Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 25: What have all the "moderates" gone, long time passing?

African-American civilians and Federal troops occupying Jefferson Davis' plantation near Natchez; the banner says, "The House Jeff Built"

I recently read for the first time Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s, 1949 essay, "The Causes of the Civil War", which is included in The Politcs of Hope (1963). At that time, he was dealing with a trend in professional historical writing that was known as "revisionist", although it reflected aspects of the Lost Cause dogma that conservative white Southerners had been promoting practically since the end of the Civil War.

His essay focuses mainly on two advocates of this "revisionism", James Randall and Avery Craven. They "denied the traditional assumption of the inevitability of the war and boldly advanced the thesis that a 'blundering generation' had transformed a 'repressible conflict' into a 'needless war'."

Schlesinger also found Alan Nevins indulging in "a measured but entire acceptance of revisionism" in his 1947 Ordeal of the Union, where he wrote:

The primary task of statesmanship in this era was to furnish a workable adjustment between the two sections [North and South, or, more accurately, slave states and free states], while offering strong inducements to the southern people to regard their labor system not as static but evolutionary, and equal persuasions to the northern people to assume a helpful rather than scolding attitude.
The claim that "northern people" assumed a "scolding attitude" reflects the antebellum whining and blustering of the slaveowners and the publicists who huffed and puffed in defense of the slave system. A "scolding attitude"? We're talking about human slavery, people! If a scolding attitude was all that people could muster against slavery, that would mean they were disgraceful collaborators with slavery.

And, in fact, that was one of the driving forces behind free-state efforts to restrict slavery. Very few whites besides John Brown and his white supporters were ready to wage some war of liberation to free the slaves in the South. But people in free states did feel that they were increasingly made to collaborate against their wills and their consciences with the Slave Power. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made that coerced collaboration explicit by requiring free state citizens to join federal posses to recapture human property that had escaped from the lords of the lash.

Schlesinger's essay uses more judicious language than I do, being a part of the mean and nasty blogger world and all. But he rips the "revisionist" version of the Lost Cause ideology apart. He summarizes the Randall-Craven type of revisionism as including three primary premises:

First: that the Civil War was caused by the irresponsible emotionalization of politics far out of proportion to the real problems involved.
Hell, it was just human being held in slavery and being used as breeding stock to produce additional human property to be sold to other slavemongers. Plus, the freedoms of free white citizens were becoming more and more constricted by the demands of the slaveowners and their incresingly paranoid fears. Other than basic human rights and the essential freedoms of all Americans, there weren't such "real problems" that people had to get all worked up about it and stuff.

How did serious historians ever persuade themselves to write this nonsense? It boggles the mind.

Also, as part of this first plank of the "revisionist" Lost Cause approach, its advocates embraced the notion that slavery didn't have anything to do with causing the war. It was "fanaticism", lack of moderation, you know. The fact that all this ungentlemanly immoderation revolved around slavery was, what, a random coincidence?

Thus the second revisionist thesis: that sectional friction was permittd to developinto needless war by the inexcusable failure of political leadership in the '50s.
Schlesinger notes drily, "It is hard to tell which was under attack here - the performance of a particular generation or democratic politics in general."

The reality was that democratic politics and slavery were fundamentally incompatible. Democracy or the slave system had to win out.

Hence the third revisionist thesis: that the slavery problem could have been solved without war.
Assuming as I do that these really were serious historians, I just have to wonder, were they completely unaware of the existence of black people? I mean, really. The real lives of black people seemed to be an exotic abstraction for people who could come up with this kind of stuff.

As Schlesinger points out, this only makes any sense if there was a realistic possibility that slavery could have been abolished nonviolently. But those high-minded desires for peaceful abolition that the "revisionists" implicitly assume were there in the South somehow managed to stay well hidden. Probably because in large parts of the South, open discussion of abolition sentiments was just flat-out repressed. It also assumes that non-Southerners could have remained as completely indifferent to slavery and its poisonous effects on the whole Republic as the lords of the lash were to the humanity of their slave property.

Schlesinger also reminds us that there was no shortage of compensated emancipation schemes, under which capital in the form of cash would be given to the slave owners to replace their capital in the form of human flesh. The idea went about as far as an humanitarian thought would get if it entered the mind of Dick Cheney - nowhere, in other words.

While there are certainly a wide variety of issues generated by slavery, not least of which were class-based effects of slavery, primary among them the threat of slavery to free labor, Schlesinger in this essay focuses on a moral issue, which was certainly how it was widely perceived in both slave and free states:

The revisionists first glided over the implications of the fact
that the slavery system was producing a closed society in the South. Yet that society increasingly had justified itself by a political and philosophical repudiation of free society; southern thinkers swiftly developed the anti-libertarian potentialities in a social system whose cornerstone, in Alexander H. Stephens' proud phrase, was human bondage. In theory and in practice, the South organized itself with mounting rigor against ideas of human dignity and freedom, because such ideas inevitably threatened the basis of their own system. Professor Frank L. Owsley, the southern agrarian, has described inadvertently but accurately the direction in which the slave South was moving. "The abolitionists and their political allies were threatening the existence of the South as seriously as the Nazis threaten the existence of England," wrote Owsley in 1940; "... Under such circumstances the surprising thing is that so little was done by the South to defend its existence."

There can be no question that many southerners in the '50's had similar sentiments; that they regarded their system of control as ridiculously inadequate; and that, with the book-burning, the censorship of the mails, the gradual illegalization of dissent, the South was in process of creating a real machinery of repression in order more effectively "to defend its existence." No society, I suppose, encourages criticism of its basic institutions. Yet, when a democratic society acts in self-defense, it does so at least in the name of human dignity and freedom. When a society based on bond slavery acts to eliminate criticism of its peculiar institution, it outlaws what a believer in democracy can only regard as the abiding values of man. When the basic institutions are evil, in other words, the effect of attempts to defend their existence can only be the moral and intellectual stultification of the society.

A society closed in the defense of evil institutions thus creates moral differences far too profound to be solved by compromise. Such a society forces upon everyone, both those living at the time and those writing about it later, the necessity for a moral judgment; and the moral judgment in such cases becomes an indispensable factor in the historical understanding. (my emphasis)
Schlesinger was suggesting that, in reference to the approach of Randall and Craven, that this neglect of ths historical fact that strong emotions were generated on both sides may have been the main cause of their particular route to embracing a Lost Cause tall tale on the origins of the war. The "fanaticism" that they tried to blame for causing an avoidable war, in other words, was really only one of the manifestations of the social conflict caused by two incompatable systems, slavery and democracy, coexisting in one country under one government. Resolving that contradiction required strong feelings and much more besides.

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