Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Sesquicentennial: Why?

From The Ohio Republic:
(In response to the article that follows)

Monday, January 24, 2011The Sesquicentennial: WHY?

Not surprisingly, the 150th anniversary of the war that continues to tear this country asunder is being debated. On the one hand, unionist and "politically correct" historians like Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center (as reported in the BrightonPittsford [New York] Post) are stressing the war's purpose as the abolition of slavery; while "revisionist" historians like Thomas Woods and Thomas DiLorenzo, are stressing other causes, such as the desire for financial hegemony by New York bankers (a desire quite fulfilled by now, by the way), and a desire to turn the South into a colony to their interests (also largely achieved, but unraveling).

Mr. Potok writes:

Freeing the slaves may not have been Lincoln's original intent, but it became a major aim of the war, as any serious student of Civil War history knows. And the right to own slaves was, most certainly, the primary reason the Southern states seceded from the Union.

Nice, neat, simple, and not quite right. I can agree that freeing the slaves became a major aim of the war, but it was not the major aim of the war. And any serious student of what is inaccurately called the "Civil War" * knows from the history of the preceding forty years, the issues were far more complex than just maintaining what one historian has called the "Peculiar Institution."

It is one thing to say that commemorations of Confederate history attract racists. They undoubtedly do. But it is quite another, and very inaccurate, to say that everyone who wishes to commemorate Confederate history is a racist. After all, the South was invaded. Many poor and middle class people (including my great-great-grandfather in Virginia) saw families broken and impoverished, and homes destroyed, by a Union Army practicing the most horrible forms of destruction known up to that time. And Mr. Potok's analysis certainly does not account for the African-Americans who gave their blood to the Confederate cause, as Champion of Liberty H. K. Edgerton reminds us.

It also fails to account for the Peace Democrats ("Copperheads") in New York City and the Midwest who too often were just as racist as the Southerners at whom Mr. Potok points his finger; but who clearly saw that "Lincoln's War" would begin the systematic destruction of the Constitutional order that continues to this day.

The truth is, the war arose from all of these causes; plus the absolute unwillingness by Lincoln and the Northern financiers to arrive at the kind of reasonable compromises that peacefully ended slavery in Britain, France, and Brazil. There were Southerners, including Alexander Stephens (whom Mr. Potok cites unfavorably), who preferred to remain in the Union. If Lincoln had proposed some plan to buy freedom for the slaves, so that the economic cost to the landowners could have been mitigated, the war probably could have been avoided. But this is not what the Northern radicals wanted. So the rest, as they say, is history.

* Technically, a "civil war" is a conflict between two factions seeking control of a national government. The war we are remembering was one between two independent nations (and the Confederacy was independent).
Here is the offensive, referenced article, from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC):
Online Only: A heritage of shame.Zoom Photos. Other Words.Mark Potok

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Posted Jan 23, 2011 @ 05:17 AM

Canandaigua, N.Y. — A Southern heritage group is planning a celebration in Montgomery, Ala., that will feature a parade down the city's historic Dexter Avenue. That's the same street where thousands of civil rights marchers rallied in support of voting rights at the culmination of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965. And it's the same street where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped ignite the movement a decade earlier from his pulpit inside the small Baptist church, which still sits in the shadow of the state Capitol.

But the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group sponsoring the Feb. 19 event, isn't interested in commemorating King or the civil rights march. Instead, it will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Confederacy. These "sons" plan to reenact the swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as the president of the Confederate States of America and fire off a few cannons to ensure that "the Heritage of the Confederacy… is remembered and portrayed in the right way."

The right way. Whatever can they mean?

The Civil War was the most devastating conflict in our nation's history. At least 620,000 soldiers died, as did some 400,000 civilians. Hundreds of thousands of others suffered horrible amputations and terrible wounds. Over four years, the war cost $2.5 million daily — an incredible amount at the time. In the end, the South was laid waste — its industries, grand homes, roads, and farms largely destroyed. It would be a century before the region fully recovered. Yes, it was a splendid little war.

Many other celebrations around the South will follow Montgomery's anniversary bash to mark the sesquicentennial of various milestones in the war that began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

As these events unfold, we'll hear a lot of revisionist history about the causes of secession — that it wasn't really about slavery but rather about the defense of "states' rights," tariff disputes, or resisting the imposition of northern industrial capitalism. Michael Givens, the head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told The New York Times that "our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence."

This idea resonates strongly today among many white Southerners, particularly in this era of Tea Party politics and radical, anti-government sentiment that has sparked a resurgence of armed militia groups.

But it's wrong.

Freeing the slaves may not have been Lincoln's original intent, but it became a major aim of the war, as any serious student of Civil War history knows. And the right to own slaves was, most certainly, the primary reason the Southern states seceded from the Union.

Southern politicians in early 1861 made that perfectly clear. The Texas Declaration of Causes of Secession, for example, explained that the free states were "proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality for all men, irrespective of race or color," adding that blacks were "rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race." Mississippi's declaration talks about little but slavery. Its second sentence reads: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world."

Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, put it like this in 1862, during his infamous "Cornerstone" speech: "Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and moral condition."

There's no real question about these historical facts. Events celebrating secession, therefore, are effectively glorifying the South's defense of slavery and the white supremacist doctrine that underpinned it. They will undoubtedly offend millions of Americans, and rightfully so. But more damaging is the continuing dissemination of false propaganda that does nothing but prevent an entire region from coming to grips with its history, even after 150 years.

Mark Potok is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala.

Copyright 2011 Brighton-Pittsford Post . Some rights reserved

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