April 12, 2010

Lest We Forget Why They Fought

Last week, a considerable amount of electrons were spilt over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclaiming "Confederate History Month," without having mentioned slavery at all, and then later apologizing and saying that yes, slavery was a bad thing after all. As sincere as I think McDonnell's apology and amendment were (very), I presume no one now needs to read about how this was a tremendously clumsy political maneuver; at least some conservative bloggers have joined that sentiment.

Thing is, this event has brought out Confederate apologists, and since some of them hold positions of power in this country, it is with them that I wish to raise a point. The Confederacy, the secessions that led up to it, and the Civil War which followed, were about slavery. It is offensive that apologists would seek to whitewash this or, worse yet, deny it outright. As one of the guys who first described the Civil War (accurately) as "treason in defense of slavery" puts it, "Having our patriotism and love for the United States questioned by people who lionize the worst traitors in American history is bloody irritating."

When confronted with words like "treason," Confederate apologists like to mention that the Founding Fathers committed treason against England, and suggest that we celebrate the Founders because they won. It's true that everyone likes a winner better, but that doesn't mean that the Confederates were freedom fighters and the moral equivalents of the Founders. The Founders fought for the freedom of all men, and even though they fell short of realizing that ideal, they wanted to expand freedom rather than restrict it.

By contrast, the ordinances of secession adopted by Alabama, Texas, and Virginia make particular reference to the status of the seceding states, including themselves, as states whose laws authorize the ownership of slaves. The declarations of secession accompanying some of those ordinances, authored by special conventions of the states of South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, you'll see that they are all about slavery, expansion of slavery to the territories, return of fugitive slaves, and a refusal to submit to the lawful election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency because of his hostility to slavery. If you look at the history of Tennessee's secession from the Union, you'll see that delegates to that convention from the pro-Union, low-slaveholding counties of East Tennessee could not travel to Nashville to oppose the secession movement because Confederate sympathizers blew up a rail line to prevent the East Tennesseans from attending, and that in similarly slave-sparse mountainous regions of western Virginia, residents chose to secede from Virginia and re-enter the Union rather than line up with their slaveholding brethren to the east.

The typical apologist response to this is to point to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, and claim that as evidence that the North was somehow morally deficient. Never mind that this resolution was passed by a Congress alarmed at the loss of the First Battle of Bull Run (known to Confederates as First Manassas), in an effort to keep the border slave states (most prominently Kentucky and Maryland but also Delaware and Missouri) in the Union. Also never mind that Congress repealed the Crittenden-Johnson resolution eight months after it passed it under the leadership of Thaddeus Stevens.

I'd agree that in the opening days of the Civil War, the rallying cry of "Union!" was safer politically than a rallying cry of "Abolition!" for precisely the reason that it would not antagonize those four border states, and it also sidestepped very real attitudes of racial superiority that pervaded the entire nation; and this was the motivation behind some statements of Lincoln to the effect that union was more important than abolition. When you read Lincoln's remarks in context, it is clear that he does not back down from the belief that slavery is a great moral wrong and should be abolished; instead, he is making a painful political calculation in the midst of a bloody civil war. But it's also worth nothing that after the election of 1862, when Congress became significantly more radical, President Lincoln adopted a policy of much more aggressive abolition, including the Emancipation Proclamation. That the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri was done as a political expedient – those states had divided loyalties because of the existence of slavery and the dominance of abolitionists in the political arena; Lincoln chose to leave the issue for another day and indeed it was resolved with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Does anyone doubt that had Lincoln survived to see it implemented, he would have applauded long and hard at passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, having valued its passage higher than his own re-election? In the meantime, Lincoln singlehandedly turned the Union armies into armies of liberation – at a time when a new rallying cry was needed to keep filling the ranks of the army.

But see, by going down this rabbit hole, we've stopped thinking about the Confederacy. That's the real point of such misdirection in an argument about the causes of the Civil War.

From there, it's an easy dovetail to rely on moral relativism and false equivalencies. It's certainly true that economic conditions in industrialized Northern cities were appalling, that racism was rampant there, too, and that even many abolitionists personally detested black people and unrealistically wanted to repatriate them all to Liberia. But none of that – none of it – mediates against the fact that one person owning another person is engaged in a moral abhorrence. No amount of finger-pointing at the Union, no pointing to war atrocities by Union soldiers, no reference to segregated "colored" military units, not even a reference to Robert E. Lee's proposal in 1865 to enlist slaves and offer manumission for good service changes the fact that, as the leaders of the Confederacy themselves would admit in candid moments, the Confederacy was inherently about preserving, propagating, and protecting the "peculiar institution" of slavery.

Both postbellum and modern day "Lost Causers" like to point to Robert E. Lee as a paragon of Southern chivalry and moral virtue, the personification of the nobility of what was lost at Appomattox Courthouse. But as a friend pointed out in a different context (he was reviewing the script for the remake of Red Dawn) it does not profit anyone who wishes to engage in clear, critical thinking about war to indulge in false moral equivalencies:
You know, the audience is watching an uplifting and inspirational tale of shooting communists and all of a sudden this nonsense pops up.  Just stop.  Let's try another example.  Nazis liked oxygen.  Hey, Americans like oxygen too!  Ergo, Hitler and Americans are the same, right?  Nimrods.  The fact that we kill bad people for killing us does not make us bad too.  For the perpetual sophomores out there, the test of the morality of a conflict is the cause you fight for; the tools you use are largely irrelevant.  American bayonet – good.  Nazi bayonet – bad.  I blame the public schools for this kind of nonsense and muddled reasoning – the "critical thinking" they purport to teach is actually anything but.

Let's clarify for those who remain unclear – the act of shooting, blowing up, bludgeoning or otherwise eliminating those who threaten and murder Americans is an unambiguously good thing. What al Qaeda terrorists, Taliban, Shiite militias, Republican Guards, Viet Cong, North Koreans, Nazis, Imperial Japanese soldiers and their ilk feel or felt deeply in their little hearts and warped minds about their various causes is irrelevant and unworthy of attention — except to the extent that understanding their thought processes facilitates defeating them.  Their destruction was and is a moral necessity and unquestionably morally right; their fighting Americans was and is unquestionably morally wrong.  Always.  End of story.

(Emphasis added.) While my friend is perhaps guilty of hyperbole in pursuit of chuckles, his fundamental point is, I think, beyond question or criticism – the cause for which one fights weighs heavily in the moral calculus of one's actions. And while it's usually a mistake to make reference to Nazis in any sort of moral argument, in this case the comparison is at least instructive.

After all, Germany had to continue existing after the Nazi regime ended. Germans continued existing, living their lives. Former Nazis continued living and had to re-assimilate back into the larger population. The descendents of these people, and the nation that was built (and which in some cases these former Nazis helped to build) should not carry a heavy burden of moral guilt forever more because of what happened, as awful as it was. How much more true of this is the Confederacy, a polity founded, like Nazi Germany, to perpetrate and implement evil and to defend that evil by overwhelming military force? The Confederacy predated the collapse of the Weimar Republic by seventy years. The descendants of the Confederates are, by and large, Americans and the American Constitution (which the Confederates would have rejected) is clear that the law shall work no corruption of blood.

So if you are from the South, you have no need to apologize for the Confederacy. Even if your ancestors include men who fought and died for the Confederacy, this is not a matter which ought to cause anyone today to evaluate you as any different than anyone else. You are not your ancestors. You have to make your own choices, and one of those choices includes deciding whether or not to be proud of a Confederate ancestry. If I had Confederate soldiers among my ancestors (I don't think I do, but you never know) I'd say I respected their bravery, and that I understood why they might have thought they were fighting for their country. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But at the end of the day, they were fighting for a morally indefensible cause and while I might prefer to remain silent about that, if forced I would have to admit that yes, I thought they were on the wrong side of the war.

Treason in defense of slavery is not a subject matter appropriate for any freedom loving people to celebrate. The Civil War had good guys and it had bad guys. The good guys were the ones who won.

6 comments:

Michael Grant said...

Great, great piece. It will save me so much pointless debate when I simply link to it.

Maxwell James said...

If I don't comment on this blog more than I do, it's because I rarely have anything better to say than "uh huh." Keep up the great work.

Hank said...

"The Founders fought for the freedom of all men, and even though they fell short of realizing that ideal, they wanted to expand freedom rather than restrict it."

The Founders didn't do that. First of all, many of the Founders were slave owners. Second, many of the Founders including non-slave owners and even anti-slavery individuals, signed the Constitution which was a pro-slavery document. Third, very few if any of the Founders would have supported freedom for women, homosexuals, Indians, etc. The Founders fought for the freedom of themselves.

" "Having our patriotism and love for the United States questioned by people who lionize the worst traitors in American history is bloody irritating.""

It's also offensive to simplify the Civil War as being primarily or especially about slavery. It was at least equally about "Northern Aggression". Really it was about two very large gangs battling over turf and the power to rule over the denizens of that turf.

"The Founders fought for the freedom of all men, and even though they fell short of realizing that ideal, they wanted to expand freedom rather than restrict it."

The Founders didn't do that. First of all, many of the Founders were slave owners. Second, many of the Founders including non-slave owners and even anti-slavery individuals, signed the Constitution which was a pro-slavery document. Third, very few if any of the Founders would have supported freedom for women, homosexuals, Indians, etc. The Founders fought for the freedom of themselves.

"When confronted with words like "treason," Confederate apologists like to mention that the Founding Fathers committed treason against England, and suggest that we celebrate the Founders because they won. It's true that everyone likes a winner better, but that doesn't mean that the Confederates were freedom fighters and the moral equivalents of the Founders."

Since the Founders almost entirely sold out the black people and other oppressed people, the comparison is fair.

"The typical apologist response to this is to point to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution, and claim that as evidence that the North was somehow morally deficient.

I'm not an apologist, or a pro-Confederate, and I'm not familiar with that Resolution, but I know enough history to know that the North was morally deficient. The South was also morally deficient. The world was morally deficient. Still that way today as a matter of fact.

Hank said...

" That the Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Kentucky, Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri was done as a political expedient – those states had divided loyalties because of the existence of slavery and the dominance of abolitionists in the political arena; Lincoln chose to leave the issue for another day and indeed it was resolved with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment."

Lincoln screwed the black people in the states under his lawful rule. Why? "Political expedient." Lincoln was a very bad man, a lawyer, who caused very very very bad things to happen. If "political expedient" had said to enslave the black people in those states, does anyone doubt that he would have done so in a "Enslavement Proclamation"?

" Does anyone doubt that had Lincoln survived to see it implemented, he would have applauded long and hard at passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, having valued its passage higher than his own re-election?"

Most likely he would have looked on at the firm establishment of the strong federal government and the long period to come of the oppression of the former slaves and Indians and other people with great joy. Yep. You should find the notion of that disturbing...but you clearly aren't seeing it right.

"In the meantime, Lincoln singlehandedly turned the Union armies into armies of liberation – at a time when a new rallying cry was needed to keep filling the ranks of the army."

He turned them into what they were destined to be - armies of conquest.

"But see, by going down this rabbit hole, we've stopped thinking about the Confederacy. That's the real point of such misdirection in an argument about the causes of the Civil War."

You went down that rabbit hole by trying to defend Lincoln and a bloody war and the many terrible things that happened on account of Lincoln and that bloody war. You automatically defend Lincoln and the War to avoid discussing how the North along with the South sucked, just as the pro-Confederates automatically defend the Confederacy rather than talk about how the South along with the North sucked.

"From there, it's an easy dovetail to rely on moral relativism and false equivalencies. It's certainly true that economic conditions in industrialized Northern cities were appalling, that racism was rampant there, too, and that even many abolitionists personally detested black people and unrealistically wanted to repatriate them all to Liberia. But none of that – none of it – mediates against the fact that one person owning another person is engaged in a moral abhorrence. No amount of finger-pointing at the Union, no pointing to war atrocities by Union soldiers, no reference to segregated "colored" military units, not even a reference to Robert E. Lee's proposal in 1865 to enlist slaves and offer manumission for good service changes the fact that, as the leaders of the Confederacy themselves would admit in candid moments, the Confederacy was inherently about preserving, propagating, and protecting the "peculiar institution" of slavery."

Everything you just said points to both sides being terrible people. Let's see. Group S favors slavery. Group N favors racism, appalling economic conditions, kidnapping, war atrocities, etc. I daresay they both being terrible groups. If I have to pick the lesser of two evils, I pick ... none. I pick good. Why align myself, my beliefs, my mind, my life with Group N or S?

Hank said...

" Let's clarify for those who remain unclear – the act of shooting, blowing up, bludgeoning or otherwise eliminating those who threaten and murder Americans is an unambiguously good thing. What al Qaeda terrorists, Taliban, Shiite militias, Republican Guards, Viet Cong, North Koreans, Nazis, Imperial Japanese soldiers and their ilk feel or felt deeply in their little hearts and warped minds about their various causes is irrelevant and unworthy of attention — except to the extent that understanding their thought processes facilitates defeating them. Their destruction was and is a moral necessity and unquestionably morally right; their fighting Americans was and is unquestionably morally wrong. Always. End of story."

At least as a firm rule, al Qaeda terrorists, Taliban, Shiite militias, Republican Guards, Viet Cong, North Koreans, Nazis, Imperial Japanese soldiers, and their ilk have not been on our turf. So in many cases even if their cause was pure evil, their fighting our forces wasn't and isn't unquestionably morally wrong. We have a long history of starting or provoking war. That makes us the aggressor or an aggressor. America the Super Hero is pure propaganda.

"(Emphasis added.) While my friend is perhaps guilty of hyperbole in pursuit of chuckles, his fundamental point is, I think, beyond question or criticism – the cause for which one fights weighs heavily in the moral calculus of one's actions."

The majority of the weight for that calculus should be assigned to two other factors - the actions and their consequences. The actions and the consequences of the North were hell on Earth. The guilt of the South doesn't absolve the North or vice versa.

" And while it's usually a mistake to make reference to Nazis in any sort of moral argument, in this case the comparison is at least instructive."

Considering the current popularity of fascism and Statism it often does make sense to refer to the Nazi's.

"But at the end of the day, they were fighting for a morally indefensible cause and while I might prefer to remain silent about that, if forced I would have to admit that yes, I thought they were on the wrong side of the war."

Those who wage a war of injustice against injustice are sure to lose. Your position is correct so far as you would feel towards a Confederate ancestor, but to be a hypocrite and write a carte blanche to your Union ancestor is a terrible mistake.

"Treason in defense of slavery is not a subject matter appropriate for any freedom loving people to celebrate. The Civil War had good guys and it had bad guys. The good guys were the ones who won. "

All wars are fought between the bad guys and the good guys. The bad guys use good guys to do the killing and dying. The bad guys win some and lose some, but the good guys always lose.

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