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Howard Zinn's Influential Mutilations of American History
March 22, 2013 12:17 PM   Subscribe

David Greenberg on Howard Zinn, from the latest issue of the New Republic.
posted by wittgenstein (204 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
The only mutilation going on here is Greenberg's mutilation of the historical record.

http://hnn.us/articles/rebutting-david-greenbergs-hit-job-howard-zinn

Greenberg got a vast number of things wrong with his article.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2013 [19 favorites]


This is even in the liberal New Republic?
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 12:23 PM on March 22, 2013


Perhaps it's their April Fool's issue...?
posted by wenestvedt at 12:24 PM on March 22, 2013


In writing as or about radicals, historians owe it to their readers to include the bad with the good, the ignoble with the noble—not in the service of “balance” but in the pursuit of intellectual honesty. The most regrettable aspect of Howard Zinn’s full and lusty life is not that he chose to ignore this responsibility. It is that he never seemed aware of it in the first place.

This is, itself, a pretty offensively simplistic bit of faux-balanced pablum in which to ground a character assassination. It's not like Zinn was unaware that his work was polemical; it's also not like he was ever trying to be a political philosopher, as article also upbraids him for failing to be. He was, as he wanted to be, a popularizer and a polemicist. That that entails some simplifying and some one-sidedness is not any kind of surprise to a reasonable reader of his work.
posted by RogerB at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


The real crux of this is Greenberg’s discussion of anti-communism throughout the essay. Essentially, that’s Greenberg’s real interest here. Zinn was a Red and needs to be shunned. Why Greenberg has this axe to grind in 2013 and not, say, 1984, I do not know. But his own intellectual blinders are just as powerful as Zinn’s. A little self-recognition of that would go a long way here.

Lawyers, Guns & Money: Zinn
posted by shortfuse at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


I read a couple paragraphs and he hadn't bothered to point out anything that was actually incorrect, rather spent time complaining that the stuff Zinn talked about wasn't actually obscure. Which doesn't explain at all why the word "mutilation" is in the title. I realize sometimes people like to bury the lead, but I didn't really see much reason to continue reading.
posted by delmoi at 12:28 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


SEK: On the significance of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn.
posted by brennen at 12:28 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is even in the liberal New Republic?

There's nothing (American) liberals love better than punching hippies.
posted by DU at 12:28 PM on March 22, 2013 [21 favorites]


The New Republic evidently fired its senior editor minutes ago.
posted by jbickers at 12:32 PM on March 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


The New Republic evidently fired its senior editor minutes ago.

Was he dongling?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:33 PM on March 22, 2013 [20 favorites]


Zinn, of course, deserves no personal credit for his historiographic insights. Rather, they are the result of the collective efforts of millions of humble story tellers upon whose work the name "Howard Zinn" has been grafted.

Seriously, now, the erasure of the whole concept of individual contributions to history is a disaster, a perversion of Leftism that would logically have to deny even the greatness of Marx.
posted by No Robots at 12:33 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is even in the liberal New Republic?

The liberal New Republic went inside-the-beltway, neo-liberal, we-like-power under Reagan in the 80s. You're maybe thinking of The Nation?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:39 PM on March 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


The New Republic got it wrong on the Iraq War, too.

It you're an elite liberal organization that wants to be taken seriously as a policy-setter or commenter, you do what you gotta do.
posted by notyou at 12:42 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Greenberg got a vast number of things wrong with his article.

Actually those letters cite, at best, a few minor quibbles (one of which was fixed in the online edition we're reading).

I'm always a bit mystified by people's adoration of Zinn, especially here on Metafilter, where one would think most people want something more substantial. Whatever else "A People's History of the United States" is it's not a work of scholarship. Zinn did no independent archival research of any kind in putting it together. As to "errors," the problem with it isn't so much facts it gets wrong (like "X happened on Y date rather than X date"--although it has its share of those sorts of problems) as its desperately simplistic "Goodies vs. Baddies" account of history. It's not a bad book to give to an inquisitive teenager, but it's hardly the definitive (and SCANDALOUS!!) account of US history that so many seem to think.
posted by yoink at 12:44 PM on March 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


That's not to say, mind you, that this piece by Greenberg is all that great. Clearly there's something about Zinn that got under his skin so there's a kind of captious and slightly snarky quality about his take on the man that seems off, somehow.
posted by yoink at 12:48 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Zinn is a terrible historian. That doesn't mean he doesn't make important points. I know he's a beloved favorite of many, but he does get it wrong.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Greenberg writes: The New Left historians were hardly the first cohort of scholars to enlist history in the service of a political crusade or a social agenda"

And THAT was what probably brought Zinn to make his polemical moves, as well as opening up the eyes of untold millions of people that their is a voice other than the dominant voice to be heard, when it comes to your history. This is important, because the social agenda created by those who have "won" in the historical past, can often set forth precedents and lies and subtle distortions that are set forth only to keep those "winners" in power, even at the cost of those who are reading (and believing) that history.

Zinn was another one of those guys who said "question everything". Thank you, Mr. Zinn!
posted by Vibrissae at 12:49 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm always a bit mystified by people's adoration of Zinn, especially here on Metafilter, where one would think most people want something more substantial. Whatever else "A People's History of the United States" is it's not a work of scholarship. Zinn did no independent archival research of any kind in putting it together. As to "errors," the problem with it isn't so much facts it gets wrong (like "X happened on Y date rather than X date"--although it has its share of those sorts of problems) as its desperately simplistic "Goodies vs. Baddies" account of history. It's not a bad book to give to an inquisitive teenager, but it's hardly the definitive (and SCANDALOUS!!) account of US history that so many seem to think.

I could not have said it better. I had straight up communist history professors when I was getting my masters tell me to stay away from Zinn and he was never to be cited. It is popular history, with all of popular history's defects.

This isn't to say that Zinn did not have a huge impact on American thinking.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:51 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


boy, i kept thinking as i was reading that, "wow, what a shitty bad-faith hit piece this is".
posted by facetious at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2013


Anyone who thinks that Zinn intended to produce a definitive account of US history either hasn't actually read the book or is a very shallow reader. The last chapter pretty much sums up Zinn's aims and goals.
As for the subtitle of this book, it is not quite accurate; a "people's history" promises more than any one person can fulfill, and it is the most difficult kind of history to recapture. I call it that anyway because, with all its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance.

That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
...
In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbage men and firemen. These people-the employed, the somewhat privileged-are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system falls.

That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us.
A People's History is a piece of propaganda, and unlike most history books it openly declares itself to be so.
posted by muddgirl at 12:53 PM on March 22, 2013 [52 favorites]


A People's History is a piece of propaganda, and unlike most history books it openly declares itself to be so.

The problem is that people don't treat it as that. If anything this is an attack on taking Zinn for what he is not.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:56 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Zinn was another one of those guys who said "question everything".

Perhaps. Although that makes it all the more dispiriting the way some people wave his book around as if it were sacred scripture. And that, of course, is precisely why it matters that it's not a work of scholarship. It's a book that says "here is the truth that They have been hiding from you!." A work of scholarship says "well, here's my argument and here's what I'm basing it on; you too can go inspect these sources and see if you agree with my interpretation or not." Any genuine work of scholarship--even one that offers a strong interpretive argument--is implicitly sending the message "question everything" because it constantly says "I have to offer explicitly annotated evidence to support my claims; clearly new evidence or a new approach to that evidence could disrupt those claims." Zinn, instead, is offering a synoptic gospel: THIS IS THE TRUTH--and if you disagree you're an evil oppressor. All popular history suffers to an extent from this effect, of course, but because Zinn's account is so nakedly Manichean and moralistic the effect is compounded.
posted by yoink at 12:59 PM on March 22, 2013 [13 favorites]


Re: the new republic, just to catch up those planing along at home: TNR, 1930s-1970s(ish) lefty, stodgy, good arts criticism. 1980s-1990s -- hire a bunch of young guns to freshen up paper, become more irreverent, more conservative, do a bunch of still controversial articles under ageis of Andrew Sullivan. 2000s ---- turn wholly neo conservative, rabidly support Israel, sock puppet scandal, arts coverage goes down the tubes. 2012--- Facebook bajillionaire buys, tries to make relevant by doing a bunch of shit stirring long form essays.

I don't know what's up with axing Noah, though.
posted by Diablevert at 12:59 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


yoink, ironmouth - can you give us an example or two of something Zinn got right? specifically?
posted by facetious at 1:04 PM on March 22, 2013


The problem is that people don't treat it as that.

Likely because they haven't read it since high school? It's all available online so there's no real excuse to misinterpret. In my experience most liberals who speak of A People's History do as citations in a political argument rather than a historical one.

(Also, to correct myself, I cited the last chapter of the original edition. The new edition has an extra chapter at the end about the War on Terror.)
posted by muddgirl at 1:05 PM on March 22, 2013


A People's History is a piece of propaganda, and unlike most history books it openly declares itself to be so.

But there is nothing more tediously sophomoric than the old "it's impossible to be completely free of biases, therefore it's o.k. to be deliberately and systematically tendentious!" There is a real and vast difference between the honest attempt to tell a story as accurately as you can (even though you know that you will, inevitably, be swayed by unconscious prejudices) and "propaganda." The claim that there isn't is the license for Fox News just as much as for Zinn.
posted by yoink at 1:05 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sorry - "Even the liberal New Republic" is a running gag about hippy punching by orgs that aren't really liberal, where The New Republic has been a paradigmatic offender.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 1:07 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


can you give us an example or two of something Zinn got right

You mean "got right" or "got wrong"?
posted by yoink at 1:09 PM on March 22, 2013


I am a historian and Zinn's work is godawful.

The History News Network polled its readership last year, asking "What is the Least Credible History Book in Print?" The winner was David Barton's The Jefferson Lies but Zinn's Peoples History was a very close second. And that is a poll of left-leaning academic historians.

Here is an earlier HNN review of Zinn, written by Michael Kazin that pretty well demolishes A Peoples History.
posted by LarryC at 1:09 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


There is a real and vast difference between the honest attempt to tell a story as accurately as you can (even though you know that you will, inevitably, be swayed by unconscious prejudices) and "propaganda."

I haven't make this claim - I certainly don't think all history books are deliberate propoganda, but certainly some are. Has any influential, modern-day liberal argued that A People's History should be taught in history classes other than as an exercise in evaluating sources? That's how I was first exposed to it.
posted by muddgirl at 1:12 PM on March 22, 2013


And in case nobody got to the last chapter, Zinn was clear what he was up to toward the end of the first chapter:
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.
He also describes in great detail what he sees as the failings of the way history is usually told. Zinn isn't "doing history" or even pretending to. He is telling the same history others have already done, and he's quite clear aobut that, but he's telling it from those viewpoints almost universally ignored.
posted by localroger at 1:13 PM on March 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


can you give us an example or two of something Zinn got right

You mean "got right" or "got wrong"?


got right. it's the Good Faith Argument test. so far you're not doing too well.
posted by facetious at 1:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Suppose for the sake of argument that I'd like to give my kid a book that would give him the same kind of view from the ground approach to history as Zinn, but I'd like it to be a bit sturdier, a bit better-sourced and written. Because I really admire the way A People's History got me to look at the world, but I have grown more and more wary of its shortcomings as I get older and am more critical of quality of scholarship.

Is there a book that can light the same kind of fire but stands up better to scrutiny? If not, I'll probably give him People's History anyway and consider educating him about its shortcomings an upper-level problem to deal with later.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:17 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you want to see a pretty good analysis of the problems of Zinn's book, I recommend this piece (pdf) by Sam Wineburg. He points out just how tendentious Zinn's use of citations is and just how deeply Zinn distorts not so much the historical record but the very idea of what it is that constitutes historical argument and interpretation.
posted by yoink at 1:21 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry - "Even the liberal New Republic" is a running gag about ....

Oh, sorry, I missed your reference. (I didn't even know there was a reference to get.) I've long lamented the fact that the Internet cannot see the subtly arched eyebrows that accompany my withering sarcastic sallies.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:22 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've often thought that the big problem with Americans is that they all get their history from Howard Zinn.
posted by edheil at 1:25 PM on March 22, 2013


got right. it's the Good Faith Argument test. so far you're not doing too well.

Gosh, such smug self-satisfaction is a wonderful invitation to a friendly chat. I asked you if you meant "got right" or "got wrong" and you choose to interpret that as deliberately running away from the argument in bad faith. What a terrific display of your openmindedness and willingness to be persuaded.

Of course Zinn gets lots of things "right." That's really nothing to do with the point I'm making and nor would listing them in any way prove my "good" or "bad" faith. My point is that he is not teaching people to think historically or critically. My objections to Zinn are not "OMG, he makes all these errors of historical fact!"
posted by yoink at 1:31 PM on March 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I've often thought that the big problem with Americans is that they all get their history from Howard Zinn.

You must only meet an extremely skewed selection of Americans because this is one of the craziest sentences I've ever read.
posted by theodolite at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2013 [49 favorites]


He also describes in great detail what he sees as the failings of the way history is usually told. Zinn isn't "doing history" or even pretending to. He is telling the same history others have already done, and he's quite clear aobut that, but he's telling it from those viewpoints almost universally ignored.

No kidding. Which is why I've always found the somewhat unhinged outrage about the book to be a little odd. As though he's committed some kind of offense to nature.

I always figured that this was one of those things where historians have a very strict and clear way of thinking that things "should be done" and Zinn didn't write the book in that particular "way," and they've never gotten over it. And people who just don't like Zinn on principle have piggybacked on the anger of academic historians.
posted by deanc at 1:34 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is the Tone argument all over again, isn't it? How dare this non-historian have written a popular history book that doesn't fit in with the recieved wisdom about American history and why is he so popular when he wrote his history all wrong?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:36 PM on March 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I've often thought that the big problem with Americans is that they all get their history from Howard Zinn.

You must only meet an extremely skewed selection of Americans because this is one of the craziest sentences I've ever read.


Almost no Americans I've met have even the remotest idea who Zinn is, so I agree this is a very silly statement.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:36 PM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's possible that that silly statement was ironic.
posted by notyou at 1:37 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Greenberg piece is of course just straight up redbaiting, TNR keeping up its proud tradition there, a repolicing of the acceptable borders of political discourse. Why now and why Zinn, when he's been dead for a while though?

Perhaps some leftover from the old even more rightwing regime?
posted by MartinWisse at 1:39 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


>Suppose for the sake of argument....

I was mulling over the same question, or rather, what might qualify as the corresponding volume on the right hand side of the equation. The only thing I could think of that is fluent, large, and presumably in the conservative book club was Paul Johnson's A History of the American People. Throw both at the kid and see what happens.

(Apparently someone got there before me.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:40 PM on March 22, 2013


How dare this non-historian have written a popular history book that doesn't fit in with the recieved wisdom about American history and why is he so popular when he wrote his history all wrong?

Thank you! Now I have an argument for critics of Argo.
posted by found missing at 1:41 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


How dare this non-historian have written a popular history book that doesn't fit in with the recieved wisdom about American history and why is he so popular when he wrote his history all wrong?

Absolutely no one in this thread or in any of the various linked pieces is making anything remotely like any part of that argument. A: Zinn isn't a non-historian, B: nobody, at all, is demanding that any work of history should "fit in with the received wisdom about American history"--every academic historian ever dreams of writing a work that will upend the "received wisdom" of whatever historical field they are writing in--that is how you become a renowned historian, for God's sake. And C: wtf would any of that have to do with "tone"?
posted by yoink at 1:42 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whatever else "A People's History of the United States" is it's not a work of scholarship. Zinn did no independent archival research of any kind in putting it together.

By this definition, just about no high school history text is a work of scholarship. Which is ok, but I don't see anyone complaining that too many high school students are getting their history from [popular high school history text] and exuding offense and anger that students are being fooled because their history isn't coming from a "work of scholarship."
posted by deanc at 1:42 PM on March 22, 2013 [20 favorites]


We read chunks of Zinn in my lefty high school history classes, and he came to talk to us a couple times.

The most fantastic, eye-opening thing he did for us was show us that history is not just Dead White Guys Who Are Important Historical Figures. Prior to that, that was pretty much all history was to us, since that was pretty much the only kind of history we were taught.

I remember almost nothing about any details from A People's History, but at least I got to learn that history is so much more than dead presidents and military battles.
posted by rtha at 1:45 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Seems to me that you do not need to read Zinn to understand that women, blacks, Indians etc got the short end of things and that, over the years, this is gradually being corrected.
I recall--old enough for this--when Indians in films were savages and bad; then gradually they were ok and whitey was not so nice; finally we discover some good and some bad. The good ones were friendly with whitey and helped him track down the bad ones.

How old were you when you understood that slavery was a bad thing and that after the Civil War things still did not go very well for Blacks?

The New Republic has now changed, drastically, and deals much more with the arts than with politics, and has, I believe also raised their rates in order to get good known writers.
But Zinn is fun to read. He brings us back to the reality of our past. Where he leaves off though, is how, after WWII, American became a global empire, with military bases world-wide, and with much of our economy centered in this military industrial complex.

Who are the historical losers now? yes. You and me and the others in the middle class.
posted by Postroad at 1:47 PM on March 22, 2013


but I don't see anyone complaining that too many high school students are getting their history from [popular high school history text]

Nor do i ever see anyone, ever, in, say, a Metafilter thread cite [popular highschool history text] as a definitive account of the nation's history--an important reinterpretation that should deeply affect and shape our understanding of that history.

The point is that if you're going to claim "I have something radically new and important to tell you that I really want to persuade you of" then you need to show your fucking work. If you just want to do a general summary of the current state of the field then you don't.

Perhaps some of you people who are not in the Humanities would understand better why Zinn gets the goat of those of us who are if I offered you this analogy: Zinn is like a James Gleick or some other popular science writer who doesn't just offer a fairly neutral "here's what the scientists tell me is the best current knowledge about X" but appears to think that he's actually making some kind of new contribution to the scientific field he is writing about, and to suggest that if you read his book you will actually have a functioning understanding of that science. And what makes it extra galling is that he should know better because he was actually trained as an academic historian.
posted by yoink at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Who are the historical losers now? yes. You and me and the others in the middle class.

I hear you. Why just the other day I had to downgrade from Pottery Barn to CB2!
posted by srboisvert at 1:55 PM on March 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


The most fantastic, eye-opening thing he did for us was show us that history is not just Dead White Guys Who Are Important Historical Figures. Prior to that, that was pretty much all history was to us, since that was pretty much the only kind of history we were taught.

And as I said above, I think I'd probably be happy enough to give the book to a bright teenager--especially if they had as bizarrely crappy a highschool history teacher as you seemed to have. But it is important to note that most contemporary high schools don't teach history as a succession of Important Dead White Guys anymore, and basically no reputable undergraduate program does. Much of what people think is "revolutionary" in Zinn (the "history from the bottom up") stuff was already pretty much mainstream in academic historicism by the time Zinn published the book and is, by now, basically "establishment historiography."
posted by yoink at 1:56 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nor do i ever see anyone, ever, in, say, a Metafilter thread cite [popular highschool history text] as a definitive account of the nation's history--an important reinterpretation that should deeply affect and shape our understanding of that history.

True of Metafilter, but across the board, no way. The last exposure most Americans really had to history was in high school. Perhaps that's why most comment sections on most websites are filled with insults, platitudes and wrong-headed arguments based on what people think they know. Either way, I don't see Zinn cited here very often either.
posted by IvoShandor at 1:57 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Man, that was the longest fluff piece I've ever read. It basically consisted of:

1) criticisms of someone's biography of Howard Zinn
2) facts about Zinn that are supposed to speak for themselves as damning but really don't unless you're already hostile to his basic message, in which case, why bother?

I didn't stop reading at the assessment of A People's History as a "victims’-eye panorama" but probably should have. I don't understand how you can have RTFB and describe it as such in good faith. Mainstream history (as circulated among the general public, not academic history) is an account of victims; Zinn's work is the opposite, understanding people to have agency-- I can see why that makes some people uncomfortable.
posted by threeants at 2:03 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


The New Republic evidently fired its senior editor minutes ago.

The New Republic Fires Timothy Noah
posted by homunculus at 2:06 PM on March 22, 2013


I mean, Greenberg's claim that A People's History writes against a false hegemony is inane. Ok, great, so his elementary school teacher was particularly enlightened on Christopher Columbus; does this change the fact that a holiday devoted to Columbus is widely observed not only popularly but also by many public institutions? No.
posted by threeants at 2:07 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Either way, I don't see Zinn cited here very often either.

I guess it depends what you mean by "often." 438 times in the comments, according to the search. That's the same number, pretty much, as Derrida, about two thirds the number of references to Foucault (just to think of some obvious "high reference" public intellectuals). You might want to look at Zinn's mefi obit thread to get a sense of the immensely large claims that people make about the impact and importance of his "scholarship."
posted by yoink at 2:07 PM on March 22, 2013


Nor do i ever see anyone, ever, in, say, a Metafilter thread cite [popular highschool history text] as a definitive account of the nation's history--an important reinterpretation that should deeply affect and shape our understanding of that history.

But isn't that quibbling? Not a specific work, sure, but how about the body of them in concert? Definitely, those offer an interpretation that "should deeply affect and shape our understanding of that history," that's the whole point of taking the class in high school! In the face of that tsunami a single book like Zinn's actually seems insufficient. By offering a single popular response to that, Zinn is an easy target.

As for whether high school history has improved any since, well, it's been a while since I went to high school (and mine was a weird one anyway that I am loathe to bring up examples from). But looking around me, I sincerely doubt it's greatly improved.
posted by JHarris at 2:09 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want to see a pretty good analysis of the problems of Zinn's book, I recommend this piece (pdf) by Sam Wineburg.

Here is an earlier HNN review of Zinn, written by Michael Kazin that pretty well demolishes A Peoples History.


These are terrific pieces- though Wineburg makes an interesting critique of Kazin's analysis. I highly recommend them.

My politics would most likely be in general alignment with Zinn's, and I found his project as a popular historian to be compelling and well-intentioned.

That said, back in my days teaching at Stanford, I assigned Zinn's chapter on American during the Cold War to my students in a course I did on America in the Fifties. The goal of the course was to challenge conventional depictions of the era as one of mass conformity and to explore how "hidden" elements of the decade set the stage for the more visible cultural upheavals of the Sixties.

I deliberately assigned the Zinn chapter to provoke the students to think about what makes for good "counterhistory," and they recognized immediately that Zinn's simplistic vision of a perpetual and Manichean struggle between oppressed and oppressors was shallow at best and, moreover, was counter to the fundamental purpose of historical scholarship- to understand change over time rather than endlessly recapitulating the same diametrical struggle between good and evil in which good resists but evil inevitably triumphs.

I was proud of them.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:12 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I guess it depends what you mean by "often." 438 times in the comments, according to the search.

Okay, I'm about to start accusing you of bad faith myself. "438" comments, out of millions. It is disingenuous to try to compare numbers of times things are mentioned and take that as a measure of objective importance. I did my own search: "Zinn" shows up in 441 comments, and "Charlie Sheen" shows up in 533.

yoink, you are coming across a little axe-grindy. Just saying. I'm off to the pizza mines.
posted by JHarris at 2:13 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


its desperately simplistic "Goodies vs. Baddies" account of history.

Personally, I don't feel this assessment is supported by the book's text, yoink. I'm not going to be all like, "could you please provide a detailed, cited explanation of why you think this to be so?" (as I sometimes see pulled out on Metafilter) because you and I both have real lives, but I think Zinn is quite clear in having an essentially Marxist view that capital makes people do shitty things. Obviously that view isn't necessarily self-evident, but it's certainly not "goodies vs. baddies" either.
posted by threeants at 2:14 PM on March 22, 2013


Anyone who thinks that Zinn intended to produce a definitive account of US history either hasn't actually read the book or is a very shallow reader. The last chapter pretty much sums up Zinn's aims and goals.

Jesus Christ, this. Zinn's book is a collection of bits of history (and perspectives on that history) which aren't usually presented. He explicitly says so in his introduction - in my copy, at least, though I suppose perhaps earlier versions may not have been so explicit. I do think that A People's History of the United States is a deeply misleading title for a work that's neither about "the people" (it's about specific minority groups and resisters of the consensus at various points in history) nor a History of the United States specifically (especially the earliest parts).

It's worth reading, but if you take it as gospel, even-handed, or exhaustive, well....

I'd recommend The Indispensible Zinn. It's a collection of his writings, essays, and some interviews which touch upon (among other things) his academic career and other historians who he admires and who influenced him. He was always much more of an activist and teacher than a scholar, which is not necessarily a bad thing in my view, if that's where your skills lie.
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess it depends what you mean by "often." 438 times in the comments, according to the search. That's the same number, pretty much, as Derrida, about two thirds the number of references to Foucault (just to think of some obvious "high reference" public intellectuals). You might want to look at Zinn's mefi obit thread to get a sense of the immensely large claims that people make about the impact and importance of his "scholarship."

Mentioning in a comment, and citing are two different things. I'm not surprised at all that a left-leaning website has droves of people who commented in his obit post about how much they loved Zinn, or his books.

This is a huge derail really, but 438 comments mentioning Zinn doesn't mean MeFites often cite him - how many comments have been made here over all time? Millions? My point really wasn't that anyway, it was that most Americans compiled their knowledge of history in high school, have interacted with it very little since, and often use that compiled knowledge (which is a lot of bad history) to further their little internet tiffs or tirades or whatever. Not really here, but tons of other places, I don't even read comments on most websites because of this.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:21 PM on March 22, 2013


LarryC at 1:09 PM on March 22

I am a historian and Zinn's work is godawful. The History News Network polled its readership last year asking "What is the Least Credible History Book in Print?"....

Tell me when I am supposed to take a History News Network poll seriously? #:^)

More to the point; Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States' was simply meant to be a progressive left replacement for the regular high school level textbooks that most kids are brought up reading. It was never Zinn's intention to have it compared to a 2000 page, footnote heavy scholarly text for graduate students.

The fact that it sold millions of copies and had multiple printings tells us that the kind of history he was presenting [no matter how flawed or one sided] was one that a good number of people wanted told and wanted to hear. That does not excuse its flaws, of course, but considering it is a progressive, leftist book that could easily be labeled 'Marxist history' it is all the more remakable that it survived so long. I'd say he did something right.
posted by Rashomon at 2:23 PM on March 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm curious if anyone here is aware of any comment William Manchester made about Zinn?

I remember thinking that Zinn borrowed heavily from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Glory_and_the_Dream
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:26 PM on March 22, 2013


the fundamental purpose of historical scholarship- to understand change over time rather than endlessly recapitulating the same diametrical struggle between good and evil in which good resists but evil inevitably triumphs.

it's as if you know the smell of your ancestral enemy without ever having met him....
posted by ennui.bz at 2:27 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


your ancestral enemy

This is a total derail, but I just want to say how awesome it is to have Marx in the form of a favicon.
posted by kiltedtaco at 2:29 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I'm a right-wing man with a smug sense of complacency for the horrific criminal acts committed by my so-called civilisation in the past. And I thought the Zinn history was great for doing exactly what he says it does: history from the viewpoint of the losers (not victims, just losers). I'd happily give it to my kid, though I'd hope he'd reject its essential, Marxist analysis just as I do.
posted by alasdair at 2:30 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


An interesting contrast.... compare the comments in this FPP with the responses in THIS FPP.
posted by HuronBob at 2:40 PM on March 22, 2013


The peoples history is not supposed to be a stand alone book. It is a counterpoint to the history most of us were taught in the public schools. The first is no more skewed than the second, but taken together you actually get to see both extremes.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:43 PM on March 22, 2013


A couple mentions of Timothy Noah above seem to misunderstand his title. He was a columnist there. He was called a "senior editor", but so were 8 other people. The guy who actually edits the magazine, confusingly, has a simpler title-- "editor". His name is Franklin Foer. Though the fact that the publisher, Chris Hughes, also calls himself "editor-in-chief" may mean that Foer isn't entirely in charge.
posted by zompist at 2:45 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The HNN review claims that Zinn took the view that the Civil War was just a battle between monied interests in the North and South. Is that true? I ask because it reminds me of the sort of nonsense peddled by neo-confederates.
posted by Area Man at 2:55 PM on March 22, 2013


I think it's a real disservice to present the juxtaposition of hegemonic history and A People's History as a matter of "oh well, everyone's got a bias, these are just two sides of the story!" If the two "sides" are the tiny dominant class and everyone else, well, it's not too hard to begin to get an idea of which side's account might hold more relevance.
posted by threeants at 2:57 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


That is, it's easy to make it sound like Zinn's and similar work panders to a small, special interest. But when you tally up the groups whose stories A People's History dabbles in-- black people, Native Americans, women, poor people, laborers, among others-- it's an overwhelming proportion of people living in the US, both historically and contemporarily. The fact that this summation of peoples is described as if it's a barely-relevant minority speaks, really, to the power of the version of history that most of us are taught.
posted by threeants at 3:04 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


An interesting contrast.... compare the comments in this FPP with the responses in THIS FPP.

Er, not sure what you're going for, here. That's an obit thread, there's a certain tendency towards certain responses there that aren't necessarily going to translate to other sorts of threads.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:08 PM on March 22, 2013


The New Republic would have supported the Mexican War with an editorial about how certain weirdoes like Abraham Lincoln bafflingly insist on doubting American power and its potential for good.
posted by steinsaltz at 3:11 PM on March 22, 2013


For this Gen Xer, even with what I thought was a liberal education, Zinn's book was incredibly eye-opening later in life. I think his intentions were clear, his writing engaging, and I know it inspired me on more than a few occasions to want to learn more about people, places and events covered in the book. Just my anecdata, but not just as an educator but a writer, he hit it out of the park.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:21 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Serious question: is there a book that historian-types see as a good "one-stop-shop" for US history, which is still accessible to the general public?

A few months ago I picked up Zinn for the first time, and after reading a chapter or two I decided I should probably get a better understanding of the mainstream view of US history before looking at the counterpoint. But as with all things historical the granularity and scale of what is available to read is...daunting, to say the least, and I'm sorry to say that Zinn has languished on the "currently-reading" shelf on Goodreads since.
posted by Phire at 3:49 PM on March 22, 2013


Serious question: is there a book that historian-types see as a good "one-stop-shop" for US history, which is still accessible to the general public?

I am not thinking of a popular history--though some of the high school and university textbooks available these days are actually (and contrary to Zinn and many of the comments here) quite good. My favorite is Henretta & Co., America's History but really almost any of the textbooks currently in use are pretty decent. And they all spend a ton of time looking at the histories of women, Indians, blacks, immigrants, workers and etc.
posted by LarryC at 4:16 PM on March 22, 2013


I like Zinn; he is a bit peevish about Columbus. Any of those explorers were doing some amazing things given the time and the technology. Zinn makes it sound like Columbus shows up in the Caribbean like Gamilon Leader Desslok on a speedboat. It is fun storytelling. No need to concern yourself with a mariner's astrolabe, the difficulties of funding and directing a dreamy medieval government program, the importance of the Sublimus Dei in the development of humanism....or just what are the Caribs having for breakfast? Anything that might move you off the righteous path is not going to get in your way. So, the article is right in terms of the pursuit of intellectual honesty. Still, I don't expect I would have spent any time figuring out why Columbus was a significant person in world history if Howard Zinn had not started snipping at away at the static, colorless idea I was presented with in grade school.
posted by relish at 4:19 PM on March 22, 2013


I wonder if the lesson here is that all of that category of books that are best known for blowing the minds of bright teenager are in fact bad books. Atlas Shrugged, the works of Kurt Vonnegut, On the Road, Harry Potter, Zinn, The Catcher in the Rye--none of these hold up very well at all to the adult reader.
posted by LarryC at 4:24 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hermann Hesse holds up though, right?
posted by Area Man at 4:31 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I recently re-read a lot of Vonnegut, and was surprised by how good it was. Better, actually, now that I have the critical tools to see what he's doing with language. But yeah, Rand and Zinn both suck.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:40 PM on March 22, 2013


The title "A People's History..." ought to alert even the casual reader to the nature of the book.

It's bad form to shoot down straw-Zinns for not replicating the bullshit on the left that he found objectionable on the right, and arrogant to assume that the naïve reader, taking him literally, will--scholastically speaking--be ruined. My counter-proposal would be, first, to go back to the dogmatists who informed our children of "that the sea-to-shining-sea Manifest Destiny which tamed a wilderness, wrested it (no, rescued it) from the indolent savages who weren't using it anyhow, and turned the New World into a showcase of Freedom, Tolerance and the American Way...(yada yada yada)"....and correct them with a balanced presentation of how their fine ideals met the average, non-white, non-landed (need it be said: non-male?)person. Then come back to Zinn, and show how he might have improved his writing by emulating that fine, if belated, scholarship. (I might have included chauvinism-by-proxy in the mix, but I nearly had already used up my dependent clauses for the week, and I wanted to save a few for after I check my emails, later on this evening.)

I thought Zinn hit his "public" with impeccable timing. His book isn't a bad starting point if a person wants to start thinking about how "history" works.

P.S. Hesse, yes. Koestler, too. And if you want to keep flogging your empathy ducts, Vonnegut.
posted by mule98J at 4:43 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Zinn makes it sound like Columbus shows up in the Caribbean like Gamilon Leader Desslok on a speedboat. It is fun storytelling. No need to concern yourself with a mariner's astrolabe, the difficulties of funding and directing a dreamy medieval government program, the importance of the Sublimus Dei in the development of humanism

Yet as Zinn said in the bit I quoted upthread:

I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks

...and from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, I'm sure Columbus did seem like Desslok on a speedboat and none of that other stuff you mention mattered quite as much as the slavery, murder, rape, and genocide. So Zinn has stated his bias up front and been faithful to it. There are other sources to tell you about the astrolabe, dead reckoning, the politics of it all. and so on.

Considering we have a Columbus day but no Massacre of the Arawaks day, I find it easy to understand why Zinn goes off in particular on Columbus.

I was attending high school while Zinn was writing APHOTUS, and I believe the bias Zinn complains about was not just pervasive, but universal in the history textbooks of the time. Maybe it's improved; I didn't have kids so I haven't seen any recent textbooks. But the bias Zinn was attempting to counter was very real and so thorough that APHOTUS was a genuine revelation. No, Zinn didn't perform new scholarship, but he corrected what he saw as the scholar's error -- "Yeah, there was some genocide but consider all the cool new implications of the astrolabe and the new funding sources." He wanted to tell that story from the Arawaks' point of view, and I doubt you could "improve" on that goal.
posted by localroger at 4:45 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I imagine Peoples History was appropriately mind blowing for the vast majority of people whose history diet was a pre-1980 high school history curriculum. It was also pretty mind blowing for me when I read it following a 1990s high school history curriculum. I think the value of Peoples History isn't that you walk away from it finally actually knowing history. No, the value is you realize that didn't know history all that well in the first place. That's pretty good for what is, at the end of the day, just one book.
posted by I Foody at 4:50 PM on March 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


It's something of a desperate state when liberals champion a technocracy while casting aside public intellectuals.

We still have Chris Hedges, thankfully, although I'm not sure there are many left like him.
posted by four panels at 4:59 PM on March 22, 2013


yoink: Gosh, such smug self-satisfaction is a wonderful invitation to a friendly chat. I asked you if you meant "got right" or "got wrong" and you choose to interpret that as deliberately running away from the argument in bad faith. What a terrific display of your openmindedness and willingness to be persuaded.

Nah, you didn't get my meaning. I wasn't interpreting your question as anything but checking what I meant. My point was that you were doing what the author of the article is doing - throwing around a bunch of generalizations instead of actually making an argument. I was challenging you to show that you have actually read Zinn and are trying to do anything but punch hippies. You didn't like it when I did what the article author did - assume the worst of his adversary rather than the best, as a good-faith arguer would do - and which is naturally displayed in good faith book reviews (like this one isn't) by an author demonstrating that he knows both a book's strong and weak points. I was making the same point, twice, once explicitly and once implicitly.
posted by facetious at 5:02 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Long week and I've managed to come down with the flu at the worst possible time. God I'm delirious.

That said I grew up in bible belt texas, and like so many others my u.s. and world history classes were horrible in the 90's. P.H.U.S. isnt the bible to me, but and it got me interested in all sorts of history.

I think a lot of people get hung up that the book seems to 'attack the US' when really its an example of work that almost any historian of any country can replicate...I feel the same way about how Chomsky and others talk about media ownership here in the US.

Anyways, when i see his name, it always reminds me of the people we lost during the bush years...zinn, vonnegut, alice coltrane, molly ivins, anne richards, galbraith, hunter thompson, gah. i need sleeeep.

I havent had time to read this one yet >
Smithsonian mag reviews Bailyn -- The Shocking Savagery of American Early History
posted by lslelel at 5:12 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I actually bought APHOTUS for my kids without reading it, and I expected to like it but found it dull and uninspiring... but, the problem with teaching US history starts and ends with the "Indians" (and I think extends to counter-histories in general.) If you go through and demonstrate authoritatively that the policy towards the aboriginal peoples of North America was a slow, deliberate and largely successful combination of ethnic cleansing and genocide, what then? We're all sitting in a classroom, the students will go home to their parents and their lives, I'll cash my paycheck and the whole thing demonstrates that it doesn't actually matter. It's a self-negating act.

If someone let me teach high school history we would read two books: Herodotus and War and Peace, with an emphasis on Tolstoy's extremely cranky historiagraphical preface.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:16 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Related ...

'Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong' and 'Teaching What Really Happened' by James Loewen.
posted by ericb at 5:20 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps. Although that makes it all the more dispiriting the way some people wave his book around as if it were sacred scripture. And that, of course, is precisely why it matters that it's not a work of scholarship. It's a book that says "here is the truth that They have been hiding from you!." A work of scholarship says "well, here's my argument and here's what I'm basing it on; you too can go inspect these sources and see if you agree with my interpretation or not."

That's funny. When I was in highschool (in the 90s) and Iran is only mentioned in the context of "that place where Reagan freed the hostages" there was no mention of history as "an argument with supporting evidence; see if you agree or not." Those were held as facts and then we were failed if we didn't remember them exactly as they were presented. Thankfully, I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness among Catholics and Evangelicals, so I had the benefit of seeing the world through warped versions of reality. Americans have their own version of history, just as the Russians do. In fact, you can swap the invasions of Afghanistan in 1978 and 2001 fairly neatly.
ENCOURAGE RUMORS AND SIGNALS OF EXTERNAL PLOTTING:

The regime is intensely sensitive to rumors about coup-plotting and restlessness in the security services and military. Regional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to meet with figures like Khaddam and Rifat Asad as a way of sending such signals, with appropriate leaking of the meetings afterwards. This again touches on this insular regime,s paranoia and increases the possibility of a self-defeating over-reaction.
And right now, America is shocked -- shocked! -- that someone is destabilizing Syria. And the rest of the world is thinking "those stupid motherfuckers are at it again." "American Assassinated By Government Drone" becomes "Terrorist Eliminated by American Military". Just like the devil, the propaganda model depends on your assumption that they don't exist -- as far as you are concerned.
THE KHADDAM FACTOR

…We should continue to encourage the Saudis and others to allow Khaddam access to their media outlets, providing him with venues for airing the SARG,s dirty laundry. We should anticipate an overreaction by the regime that will add to its isolation and alienation from its Arab neighbors…

HIGHLIGHT KURDISH COMPLAINTS: Highlighting Kurdish complaints in public statements, including publicizing human rights abuses will exacerbate regime,s concerns about the Kurdish population. Focus on economic hardship in Kurdish areas and the SARG,s long-standing refusal to offer citizenship to some 200,000 stateless Kurds. This issue would need to be handled carefully, since giving the wrong kind of prominence to Kurdish issues in Syria could be a liability for our efforts at uniting the opposition, given Syrian (mostly Arab) civil society’s skepticism of Kurdish objectives.
In any case, Zinn is correct that history is a simple of matter of oppressor and oppressed. People who take their criticism to "the world isn't about good and evil" and complain about moralism in history are arguing against themselves. The world is about the powerful and the powerless (or the less powerful). While there have been some enlightened despots here and there, power is rarely given up willingly. There are injustices due to the power imbalance, there is typically a struggle or an oppression, depending upon whatever the particular situation is, but that's the way it goes.

So some people fight for the truth to come out.
PLAY ON SUNNI FEARS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE: There are fears in Syria that the Iranians are active in both Shia proselytizing and conversion of, mostly poor, Sunnis. Though often exaggerated, such fears reflect an element of the Sunni community in Syria that is increasingly upset by and focused on the spread of Iranian influence in their country through activities ranging from mosque construction to business. Both the local Egyptian and Saudi missions here, (as well as prominent Syrian Sunni religious leaders), are giving increasing attention to the matter and we should coordinate more closely with their governments on ways to better publicize and focus regional attention on the issue.
And others defend the propaganda model as part of their function as the intellectual elite, guiding the poor dumb animals who need to be told what is "good" history and what is "bad" history based on narrow definitions of words made up by other unjust oppressive hierarchal institutions who believe in...

scholarship.
posted by tripping daisy at 5:29 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Where did you guys go to school? And when?! Has there been a silent and sudden revolution in high school history education? I am not that old and all I learned in was dates and dead white guys. Sometimes in the textbooks, there'd be a little box at the bottom of the page mentioning, like, Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass.
posted by gentian at 5:38 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


[Comment removed, cool it.]
posted by cortex at 5:40 PM on March 22, 2013



Where did you guys go to school? And when?! Has there been a silent and sudden revolution in high school history education? I am not that old and all I learned in was dates and dead white guys. Sometimes in the textbooks, there'd be a little box at the bottom of the page mentioning, like, Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass.


yeah, for reals. I was in high school in the (early) 2000s, and the history book ended with "and then Reagan made the Soviet Union collapse!" Fortunately I was (somehow) smart enough to realize that my dumb-as-dirt football coach cum history teacher didn't give a shit if I cut class to go to the bookstore.
posted by junco at 5:46 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Heck, in one of my High School history classes we learned that Marxism was Satanism and that the Illuminati secretly persecuted Christians from the shadows. It was a rather backwards school, but, still....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:52 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


>back in my days teaching at Stanford....

Of course, Matt Damon didn't go to Stanford.

Zinn is correct that history is a simple of matter of oppressor and oppressed.

Nothing simple about it. Life, and history, is shades of gray.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:41 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Life, and history, is shades of gray.

So life and history are remastered Twilight fanfic? I knew it all along.
posted by localroger at 6:52 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The real crux of this is Greenberg’s discussion of anti-communism throughout the essay. Essentially, that’s Greenberg’s real interest here. Zinn was a Red and needs to be shunned. Why Greenberg has this axe to grind in 2013 and not, say, 1984, I do not know.

I've never understood this line of argument, that anti-communism somehow makes an article not worth taking seriously. I mean, the Reds were really, really bad. Stalin killed about five times as many as Hitler (including campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing that make U.S. policy towards the native Americans look fluffy), and 1968 campus favorite Mao (anyone remember back when his Little Red Book was as de rigeur as copies of Infinite Jest?) killed nearly as many people as died in all of WW2. And it's not as if they were shy about any of this– when Mao said revolution is not a dinner party, he was talking about the urgent need to "liquidate class enemies." If Zinn really was a fan of, or an apologist for, either of them, then he deserves to be treated with all the regard we would offer a Nazi sympathizer.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:16 PM on March 22, 2013


The HNN review claims that Zinn took the view that the Civil War was just a battle between monied interests in the North and South. Is that true? I ask because it reminds me of the sort of nonsense peddled by neo-confederates.

Area Man, I think that's a fair description of Zinn's perspective on the war, advanced in A People's History and also his book The Other Civil War. He identifies the war of one of Northern aggression. I thought it was ironic that he decided to include in A People's History and account of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish along with the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, given the vicious racism of the New York draft riots whose principals were the very New York Irish whose story Zinn wants to tell.

For me, it was an illustration of the dangers of the Manichaeism that Zinn's is prone to. Because the working class Irish are among Zinn's good guys, their opposition to the Civil War had to be motivated by something other than racism, and so the war itself had to be motivated by something else than the abolition of slavery.
posted by layceepee at 7:39 PM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's messed up and in a way that's harmful. Who are all the black union soldiers then? Just pawns and dupes of the Northern oligarchs?
posted by Area Man at 7:47 PM on March 22, 2013


This afternoon, the 9th graders in our Honors American History course conducted their second Socratic Seminar using a chapter of A People's History as their shared text. I start the course with a chapter from Lies My Teacher Told Me (either the one about Columbus or the Pilgrims) and I use Zinn for the seminar text to contrast what they get from the textbook.

Say what you want about Zinn, but these kids took what they read from him and rocked this seminar. They asked questions that never appear in their textbook: questions about race, class, and the motives behind the removal of Native Americans from east of the Mississippi.

There are only two or three companies left that make history textbooks for secondary education - and they all play it safe. They present a much more diverse view than they did a generation ago when I was a student - but it is still mostly president to president, war to war, era to era.

I am a better history teacher because of Zinn and Loewen - I believe that helps make my students better independent and creative thinkers.
posted by Hale Poetry at 8:25 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


As godawful as Zinn is, Loewen is so much worse.

(He will be along shortly.)
posted by LarryC at 8:53 PM on March 22, 2013


As godawful as Zinn is, Loewen is so much worse.

Why do you say this? What am I missing about Loewen?
posted by ericb at 9:16 PM on March 22, 2013


I like Zinn; he is a bit peevish about Columbus. Any of those explorers were doing some amazing things given the time and the technology. Zinn makes it sound like Columbus shows up in the Caribbean like Gamilon Leader Desslok on a speedboat. It is fun storytelling. No need to concern yourself with a mariner's astrolabe, the difficulties of funding and directing a dreamy medieval government program, the importance of the Sublimus Dei in the development of humanism....or just what are the Caribs having for breakfast?

Ooh, ooh, I remember this one, was it in that anthology with the ripping yarn of the plucky, misunderstood art student who invested in on-site workforce housing and freight transportation, following a series of wacky capers with his ragtag gang of troopers? Man, I loved An Amoral Technocrat's History.
posted by threeants at 10:17 PM on March 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Where did you guys go to school? And when?! Has there been a silent and sudden revolution in high school history education? I am not that old and all I learned in was dates and dead white guys. Sometimes in the textbooks, there'd be a little box at the bottom of the page mentioning, like, Susan B. Anthony or Frederick Douglass.

Good god, this. I graduated high school in 2000 and the only reason I understand anything about history is because I had a teacher who was openly contemptuous of the history books we'd be assigned and insisted on both the official narrative and a somewhat, call it Zinnier narrative. The History Books from my high school were godawful.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:09 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never understood this line of argument, that anti-communism somehow makes an article not worth taking seriously. I mean, the Reds were really, really bad. .

Whoah, back the fuck up. First of all, Zinn identified himself with socialism, anarchism and being a "democratic socialist". Second, even if he were a card-carrying communist, the crimes of Stalin and Mao are not by default supported by him. You do know there are communists who hate those two, yes? That "communist" isn't this monolithic bloc of folks who have the same heroes and support the same policies? I thought everyone went through this conversation in the 80s.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:50 AM on March 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


No, no, you see, even those whose ideological ancestors were slaughtered by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and Mao are responsible for their crimes.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:13 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


really almost any of the textbooks currently in use are pretty decent. And they all spend a ton of time looking at the histories of women, Indians, blacks, immigrants, workers and etc.

No, they don't, unless you're talking about, say, "Give Me Liberty." I've done extensive reviews of 2 major textbooks and I would not say they spend "a ton" of time on marginalized people.
posted by liketitanic at 4:51 AM on March 23, 2013


Zinn identified himself with socialism, anarchism and being a "democratic socialist".

I was under the impression that he was a party member for a while, and a Little Red Book fan. But Googling around, the only source I can find is Robert Stacy McCain, who's nuts. So... Was he actually a communist (that is, a fluffer for mass murderers), or a socialist anarchist (that is, a guy with an unbroken record of political impotence)?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:50 AM on March 23, 2013


He was a writer and a teacher, but I guess he should have better spent his time - perhaps as a snarker on the internet.
posted by rtha at 7:29 AM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


>the war itself had to be motivated by something else than the abolition of slavery.

Back in the sixties it was thought clever to say "what if they gave a war and nobody came?"

Certainly Billy Yank was not motivated by the abolition of slavery (or promoting a moneyed interest), so where does that leave us? Abolition was a good but unintended side effect of a ghastly war.

>You do know there are communists who hate those two, yes?

Nevertheless, those two leave a pretty high hurdle for the uncommitted political thinker to get over. Sort of a "Fool me once kind" of thing.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2013


What about the Union soldiers who were black? Weren't they motivated to end slavery? Or how about the white abolitionists who signed up? As for the South, it clearly went to war to preserve slavery as an institution.

It wasn't a crusade for abolition, but it was a war about slavery and abolition was more than just an odd side effect. The idea that the Civil War was a war of northern agression and not really about slavery is a pernicious bit of pro-confederate propaganda, and those marxist historians who bought into the idea have done a great deal of harm.
posted by Area Man at 7:51 AM on March 23, 2013


It's kind of a classic example of a nuance failure.

Though the fact that Marx corresponded with Lincoln and seemed to think well of him is interesting.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:30 AM on March 23, 2013


>You do know there are communists who hate those two, yes?

Nevertheless, those two leave a pretty high hurdle for the uncommitted political thinker to get over. Sort of a "Fool me once kind" of thing.


Aye. The way it always goes is while communists have no power, they talk a good game, then any time a communist gets power, they do awful things and all the other communists say "Well then clearly they're not a communist." It's the "no true Scotsman" of political philosophy.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:41 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The HNN review claims that Zinn took the view that the Civil War was just a battle between monied interests in the North and South. Is that true? I ask because it reminds me of the sort of nonsense peddled by neo-confederates.

I think you could kind of make that case. There were all these new territories opening up in the west, and it was a pretty major question as to whether or not they were going to be slave based economies.

Plus, I pretty much believe all wars are "just a battle between monied interests," because they almost have to be. They're so bloody expensive. The royals in Europe used to borrow up to their tits from the jewish money lenders, kick the jews out of the country to avoid repaying them, fight whatever wars 'til they were broke, then let the jews back in and start borrowing again.

"Rich man's war; poor man's fight." the Rebel soldiers used to say.
posted by Trochanter at 8:56 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Certainly Billy Yank was not motivated by the abolition of slavery (or promoting a moneyed interest), so where does that leave us? Abolition was a good but unintended side effect of a ghastly war.

The war was initiated by the Confederacy, and they did it to preserve the institution of slavery. It seems to me that makes the war "about slavery."

I learned a lot about the Civil War from a series that Ta-Nehisi Coates did on his blog at the Atlantic. Characterizing it as a "ghastly war" is consistent with the view that it was an American tragedy, an opinion that I think Coates refutes pretty successsfully. In addition to learning about the war, Coates' writing changed the way I think about it, leaving me with a lot less patience for arguments that the war wasn't about slavery.
posted by layceepee at 9:32 AM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Regarding the US Civil War, I think it is (almost) 100% a war about slavery. What we need to remember is that it was not started by the North to abolish slavery, but rather by the South to preserve slavery (as they worried Lincoln and co. would abolish it at some point). The South happened to lose.
posted by dhens at 10:16 AM on March 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Anybody who claims to have learned a lot about history from Ta-Nehisi Coates has no ground to stand on for criticizing Howard Zinn.
posted by localroger at 11:32 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


localroger, I said I learned a lot about the Civil War from Coates' blog series, which included references and excerpts from a number of books about the war as well as extensive comments from readers, some of whom have particular expertise. Coates certainly expressed his own opinions, but he also cited the work of historians and writers who informed those opinions.

Coates didn't pretend to be an expert on the Civil War; he was learning along with his readers. That's his style--he does sometimes write about things he knows quite a bit about, but he's just as likely to generously expose his ignorance and ask for help from people who know more. People who haven't visited his blog at The Atlantic will do themselves a favor if they check it out.

Beyond your attack on me and Coates, do you have anything substantive to say about the respective positions on the cause of the Civil War staked out by Zinn and Coates?

And do you think anyone has ground to stand on to criticize Zinn, or do you think he's beyond criticism? That would explain your uncharitable response, though I don't think it would justify sneering at Coates the way you do.
posted by layceepee at 12:43 PM on March 23, 2013


It wasn't a crusade for abolition, but it was a war about slavery and abolition was more than just an odd side effect. The idea that the Civil War was a war of northern agression and not really about slavery is a pernicious bit of pro-confederate propaganda, and those marxist historians who bought into the idea have done a great deal of harm.

You've made a big leap here for reasons that are unclear. When people talk about the Civil War being 'not really about slavery' they're talking about it not being about abolition.

(The reason Zinn's interested in the New York draft riots is because Civil War conscription wasn't conscription in the way you think about it now--you could buy your way out of being drafted or send someone in your place. This is actually part of why conscientious objection doesn't become an issue in the US until the First World War, with the rest of the reason being they didn't really bother going after religious objectors who hadn't bought their way out.)
posted by hoyland at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2013


it was not started by the North to abolish slavery, but rather by the South to preserve slavery

They didn't start a war they tried to secede. The actual shooting (which was not thought to be forgone) started over military assets -- forts and bases.
posted by Trochanter at 1:32 PM on March 23, 2013


The way it always goes is while communists have no power, they talk a good game, then any time a communist gets power, they do awful things and all the other communists say "Well then clearly they're not a communist."

Leninism basically takes a great big ol' shit on Marxism in favor of empowering a small group of elites at the expense of the working masses. Anybody who thinks Lenin or his ideological descendents represents Marx in any serious sense shouldn't be taken seriously as a person who thinks about things.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:11 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Beyond your attack on me and Coates, do you have anything substantive to say about the respective positions on the cause of the Civil War staked out by Zinn and Coates?

I wasn't really attacking you or Coates. I was just making the point that if someone thinks Zinn is suspect because he "isn't doing history" or whatever, taking up Coates as as an alternative is kind of WTF.

I tend to agree with the viewpoint that all modern wars -- by which I mean since roughly the first Crusade -- are about moneyed interests tussling. The Civil War was of course partly about slavery -- but only partly, and not in any moral sense. If there had been any moral dimension to it whatsoever, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been issued in 1861 instead of 1863, and it would not have excluded the non-rebelling slave states as it did.

The dominant Southern political interests depended heavily on slavery for their wealth, and understood correctly that abolition would ruin them. They took the common people along with them the way the powerful usually do when their interests are at risk. Not to say common Southerners weren't as racist as the year is long but few of them owned slaves or benefitted from slavery. The Southern perception that the war was one of "northern agression" was sown by those rich interests for whom it definitely was a war of northern agression, not against slavery as an institution of evil but against their economic interests. Even those rich Southern landowners knew a war was not in their interest because the North held all the warmaking cards. But they perceived their backs to be against a wall and reacted like the mamals we all are.

In the North it was more a matter of political calculation and as few common Northerners gave a crap about slavery as common Southerners benefitted from it. This is why Zinn focuses on the New York Irish, whose war it most definiteley wasn't. The idea that the Civil War was about slavery in any real sense is as much a lie as the lie that WWI was about anything meaningful, that Vietnam was about liberation, that Iraq was about WMD's. It was just the propagandum of the moment which the rich used to propel their case for the poor to do the dying.

In the South, where most of the fighting, crop- and house- burning, pillaging, murder, and rape occurred, the people fought because any idiot would see that the fight had been brought to them. The sleazy interests on their own side that had perhaps unnecessarily brought that fight were not so easily visible, and that's one reason you get people who still fly Confederate flags. It's most definitely not about slavery. Other than a few rich scumbags, nobody involved with the Civil War really gave a rats ass about slavery. Many things would have gone much differently if they had.
posted by localroger at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "Other than a few rich scumbags, nobody involved with the Civil War really gave a rats ass about slavery."

This is completely untrue. Slavery was a huge issue among the general populace at the time.

It was the central issue of the 1860 election. It had been causing a mini-Civil War in "Bleeding Kansas" throughout the 1850's. Disagreements over slavery caused the complete collapse of two political parties and the formation of a new one. Immediately following the Civil War, THREE constitutional amendments were passed -- banning slavery, making ex-slaves citizens, and ensuring their right to vote. Note that these were the first constitutional amendments passed in over 60 years, and another was not passed until more than 40 years later; this was the only issue considered important enough to amend the Consitution during a perod of more than a hundred years. I could list a lot more points (the rejection of the Lecompton Constitution, John Brown and Harper's Ferry, the Dred Scott decision, Uncle Tom's Cabin ...)

You are basically saying that the central and defining issue of the era was something no one really cared about very much.
posted by kyrademon at 3:51 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Slavery was an issue because the rich scumbags of the time made it an issue. It was only ever an issue for the populace in the way that Iraqi WMD's were an issue, and I mean that very exactly. It was not a direct issue for 95% of everybody on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

The fact that a lot of barrels of ink were spilled over it by the rich scumbags and their minions does not really alter this basic reality: Very few Southerners owned slaves, and if anything those that didn't suffered because they competed in the labor market with unnaturally discounted slave labor. Very few northerners cared simply because it wasn't their problem, as the New York conscription riots amply demonstrate. Nobody who did the actual fighting gave a crap about slavery. They were sent to the battlefield by bosses who cared mainly only because their bosses cared.

Again, if slavery meant anything other than propaganda value, why wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1861, and why did it exclude the five non-rebelling slave states? Inquiring minds etc.

Also, stuff happens after wars to justify the war. It's the stuff that happens before the war that matters.
posted by localroger at 4:27 PM on March 23, 2013


it was not started by the North to abolish slavery, but rather by the South to preserve slavery
They didn't start a war they tried to secede. The actual shooting (which was not thought to be forgone) started over military assets -- forts and bases.
"The actual shooting" was also started by the South.
posted by Flunkie at 4:38 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, I agree. They thought they would just get any federal asset on their side of the line. They were wrong about it, as they were wrong about so many things. (British support, demand for their cotton when there was in fact a glut, and just the perception that the North would let them go. Lots of things.)
posted by Trochanter at 4:46 PM on March 23, 2013


If the Civil War wasn't about slavery, why was the Confederacy where the slaves were? If you make list of the dates that states seceded and a list of the states with the highest proportion of enslaved people, how come the lists are almost exactly the same?

if slavery meant anything other than propaganda value, why wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1861, and why did it exclude the five non-rebelling slave states?

It would have been unconstitutional to include the border states since slavery was legal under the constitution.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:10 PM on March 23, 2013


Slavery was an issue because the rich scumbags of the time made it an issue.

No. Abolitionism was a threat to an established order that benefited rich scumbags in the North and South alike. The immense profits of the cotton trade made money for northern mills and sea captains and others. When abolitionism raised its head it was a movement of the emerging middle classes, not of the wealthy.
posted by LarryC at 5:10 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


> "Slavery was an issue because the rich scumbags of the time made it an issue."

This is so exactly backwards it's hard to know where to start. It's like hearing someone say, "No one who fought in Afghanistan actually CARED about 9/11! Only rich scumbags were concerned about that!" That there were other factors at play in Afghanistan is indisputable; that 9/11 was a huge issue that a lot of the people actually fighting genuinely cared about is also indisputable.

Regarding conscription, the majority of the two and a half million men who served in the Union Army WERE VOLUNTEERS. The initial call for 500,000 Union troops was easily met entirely by volunteers, a significant percentage of whom were abolitionists. As the war dragged on for years and proved to be exceedingly bloody, volunteerism dropped and conscription was introduced. And then there were riots because the conscription system at the time was completely unfair and sucked balls.

And, yes, in addition, there were conscription riots because there were certainly Northerners who didn't care, didn't care enough to fight, or even supported the South. There were, of course, political divisions in the North over the issue. In fact, a significant percentage of the Northern Irish population, who were the main participants in the New York Draft Riots, had shown fairly strong support for Southern aims prior to the start of the war -- there was a history of enmity between black and Irish populations in many Northern cities, for complex reasons dating back to nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in the 1840's. But pointing to the conscription riots as evidence that slavery was not an issue in the Civil War for the people doing the fighting is completely missing the forest for the trees.

And pointing to the delay of the Emancipation Proclamation, and its limited effect, also ignores the fact that the political situation was complicated. Unsurprisingly, the slaveholding "border states" of the Union had the highest resistance within the Union to ending slavery, and Lincoln was walking a complicated political tightrope to keep their support while tying the causes of preserving the Union and ending slavery together.

Basically, you are looking at what was very much the minority political opinion in the North, on the most divisive issue of the day, and saying that proves that no one really cared.

(And as for, "stuff happens after wars to justify the war" ... Really? You're writing off three Consitutional amendments as some kind of insincere justification after the fact? You're ignoring the decade-long violence over the slavery issue before the Civil War even began? I'm at a loss to figure out how you think that worked.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:21 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Slavery was an issue because the rich scumbags of the time made it an issue. It was only ever an issue for the populace in the way that Iraqi WMD's were an issue, and I mean that very exactly. It was not a direct issue for 95% of everybody on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Rich scumbags like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner?

What percentage of the American population were slaves in 1860? What percent of the population were slaves south of the Mason-Dixon line in that year? Do you think it was a "direct isssue" forthese people (and I'm confident it was significantly more than 5%, in both cases, having checked several different sources that consistently report the results of the 1860 census).

One of the things Coates series helped me think about was that there were millions of Americans for whom slavery was not just an issue in 1860; it was the brutal condition of their lives. Aggression began long before Fort Sumter, unless you don't consider the enslavement of other humans an act of aggression.

Coates is especially eloquent on this point. If there is such a thing as an African-American people--and I believe there is--then it must be said that that for 250 years, that people lived in a state of war. The period between 1860 and 1865 are but the final years of that war, during which as Lincoln put it:

...all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword

It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge.


I was nevver someone thought Zinn is suspect because he "isn't doing history" or whatever. I think he's worthy of criticism because he advanced a pernicious myth about American history.
posted by layceepee at 5:36 PM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Nobody who did the actual fighting gave a crap about slavery."

Completely untrue. Run right out and read James McPherson's What They Fought For, which examines a thousand Union and Confederate soldiers' letters and diaries. (Somewhat disturbing factoid: this was the last war in which such letters were not censored.)

A Louisiana soldier: "I never want to see the day when a negro is put on an equality with a white person." A Virginia farmer said he was fighting for "a free white man's government"; a North Carolina farmer, that the North wanted to "force us to live as the colored race". These were all non-slaveholders.

A Wisconsin soldier: "I have no heart in this war if the slaves cannot go free." A Minnesota farmboy: "This war will never end until we end slavery." A Connecticut farmer's son: "I have turned out to be a right out and out Abolitionist."

These were not necessarily the main motivations, especially in the North, where Abolition was divisive at first; the unifying cause was the suppression of rebellion, this being viewed as necessary to preserve the Republic. But opinion radicalized over time, especially in the army. In the 1864 election, in which Lincoln ran on a platform of emancipation, he got 80% of soldiers' votes.
posted by zompist at 5:41 PM on March 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Incidentally, I just looked it up, and it appears that about 6% of Union soldiers were conscripts rather than volunteers. The number of conscripts on the Southern side seems to have been about twice as high, although I believe that number does not count the many slaves who were forced to serve as laborers, cooks, etc. in support of the Confederate army.

I realize I've written mostly about the feelings on the Union side and not the Confederate side. I will point out, however, that while yes, only a few Southerners were getting rich off slavery, I am surprised that you appear to have completely ignored racism as a factor among those who were fighting on the side that was trying to keep slavery intact. The great majority of white Southerners at the time supported slavery. They very much showed this with their words, deeds, and votes.
posted by kyrademon at 5:50 PM on March 23, 2013


Local roger,

What about all the black union soldiers? Are they nobody? This type of Marxist history devalues the worth and contributions of black people.

Hoyland,

People mean different things when they say the war was or wasn't about slavery. Southern sympathizers often mean that the confederacy wasn't fighting to preserve slavery. That's incorrect and has been a part of a destructive lost cause mythology.
posted by Area Man at 6:05 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not going into this stupid food fight again, as it was the first thing I encountered on paying my five bucks to join this community and I was fucking shocked at the hostility toward something that seems fucking obvious to me as someone who has lived in the south all my life. I know fuckwits who fly the Confederate flag and while they are indeed fuckwits not one of them actually wants slavery, nor did any of their remembered ancestors, and to say that they did is the kind of slander perpetrated against [redacted].

I am just going to reiterate: If slavery was an issue, the Emancipation would have happened in 1861, not 1863. Diddle about Constitutional issues with the non-rebel slave states all you want, you cannot whitewash that. It was not on the radar. Nobody cared about it. What they cared about was preserving the Union and if the rebel states had held up a flag and said hey, it's OK, we're good, we'll back down but you let us keep the slaves the north would have backstepped in jig time. The only reason the South didn't do that is the rich motherfuckers knew it was just a matter of time before they didn't get to keep the slaves. Nobody else really cared, not the Southern poor and not the Northern poor or middle class. Nobody except a few people we'd regard as terrorists today. What the 99% of the time cared about was the conscription, dead sons, burned crops and houses, and general war fuckery.

This began about Zinn, and remember Zinn was the guy who in addition to wanting to tell the Civil War from the side of the New York Irish, also wanted to tell the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves. History is messy and full of bias and nobody thinks they're the bad guys at the time they're acting. Zinn's message is that sometimes the winners who tell the history actually were the bad guys. And that's been true all too often of the US itself in our history. We forget that at our peril.

If you want to respond to this start by explaining 1863 vs. 1861. Otherwise I am not really interested in anything you have to say.
posted by localroger at 6:48 PM on March 23, 2013


Once again, black people are nobody in your version of history. That's not a progressive correction to the problems of mainstream history textbooks.
posted by Area Man at 7:03 PM on March 23, 2013


You want to ignore all the evidence against your position (slavery was not an issue for anyone except rich scumbags) that doesn't answer one very narrow question you have identified (why did Emancipation happen in 1863 instead of 1861).

And you want to ignore the evidence that does answer that question as well. kyrademon explained And pointing to the delay of the Emancipation Proclamation, and its limited effect, also ignores the fact that the political situation was complicated. Unsurprisingly, the slaveholding "border states" of the Union had the highest resistance within the Union to ending slavery, and Lincoln was walking a complicated political tightrope to keep their support while tying the causes of preserving the Union and ending slavery together.

I'm certainly not arguing this means that contemporary Southerners support slavery, and I didn't see anything in this thread that suggests anybody else is arguing that either.
posted by layceepee at 7:18 PM on March 23, 2013


I want you to explain why if slavery was important in the context of the war the Emancipation Proclamation occurred in 1863 instead of 1861. That really shouldn't be that hard if it was the all-encompassing moral issue people seem to think it was.
posted by localroger at 7:26 PM on March 23, 2013


Once again, black people are nobody in your version of history.

Nice straw man you got there. Maybe you can get him to explain why the Union didn't give a rat's ass about slavery for two whole years of slaughter.
posted by localroger at 7:42 PM on March 23, 2013


> "If you want to respond to this start by explaining 1863 vs. 1861."

OK. Bear with me, here.

1861 - Lincoln takes an antislavery stance in the state of the Union address (not called that at the time, but essentially the same thing.) He endorses legislation to free all slaves, but the legality of Congress taking such action is questionable; the Supreme Court had ruled previously ruled that Congress did not have the power to do so in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

Early 1862 - Thaddeus Stevens first suggests the idea of declaring the emancipation of slaves in the Rebel states as a wartime measure. This bypasses the Dred Scott decision by using Lincoln's power as Commander in Chief rather than using legislation, but as a war measure it could only apply to the states in rebellion.

Spring 1862 - Congress continues to chip away at the institution of slavery. The pass a measure forbidding the return of fugitive slaves to their owners. Slaves in the District of Columbia are freed.

Early Summer 1862 - Congress prohibits slavery in United States territories, and President Lincoln quickly signs the legislation. This openly defies the Dred Scott decision, and it is unknown if the law will stand if put to the test of the Supreme Court.

Summer 1862 - Congress passes and Lincoln signs an act containing provisions intended to liberate slaves held by rebels. Since the legality of this is, as noted before, questionable, Lincoln says he will ensure that the act is legal by using his authority as commander in chief to make it a military measure. Lincoln begins discussing the Emancipation Proclamation with his cabinet. He believes that the introduction of the measure must follow a Union victory on the battlefield so that the decision appears positive and strong.

Fall 1862 - Union troops turn back a Confederate invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Antietam. Less than a week later, Lincoln issues the Preliminary Proclamation.

January 1, 1863 - The final Proclamation is issued.

1864 - Most Union border states not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation start taking legislative action to ban slavery at a state level. A condition of the West Virginia's admittance to the Union is that its constitution provide for the gradual abolition of slavery. Slaves in the states of Maryland and Missouri are emancipated by separate state action before the Civil War ends. Tennessee adopts an amendment to its constitution prohibiting slavery.

1864-1865 - President Lincoln and other Republicans push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citing concerns that the Emancipation Proclamation, being a war measure, did not completely abolish slavery and could even be seen as a temporary measure. The amendment is passed by the Senate in 1864 and the House in January 1865.

The Civil War ends in May, 1865.

So, basically, they were working on ending slavery throughout the duration of the war. There were quite a lot of legal questions and issues, including a Supreme Court decision that had specifically said Congress could not simply legislatively end slavery. Both Congress and Lincoln took their time on it, working past these issues, sometimes openly defying them, sometimes using the argument of war powers. The Emancipation Proclamation was not the only thing that was done, but rather part of a four year long process. The process ended with an amendment to the U.S. constitution, the first made in over 60 years, that made the state of the law unquestionable.

OK?
posted by kyrademon at 8:00 PM on March 23, 2013 [6 favorites]


The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically...Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.
...
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; 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.
-- Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, Cornerstone Speech, March 21, 1861
posted by kirkaracha at 8:02 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


So kyrademon you are saying that while my ancestors were in the process of killing 600,000 people, they were how did you put it "chipping away" at the institution of slavery. Since when do you go to war over something that you have to "chip away" at to establish? That makes absolutely no sense. If you are fighting for a principle you have a principle. You do not have to "chip away" at it. If you do not have such a principle you are fighting for something else.

The Union was not fighting about slavery. They were fighting for something else, because at the beginning they had no reason to fight about slavery at all. And we know what the something else was; it was preservation of the Union, slavery and anything else be damned. The South certainly weren't Good Guys in this fight, but neither were the North. My take is that there were no Good Guys. It was just slaughter, all of it avoidable and stupid.
posted by localroger at 8:12 PM on March 23, 2013


Just because slavery formed the basis for contemporary rhetoric, or states rights on the other side -- that doesn't make it so. Union letters included.

I'm reminded of the beginning of Fahrenheit 911 where all the kids in schoolyards were asked why we were fighting the war. "Freedom," was the answer again and again. You always have to have a high moral horse to sit astride when you're sending your young men out to die.

"Because I'm making a mint off this god damned cotton," doesn't play so well.
posted by Trochanter at 8:17 PM on March 23, 2013


Yeah yeah kirkaracha there was lots of that rhetoric after the South's rich bastards felt the wall against their backs. What did not vice-president but actual President Robert E. Lee have to say about the matter, I wonder?
posted by localroger at 8:17 PM on March 23, 2013


I am just going to reiterate: If slavery was an issue, the Emancipation would have happened in 1861, not 1863.
(1) This seems absurdly reductionist. The fact that it didn't happen in 1861 shows that it was not a be-all-and-end-all issue; it does not show that it was not an issue. Nor does it even show that it was not a major issue.

(2) Even ignoring that: It argues only with one side. Slavery was most definitely an issue -- in fact the issue -- on the Confederate side, even if the Northern side in aggregate didn't care about it as much as one would hope. It's clear from what was said by Southern leadership in decades leading up to the war. It's clear from the Confederate constitution, which is literally almost word for word equal to the US constitution, plus "Slavery's great and don't you dare say otherwise".
posted by Flunkie at 8:18 PM on March 23, 2013


The fact that it didn't happen in 1861 shows that it was not a be-all-and-end-all issue

And thus ends the debate since it was obviously enough a be-all-and-end-all-issue to start a war that killed more than half a million people. Why did the North prepare so hard and then go to such ruinous war over something they couldn't be arsed to articulate clearly for two whole yaers into the conflict? If slavery wasn't their motive, what was? And if slavery was their motive why wait two whole years before declaring the intention?
posted by localroger at 8:24 PM on March 23, 2013


Anyone who is still particularly invested in the idea that slavery wasn't the central, defining issue of the Civil War would do well to read Thomas Goodrich's War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas 1854-1861.
posted by brennen at 8:26 PM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well everything in Kansas was certainly about slavery, in the same way that the focal point of a laser cutter is about lots of light. That has nothing to do with the rest of the country which were out of the beam.
posted by localroger at 8:30 PM on March 23, 2013


Preserving the Union was indeed another of the principle reasons for the North fighting the Civil War. But so was the abolition of slavery. (And of course, as others have pointed out, the reason that the Union needed preserving is that the South seceeded over the issue of slavery.) But to answer your question ...

> "Since when do you go to war over something that you have to 'chip away' at to establish?"

Since you live in a democracy that has a legislative and judicial process that you can't simply ignore or wish away? Since not everyone in that democracy agrees with you - some are fervent abolitionists, some lean your way but are more conservative and favor things like freeing slaves slowly over time by buying them with federal funds, and some are just racist assholes? Since if you pass legislation that's illegal it might not stand in court, and getting people to the point of passing the first constitutional amendment in six decades might take, I don't know, some time, negotiation, preliminary measures so that the conservatives in Congress realize that the sun will not fall out of the sky if the slaves are freed?

I mean, good grief, I've tried to show you that Lincoln and a good chunk of Congress were working at eliminating slavery from day one, AND THEY SUCCEEDED, and you seem to think it didn't count because they didn't wave a magic wand that made it all happen instantly.
posted by kyrademon at 8:32 PM on March 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


> "And if slavery was their motive why wait two whole years before declaring the intention?"

OK, since I've already pointed out that this is not what happened at all, if you're still saying this it's pretty clear your mind is made up no matter what the actual facts are. Good night.
posted by kyrademon at 8:34 PM on March 23, 2013


The fact that it didn't happen in 1861 shows that it was not a be-all-and-end-all issue
And thus ends the debate since it was obviously enough a be-all-and-end-all-issue to start a war that killed more than half a million people.
The South started the war.
Why did the North prepare so hard and then go to such ruinous war over something they couldn't be arsed to articulate clearly for two whole yaers into the conflict? If slavery wasn't their motive, what was? And if slavery was their motive why wait two whole years before declaring the intention?
Again, you are reducing things to "there must have been one and only one motive", and again, you are ignoring the role of the South. If you would force me to pick one and only one motive for the North going to war, I would pick the fact that they were attacked.
posted by Flunkie at 8:34 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, good grief, I've tried to show you that Lincoln and a good chunk of Congress were working at eliminating slavery from day one, AND THEY SUCCEEDED, and you seem to think it didn't count because they didn't wave a magic wand that made it all happen instantly.

WHEN DID I SAY THAT? We've gone from straw men to straw skyscrapers full of straw men.

It is of course brilliant that Lincoln and his cohorts got slavery abolished within the framework of the screwed up compromises established by the Founders. What isn't brilliant is the part where 600,000 people, 99% of whom had no stake in the argument whatsoever, died over it. There were probably other ways to solve the issue. That those were not found is a gigantic murderous failure.

You do not start murdering people over something that might possibly be established to be bad at some indefinite time in the...

Oh wait. Never mind.
posted by localroger at 8:37 PM on March 23, 2013


Again, you are reducing things to "there must have been one and only one motive"

If you do not have such a motive for going into a war that kills half a million people then, while I am an atheist, I will take the time to pray in case you believe in such a thing that God has mercy on your soul.
posted by localroger at 8:39 PM on March 23, 2013


Wait, you're saying that while having exactly one motive for going to war might be OK, having more than one is definitely something that needs absolution from God?

And you're simultaneously ignoring that I said "If you would force me to pick one and only one motive for the North going to war, I would pick the fact that they were attacked"?

Seriously?
posted by Flunkie at 8:47 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "WHEN DID I SAY THAT?"

Well, I *thought* it was when you said:

"Again, if slavery meant anything other than propaganda value, why wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1861 ..." and "If you want to respond to this start by explaining 1863 vs. 1861" and "I want you to explain why if slavery was important in the context of the war the Emancipation Proclamation occurred in 1863 instead of 1861" and "Why did the North prepare so hard and then go to such ruinous war over something they couldn't be arsed to articulate clearly for two whole years into the conflict?" and "... if slavery was their motive why wait two whole years before declaring the intention?"

... which I took as your arguing that abolitionism was not a major Northern cause because the Emancipation Proclamation was not issued until 1863. So I pointed out it was one part of a major, complex, ongoing legislative and executive process that actually *had* begun in 1861. Which you seemed to first dismiss as unimportant, and then you ignored it and continued to say they didn't do anything until 1863. So I pointed it out again and asked in frustration if you thought it didn't count if they didn't wave a magic wand and end slavery in 1861 somehow.

... Right? I mean, that was the conversation, wasn't it?
posted by kyrademon at 9:00 PM on March 23, 2013


If you do not have such a motive for going into a war that kills half a million people then, while I am an atheist, I will take the time to pray in case you believe in such a thing that God has mercy on your soul.

I'm pretty confident no one in this thread can claim to have a motive for starting the American Civil War. Maybe you ought to just kind of take it down a couple of notches.
posted by brennen at 9:30 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Robert E. Lee was not the President of the CSA.

Saying that 99% of those fighting didn't care about slavery is, once again, to pretend that the abolitionists and blacks weren't fighting. That's simply not true. It also ignores all the books, letters, speeches, secession proclamations, and editorials in which southerners said they were fighting to preserve slavery.

The North had mixed motives and primarily fought to preserve the union, particularly in the early years. However, the South started the war to preserve slavery. Also, many on the union side were fighting to end slavery. It is incorrect to claim no one cared about slavery. Even if that view didn't ignore black people, it would still be wrong because it ignores so much of what people said and did during the war and in the preceding years. Why did major religious denominations split in two in the years before the war? Why did the Republican Party form? Why was the admission of each new free or slave state such a heated issue? Why were Lincoln and Douglas even debating the issue, if no one cared?
posted by Area Man at 4:22 AM on March 24, 2013


What isn't brilliant is the part where 600,000 people, 99% of whom had no stake in the argument whatsoever, died over it.

localroger, it's things like this that led me to agree with Area Man's conclusion that black people are nobody in your version of history.

There were almost 200,000 African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army. They suffered casualties at rates significantly higher than white soldiers, according to historian Herbert Aptheker, whose research showed that about 20% of them died during the war. Do the math; more than 1% of the people who died during the war were African Americans, but you say 99% of the people who dies had no stake in the argument over slavery.

So unless you think the black soldiers who died in the Civil War had no stake whatsoever in the argument over slavery, black people are nobody in your version of history.

I also wonder if you really believe that anyone who lives in a country where millions of people are legally enslaved have no stake in the argument over whether slavery ought to be abolished. Even in terms of naked self interest, what do you think is the effect of the average wage paid to workers when a significant portion of agricultural labor is performed by slaves?
posted by layceepee at 7:41 AM on March 24, 2013


the viewpoint of the Arawaks

I understand that is what Zinn says, that's part of what annoys me, because I remember a couple of his points on Columbus were basically just quick cursory attacks on him, that don't have anything to do with the perspective of the natives. The natives don't care if he got the navigational math wrong, or that he thought he was in Asia or how he treated his crew. The fact that he says he is taking the native perspective and then takes his own was distracting.

Around the same time I read The Discovers by Daniel Boorstin, who covers Columbus as well, but treats these topics more informatively, less polemically. So, to me, Zinn was having a cathartic run at a what he thought was an annoying personality cult. That's fine, but it did not seem like substantive history, and he would have been better served to just come out and say as much.

...none of that other stuff you mention mattered quite as much as the slavery, murder, rape, and genocide.

Even if that were the case, Columbus is not the central figure. Columbus did not introduce slavery, murder, rape, and genocide to the natives. The natives have a couple of brutal notches up on the Spanish Inquisition, throwing human sacrifice and cannibalism into the mix; they would give their pubescent daughter up if it looked like would help cement a deal. If the story is honest it points out that life was hard five hundred years ago and what we call brutal today was often routine then, no matter if you were Arawak or Spanish or anyone. If the story is intellectually honest, it points to people like Bartolomé de las Casas and underscores how novel the idea of treating different people like human beings is to nearly everyone involved. Moreover, if slavery, murder, rape, and genocide are the only things that matter, and the argument is the Spanish were in some degree nastier than everyone else, better points are going to focus figures like Cortez and Pizarro, not Columbus.

the ripping yarn
This is what I was talking about regarding "snipping at away at the static, colorless idea", although you do paint it up with good color, it's still the same idea.

Tolstoy's extremely cranky historiagraphical preface

Is that sometimes called "Some Words About War and Peace"? I'm not finding an author's preface in my Maude translation. But "Some Words About War and Peace" are in the back. It's also tagged in the back of a untranslated Война и мир I have here. It seems like that's what you are talking about. I wish you had expanded on Herodotus - mostly curious on why he rates where, say, Thucydides does not. I suppose that's a bit of a derail, but still interesting.
posted by relish at 7:51 AM on March 24, 2013


Maybe you ought to just kind of take it down a couple of notches.

Considering that after all this time we still haven't learned our lesson about needing a really, really good reason before going in hot and causing 6-figure deaths (unless you think Iraq II was really about 9/11 or WMD's) I'd say dailing it down is not exactly what is needed.

So unless you think the black soldiers who died in the Civil War had no stake whatsoever in the argument over slavery, black people are nobody in your version of history.

Obviously there were people on both sides who were invested in slavery. I'll admit 99% is hyperbole. Black soldiers made up about 10% of the Union army. I'll give you them.

How many other Union soldiers gave a rat's ass about the evil institution of southern slavery, as opposed to the not so evil institution of northern slavery which even the Emancipation Proclamation couldn't be arsed to do anything about? I'll give you another 10%. That sound fair? I'm talking about people who thought it was worth the massive investment in money and lives, including their personal time and risk in battle, because slavery. No matter how you count it that realistically leaves hundreds of thousands of people, most likely the majority of both the army and the civilian population of both sides, who were almost certainly there for other reasons.

The dominant appeal on both sides (Zinn notwithstanding most soldiers on both sides were volunteers) seems to have been to patriotism which is much more consistent with how the US has conducted itself since and has rather more ominous implications, which we have continued to studiously ignore over the years as we prefer the sweet lies about why so much death was necessary.
posted by localroger at 8:12 AM on March 24, 2013


Considering that after all this time we still haven't learned our lesson about needing a really, really good reason before going in hot and causing 6-figure deaths

I'm not clear what you are saying here. Would you consider the liberation of millions of slaves a really, really good reason or not? I understand you don't think the war was about slavery, but would ending slavery be a justification for the war, or do you think the number of casualties was too high a price to pay?

If you think the appeal on both sides was to patriotism, what was the substance of the Southern appeal to patriotism? The Confederacy was founded on the necessity of preserving slavery--what other justification for secession was there? So if you say Southern volunteers served for love of their newly-formed nation, it's a nation whose raison-d'etre was slavery. Love of country and love of slavery seem to be synonymous.

And in your version of events, what was the value to "rich scumbags" in the North of ending slavery in the South? How was that of material interest to the capitalists north of the Mason-Dixon line? Assuming they could manipulate a nation indifferent to the issue of slavery into fighting a war over it, why would they do so?

I'm also confused by your comparison between slavery and WMDs. I think you are saying that slavery wasn't the motivation of the Northern elite either, but rather a pretext they used to manipulate the working class into fighting the war. But if most of the people in the North didn't have an interest in the issue of slavery, how would the elite be able to use it as an excuse to get support for a war they wanted for other reasons? If slavery were really like the WMDs, the common people in the North would have had a genuine concern for the slaves in the South, only to find out as the war progresssed that there weren't really any slaves down there after all.
posted by layceepee at 9:06 AM on March 24, 2013


And in your version of events, what was the value to "rich scumbags" in the North of ending slavery in the South?

I don't think there was any. That's why they didn't do anything for 250~ years. But secession? That's huge. They have interests tied up down there that would be threatened. Who would want another layer of international tariffs between you and the profits you're making warehousing and shipping the produce of the South?

And there's the geopolitical trouble that cutting yourself in half can cause. Britain was still a huge operator economically and militarily, and very scary over there.

And, again there were those lush western territories out there that a sovereign south would be competing for.
posted by Trochanter at 10:21 AM on March 24, 2013


Preserving the Union was indeed another of the principle reasons for the North fighting the Civil War. But so was the abolition of slavery.

These can hardly be distinguished. The only reason the South seceded was to avoid anti-slavery legislation. The idea of "state's rights" being a separate issue from slavery is completely disingenuous.

The country is founded in such a way that some things are considered fundamental and true for all within the United States, and some things are decided on a state by state basis. The argument over slavery was whether it could be decided on a state by state basis or whether it fundamentally breached one of the founding principles ("all men are created equal & endowed by their creator with life, liberty blah blah").

No one disagrees that states have governments of their own. But we also have a constitution that is meant to guarantee some things no matter what. The state's right issue here is the right to own slaves. That's why the Confederate constitution had a clear pro-slavery stance, and only slave states joined it.

That doesn't mean that the South was evil and the north was good, or that racism only existed in the south - history is always more complicated and there are plenty of economic and cultural issues that help explain how things got to this point. But leading up to the Civil War, it is clear that the slave trade is a huge issue. It is embarrassing internationally; it is outdated in the coming industrial age; it is being seen as morally repugnant by a wider selection of people thanks to Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, Frederick Douglass; and there is even some fear among new (irish, german, etc) immigrants that it could spread & include them.

After the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott case and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it is at the forefront of the American psyche. When Lincoln wins the election in 1860 without any electoral college votes from the South, things reach a boiling point and they secede in response. The Emancipation Proclamation is not the beginning of the controversy. It's the nail in the coffin.
posted by mdn at 10:21 AM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sunday March 24th, 11:21 am: mdn begins using the historical present. Crew restless.
posted by Trochanter at 10:31 AM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not clear what you are saying here. Would you consider the liberation of millions of slaves a really, really good reason or not?

Oh, it would have been a really really good reason indeed if it had in fact been the reason for the war, which it most definitely couldn't have been since the North was only "chipping away" at the slavery log in its own eye when it started firing those slavery-cleansing bullets southward.

I think you are saying that slavery wasn't the motivation of the Northern elite either, but rather a pretext they used to manipulate the working class into fighting the war.

You have my intent here eactly backward. Except for a minority obsessed with abolition the North was mostly obsessed, at both high and low levels, with preserving the Union. As I keep saying, the jig pacing and thorough completeness which were so lacking in the Emancipation Proclamation put the lie to the idea that slavery was a primary motivator in the North at all. They used it for propaganda purposes, sure (the EP itself being almost pure propaganda of no practical value) but it was all about holding the country together, for economic interests at the top and national pride at the bottom.

In the South, the wide perception, whatever the accident might have been of who fired first at Fort Sumter, was that the South was attacked and regardless of who "started it" most of the fighting happened in the South, so it was a fight for national self-preservation. While it was all about slavery among the leaders who started and funded the war the volunteer soldiers showed up to protect their homes and neighbors, as they will most everywhere on Earth.
posted by localroger at 12:08 PM on March 24, 2013


To be perfectly clear, rather than edit this new content into the comment I'll add here: The comparison between slavery and WMD's is exact because both were hollow excuses concealing the true motivations for going to war, the economic interests Trochanter mentions in general for the Civil War and GWB's daddy issues with Saddam in Iraq.
posted by localroger at 12:11 PM on March 24, 2013


So according to your history, rich northern scumbags had no interest in ending slavery. But they wouldn't want the South to secede, because that was against their business interests. And the rich southern scumbags wanted slavery to continue.

The vast majority of common people, north and south, didn't care about slavery one way or another.

But the rich scumbags in the South were afraid that slavery would be abolished. Not by the rich northern scumbags, because they didn't care about ending slavery. And not by the masses of common people, because they didn't care one way or another. So apparently some tiny minority of abolitionists was scaring the southern elite, and the northern elite, even though they are the ones that were running things, couldn't do anything about it.

That forced the South to secede, and the northern elite needed to pretend the war was about slavery, instead of admitting they supported the war for the same reason that the mass of northerners did, which was preservation of the Union.

I don't think this is how you really think history unfolded, but it seems to be the story you are telling.
posted by layceepee at 12:34 PM on March 24, 2013


rich northern scumbags had no interest in ending slavery.

Not enough to fight a war over it.

common people, north and south, didn't care about slavery one way or another.

I would say it was a social issue. A big one. But those don't cause wars. And I do kind of view that a priori.

It's like abortion. You might have some extreme people do violence, but you would almost never go to war over it. They're so fricking expensive.

(BTW, I forgot to say how big an industry textiles were at that time. A huge part of your economy could be textiles. Rivalling steel.)
posted by Trochanter at 12:51 PM on March 24, 2013


Well, mostly, with minor edits:

Rich northern scumbags had only a minor peripheral interest in ending slavery. It was after all a feel-good issue popular with certain very enthusiastic minorities that could be used.

The vast majority of common people didn't care about slavery enough to think it was worth going to war over. They might have had a preference but not one worth dying or losing the farm over.

The rich scumbags in the South were afraid that slavery would be abolished not by the rich Northern scumbags, but by a quietly emerging plurality that would not have gone to war over the issue but who were perfectly willing to cast ballots in elections. They saw that writing on the wall with Lincoln's election and moved proactively to preserve their interests by seceding so that the new CSA constitution could more firmly protect them and popular elections were more likely to go in their favor.

Nobody in the North was really pretending the war was about slavery except when they were schmoozing useful abolitionists. It was a big issue in the new territories because both sides wanted to stuff the new ballot boxes and it was an issue for a vocal and useful minority and it was a mild but not war-worthy preference for a lot more who had voted for Lincoln, but the call to war was really answered over patriotism and pride. Secession threatened the narrative of a growing and ever more powerful nation, which was already attaining its modern fairy-tale dimensions.
posted by localroger at 12:56 PM on March 24, 2013


Oh, and to follow up on Trochanter's excellent point about abortion, the reason Lincoln saw slavery as the biggest issue of the was pretty much the same reason some politicians see abortion as the one issue they must deal with before they can do anything else, because the minorities on both sides are so passionate they shout everything else down. If you need that 10% or 20% to win your election you have to say what they want to hear.
posted by localroger at 1:02 PM on March 24, 2013


And, don't forget, the Confederates thought they could get away with secession. They didn't think the North would fight. They talked themselves into a lot of stuff. Secession wasn't an out-and-out declaration of war.
posted by Trochanter at 1:08 PM on March 24, 2013


Yeah the CSA were counting on the lukewarmness of Union antipathy toward slavery and I think they got taken by surprise by the power of the patriotic preserve-our-union argument. The CSA also had a sizable problem with unionists in their own midst who weren't thrilled with the secession, many of whom fought *only* because when soldiers wearing different colors are marching on your community, you take up arms against them first and then argue with your neighbors later.
posted by localroger at 1:47 PM on March 24, 2013


What percentage of the American population were slaves in 1860? What percent of the population were slaves south of the Mason-Dixon line in that year?

"In 1860, 89 percent of the nation's African Americans were slaves; blacks formed 13 percent of the country's population and 33 percent of the South's population." [cite]
Total number of slaves in the Lower South : 2,312,352 (47% of total population).
Total number of slaves in the Upper South: 1,208758 (29% of total population).
Total number of slaves in the Border States: 432,586 (13% of total population).

Almost one-third of all Southern families owned slaves. In Mississippi and South Carolina it approached one half.
...
In the Lower South (SC, GA, AL, MS, LA, TX, FL -- those states that seceded first), about 36.7% of the white families owned slaves. In the Middle South (VA, NC, TN, AR -- those states that seceded only after Fort Sumter was fired on) the percentage is around 25.3%, and the total for the two combined regions -- which is what most folks think of as the Confederacy -- is 30.8%. In the Border States (DE, MD, KY, MO -- those slave states that did not secede) the percentage of slave-ownership was 15.9%, and the total throughout the slave states was almost exactly 26%.
[cite]
posted by kirkaracha at 1:58 PM on March 24, 2013


The CSA also had a sizable problem with unionists in their own midst who weren't thrilled with the secession, many of whom fought *only* because when soldiers wearing different colors are marching on your community, you take up arms against them first and then argue with your neighbors later.

Is that why they invaded Maryland in 1862, Pennsylvania in 1863, and Maryland again in 1864?
posted by kirkaracha at 2:08 PM on March 24, 2013


"The CSA also had a sizable problem with unionists in their own midst - Is that why they invaded...

I am curious as to how you think these two things have anything at all to do with one another. The South did manage to take a little fighting to the North, though not much, and I would imagine people who have been getting shot at for a few years might have their allegiances shifted by the experience.
posted by localroger at 2:40 PM on March 24, 2013


Oh, thanks for the nice links making my point that a large majority of Southerners did not own slaves.
posted by localroger at 2:46 PM on March 24, 2013


Oh, thanks for the nice links making my point that a large majority of Southerners did not own slaves.

Actually, you claimed a little more than that. One of your claims was that 99% of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War had no stake whatsoever in the argument over slavery. You backed off that a little bit when you had to account for the thousands of African Americans who were part of that 600,000 and admitted some of the white Northerners might have been concerned as well.

Now you are trying to pretend that 30% of white families owning slaves is just about what you are talking about. But members of the Confederate army were significantly more likely to come from a slave-holding family than the average Confederate citizen. Joseph Glatthaar, a professsor of history at the University of North Carolina who authored a study of the Army of Northern Virginia found that almost half of the Confederate recruits in 1861 owned slaves or lived with someone who did. He also wrote Nor did the direct exposure stop there. Untold numbers of enlistees rented land from, sold crops to, or worked for slaveholders. In the final tabulation, the vast majority of the volunteers of 1861 had a direct connection to slavery.

So even if you restrict you analysis to Confederate casualties, the claim that 99% had no stake in the issue of slavery is not just hyperbole: it's flatly wrong.
posted by layceepee at 3:32 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I said upthread 99% was hyperbole. (I'm sure you remember this recent "occupy" thing I was quoting.). In a slave society anyone who doesn't own slaves is getting screwed because they are competing with slaves for wages and productivity.
posted by localroger at 3:38 PM on March 24, 2013


To be perfectly clear, rather than edit this new content into the comment I'll add here: The comparison between slavery and WMD's is exact because both were hollow excuses concealing the true motivations for going to war, the economic interests Trochanter mentions in general for the Civil War and GWB's daddy issues with Saddam in Iraq.

Dialing it back would probably do you some favors. But I repeat myself.
posted by brennen at 3:43 PM on March 24, 2013


Dialing it back would probably do you some favors. But I repeat myself.

No. I watched everyone I admire dial it back when GWB was exercising his daddy issues in Iraq and out here on the porch we could see it was a sham and a farce even then but inside the corridors of power "our" people who should have been the skeptical opposition went along compliantly because flag-waving patriotism 9/11 WMD's. Never again.
posted by localroger at 3:51 PM on March 24, 2013


localroger, I am not really sure what you're talking about.

Iraq was a travesty of justice and continues to be a tragedy on a really staggering scale. Political lines being drawn where they are, I suspect that most people in the US who have read any history and are pretty sure the Civil War was "about slavery" in a meaningful way would be inclined to agree with some form of those statements.

If someone in this thread has been explicitly arguing that slavery was bad therefore the Civil War was good therefore invading Iraq was a good idea therefore we should nuke Tehran, I guess I've missed it. In the absence of a chain of reasoning like that one, in a conversation that is happening 150-odd years after the Civil War and a decade after the invasion of Iraq, it looks awfully like you are grinding the wrong axe here.

I'm done.
posted by brennen at 4:21 PM on March 24, 2013


Well brennen I tried to explain it but I guess sometimes I can't get through. If you insist on seeing the Civil War through the lens "south slavey, north good, south bad, war good because" and you can't see why I see such simple lenses as bad things intrinsically because, well, we've killed so very many people because those simple lenses said it was a good idea, then whatever. We are done.
posted by localroger at 6:13 PM on March 24, 2013


Wow, that's a pretty amazing disconnect in this conversation.

From our point of view, localroger, we haven't been arguing "south slavey, north good, south bad, war good because". We've been arguing against your statements that slavery was not really a cause of the Civil War AT ALL, and that practically no one doing the actual fighting had any vested interest for or against slavery. We were not saying there were no other reasons - we were saying that your statements were an overly "simply lens", if you will.

Gradually, over time in this thread, when presented with evidence, you estimated through your own calculations that perhaps 500,000 Union troops were actually deeply invested in the cause of abolitionism, orders of magnitude higher than the initial number you had presented.

You've still kind of dismissed the evidence that the number of both slaveholders and people profiting from slavery in the South was vastly higher than you had implied (going up from the few rich landowners of your arguments to one in three Confederate troops owning slaves and vastly more involved in the slave trade), but you at least admitted that your initial estimate was, like the first one, "a hyperbole".

We never said there were no other causes. Several us have outright said there were. To our eyes, and often to our bafflement, you have been the one insisting that there must for some reason have been one and only one cause.
posted by kyrademon at 2:50 AM on March 25, 2013


kyrademon you are totally missing my point. Every time this conversation comes up -- especially here -- it wanders around to a shrill insistence that there was nothing at all good about anyone who wore a Confederate uniform or about anything that existed in the Confederate sphere, and that the whole thing was nothing but evil oppression on the south which would never have gone away without the cleansing breath of war from those noble patriots in the north. Oh, and that guy Sherman was a hero insted of a war criminal because he shortened the war. Let all those who starved and died of exposure after he burned their crops and homes sing hosannah!

If I have started with a bit of hyperbole maybe it's because I've met so much in the past. On my side of the argument the difference between 1% and 20% is meaningless, as it leaves the main point that a large majority are outside that number intact. The fact that people still harp on that difference 50 posts after I trued up those numbers is telling. Nothing anyone has said has addressed this statement of my point, which is: A significant majority of the people fighting on both sides did not care about slavery, and neither did most of the people who planned and funded the war in the North.

The war was only about slavery in a significant sense for the rich Southerners and an admittedly vocal but still minority movement in the North. But it takes two sides to have a war and in the sense that the war would not have occurred if the North did not have motivations other than slavery, the war was not about slavery.
posted by localroger at 5:27 AM on March 25, 2013


The war was only about slavery in a significant sense for the rich Southerners and an admittedly vocal but still minority movement in the North.

And once again the slaves themselves somehow disappear from you account of history. Don't you think the war was about slavery in a significant sense for them?
posted by layceepee at 6:01 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


In 1860 there were 435,080 slaves in Alabama; 45% of the state's population.
There were 111,115 slaves in Arkansas (26% of the population.
There were 61,745 slaves in Florida (44% of the population).
There were 462,198 slaves in Georgia (44% of the population).
There were 331,726 slaves in Louisiana (47% of the population).
There were 436,631 slaves in Mississippi (55% of the population).
There were 331,059 slaves in North Carolina (33% of the population).
There were 402,406 slaves in South Carolina (57% of the population).
There were 275,719 slaves in Tennessee (25% of the population).
There were 182,566 slaves in Texas (30% of the population).
There were 490,865 slaves in Virginia (31% of the population).

I suspect that the war was about slavery in a significant sense for some of those people.

There were 429,401 slaves in the border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) and 2 in the rest of the Union.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:15 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


And once again the slaves themselves somehow disappear from you account of history. Don't you think the war was about slavery in a significant sense for them?

This is not something I know offhand, but I'm willing to bet the question of 'What did slaves think about the war while it was happening?' is answerable. However, I would in no way be shocked if they didn't expect slavery to end as an immediate consequence of the war.
posted by hoyland at 7:16 AM on March 25, 2013


localroger, if what you're saying is that neither the South nor the North initially intended or hoped to go to war over the issue, I don't have any problem accepting that. I also have no problem accepting that some percentage of soldiers on the ground didn't care much one way or another about the specific politics they were fighting over. This is true in almost every war and exactly why soldiers are taught to love their country and follow orders - they are not expected to understand foreign policy (or in this case, domestic policy).

But the Civil War didn't start over a different issue. It may have been that the South thought they could win the fight without going to war by seceding, and then the North called the bluff. Nonetheless, the fight that the South wanted to win by seceding was about the right to own slaves.
posted by mdn at 7:44 AM on March 25, 2013


If the Civil War wasn't about slavery, why was the Confederacy where the slaves were?

It was about slavery in the same way the Russian Revolution was about Feudalism. Many rich slave-owning whites in the South proudly traced their family roots back to European aristocracy and still believed in old European ideas about blood inheritance and nobility--it's not necessarily as simple as saying the US civil war was or wasn't about slavery, but I definitely think it's a mistake to say it wasn't--more accurate, maybe, to say it wasn't about slavery alone. I think at a deeper analysis, it was really more about the last vestiges of the European aristocratic classes in our relatively new nation trying desperately to hold on to their dying way of life. They didn't really care whether they had slaves or serfs at their disposal, whether poor blacks or poor white sharecroppers. They just wanted to ensure that ownership of land (and close association of wealth with innate/blood line superiority) would continue to allow them to remain socially, economically and politically above the rabble and to treat some people like chattel for their own benefit.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:49 AM on March 25, 2013


I want to clarify.

I believe wars are always fought over money. I believe that for the wealthy in the south, the threat to slavery was an economic issue. I believe that in the north slavery was a social issue. Secession caused an economic threat to the wealthy in the north, and gave both sides an economic reason to fight.

That's what I'm saying. I'm saying the north would not have fought a war over slavery.
posted by Trochanter at 8:18 AM on March 25, 2013


Clearly there are people here in need, desperate need it appears, of Half Slave and Half Free by Bruce Levine.

The war was only about slavery in a significant sense for the rich Southerners and an admittedly vocal but still minority movement in the North.

This statement is just laughable. If you're going to opine on the Civil War, at least have a slight idea of what the heck you're talking about.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:53 AM on March 25, 2013


And once again the slaves themselves somehow disappear from you account of history.

The slaves were not in a position to decide whether to have a war over themselves or not.
posted by localroger at 11:07 AM on March 25, 2013


Stepping away from the derail over the Civil War and back into the derail about Marxism:

Leninism basically takes a great big ol' shit on Marxism in favor of empowering a small group of elites at the expense of the working masses. Anybody who thinks Lenin or his ideological descendents represents Marx in any serious sense shouldn't be taken seriously as a person who thinks about things.

Marxism isn't simply a heuristic, or a system of analysis– it's a political program, which explicitly states the objective of changing the world. But Marxism has never been politically effective without Leninism. So either Leninism is an inevitable aspect of Marxist praxis, in which case its crimes are very much part of Marxism, or else Marxism must be considered without Leninism, which is to say as a philosophy which is unable to apply itself despite application being its explicit goal. Anybody who thinks Marxism (or any political philosophy) can be evaluated without taking seriously its applications shouldn't be taken seriously as a person who thinks about---or observes, or teaches---things.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:34 AM on March 25, 2013


Social Democracies throughout the world have demonstrated it's possible to be Marxist without being Leninist, haven't they? I understand most politicians in France are educated in Marxist theory, for example. I'm no expert on Marxism, but it seems to me, there are plenty of examples of Marxist thought being applied in the world without resorting to "Leninism."
posted by saulgoodman at 11:56 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's Rosa Luxemburg if not a Marxist? She and Lenin did not exactly get on politically.
posted by hoyland at 12:40 PM on March 25, 2013


It's hard to see what would make, say, Sweden a Marxist state. The workers don't control the means of production, labor collectives don't operate the levers of power, the state doesn't intend to wither away and die, the power of capital is not replaced by the power of labor... Marxist isn't a synonym for socialist. There were a lot of competing socialisms in the 19th century– Fourier is arguably a bigger influence on Western social democracies– Marx simply happened to inspire the most powerful strain.

Many politicians in Europe are educated in Marxist theory, but then, most people who go to grad school absorb some Marxist theory. But again, Marx made a clear distinction between theory and praxis (a.k.a. practice, but Germanophiles prefer the more Latinate word), and regarded the latter as more important. But like many big thinkers, Marx got exactly backwards what was important about his thinking.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:24 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're in a place culturally where people who are not right-wing lunatics are referring to social democracies which are explicitly not trying to reform their way to communism as Marxist. Whatever else happens, the capitalists have won the culture war quite decisively.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:50 PM on March 25, 2013


I didn't mean to suggest those countries are Marxist, by the way--just that they seem to have found ways to incorporate some parts of Marxist theory into their own systems without embracing the most extreme Marxist ideas or becoming Stalinist dictatorships. I realize these aren't Marxist nations, in any sense. But they are nations that don't seem to embrace the attitude that Marxist ideas are the worst form of cooties ever all the time either. It may be that's not as strong a point as I intended to make originally, though. I probably need to learn more about Marxism before I derail any further.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:58 AM on March 26, 2013


What's Marxist about capitalism plus taxes and social services?
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:34 AM on March 26, 2013


It's a bit of a stretch, but in a way (in a way) these social democracies do put the proles in charge of production -- through the state. Capital is constrained, regulated and somewhat directed, in theory by the will of the people.

Va-a-a-a-guely Marxist.

(I happen to think work-ably so.)
posted by Trochanter at 10:19 AM on March 26, 2013


I am just going to reiterate: If slavery was an issue, the Emancipation would have happened in 1861, not 1863. Diddle about Constitutional issues with the non-rebel slave states all you want, you cannot whitewash that.

Personally, I don't think I could say that slavery wasn't even an issue in the Civil War and use the word whitewash in the next sentence without my head exploding.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:56 PM on March 26, 2013


The New Republic, Cheerleader for State Power
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:39 PM on March 31, 2013


Put the state fully in charge of commerce, put the people (really) in charge of the state, and voilà.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:57 AM on April 3, 2013


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