obtained by negotiating from within. Whether or not guilt and shame over slavery were so prevalent as Stampp suggests, defeat offered a way of unloading the burden and may help explain the readiness to accept abolition. Defeat also offered a way of returning to the Union. Some may have been persuaded that they had less to gain by winning than by losing. That was not a strong incentive for fighting on, nor was slavery ever an effective rallying cry. (my emphasis)

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