Dec

10

 What were the "causes" of the civil war? For the South, it was about slavery; for the North it was about Union and the Constitution. The assertion of the right of nullification and other "states rights" by South Carolina as early as 1820 was over the issue of slavery - specifically, whether the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of further slave imports could be ignored. Where Jeff is right is in saying that the doctrine of states' rights did not apply only to slavery. The New England states were the first to assert it because of their outrage over Jefferson's Embargo. Where Jeff is wrong is in what he writes about most Southerners having never "met a slave". There were slaves in every county in the South; they show up in the Census records. Even the strongest Union counties (eastern Tennessee, western Virginia) had slaves. The fact that most Southerners were too poor to own slaves did not mean that slaves and slavery were not a part of their daily experience. Slaves were the South's primary capital assets; their market value dwarfed the investment in machinery and transportation equipment. Anyone fortunate enough to make money would invest their savings in slaves; they were valuable and durable property (far more so than horses, for example) and as easily tradable as stocks and bonds today.

I can understand why so many people still want to turn the discussion to questions of states' rights and the awfulness of what Union armies did as they marched through Georgia and elsewhere. They are certainly right about the awfulness; you can still see its effects today if you have the eye to see them when you drive through the South. And, it would be so much nicer to believe that the posthumous rehabilitation of Abraham Lincoln (the man who has been Scott's single purpose explanation for all subsequent authoritarian abuse in American history). Even now you can hear people argue with a straight face that, but for Lincoln's assassination, there would have been a perfect reconciliation after Appomattox; it is the Birth of a Nation version of American history. (I heard this just this fall while visiting the national park there; one of the docents was explaining at length about how there was no real conflict between North and South once the war ended. I showed my usual tact in muttering in my not so little voice: "Yeah, right. And the British would have had no lingering animus towards the Germans after 1945 but for Hitler's refusal to surrender." as I left to wander the park on my own.)

We Southerners have to deal with the same difficulty that the French have to face when they consider what so many of their ancestors did in Second World War: the fact that so many of them took the wrong side - morally. (Thank God none of us have to shoulder the burdens of what the Germans and Japanese have to deal with in their history from 1930 to 1945.) The French have to admit that a thousand times more of their parents and grandparents actively collaborated with the Nazis than fought in the Resistance. They also have to acknowledge that Vichy was not engaged in passive resistance; they chose to side with the Germans. (Until D-Day the largest number of American casualties from an amphibious landing in any theater of war had come at the hands of the French in the landings in the North Africa.) For us Southerners the difficult fact of history is that many, many white Southerners in 1860/1 (but not my ancestors) thought the states' rights doctrine was a specious rationalization for secession in the name of slaveholding. As many as 1/4th of them supported the Union, and they did so because they, like most Yankees, were willing to tolerate slavery where it already existed but they also knew that slavery was morally wrong and hoped and prayed that it would fade away.

When Condoleezza Rice's father went to register to vote and answer the poll questions in Birmingham in the 1940s and 1950s, the chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party (a descendant of those same white Southerners) would accompany Dr. Rice to the courthouse and stand with him while he took the test and had it scored. This was a purely symbolic act since Dr. Rice was one of the few people, white or black, in Jefferson County who could successfully pass the examination; but it was a real legacy - nearly a century later - of the fact that most of the Scalawags who supported Reconstructions were white Southerners themselves, not Northern carpetbaggers.

 


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