12 April 2011
The Late Unpleasantness
Fort Sumter was fired upon 150 years ago today, making this the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. In anticipation of the occasion Time magazine has a cover story this week in which a weeping Lincoln metaphorically mourns a continuing division within the Union over the meaning of the war. For a long time the lack of consensus was almost a national joke. I don't know when exactly "the Civil War" became the conflict's default label, but the official documentary history called it The War of the Rebellion, while southern die-hards referred to it as "The War of Northern Agression," and others affecting neutrality opted for the grammatically questionable "War Between the States." The tag I've adopted for today's title was perhaps the ultimate in euphemism. For many years the Union itself strove to downplay the differences that provoked the war for the sake of national harmony, but that usually meant downplaying the enduring grievances of black Americans at the same time. All the while, historians debated the distribution of blame, on the assumption that the conflict was not so irrepressible as William Seward once claimed. Disagreements linger today over Lincoln's supposed agenda, with a "neo-Confederate" fringe and a handful of allegedly disinterested intellectual sympathizers denouncing Old Abe as an aggressor bent on imposing Big Government on a still-innocent nation. For the past month or so I've been dipping into the Library of America's The Civil War: The First Year, the first of a series of primary-source anthologies collecting first-hand accounts from politicians, generals and ordinary Americans. The first volume starts with Lincoln's election in 1860 and offers representative statements of southern grievances. While my thought has always been that the Civil War was really a war for empire, and that Lincoln's determination to stop the westward spread of slavery was what made his election provocative of secession, the samples published in The First Year suggest that proto-Confederates' biggest grievance was Republicans' assumed refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law against alleged nullification by northern state governments and actual resistance by northern citizens. While some moderates, noting Lincoln's promises to uphold existing laws, urged the fire-eaters to give the President-elect a chance to prove his good faith, many secessionists took it for granted that Lincoln, as a "black Republican," would not respect their rights. For those who idealize the Confederates as apostles of limited government, it might be alarming to see the terms they set for remaining in the Union. These usually involved forcing northern states by any means necessary to assist slaveholders in recapturing fugitive labor, up to sending federal troops into recalcitrant regions to secure the rights of distant slavedrivers. Such demands clarify what Lincoln meant when he warned that a "house divided" could not stand, but must become all one thing or all another. Lincoln himself made clear repeatedly that he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it already existed. But he was convinced that, if the spread of slavery was not checked by barring it from the western territories, slaveholders' demands would eventually make it impossible for any community, north or west, to decide for itself that slavery wasn't welcome. His implicit fear was that, if slaveholders could take slavery with them everywhere they went, then every state in the Union would once more become a slave state, and slaveholders would effectively rule the country to the inevitable detriment of the "free labor" Republicans like Lincoln claimed to represent. As far as secessionists were concerned, Lincoln's desire to close the west to slavery belied his promises not to interfere with slavery in the south, since Lincoln himself had said that restricting slavery to a limited area would put the peculiar institution on "the course of ultimate extinction." Since his stance seemed innately dishonest to them, few saw any reason to trust his assurances regarding the Fugitive Slave Law. And since Republicans would not agree to compromise proposals that would have embedded slavery in the Constitution beyond the reach of amendments, southern leaders decided to take their chances on secession. Something doesn't seem right when you read writings and speeches from the last advocates of compromise admonishing extremists of north and south alike for endangering the world's greatest example of liberty and justice. Since the compromisers were usually committed to perpetuating slavery, one is tempted to echo Dr. Johnson in asking why the loudest cries of liberty came from the drivers of negroes. But a little historical perspective is probably in order. In the world of 1861, monarchies and republics alike condoned slavery. A compromiser might well ask whether you preferred a republic with slavery or a despotism without. The flaw in their reasoning was the assumption that secession would mark the end of Americans' experiment with republican government. Their fear seemed to be that a smaller United States would not be so powerful, so inspiring to oppressed people elsewhere, so menacing to the great powers of the age, or so capable of defending itself against them. If anything, of course, the Civil War left the U.S. a much stronger nation, but was it worth all the dead? That's the question that still haunts some people after 150 years. Was it worth the hundreds of thousands killed to suppress secession or free the slaves? It probably tells us something about our national character, for good or ill, that some of us still think the question worth asking, and that some are unsure of the answer.