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Growing Up in a Cocoon
February 22, 2014 6:31 PM   Subscribe

In an ongoing revisionist history effort, Southern schools and churches in the United States still pretend the Civil War wasn't about slavery.
posted by SkylitDrawl (459 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course not it was about state's rights

(to have slaves)
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:37 PM on February 22 [55 favorites]


And the different economic systems causing the sections of the country to drift apart. One of those systems being slavery-based.
posted by stevis23 at 6:43 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Yale historian David Blight describes a national fervor for “reconciliation” that began in the 1880s

What a shame it is that the concept of a Truth and Reconciliation commission was not available until a century later.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 6:45 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I was taught the "states rights" lie in 1992-'93 in Catholic school in Dallas, Texas.
posted by purpleclover at 6:48 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


When I moved out of the south, I was pretty shocked and perplexed when I heard my teachers talking about the Civil War as though *gasp* it was actually about slavery. It took me years to realize that i'd been lied to as a child.

@purpleclover I was taught the same at a Catholic school in Dallas, TX, in 1998-1999, and some extended family indicate that it's still going on there.
posted by DGStieber at 6:52 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


The Civil War wasn't about slavery - it was about religion and the balance of power between the King and Parliament. (The second Civil War, aka the American Revolution, had a lot of similar issues regarding the authority of the executive to act without consulting representatives, only with some anti-native land rights and anti-Catholicism thrown in).
posted by jb at 6:52 PM on February 22 [45 favorites]


Ditto. "States' Rights!" was the cause until I got to high school in Alabama (so 1990-1998 or so). At least by then I had history teachers who taught and inspired critical thinking.

Also, people do (totally unironically) call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression", which I feel like some people not from the south think is just a joke.
posted by supercres at 6:52 PM on February 22 [10 favorites]


I've been to several schools across Texas and they all pretty much taught it was about state's rights as well as slavery, and that slaves did fight on the confederate side, but I remember them saying something about the slaves being forced or tricked into fighting on that side.
posted by Malice at 6:53 PM on February 22


Also, people do (totally unironically) call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression", which I feel like some people not from the south think is just a joke.

Yeah, when I went off to college (...here in the Deep North...) I met a guy from the South who talked unironically about the "War of Northern Aggression".

He was NOT amused when I reciprocated by referring to the recent unpleasantness as "The Slavers' Revolt".
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:56 PM on February 22 [58 favorites]


Back in the Lego Movie thread I remarked that I bought two blind bag minifigs from the movie series and got two Abraham Lincolns, and considered that win.

Well, I related that experience to a friend here in Brunswick GA, and he was all "how terrible," and went into educate-the-know-nothing-about-Lincoln mode. UGH!
posted by JHarris at 6:58 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Also, people do (totally unironically) call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression", which I feel like some people not from the south think is just a joke.

I am from the deep south and have only heard this term used by self-avowed racists, like people who derive their entire identity through their membership in Daughters Of The Confederacy and the like.

I don't know any regular normal people -- even the sort of regular normal southerners who wouldn't want their kid to be in an interracial relationship or who casually drop the N bomb -- who actually say that.
posted by Sara C. at 6:58 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


We were told in Tennessee that thousands of slaves took up arms to defend the Confederacy.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 6:59 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


Also, people do (totally unironically) call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression", which I feel like some people not from the south think is just a joke.

It is an accurate title.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:00 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Re "states' rights", I was lucky enough to have an actual teacher for US History, so we didn't get any of that.

I did hear it in other places, for example the Government class taught by one of the coaches.

I don't remember learning that slaves defended the confederacy at all.
posted by Sara C. at 7:00 PM on February 22


It is an accurate title.
posted by Tell Me No Lies


eponyouknowhat
posted by stargell at 7:01 PM on February 22 [12 favorites]


Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter...
posted by gyc at 7:01 PM on February 22 [51 favorites]


The first comment on that story....yeeesh.

It is an accurate title.

Sorry, that's not really a supportable argument.
posted by Miko at 7:02 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


gyc: "Just say 'slavery.'"
posted by SansPoint at 7:02 PM on February 22 [32 favorites]


My mother's side of the family is from the Deep South and are definitely "normal" people and several of them have absolutely said "the War of Northern Aggression." They are most certainly not self-avowed racists.

And yes, a lot of them do believe the "states rights" nonsense.

Not that anyone should listen to anecdata. Read the links.
posted by cooker girl at 7:02 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


It's incredible that anyone would believe that the war wasn't about slavery when it is stated as exactly that in the opening lines of each state's articles of secession:

Georgia:

"The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery..."

Mississippi:

"In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin."

South Carolina:

"The people of the State of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, on the 26th day of April, A.D., 1852, declared that the frequent violations of the Constitution of the United States, by the Federal Government, and its encroachments upon the reserved rights of the States, fully justified this State in then withdrawing from the Federal Union; but in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding States, she forbore at that time to exercise this right. Since that time, these encroachments have continued to increase, and further forbearance ceases to be a virtue."

Texas buries the lede only slightly by placing it in the third paragraph:
"Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?"
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 7:03 PM on February 22 [316 favorites]


After the battle of Missionary Ridge, a Chaplin asked General George Thomas if they should bury the dead in plots ordered by state. His response? "no, mix 'em up. I'm tired of state's rights."

It's a wrong concept, but it's not a new one.
posted by eriko at 7:04 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Growing up in Maryland, we were taught it was because everyone who was not from there be cray-cray. My suburb had several Civil War era grave sites in town, these awkward clutches of a few stones in the middle of a roundabout, that ranged from "Unknown Slave Burial" to random soldiers who fought on either side of the war. In elementary school, they were clearly haunted. In high school, a great place to toke up.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:05 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


It seems a bit disingenuous to speak as if the entire South is like this. I grew up in both small town Tennessee and small town Florida, with a history teacher in high school from Virginia who always called the war either the War Between the States or War of Northern Aggression—and was still taught it was primarily over slavery. States' rights were taught as one reason for the war, but primarily from the angle of the Southern states using it to justify their actions, not that they were necessarily right.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 7:06 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


There can never be justice on stolen land.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 7:08 PM on February 22 [9 favorites]


there were numerous causes

Oy. Yes, there were. There were conditions that made it likely and no war erupts because of a single causal factor. And yet, when South Carolina seceded, they seceded specifically over slavery - they say so overtly in their Declaration of Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. When it comes to talking about causes, it makes a good lot of sense to listen to the people who bothered to write it down what they considered their cause to be.

And ironically for those who construe it as having been over states' rights, they were protesting against the rights of Northern states to not agree by mutual compact that slavery was legal - for instance, by not recognizing ownership of a formerly enslaved person who had made it to a northern state. It was the northern states' decision to exercise their own states' rights that South Carolina, and eventually all the seceding states, were objecting to. South Carolina clearly came out against states' rights in their declaration.

States' Rights got floated as a explanation for Southern participation in the war the much later.

As the article states, there is no serious controversy about this among historians.
posted by Miko at 7:08 PM on February 22 [110 favorites]


My Papaw, a lovely man who taught school and was a Baptist preacher who truly believed in the teachings of Jesus (the love thy neighbor and help the poorest among you teachings) very unironically called my then-boyfriend (now husband) "Yankee." And he liked him!

But he was still a Yankee.
posted by cooker girl at 7:09 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


In Northern Virginia in the nineties in my fancypants smart kid classes I was taught that it was about a combination of complicated factors that all contributed to the enormous clusterfuck centered around slavery, and that is why it is still such a persistent source of conflict and drama, despite the seemingly cut and dry "slavery is bad" conclusion. Thing is, though? Primarily I remember writing little essays on the reasons for the Civil War, and being constantly graded down because I kept not prioritizing the states' rights reasons. They just never struck me as legit enough.
posted by Mizu at 7:10 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Regarding the South's tendency to re-enact Civl War battles: is this a common occurrence in other countries, about other wars?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:18 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


There's no way to make the states' rights argument without also saying that Black people aren't human beings; its only utility is the (rather shallow) concealment of that claim.
posted by clockzero at 7:20 PM on February 22 [18 favorites]


The UK does it for Cromwell's Rebellion, at least.
posted by Mezentian at 7:21 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Brandon Blatcher: as it happens I asked an AskMetaFilter question about re-enacting years ago and found that it's not uniquely American, which surprised me. If you mean re-enacting specifically Civil War battles, then I'm not sure.
posted by Miko at 7:22 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


Even The Simpsons is in on it: Apu's Citizenship Exam
Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--
Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.
posted by asperity at 7:22 PM on February 22 [13 favorites]


In the context of the whole "States Rights!" hullaballoo, it's always kind of funny to see that States under the Confederate constitution actually have less power than they did under the US constitution.
posted by kafziel at 7:23 PM on February 22 [12 favorites]


There are WW2 Axis reenactment groups in the UK, Germany, and Italy.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 7:23 PM on February 22


I've also noticed in war reenactment groups the losing side tends to be more popular with the players. I always wondered why.
posted by The Whelk at 7:24 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


Thanks Miko! I was referring to enactments in general.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:25 PM on February 22


In Arkansas, the state curriculum at least as of the late 90s was perfectly clear that the Civil War was primarily about slavery. Of course, how that curriculum was taught varied widely between districts and even schools within the district.

What was drastically misrepresented was Reconstruction and the fact that black people actually had a significant role in government in many southern states until about the turn of the century. As taught, Jim Crow was a direct continuation of slavery, not a thing that didn't make it into full force 30 or 40 years after the Civil War ended.
posted by wierdo at 7:25 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


But he was still a Yankee.

Oh, yeah. The "war of Northern Aggression" stuff is largely a joke nowadays, but Southerners still take their distrust of Yankees pretty seriously.

My entire family is considered not really entirely belonging to our southern hometown because my dad's father is originally from Michigan.
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 PM on February 22


Apparently at least Germans do it.

There's no way to make the states' rights argument without also saying that Black people aren't human beings; its only utility is the (rather shallow) concealment of that claim.

Absolutely. And the whole idea of saying the Northern states committed the first hostilities neatly skips over the fact that the Southern states were actually holding millions of people hostage under a violent regime.

I always wondered why.

Pathos, drama, and some more pernicious reasons.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on February 22 [5 favorites]


>>It is an accurate title.
>
>Sorry, that's not really a supportable argument.

Eh? Regardless of who fired the first shots it seems to me that the South had no reason to start a war with the North. What did they have to gain?

The North was certainly provoked, but I can't see how it was anything but the aggressor in that particular conflict. They decided that their cause was right and just, built up an army and invaded. The South may have fired the first few shots but they wouldn't have been fired at all if they didn't see the writing on the wall.

I am admittedly a casual student of this era, but I must have missed something big if it is true that the South wanted a war.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:31 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


were actually holding millions of people hostage under a violent regime.

That's the thing about the "Why not just let them go?" argument. At first blush it makes a weird sort of sense- They want their own country, let them have it.

Except it's not like they wanted to leave and go somewhere else. They wanted to permanently occupy half of the United States. That is an invasion and an act of war.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:31 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


I should note that, at the time, our biology textbooks also failed to include any mention of Intelligent Design, instead going Darwin all the way.
posted by wierdo at 7:31 PM on February 22


Eh? Regardless of...

You missed my last comment. Read up.
posted by Miko at 7:33 PM on February 22


Eh? Regardless of who fired the first shots it seems to me that the South had no reason to start a war with the North. What did they have to gain?

Attempting to secede from the Union to keep millions of people in captivity was the first act of aggression.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:36 PM on February 22 [30 favorites]


I think this revisionist trend is deeply disturbing and needs to be viewed in a context larger than the standard racist southerner. This is a remarkably resilient myth, probably since right when the smoke cleared in 1865. I mean it's 2014 and many Americans still cannot simply say "slavery was an atrocity" - to me, that says we're still living in the aftermath of the war and especially the aftermath of a failed reconstruction. Some historians see the 20th century civil rights movement as a second reconstruction, and I think we urgently need a third.
posted by gorbweaver at 7:37 PM on February 22 [25 favorites]


It's incredible that anyone would believe that the war wasn't about slavery when it is stated as exactly that in the opening lines of each state's articles of secession:

No, see, they mean that it's not about slavery when, like, Northerners or Black people say it. It's totally about slavery when actual Southerners, like the people in those state governments, say that it is about slavery, just not when anyone else does. The North also took away the Southern Whites' arrogated control over truth claims, which many continue to bitterly resent.

So really, what I said upthread was perhaps wrong. The states' rights argument is not about historical explanation, it's about claiming a monopoly on the right to define meaning and reality themselves.
posted by clockzero at 7:39 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


What would a third reconstruction look like? Sincere question, I can't even think what would be necessary.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:40 PM on February 22


I'm pretty sure I read this or was taught this growing up on Long Island, not that long ago. But if so it was very possible the teacher was trolling us.
posted by bleep at 7:40 PM on February 22


Even aside from the holding of human beings as hostages, it was the federal government's refusal to give up the federal fort at Sumter that prompted the South to fire those first shots. They were simply defending what belonged to the Union - it was clear from the multiple previous seizures the rebelling states had made that the Confederacy had begun an armed attempt to, indeed, occupy federal property. If that doesn't qualify as initiating hostilities I can't imagine what would. It would certainly be enough for us, today.
posted by Miko at 7:40 PM on February 22 [26 favorites]


Oh, yeah. The "war of Northern Aggression" stuff is largely a joke nowadays, but Southerners still take their distrust of Yankees pretty seriously.

I'd like to remind everyone that technically I am a Southerner, I've lived in Georgia practically my whole life, and yet all this "War of Northern Aggression" stuff is as foreign to me as it is to you. I've heard it once in awhile, but even back before I Found Liberalism, I never accepted it.

I'm not exactly sure how I managed to escape it. Luck of the draw probably.
posted by JHarris at 7:43 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


It's misleading through misplaced emphasis. Nobody calls any other war the War of [first shots fired] Aggression, because that particular fact is always dwarfed by the actual causes or distinguishing features of the war.
posted by ostro at 7:44 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


I imagine at some point some devil's advocate will show up, and this will end up an argument about the causes of the Civil War. Which isn't terrible; it needs to be said, and if this is the only way, that's okay. But what would be more interesting is if we could note the recent scholarship which has demonstrated fairly conclusively (to my mind) that the abolitionist movement was rooted largely in popular sentiment against encroachment on Native lands. Most of those who became prominent abolitionists eventually started as agitators concerning and opponents of the Trail of Tears, that horrific and notorious unilateral action by Georgia in defiance of the Supreme Court. The principle author of the 14th Amendment himself, one John Bingham, said that one of his chief goals was to make sure something like the Trail of Tears could never happen again in America.

In fact, I would go further and say this: I don't think the Civil War was solely about slavery. I think it was about our mistreatment, enslavement, and even attempted extermination of whole races for the sake of our mere convenience. I grow to feel, as those early abolitionists did, that there is no multiplicity of issues here. There is one thing: the race issue - the way we treat those who are different from us, who look different from us. I think that's what the Civil War was about.

One could even say that the Civil War began when the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and most of all Georgia openly flouted the ruling of the US Supreme Court in Worcester v Georgia by violently removing the Native Peoples from their lands. Indeed, during Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, his counsel did not shrink from saying so directly:
I knew a case [Worcester v Georgia] where the State of Georgia undertook to make it penal for a Christian missionary to preach the gospel to the Indians... And I knew the great leader of the moral and religious sentiment of the United States [Theodore Frelinguysen], who representing in this body... the State of New Jersey, tried hard to save his country from the degradation of the oppression of the Indians at the [insistence] of the haughty planters of Georgia. The Supreme Court of the United States held the law unconstitutional and issued its mandate, and the State of Georgia laughed at it and kept the missionary in prison... But the [Civil War] came, and as from the clouds from Lookout Mountain swooping down upon Missionary Ridge came the thunders of the violated Constitution of the United States, and the lightnings of its power over the still home of the missionary Worcester, taught the State of Georgia what comes of violating the Constitution.
Incidentally, I can't recommend highly enough Gerard Magliocca's fine study of this topic, "The Cherokee Removal and the Fourteenth Amendment." As academic articles go, it's quite readable, particularly if you find this topic interesting as I do.
posted by koeselitz at 7:45 PM on February 22 [120 favorites]


I'm not exactly sure how I managed to escape it. Luck of the draw probably.

Nah, as I said above, it's not really used unironically except for in extreme cases.

I'd heard the term growing up, but always in scare quotes. The only time I've ever heard someone use it as, like, how they actually refer to the Civil War, I was talking to a member of a white supremacist organization.

I guess I haven't spent time in every single part of the entire south, but I would be curious to hear where and in what contexts this term is being used in an everyday "this is just what we call it" sort of sense.
posted by Sara C. at 7:53 PM on February 22


koeselitz, that is really fascinating and thank you for it. It seems like a reasonable agreement of ideas, and I'm looking forward to reading the link.

For my part, going to high school in rural Virginia, and having some fucked up and stupid ideas about racism and the Civil War, the one teacher that stood out in my memory was the guy desperately trying to teach these dead-eyed and hostile kids in camo about just how fucked up and terrible things were for Black people up to the present day. How effective he was, I don't know. But damn, did that dude try really hard to counteract the stupid racist bullshit we had all been fed at home.
posted by dogheart at 7:56 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


When I was stationed at Ft. Gordon, GA for signal school in 1994, on of our civilian instructors told the platoon that "if you're stationed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you're part of an occupying army," and no, he wasn't kidding.
posted by mph at 8:01 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


Some people look at things that they are associated with—family, country, religion, employer, club, and so on—and think they are specifically defined by those associations in every manner. Other people look at their affiliations and only allow those groups to define them to the extent that they participate in them. Group 1 seeks to minimize all the awful things their group associates have done as a way to deflect criticism against themselves whereas group 2 doesn't care what you have to say about their associates as long as it's true, because they think good and evil stands on its own, and not as some intertwined mess of self-idenity. Confederates, past and present, have a group 1 mindset.
posted by ifandonlyif at 8:05 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


on of our civilian instructors told the platoon that "if you're stationed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you're part of an occupying army,"

That's kinda funny in light of how hard Fort Gordon and the surrounding communities worked to be spared from BRAC. People were begging the army, and its thousands of jobs, to keep on occupying.

This stuff is like that first comment in the thread of that first article in the FPP. What's with the pugnaciousness? I mean, I am from Texas, have spent lots of time with family members in AL and LA, and this attitude isn't pervasive, but it is pronounced. There are certainly people like that in the North, too, about different issues - but at its root, it's not about the Civil War, it's about something in individual and social psychology. And it certainly does involve racial fear, the awareness of the violence and injustice which created the nation we know today, but it's not just limited to or attributable to that. Some of it is a kind of cussedness which is the scarier for being irrational. It's a kind of scared bullying.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


I've never heard anyone call it "The War of Northern Aggression" but if I do I hope to remember to counter with, "Oh You mean The War over Southern Secession?"
posted by Apoch at 8:10 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


The real error is not what people think the American Civil was over. It is that they think it is over.
posted by srboisvert at 8:15 PM on February 22 [11 favorites]


In the sense that it's a social tension, okay. Then the productive question is "what would it take for it to be over?"
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


There are WW2 Axis reenactment groups in the UK, Germany, and Italy.

Well, to be fair, the fascists had pretty sharp uniforms, and that'd probably be the only chance one would have an excuse to wear one though even then you'd be pushing it
posted by acb at 8:27 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Then the productive question is "what would it take for it to be over?"

About 200 more years probably.

Ok that might be a little exaggerated, but really as long as the mobility and information fluidity continues and we don't actually collapse under empire weight I truly think the only cure will just be more time and social brownian motion.
posted by edgeways at 8:29 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


that'd probably be the only chance one would have an excuse to wear one though even then you'd be pushing it

Unless you are, you know, British royalty
posted by edgeways at 8:31 PM on February 22


And the whole idea of saying the Northern states committed the first hostilities neatly skips over the fact that the Southern states were actually holding millions of people hostage under a violent regime.

Not to mention the fact that the South fired the first shots. I think that's why they insist on calling it "The War of Northern Aggression." They really don't have a leg upon which to stand here.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:34 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I hope to remember to counter with, "Oh You mean The War over Southern Secession?"

The War of Northern Victory has a nice ring for these situations.

Then the productive question is "what would it take for it to be over?"

Only the people who are pushing the revisionism can answer that question.

I suspect it won't have much to do with facts though. I've sat down and talked at length with people about why the Civil War began. They agree that Confederate soldiers fired on Fort Sumter. But they believe that it was Confederate property being illegally occupied by foreign troops. Why they take that view is the heart of the matter.

I think it does boil down to State's Rights and the belief of the supremacy of the individual at all costs. That the South left over slavery isn't really the issue. I think some people feel (and then bolster that feeling with rhetoric thought) that the South or any state could leave for whatever reason it felt like or no reason at all, because to deny that is to allow government control over one's actions. And that can not be allowed, in their mind, for any reason.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:35 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


I was visiting one of our manufacturing facilities in central Virginia and my tour guide kept referring to me (well, flirting..it was awkward) as a "Yankee" and a "Northerner". I was so confused and could only respond, "I'm from LA. I really don't think the Mason Dixon line is that long."
I guess I get that he's a Southerner and since I'm not, I must be a Northerner, but it was so far away from any conception of history or identity that I hold that I just didn't even know...
We learn all about the civil war in school, of course, but that stuff all happened a long time ago and very very far away. Might as well be another country.
posted by atomicstone at 8:40 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


I think it does boil down to State's Rights and the belief of the supremacy of the individual at all costs.

Sympathy for a slave empire is emphatically not displaying a "belief of the supremacy of the individual". This professed rugged individualism is just another face-saving justification that, like state's rights, is overlooked when is convenient.
posted by spaltavian at 8:42 PM on February 22 [16 favorites]


I think some people feel (and then bolster that feeling with rhetoric thought) that the South or any state could leave for whatever reason it felt like or no reason at all,because to deny that is to allow government control over one's actions.

This is probably the sentiment today, but it's mind-twisting that it's the exact opposite of the secessionists - they were pissed that the federal government did not exert control over Northern states to return fugitive slaves, and were exercising "states' rights' of their own in opting out of this system. They were angry that the central federal government was not strong enough for them.

What do people like that think would have happened had the South been appeased - had there been no war?
posted by Miko at 8:43 PM on February 22 [15 favorites]


To be fair I think there should be a (long and protracted) mechanism for peaceful secession of economical viable regions of a nation state. What the South engaged in by no means fit that bill and most certainly was about slavery and hardly had it's basis in non violence so doesn't qualify. But the heart of self-determination is not a bad thing, it so easily gets corrupted however.
posted by edgeways at 8:43 PM on February 22


Sympathy for a slave empire is emphatically not displaying a "belief of the supremacy of the individual".

Of course it is. They don't mean every individual, just them and theirs.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:45 PM on February 22 [3 favorites]


Doesn't the Confederate Constitution ban the abolition of slavery?
posted by stavrogin at 8:51 PM on February 22


I went to Southwest Texas State in the mid 90s. A requirement was a Texas history course. I had taken university level US history in California as well as went to high school in CA. I was gobsmacked that instructor said Texas sided with the confederacy over states rights. She also glossed over Texas' secession from Mexico. Which was also largely in part to Mexico outlawing slavery. Texas loved slavery so much it seceded from two countries and fought two wars over it.
posted by birdherder at 8:51 PM on February 22 [25 favorites]


Doesn't the Confederate Constitution ban the abolition of slavery?

Yes:

Article I Section 9(4)
No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

posted by Miko at 8:56 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


What do people like that think would have happened had the South been appeased - had there been no war?

That the South's infrastructure, power and way of life would have been left in place, backed by King Cotton.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:00 PM on February 22


if I do I hope to remember to counter with, "Oh You mean The War over Southern Secession?"

The war over Treason in Defense of Slavery kind of says it all, I find.

(Certainly not my catchphrase, I want to say that some particular lefty blogger started using that ca 10 years ago, and it kind of caught on, on the web.)
posted by hap_hazard at 9:01 PM on February 22 [13 favorites]


Mizu, yeah, I was taught this in northern VA too. Surprises me even now to think about it. It almost seemed like my teachers just didn't like the idea that anything historical was easy to explain.
posted by capricorn at 9:01 PM on February 22


I went to high school in the mid/late 90's in suburban San Diego and was also "taught" the state's rights thing in AP American History. Which was funny being the only person from the south in my class and also being the only person saying "UH WAT" (that I recall anyway)
posted by primalux at 9:03 PM on February 22


Then the productive question is "what would it take for it to be over?"

Maybe that ship has sailed, long ago. There is nothing less productive than engaging in speculative 'what if' alterna-history, but it's tempting nonetheless. It's a fascinating question: would a more thorough defeat have prevented the subsequent Southern resistance and dreams of "shall rise again" and general obstructionism etc.. In WWII, Germany was thoroughly defeated. There was no negotiation of any kind, unconditional surrender, and subsequent occupation and de-Nazification efforts.

What if no quarter was given, Shermanesque devastation spread across the entire region, and people like Lee not being treated like some gentleman with whom you have a misunderstanding, but as simply a traitor and hung from the nearest lamppost, by the thousands. If there is one thing the Romans understood, it's that sometimes you have to level an opponent so thoroughly that they'll never rise again (Carthage), otherwise it's just marking time until the next confrontation.

It may not have been practical, in that there was no stomach for further war, not by anyone, including Sherman, and the calculus made was that by not holding grudges and treating the South decently, indeed generously and forgivingly, you have a chance at reconciliation. I wonder if that faith was misplaced, and that gamble failed, instead emboldening and not chastening and providing fertile ground for mythmaking.

A very thorough defeat can concentrate the mind wonderfully, and lead to remarkable clarity.

But a different path was taken, perhaps inevitably, and here we are.
posted by VikingSword at 9:03 PM on February 22 [9 favorites]


In Northern Virginia in the nineties in my fancypants smart kid classes I was taught that it was about a combination of complicated factors that all contributed to the enormous clusterfuck centered around slavery,

Also NoVa, also learned that exact thing at first, but had some pretty lefty teachers in high school who untaught us many things. I vaguely remember learning about states' rights and stuff when I was younger. I remember being taught about the Confederate flag but not being taught about its appropriation by modern day racists.
posted by sweetkid at 9:03 PM on February 22


The South will rise again.
posted by homunculus at 9:05 PM on February 22


I got the "complex array of factors" approach in high school history, too, but because I went to a good school with a good history staff, said array of factors definitely centered on slavery.

We talked a lot about "king cotton", the economics of the south, the rush for additional slave territory as traditional "Old South" agricultural lands started to fail due to inefficient farming techniques, the lack of sustainability of the system backing southern elites into a political corner, the south's role in the Industrial Revolution, etc.

We did not really talk about "states rights".
posted by Sara C. at 9:11 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Yes, let's have another bash the South thread. No matter how bad we feel about our own lives, we can at least be grateful that we aren't Southerners.
posted by zscore at 9:21 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


I am from the South and love it here, by the way. This isn't about bashing the South - it's about historiography.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 9:26 PM on February 22 [19 favorites]


Talking about the latent (and sometimes overt) racism still all too common (but not pervasive in most areas, that is reserved for gay-hatin') in the South and how Southerners have waged a century long campaign to sanitize the Civil War and completely eliminate the pre-Jim Crow era from the history books so as to paint black people as having never amounted to anything as a group is not bashing the South.

This is a large part of why so many people find it incomprehensible that a black person could possibly be President without some sort of affirmative action pushing him there.
posted by wierdo at 9:27 PM on February 22 [31 favorites]


The impact of the war on civilians and non combatants living in the south was pretty terrible. The cause of the war was slavery but that wasn't what motivated most of the men who fought. Look at places like the Shennedoah valley in Virginia where the union forces engaged in a campaign to destroy the vital economic region. After the war it took decades to recover. Many who joined up with Lee did so because they saw an invading army attacking their homes. Incidents like that and Sherman's march to the sea, the trench warfare in the final phase of the war. The rape of Charleston, SC and the burning of Atlanta also spring to mind. Those incidents are what many in the south think of when the war is discussed and most of those impacted families didn't have slaves. From the oral traditions of these family the civil war wasn't about great grandpa going off to fight for slavery, he went to try to stop the rampage that threatened the home.
posted by humanfont at 9:39 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


Okay, but that doesn't change the fact that the war was started by elites and duly elected representatives of the people who thought the most important thing in the world was the legal ability to own other human beings.

So, sure, Grandpa was defending his home. But that's not why the war happened, and while it's unfortunate that this is so, using that sort of example is simply handing a fig leaf to those who today still think the war went the wrong way.

The war was started, fought, and lost by the Confederacy over the right to own slaves. Anything else is a distraction that plays into the hands of apologists.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:45 PM on February 22 [41 favorites]


Sure, and most of the Wehrmacht were just dudes trying to survive. But in neither case can you separate the man from the cause.
posted by Justinian at 9:45 PM on February 22 [10 favorites]


But in neither case can you separate the man from the cause.

Clearly some people can and do separate the two.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:48 PM on February 22


In Washington state in the 00's I was taught it was a combination of many super complicated factors and that Abe Lincoln was no fan of black people either. I think my teachers thought they were being countercultural and telling us the real truth behind our hagiographic history textbooks. But in any case it basically ends up sounding like a states rights thing.

There are WW2 Axis reenactment groups in the UK, Germany, and Italy.


There is at least once such group here in Minneapolis. They claim that someone has to reenact the German army in battle reenactments, and they're not real Nazis... last I heard they restored a real German tank. I think it's incredibly tactless but who am I to judge?
posted by miyabo at 9:52 PM on February 22


Look at places like the Shennedoah valley in Virginia where the union forces engaged in a campaign to destroy the vital economic region.

Yes, and the proper teaching of history would explain why the Union forces engaged in that type of warfare. (In short, because after losing so many traditional set-pieces battles thanks to terrible generalship, it realized that the way to defeat the South was to strike at its war-making ability.) But that teaching wouldn't whitewash the cause of the war.
posted by stargell at 9:57 PM on February 22 [4 favorites]


The impact of the war on civilians and non combatants living in the south was pretty terrible.

Is there a war (I was going to say 'modern war' but I don't think the distinction helps) about which you cannot say that? Take WWII, because I'm an American and it springs to mind. Would you suggest that the suffering inflicted on civilian residents of Tokyo and Dresden somehow retroactively makes the Allies the aggressors in that war? Hell, call those bombing raids war crimes if you like, but it doesn't seem to mean, to anyone, that the Axis' actions before or after were in any way justified.

Those countries suffered debilitating military defeats, and their infrastructure was devastated, and that was only 70 years ago, but somehow as far as I'm aware there is not the pervasive revisionism, resentment, or even inability to accept a war's outcome, there, as there seems to be in the South. I wonder why?
posted by hap_hazard at 10:02 PM on February 22 [11 favorites]


Those countries suffered debilitating military defeats, and their infrastructure was devastated, and that was only 70 years ago, but somehow as far as I'm aware there is not the pervasive revisionism, resentment, or even inability to accept a war's outcome, there, as there seems to be in the South. I wonder why?

Well, Japan experiences rather similar textbook controversies as the South.
posted by SollosQ at 10:09 PM on February 22 [6 favorites]


Really, SollosQ? I was unaware.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 10:18 PM on February 22


I'm a Southerner, and I'm not offended by this thread. If we don't face our past squarely then we are never going to move past it. My ancestors may or may not have owned slaves (I haven't traced my family trees very far back, and they were poor), but they certainly benefitted in one way or another, and participated in one way or another, in the oppression of black people. My parents and grandparents were unabashed racists in many ways, and attempted to teach me their racism. My older siblings are more racist than I am, though much more circumspect than my parents were. And I am a white person in a racist society who has absorbed some of it because it's impossible not to.

It's going to take a while to get the South to let go of racism, is what I'm saying, and in the meantime, we have to keep the pressure up. Not because all white Southerners are racist assholes, but because being racist will, sooner or later, force you to either be an asshole or support one, no matter how intelligent or nice you are otherwise.

I think a lot of white Southerners are stuck at that point, where they know they've never burned a cross or put on a hood, they like individual black people, the "good ones," they are polite and charitable and churchgoing, and they think that is far enough to go. But it's not, and we have to keep insisting that it's not.

One thing that does seem to be speeding it up is that more non-Southerners have moved into the south. Growing up, I knew a lot of midwesterners and northerners and Californian kids who moved to Texas and were not on board with using the n-word or glorifying the Confederacy.
posted by emjaybee at 10:19 PM on February 22 [38 favorites]


Well, Japan experiences rather similar textbook controversies as the South is.

Isn't that interesting? Note, how differently the conclusion of the war was treated in Germany vs Japan. For Germany, it was complete, utter defeat and unconditional surrender, with subsequent intense de-Nazification. For Imperial Japan, the U.S. decided to keep the Emperor intact and that whole institution, even if with a new constitution, a lot of Japanese institutions were intact.

And now note the difference in German and Japan wrt. teaching of history - Germany is very, very clear on what happened. Japan... well, not so much.

A comprehensive defeat, like Germany's, cleanses the system out. A less clear one, like Japan, allows for revanchism and mythmaking. Also see: conclusion of WWI vs WWII.

Which is why it's a question about the South, and how thorough the defeat was. Note: the t-shirts with "Lee surrendered. I didn't."
posted by VikingSword at 10:20 PM on February 22 [10 favorites]


Errr, completely razing and depopulating half the country in order to avoid textbook controversies later on seems a little disproportionate. I prefer my alternate history going the other way; the Union routs the Confederates at the first battle of Bullrun, marches on Richmond, and the entire thing is over in a few weeks. I feel like if that happened, and the Civil War wasn't this huge cataclysmic event, then there wouldn't still be arguments over it. Instead there were these huge battlefield losses, so that even today people want the deaths to mean something and not have just been a colossal waste.
posted by Balna Watya at 11:30 PM on February 22 [7 favorites]


My dad was from New England (where I grew up) and my mom was from Tennessee. My mom's family had been basically poor white trash for generations including during the Civil War. My father's family was upper middle class. We did some genealogical research and learned that a large source of my dad's family's wealth was due to a distant ancestors success in the slave shipping trade it off Massachusetts. I haven't we haven't inherited any of that money directly but there's probably ten thousand advantages my family in general and I in specific have benefited from as a result of this sorry part of my family's history.

(As a side note, the other major source of wealth on my dad's side was from a totally separate branch that was heavily involved in the Irish mob in the early twentieth century)

My Southern relatives could perhaps point with some bitterness to the fact that they didn't directly materially benefit from slavery while my Northern relatives did and yet they're held more personally responsible for it. Of course, they have all benefited from being white in America regardless of their family line's relative culpability.

I feel bad for them and think sometimes of my friends in modern red states. I have some great progressive friends in Arizona, Florida, Kansas and Texas who are appalled by the regressive laws that have put those states in the news lately. They are doubly appalled because people characterize then personally as being responsible for the actions of politicians that they worked tirelessly to defeat.

Anecdotally, just based on the large Southern half of my family, there are certainly "South will rise again" lunatics but also sensible "fighting a war for slavery was pretty fucked up" people. There are puerile in the northern half of my family who went to their graves with openly racist views - my grandmother went to her grave believing the Red Sox couldn't win a World Series because they allowed black players on the team. Yet she vociferously denied that her ancestor was a slaver despite pretty undeniable historical evidence.

This is all a way of saying that the only issue I have with this discussion is that our while country benefited economically from slavery. Many descendants of confederates are unwilling to recognize that this was the cause of the Civil War, but we mustn't let ourselves think that they bear exclusive blame for that dreadful institution. The US was largely built on the backs and bodies of slaves (and, indeed, Native peoples and immigrants). Accepting that slavery was the reason for the Civil War is a very small (but essential) step towards addressing a much larger national soul searching that we've barely started to approach.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:34 PM on February 22 [20 favorites]


zscore: "Yes, let's have another bash the South thread. No matter how bad we feel about our own lives, we can at least be grateful that we aren't Southerners."

Have you actually read this thread at all?

purpleclover: "I was taught the 'states rights' lie in 1992-'93 in Catholic school in Dallas, Texas."

DGStieber: "When I moved out of the south, I was pretty shocked and perplexed when I heard my teachers talking about the Civil War as though *gasp* it was actually about slavery. It took me years to realize that i'd been lied to as a child."

supercres: "Ditto. 'States' Rights!' was the cause until I got to high school in Alabama..."

Sara C.: "I am from the deep south..."

SkylitDraw: "We were told in Tennessee that thousands of slaves took up arms to defend the Confederacy."

JHarris: "I'd like to remind everyone that technically I am a Southerner, I've lived in Georgia practically my whole life..."

It would seem that the goodly majority of people commenting here are actual honest-to-God Southerners. So I'm not sure this is quite the Southerner-bashing thread you were expecting.
posted by koeselitz at 11:53 PM on February 22 [14 favorites]


A couple of people mention above that the bullshit all-about-states'-rights-honest argument is a relatively recent development. And... that's not really true. I mean, it is a bullshit argument now and it was then - see the state declarations of secession above. But even at the time secessionists and cotton-dependent industrialists were trying to propogandize the righteousness of the Southern cause in, say, England, where slavery had been abolished 30 years earlier. If you're feeling up to another exhaustingly disingenous defence of why the war was all the North's encroachments on liberty and nothing to do with the "s"-word, compare and contrast the current stuff with Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine's 1862 "President Jefferson Davis". (The first few pages are pretty much straight biography - it really gets going with the tyrannical North around p. 348.) Part of it is straight out of the modern playbook, part of it is bizarre ('If Lincoln hadn't called for troops, the seceded states might have rejoined peacefully'?), and it all wraps up with "Be the struggle long or short, history will regard Jefferson Davis as one of the few great men this war has produced." Fun stuff, and a glimpse of the modern state's rights argument in its cradle.
posted by ormondsacker at 12:44 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I feel like if that happened, and the Civil War wasn't this huge cataclysmic event, then there wouldn't still be arguments over it. Instead there were these huge battlefield losses, so that even today people want the deaths to mean something and not have just been a colossal waste.

That's an interesting point. Take WW1; there are a number of revisionist historians, and others like the UK Education Secretary, who are trying to rewrite the war as a Just War against German aggression, fought with tactical nous and personal sacrifice of the Upper Class by an under-equipped and under-manned British army, with great sacrifices being the only way to win.

Not only do they tend to ignore the greater contributions (and skill) of the French and Russians to the victory of the Entente powers, it runs directly counter to the more commonly held view that it was a far greater waste of life than needed due to incompetent generals not learning the lessons of the Boer war et al when it came to the implications and horror of several great industrial empires going to war. Even whether the war itself was even worth getting involved; a pointless slaughter of a generation in order to try and defend the pre-eminence of the British trade empire, that only ended up causing the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the even greater horrors of the second world war.

So even the victors in a great conflict can be arguing a hundred years later over trying to justify the gigantic waste of lives.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:52 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


Well, Japan experiences rather similar textbook controversies as the South.

While this is tangential nitpicking, I happened to be reading about the Japan thing earlier today and was directed to this fairly comprehensive Stanford research project comparing the most used history textbooks of Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and the US. Their findings contradict a lot of the media accusations about Japan; while there may be a lack of depth in Japan's curriculum, there does seem to be a pretty balanced approach. But I was more surprised by their finding that the S.Korean government printed textbook completely omits the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How can you even explain the end of the war and post-war Japan without that.?..
posted by p3t3 at 1:20 AM on February 23 [9 favorites]


I've never heard anyone call it "The War of Northern Aggression" but if I do I hope to remember to counter with, "Oh You mean The War over Southern Secession?"

Treason in defence of slavery.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:11 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Treason in defence of slavery.
; )

posted by hap_hazard at 2:16 AM on February 23


The first time I encountered "The War of Northern Aggression" was during my one and only acid trip. I was watching some X-Files marathon, and they had got to number one. It was that one with the house of inbred mutants. The mother of the mutants mewled, who I think had her legs amputated, something about "The War of Northern Aggression" before or after she was rolled back under the bed to wait to have more sex with her husband-sons.

So, to my ears, "The War of Northern Aggression" is something only a Satan would say in Hell before doing something unspeakable.
posted by angrycat at 2:55 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


also, never watch an X-File marathon while tripping. Maybe don't go to the South while tripping.
posted by angrycat at 2:56 AM on February 23 [12 favorites]


There are WW2 Axis reenactment groups in the UK, Germany, and Italy.

I know this is a bit off topic, but here in Germany I think this would be, let's just say niche, if it exists. I am not certain but it may even be illegal depending on the circumstances.
posted by romanb at 2:58 AM on February 23


I know this is a bit off topic, but here in Germany I think this would be, let's just say niche, if it exists. I am not certain but it may even be illegal depending on the circumstances.

and in Britain it involves the Royal Family.
posted by srboisvert at 3:49 AM on February 23


Funny enough, but maybe WWII re-enactment is an offshoot of Civil War reenactment.
posted by idiopath at 3:51 AM on February 23


I spent middle school and high school in North Carolina, and I knew the "states' rights" thing was a thing some people believed, but I don't remember any of my teachers teaching it. I think what my high school US history teacher did right was in getting across a sense of how difficult it would have been economically for the south to give up slavery, without ever letting that turn into a justification for slavery.

I do think that my high school class didn't talk nearly enough about reconstruction. I didn't learn until much later how much progress was made immediately after the end of the civil war, and how the KKK was essentially a domestic terrorist organization that forced all that progress to be rolled back, and the federal government just... gave up.
posted by Jeanne at 4:28 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


I'm very glad the North decided to be aggressive. Where I'm from, which is to say the Free Commonwealth of Massachusetts, aggression in pursuit of freedom from slavery is no vice. It is an honorable name, if you want to keep using it.

Personally, I like to call it "the war of Southern submission." Fuck the Confederacy. Y'all lost. It's over.
posted by spitbull at 4:54 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


I grew up in central Ohio, and the "The Civil War wasn't about slavery" line was presented to me as an explanation for the North, not the South; specifically, that Lincoln didn't go to war to free the slaves, he went to war to get the South's asses back in line and get two economically interdependent regions back together. (Also received "Lincoln was a fence-sitting fraud" lectures from two different history teachers). So in that respect it was meant more to avoid whitewashing the Union's activities as something heroic and altruistic. Which I think is fair.

That said, the Civil War tour I took in Savannah, even if it used some of the same words, sure felt like it had a very different attitude behind the explanation...
posted by olinerd at 4:56 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


As another Marylander with liberal, educated parents (one from the North), I got plenty of instruction in the actual causes and whatnot and still ended up infused with the Lost Causer sense of the war as this grand southern tragedy.

Took about a decade to really be mostly free of that programming, and it still pops up every so often.

It may be largely ahistorical nonsense, but it is a very powerful narrative.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 5:04 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Born and raised in northern Kentucky, and if I remember correctly, going to school in the 70s it was always referred to as the "War to Free the Slaves."

Now I live in upstate New York, and believe it or not, there's a lot of reenactors up here. I talked to a couple at Genesee Country Museum a few years back, and they told me it was difficult to get folks for the Union side as being a Rebel was far more popular!

However, I got the feeling that this wasn't a choice based on racism, but more about people wanting to portray the rag-tag, underdog - it seems the rebel units party harder and have more fun.

Kinda like Joss Whedon coming up with Firefly after reading The Killer Angels.
posted by valkane at 5:22 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I grew up in Maryland, and the teaching was that the South definitely succeeded overly slavery, but the North didn't necessarily fight to end slavery. We also talked about why the South came to depend on slavery; and so economics was pointed out as a cause secondary to slavery. We were flat out taught states' rights was just a slogan.

Of course, being in Maryland, we were given a less than stellar portrait of Lincoln, and we spent an inordinate amount of time comparing the South's excellent generals to the North's imbeciles. But I didn't detect any sympathy for the South (except maybe Sherman's March), and there was a little schadenfreude at Virginia's defeat.

It was also pointed out that Maryland banned slavery before the end of the war and the passage of the 13th Amendment. Of course, 1864 is just under the wire, but we did it!
posted by spaltavian at 5:26 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Growing up in arrogance: Northern schools in the United States still pretend the Civil War was only about slavery.
posted by 0 at 5:36 AM on February 23 [4 favorites]


Nowadays, the racists can just pretend they're being libertarian.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:39 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Growing up in arrogance: Northern schools in the United States still pretend the Civil War was only about slavery.

At the end of the day, that's what it was about. Yes, there were other factors, but they all boil down to the sickening desire to own other human beings as property. See also the actual declarations of secession quoted above.

Pretending otherwise is a large part of why racism is still such a pernicious problem in the USA.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:48 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


"They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say 'Shit, it's raining!'"
posted by valkane at 5:59 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Yes, there were other factors

If you click through to the links in the HNN article, you'll see the difference of opinion is between "the Civil was about slavery" and "the Civil War was about slavery and states' rights." Not that big a difference really... not so big that a conquering army should get to decree what the absolute truth is. Shouldn't the South get some say about what they were fighting for?
posted by 0 at 6:03 AM on February 23


"the Civil War was about slavery and states' rights."

And which states' rights were they fighting for, precisely?

Yep, that's the one. Slavery.

Miko has also pointed out above the basic hypocrisy in the position: they wanted states rights' for themselves, and were willing to trample all over the rights of the Northern states to self-determination vis-a-vis slavery.

It wasn't about states' rights. It was about owning other people as property. Period.

Shouldn't the South get some say about what they were fighting for?

Not until they're actually honest about it, no. Same reason why we don't give any fucks what Nazis were fighting for.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:06 AM on February 23 [14 favorites]


Shouldn't the South get some say about what they were fighting for?

And they did! In their articles of secession, which are all about slavery. Considering they forced the Fugitive Slave Act through Congress, preventing the North from exercising their states' right for black people within their borders to be free, it's hard to believe that the South cared about states' rights in the abstract as much as the specific state right to keep black people in perpetual bondage.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 6:10 AM on February 23 [32 favorites]


Which is why it's a question about the South, and how thorough the defeat was. Note: the t-shirts with "Lee surrendered. I didn't."

And, this sort of leads into another aspect of the modern revisionism practiced by many southern sympathizers and modern "rebels". I find a good many of them, once they spout the "states rights" reasoning for the war, go off waxing high and poetical about preserving a more genteel way of life. The image of the Southern Gentleman™ plays large in their sympathies. It's like every redneck with a confederate flag decal on their truck believes that, were it not for Lincoln and the northern aggression, they would, today, be sipping juleps on the veranda of their mansion as fine-bred gentlemen and ladies. And, all it will take to restore everything to its proper place is just one good insurrection.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:10 AM on February 23 [12 favorites]


I learned in grade school, in southern Tennessee, that the Civil War was about slavery. It wasn't until I got to law school up north that I learned about other causes. Like anything else, it's so multifaceted and it's not until the objectivity provided by many many decades can reveal what else might have been going on. Abolition was certainly a banner waved to gather support and there's no question that abolition was the right thing to do.

However, in my mind, if it had been only about ending slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation would not have exempted Union-occupied areas, specifically New Orleans, which was militarily and economically necessary to finish subduing outlying rebels. Like all other banners, the laudable goal behind it became subject to politicking and special interests. It's the American way!
posted by mibo at 6:11 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Regarding the South's tendency to re-enact Civl War battles: is this a common occurrence in other countries, about other wars?

My mother lives a block away from a park which was the site of a War of 1812 battle. Although as the article points out, "The battle is re-enacted annually on the weekend closest to 6 June," last summer was the bicentennial. You can bet there was a lot of foofaraw then.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:26 AM on February 23


These things are never about the past; they're about the present. I'd bet that the framing of the war as being about "states rights" first became popular again as a result of federally-driven desegregation -- and it's being kept alive by dislike for a variety of federal-level laws and policies.

Miko has also pointed out above the basic hypocrisy in the position: they wanted states rights' for themselves, and were willing to trample all over the rights of the Northern states to self-determination vis-a-vis slavery.

And today the descendants of these people see nothing wrong with using federal power to (say) ban abortion throughout the US, but consider the Affordable Care Act an unconscionable intrusion on states' rights.
posted by Slothrup at 6:33 AM on February 23 [9 favorites]


but Southerners still take their distrust of Yankees pretty seriously.

As a native New Englander, my experience is that people around here seriously distrust Yankees, because of their being human beings. They especially distrust those who identify as "Yankees fans."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:43 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Personally, I like to call it "the war of Southern submission." Fuck the Confederacy. Y'all lost. It's over.

Yeah, but who's saying "Y'all" here, huh?*


*Congrats on the proper spelling.

Growing up in Central Virginia, Confederate flags were not uncommon, flying or being worn on t-shirts, though very often the places flying them were rather rundown and ramshackled. I think I was educated on the variety of factors premise, but honestly, I think my 7th grade class where we actually focused on the war, didn't spend very much time on the element of slavery. Coincidentally, Nth generation Virginian, who had numerous Confederate veteran ancestors, chose to offer a strategy on how to defeat the South (versus defeat the North) on that class assignment. I made up for it later by leading the South to victory in a DOS based Civil War strategy game (VGA Civil War), after playing and losing as the South for countless iterations.

I wish the name, The War of Southern Rebellion, would still come up into popularity, as it is the title of the Official Records, one of the best sources for primary documents on the war.

As for the UDC, anyone who visits Harper's Ferry, definitely must check out the memorial to Hayward Shepard, which reads:
On the night of October 16, 1859, Heyward Shepard, an industrious and respected colored freeman was mortally wounded by John Brown’s raiders in pursuance of his duties as an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. He became the first victim of the attempted insurrection.

This boulder is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans as a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, exemplifying the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations through subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people, and an everlasting tribute to the best on both races.
As an aside, I grew up with the distinct feeling that John Brown was a bad crazy guy criminal.
posted by Atreides at 6:43 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


Same reason why we don't give any fucks what Nazis were fighting for.

Well, of course we give fucks about what the Nazis and the South were fighting for. Their underlying purposes were appalling and inhuman, and, in both cases, eventually the only way to push back against those purposes was war. And, while many German soldiers were not Nazis and were, in some sense, defending the interests of their countries rather than the Nazi ideology, and many Southern soldiers were, in some sense, defending the interests of their states or local communities rather than the economic and political interests of their human-trafficking elite, both of them are stained with the legacy of the causes they supported, if only by proxy. One doesn't have to be a devil to support devils (or to benefit from the work of devils).
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:46 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


I've heard versions of this myth in New Mexico, which is sort of odd considering that we sent about 8k soldiers for the Union side. But that was before high school, where I took an AP US History class that was more comprehensive.
posted by NoraReed at 6:50 AM on February 23


One doesn't have to be a devil to support devils

I never said one has to. I did say that at the end of the day the root causes--be they slavery on the one hand or genocide (is there a functional difference?) and imperialism on the other--are the overriding concern, not that Joe Grunt is defending his family. Again, that's just handing a fig leaf to apologists.

Atreides, that inscription makes me sick.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 6:52 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


My Papaw, a lovely man who taught school and was a Baptist preacher who truly believed in the teachings of Jesus (the love thy neighbor and help the poorest among you teachings) very unironically called my then-boyfriend (now husband) "Yankee." And he liked him!

My mom called everyone not from the South "Yankee" as well. My dad was born in Indiana but lived in Florida most of his life, and went big into identifying with rednecks for a while (despite being too much of a hippie to really get there).

I grew up with the impression that the Confederate flag was simply a matter of pride (and no small amount of folly), and not a racist symbol at all. I literally had to have lived outside of the south for about five years before I finally got it.

I had a history teacher who said the "War Between the States" was about states' rights and blah blah economics blah blah. Slavery was handwaved with "it was a different time" and "economic necessity."


Honestly though, are we much different now? If you substitute environmental destruction, weak health and safety regulations and enforcement, overseas sweat shops, massive income inequality, etc. -- they are all "justified" by commerce the same way.
posted by Foosnark at 6:55 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


Maybe don't go to the South while tripping.

You can achieve the same effect by reading Flannery O'Connor.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:09 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


I never said one has to. I did say that at the end of the day the root causes--be they slavery on the one hand or genocide (is there a functional difference?) and imperialism on the other--are the overriding concern, not that Joe Grunt is defending his family. Again, that's just handing a fig leaf to apologists.

Well, I think we are mostly in agreement, although you seem to want to refute the difference between "I support evil" and "I support my community which is doing evil," while I acknowledge that there is a difference but that it's irrelevant at anything except the finest grain, and then only for people who have little agency (Robert E. Lee is far more culpable than, say, Joe Virginia Subsistance-Farmer).

I do think there is a functional difference between slavery and genocide, although slavery can be a tool in the genocide toolbox.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:14 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Growing up in arrogance: Northern schools in the United States still pretend the Civil War was only about slavery.

If you click through to the links in the HNN article, you'll see the difference of opinion is between "the Civil was about slavery" and "the Civil War was about slavery and states' rights." Not that big a difference really... not so big that a conquering army should get to decree what the absolute truth is. Shouldn't the South get some say about what they were fighting for?


Ahem:
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him 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. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

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.
--Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the CSA, March 1861
posted by zombieflanders at 7:33 AM on February 23 [29 favorites]


The Whelk: "I've also noticed in war reenactment groups the losing side tends to be more popular with the players. I always wondered why."

There is something romantic about fighting a losing cause.
posted by Mitheral at 7:37 AM on February 23


Especially for losers.
posted by spitbull at 7:39 AM on February 23


That the Civil War was about *anything* other than slavery at its root was Confederate *propaganda* during the war. It has remained racist propaganda ever since. Anyone who believes it is either ignorant and thus the perfect target for propaganda, or intentionally chooses to believe propaganda to feel better about themselves.
posted by spitbull at 7:40 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Assumed the winner still exists and didn't lose elsewhere later, those who want to wrap in those colors can just join the army. In the case of the American Civil War and WWII the losers don't exist as such any more, and if you are motivated to dress up that way reenactment is your only plausible option.
posted by idiopath at 7:46 AM on February 23


I got the whole the-Civil-War-wasn't-about-slavery line from a mixture of white Vietnam-era radicals who objected to any narrative that could be seen to portray the American military as an agent of liberation and black Civil-Rights-era radicals who were sick of crusading-white-people-liberate-the-downtrodden-black-folks narratives. And while I'm sympathetic to both of those impulses, it doesn't change the fact that the Civil War was, in fact, about slavery, and ideology shouldn't trump accuracy in history education.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:47 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Did war reenactments start with the Civil War or originally center only on the South, or something?

I've always assumed it was just a thing, like, in general, for any war. I've seen reenactments of War of 1812 battles and Revolutionary War battles. I figure Europeans probably have more interesting things to do than reenact the Hundred Years' War or whatever, but I'd be shocked if there wasn't something for the Battle of Hastings or other really huge historically important battles.

Also, I got dragged around to plenty of Civil War reenactments as a kid and did not come away with the notion that there were more Confederate reenactors than Union. Most of them are run by various government parks departments and historical preservation orgs, not some kind of SCA for Klan members.

In fact, my dad (not a white supremacist) has been dabbling in Civil War reenacting and told me that most people start out on the Union side because you can just order the uniform out of a catalog, whereas most Confederate soldiers didn't have standardized kit. Making it much more difficult to cobble together the gear you need to portray anyone in the Confederacy.
posted by Sara C. at 7:48 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


white Vietnam-era radicals who objected to any narrative that could be seen to portray the American military as an agent of liberation and black Civil-Rights-era radicals who were sick of crusading-white-people-liberate-the-downtrodden-black-folks narratives

One thing that is really difficult for most people to understand is that, while the Confederate states seceded because of slavery, the Union didn't have ending slavery as its primary goal.

War is not a football game, with an agreed on objective and shared assumptions on both sides.
posted by Sara C. at 7:50 AM on February 23 [19 favorites]


I am a lifelong Virginian who was taught the states' rights horseshit. (Although there were some political disagreements preceding the war - the south was offended that slaves were not counted when their representational calculus was computed. Never mind that they themselves didn't count the slaves...)

Slavery also cost the south any chance at victory. Outside influences are often overlooked, but remember that England really, really wanted the south's cotton for their textile mills. England was on the verge of joining the south to break the blockade on cotton shipping. Slavery was so unpopular with the English populace ( yea!), however, that the coalition never came to fruition.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:52 AM on February 23


One thing that is really difficult for most people to understand is that, while the Confederate states seceded because of slavery, the Union didn't have ending slavery as its primary goal.
I actually don't think it makes sense to talk about "the Union" as if it were a unified whole. There were a lot of different actors, at both the elite and non-elite level, and they had a lot of different goals and intentions. There were also different shades of anti-slavery opinion. Some Northerners, for instance, thought slavery as an institution was disastrous for society but also thought that the actual slaves were sub-human and would never be able to compete with free labor. Some Northerners deplored slavery but thought there was no Constitutional way to force states to abolish it. (Lincoln fell into that category prior to the war.) Some were ok with slavery continuing to exist in the places where it currently existed but thought the Northern way of life would be threatened if it spread to new states in the West. Some wanted total and immediate abolition and believed that was the primary aim of the war. The last set were in the minority, but that doesn't mean that the other folks were unconcerned with slavery.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:57 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


And, while many German soldiers were not Nazis and were, in some sense, defending the interests of their countries rather than the Nazi ideology, and many Southern soldiers were, in some sense, defending the interests of their states or local communities rather than the economic and political interests of their human-trafficking elite

Also, a large number of both were conscripted against their will & fought only because it was the only other option as opposed to treason charges & imprisonment and/or execution. The stories of southern draft-dodgers & deserters are pretty harrowing. There are no blanket statements that can speak for the motivations of the rank-and-file confederate soldiery.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:04 AM on February 23


(the above statement should in no way be mis-construed as a defense of the politics or motivation of the leadership of the Confederacy in any way, shape or form)
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:07 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


It's really interesting, in part, to be reading this thread, in which the motives of the South and the Nazis are so oversimplified, right after reading Keynes' The Economic Consequences of the Peace, written just after the treaty ending WWI, but before the Nazis had actually risen to power. It shows a lot more of the actual injustice being perpetrated against Germany than I ever learned in a school system with a vested interest in black and white history. The Nazis were racist and engaged in genocide, but they were only able to come to power because of the heavy oppression, economic and otherwise, Germany was suffering under.

In the same way, while many Southern leaders were racists and most certainly did want slavery to continue, you have to look at the circumstances that made the majority of the South be willing to rise and leave the Union, and a lot of that had more to do with being a cohesive cultural and economic region that, due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.
posted by corb at 8:15 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Same reason why we don't give any fucks what Nazis were fighting for.

You mean in the War of Polish Aggression?
posted by stargell at 8:16 AM on February 23 [26 favorites]


England was on the verge of joining the south to break the blockade on cotton shipping.

Actually, one of the many miscalculations (self-delusions?) made by the South was that a cotton shortage would force the European states to recognize their sovereignty, but in fact there was a cotton glut and European warehouses were full. The issue was never forced, and Confederate embassies were given less and less respect as the war went on. By the end they couldn't get in to see anyone.
posted by Trochanter at 8:17 AM on February 23


(the above statement should in no way be mis-construed as a defense of the politics or motivation of the leadership of the Confederacy in any way, shape or form)

I once read an article about a set of crumbling and terribly underfunded state-run orphanages in (Romania, I think). part of the article was an interview with someone who worked at one of the institutions and who was very open and (it seemed to me) clearly upset about being part of a network of abuse and neglect. The interviewer asked him why he worked there, and he said "It's the only job; if I didn't work there, my children would be housed in it." And it was really haunting -- the guy had (apparently; the interviewer didn't challenge him, as I recall) very few options and all of them were bad. But he was still complicit in horror. And I think the same is true for the conscripted Confederate or WWII German soldier -- yes, refusal would have cost a terrible price, but compliance still leveled a terrible price just paid by other people. So understandable as an explanation but never as an excuse.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:17 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I actually don't think it makes sense to talk about "the Union" as if it were a unified whole.

It was a side on a war. I don't know how else one would talk about the main oppositional axis of the Civil War without the term "Union", which was used by people at the time.

It's true that, like the south, there were various different motivations within individual people fighting in the north. You had abolitionists who absolutely were fighting to end slavery (on a personal level), you had recent immigrant draftees who didn't want to be there, and like the south you probably had some places where Union soldiers were joining up to protect their homes.

And of course none of that lines up according to a 21st century idea of racism. It would be bizarre if it did.

But, as in the discussion of southerners who fought for personal honor or to protect their homes or whatever other non-slavery reason, all those individuals fighting for various reasons on the northern side were definitely understood to be on the same side of a war. The Union side.
posted by Sara C. at 8:18 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


> I can't recommend highly enough Gerard Magliocca's fine study of this topic, "The Cherokee Removal and the Fourteenth Amendment."

Thanks for that link, koeselitz, it's pretty interesting.
posted by nangar at 8:22 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


In the same way, while many Southern leaders were racists and most certainly did want slavery to continue, you have to look at the circumstances that made the majority of the South be willing to rise and leave the Union, and a lot of that had more to do with being a cohesive cultural and economic region that, due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.

Yes, their way of life.

The way of life that included, they felt, the God-given right to own other human beings as property.

It all boils down to that, and pretending otherwise is giving a pass to racists.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:24 AM on February 23 [11 favorites]


In the same way, while many Southern leaders were racists and most certainly did want slavery to continue, you have to look at the circumstances that made the majority of the South be willing to rise and leave the Union, and a lot of that had more to do with being a cohesive cultural and economic region that, due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.
To the extent that the South was a "cohesive cultural and economic region," the thing that bound the region together was slavery. That was the basis for the shared culture and economy.

I'm aware that the Union was one of the sides in the Civil War, Sara C. What I'm saying is that you can't ascribe a single intent to "the Union." Everyone in a position of influence in the Confederacy was united on the need to preserve slavery and the centrality of that as a war aim. There was no similar consensus on the other side.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:25 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.

This may be true, but it isn't true because the south was "under-represented", or because of some kind of oppression at the hands of the north. The northern and southern economic systems were interdependent, and the south fought hard for parity in political representation (see, for instance, the rush to lay out which new states would be slave vs. free).

On the other hand, the southern elites could definitely see their way of life circling the drain. While few institutional powers were trying to force southern states to abolish slavery, the institution was starting to become obsolete, and it was morally frowned upon in a lot of the places the south had important economic relationships with (of which the US north was just one). Meanwhile, the US was running out of contiguous territory to form into new slave states, northern population was on the rise due to immigration, and plantation cash crop farming was destroying the fertility of southern agricultural land.

So while southern elites might have felt their way of life threatened, it sure as shit wasn't because of individual northerners oppressing them.
posted by Sara C. at 8:25 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


It still would have been about slavery, but it could have been a war of Northern aggressive economic embargo. There’d be no argument about states rights if we’d recognized their declaration of sovereignty. And then sealed their borders.
Let them eat corn.
posted by davel at 8:32 AM on February 23


There’d be no argument about states rights if we’d recognized their declaration of sovereignty. And then sealed their borders.
Let them eat corn.


Shame about all those slaves, though. In real terms, what you're saying was never a solution. If there were ever a 'justified' war, the US Civil War would be one. Perhaps in retrospect, perhaps not all the motives of the Union were pure, but at the end of the day one side wanted to own people and were willing to break up a country to do so, and the other side was disinclined for a wide variety of reasons to indulge this.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:36 AM on February 23 [9 favorites]


In the same way, while many Southern leaders were racists and most certainly did want slavery to continue, you have to look at the circumstances that made the majority of the South be willing to rise and leave the Union, and a lot of that had more to do with being a cohesive cultural and economic region that, due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.

There is no real parallel between Nazi Germany and the Confederacy, apart from the fact that they were racist. For one, the Confederacy was already engaged in genocide. Nor were the economic factors against the south from a war that they had lost. Indeed, after getting most of their way since the founding of the nation, they'd been enjoying representation from people that would never benefit from it. In the years leading up to the Civil War, they'd been winning the political wars for slavery (Dred Scott, for example) even as the rest of the country and the major world powers such as the British Empire turned against it. Their fears and the undoing of their "way of life" was entirely of their own making. They were 18th-century politicians stuck in a 19th-century world. Which is why it's not surprising that pretty much everybody that currently makes excuses for both pre- and post-Civil War Southern oppression are early 20th-century politicians in a 21st-century world.

The derangement that leads people to claim that slavery (and later, Jim Crow) was "state's rights" is the same one that leads them to claim that denying rights to GLBT people is "religious freedom."
posted by zombieflanders at 8:46 AM on February 23 [16 favorites]


due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.

how were they under-represented? slaves were counted as 3/5s of a vote and yet they had absolutely no right to vote and were "represented" by people who were utterly opposed to their interests

the south was over-represented
posted by pyramid termite at 8:47 AM on February 23 [19 favorites]


Point being that we could have tried to squeeze slavery out of them economically instead of through great spillage of blood, and erosion of state sovereignty that I think really was intended by the Framers.
Slavery (& racism in general) was such a great crime against humanity, that I guess it’s for the best that no one appreciates the the value that states’ rights otherwise provided.
posted by davel at 8:48 AM on February 23


We've had this discussion earlier, right down to corb presenting the same sorts of bizarre counterfactuals that erroneously and ahistorically try to read some pure strain of libertarian individualism into a system predicated and run through with its precise opposite.

The South's feeling of underrepresentation is inseparable from the slave system; the Southern argument, from the founding of the country, was that the slave population should be counted for the purposes of apportioning representation.

The South's economic distance from the North is inseparable from the slave system. Said distance was a product of its reliance on an outmoded agrarian economy, one whose scale of production and basic mechanisms relied entirely on slaveholding and the free labor source it represented.

The South's cultural distance from the North is inseparable from the slave system. That cultural distance emerged from its romanticized self-conception as a kind of pseudo-aristocracy, which in turn is a cultural pattern designed to justify slavery and peonage.

A South without slavery, or a South willing to give it up, is a South with no reason to secede. Moreover, it's hard to identify a social or political system less amenable to classical liberalism than the antebellum South. It is quite possibly the least compelling, most self-contradictory example one could imagine in an argument for justified secession.
posted by kewb at 8:48 AM on February 23 [48 favorites]


Shame about all those slaves, though. In real terms, what you're saying was never a solution.

Furthermore, I suspect that acceptance of the CSA would have just delayed the war. The westward expansion issues of slave-state vs free-state and the question of the freedom of escaped slaves would have just become international rather than domestic issues, and the underlying economic instabilities of the South would have made them a very dangerous neighbor. We'd be in the same situation with slightly different arguments, I think.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:51 AM on February 23 [5 favorites]


I've also noticed in war reenactment groups the losing side tends to be more popular with the players. I always wondered why.

They couldn't find enough Germans. That was a shame.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:53 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


A South without slavery, or a South willing to give it up, is a South with no reason to secede.

This.

States' rights has absolutely literally zero to do with it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:53 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Point being that we could have tried to squeeze slavery out of them economically instead of through great spillage of blood, and erosion of state sovereignty that I think really was intended by the Framers.
Slavery (& racism in general) was such a great crime against humanity, that I guess it’s for the best that no one appreciates the the value that states’ rights otherwise provided.


If you want some good examples of how making the Confederacy about state's rights is both historically and logically inaccurate, here's a list from one of the posts in the thread kewb just linked:
* Conscription (before the United States)

* Tax-In-Kind

* Tariff (higher than the 10 to 15 percent rate proposed by Hamilton in his Report on Manufacturers (1791)

* Confederate National Investment in Railroads (amounting to 2.5 million in loans, $150,000 advanced, and 1.12 million appropriated)

* Confederate Quartermasters leveled price controls on private mills and were later authorized to impress whatever supplies they needed.

* Government ownership of key industries

* Government regulation of commerce

* Suspension of habeas corpus (According to historian, Mark Neely, 4,108 civilians were held by military authorities)
In other words, most if not all of what the people celebrate about the so-called pro-"state's rights" Confederacy and its political descendants didn't exist, and much of what they criticize about the Union and federal power in general was in equal or greater force even before it was adopted by the U.S.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:58 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


Everyone agrees that it was about slavery. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t subsequently about states’ rights.
posted by davel at 8:59 AM on February 23


It only became about states' rights when the racists needed the tiniest of fig leaves.

See also that famous quote about not being able to say 'nigger,' so you talk about busing, you abstract the concept out.

'States' rights' is abstracting the argument so you get blinded to the racist basis.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:01 AM on February 23 [7 favorites]


I grew up in the South, in Dallas Texas to be specific and I recall being hit over the head with the idea that the Civil War was about States' Rights. I also recall a project in middle school where we were tasked with writing a report on various individuals significant in the Civil War. Everyone in class was given a General and/or some other prominent Civil War historic figure to write about. We were all assigned figures exclusively from the South. And we were also told that many blacks fought for the Southern cause.

I found other books at the library that enlightened me about the many 'other' facets of the Civil War that were glossed over. I do not miss my Texas education and I will forever be thankful for my access to the public library system.
posted by Fizz at 9:05 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


> And I think the same is true for the conscripted Confederate or WWII German soldier -- yes, refusal would have cost a terrible price, but compliance still leveled a terrible price just paid by other people. So understandable as an explanation but never as an excuse.

I think very few people would have (or have had) the level of courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves and their families that you're demanding, probably not even you. (I'm just saying that because you're human.)
posted by nangar at 9:06 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


See also that famous quote about not being able to say 'nigger,' so you talk about busing, you abstract the concept out.

For those who may not be aware, it was Reagan's political consultant Lee Atwater, when he talks about the "Southern Strategy" the modern GOP adopted to take advantage of the former Confederacy's victim complex vis-a-vis race:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
posted by zombieflanders at 9:06 AM on February 23 [8 favorites]


It only became about states' rights when the racists needed the tiniest of fig leaves.

It became state’s rights when they voted to secede, as was their right (IMHO).
posted by davel at 9:06 AM on February 23


It became state’s rights when they voted to secede, as was their right (IMHO).

Which they did because, as their own words attest to, they wanted to maintain slavery and racism.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:08 AM on February 23 [10 favorites]


I’m not disagreeing, sexyzombieflanders.

FWIW, I’m a Connecticut Yankee.

I’m not hearing anyone here say something like, “We broke the Constitution indelibly, but for the most honorable of reasons”. So I’m being that guy.
posted by davel at 9:10 AM on February 23


Everyone agrees that it was about slavery. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t subsequently about states’ rights.

Only if you make states' rights into an almost completely incoherent concept, in which states have the right to impose what at the federal level would be considered tyrannical modes of governance and population management.

It became state’s rights when they voted to secede, as was their right (IMHO).

The state governments voted to secede, but by definition, the slaveholding state governments did not represent a significant portion of their population. The vote to secede would therefore have to be called an illegitimate one unless you are unwittingly or otherwise defending the practice of slavery.

This is sort of like defending the right to privacy in the home and using Josef Fritzl as an example.
posted by kewb at 9:11 AM on February 23 [9 favorites]


davel: "I’m not hearing anyone here say something like, “We broke the Constitution indelibly, but for the most honorable of reasons”."

You should read more carefully, then.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:12 AM on February 23


I think very few people would have (or have had) the level of courage and willingness to sacrifice themselves and their families that you're demanding, probably not even you. (I'm just saying that because you're human.)

Absolutely. I have taken a few stands in job-risking but never life-threatening situations, and they were hard enough. As I said, this serves as an explanation, not an excuse.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:12 AM on February 23


I’m not hearing anyone here say something like, “We broke the Constitution indelibly, but for the most honorable of reasons”. So I’m being that guy.

The Constitution does not have a secession mechanism, and the Supreme Court ruled the CSA's secession illegal, so I'm not sure where the "North broke the Constitution" comes from.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:21 AM on February 23 [13 favorites]


I grew up in Montgomery County, Md., in the 1970s, and much if not all of what I'm reading here is what a friend and I used to talk about, but it is not what we learned about in school (he went through the same public school system eight years earlier). The last time I was taught about the Civil War (United States, as opposed to England) was in elementary school. And at that time, it was about slavery. The arguments, reasons, and documentation I'm reading here provide the education that I seem to have missed. That's by way of saying thanks for making me poach my eyes by reading this thread.

Metafilter: the education I seem to have missed.
posted by datawrangler at 9:27 AM on February 23


the Supreme Court ruled the CSA's secession illegal

Sure, but that was after causing the death of over a million of “them” and two million of the “us”.
posted by davel at 9:33 AM on February 23


It still would have been about slavery, but it could have been a war of Northern aggressive economic embargo. There’d be no argument about states rights if we’d recognized their declaration of sovereignty. And then sealed their borders.

At which point the south (who started the war, don't forget) would have started the war over that, or over the US not returning "property" (black people) back to their rightful owners. This is the other Big Lie that slave apologists promulgate: ALLOWING SECESSION WOULD NOT HAVE STOPPED A WAR. There would probably have been more than one, in fact.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:34 AM on February 23 [9 favorites]


Grew up in Texas. I was taught that the Civil War was about slavery AND about states' rights. Because it was about both. They are two aspects of the same issue. The practical aspect, and the legal aspect. Of course it was about slavery. But in terms of the law, it boiled down to the right of individual states to keep slavery legal, despite federal law to the contrary.

Say I don't want my grandmother to drive anymore, because she's 95 and she can't see. Say I take away her driver's license. She responds that she has a legal right to her license until it's officially revoked by the state. Now, is our dispute about her being an unsafe driver, or is it about her legal right to her state-issued license? Clearly, both. One is the practical issue, the other is the legal issue. But it's the same fight.

The states' rights aspect is not as emotionally or socially relevant or poignant as the slavery aspect. But it's something worth learning about, to the extent the student realizes that one major effect of the Civil War was that it established something that had never so clearly been established before; namely, that federal law always trumps. Before the Civil War, this concept had never been so clearly tested, and there was much more of a sense that each individual state was in control of its own independent existence.
posted by azaner at 9:37 AM on February 23


>the Supreme Court ruled the CSA's secession illegal

Sure, but that was after causing the death of over a million of “them” and two million of the “us”.


I really don't understand this line of argument. The South seceded illegally and started a war before the legality of the issue could be established. So I don't get how any of this can be taken as anything but further proof of the South's guilt. The reason for their secession is also not in any doubt, despite various efforts to obfuscate it across the years. So what are you trying to argue?
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:45 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


For those who may not be aware, it was Reagan's political consultant Lee Atwater, when he talks about the "Southern Strategy" the modern GOP adopted to take advantage of the former Confederacy's victim complex vis-a-vis race

Ah, Reagan. The champion of American values, the man who "restored pride."
posted by stargell at 9:51 AM on February 23


davel: “It became state’s rights when they voted to secede, as was their right (IMHO)... I’m not hearing anyone here say something like, ‘We broke the Constitution indelibly, but for the most honorable of reasons’. So I’m being that guy.”

Sorry, "that guy." You are misinformed about history.

First of all, this:

“... when they voted to secede...”

When who voted? There was no vote to secede from the union. There was no grand election. People did not line up outside polling places and cast a ballot for Union or Confederacy. The governments of the Southern states decided unilaterally, and by fiat, to declare that they were seceding from the Union. So if you want to argue that the South had the right to secede – well, you can argue that all day long, but that is distinctly not what happened. A tiny proportion of the South, less than one half of one hundredth of a percent of the population, sat in smoke-filled rooms in plotted that they would declare, without the consent of the governed, that they would dissolve the nation to which they belonged and form a new one.

On what philosophical basis did they predicate this egregious contradiction of the spirit of the Constitution? It was a willful misunderstanding of the Constitutional project – one could say a willful ignoring of the very fact that a Constitution had superceded the Articles of Confederation – that provided the basis of the Confederate rationale of secession: compact theory. Southerners argued, fruitlessly and with very little basis in the documents and the compacts themselves – that the Constitution was nothing more than a compact between sovereign states who could choose at any time to dissolve said compact and strike off on their own. But the whole Constitution contradicts this idea; it appeals, first and foremost, to the People as a sovereign entity.

John Marshall, that greatest of Founding Fathers, already understood this, and through his many Supreme Court decisions enunciated it quite clearly. The Constitution was a compact among the People. The states were nothing but a creation of the People through the instrument of the Constitution. They had no validity outside the Constitution. The few bodies which existed before the signing of the Constitution and lent their names to newly-created states gave up all their sovereignty in exchange for membership in the new Union.

In short: the Constitution was an agreement among a people. Bureaucratic departments created by that people had no right whatsoever to unilaterally break that agreement. The only parties capable of breaking a binding contract like the Constitution are those who framed it: the people. And the people's voice was never heard in the Civil War over the bombs and guns incited by dilettante bureaucrats and loud-mouthed officials who were supposed to be beholden to the public.
posted by koeselitz at 9:51 AM on February 23 [43 favorites]


South seceded illegally

There was no law against it and no law for it. But it could easily be argued that the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution implied that a state could.
But since the crisis happened to be over slavery, and slavery is so repugnant, that argument got sunk. If the crisis were over anything else, in any other world where the US wasn’t wearing that burden, I think it would have fallen on the other side.
posted by davel at 9:53 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The governments of the Southern states decided unilaterally, and by fiat, to declare that they were seceding from the Union.

Oh; thanks!
posted by davel at 9:54 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


davel: “There was no law against it and no law for it. But it could easily be argued that the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution implied that a state could.”

Then argue away. I'd love to hear it. How precisely do the Declaration of Independence and Constitution imply that a state – a peculiar territorial government – doesn't need the consent of the governed to secede from the union?
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


(And that's why I should always preview before posting my comment. Heh.)
posted by koeselitz at 10:00 AM on February 23


I’m not at all qualified to float an argument. The states *are* governments, and the people of those states were given a lot of power, and so the states were given a lot of power. Hence the Connecticut Compromise, giving the House representation proportional to state population, and the Senate two representatives per State.
posted by davel at 10:01 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The states chose individually to join the union; I don’t recall them explicitly abrogating the power to quit the union.
posted by davel at 10:04 AM on February 23


The Supreme Court disagreed. Again, this is abstracting out the central issue, and the hiding of same.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:06 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


The only Confederate flag that mattered.
posted by CincyBlues at 10:08 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


I think it’s worth it to not offhandedly disregarding the argument from nutcases, because I think it could go like this:
x: What was the cause the of the war?
y: States’ rights.
x: And which right in particular?
[Insert painful conversation…]
y: The right to own slaves.

And that ends that.
posted by davel at 10:09 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Edward Ayers, quoted in the article, for all you NPR fans out there is one of the three main forces behind the American History Guys radio show.
posted by Carillon at 10:21 AM on February 23


I’m not at all qualified to float an argument. The states *are* governments, and the people of those states were given a lot of power, and so the states were given a lot of power.

Well, not so much the black people of those states. You're still defending unrepresentative governments, and now you've moved into implying that they were in fact somehow properly representative.

Your consistent refusal to acknowledge or discuss this rather centrally important point, and your line about "the people of those states in particular" implies a lot about how you limit the definition of "people," consciously or otherwise.
posted by kewb at 10:30 AM on February 23 [6 favorites]


Again, this is abstracting out the central issue, and the hiding of same.

The central issue is that they “still pretend the Civil War wasn't about slavery.”
I’m attempting to get inside their heads, and see the ways in which they believe they’re not entirely wrong, even though, from the standpoint of Crimes Against Humanity, they totally are.
posted by davel at 10:30 AM on February 23


I get “We, The People”. To the point of jury nullification, and even further.
posted by davel at 10:33 AM on February 23


I’m attempting to get inside their heads, and see the ways in which they believe they’re not entirely wrong, even though, from the standpoint of Crimes Against Humanity, they totally are.

They believe they're not entirely wrong because they think slavery is OK. That's part and parcel of how they *define* states' rights.

At this point, you are self-admittedly arguing in bad faith on behalf of monsters. Do you really think it's a good idea to keep going? Or might you spend your energies sympathizing with the experiences of African-Americans, who keep getting bracketed in this conversation?
posted by kewb at 10:33 AM on February 23 [11 favorites]


[davel, at this point maybe ease back a little; I get that you're just entertaining some thoughts here but it's starting to kind of suck the air out of the room.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:34 AM on February 23


Okay fine, I secede from having the argument go in any other direction than we all agree, which we all do (including me). Which is boring.
posted by davel at 10:35 AM on February 23


feckless fecal fear mongering: “The Supreme Court disagreed. Again, this is abstracting out the central issue, and the hiding of same.”

In davel's defense, I think this is something we really should talk about and try to remember. And in this case, I am not entirely sure how important it is that the Supreme Court disagreed. Judicial supremacy wasn't really a strong doctrine until after WWII, largely because of the power shift caused by the outcome of the Civil War. Remember that abolitionists in 1860 emphatically did not have the Supreme Court on their side. The Taney Court was solidly pro-South on this, and spent the war issuing minor decisions that sought to check what they saw as Lincoln's egregious seizures of power. For Lincoln's part, he said many times that he disliked the Supreme Court's recent rulings on these issues; in particular, when asked whether he would uphold Dred Scott v Sandford or ignore it, he said he would uphold it only as far as accepting that Dred Scott himself was a slave; that is, he refused to accept the Supreme Court's ability to create precedent. Considering the issue, one can understand his position.

So I don't think "the Supreme Court disagreed" is a whole argument for this. Not least because, in fact, the Supreme Court quite often did not disagree. During the Civil War, the Supreme Court was at best ambivalent about, and at worst in favor of, secession of the Southern states.

I do think it's a great idea, as davel says, to try to get into people's heads on this. Decent human beings fell on the wrong side of this war. Why?
posted by koeselitz at 10:36 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Because the bosses thought it was okay to own other human beings, and they were willing to break up a country to do so.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:38 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


kewb: "Well, not so much the black people of those states. You're still defending unrepresentative governments, and now you've moved into implying that they were in fact somehow properly representative. "

Really all the governments of the time were unrepresentative (most obviously in the lack of suffrage), they only varied in the degree to which they were unrepresentative.
posted by Mitheral at 10:42 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The 14th Amendment was what changed that, interestingly enough, by declaring for the first time that anyone born in the United States was a citizen.
posted by koeselitz at 10:43 AM on February 23


Okay fine, I secede from having the argument go in any other direction than we all agree, which we all do (including me). Which is boring.

But you don't agree. You're repeating a variation of the revisionist history I see commonly among self-styled libertarians on the Internet, the "they had the right to secede" crowd.

Yet as koeselitz and others note above, this pseudo-legalistic revisionism is also deeply flawed. There is no legal mechanism for secession in the Constitution. If a state wanted to secede, it should then have tried to develop such a mechanism, either by an act of Congress, amending the Constitution, or through the courts.

The South did none of that. They unilaterally seceded and started a war to do so. The proper legal avenue for a dispute between a state and the federal government is not a simple declaration that the state will do as it pleases and then the use of violence by the state.

Your contention that the states had a right to secede fails on two fronts: either they had no such right because the Constitution doesn't grant such an ability once a state has joined, or they did have the right but they did not develop a legal mechanism to exercise it.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:51 AM on February 23 [16 favorites]


Really all the governments of the time were unrepresentative (most obviously in the lack of suffrage), they only varied in the degree to which they were unrepresentative.

True, but from virtually the beginning it was clear that states whose economies were not structured around slavery were moving away from the practice; the Southern states wished to retain their "extra degree" of injustice.

I also tend to think that Southern secession quite inadvertently led to multiracial suffrage; because the secession was about slavery, it turned anti-slavery positions into a default for North and led to the Emancipation Proclamation (which excluded Union territories) and the 13th Amendment (which aimed to eliminate slavery as practiced in the antebellum South).

It's also worth noting that Susan B. Anthony got her start as an abolitionist, as was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The organizational tactics of abolitionist movements were later employed by the temperance movement, and thus by women's suffrage organizations...often by the same people.

Because Southern secession was about slavery, and more broadly about the perpetuation of entrenched mechanisms of nonrepresentative government, opposition to secession ended up becoming intertwined with the expansion of the franchise and with it, representation in government.

It's more complex than that, of course -- deliberate gaps in the 13th amendment and poor enforcement of the 14th amendment enabled the institution and reentrenchment of what was essentially a second slave system -- but in some ways, the Southern cause was so deeply morally wrong that the opposition to it ended up having to become morally better, if only for strategic reasons.
posted by kewb at 11:10 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


And the people's voice was never heard in the Civil War over the bombs and guns incited by dilettante bureaucrats and loud-mouthed officials who were supposed to be beholden to the public.

Some people made their disagreement with the Confederacy known.
for example, Newton Knight and the Knight Company, made up mostly of deserters from the Confederate Army from Jones, Jasper, Covington and Smith counties in Mississippi (some of the counties with the least number of slaves in them in the CSA), waged a guerrilla insurgency in defense of The Free State Of Jones and the Union.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:13 AM on February 23 [17 favorites]


I should also note, of course, the postbellum break between women's suffrage movements and abolitionism. Rather like the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it does seem that in the 1870s and beyond white women found themselves opposed to both white and black men along gendered lines. Women of color often had to fight for themselves, as well.
posted by kewb at 11:14 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


> The Nazis were racist and engaged in genocide, but they were only able to come to power because of the heavy oppression, economic and otherwise, Germany was suffering under.

In the same way, while many Southern leaders were racists and most certainly did want slavery to continue, you have to look at the circumstances that made the majority of the South be willing to rise and leave the Union, and a lot of that had more to do with being a cohesive cultural and economic region that, due to various factors, was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life.


I don't think comparing the rise Naziism in Germany with the succession of Southern states in the US to form the Confederacy in this way is warranted. The South has it's own history; it's not an analogue to Germany in the 30s.

Governments in the states that succeeded were controlled by an economic elite dependent on plantation agriculture. They had been in control of those states for as long as they had existed. They weren't being oppressed by anyone.

The succession movement happened when a member of the opposition party that favored abolition was elected president, and the plantation owners had to confront the idea that the electoral college was now stacked against them and in the long run they would have to compromise with and negotiate with the abolitionists.

Secondly, I don't think the South was that unified. The Southern states of Kentucky and Tennessee never joined the Confederacy. When Virginia succeeded, the western counties succeeded from the state and rejoined the Union, forming the state of West Virginia. All of these were mountainous regions dominated by subsistence rather than plantation agriculture. "Scalawags", poor white voters who supported Republican rather than Democratic candidates, were an important voting block in Reconstruction era elections.
posted by nangar at 11:14 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Drops mic and walks off the stage.

Well done.
posted by e40 at 11:17 AM on February 23 [2 favorites]


When Virginia seceded, the western counties succeeded from the state and rejoined the Union, forming the state of West Virginia.

Virginia actually voted against secession initially and only voted to join the confederacy after Lincoln ordered Virginian troops to fight in South Carolina. The entire debate is fully documented. Without Virginia, the confederates would most likely have been defeated easily. Again, fear of abolition was the primary factor in their decision.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:41 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Tennessee did secede, although it was the last to do so. East Tennessee had a lot of pro-Union sentiment, for sure, but it was part of the Confederacy.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:44 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


I dunno, if the Supreme Court couldn't rule on a legal issue (especially on a leap like secession), who possibly could? Ultimately, I suppose, it's only an issue because the "legal side" won. If the South had prevailed, no doubt we would see twisty rationales justifying it, but, given that the Union was preserved, who better to make the legal ruling?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:46 AM on February 23 [1 favorite]


If the South had prevailed, no doubt we would see twisty rationales justifying it

I don't doubt this. The North prevailed and we still see twisty rationales justifying secession.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:01 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


If the South had prevailed, no doubt we would see twisty rationales justifying it

The Confederate States of America
posted by homunculus at 12:09 PM on February 23


It may be an interesting intellectual puzzle or argument to discuss, whether the states that formed the Confederacy had a legal or inherent right to secede, but this Southerner finds it disgusting and repugnant. The decisions of people in power, dragged my ancestors into a war that they had no financial stake in, took husbands and sons away from home, and by the grace of God, returned most of them, but not without either seeing them captured as prisoners of war, or declared deserters by the Confederate government for refusing to return to service after being injured, and I still have yet to figure out what happened to one who died during the war from who knows what. No one knows where he died or in what graveyard his remains are hopefully interred. The only thing anyone knows is that in 1870, his wife was declared a widow, and her children fatherless. Ironically, the man who died in the "Second American Revolution" was the grandson of a man who had fought in the American Revolution.

The Civil War brought nothing but suffering on the South, and rightfully so, but it truly is the Devil's argument to waste time debating on the justification of the actions of people with wealth and power. That's their argument, after all.
posted by Atreides at 12:30 PM on February 23 [7 favorites]


and yet they're held more personally responsible for it. Of course, they have all benefited from being white in America regardless of their family line's relative culpability.

I really don't think that [Southerners] are held more personally responsible for slavery. What some of them - and some Northerners too - are held personally responsible for is their impulse to continue debating a bad-faith point, and to use that debate to elide and avoid the discussion of the issue of racial injustice in this country. People can't reasonably be held responsible for the decisions of others several generations ago; but they can held responsible for their own views in the present era. How we define our relationships to the people of the pase and their decisions is the basis of our own moral position-taking. Do you defend them and quibble terms, or do you acknowledge that their cause was, simply, wrong? Just wrong?

The impulse to reframe and defend, to argue a case that has been lost 1000 times, is what is concerning. The urge to reframe and defend is a contemporary problem, not a problem about something from 150 years ago. If no otherwise reasonable person ever contested that the Civil War was over something other than slavery, there'd be no debate, no holding anyone "personally responsible," no need for a continued conversation about who was teaching what. The fact that modern people identify this as a point worth debating in the face of all evidence is the central issue. If someone takes that position, I do hold them personally responsible for it. But let's be clear: that's not asking them to be responsible for something they had nothing to do with because they weren't alive yet. It's asking them to be responsible for views they espouse in the here and now.
posted by Miko at 12:30 PM on February 23 [36 favorites]


I don't think this is even limited to the South. I grew up in the most liberal pocket of Massachusetts, and in learning about the Civil War there was always a strong emphasis on how "complicated" the causes of the war were, which was probably an attempt at instilling historical thinking skills, but in retrospect went overboard to the point of equivocation.
posted by threeants at 12:43 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Thing is, you can't make war without willing young men, and the reasons governments fight wars and the reasons young men fight wars are frequently at odds. If "States Rights" is a mere slogan, what is "Preserving the Union"?

So what was young Johnny Reb fighting for? When asked by Union Troops, his answer was famously, "Well, you're here, aren't you?" Which is kind of hard to argue with.

So, basically, he's fighting for the excitement of kicking Union ass, and in general disapproval of Federal Troops running uninvited through southern states. If you want to talk race and slavery, JR was not far off Billy Yank's POV. Indeed, it was a common refrain among (white) Union soldiers that if they had thought the whole shebang was about freeing slaves, they would never have gone in the first place. (Robert Gould Shaw was the exception that gets him the movie role.) Not surprising that once the initial excitement was over, Lincoln, despite overwhelming numerical advantage, had to institute the draft (the need for and reactions to which tell us a lot about the general appeal of Preserving the Union.)

Then, too, there was that old Lincoln saw about how he would be happy to preserve the union even if that meant retaining slavery. Of course, he could have been lying, he could have had slavery at the top of his agenda. No matter. Once the whole thing is over, you need a pretty strong argument to justify the unspeakable carnage you've unleashed. Slavery is a far better justification than mere political boundaries.

Of course, if we had stayed true to Great Britain in 1776, perhaps slavery could have been ended in the bloodless fashion that saw its end in England's remaining colonies.

The Civil War brought nothing but suffering on the South, and rightfully so, but it truly is the Devil's argument to waste time debating on the justification of the actions of people with wealth and power.

That's rather broadbrushed, given that the suffering extended far past the actions of people with wealth and power. To this day, you can find the remains of small farm holdings destroyed by Sheridan's raids throughout the Shenandoah Valley. Interestingly, he later advised Bismarck on how to treat the recalcitrant French during the Franco-Prussian War. Perhaps the Prussians learned that lesson a little too well.

their impulse to continue debating a bad-faith point, and to use that debate to elide and avoid the discussion of the issue of racial injustice in this country.

With respect (for I view Miko's moniker as guarantee of worth reading commentary) - by the same token, or at least a similar token, the failure to see the question of (modern day) states rights in any other terms than that of the Civil War or race is arguably a bad faith attempt to avoid discussing the very serious questions on States Rights that the war did not really solve.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:16 PM on February 23


Newton Knight and the Knight Company, (...) waged a guerrilla insurgency in defense of The Free State Of Jones and the Union.
posted by the man of twists and turns


Fascinating expansion on my kind of inchoate point. Deserves its own FPP.
posted by Devils Rancher at 1:25 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Seriously, where is the Knight Company movie? That is the best thing I've heard about all week, holy shit.
posted by dogheart at 1:38 PM on February 23


corb: "the South ... was under-represented, and genuinely had reason to fear for the integrity of their region and their way of life."

Uh, the South had the 3/5ths compromise on their side. They were over-represented in the federal government, which is how they managed to ram the Fugitive Slave Act through. The South was not content with detente. At every turn they pushed to expand the peculiar institution to the point of forcing the North to to help them do it. Finally, when they didn't get their way in the election of 1862, they stormed off like little children and started occupying Federal lands and thus starting open hostilities.

Any talk about the poor oppressed South is a bunch of revisionist BS. The South was by no means an underdog. They started the fucking thing. Yet somehow, people still fall for the BS that was dreamed up by the re-ascendant South during the early 20th century and written into history books.
posted by wierdo at 1:44 PM on February 23 [15 favorites]


Seriously, where is the Knight Company movie?

We'll always have Cold Mountain.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:07 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The South was by no means an underdog. They started the fucking thing.

the irony is that they let their paranoia over the north's "plan" to end the slavery system run away with them - lincoln, when he was elected, had no intention of changing the status quo - the south could have stayed in the union and kept their slaves, at least for a few more years and quite possibly longer

but they panicked and brought about the very thing they had most feared
posted by pyramid termite at 2:07 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


With respect (for I view Miko's moniker as guarantee of worth reading commentary) - by the same token, or at least a similar token, the failure to see the question of (modern day) states rights in any other terms than that of the Civil War or race is arguably a bad faith attempt to avoid discussing the very serious questions on States Rights that the war did not really solve.

The problem is threefold: first, as koeslitz and others have noted above, the Civil War was by far the most dramatic test of the state-federal division, and it led to Constitutional changes that settled the question in law for the most part. This may have prevented a debate on potentially worthy issues around states' rights, but as with Civil Rights legislation and Roe vs. Wade, the long-term result has been to crystallize progressive and conservative opinion.

Second, because "states' rights" have became so identified with the Civil War and its causes in popular political discourse, the term itself is as often a dog-whistle for racialist politics as for anti-racist politics. The advocates of racialist politics in America tend to self-label as elements of the right or as proponents of regionalist identity politics, which creates a stigma for others who wish to argue for states' rights.

Third, for the above reasons, states' rights advocacy tends to call back to the Civil War and often involves opposition to the legal consequences of the Fourteenth Amendment on philosophical or abstract grounds. The consequences are that such arguments either end up in historical "hot water," becoming literal examples of refighting the Civil War; or they become ahistorical or poorly historically grounded arguments from principles whose only test is intertwined with very concrete historical injustices against an entire ethnicity.

My own position is that bad law is bad law whether it's the state or the federal government, and that serious political regionalism as a political philosophy -- which seems to me the basis of strong states' rights -- has been claudicated over the last century by massive changes in commerce, infrastructure, communications, and economic activity. From an individualist perspective, which is admittedly far from my own, most states' rights arguments offer few if any distinct protections to individuals qua individuals and frequently entrenches the tyranny of the majority.
posted by kewb at 2:16 PM on February 23 [7 favorites]


IndigoJones: "the failure to see the question of (modern day) states rights in any other terms than that of the Civil War or race is arguably a bad faith attempt to avoid discussing the very serious questions on States Rights that the war did not really solve."

Since you acknowledged the arguability of this claim, let's argue!

We regularly evaluate various claims of state sovereignty on a case-by-case basis, but there's really no "solving" any kind of general question of "states' rights" per se, because the answer depends the nature of the rights in question. The Constitution's supremacy clause establishes incontrovertibly that, when federal and state laws are in conflict, the feds win as long as they are acting within their constitutional powers, and because states don't get to decide on constitutionality, something that was crystal clear in the original document they signed on to, that means, for all intents and purposes, state sovereignty exists solely by virtue of what powers the federal government chooses to leave to the states.

Sometimes, e.g. in South Dakoka v. Dole, the supremacy clause reigns supreme, while in others, e.g. Gonzales v. Oregon, the law comes down on the side of the state's claim of sovereignty, but in all cases, it's the federal government that answers these questions with its Article III powers, and the states must respect those answers.

This is where the more colloquial use of "states' rights" comes in -- the one that somehow sees the Tenth Amendment -- long ago described by the Supreme Court as a truism "adding nothing to the Constitution as ratified", as a loophole through which states can arbitrarily declare federal laws null and void because of their own understanding of the constitutionality of the law in question. This doctrine is nearly inextricably attached to the history of racism from which the "states' rights" term gained popularity outside of Constitutional law circles, and because of that, and the fact that the federal government has made it clear many times that states can't just decide to interpret the constitution themselves, it's hard to avoid painting anyone who invokes states' rights with a broad brush. Insofar as there are legitimate lines of legal inquiry about state sovereignty, they exist only on narrow issues where the lines between federal and state powers are blurry, not as a general principle that can be invoked to nullify any law, which is what the modern use of the term usually implies.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:19 PM on February 23 [11 favorites]


So, basically, he's fighting for the excitement of kicking Union ass, and in general disapproval of Federal Troops running uninvited through southern states.

Two points here, though.

Firstly, actually, Federal troops were invited. That's what happens when you try to seize a government's land, property, and weapons -- they will send troops to defend/retake said property, land, and weapons. The Union did not start the hostilities. The Confederates did, when they seized Fort Sumter.

Secondly, I'm fairly sure that if you ask any rank and file soldier why he's fighting, he's not going to say whatever high-flying rhetoric historians will someday understand to be the cause behind the war. That is not why people decide to join up, and it's not like the generals hand out Future History textbooks explaining why they are going to have fought this war so everybody could get on the same page.
posted by Sara C. at 2:41 PM on February 23 [10 favorites]


Even here, even now, we have an enormous lacuna for the individual humanity of each and every slave.

The South didn't lose the Civil War. Nearly half its residents were freed from a state of perpetual misery and bondage. In any other war, in any other place, we would call that an enormous victory.

Even those who argue that the war was "about" slavery are willing to ascribe agency to the whites in the North and South, without doing the same for the blacks.

Even the Salon article linked above does it:
To this day, it’s possible to stir up a hornet’s nest among ordinary Southerners by asserting that slavery was a primary cause of the Civil War.
Here, the author uses "ordinary Southerners" to refer to white residents of the South only. Using a racist argument to fight racism is enormously hypocritical, but it is so common that many of us are blind to it.
posted by miyabo at 2:50 PM on February 23 [51 favorites]


That's rather broadbrushed, given that the suffering extended far past the actions of people with wealth and power. To this day, you can find the remains of small farm holdings destroyed by Sheridan's raids throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

I suppose you didn't read everything preceding that comment? I grew up over the mountain from the Shenandoah, and it grates me, illogically so, to see him granted such a high point in Arlington for a resting place. My great-uncle's wife's ancestor reportedly was shot dead in his mill after he refused to let Union soldiers help themselves to sacks of flour. Up until my father, my paternal line has voted solidly Republican, them being Mountain farmers, I've figured that they at least started doing so when they formed that rare thing in the post-war south and gave the same powers that be who started the war a big middle finger and helped Virginia elect a non-Democratic government for a brief moment when that party held the South in an iron vice until those same politicians converted to Republicans, later.

I know that the entire South suffered because of the war (my people included), and I view it as a divine punishment for the sin of slavery. It was the South's forced journey to Babylon, and while some specific individuals were far more guilty than others, it was a guilt ultimately bore by all.
posted by Atreides at 2:53 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


The South didn't lose the Civil War. Nearly half its residents were freed from a state of perpetual misery and bondage. In any other war, in any other place, we would call that an enormous victory.

[...]

Here, the author uses "ordinary Southerners" to refer to white residents of the South only. Using a racist argument to fight racism is enormously hypocritical, but it is so common that many of us are blind to it.


Wow, yes, thank you for this point.
posted by threeants at 2:57 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


> "Once the whole thing is over, you need a pretty strong argument to justify the unspeakable carnage you've unleashed."

I have seen this concept about the Civil War before, and it always sounds like a completely bizarre notion to me. How is that supposed to have worked?

"We won the war. Our victory is unquestioned, and our enemy's army is destroyed."
"Good, good. So, uh ... what shall we claim the war was about? There's an election year coming up in only three years, you know, better make it something that'll play well."
"Hm. How about slavery?"
"That's pretty convincing ... by a happy coincidence, the South seceded over the worry that I would end slavery, and by another coincidence I've actually been working on ending slavery by legislative and executive means for four years now."
"Is that convincing enough, though? Maybe we should pass a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. It'd be the first in over sixty years, that'd make us look very sincere."
"We already did."
"We did?"
"Yes, before the war ended. Another happy coincidence, really."
"Still ... I'm not totally convinced that everyone will believe us."
"How about two more constitutional amendments, then? Maybe one that'll offer equal protection under the law to all citizens, and another that will specifically prohibit the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
"Better make these amendments seem like a big deal. Let's make that one you just said the last amendment for another forty years - then those will be the only constitutional amendments passed during the span of more than a century."
"We can do that?"
"Whatever. It'll convince the rubes, anyway."
"Well, if it'll get me the votes, it sounds good to me."
posted by kyrademon at 3:19 PM on February 23 [8 favorites]


The South didn't lose the Civil War. Nearly half its residents were freed from a state of perpetual misery and bondage. In any other war, in any other place, we would call that an enormous victory.

The (governments of the) South did, in fact, lose the war. We, as in the non-racist people, do indeed call that a victory.

The South does not. See if you can guess why.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:22 PM on February 23


Sorry, posted without clarifying: that last line should be something along the lines of "a not insignificant percentage of the South does not"
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:22 PM on February 23


The (governments of the) South did, in fact, lose the war.

Maybe it's better to say that the CSA lost the war?

That ties it a little bit less to current residents of the south, none of whom were alive in the 1860s, and also sidesteps the whole "can you really say the south lost the war when the outcome of the war was to free a huge proportion of southerners from bondage" question.

That said, the pervasive meme that "Southerners" all still have a bug up our ass about the Civil War is definitely racist.
posted by Sara C. at 3:30 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


It's also reductionist and, in my experience, largely irrelevant/incorrect.
posted by Sara C. at 3:31 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


It's factually true that the CSA lost the war, yeah, but papering it over like that kind of--to me anyway--starts handing out more fig leaves, y'know?

And that meme is why I clarified, I hit post too fast and shouldn't have. Sorry.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:33 PM on February 23


papering it over like that kind of--to me anyway--starts handing out more fig leaves, y'know?

I guess I just don't see why the fuzzy/inaccurate phrasing of "the south lost the war" should be preferable simply because it invites big AAAAAAAA U RACISTTTTTT gotchas.

It's easier to just use more accurate language that doesn't invite racism.

The South is a US region. It's modern day borders are not contiguous with those of the Confederate States of America, which is the correct term for the actual states that seceded. The CSA has not existed for a century and a half. The demographic, racial, and political makeup of the modern day US South is not an easy stand-in for that of the antebellum US South*.

Furthermore, equating the two leaves a bizarre logic gap where we now have to assume that all the descendants of slaves who still live in the south must be sad that their ancestors were freed from bondage.

Better to just say what actually happened, no? That the Confederacy lost the Civil War.

*It's worth noting that I, a white middle class southerner of exactly the sort being referred to in articles like the Slate piece, have exactly one ancestor who fought in the Civil War, and it's very unlikely that any of my ancestors ever owned slaves. Most of my ancestors immigrated to the US after the Civil War or lived in Union territory during the war. Just as "The South lost the war" doesn't apply to black people living in the south, it also doesn't really apply to most people living in the south.
posted by Sara C. at 3:46 PM on February 23 [7 favorites]


All of the above said, it is really fascinating to me that many modern day white southerners do apply the emotions of the Civil War to themselves in ways that are racist and historically inaccurate.
posted by Sara C. at 3:51 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Maybe it's better to say that the CSA lost the war?

The CSA was never a legitimate government, to be able to fight an official war.

The Slavers' Treason was quashed, for the betterment of everybody in the South not too blinded by racism to see it. As a lifelong Virginian, that's how I see it, anyway.
posted by kafziel at 3:54 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


We should always strive to use the most precise language possible, but I find it hard to believe anyone saying "The South lost the war" is using "The South" to refer to anything other than the CSA. Unless you have some other reason to believe someone's using it to try to implicate modern day Southerners, or is somehow unaware that slaves didn't have a say in whether to go to war or not, isn't it best to assume good faith?
posted by tonycpsu at 4:13 PM on February 23


Of course, being in Maryland, we were given a less than stellar portrait of Lincoln
Maryland, My Maryland: "the despot's heel is on thy shore, his torch is at thy temple door"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:21 PM on February 23


The CSA was never a legitimate government

Oh FFS. See, this is why we can't have a discussion about this.

Look, we get it that you don't like the CSA, you don't like what they stood for, you don't like the fact that so many people were willing to help the evil murderous fucks running it make so much mayhem, and so on. We get that.

But to claim that the CSA wasn't a government? Sure, it wasn't after losing the war, but for five years it was every bit as much a government as the foundling USA had been 80 years previously as it fought for its independence from Britain. In many quarters the right of the CSA states to secede was seen in exactly the same terms as the original 13 colonies' right to dissociate themselves from Britain. And don't get all holy on me about how it's different because eeeeeeevil slavery. The foundling USA accepted the necessity of that eeeeeeevil slavery itself in order to form a broad enough union to defeat the British.

During those five years the CSA did all the things a government does -- they levied taxes, raised an army (in part by conscription), conducted diplomatic relations, and passed and enforced laws. They even funded research into advanced weapon systems like ironclads and submarines, although they didn't have the resources for those projects the Union did.

Say all the bad shit you want about them; the leaders were fools and the followers were dupes, but when you make a totally fucking insane statement like they weren't even a government it becomes impossible to take anything else you have to say on the matter seriously.
posted by localroger at 4:44 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


And "Sic Semper Tyrannis" on the state seal of Virginia. This runs deep.
posted by Freen at 4:45 PM on February 23


Actually, Virginia's motto was adopted in 1776, as far as I can tell. The Maryland state anthem, though, wow.
posted by Freen at 4:49 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


Sic Semper Tyrannis has been on the Seal of Virginia since the Revolution, John Wilkes Booth was referencing it, not vice versa.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 4:50 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


The problem with saying, "Of course it was about slavery" and "The South lost the war", is that it lets everybody off the hook. We can feel humbled or pat ourselves on the back, depending on our antecedents. Everybody has an intellectual workout and we feel good about ourselves.

We should consider, however, that Southerners were not simply bad people who got up one day and decided it would be lovely to own other people. It became acceptable because it was immensely profitable; many cotton fortunes were made in the previous fifty years. This is an important point.

We, as a nation, also embraced the doctrine of Manifest Destiny at one time and that was meant to hide from us the genocidal lengths we went to in order to steal more and more of the continent we invaded. Did the colonists leave England intending to kill indigenous populations? I doubt it. It became advantageous, then profitable, to do so. Then it was profitable to break treaties, then every treaty. Greed.

What labels do we use today to hide from ourselves the fact that we do not pay a living wage to many workers? That incarcerations reflect racism in our law enforcement and judicial systems? That every single one of us has benefitted in some way from this country's history of slavery and genocide?

Intellectual exercises and political correctness are insufficient, even if necessary. What is required is action: a deeper examination, confrontation and renunciation of our complicity in the ills of greed being perpetuated today in our own lives and by a great many of our systems.
posted by Anitanola at 4:56 PM on February 23 [13 favorites]


Look, we get it that you don't like the CSA, you don't like what they stood for, you don't like the fact that so many people were willing to help the evil murderous fucks running it make so much mayhem, and so on. We get that.

But to claim that the CSA wasn't a government? Sure, it wasn't after losing the war, but for five years it was every bit as much a government as the foundling USA had been 80 years previously as it fought for its independence from Britain. In many quarters the right of the CSA states to secede was seen in exactly the same terms as the original 13 colonies' right to dissociate themselves from Britain. And don't get all holy on me about how it's different because eeeeeeevil slavery. The foundling USA accepted the necessity of that eeeeeeevil slavery itself in order to form a broad enough union to defeat the British.

During those five years the CSA did all the things a government does -- they levied taxes, raised an army (in part by conscription), conducted diplomatic relations, and passed and enforced laws. They even funded research into advanced weapon systems like ironclads and submarines, although they didn't have the resources for those projects the Union did.

Say all the bad shit you want about them; the leaders were fools and the followers were dupes, but when you make a totally fucking insane statement like they weren't even a government it becomes impossible to take anything else you have to say on the matter seriously.


I said legitimate government. There's a difference. The claim that the Confederate states seceded and were reconquered by the Union, tossed around here and elsewhere, is itself already giving too much ground to slavery's apologists. The secession itself was unlawful and unconstitutional. The Confederacy was never a country, it was a section of the United States that was seized by rebels. The offices that existed under the Confederate Constitution had no legal weight or lawful right to govern, because they were created under a fraudulent document as an act of treason.

When some military junta effects a coup, offs the legitimate leaders of a country, and declares one of them President-for-Life, do you see them as legitimate rulers? Or do you see them as criminals, and those next in line for the offices as the government-in-exile? Because the point I am trying to stress is that is essentially the situation here. A nation was not created and retaken - an insurrection was stamped out.
posted by kafziel at 5:15 PM on February 23 [10 favorites]


Anitanola: “What is required is action: a deeper examination, confrontation and renunciation of our complicity in the ills of greed being perpetuated today in our own lives and by a great many of our systems.”
Which brings us full circle because the exact kind of people who are most likely to say, "Fergit Hell!" are also the most likely to support the ideas that continue the ill begotten fruits of slavery and genocide to this day.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:21 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


That every single one of us has benefitted in some way from this country's history of slavery and genocide?

Every single one of us, huh.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:21 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]


I said legitimate government.

And I say that is meaningless. The only manner in which they were any different from any other government of their size is that they got their ass kicked in a major war which caused their dissolution. Until that time they were just as much a government, whether you consider them legitimate or not, as any other that managed to secure resources, conduct campaigns, and provide services on that scale.

And until that ass-kicking was completed, the CSA was every bit as much a government as the Union. To say otherwise is to seriously abuse the language. Every single government on the face of the Earth has opponents who do not consider them "legitimate." This opinion only matters if those forces are willing and capable of defeating said "illegitimate" government in a political or martial conflict, and until that is done, legitimate or not, said organizations are governments, with the CSA being a more credible contender than many modern examples that are accorded "legitimacy."
posted by localroger at 5:23 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


"Every single one of us, huh."

Only those who have partaken of any of this country's features, of course, or set foot on its soiled and stolen ground.
posted by Anitanola at 5:39 PM on February 23


"Which brings us full circle because the exact kind of people who are most likely to say, "Fergit Hell!" are also the most likely to support the ideas that continue the ill begotten fruits of slavery and genocide to this day."

I'm preaching to the choir; all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
posted by Anitanola at 5:41 PM on February 23


Since I clearly wasn't overt enough: What about the enslaved/murdered people and their descendants, Anitanola
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:45 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]


or set foot on its soiled and stolen ground.

Every single inch of the Earth is stolen. Acknowledging privilege is one thing, "complicity" is ridiculous.
posted by spaltavian at 5:57 PM on February 23


I'm preaching to the choir; all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

As when, for instance, discredited Civil War historiography is taught in schools all over the country and heroic internet commenters say that you can't be mad about this and mass incarceration
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:00 PM on February 23 [5 favorites]


spaltavian, not that complicity, I specified this complicity:

"...complicity in the ills of greed being perpetuated today in our own lives and by a great many of our systems."
posted by Anitanola at 6:01 PM on February 23


Say all the bad shit you want about them; the leaders were fools and the followers were dupes, but when you make a totally fucking insane statement like they weren't even a government it becomes impossible to take anything else you have to say on the matter seriously.

>>I said legitimate government.

And I say that is meaningless.


Seriously, no one is claiming that the CSA didn't have a government. The claim is that the CSA's government was not a legitimate one, which is meaningful in its implications for, among other things, how you frame laws and diplomatic actions. The question of legitimacy was a meaningful one to the CSA as it sought recognition from European countries; the question of legitimacy was certainly behind the precise wording of countless documents and statements, notably the Emancipation Proclamation, which very intentionally makes note of the President's powers "in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion." It makes no mention of the Confederacy by name; merely "States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States."

This isn't some wacky post-facto tarnishing the of the CSA by splitting semantic hairs, and it's not a remotely insane claim; it's an issue contemporary to the civil war, and understanding why it mattered helps us, today, understand what the war meant to those who lived through it and died in it, on both sides.
posted by cjelli at 6:16 PM on February 23 [9 favorites]


Seriously, no one is claiming that the CSA didn't have a government.

Actually, the way kafziel put it was pretty close to exactly that, which is why it was such an infuriatingly meaningless thing to say. Every government has its detractors who don't consider it "legitimate." Such distinctions are meaningless if the people huffing those opinions don't have the political clout or military might to back them up -- which, as it turned out, the Union ultimately did.

But it is revisionism on a grand scale to say, as kafziel did, "The Confederacy was never a country, it was a section of the United States that was seized by rebels. The offices that existed under the Confederate Constitution had no legal weight or lawful right to govern, because they were created under a fraudulent document as an act of treason." That is an utterly stupid way to look at it because the Union's opinion in that matter only mattered because the Union was willing to wade in with artillery and force the issue.

More specifically, what kafziel said about the CSA could have been said, with equal force and in identical terms, by the British on the matter of the USA's revolution.

In the matter of whether the CSA was a functioning government of a functioning country during the five years when it was at war with the US, to claim that it was anything else is a matter of dismissive propaganda, and inasmuch as it diminishes the very real forces which were propelling the CSA it is a dangerously unuseful way to look at things for a variety of reasons.
posted by localroger at 6:24 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


"Since I clearly wasn't overt enough: What about the enslaved/murdered people and their descendants, Anitanola"
Obviously, you are quite correct. Many suffered no benefits from setting foot on American soil. I'm stretching a point to say that our economic system is a legacy of slavery and that even the very poor and descendants of enslaved/murdered people have benefitted from some aspects of our shameful history. We all live in this system today.

In no way am I trying to justify any dissemination of misinformation about the Civil War, Jim Crow, nor any of the continuing shameful, hateful racism that goes on in this country today. I am a Southerner and, far from averting my eyes, I see and seek to know exactly what the truth is about the injustice in our systems. There are a lot of Southerners who see the problem and work to be allies to those who fight for social justice. White guilt? Maybe so, but I'll have to live with it.
posted by Anitanola at 6:24 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The more I read about other Texans' school experiences, the more I realize how odd my school was. It wasn't considered as odd, by itself or other people. Not a magnet school or private school or anything, just a regular 'ole school in Houston. But I never heard anyone disparage evolution or discuss it as anything other than fact. And I never heard anyone say the civil war was about anything other than slavery and money (in the sense that slavery was more profitable for plantation owners, etc.).
posted by Bugbread at 6:34 PM on February 23


localroger: "During those five years the CSA did all the things a government does -- they levied taxes, raised an army (in part by conscription), conducted diplomatic relations, and passed and enforced laws. They even funded research into advanced weapon systems like ironclads and submarines, although they didn't have the resources for those projects the Union did."

I notice that in naming things that a "legitimate government" does you've failed to list "hold elections in order to gain consent of the governed." You were right to leave it out, as that's something the South flatly did not do. I appreciate your point that the claim that the CSA wasn't a legitimate government seems like reckless hyperbole in a certain light, but for those who regard the US Constitution as the standard of legitimate government the CSA truly was not legitimate.
posted by koeselitz at 6:37 PM on February 23 [9 favorites]


localroger: "That is an utterly stupid way to look at it..."

Man, you're saying Lincoln was stupid. His arguments about this are copious, thoughtful, and well-documented. You'll have to do more than just assert that he was being dumb.
posted by koeselitz at 6:41 PM on February 23 [7 favorites]


Look, we get it that you don't like the CSA, you don't like what they stood for, you don't like the fact that so many people were willing to help the evil murderous fucks running it make so much mayhem, and so on. We get that.
[...]
And don't get all holy on me about how it's different because eeeeeeevil slavery. The foundling USA accepted the necessity of that eeeeeeevil slavery itself in order to form a broad enough union to defeat the British.


And to the extent that the USA accepted slavery and the inhuman treatment of native Americans, it was truly evil. Perhaps it would have been better for all involved if the colonies had not revolted - who knows. I don't see why there should be a problem in admitting that as possibly true. I think this comparison falls a part though, in that the CSA was formed solely to preserve slavery, whereas the founders seemed ashamed to even mention slavery in the constitution. A few - Ben Franklin for one - fought to have the institution eliminated from the outset. And as regards the Civil War, the miracle of the 14th amendment allowed the country to move forward out of the evils of its past (though it was a long time coming considering the loss of 25% of the African American population immediately after emancipation and the onset of Jim Crow thirty years later), and I just don't see how the CSA was ever going to accomplish this.

Look, we get it that you don't like the CSA, you don't like what they stood for, you don't like the fact that so many people were willing to help the evil murderous fucks running it make so much mayhem, and so on. We get that.
[...]
Say all the bad shit you want about them; the leaders were fools and the followers were dupes, but when you make a totally fucking insane statement like they weren't even a government it becomes impossible to take anything else you have to say on the matter seriously.
[...]
In the matter of whether the CSA was a functioning government of a functioning country during the five years when it was at war with the US, to claim that it was anything else is a matter of dismissive propaganda, and inasmuch as it diminishes the very real forces which were propelling the CSA it is a dangerously unuseful way to look at things for a variety of reasons.


I wish you would expand on those reasons, because I honestly do not see where you are going with these comments. The way they separate the CSA from the 'fools leading it' and 'the dupes following them' strikes me as really odd. It seems to suggest there were legitimate reasons for the CSA other than preserving slavery. Perhaps it is an attempt to preserve and protect the honor of the South and an appreciation of Southern culture form the Yankee slander by ignoring slavery - but I think this could be far better accomplished in the full light of slavery. Acknowledging slavery is not about being holier than thou, it is about understanding the past and letting it teach us about the present.
posted by Golden Eternity at 6:48 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


It seems to suggest there were legitimate reasons for the CSA other than preserving slavery.

Not at all. What infuriated me was kafziels ludicrous assertion, outside the context of slavery itself, that the CSA was not a government ("legitimate" as a modifier not being a meaningful term in this usage) capable of "legally" passing laws or waging wars.

OF COURSE you don't think your ENEMY is legally waging the war you are fighting. That's like the very definition of war. But to make this claim about the CSA, as if it means something other than a propagandistic rhetorical flourish, that the CSA wasn't a "real country" because LAWS, invites a lot of really unpleasant examinations of entities everyone considers "legitimate" nations today. Not insignificantly including the United States of America.
posted by localroger at 7:03 PM on February 23


Sorry for misinterpreting you. Unpleasant or not, those examinations may be worthwhile.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:13 PM on February 23


Man, you're saying Lincoln was stupid.

Really, koeselitz, I know you're smarter than this. Lincoln was constructing a framework on which to hang his end of the war, so of course he used that rhetoric. It was of course disingenuous and self-serving, if in an ultimately noble cause, but from a neutral outside point of view it was of course also pure bullshit. At the point of succession the CSA was in full material control of the territories it claimed, considerably moreso than the 13 colonies were at the time they declared themselves a country 80 years before.

Ultimately these matters are settled by politics and war, and the matter wasn't settled for five years. Anyone who seriously claims the CSA wasn't a functional nation during that period is trying to make a point that makes no real sense. They were fielding armies and conducting full scale battlefield war -- none of this asymmetric shit I might note, such as the proto-US liked to use on the British and our non-nation enemies use against us today.

As for the point made elsewhere that they weren't a democracy, the idea that we don't recognize countries that aren't democracies as being HAHAHA oh my HAHAHAHA I just don't HAHAHAHA you have got to be fucking kidding me.
posted by localroger at 7:14 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


Unpleasant or not, those examinations may be worthwhile.

I actually agree with this, but almost nobody else will. Shall we start in Santiago or Managua?
posted by localroger at 7:19 PM on February 23


[...] ludicrous assertion, outside the context of slavery itself, that the CSA was not a government ("legitimate" as a modifier not being a meaningful term in this usage) capable of "legally" passing laws or waging wars.

I don't think that this is a derail, as much as it looks like one, because it seems to be the whole issue at hand, in microcosm- refusal to accept the causes, or result, of the war.

Legitimacy in this case is the entire question. It is not a matter of semantics but of the Constitution.

The CSA asserted that it was a legitimate government, and the means it chose to pursue that legal argument was war. Or to put a finer point on it, rebellion.

It lost the war and therefore that argument. The legitimacy of the CSA was arguable before April of '65, but not afterward- the constitution that governed the country before and certainly after that point provides no right to secede or to take up arms against the United States, and therefore none existed. Therefore they could call themselves a government, as indeed I could myself for as long as that might last, but that did not make it so.

Is it really any more complicated than that?
posted by hap_hazard at 8:38 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]


It lost the war and therefore that argument. The legitimacy of the CSA was arguable before April of '65, but not afterward

You seem to find words and laws more canonical than actual reality. In Chile there was no legal right to have a military coup before the coup or after it ended, so according to your argument Chile didn't exist as a country during the 17 years of Pinochet? I just don't understand why this is a helpful framework for discourse. The CSA did exist.
posted by crayz at 9:06 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]


The FPP and the entire thread have been about the framing of the secession and its causes. The whole topic of conversation is what future generations are being taught about the Confederacy, about whether this was a lawful secession for a defensible principle or a treason in defense of slavery. So, yes, whether a government takes power legitimately is a big deal, the reasons for which cjelli lays out pretty clearly.

Localroger, nobody's claiming that the putative Confederate government did not, say, collect taxes. What I'm saying, and quite accurately, is that they had no right to do so. Whether the United States of America was putting down a rebellion or invading a neighboring sovereign was of great political importance then, and remains of rhetorical importance now. Accepting the framing of a nation versus nation dispute is giving a fig leaf to the apologists, as feckless fecal fear mongering put it, and not something I'm willing to concede.

And don't get all holy on me about how it's different because eeeeeeevil slavery. The foundling USA accepted the necessity of that eeeeeeevil slavery itself in order to form a broad enough union to defeat the British.

Uh, why exactly the sarcastic emphasis, again? Slavery was evil, no scaaaaaary vowels about it. It was an evil institution and those who took action to perpetuate it were doing a great wrong when they did. Especially those who took up arms against their lawful government to do so. Are you seriously trying to mock that belief?
posted by kafziel at 9:33 PM on February 23 [10 favorites]


localroger: "Really, koeselitz, I know you're smarter than this. Lincoln was constructing a framework on which to hang his end of the war, so of course he used that rhetoric. It was of course disingenuous and self-serving, if in an ultimately noble cause, but from a neutral outside point of view it was of course also pure bullshit. At the point of succession the CSA was in full material control of the territories it claimed, considerably moreso than the 13 colonies were at the time they declared themselves a country 80 years before."

I won't accuse you of moving the goalposts, but you should note that they have not even been put into the ground here yet. People here doubted the "legitimacy" of the Confederate States of America, on purely legal and constitutional grounds. That is, they doubted that the Confederate States of America was legitimate based on the very clear words of the US Constitution which, for all its flaws, was at least more readily agreed upon than most constitutions in history, for better or for worse. Since a whole country basically agreed to this founding document, and through representation made it binding, there is a very real question about what it ought to take to dissolve that agreement.

But you're acting as though that debate is idiotic and insubstantial. And as someone who at least spent some time thinking about it and going over the history, I have to say that it's my considered opinion that you're wrong about that. You say that Lincoln was making propagandistic points that no rational person would agree to on measured consideration. I thought that too, once upon a time. But having read through what he had to say, and thought about his whole life of representation in congress and ultimate service to the nation in the presidency, it's pretty clear to me that he was absolutely in earnest. He saw value in the US Constitution, and believed the Union ought to be preserved. Preserving the Union meant safeguarding it against those who would violate it. Under the Union and the agreements which founded it, those who violated it were not nation-founders or legislators; they were criminals. If one believed the Union ought to be preserved, if one believed in the legitimacy of the Constitution, then that is how one had to see them.

"Ultimately these matters are settled by politics and war, and the matter wasn't settled for five years. Anyone who seriously claims the CSA wasn't a functional nation during that period is trying to make a point that makes no real sense. They were fielding armies and conducting full scale battlefield war -- none of this asymmetric shit I might note, such as the proto-US liked to use on the British and our non-nation enemies use against us today."

Anyone who seriously claims that people here have said that the CSA wasn't a "functional nation" is either lying or has actually convinced themselves that Mefites are stupider than they really are. Nobody here has said that the CSA wasn't a functional nation. Clearly they were doing the things you say they were doing. People here have said they were not a legitimate nation.

"As for the point made elsewhere that they weren't a democracy, the idea that we don't recognize countries that aren't democracies as being HAHAHA oh my HAHAHAHA I just don't HAHAHAHA you have got to be fucking kidding me."

Get over it. Yes, I think there is something worthwhile in the US Constitution. Yes, I think it's good that it was preserved. Yes, I think it's good that a war was won to keep the Union together under the Constitution and to perfect it (yes, perfect it) with the 14th Amendment. Clearly you disagree, and think the US is thoroughly a sham which by right ought to dissolve. I am not being silly or superficial for believing this, though.
posted by koeselitz at 9:59 PM on February 23 [13 favorites]


Well put, sir.
posted by kafziel at 10:01 PM on February 23


localroger: "And don't get all holy on me about how it's different because eeeeeeevil slavery. The foundling USA accepted the necessity of that eeeeeeevil slavery itself in order to form a broad enough union to defeat the British."

Didn't accept the "necessity" of slavery - accepted the temporary continued existence of slavery for a definite period of time, specifically twenty years. They carefully guaranteed the existence of the slave trade only for this limited time, hoping that it could ultimately be eliminated. This isn't just a silly or haphazard thing; it is in fact striking how careful Madison clearly was to avoid even mentioning slavery in the Constitution so that the outlawing of that institution would be easier later on. He was not silent about this, either, but said that he hoped and believed slavery could disappear in the future. He was right, although he was wrong about how long it would take. The document was written well largely because it allowed for that.
posted by koeselitz at 10:07 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]


You seem to find words and laws more canonical than actual reality. In Chile there was no legal right to have a military coup[...]

Indeed I do not. This is the reality- the CSA was not a coup, in which Jefferson Davis seized power over the United States. It was a rebellion, which failed.

The reasons why that aspect of things is important I will leave to koeselitz and kazfiel, because they are handling this a lot more carefully than I'm willing or able to.

I probably shouldn't be commenting in this thread any more, at least this evening, because I just watched 12 Years A Slave and am in no mood to even pretend to be reasonable.
posted by hap_hazard at 10:31 PM on February 23


koeselitz: He [President Lincoln] saw value in the US Constitution, and believed the Union ought to be preserved. Preserving the Union meant safeguarding it against those who would violate it. Under the Union and the agreements which founded it, those who violated it were not nation-founders or legislators; they were criminals. If one believed the Union ought to be preserved, if one believed in the legitimacy of the Constitution, then that is how one had to see them.

And that, for me, is the most interesting part of the story.

James Buchanan also believed in the Constitution. As President, he was faced with a shitty situation and played rule-lawyer to make the situation worse. His modest actions, and gross, deliberate inaction were couched in deference to his understanding of Constitutional law. He felt that his hands were tied, his options limited, and proceeded to punt on every vital issue that arose during his presidency. He led the nation to an acute crisis through strict adherence to a Constitutionally-correct mindset.

Lincoln, on the other hand, had no Constitutional justification for a blockade against the ports of the rebelling South. A blockade is clearly an act of war, yet congress had not declared war against a nation that did not exist. He had no Constitutional rationale for suspending habeas corpus, first in Baltimore, then, in direct defiance of the the Supreme Court, across the nation (starting in the hotbed of Southern insurrection, Bangor, Maine), declaring martial law across the nation. He perverted justice through the use of military tribunals instead of of civil courts to try deserters and anti-war activists. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order; while morally correct, it made more than 3 million people free, but not citizens. The great emancipator led them from hell to limbo, without a nod to citizenship or acceptance to his great Union. By what Constitutional authority was this proclamation issued? None, except ambitious and ambiguous "war powers."

There are dozens of examples of Lincoln choosing a morally correct, humanely brave, politically possible, forward-thinking, and Constitutionally unsound solutions to the challenges he faced while president. His administration represents a dramatic expansion of executive powers and he is an amazing player of our political game.

Legally, Lincoln is spitting distance between being among the best of American Presidents and the worst. He re-set the mold of what a president is and what a president does. Had he been a lesser man, or less able to empower his subordinates to do the morally right thing, he could have been one hell of a villain and excuse for our lack of progress.

A wise fool once said that the Constitution is just a goddamned piece of paper. Our history rewards men who think this way, men such as Abe Lincoln. There is no James Buchanan memorial on the National Mall in DC for reasons that are not simple or easy to put into words without contradicting our un-examined jingoes and national creation myths.
posted by peeedro at 1:02 AM on February 24 [9 favorites]


I actually agree with much of what you write, peeedro, except for this:

Lincoln, on the other hand, had no Constitutional justification for a blockade against the ports of the rebelling South. A blockade is clearly an act of war, yet congress had not declared war against a nation that did not exist.

This actually highlights a basic problem in discussing civil wars: to declare war is, ironically, a form of recognition that to some extent confers legitimacy and sovereignty on the opposing party. But of course, in a civil war to do so is to lose the war in a sense.

Similarly, the CSA desperately sought recognition and alliances from European powers during this time, not merely for war aid but also to strengthen its claim to being a legitimate, sovereign power; this is what localroger misses when he dismisses the term "legitimate" as a qualifier for "government." In the case of the CSA, of course, Anglo-French recognition never formally occurred. Hence the CSA was a functional government, but not one that was ever formally recognized as a legitimate or sovereign one by any other state.

Almost by definition, then, rebellion and civil war produce legal asymmetries. So too do wars against 5"belligerents" in general, such as pirates, who are still subject to military force under international law but are not considered actual governments or states. You will note that George Washington sent the military in to thwart Shay's Rebellion without recognizing their claims to any sort of authority as well. The Navy was also used to battle the Barbary Pirates without a formal war declaration under Adams.

The use of military force, up to and including naval blockades, against belligerents, rebellions, and pirates thus has ample precedent in both American history and international law dating back centuries. None of these uses of the military has ever required or been held to require a formal declaration of war.

Now, Giorgio Agamben and others have done well to point out the ways in which these precedents give way to an endless expansion of the state of exception and normalize the use of military power in undeclared wars; and I'm with them in finding that deeply troubling. But the fact remains that in blockading Confederate ports, Lincoln was not engaging in an unusual unprecedented, or even illegal use of military power.
posted by kewb at 4:48 AM on February 24 [8 favorites]


I should clarify that I refer to the second Barbary War, which used something more akin to a modern ""force authorization" than a declaration; the first Barbary War, under Adams, did indeed involve a formal war declaration.

In any case, Lincoln effectively treated the CSA as belligerents, not as a foreign power, for obvious reasons, and in this he fits into a rather long history of employing the military against belligerents. His particular justification for the port blockades seems to be a combination of the Monroe Doctrine, as the blockade prevented European intervention, and the Union's claim to import duties and tariffs as well as facilities at the ports.

Lincoln's Proclamation of Blockade was therefore very careful to declare the CSA forces as belligerents, not insurrectionists, by naming blockade runners as "pirates;" this was why the CSA could seek foreign recognition, but also why Lincoln could claim a right to blockade the ports. Lincoln fudges by using the word "insurrection" in the Proclamation, but in the portion where he asserts a right to seize ships and men, he invokes international law regarding piracy, thus effectively treating blockade runners as belligerents and not insurrectionists. Britain and France treated this as a soft recognition allowing them to pick sides and provide aid, but, again, never got around to formal recognition.
posted by kewb at 5:01 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


You know, I'm getting a lot wrong about the Barbary Wars here, so I think I need to bow out.
posted by kewb at 5:12 AM on February 24


i m from the south and it was clear that the war was over slavery. what was not taught was reconstruction.

someone asked what would a third reconstruction look like. clearly, it would be an abolition of the current US prison and criminal justice system, Which has ballooned since the backlash to the freedom movement of the 1960 s.
posted by eustatic at 5:59 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


koeselitz: People here have said they were not a legitimate nation.

I agree with just about everything you wrote, except that this is meaningful. Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder; or rather, the gun-holder. By this metric, what was "legitimate" about the Revolution? I think localroger is right when saying this particular point is fairly meaningless, though I don't agree with most of his other points.

Now, how functional a government the CSA was actually is a more complex question than accepted above. The civil administration was about as powerless as the Federal government under the Articles; which was arguably the point. But it precluded any real national policy beyond fighting the war. It's extremely easy to imagine a victorious South quickly becoming a banana republic lead by a junta (with a fig leaf of a powerless Confederate president), something like the Belgian Congo, a British puppet, or just a failed state.
posted by spaltavian at 6:40 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


It wasn't really about slavery at the begining either. There might have been some long term momentum towards abolition, but look at how long the war had to go on before emancipation even became a faint political possibility for Lincoln. The political leaders in the south could not honestly have thought that Lincoln would abolish slavery, the issue wasn't even that politically popular in the North. Look how long Lincoln resisted emancipation.

Lincoln's coalition had built a political powerbase that made the south essentially irrelevant. He won without a single southern state. His election presented a threat that tarrif policy, railway expansion, western settlement and the other issues of the age would all be settled in favor of northern interests. That was the real driver of the war. The north wanted this power. That is why they chose to fight the southern states rather than agree to a divorce.
posted by humanfont at 7:03 AM on February 24


Just a note, "legitimate" has a meaning. Well, it has meanings, a colloquial one (something like "real") and a specific one, meaning "conforming to the law or to rules." In the specific definition, legitimacy is not in the eye of the beholder - it's in the degree of conformity to the rules in place. I think much of the argument is coming from a quibble over which meaning of "legitimate" is in play.
posted by Miko at 7:36 AM on February 24 [4 favorites]


It wasn't really about slavery at the begining either

It certainly was - abolition wasn't the only question; much of the legal activity was about limiting the expansion of slavery.
posted by Miko at 7:38 AM on February 24 [6 favorites]


Miko, the argument isn't over the defintion of legitimate, it's over whether that concept has any real meaning. The rules themselves are arbitrary and made up. It's a legal fiction we accept so every trip to the grocery store isn't Mad Max. But since everyone will argue what the "real" rules are, they are very much in the eyes of the beholder. I'm sure you've heard "if it propser, none dare call it treason".

It's a way to claim the moral high ground, or appeal to tradition, but it's not an actual argument. The Founding Fathers got around 1,000 years of "legitimate" monarchy by talking about natural rights. The CSA was a slave empire that needed to be eradicated, but in terms of argumentation, they only had 80 years of "legitimacy" to upend.

I don't understand why these discussions get caught up on treason and legitimacy, like it makes a difference. The CSA was run by slavers who wanted to expand their slaver empire. Those were the stakes; that's why their attempted secession was bad.
posted by spaltavian at 7:49 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Another southerner here who was sometimes taught revisionist history, although I had great teachers and read plenty, so let's just say that didn't take. One of the more fascinating things to me when looking at the history of the war is the degree to which "innocent" southerners-- that is, those that didn't own slaves or otherwise have any dealings with slavery*-- suffered and died. By all counts the vast majority of white southerners did not own slaves, but the armies of the north killed, plundered, and laid waste to their homes and farms anyway. The part that has always puzzled me is why these people didn't feel resentment towards the rich slaveholding aristocracy that got them into that mess.** After the fact they felt defensive and proud about the CSA, not anger and betrayal. That is really messed up.

*yes, there's a good argument that no part of that economy could be termed truly "innocent", but I'm going to just acknowledge that and move on.

**yes, there were anti-confederacy groups that operated in the South, too, mostly in the Appalachian areas where slavery was not at all common; again, I'll just acknowledge that there were exceptions and move on.
posted by norm at 8:27 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


This has been a fascinating thread.
posted by srboisvert at 8:57 AM on February 24


humanfront: It wasn't really about slavery at the begining either.

I'll just quote what I said in the "Misplaced Honor" thread:

"The Emancipation Proclaimation didn't spring up over night. The North was moving towards limiting slavery, and rolling it back for decades at this point. They were moving lightly in part because they wan't to avoid war, and in part because the South held political power. But the idea that Lincoln suddenly only cared about abolition has a Hail Mary in the middle of the war has been shown wrong time and time again. They would have been cool with it dying slowly over a generation or two, but the insitution was always on borrowed time. Even the South acknowledged this with the end of the slave trade built into the Constitution."

The North had wanted to end "slave power" for decades at this point. Of course their response was a muddle: the slavers were half the government until 1860! But "controlled demolition" was the end goal, even of many Southerners. The war speed up the timeline. The South hated Lincoln because they thought he was a crypto-abolitionist. He was!
posted by spaltavian at 9:12 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


humanfont: “It wasn't really about slavery at the begining either. There might have been some long term momentum towards abolition, but look at how long the war had to go on before emancipation even became a faint political possibility for Lincoln. The political leaders in the south could not honestly have thought that Lincoln would abolish slavery, the issue wasn't even that politically popular in the North. Look how long Lincoln resisted emancipation.

“Lincoln's coalition had built a political powerbase that made the south essentially irrelevant. He won without a single southern state. His election presented a threat that tarrif policy, railway expansion, western settlement and the other issues of the age would all be settled in favor of northern interests. That was the real driver of the war. The north wanted this power. That is why they chose to fight the southern states rather than agree to a divorce.”


This is a just-so story that doesn't exactly fit the facts. If the North just wanted to consolidate their power, then electing Lincoln was absolutely the worst way to do it. Think about Lincoln's political background: this is a man who had been summarily drummed out of his seat in the House of Representatives ten years before because in late 1846 he'd had the audacity to stand on the House floor and almost violently excoriate President Polk for starting an "illegal war" with Mexico. Then, near the end of 1846, he called for an amendment to an unrelated bill to do it again, demanding that President Polk produce evidence that Mexico had attacked or else confess that he had started the war. Finally, at the beginning of 1847, he again stood up and lectured the President. The folks back home, who had sent their sons to fight and die in Mexico by then, didn't like hearing their representative say that those deaths were in vain; so they voted him out.

This was not exactly the type of conciliatory, compromising man to hold the Union together and allow the North to continue their rise. Now, of course, people often quote Lincoln's claim that he did not intend to abolish slavery; and this seems to be true – abolition wasn't his intention to begin with. But he was clearly always conflicted about this. From the earliest evidence of his opinions, he seems always to have claimed in the strongest terms that slavery was an egregious evil, and he said so at every opportunity. He hoped, somewhat like many of the Founders, that slavery would wither away and die peacefully if it were contained to the South and not allowed to spread – he was, in other words, for "Free Soil." And he worried that many abolitionists (John Brown for instance) were breaking the law and throwing away Constitutional order.

But as time went on Lincoln found more and more that this compromising attitude would not work – he found himself arguing with people who felt that slavery was a lawful part of the Constitution and ought to be accepted if the Constitution was to be accepted. And so he found himself having to argue that slavery is flatly counter to the principles the Constitution embodied; that it is the abrogation of democracy and of humanity; that it violates the principle that all men are created equal.

So we find Lincoln heading into 1860 having debated Douglass and proclaimed loudly and forcefully that "the Slave Power" was a tide against republicanism, that it was bent on destroying the principles of the Constitution, that it must be reigned in lawfully by utterly disallowing it to spread into the territories. He was, in short, a one-issue candidate: he was against slavery. He claimed that he didn't intend to abolish slavery, and I think he was being honest on that point; but that doesn't change the fact that his entire platform was the gradual elimination of "the Slave Power" through isolation and containment.

If the North had simply wanted to consolidate power, then their best bet would have been to elect three or four more Buchanans in quick succession. But Buchanan could not bring the sides together. The conflict was over slavery – so no amount of conciliatory compromise could end hostilities while slavery still existed.
posted by koeselitz at 9:23 AM on February 24 [12 favorites]


Miko, the argument isn't over the defintion of legitimate, it's over whether that concept has any real meaning.

I agree with you in general about the philosophical aspects of legitimate - the Revolutionaries would have been treasonists if they'd lost. The Treaty of Paris confirmed their legitimacy as a nation and formal diplomacy began soon after that. But legitimacy in a government is also a product of recognition by other governments. No existing governments of the time of the CSA ever recognized the Confederacy as anything other than a belligerent entity, and none of them set up formal diplomatic relations, established embassies, or hosted any CSA ambassadors.
posted by Miko at 9:49 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


My mother's side of the family is from the Deep South and are definitely "normal" people and several of them have absolutely said "the War of Northern Aggression." They are most certainly not self-avowed racists.

Then they're not 'normal' southerners. Because 'normal' southerners do not believe this crap. Please do not correlate your family members beliefs with the entire south. Crap like this is why people are shocked when I tell them I don't hear the N word ever, and only see the rare rebel flag, because people believe nonsense they hear.

It would seem that the goodly majority of people commenting here are actual honest-to-God Southerners. So I'm not sure this is quite the Southerner-bashing thread you were expecting.
posted by koeselitz


Doesn't make it not bashing, doesn't make it right. I mean honestly, 'they're southerners, so it's okay go bash'. That's adorable.

If you've actually followed threads on the south before the absolute worst statements are always from people that use to live in the south. Generally along the lines of 'I use to live there, but I had to move'. Because you've got to make people understand that you're not southern really, gotta make sure that's clear. And the first chance you had to leave, you did. Didn't solve much, but at least you're no longer southern. You escaped racism and ignorance by leaving the south. Everything is fine now.

Again, as I've said before, it's not pointing out problems with the south, or issues. Because, I know, there are many. It's the "I have family in the south that believe X, so therefore..." that paints the entire south (much as the comment I quoted above).

We simply don't do this with other parts of the country. Most people understand that San Diego has very, very little in common with San Francisco, even though they're both in California. Most people know that making sweeping statements about NYC is silly.

But people have no problem knowing a few racist family members and then making a statement about 14 states. If you don't see the problem with that, I can't help you.
posted by justgary at 11:31 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


As a southerner, one thing I'll say is that there's just too much actual bigotry in the world to start with But What About The Southerners.
posted by Sara C. at 11:40 AM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Had the north not decided to take up arms to stop southern succession; the war would never have happened. There was a political crisis in the United States in 1860. The north choose to resolve that crisis by launching a block aid of southern ports, suspending habeas corpus in Maryland, send the Navy down to Ft Sumter and invade Virginia. The North prosecuted its war in a way that was designed to inflict as much pain on the civilian population as possible, in violation of the customs of the time.
Why did the north choose war? It wasn't to end slavery. It was done in the name of manifest destiny and ambitions of North American empire. The idea that the war was started over slavery puts the blame for the conflict entirely on the south's decision to succeed and ignores the North's decision to invade in response. It also ignores how leaders in the north sold the war to their own people, not as a crusade against slavery, but in the name of defending the "Union"
posted by humanfont at 12:11 PM on February 24


Had the north not decided to take up arms to stop southern succession; the war would never have happened.

Read a history book.

Flagged for bigotry.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on February 24


Also, it's "secede" and "blockade".
posted by kafziel at 12:19 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


"The cause of the war was slavery but that wasn't what motivated most of the men who fought."

A couple of people have asserted this, but it's bullshit whether from your mouth or David Brooks'. The actual letters of both Confederate and Union soldiers show that they fought because of slavery, including Union soldiers fighting to abolish it as early as 1861.
posted by klangklangston at 12:31 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


Had the north not decided to take up arms to stop southern succession; the war would never have happened.

Well, as tautologies go, this is pretty taut. Of course, if the North had not taken up arms, there would have been no war. Now, the North would have then had to not take up arms to defend western territories against southern expansion, to protect black residents against being carried off as slaves, and a whole host of other things, but there wouldn't have been a war over secession. Now, the question you need to answer is why would the North choose that? After all, the CSA (as argued persuasively above) was an illegal organization engaged in horrific practices -- why wouldn't the North go to war to protect its land and sovereignty as well as to abolish slavery?

This is part of the reason why there were so many pixels spilled arguing above over whether the government of the CSA was illegitimate or not. The only way you can argue that the Civil War was an act of international aggression is if you ignore the lack of legal grounds for secession. There was no nation there. Now, if the South had won, I guess you could argue differently, since in the court of history, arms shout down laws, but that's not what happened.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:41 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


Had the north not decided to take up arms to stop southern succession; the war would never have happened.

So what? That's not a better outcome than what happened. The Civil War was awful. Slavery was worse.

The north choose to resolve that crisis by launching a block aid of southern ports

Not only was the blockade after Fort Sumpter, it was after an attempted peace conference. It was the South that gambled on war, not the North.

suspending habeas corpus in Maryland,

Hence Maryland's state song! But, again, this was after the outbreak of hostilities. Also, it should be noted that Maryland's government was likely more sympathetic to the Confederacy than Maryland's population. Maryland was in danger of being dragged into rebellion against its will to an extent not true across in the Potomac.

invade Virginia

The Union barely controlled the banks of the Potmac opposite Washington. It wasn't until late in the war the North made real progress on the Virginian front. If you want to talk about invasion, how about Lee's invasion of Maryland. Lee did for more damage to my state than Lincoln.

The North prosecuted its war in a way that was designed to inflict as much pain on the civilian population as possible violation of the customs of the time.

The American Civil War was an afternoon tea compared to most 19th century warfare. Maybe check out what was going on India 3 years beforehand?
posted by spaltavian at 12:44 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


And folks playing the Jefferson Davis apologia game seem to have forgotten the (at that point, still living) history of the U.S. Constitution, especially in terms of how it replaced the Articles of Confederation. State sovereignty was explicitly removed from the U.S. Constitution that was ratified by all states in 1790, including some that seceded, and that was the basis for all other new states.

So, no, they didn't have the right to secede though the U.S. Constitution — they had the legal right to address that through the amendment process, under the democratic instrument they agreed to. They didn't address it legally — instead, they seized federal property and entered into a revolt against those processes.

This is basic U.S. history about the foundation of our country — everyone involved was aware of it. If you don't know that, you shouldn't be talking about the Civil War.
posted by klangklangston at 12:47 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Not to mention that the seceding states had begun seizing federal buildings as early as December of 1860, well before Lincoln was in office to so command that so much as a bayonet be raised. The reason Fort Sumter became the point that shooting started was that Lincoln, unlike Buchanan, did not require commanding officers to surrender control of military outposts. To frame this as a "northern invasion" requires either utter ignorance of basic historical facts or simple dishonesty regarding them.

For that matter, given how hard states in the South fought to make new states into slave states before the Civil War, it's a bit rich to claim that the region's state governments or people opposed Manifest Destiny in any way, shape, or form.
posted by kewb at 12:52 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


There was a political crisis in the United States in 1860.

Certainly not of the North's, or Lincoln's, choosing.

Had the north not decided to take up arms to stop southern succession; the war would never have happened.

Which began after Fort Sumter was fired on.

The north choose to resolve that crisis by launching a block aid of southern ports

Which began after Fort Sumter was fired on.

suspending habeas corpus in Maryland

Which began after Fort Sumter was fired on (and nor was it exclusive to the north).

send the Navy down to Ft Sumter

Which began after Fort Sumter was fired on.

and invade Virginia

Which began...oh, you know how the rest of it goes.

The North prosecuted its war in a way that was designed to inflict as much pain on the civilian population as possible, in violation of the customs of the time.

This was neither the intent of the Union, nor was it in violation of the customs of the time.

Why did the north choose war? It wasn't to end slavery. It was done in the name of manifest destiny and ambitions of North American empire.

Despite the fact that the Confederacy was the side to choose war first? Despite the future Confederacy engaging in much of the worst excesses in the name of Manifest Destiny? Despite the fact that the North American "empire" was successful because it had decided to join the Industrial Revolution while the Confederacy chose slavery and genocide that they encouraged from the very founding of the country to further an empire of their own that much of the major world powers were opposed to?

The idea that the war was started over slavery puts the blame for the conflict entirely on the south's decision to succeed and ignores the North's decision to invade in response.

Probably because that's what actually happened.

It also ignores how leaders in the north sold the war to their own people, not as a crusade against slavery, but in the name of defending the "Union"

Not only is this not true, but even if it was, they wouldn't have been wrong.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:04 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


Uh, the South had the 3/5ths compromise on their side. They were over-represented in the federal government, which is how they managed to ram the Fugitive Slave Act through.

I think it's important, if you're trying to understand a thing, to actually make a game attempt at understanding it, rather than just making things black and white and acting as though modern values held sway at a time when they absolutely did not. And when you think about the 3/5ths compromise, it's important not to look at it through modern eyes, through which it seems repugnant, but rather to look at is as the necessary compromise to get the South to be willing to officially rebel against England at all.

The South had stronger cultural ties to England, in many ways, than it did to its fellow colonies. The aristocratic culture was privileged over the more ostensibly egalitarian. Landowners and those who worked under them were more the order of the day than simple workers working besides each other.

At the time of the original incorporation of the Colonies into the United States, yes, the South was required to be ostensibly democratic. But democracy at the time only applied to land owners. Not even every white man could vote. At the time, the existing colonies were guaranteed to be able to hold enough power and influence to essentially be able to continually preserve their own very different society. The 3/5ths compromise meant that they would be able to preserve their ratios - but they had not accounted for vastly increased immigration or the other factors that allowed the populations to increase so rapidly in the other states.

By sheer factor of voting population, they were over represented - but looked at purely as a regional power, they were under represented for land size, resource, and economic power. We may think now that that is perfectly fine, but that doesn't mean that they did at the time. It was not, then, taken for granted that the federal government would be able to dictate local character or even laws.

We focus it into "The South Wanted To Keep Their Slaves," and we act as though they simply wanted to do so because they were awful human beings, but I think that is absolutely not necessarily the case. The South wanted to keep their economic power - much of which, particularly for plantation owners, was tied up in slaves. The South wanted to keep their aristocracy and patterns of influence. The South wanted to keep their ability to decide what they wanted to do without outside interference. The South most definitely did not want to introduce a voting population that it had subjugated for a long time, which would absolutely outnumber them.
posted by corb at 1:04 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


To shorten it: if the South wasn't going to be able to preserve their effective lordships under America, and were going to be dominated by people who dictated their trade and other policies, they would have been better off to stay with England. Which is why I imagine it felt like a nasty bait and switch to go within living memory from "We're all in this together to preserve our freedoms" to "Actually, you guys are kind of gross and we don't like you, can we just make money off you without caring about you at all?"
posted by corb at 1:08 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


We focus it into "The South Wanted To Keep Their Slaves," and we act as though they simply wanted to do so because they were awful human beings, but I think that is absolutely not necessarily the case. The South wanted to keep their economic power - much of which, particularly for plantation owners, was tied up in slaves. The South wanted to keep their aristocracy and patterns of influence. The South wanted to keep their ability to decide what they wanted to do without outside interference. The South most definitely did not want to introduce a voting population that it had subjugated for a long time, which would absolutely outnumber them.

Depriving an entire population of their human and civil rights out of fear, to maintain economic control, to keep themselves separate from the rest of a country they were a part of, and to enforce oligarchy instead of representative democracy are several important factors in being awful human beings.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:09 PM on February 24 [10 favorites]


And when you think about the 3/5ths compromise, it's important not to look at it through modern eyes, through which it seems repugnant, but rather to look at is as the necessary compromise to get the South to be willing to officially rebel against England at all.

...the rebellion against England, which ended four years before the 3/5ths comprise existed? I'm not sure I follow your reasoning.
posted by cjelli at 1:16 PM on February 24 [20 favorites]


"I think it's important, if you're trying to understand a thing, to actually make a game attempt at understanding it, rather than just making things black and white and acting as though modern values held sway at a time when they absolutely did not. And when you think about the 3/5ths compromise, it's important not to look at it through modern eyes, through which it seems repugnant, but rather to look at is as the necessary compromise to get the South to be willing to officially rebel against England at all. "

I think it's important, if you're trying to understand a thing, to actually make a game attempt to rely on actual facts, not a mishmash of fancy and misinformation.

The 3/5ths Compromise was not ratified in the Articles of Confederation, which all 13 Colonies did ultimately ratify.

So, your bold text is bullshit. Who told it to you?
posted by klangklangston at 1:20 PM on February 24 [12 favorites]


"To shorten it: if the South wasn't going to be able to preserve their effective lordships under America, and were going to be dominated by people who dictated their trade and other policies, they would have been better off to stay with England. Which is why I imagine it felt like a nasty bait and switch to go within living memory from "We're all in this together to preserve our freedoms" to "Actually, you guys are kind of gross and we don't like you, can we just make money off you without caring about you at all?""

; _ ; for the Confederacy

Where do you get this stuff? Is it just, like, alt.civilwar.stormfront?

So, Thomas Jefferson wouldn't have advocated revolution if his slaves had been freed? Or even if they'd been taxed as population and property?

That's just absolute, baffling nonsense.
posted by klangklangston at 1:23 PM on February 24 [10 favorites]


Sorry, my mistake in terms of timeline, but the compromises around allowing the slaveholding states their essential independence does date back to the difficulties endorsing the Declaration of Independence. The Articles of Confederation actually do not mandate representational democracy by population - each state had one vote, and could choose themselves how large they wanted their delegation to be.
posted by corb at 1:25 PM on February 24


The South had stronger cultural ties to England, in many ways, than it did to its fellow colonies. The aristocratic culture was privileged over the more ostensibly egalitarian. Landowners and those who worked under them were more the order of the day than simple workers working besides each other.

The same England in which abolishment of slavery was already popular and getting more so by the close of the 18th century, in no small part due to abhorrence of what was going in on in the colonies and later the states? If anything, being directly involved in maintaining that would have hastened abolition.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:29 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


"Actually, you guys are kind of gross and we don't like you, can we just make money off you without caring about you at all?"

I think you're mistaken about who was saying this to whom.
posted by kafziel at 1:29 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


Actually, you guys are kind of gross and we don't like you, can we just make money off you without caring about you at all?

Corb, do you know what slavery is?
posted by spaltavian at 1:39 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


We focus it into "The South Wanted To Keep Their Slaves," and we act as though they simply wanted to do so because they were awful human beings, but I think that is absolutely not necessarily the case. The South wanted to keep their economic power - much of which, particularly for plantation owners, was tied up in slaves. The South wanted to keep their aristocracy and patterns of influence. The South wanted to keep their ability to decide what they wanted to do without outside interference. The South most definitely did not want to introduce a voting population that it had subjugated for a long time, which would absolutely outnumber them.

corb: if you murder people to keep your economic and political power, rather than just for the erotic thrill of murder, are you still doing an evil thing. what if, instead of murdering people, you hold them in bondage and torture them within an inch of their lives and sometimes murder them
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:44 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


We focus it into "The South Wanted To Keep Their Slaves," and we act as though they simply wanted to do so because they were awful human beings

Hi, I believe Southern whites wanted to preserve slavery because they were all bloodthirsty rogues who dreamed happy dreams of infanticide. I can't believe I'm typing this right now because I'm made of nothing but straw and hot air
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:47 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Say what you want about intractable arguments, they produce some amusing putdowns.
posted by JHarris at 1:57 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


The Union barely controlled the banks of the Potmac opposite Washington. It wasn't until late in the war the North made real progress on the Virginian front. If you want to talk about invasion, how about Lee's invasion of Maryland. Lee did for more damage to my state than Lincoln.

You seem to be unfamiliar with the creation of West Virginia and the battles up and down the Shennedoah Valley, or the early occupation of the eastern shore. Norfolk fell in May of 1862 and stayed under martial law for the remainder of the war.
posted by humanfont at 1:59 PM on February 24


That's your argument? The Unionist counties that the Confederates invaded and Norfolk?

Which again, was after Fort Sumpter and the other seizures of federal forts starting in 1860.
posted by spaltavian at 2:19 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Some light googling would have revealed that Fort Sumter was attacked in April of 1861, so the May of 1862 date doesn't support a theory that the North was the aggressor.
posted by Area Man at 2:21 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


corb: “We focus it into 'The South Wanted To Keep Their Slaves,' and we act as though they simply wanted to do so because they were awful human beings, but I think that is absolutely not necessarily the case.”

There is a sense in which this is correct; historically, people have very rarely done monstrous things because they themselves were simply monsters. They usually have had sadder, more human, more mundane reasons: because they were scared, because they were greedy, because they were arrogant. And it seems worthwhile to keep this in mind, in order to learn the lesson that we should always be vigilant to make sure that we don't fall into doing monstrous things, as individuals and as a nation. But the fact that they were not necessarily monstrous people does not make the thing they did less monstrous; and I suspect that the objection people have to the historicism you're leaning toward here is that it tends to erase past evils and turn them into understandable products of their time.

Perhaps more to the point in this case: there are still many people in the world who will insist that slavery and the war fought to preserve it were not monstrous things. This is one area where I believe it's probably a bad idea to spend a lot of time emphasizing the fact that those who defended slavery might not have been such terrible people, except insofar as we are underlining the fact that their deeds were terrible.

“To shorten it: if the South wasn't going to be able to preserve their effective lordships under America, and were going to be dominated by people who dictated their trade and other policies, they would have been better off to stay with England. Which is why I imagine it felt like a nasty bait and switch to go within living memory from ‘We're all in this together to preserve our freedoms’ to ‘Actually, you guys are kind of gross and we don't like you, can we just make money off you without caring about you at all?’”

I think I get the point you're trying to make – that there was clearly a debate going on, and not necessarily a debate between monstrous people and nice people. But this is simplifying it a little too much. The South didn't enter the Union under the pretense that they would be allowed to keep their "effective lordships;" they entered the Union in what was clearly a gamble on both sides, hoping to increase their power. The principle author of the Constitution himself, James Madison, clearly was angling (along with other Founders) to eliminate slavery; and though he couldn't do it immediately and secure the creation of the Union, he built the Constitution specifically so that slavery could be eliminated. And he was not shy about saying so; this is from Federalist 42:
It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!
The conflict was already brewing at this early date. It didn't quite make sense to speak of North and South at this early date, but the anti-slavery faction sought to set up the nation so that slavery could be eliminated eventually, and gambled that the tide of progress was on their side and that gradually people would come to see slavery as monstrous and abandon it. The pro-slavery faction, on the other hand, gambled that their economy would grow in size and power until its influence was ineluctable.

And the pro-slavery faction won that gamble. They passed the Fugitive Slave Acts and overrode the statute of limitations on the prohibition on the importation of slaves in the Constitution. It took many decades for their power to wane.

I just – I'm not sure you want to go very far in pointing out that people do monstrous things for very human reasons. There's not much to say. Those things are still absolutely monstrous, unless one bows to relativism and historicism and insists that nothing is every truly right or wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 2:26 PM on February 24 [19 favorites]


If you want to talk about invasion, how about Lee's invasion of Maryland. Lee did for more damage to my state than Lincoln.

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 2:28 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


"Sorry, my mistake in terms of timeline, but the compromises around allowing the slaveholding states their essential independence does date back to the difficulties endorsing the Declaration of Independence. The Articles of Confederation actually do not mandate representational democracy by population - each state had one vote, and could choose themselves how large they wanted their delegation to be."

What?

There were hideous compromises made, sure. Jefferson forsaw them as "the rock upon which our old Union will split." But they weren't really there in the Declaration of Independence — the reliance on the "all men are created equal" of the preamble happened afterward in abolition. The biggest problem in getting the South to endorse the Declaration of Independence was that Georgia wanted British troops to help them clear Native Americans.

That's the Second Continental Congress, the ones that — some months later — put out the Articles of Confederation, which wasn't so much about getting the South to turn against British loyalties, especially since combat had already started, and rather about raising money to adequately fund the Continental Army. That's why the slave count mattered — it had to do with how much money could be raised. And even then, it was rejected in the Articles of Confederation and those were still endorsed by all 13 colonies.

The Articles and the Constitution itself are democratic instruments, in that the parties involved have the power to both legitimate and modify them. Your statement about proportional representation is a non sequitor.

It was after the Revolutionary War had largely concluded that these issues came to the fore again, and the 3/5ths compromise was specifically to get Southern states to adopt the Virginia Plan of a bicameral legislature (which itself was to prevent rapid swings in sentiment).

Again, this is all basic U.S. history that crops up again and again in public schools.
posted by klangklangston at 3:10 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


"The conflict was already brewing at this early date. It didn't quite make sense to speak of North and South at this early date, but the anti-slavery faction sought to set up the nation so that slavery could be eliminated eventually, and gambled that the tide of progress was on their side and that gradually people would come to see slavery as monstrous and abandon it. The pro-slavery faction, on the other hand, gambled that their economy would grow in size and power until its influence was ineluctable.

And the pro-slavery faction won that gamble. They passed the Fugitive Slave Acts and overrode the statute of limitations on the prohibition on the importation of slaves in the Constitution. It took many decades for their power to wane.
"

Just wanted to highlight this because it's insightful and reading it twice should help some folks here who seem to be laboring under a very insufficient gloss of U.S. history.

(I remember learning about this in middle school, then in U.S. History 1492-1870, Western Civ., Humanities and Civics, and three of those classes were required for a diploma. Then again in college, because U.S. History 1500-1870, U.S. Government and Intro to Political Science were all required for any B.A. In high school, I definitely got the frame described by spaltavian much further up, that the South seceded because of slavery, but the North fought for a variety of reasons, slavery among them. I guess I'm just kind of incredulous that someone could grow up in the U.S. and not get this stuff over and over again, to the extent that, like, of course you know why the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, or that firing on Ft. Sumpter was the spark for the Civil War.)
posted by klangklangston at 3:20 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


> "There were hideous compromises made, sure ... But they weren't really there in the Declaration of Independence ..."

I believe corb is referring to the fact that a paragraph Jefferson wrote in his rough draft was struck from the Declaration of Independence before signing; the paragraph in question condemned King George for the evils of slave trade. ("He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither ...")
posted by kyrademon at 3:51 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Some light googling would have revealed that Fort Sumter was attacked in April of 1861

Fort Sumter was only fully occupied by the Union Army 4 days after South Carolina voted for secession. Prior to that it had had only a single soldier who was the lighthouse keeper and civilian construction workers who were in the process of finishing it. The government of South Carolina offered to pay for the federal properties and enter into a peace treaty with the United States and sent a delegation to negotiate in March. While these negotiations were underway the Union announced unilateral plans to re-enforce and resupply the Fort. The confederate army proceeded to engage in a limited show of force that resulted in no union deaths or significant casualties. The Union commander decided to surrender. Union soldiers were allowed to depart and return north. After the battle was over, during a surrender ceremony involving a 100 gun salute several Union solders were wounded and two were killed. Medical treatment for the wounded was provided at Charleston hospital.

Do you really think that a proportionate response to this incident was to raise an army of 75,000 men, plan a full scale invasion and blockade all southern ports. Was it unreasonable for the government of South Carolina to allow continued occupation and resupply of a military fort at the entrance to Charleston harbor by a federal government it did not recognize?
posted by humanfont at 4:00 PM on February 24


There were hideous compromises made, sure. Jefferson forsaw them as "the rock upon which our old Union will split." But they weren't really there in the Declaration of Independence — the reliance on the "all men are created equal" of the preamble happened afterward in abolition. The biggest problem in getting the South to endorse the Declaration of Independence was that Georgia wanted British troops to help them clear Native Americans.

But during the First Continental Congress, didn't South Carolina, Georgia, and some Northern triangle-traders make Jefferson remove the slavery paragraph* from the first draft of the Declaration before they'd agree to sign?
*he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:05 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


humanfont: “Do you really think that a proportionate response to this incident was to raise an army of 75,000 men, plan a full scale invasion and blockade all southern ports. Was it unreasonable for the government of South Carolina to allow continued occupation and resupply of a military fort at the entrance to Charleston harbor by a federal government it did not recognize?”

Fort Sumter was not the beginning; it was only the beginning of violence. All other fortifications in Southern territory had been seized before Fort Sumter; Fort Sumter was just the place where the first shots were fired. And, yes, if someone seizes federal property in a dozen states and holds it by threat of force, the only solution is to raise an army.
posted by koeselitz at 4:16 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


Also, the declarations of secession were declarations that the governments of the seceding states were preparing to break the law. Yes, an army is the only thing that could prevent them.
posted by koeselitz at 4:18 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


humanfont: “Incidents like that and Sherman's march to the sea, the trench warfare in the final phase of the war. The rape of Charleston, SC and the burning of Atlanta also spring to mind. Those incidents are what many in the south think of when the war is discussed and most of those impacted families didn't have slaves. From the oral traditions of these family the civil war wasn't about great grandpa going off to fight for slavery, he went to try to stop the rampage that threatened the home.”

Most of those oral traditions are incorrect, and are exaggerations of different realities. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was actually a Southern general. He revered Sherman quite highly, as it happens, because Sherman knew what it took to end the war. Sherman had the brilliant stroke that he could end the war by destroying property instead of killing people. And he did – the march through Georgia went off with hardly a shot fired in the end, just a lot of burning. Frankly, I prefer to see cities burned to the ground instead of a generation of young people being slaughtered, so I tend to think that was a fine and even heroic thing to do; and my forbear agreed.
posted by koeselitz at 4:21 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


> "Prior to that it had had only a single soldier who was the lighthouse keeper and civilian construction workers who were in the process of finishing it."

That's a highly misleading statement. The garrison moved from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter because Fort Moultrie was indefensible. It's not like the garrison wasn't in the Charleston forts and were suddenly sent there when South Carolina seceded.

The men then remained in Fort Sumter under siege conditions during the winter of 1860-1861.

> "While these negotiations were underway the Union announced unilateral plans to re-enforce and resupply the Fort."

That would be when Lincoln notified Governor Pickens, in light of the fact that the men at Fort Sumter were rapidly running out of food, that "an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only, and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, or ammunition will be made without further notice, [except] in case of an attack on the fort." So, basically an attempt to keep the men inside from starving to death with no attempt to strengthen their military position. This was supposed to be the intolerable deal-breaker for the peace negotiations?

> "The confederate army proceeded to engage in a limited show of force ..."

You are here referring to the 34 hour long general bombardment from 4003 guns and mortars at Fort Moultrie, Fort Johnson, the floating battery, and Cummings Point. Heated shot was used and most of the wooden buildings in the fort and the main gate caught fire. "Limited". Really.
posted by kyrademon at 4:26 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


Fort Sumter was only fully occupied by the Union Army 4 days after South Carolina voted for secession.

It was occupied by Union Major Robert Anderson and his men, who had been forced to abandon nearby Fort Moultrie, which was under threat from South Carolina's belligerents, because the Secretary of War had spent months refusing Anderson's commanding officer, John Gardner, who made repeated requests for resupply and reinforcements to hold that fort thanks to President Buchanan's bizarre policy of unconditional surrender to secessionist occupation of federal buildings and military outposts. Anderson, on his own initiative, moved these men and supplies to Sumter on December 26, 1860, well before Lincoln took office and well after secessionists had begun illegally occupying dozens of federal buildings across the South.

But let's be honest a moment and look over the wreckage of the arguments you've raised int he thread so far: you don't actually give a crap, do you? You are desperate to twist any fact, make up any excuse, so long as you do not have to acknowledge the truth that the Confederacy seceded in the name of slavery, lost a war they provoked by seceding and by their dogged insistence on perpetuating the institution of slavery, and consequently suffered ignominious defeat and well-deserved condemnation from historians. Whether this is because of misplaced regional pride, vacuous fantasies of personal or Southern autarky, or actual racism is beside the point. You are arguing that the correct response to secession and treason in defense of slavery was a hearty handshake and a pat on the back. In this, you are not even wrong.
posted by kewb at 4:26 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


Was it unreasonable for the government of South Carolina to allow continued occupation and resupply of a military fort at the entrance to Charleston harbor by a federal government it did not recognize?

Was it unreasonable for the government of the United States to allow the seizure and occupation of a military fort held by federal troops by the militia of a state which it did not recognize?

This framing, right here, is why this wraps back around to the question of legitimacy, and why the question of legitimacy matters. If you think that South Carolina was seceding legally, the situation looks very different than if you view it as illegally rebelling.
posted by cjelli at 4:27 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


"But during the First Continental Congress, didn't South Carolina, Georgia, and some Northern triangle-traders make Jefferson remove the slavery paragraph* from the first draft of the Declaration before they'd agree to sign?"

It's a bit more complicated than that — while South Carolina wanted to re-open the slave trade, it's also a bit that's out of character with the rest of the document and not a very good argument (for independence), which was edited in committee. But I don't know of any hard evidence that South Carolina (or any other state) was refusing to sign the document with that left in. I'm not saying it's not out there, just that I don't know of it.
posted by klangklangston at 4:36 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


Really, humanfont, you're reaching the point where you're having to engage in some pretty blatant dishonesty to support the notion that the South has a legitimate grievance over the Civil War. Why would you value that above your honesty and integrity?
posted by klangklangston at 4:38 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


But I don't know of any hard evidence that South Carolina (or any other state) was refusing to sign the document with that left in. I'm not saying it's not out there, just that I don't know of it.

Sure, not a dealbreaker (although you have to love the fictionalized 1776 scene with John Cullum standing on the table singing "Molasses to Rum to Slaves"), and I'm sure Jefferson knew when he wrote it that it wouldn't make it to the final draft. His take on it in his autobiography was:
The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.
So who knows what the actual conversation was.
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:34 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I prefer to see cities burned to the ground instead of a generation of young people being slaughtered,

If this is the choice we are faced with then we are all better off taking a shot of what our lovely friends at the defunct wreck of kuro5hin like to call the shotgun mouthwash.
posted by localroger at 7:57 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately that is precisely the choice the Union army found themselves faced with. And romantic notions about suicide being preferable seem to me to be just that: romantic notions. I'm glad that Sherman ended the war quickly and with a minimum of bloodshed, and I'm glad the Union army didn't collectively swallow a round of bullets out of horror at the compromise thrust on them.

I guess you'll say that that's not the choice they had - but I think that's unrealistic. A hell of a lot of people died during the Civil War. The war had already dragged on far too long and cost far too many lives, and it showed no sign of stopping. The path of least bloodshed is the path to take. Destroying the infrastructure is the proper tactic when an end to hostilities is the goal and there is no other way to get there.
posted by koeselitz at 8:38 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


Today's Highlight in History: On Feb. 24, 1864, according to the National Park Service, the first Union prisoners arrived at the Confederates' Andersonville prison camp in Georgia. During its 14 months of existence, the overcrowded camp ended up holding some 45,000 men, more than four times its intended capacity; nearly 13,000 prisoners perished from disease, starvation or exposure.
posted by Anitanola at 8:58 PM on February 24


As hard as it was on the southerners who lost everything, it was surely a lot harder on the freed slaves after they were emancipated. There are estimates that twenty-five percent died of disease, starvation, and who knows what - perhaps shotgun mouthwash. It doesn't seem that there was much of an actual plan for how to handle emancipation. How would you like to be let lose in the territory of your former slavers while they are being ravaged by your "emancipators" and without any friends to turn to who aren't in exactly the same situation? (Not to belittle the immensity of the horror of three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade up until that time.)

Braving Alligator Infested Waters to be Free
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:18 PM on February 24


The Daily Show did a segment on a Fox Business Network show where they discussed the same points were going over here.
posted by DynamiteToast at 7:04 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


There is a sense in which this is correct; historically, people have very rarely done monstrous things because they themselves were simply monsters. They usually have had sadder, more human, more mundane reasons: because they were scared, because they were greedy, because they were arrogant. And it seems worthwhile to keep this in mind, in order to learn the lesson that we should always be vigilant to make sure that we don't fall into doing monstrous things, as individuals and as a nation. But the fact that they were not necessarily monstrous people does not make the thing they did less monstrous; and I suspect that the objection people have to the historicism you're leaning toward here is that it tends to erase past evils and turn them into understandable products of their time.

I can understand that viewpoint, but I think that accepting that what we would now call moral ills were, in fact, understandable products of their time is important for creating that valuable self-examination of whether what we are doing is right even if it is understandable. The separation into evil/not evil allows us to think that moral wrongs will be clearly trumpeted and reviled by a significant portion of the population, and that they will always be easy to recognize.

In terms of the Civil War, to argue that every Southerner, for example, should have known slavery is wrong and prioritized ending slavery as the greatest of possible ills is a really comforting moral belief - it lets us believe that we, had we been born then, would have been immune to the cultural positioning of our birth and upbringing, that through some innate and superior sense of morality, we would have opposed it. Almost every person when mentally thinking about the Civil War sees themselves as an abolitionist, and says they would have fought with the North. But I do not think that people have fundamentally changed their natures in a hundred years, and this was a question that legitimately divided a nation. I think that few pause to think how much of their immediate moral positioning is a result of the fact that one side won the war and was able to write the history books afterwards, which produced a culture in which only one side seems understandable. With the benefit of hindsight, we make moral judgments that would not have been obvious, or even understandable, to the vast majority of people of the times.

That is why I think it's important to talk about questions like: how much is it reasonable to expect people to sacrifice? How far can or should people be pushed? How much balance need be sought? Is it important to deal with the human questions even when trying to decide an overarching moral question?

Making people out to be bad people lessens everyone, and puts us at far greater risk of things like this happening again.
posted by corb at 11:32 AM on February 25


Yeah winners write the history books, and it so happens that the winners of this conflict weren't defending a very evil thing. So they wrote it that way.
posted by angrycat at 12:15 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


The separation into evil/not evil allows us to think that moral wrongs will be clearly trumpeted and reviled by a significant portion of the population, and that they will always be easy to recognize.

corb, abolitionists existed. People existed even at the time of the Revolution who opposed African slavery. Even Robespierre, a man up to his armpits in blood, championed the cause of Haitian slaves, and in Haiti his name is remembered fondly. People existed who cared enough about slavery as an evil unto itself that they fought over whether Kansas would be a slave state or a free one. People existed who saw the suffering of their fellow man and helped slaves escape to the North, or, later, to Canada.

Many people at the time recognized and reviled slavery for the evil it was and the evil it is. Many other people, conversely, believed the comforting lies that slavery elevated African slaves above their African misery, that slavery was a comfort, that slavers were generous and kind, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Or else they denied that Africans were people at all.

Please spare us these quavering, spineless arguments that we are only patting ourselves on the back for hating slavery, slavers, and the supporters of both so much, and that we surely would have been much more ambivalent if only we had lived in the nineteenth century instead of the twenty-first. Maybe so, but these hypotheticals are fucking irrelevant.

We know the facts now, corb. We know now what an atrocity the Atlantic slave trade was, and we justly condemn every person who took part, from the overseer in the Georgia field to the molasses trader on the Boston docks. The Confederacy seceded to preserve Southern slavery, the vile fruit of that trade; it fought to preserve slavery; and it proclaimed its cause until it died, having failed to preserve slavery.

I gloss over some nuances here, but the basic story is correct. Schools in this country today are avoiding that basic story. They focus on the nuances instead. But the person telling that basic story is not engaging in idle self-congratulation, and how dare you even imply otherwise.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:17 PM on February 25 [27 favorites]


That is why I think it's important to talk about questions like: how much is it reasonable to expect people to sacrifice? How far can or should people be pushed? How much balance need be sought? Is it important to deal with the human questions even when trying to decide an overarching moral question?

Very, very broadly I agree: it's more useful to look practical or economic causes than moral ones, within the context of ascribing causation, because very few people set out to do things they themselves think are bad.

But in the particular instance of the American Civil War, and of antebellum America, to stack up abstract questions like that against the actual, real harm of slavery, my answer would be that that ills of slavery override other concerns.

Especially considering that, as you yourself have stated, most southerners did not own slaves (indeed: of people living in the south, more were slaves than slave-owners), abolishing slavery directly asked something of a minority of the population. And it did it reasonably, because there is no reasonable ground to justify slavery. If we're seriously asking "how much balance need be sought?" my response is that the scales of justice were so heavily tilted that merely abolishing slavery would not have gone far enough; reparations should have gone beyond that. It's not the slave-owning south (and it's allies) that got the short end of the stick; it was not the slave-owning south (and it's allies) that were being asked to sacrifice; it was not the slave-owning south (and it's allies) that were pushed; it was the slaves.

I think that few pause to think how much of their immediate moral positioning is a result of the fact that one side won the war and was able to write the history books afterwards, which produced a culture in which only one side seems understandable.

It's not the pro-slavery position isn't understandable; it's that it's morally reprehensible and indefensible. That was a contemporary position as well as a modern one, and as such cannot solely be because one side happened to win the war, because it's a position that pre-dates the war.

You're correct that many people raised today who abhor slavery would, had they been raised a century or two previously, depending on where they lived, would have had different beliefs than they do now. I'd certainly agree with that; we are all a product of our times. But I don't see what that changes; as koeselitz noted in the comment you're quoting, the issue is that focusing on the motivations of people, especially in this particular case, disguises the real harms and the real evils that their actions accomplished, intentionally or not. Even if we assume, hypothetically, that there were, by chance, no evil southerners whatsoever, there were still slaves. And thus there was still the evil of slavery.
posted by cjelli at 12:19 PM on February 25 [6 favorites]


Rev Beecher supported sending Bibles and rifles to Kansas to the abolitionists there. He had a bit of moral clarity. Others did too. Corb's moral relativism would be a good argument for, I dunno, people who kept barn cats and drown unwanted kittens, maybe, because I don't know about a contemporary outcry about that.
posted by angrycat at 12:28 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


I can understand that viewpoint, but I think that accepting that what we would now call moral ills were, in fact, understandable products of their time is important for creating that valuable self-examination of whether what we are doing is right even if it is understandable. The separation into evil/not evil allows us to think that moral wrongs will be clearly trumpeted and reviled by a significant portion of the population, and that they will always be easy to recognize.

It would really help if you stopped pretending (or at least strongly implying) abolition sprung fully-formed from the American North in the mid-19th century. The Quakers--no small power within the colonies at the time--had been advocating abolition since practically the moment they landed in the new world, leading to Pennsylvania abolishing it before the end of the Revolutionary War. In England, Wilberforce et al were already loudly denouncing the slave trade in Parliament before the ink had dried on the Constitution across the pond. The British Empire had banned slave trading five years before fighting broke out again between them and the US, roughly the same time that Thomas Jefferson attempted to do the same. The British had abolished the trade a generation before Lincoln was elected, and many states that joined the US in the decades before the Civil War attempted to do away with it before being politically and physically assaulted by pro-slavery Southerners. Your insistence that these were products of their times just isn't borne out by history.

In terms of the Civil War, to argue that every Southerner, for example, should have known slavery is wrong and prioritized ending slavery as the greatest of possible ills is a really comforting moral belief - it lets us believe that we, had we been born then, would have been immune to the cultural positioning of our birth and upbringing, that through some innate and superior sense of morality, we would have opposed it. Almost every person when mentally thinking about the Civil War sees themselves as an abolitionist, and says they would have fought with the North. But I do not think that people have fundamentally changed their natures in a hundred years, and this was a question that legitimately divided a nation. I think that few pause to think how much of their immediate moral positioning is a result of the fact that one side won the war and was able to write the history books afterwards, which produced a culture in which only one side seems understandable. With the benefit of hindsight, we make moral judgments that would not have been obvious, or even understandable, to the vast majority of people of the times.

Except, of course, that the moral judgements were fairly obvious and understandable to the vast majority of the people at the time. Most of the free people of England, France, and the US wanted to do away with slavery. Most of the people that they represented politically wanted to do away with it, and had the South not been given the power of the slave population without allowing their representation, it would not have been nearly as popular in the circles of power in the US. Forget about the victors writing the history books after the war, they had already been written by the time the war began.

That is why I think it's important to talk about questions like: how much is it reasonable to expect people to sacrifice? How far can or should people be pushed? How much balance need be sought? Is it important to deal with the human questions even when trying to decide an overarching moral question?

This just reads as special pleading. No, we don't need to talk about the Confederacy making a "sacrifice" on the backs of millions who gained nothing out of pure sociopathic stubbornness. We're not supposed to consider the alleged oppression of being "pushed" out of committing moral horrors as they were already understood before the first shot was fired. There is no "balance" when we're talking about a practice that is defined by a one-sided power differential. There is no moral question to deal with either alongside or exclusive to any human question here, nor was there one at the time except in the South.

Making people out to be bad people lessens everyone, and puts us at far greater risk of things like this happening again.

This makes no sense whatsoever. I have no problem making the Confederacy out to be bad people, nor those who saw African-Americans as people undeserving of rights after the war (regardless of which side they were on). They made a deliberate choice to refuse to adapt to a social, political, and economic world no longer dependent on revocation of basic human and civil rights, one which had passed them by decades ago. To further claim that being a contrarian on this issue is a bold stance against future transgressions is, to put it politely, completely baffling. Especially when the philosophy of almost all those who seek to deny or revoke those same rights appears to be either predicated upon that contrarian viewpoint, or an excuse to cloak it in terms of "freedom" and "liberty" when it is neither.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:02 PM on February 25 [13 favorites]


"I can understand that viewpoint, but I think that accepting that what we would now call moral ills were, in fact, understandable products of their time is important for creating that valuable self-examination of whether what we are doing is right even if it is understandable. The separation into evil/not evil allows us to think that moral wrongs will be clearly trumpeted and reviled by a significant portion of the population, and that they will always be easy to recognize."

Sure, but one of the ways that we can think about that is: Are there any contemporary sources calling attention to a grave moral wrong? Are we able to tie that moral wrong to any contravention of ostensibly fundamental moral principles?

"In terms of the Civil War, to argue that every Southerner, for example, should have known slavery is wrong and prioritized ending slavery as the greatest of possible ills is a really comforting moral belief

That's incredibly disingenuous. There's a huge gulf between prioritizing ending slavery as the greatest of possible ills and taking up arms to defend slavery, including killing your countrymen. And again, as letters from Confederate soldiers show, preserving slavery as a way of life was a primary priority even for grunts in trenches.

it lets us believe that we, had we been born then, would have been immune to the cultural positioning of our birth and upbringing, that through some innate and superior sense of morality, we would have opposed it."

Couple things: First off, it's not like abolitionists were unknown. Second, the idea that if we were there, we'd be so determined by our upbringings that we'd be unable to see the folly of slavery seems to be rather begging the question — we're not, so the hypothetical is pretty unilluminating. Third, that line of reasoning if followed to its conclusion is that right now we have no way of knowing what will be wildly immoral in the future, and we have no ability to discern moral claims outside of appeals to our upbringing, so there's no ability now to stand against injustice nor any ability to be judged by the future. That both ignores that there are contemporary voices now that speak against, e.g. the invasion of Iraq or torturing prisoners or repression in Sudan and Egypt. It's a weird exculpation of the past that functions to exculpate us in the present as well.

"But I do not think that people have fundamentally changed their natures in a hundred years, and this was a question that legitimately divided a nation."

I think that we've fundamentally changed in our acceptance of slavery. I'd imagine very few people who would fight for it now. Ignoring "legitimately" (which is question-begging), as a question that divided a nation, we've answered that question pretty conclusively: Slavery was a great wound to our nation that could only be cauterized with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. We have answered that question as much as we have answered the question of whether it's OK to burn witches or whether women should vote or if Nazis have a legitimate claim on Poland. We don't have to fundamentally change human nature to make progress — there's more of a "legitimate" question over whether LGBT people deserve the same protections that the rest of us enjoy, but we have thankfully not had to have an open war over it.

"I think that few pause to think how much of their immediate moral positioning is a result of the fact that one side won the war and was able to write the history books afterwards, which produced a culture in which only one side seems understandable. With the benefit of hindsight, we make moral judgments that would not have been obvious, or even understandable, to the vast majority of people of the times. "

This is straight-up bullshit. How much of the immediate moral positioning on the question of slavery comes from the Union winning? Well, you know, not very much. Slavery was wrong before the Civil War and remained wrong after it, and is wrong on its own merits. This is some hardcore special pleading, where the evidence against slavery should only be considered in the language of Jefferson Davis's parlor — no, it's fine to say that while maybe not perfectly objective, the case against slavery is pretty fucking strong, pretty unimpeachably strong.

Further, the idea that the majority of the people at the time wouldn't have found the argument that slavery is a moral abomination understandable is your own revisionism, not anything supportable by evidence. Holding up moral failures as representative of the whole is again special pleading.

"That is why I think it's important to talk about questions like: how much is it reasonable to expect people to sacrifice? How far can or should people be pushed? How much balance need be sought? Is it important to deal with the human questions even when trying to decide an overarching moral question? "

How academic is a genocide against African Americans? How much do I care about moral principles? Is it justice to keep men and women in brutal bondage if freeing them would inconvenience their owner? Is it fair to seek a "balance" between brutal, genocidal slavery and abolition? Whose biases and privileges does it serve to discuss this in those terms? Is being seen as an apologist for slavery really something I want?

"Making people out to be bad people lessens everyone, and puts us at far greater risk of things like this happening again."

It can. However, in this case, it seems pretty well justified: They were complicit and even advanced a tremendous evil upon their fellow man. Likewise, I understand that many average Germans were only tangentially complicit in the great crimes of the Nazis, but you know what? The Holocaust was fucking evil. It was a banal evil in most instances, but describing it as such doesn't inherently blind us from preventing another Holocaust — it's just as easy to argue that depicting it in such blunt terms helps us recognize evil that would otherwise slip by.
posted by klangklangston at 2:03 PM on February 25 [22 favorites]


It would really help if you stopped pretending (or at least strongly implying) abolition sprung fully-formed from the American North in the mid-19th century.

Especially considering that there were some prominent Southern abolitionists from the time of the Revolution at least into the 1820s or 30s and at least a few efforts to introduce anti-slavery legislation in Southern states, IIRC. There was manumission of slaves in some slaveholders' wills, etc. The idea that Southerners couldn't be expected to have heard anti-slavery viewpoints is pretty absurd, particularly in the decade or two before the Civil War.
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:23 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


klangklangston is rocking this one.
posted by JHarris at 2:25 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Goddamn I was not going to comment in this thread, but I can't let this go unremarked:

That is why I think it's important to talk about questions like: how much is it reasonable to expect people to sacrifice? How far can or should people be pushed? How much balance need be sought? Is it important to deal with the human questions even when trying to decide an overarching moral question?

I think this is important, too. But the default "people" for me in these questions are the ones who are enslaved, not the ones doing the enslaving.
posted by rtha at 2:36 PM on February 25 [14 favorites]


But rtha, how can we even know that at the time slaves would have considered slavery a great evil? Isn't that just our modern blinders?
posted by klangklangston at 2:55 PM on February 25 [15 favorites]


I will say that thinking about slavery with a framing of the African American experience is part of what really turned me off of Hegel — I recognize that his "master-slave" analogy is deeper and broader, and uses more of an Aristotelian gloss on slavery, but it's pretty fucking gross if you compare it to actual lived experience.
posted by klangklangston at 3:04 PM on February 25


But rtha, how can we even know that at the time slaves would have considered slavery a great evil? Isn't that just our modern blinders?

There so many slave revolts, escapes, and diaries that show clearly that most slaves certainly opposed the practice…for rather obvious reasons.
posted by kewb at 3:27 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Oh dear, my irony detector has broken again.
posted by kewb at 3:28 PM on February 25 [8 favorites]


"There so many slave revolts, escapes, and diaries that show clearly that most slaves certainly opposed the practice…for rather obvious reasons."

Well, sure, that's what the Union wants you to think. But most slaves were illiterate and didn't revolt. QED!
posted by klangklangston at 4:31 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Yeesh. Another thread on the Confederacy brought to a standstill by a couple of persistent (and even not-so-persistent) uses with a bad grasp of history. Maybe we need a Confederacy 101 primer for the wiki....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:04 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Or even just watch that damn Daily Show video already linked.
posted by klangklangston at 5:39 PM on February 25


I tell you what, though: I appreciate the mefites who really Know Their Shit, because I have (re)learned a ton about the Civil War in these threads thanks to them.
posted by rtha at 5:45 PM on February 25 [5 favorites]


I don't think the Confederacy is something like the other 101s on the wiki, where people might have a reasonable expectation of not being up to date with contemporary viewpoints.

I also wish I was more surprised by there being sanctimony over judging slavery harshly, but there you have it.

I will say I do at least learn a bunch about certain periods of American history in these threads, as even the most specious, stupid argument gets rebutted with actual facts and information about a period I, as a non-American, know less about. It's not a great reason to tolerate such arguments, but it's about the only silver lining to them I can find.
posted by gadge emeritus at 5:46 PM on February 25 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that the "bad grasp of history" is something that was a deliberate political program of reintegration for the South, where their crimes were whitewashed (pun intended) in order to reform the union more securely. Blacks got fucked in a huge way by that, and it's a shame to see the Southern propaganda continue here because it's another way of minimizing and denying the experiences of those slaves in order to make their white former superiors feel less uncomfortable about their hugely racist, evil past.

These were lies told on purpose, and it's frustrating to see them repeated by people who should know better.
posted by klangklangston at 6:00 PM on February 25 [16 favorites]


Let's not forget the shameful contributions of some leftist historians who have been unwilling to believe the war could have been about slavery and seek economic explanations more in line with Marxist theories of history.
posted by Area Man at 6:19 PM on February 25


I for one will make sure to lend plenty of weight to the leftist shame the second the Ku Klux Klan starts using Marxist theory in its tellings of the Civil War.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:22 PM on February 25 [8 favorites]


The war of the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defence, but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the spread and perpetuation of slavery.
Karl Marx, The Civil War In The United States, Die Presse 1861.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:36 PM on February 25 [20 favorites]


unwilling to believe the war could have been about slavery and seek economic explanations more in line with Marxist theories of history

The difference is that the leftist/economic approach to the Civil War goes hand in hand with slavery as the ultimate reason for the war. There's no attempt to whitewash or diminish the extent to which the war was about slavery. Economics was a vector for why things shook down the way they did, not a veneer over the truth a la "states rights".
posted by Sara C. at 6:59 PM on February 25 [6 favorites]


I thought Howard Zinn pushed the view that it was just a struggle between monied elites and celebrated the racist draft rioters in NY.

Also, I've read that there was a generation of historians largely focused in explanations other than slavery, people like Charles Beard, and that their theories played into the neo confederate desire to claim slavery wasn't the cause. Maybe Marxist isn't the strictly accurate description, but historians looked for economic and class causes of the war.
posted by Area Man at 8:00 PM on February 25


Economic and class explanations are not in themselves incompatible with slavery (and in fact how can you understand slavery itself without looking at economic and class issues?). But if it's used to deny race as an issue then that's pretty shabby. I'd like to think Zinn was smarter than that, but I haven't read him in many years and maybe this was a blind spot for him?
posted by Dip Flash at 8:07 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


I think the Beard approach, which used to be quite influential, was to focus on the war as a conflict between an industrial, capitalist system and an agrarian society. The triumph of industrialism becomes the main story of the war and slavery is treated as not particularly important when considering the cause.
posted by Area Man at 8:22 PM on February 25


The triumph of industrialism becomes the main story of the war

Well it sort of is. But the triumph of industrialism can be the most significant lasting result while the cause can still be slavery.

Just because people do more scholarship or approach things from different angles doesn't make the cause of the war not slavery.

There is a HUGE difference between "we would like to study this historical event in a more nuanced and detailed way" and "we would like to lie to people about the basic facts of this historical event".
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 PM on February 25 [4 favorites]


And keep in mind, again, that the Civil War didn't conclusively end bonded labor in the US.

It ended the agrarian plantation system which revolved around open chattel slavery, and that's big, but the system that replaced it wasn't a whole lot better for individuals on the ground.

In a lot of ways, it's pretty difficult to take away a sense of abolitionist triumphalism from the aftermath of the Civil War.
posted by Sara C. at 9:04 PM on February 25 [3 favorites]


"Let's not forget the shameful contributions of some leftist historians who have been unwilling to believe the war could have been about slavery and seek economic explanations more in line with Marxist theories of history.

I'm not aware of very many shameful contributions on that front.

I thought Howard Zinn pushed the view that it was just a struggle between monied elites and celebrated the racist draft rioters in NY. "

Zinn's available for free online.

Here's how he describes the overall war:
Behind the secession of the South from the Union, after Lincoln was elected President in the fall of 1860 as candidate of the new Republican party, was a long series of policy clashes between South and North. The clash was not over slavery as a moral institution-most northerners did not care enough about slavery to make sacrifices for it, certainly not the sacrifice of war. It was not a clash of peoples (most northern whites were not economically favored, not politically powerful; most southern whites were poor farmers, not decisionmakers) but of elites. The northern elite wanted economic expansion-free land, free labor, a free market, a high protective tariff for manufacturers, a bank of the United States. The slave interests opposed all that; they saw Lincoln and the Republicans as making continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the future.
(link)

I disagree with his description; I think he makes the category error of mistaking motivations for causes. Specifically, I do think that it's legitimate to describe the Civil War in economic terms; it can be seen as a clash of elite economic interests. However, that's reductive and fails on two counts to explain the causes of the war: First, he conflates Republican support of big business and Lincoln's priority of Union over abolition with an active desire for war. Second, Zinn is ignoring what the Confederates actually said about their motivations.

As for:
So, when Lincoln was elected, seven southern states seceded from the Union. Lincoln initiated hostilities by trying to repossess the federal base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and four more states seceded. The Confederacy was formed; the Civil War was on.
(ibid.)
Zinn is just wrong, and is letting his contrarian, revisionist political project overwhelm his good sense.

However, I don't think this:
And so the draft riots of 1863 took place, uprisings of angry whites in northern cities, their targets not the rich, far away, but the blacks, near at hand. It was an orgy of death and violence. A black man in Detroit described what he saw: a mob, with kegs of beer on wagons, armed with clubs and bricks, marching through the city, attacking black men, women, children. He heard one man say: "If we are got to be killed up for Negroes then we will kill every one in this town."
(ibid.)
is anywhere near "celebrating."

He returns to the draft riots in his next chapter on class:
When recruiting for the army began in July 1863, a mob in New York wrecked the main recruiting station. Then, for three days, crowds of white workers marched through the city, destroying buildings, factories, streetcar lines, homes. The draft riots were complex-antiblack, antirich, anti- Republican. From an assault on draft headquarters, the rioters went on to attacks on wealthy homes, then to the murder of blacks. They marched through the streets, forcing factories to close, recruiting more members of the mob. They set the city's colored orphan asylum on fire. They shot, burned, and hanged blacks they found in the streets. Many people were thrown into the rivers to drown.
(link)
But that would be dishonest to describe as "celebrating" too.

(He also later on mentions Southern draft riots, something you seldom hear about.)

"Also, I've read that there was a generation of historians largely focused in explanations other than slavery, people like Charles Beard, and that their theories played into the neo confederate desire to claim slavery wasn't the cause. Maybe Marxist isn't the strictly accurate description, but historians looked for economic and class causes of the war."

Yeah, that's right. But a lot of Beard's work has been discredited as overly-simplistic, a charge it was particularly open to due to Beard's explicit New History project of being accessible to laymen. Beard himself wasn't much of a neo-confederate, but his work was certainly appropriated by folks like Charles Ramsdell, who was pretty explicitly neo-confederate. I don't know enough about Beard's political views to know whether he was particularly prone to racism when he was writing about the Civil War.

I'll also say that he was writing about the Civil War in, what, 1927? So, in the midst of the Depression and within 60 years or so of the actual war, while there was still a lot more political will to cement Reconstruction harmony, and many Progressives and liberals of that era were startlingly racist to our sensibilities.
posted by klangklangston at 11:26 PM on February 25 [5 favorites]


So, I don't tend to think of Beard or Zinn as particularly shameful, when read in context, just wrong and over-simplifying, but without the ulterior motive that pervades Lost Cause-ism.
posted by klangklangston at 11:27 PM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Sorry for being wrong about the draft riots. I clearly was, but I wasn't being deliberately dishonest.

Zinn's overall take on the war is, however, as I remembered it and it is deeply flawed. Both he and Beard ignore the obvious importance of slavery in considering both the cause of the war and the results. I find that shameful both because it suggests a certain moral blindness and because they provided legitimacy to the historical theories pushed by lost causers.

In saying the war wasn't a war of peoples, Zinn seems to be deliberately ignoring all the black people who served in various ways. For them (as well as for many whites) it was a war about slavery. Whenever someone tells you the civil war wasn't about slavery because that's not why the soldiers fought, they are reading the black soldiers out of history.
posted by Area Man at 3:37 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]


Howard Zinn has done something important in history, and is often admired for raising up for discussion generally suppressed histories in America, but he is not regarded as a very good historian in academic terms. He's too polemical. His work is more important outside academia than inside it. It's a mistake to conflate "Howard Zinn" with "leftist historians" - those are Venn diagrams with only a little overlap. People outside the academy tend to overestimate his scholarly reputation mainly because he wrote for a lay audience, and therefore the lay audience is far more familiar with his voice than with the work of thousands of other historians who have dissected conventional narratives about the Civil War and everything else.

Beard died in 1948. It's really a problem to draw conclusions about what "lefist historians" think by casting back more than 65 years, skipping over all the scholarship of the new social history and ethnohistory of the 60s and 70s, the Civil Rights movement and its direction of effort to new sources on slavery and war, and all the other intellectual developments of late modernity and postmodernity.

If we're going to have an argument based on what people think of Howard Zinn and Charles Beard, then we're nowhere near having an argument about contemporary historians' perspectives on the Civil War. It is a silly exercise. These are not views representative of academic historians' current, or even recent, understandings about the Civil War.
posted by Miko at 5:56 AM on February 26 [12 favorites]


I wasn't trying to say anything about how current historians understand the civil war. I really was thinking of the work of earlier decades. However, I didn't make that clear and those are fair points.
posted by Area Man at 6:08 AM on February 26


"In saying the war wasn't a war of peoples, Zinn seems to be deliberately ignoring all the black people who served in various ways. For them (as well as for many whites) it was a war about slavery. Whenever someone tells you the civil war wasn't about slavery because that's not why the soldiers fought, they are reading the black soldiers out of history."

Actually, that whole chapter is pretty much about the black experience and motivations around the Civil War, and he talks a fair amount about the blacks who fought for the Union — he pretty much characterizes them as the folks who drew the Union into abolition kicking and screaming. But, like I said, I think he's giving a pretty flawed reading. And it does annoy me when people on the left put too much stock in his rhetoric as historical fact; it's similar to how I feel that Chomsky over-simplifies to the point of misleading polemics.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


How Slavery Made the Modern World: Slavery was the flywheel on which America’s market revolution turned—not just in the United States, but in all of the Americas.
posted by homunculus at 6:09 PM on February 26 [3 favorites]


That's a fascinating piece. Thanks.
posted by rtha at 7:37 PM on February 26


Slavery and Secession – The Documentary Evidence
One final point while I’m on the subject. While the cause of slavery is often identified with federalism and “states’ rights,” it’s also worth noting that the slaveholding states were anything but consistent advocates of states’ rights or limited federal power. Their view of the Fugitive Slave Clause and the various Fugitive Slave Acts made clear that they were all for a powerful federal government, so long as such power was used to force free states to cooperate in the maintenance of slavery as an institution, such as by assisting in the capture and return of alleged fugitive slaves. They sought to protect slavery, not to maintain some idealized federalist structure.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:40 PM on February 28 [15 favorites]


It's About Slavery, Stupid, Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, Esquire Politics Blog, 28 February 2014
The American Civil War is one of the few demonstrable cases in which the losers gained control of the narrative of history. Much as the Nazis developed the myth that the German Empire did not lose the First World War on the battlefield (they did) but instead that their armed forces were, "stabbed in the back" by liberals and Jews on the homefront (they were not), the Confederates in the post-Civil War era managed a concerted effort to conceal the causes of their rebellion. The cause of the war, they tried to claim, was "states rights." They tried to conceal that the cause was actually slavery, and that they themselves had said as much right at the outset. In this, over the course of the past 148 years, they have been depressingly successful. And that is not all.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:50 AM on March 1 [10 favorites]


Why Aren't Stories Like '12 Years a Slave' Told at Southern Plantation Museums?
posted by homunculus at 1:36 PM on March 1 [5 favorites]


The New York Times' 1853 Coverage of Solomon Northup, the Hero of "12 Years A Slave": Northup's story garnered heavy press coverage and spread widely in the weeks and months after he was rescued
posted by homunculus at 4:01 PM on March 3 [3 favorites]


Nice legal system we had back then. Almost as good as the one we have for gun shooters in Florida today.
posted by localroger at 7:55 PM on March 3


Charlie Pierce: Statues of Limitation
By early 1822, [Denmark] Vesey had begun to develop a plan for city slaves to rise up. On July 14, they would slay their masters as they slept, fight their way toward the docks and hoist sail for the black republic of Haiti, where slaves had successfully overthrown the French colonists two decades earlier. Vesey had not lived through the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean and South Carolina by turning the other cheek. With a tough-minded brutality that shocks modern critics of the statue, he worried little about the civilians who might fall as the rebelling slaves worked their way to the docks. While discussing the men who owned his wife and family with his fellow plotters, Vesey picked up a large snake in his path and crushed it with one hand. "That's the way we would do them," he said calmly.
The prospect of a statue honoring Vesey has inflamed conservative Charleston, and one columnist referred to him as a "terrorist." Professor Egerton, however, presents an anecdote that cuts rather to the quick.
More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish - the freedom for his friends and family - could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. "Why not work within the system for liberation," the man asked, or even "stage a protest march?"
There is still a long way to go. And, as Professor Egerton points out, the city never has been shy about memorializing actual treason.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:30 AM on March 4 [5 favorites]


Whether you're a terrorist or a freedom fighter depends a hell of a lot more on whether you win or lose the fight than what you're willing to do in the course of action.
posted by localroger at 6:53 AM on March 4


Hm. But usually when you win you get to be thought of as a freedom fighter.
posted by Miko at 8:50 AM on March 4


"Why not work within the system for liberation," the man asked, or even "stage a protest march?"

An actual person actually suggested this as an actual way for a slave to effect change in the slavery system in the early 1800's!? As per the original post, our education system is well and truly fucked.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:54 AM on March 4 [8 favorites]


"Why not work within the system for liberation," the man asked, or even "stage a protest march?"

The response in the original NYTimes article is worth quoting:

There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820.
posted by cjelli at 9:16 AM on March 4 [3 favorites]


I also have to kind of boggle at the stupidity of the person who refused to sell the man his own wife. Darwin wuz robbed.
posted by localroger at 9:17 AM on March 4


Why do you think that person was stupid? There are a lot of possibilites about why he wouldn't sell -- possibilities which include her being very valuable/skilled/hard to replace, and also her being the target of the owner's sexual interest, or the special favorite of a family member.

That's what this is about - an system in which cash isn't the only king. Legal owners of property can do with it what they want - even destroy it.
posted by Miko at 11:19 AM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Why do you think that person was stupid?

Bearing in mind that Vesey was himself a free person at this point, if I was claiming his wife as my slave and refusing to return her to him even for what the system considered fair compensation, I'd be sleeping in a room full of booby traps with a pistol under my pillow for sure. What did the fucking morons think Vesey would do?

Apparently they really just didn't get the memo about black people being human with actual feelings and shit.

Legal owners of property can do with it what they want - even destroy it.

Actually there were some (admittedly weak and under-enforced) protections in this regard even in the antebellum slave economy, probably in the same spirit that we have animal cruelty laws today.

While slaves generally had no protection against their families being broken up by the trade, Vesey wasn't a slave any more when this went down. He was just as free to use the money that moron wouldn't take to give him his wife to buy pitchforks, torches, and firearms as any other free person. That anyone thought it wouldn't end in horror was a massive Darwin fail.

(And it's probably the reason for the anti-manumission laws which followed. Seems slaves that managed to get their freedom weren't all entirely grateful about the experience.)
posted by localroger at 12:53 PM on March 4


That's what this is about - an system in which cash isn't the only king. Legal owners of property can do with it what they want - even destroy it.

Also, a system where a man can't be with his wife -- and a person can't have their freedom -- because Miss Rosalie really prefers Katy's hollandaise sauce over any of the other kitchen maids'.
posted by Sara C. at 1:55 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Apparently they really just didn't get the memo about black people being human with actual feelings and shit.

Well, yes. They were slavers.
posted by kafziel at 2:40 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


Vesey wasn't a slave any more when this went down.

I understand the facts of the matter as well as you, localroger, but I think your point of view is naive. It would not necessarily occur to the owner that Vesey, even as a free black man, could do or would dare to do him any ill in an act of revenge. This was a total white-dominated police state. It's not as though people were fully empowered or seen as full citizens and independent men because they had manumission papers.

Seems slaves that managed to get their freedom weren't all entirely grateful about the experience

Mm hmm, largely because they were still at the mercy of a white-dominated police state. But I'd like to see what you would cite here for anti-manumission laws. They were more common in the century before the Civil War, and were generally meant to prevent old, sick, weak, or disabled former slaves from ending up on the public welfare. In other words, they were a protection for the owner class, not the slave class.

Actually there were some (admittedly weak and under-enforced) protections in this regard even in the antebellum slave economy, probably in the same spirit that we have animal cruelty laws today.

I'd be curious to see what you would cite here. I mean, I know what weak provisions you mean, but I also know that an owner's power was not limited in the de facto sense. Laws say one thing, diaries and actual court cases another.
posted by Miko at 2:50 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Well, yes. They were slavers idiots.

Really, it's so self-reassuring to harp how EEEEVIL certain $people were but where the short hairs grow they were people and they lived in a world, just as we do, and while they had privileges and such that we don't think they should have enjoyed, at the end of their day the sun set just as it does for us and reality is reality no matter what a crazy stupid person might think it is.

The bottom line here is that you have a guy who is wrongly color-coded but still free and has some money and he wants his wife. In what mythology do you not stand between this guy and what he wants at your peril? Hell someone is probably working on the Hollywood treatment even as I write this.
posted by localroger at 3:08 PM on March 4


Keep in mind that even now it's possible to be acquitted of murder in the state of Florida for shooting someone point blank, as long as the person you shot was black and you were not.

I think it's hard to understand this if you grew up outside the south, but there is a huge complicated social structure that (literally) privileges some people over others. That social structure is taught from birth and internalized even by people who recognize it and are trying to avoid it. And this is today, 150 years after the Civil War.

That unwritten code of who counts, whose desires are more valid, and who has power over whom started under slavery. In fact it is that code that made slavery possible, since if people simply didn't respect the owner class, slavery couldn't have lasted very long.
posted by Sara C. at 3:24 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I have to agree, localroger. You vastly underestimate the power network of the white owner class - total hegemony. It's appealing, I'm sure, to think that if they were just as smart as you they'd know enough to fear, not dismiss, the enemies they made daily, but they were as smart, and some much smarter. The idea that you knew if you did a black person wrong on the individual level, they might feel empowered to enact retribution that you'd have to seriously contend with, and would be able, logistically, to do it -- that's not "mythology." The kinds of punishment and control this society could leverage - not just on you, but on everyone you loved, in front of you, with no recimination, are unimaginable to us - and everyone then knew they had that capability. That's just not how their world worked.

It's not even how our world works. It's not as if there's an even balance of power amongst all people, and so it's just an action movie. If there were any such sense of the likelihood that people who are personally done wrong and disempowered would much more often take the indivudual risk of taking violent action to win the justice they deserve, there'd be a lot more mansions on fire in this country right now.
posted by Miko at 3:35 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


it's possible to be acquitted of murder in the state of Florida

Yeah, someone mentioned that already.

there'd be a lot more mansions on fire in this country right now.

I can't figure out why there aren't.
posted by localroger at 3:42 PM on March 4


Oh, and this:

I think it's hard to understand this if you grew up outside the south

I grew up in New Orleans. Last time I looked it up this was, actually, the South.
posted by localroger at 3:43 PM on March 4


I can't figure out why there aren't.

Because people, on the whole, are smart enough to do a simple risk/benefit calculation. You usually don't win against the house. We aren't all revolutionaries .
posted by Miko at 4:07 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]



The bottom line here is that you have a guy who is wrongly color-coded but still free and has some money and he wants his wife. In what mythology do you not stand between this guy and what he wants at your peril? Hell someone is probably working on the Hollywood treatment even as I write this.


Well that's Django Unchained.
posted by sweetkid at 4:30 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Really, it's so self-reassuring to harp how EEEEVIL certain $people were but where the short hairs grow they were people and they lived in a world, just as we do, and while they had privileges and such that we don't think they should have enjoyed, at the end of their day the sun set just as it does for us and reality is reality no matter what a crazy stupid person might think it is.

Yeah but the thing is? Owning other human beings as property is the definition of evil. I refuse to submit to any cultural relativism here, or 'they were just products of their time' or 'they're just like us.'

Because they were not just like me. They thought owning people was fine. It's not.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:30 AM on March 5


Yeah but the thing is? Owning other human beings as property is the definition of evil. I refuse to submit to any cultural relativism here, or 'they were just products of their time' or 'they're just like us.' Because they were not just like me

Really? Really?

Can you swear that no product you consume is the result of slavery? Can you swear that you do not benefit, right now, today, from slave and child labor? Can you swear that right now, in this country, there are not people who are, for all intents and purposes, owned?

And yet, I'll wager if you get a jury notification to participate in a justice system that is a pipeline to prison-slave-labor, you'll go sit in the jury. If you are assaulted, or think someone guilty of a crime, you'll say "They should be arrested!" or "There outta be a law!" Are you checking this thread, perhaps, on an iPhone?

I'm not even going to get into what the vegans claim about what we should or should not be doing with sentient animals, because I don't believe it myself and think it's a little eyeroll-worthy, but I strongly suggest if you're going to die on this sanctimonious "Cultural relativism is for everyone but me" hill, you should have a conversation with a few about the ethicality of enslaving and then consuming various creatures.

The whole "I'm going to condemn slavery and talk about how much worse those people are than me" is nothing more than performative self-aggrandizement.
posted by corb at 7:06 AM on March 5


They thought owning people was fine.

And that thought distinguished them from the many people at the time who articulated a clear moral objection to it. They had the opportunity to consider not owning people, and they rejected it. Relativism does not apply; they lived in the same moral universe, with access to the same ideas, that we do.

I have no problem understanding this as evil. People are capable of evil. They do evil every day. Evil is not some dramatic comic-book force - it's a human capacity for a profound disregard for moral principle that affords human dignity to others. That's all it is.

The whole "I'm going to condemn slavery and talk about how much worse those people are than me" is nothing more than performative self-aggrandizement.

Sophomoric. Massive categorical errors, conflation. Not a serious argument.

The best proof is that we are actually arguing with people who are eager to defend slavery.
posted by Miko at 7:07 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]


The whole "I'm going to condemn slavery and talk about how much worse those people are than me" is nothing more than performative self-aggrandizement.

I suppose "I'm going to not condemn slavery and talk about how much better I am than you people" is the height of self-effacement
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:29 AM on March 5 [9 favorites]


And that thought distinguished them from the many people at the time who articulated a clear moral objection to it.

Some people of the time articulated clear moral objections, but that is no guarantee that they actually made their way to the insular areas where slavery held sway. It's the filter effect. You hear arguments and read arguments of the society in which you live. And I'd argue that a majority of the people who fought for abolition - people who were making very principled stances - had the luxury of doing so because their family inheritances or wealth were not dependent on slaves. It is a lot harder to understand something when your world and the happiness of your family depends on you not understanding it.

And this is why it's terribly important for us to think about that, now. Because the first realization is understanding that we are not special. We are not uniquely poised. Nothing about us is inherently better than the generations who came before us. If they made mistakes, we would have made mistakes. We are imperfect creatures, just as humans have always been imperfect creatures, and we are willing for other people to suffer for us to live in safety and security.

I'm not better. None of us are better. We all are content with other people's suffering. The only difference between any of us is that we disagree about which are the people who should suffer for us, and how much they should suffer. And we draw moral lines to aid us in identifying those whose suffering is justifiable and right, and those who it's not - but those lines are mostly arbitrary. At the end of the day, we're all profiting from pain.
posted by corb at 7:41 AM on March 5


Meanwhile:
This is not only a Texas issue. A few years back, for instance, Virginia’s fourth-graders read in their school textbooks that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. And, as James Loewen argued so memorably, myths and distortions fill textbooks nationwide.

The battle over the history of race, slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction has a long backstory. As historians such as David Blight and Jonathan Zimmerman have demonstrated, generations of activists and politicians have worked hard to occlude accurate history with politically palatable myths.

There is not much controversy about this among historians. The notion, for instance, that large numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy simply isn’t true. Yet historians’ knowledge has had little impact on classroom practice. The author of Virginia’s fallacious fourth-grade textbook, for example, told the Washington Post that she had found her information about Confederate slaves from “Internet research.” In Texas, activist Bill Ames denounced the “leftist education establishment” for ignoring the controversy over the real reasons for the Civil War.

But there is no controversy among historians. At least, not the kind of controversy Ames suggests. And we have a clear precedent for this insistence on teaching myths, lies, and distortions in order to include both sides of a false controversy. Such arguments are the stock-in-trade of anti-evolution activists who hope to dilute the teaching of evolutionary theory in America’s schools.
Meanwhile:
Die-hard defenders of some version of the Lost Cause today say that the South has always been the victim of “political correctness” in school textbooks, and that this continues to this day. The truth is just the opposite: for decades, publishers of school textbooks went out of their way not to offend delicate Southern sensibilities in their treatment of the Civil War. One longtime publishing executive told me that when he got into the business in the 1960s, it was common to see two different versions of school history textbooks—one for in the Deep South and one for everywhere else, “and the difference was how you treated the Civil War.” By the mid-twentieth century, even textbooks that did not repeat the UDC party line still tiptoed carefully through the minefield. Take this passage, for example, from a widely used 1943 high school history textbook, which depicts a slave-holding South of stately mansions and benevolent slave owners: “The confederates . . . believed they were fighting for the democratic principle of freedom to manage their own affairs, just as the thirteen colonies had fought in the Revolutionary War.” The same textbook describes the Ku Klux Klan as a group that “sometimes” resorted to violence in its effort to retake local governments from the hands of incompetent former slaves. A 1965 textbook used in Alabama public schools taught another key point of the lost cause creed—that slavery was a benign institution: “In one respect, the slave was almost always better off than free laborers, white or black, of the same period [because] the slave received the best medical care which the times could offer.”

Publishers don’t offer a special “Southern” version of history anymore; these days, they cater to individual state educational standards, though some states—like California and Texas—have a disproportionate national influence on what those standards are. The problem today, the former publishing executive told me, is that “with so many state standards, the books have become in the last ten years longer, blander, more visual, certainly—and more inclusive. There’s so much to cover.” The result is like light beer: better tasting, less filling. With no space to truth-squad a 150-year-old public relations campaign, today’s texts simply strive not to offend; they don’t perpetrate the lost cause myth, but they don’t do much to correct it, either. Take this passage from a text widely used in public high schools today, which neatly splits the difference between the “states’ rights” and the “slavery” camps: “For the South, the primary aim of the war was to win recognition as an independent nation. Independence would allow Southerners to preserve their traditional way of life—a way of life that included slavery.” That’s a way of putting it even Miss Milly might have been able to live with.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:51 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


And we draw moral lines to aid us in identifying those whose suffering is justifiable and right, and those who it's not - but those lines are mostly arbitrary.

who should suffer here:

the guy getting whipped and beaten for the least thing in the world

or

the guy whipping and beating him and sleeping well at night

or

the guy who pays the second guy to whip and beat the first one

hmmmmmmmmmmmmm

as a profoundly moral person, I can't even hope to decide
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:56 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


I wish that this was the first time I had read or heard the portrayal of abolitionists as decadent socialites who couldn't "understand" slavery because they had the "luxury" of doing so.

But it's not.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:57 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


To be clear, I was saying that it was hard for a slave-owning society to understand the need for abolition, rather than the reverse, though I suppose the reverse would also be true because any isolated society has difficulty understanding the other.
posted by corb at 8:10 AM on March 5


And I'd argue that a majority of the people who fought for abolition - people who were making very principled stances - had the luxury of doing so because their family inheritances or wealth were not dependent on slaves

You'd argue, or you'd baselessly assert?
posted by spaltavian at 8:13 AM on March 5 [6 favorites]


The isolation you're talking about didn't exist to anywhere near the extent you posit, on either side. There's been a good deal of evidence from primary sources rebutting the various permutations of this excuse presented here, and absolutely none supporting it.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:15 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


So on the one hand, I'm sympathetic to corb's argument that we shouldn't be so quick to judge slaveholders or confederates as people, and just for the fact of being slavers or supporting it, for the simple reason that if we had been brought up in those families, we would be virtually certain to hold similar reprehensible beliefs. One of the great lessons from the Holocaust and studies like Milgram's is that while we might want to identify with the few brave people who fought against it or with the victims, the truth of the matter is that we are not all Bonhoeffer or Schindler or anonymous suffering Jews/Roma/gays. Almost universally, unless we are careful and lucky in who we put in authority over us, we are all Eichmann.

(This starts to fall down with slavers specifically since many of them seem to have been warped by the institution they were part of into pretty disturbed monsters)

On the other hand, I hope corb won't mind me saying that it would be more... seemly... if she brought out this real concern more frequently for things other than slavery, since it starts to feel -- unintentionally I'm sure -- like special pleading for slavers. And of course we do commonly judge people for their actions and choices, even if they were driven to those choices by circumstances out of their control.

And also:

Some people of the time articulated clear moral objections, but that is no guarantee that they actually made their way to the insular areas where slavery held sway.

This is a terrible argument. If slavers by and large hadn't heard of this whole abolition thing, what the fuck were they doing seceding the instant a kinda-abolitionist got into the White House?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:16 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


So on the one hand, I'm sympathetic to corb's argument that we shouldn't be so quick to judge slaveholders or confederates as people,

I'd be more sympathetic if corb didn't make it crystal fucking clear in every one of these threads that when she talks about "people" and their rights to their "property" she means "slave-owners" and "slaves," respectively.

If that isn't performative I don't know what is.
posted by rtha at 8:19 AM on March 5 [14 favorites]


any isolated society has difficulty understanding the other.

There is no evidence at all that people who held slaves were at all isolated from people who didn't or felt the practice abhorrent. You are doing that thing again where you are positing a "just wondering..." sort of idle thought exercise without knowing the facts of the situation and with people who have a lot of skin in the game. If you want to continue to make molotov-cocktail-like comments here about why we should sympathize with slave owners, please consider bringing your A Game or at least some citations.
posted by jessamyn at 8:39 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Almost universally, unless we are careful and lucky in who we put in authority over us, we are all Eichmann.

I tend to agree, though I place serious weight on the power of individual moral reasoning and the examples of people who did attempt to change the systems they were within convinces me that people did have the opportunity to consider and object. They made moral decisions. We all make them, all the time - insofar as that, I agree with corb - but we should not be looking to excuse moral decisions that are reprehensible by our standards today. I do agree that we are products of our influence but we are not solely those products - we are also agents. And there are enough examples of people who used their agency in ways counter to the reigning paradigm that one can conclude that environment alone is not intellectual destiny. Of course we tend to overidentify with those who are now heroes and underidentify with those who we now deplore, when the great likelihood is that most of us would fall in the flabby middle, at best. At the same time, that doesn't render invalid an argument that slavery was a great evil. Are we doing great evil today? I am sure we are. To take up the vegan analogy - a poor one, but anyway - in 100 years, I am fairly certain meat eating will be a lot more rare in developed societies, and that our current degree of meat consumption and certainly our husbandry practices will be morally deplored. That doesn't actually excuse me from the moral decision I make to eat meat now. I have plenty of information about it - everything need access to to make a moral decision - and I'm responsible for that decision.

Some people of the time articulated clear moral objections, but that is no guarantee that they actually made their way to the insular areas where slavery held sway.

This is totally, demonstrably false and reveals tremendous ignorance of history. As zombieflanders notes, the incredible weight of historical evidence is that people did know about abolitionist arguments. Those who had the power to make decisions about slavery discussed these arguments at parties, debated them in public fora, tried them in cases, editorialized about them in newspapers, attempted to rebut them in Congress, and ultimately took political action - all in a knowledgeable and information-rich environment about the arguments. It is so trivial a thing to prove that it's not worth starting to cite. Anyone with a passing interest in understanding the debate can easily Google hundreds of secondary-school-level discussions of the road to abolition.
posted by Miko at 8:55 AM on March 5 [13 favorites]


If slavery was some arcane practice in insular areas that could not be easily known about or grokked by outsiders, we probably wouldn't have fought an entire war over it.

We probably wouldn't still be hashing out that war today.

The entire country wouldn't still be living with the social fallout of a racialized slave system.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


You see, I need slaves to sell products in a complex international market place, where I use trans-Atlantic profits to buy many of the manufactured goods from elsewhere in my country. I am very concerned with the issue of tarrifs, and the how the current glut of Egyptian cotton is affecting my main commodity.

As you can see, I am far too isloated from the rest of the world to have encountered different ideas or social structures.
posted by spaltavian at 9:25 AM on March 5 [11 favorites]


This says that African Americans were around 40% of the population in 1860 in what would become the confederate states. That's a sizable chunk of the south that I'm going to presume were anti-slavery. The discussion of whether white southerners were morally blind seems profoundly silly and I find it hard to believe that it is in good faith.
posted by rdr at 9:33 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


Those who had the power to make decisions about slavery discussed these arguments at parties, debated them in public fora, tried them in cases, editorialized about them in newspapers, attempted to rebut them in Congress, and ultimately took political action

Certainly - the decision makers have always had access to knowledge on both sides of the aisle, regardless of whatever credence they might give to them, and national-level politicians most particularly. I'm certainly not arguing that decision makers, or even average slavers, had never heard of abolition -that would indeed be patently ridiculous. Of course they had heard of abolition, and of course they probably knew the bare-bones arguments against it. What I'm suggesting is that your average Southerner benefiting from slavery did not often have exposure to clear, cogent, complete arguments for immediate abolition - in part because of said self-imposed social isolation, and isolation from ideas practiced by others, many of whom had a vested interest in the perpetuation of slavery as a system.

In some states, the bringing in of abolitionist material was strongly discouraged or illegal - making it much more difficult for people to gain access to it. It was illegal in South Carolina for a time, beginning in 1820. Booksellers daring to sell even the extremely popular "Uncle Tom's Cabin" could be run out of town.

Think about today - today, in the information age, when everyone has free access to any kind of material if they should go looking for it, and then consider how many people are still stuck inside a filter bubble. They are aware that controversy exists. But when they go looking for sources, they look to the familiar, they look to the ones they are used to, that their parents used, that everyone around them uses. Metafilter itself has very strong views about what are acceptable sources to learn from and what are not.

Now, in many ways, it is correct that people - even Southern slaveholders - themselves debated on the morality of slavery. But they were doing so for very different reasons and about very different concepts than Northern Abolitionists. Robert E Lee is said to have written,
In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
To argue that the antislavery arguments of a Lee are equivalent to the antislavery writings of a William Garrison is simply not seeing clearly.
I accuse her of disfranchising and proscribing nearly half a million free people of color, acknowledging them not as countrymen, and scarcely as rational beings, and seeking to drag them thousands of miles across the ocean on a plea of benevolence, when they ought to enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities of American citizens.
I accuse her of suffering a large portion of her population to be lacerated, starved and plundered, without law and without justification, at the will of petty tyrants.
posted by corb at 9:56 AM on March 5


I tend to agree, though I place serious weight on the power of individual moral reasoning and the examples of people who did attempt to change the systems they were within convinces me that people did have the opportunity to consider and object.

Sure. Even if I probably would have acted like [purveyor of atrocity] if somehow placed sufficiently in his shoes, the fact remains that he did them. I don't know that acknowledging that we aren't saints or intrinsically so much better than them that we'd never have done it requires much except a small inflection in the kinds of judgments we make about people, or the degree of scorn we apply. Certainly I don't agree with the impression I get from some of corb's arguments that we outright shouldn't morally judge slaveowners. We should, in the same way that we might morally judge someone who, say, killed a person as part of a drug deal gone bad even though stuctural forces they had no control over strongly pushed them into the drug trade.

Now, in many ways, it is correct that people - even Southern slaveholders - themselves debated on the morality of slavery. But they were doing so for very different reasons and about very different concepts than Northern Abolitionists

Sometimes. Jefferson is quite plain that slavery is simply morally wrong and unjust to the people being enslaved... he just kept doing it anyway, partly out of fear of (just) reprisals against former slaveowners and presumably partly because he liked being rich. And of course at smaller levels doing things we know to be wrong is also universally human... but the level to which Jefferson took it, taking people he claimed to love as his personal chattel property, also matters.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:07 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Why are we still arguing over the moral responsibility borne by individual average Southern whites (since the decision-makers are apparently off the table) when the issue of the thread is that slavery as an institution was the central cause of the war, the cause to which all the other candidate causes are tied, and that there are still concentrated campaigns to distract from this truth?

Those campaigns, not incidentally, do this by focusing instead on, for instance, the moral responsibility borne by individual average Southern whites.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:17 AM on March 5 [5 favorites]


What I'm suggesting is that your average Southerner benefiting from slavery did not often have exposure to clear, cogent, complete arguments for immediate abolition

You're arguing it based on what?

It's just not true, corb. Sorry. Facts are against you.

I get a strong whiff of trolling.
posted by Miko at 10:21 AM on March 5 [7 favorites]


At the end of the day, we're all profiting from pain.

Except for the slaves who were enduring pain so that others could profit.
posted by cjelli at 10:28 AM on March 5 [4 favorites]


Why are we still arguing over the moral responsibility borne by individual average Southern whites (since the decision-makers are apparently off the table) when the issue of the thread is that slavery as an institution was the central cause of the war, the cause to which all the other candidate causes are tied, and that there are still concentrated campaigns to distract from this truth?

Because people who really really want to absolve the Confederacy from being an evil organization rooted in slavery and engaged in insurrection against their lawful government have to keep changing the field of the argument as they get cornered again and again. Since it's impossible to argue that the elite of the Confederacy were not entirely knowingly engaged in evil practices, one has to dig down to the isolated poor Southerners to find a group that might be held blameless. Once you get that condition, you play the "Paradox of the Heap" game, so you can absolve the Confederacy all the way up to Jefferson Davis of actual wrong-doing as you move the criteria of doubt just a little further at each step. Or that's my guess.

To be fair, the poor white Southerner was (and to some degree remains) a secondary victim of the miasma that surrounds the Confederacy, being induced to fight a war that didn't benefit them and fed a diet of racism that keeps them voting against their own interests. So, yeah, you can make a case that, if you set the grain fine enough, you will find less culpable people. That does not mean that the rhetorical tactic is not dishonest, disingenuous, and ultimately serving the causes of racism and injustice.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:57 AM on March 5 [13 favorites]


but I strongly suggest if you're going to die on this sanctimonious "Cultural relativism is for everyone but me" hill, you should have a conversation with a few about the ethicality of enslaving and then consuming various creatures.

And that, right there, is the moment I stopped assuming good faith of you.

There is an enormous difference between owning sentient human beings and having an ox pull a plow--or throwing a stick for your dog. You know this.

Slavery is wrong. I am completely comfortable with considering myself better than a person who thought it was fine to own slaves. I am also better than Hitler.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:05 PM on March 5 [4 favorites]


What I'm suggesting is that your average Southerner benefiting from slavery did not often have exposure to clear, cogent, complete arguments for immediate abolition

You can suggest whatever you want. It's simply not supported by facts, no matter how many random links you toss into your comment. You're moving the goalposts and I don't think you're arguing in good faith. I'd like you to have a good faith discussion here with people and not continue down this "I'm just saying..." path.
posted by jessamyn at 12:08 PM on March 5 [6 favorites]


John Stewart Mill. Fraser’s Magazine, XLI (Jan., 1850), 25-31. In response to Thomas Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Fraser’s Magazine, XL (Dec., 1849), 670-9.
He entirely misunderstands the great national revolt of the conscience of this country against slavery and the slave-trade, if he supposes it to have been an affair of sentiment. It depended no more on humane feelings than any cause which so irresistibly appealed to them must necessarily do. Its first victories were gained while the lash yet ruled uncontested in the barrack-yard and the rod in schools, and while men were still hanged by dozens for stealing to the value of forty shillings. It triumphed because it was the cause of justice; and, in the estimation of the great majority of its supporters, of religion. Its originators and leaders were persons of a stern sense of moral obligation, who, in the spirit of the religion of their time, seldom spoke much of benevolence and philanthropy, but often of duty, crime, and sin. For nearly two centuries had negroes, many thousands annually, been seized by force or treachery and carried off to the West Indies to be worked to death, literally to death; for it was the received maxim, the acknowledged dictate of good economy, to wear them out quickly and import more. In this fact every other possible cruelty, tyranny, and wanton oppression was by implication included. And the motive on the part of the slave-owners was the love of gold; or, to speak more truly, of vulgar and puerile ostentation. I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth. It is a mockery to talk of comparing it with Ireland.
...
That this country should turn back, in the matter of negro slavery, I have not the smallest apprehension. There is, however, another place where that tyranny still flourishes, but now for the first time finds itself seriously in danger. At this crisis of American slavery, when the decisive conflict between right and iniquity seems about to commence, your contributor steps in, and flings this missile, loaded with the weight of his reputation, into the abolitionist camp. The words of English writers of celebrity are words of power on the other side of the ocean: and the owners of human flesh, who probably thought they had not an honest man on their side between the Atlantic and the Vistula, will welcome such an auxiliary. Circulated as his dissertation will probably be, by those whose interests profit by it, from one end of the American Union to the other, I hardly know of an act by which one person could have done so much mischief as this may possibly do, and I hold that by thus acting, he has made himself an instrument of what an able writer in the Inquirer justly calls “a true work of the devil.”[*]
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:33 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


"Really? Really?"

Yep, yep.

Can you swear that no product you consume is the result of slavery? Can you swear that you do not benefit, right now, today, from slave and child labor? Can you swear that right now, in this country, there are not people who are, for all intents and purposes, owned? "

It's weird, the goalposts were just here a minute ago, with slavery. Now they're over there with child labor, then some sort of extra-legal serfdom… But yes, I can pretty much guarantee that a negligible amount of products I consume are created with actual slave labor.

"And yet, I'll wager if you get a jury notification to participate in a justice system that is a pipeline to prison-slave-labor, you'll go sit in the jury. If you are assaulted, or think someone guilty of a crime, you'll say "They should be arrested!" or "There outta be a law!" Are you checking this thread, perhaps, on an iPhone? "

What? Yes, I have sat on a jury. Equating prison labor with slave labor is either conceptually confused or deliberate disingenuousness. The bits about assault are a red herring.

I'm not even going to get into what the vegans claim about what we should or should not be doing with sentient animals, because I don't believe it myself and think it's a little eyeroll-worthy, but I strongly suggest if you're going to die on this sanctimonious "Cultural relativism is for everyone but me" hill, you should have a conversation with a few about the ethicality of enslaving and then consuming various creatures."

I'm a vegetarian, so if you wanna go down that road, I'm not going to stop you. But you realize that positing things that you don't believe in order to support an argument is pretty much the definition of disingenuous, right?

And you realize that "cultural relativism" isn't absolute? I mean, slavery actually makes a pretty good case for that — slavery is wrong, no matter the culture. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. (I would also accept female genital mutilation as an example of a limit to cultural relativism.)


The whole "I'm going to condemn slavery and talk about how much worse those people are than me" is nothing more than performative self-aggrandizement."

Fine. Then this whole, "I'm going to defend slavery because I think other people are being sanctimonious" is nothing more than an attempt to make yourself feel better about not supporting laws to limit labor exploitation right now. Libertarians are against limiting labor contract rights, including those of child labor. You're trying to mitigate that by providing apologies for a worse abrogation of human rights.

If you want to play at motivations, you'll lose and look worse than you do now.

Some people of the time articulated clear moral objections, but that is no guarantee that they actually made their way to the insular areas where slavery held sway.

Well, except for the whole historical record thing, like how Jefferson went back and forth in letters with abolitionist. So, except for the facts, you're right.

It's the filter effect. You hear arguments and read arguments of the society in which you live. And I'd argue that a majority of the people who fought for abolition - people who were making very principled stances - had the luxury of doing so because their family inheritances or wealth were not dependent on slaves.

Would you base this on evidence or on a gut feeling of truthiness? The major proponent of abolition in England actually made his fortune from slavery, and turned to oppose it at great personal cost. Ben Franklin, whose agricultural holdings relied on slave labor, turned into an abolitionist.

It is a lot harder to understand something when your world and the happiness of your family depends on you not understanding it.

; _ ; sometimes its hard to do the right thing so might as well own slaves


And this is why it's terribly important for us to think about that, now. Because the first realization is understanding that we are not special. We are not uniquely poised. Nothing about us is inherently better than the generations who came before us.

This is nonsense. There's plenty that's better about us than previous generations — we live longer, we are more educated, we understand racism and sexism and classism much better than previous generations, oh, yeah, and what's that other thing? We don't own slaves. That's a pretty big one.

If they made mistakes, we would have made mistakes. We are imperfect creatures, just as humans have always been imperfect creatures, and we are willing for other people to suffer for us to live in safety and security. "

Bullshit. This is conflating SLAVERY with every other possible human mistake in a massive category error that only serves to muddy, not to prove.

I'm not better. None of us are better.

Really? I checked my house and I don't own any slaves. Do you?

"We all are content with other people's suffering. The only difference between any of us is that we disagree about which are the people who should suffer for us, and how much they should suffer."

The only difference between us is SIGNIFICANT ACTUAL DIFFERENCES? Why, you don't say! Why, you don't reduce that disingenuously to minimize the substantive differences between our positions!

And we draw moral lines to aid us in identifying those whose suffering is justifiable and right, and those who it's not - but those lines are mostly arbitrary. At the end of the day, we're all profiting from pain.

Bullshit again. The lines are not mostly arbitrary, and I don't believe that I'm profiting much from pain at the moment. "What's this 'we,' white man?"

"Certainly - the decision makers have always had access to knowledge on both sides of the aisle, regardless of whatever credence they might give to them, and national-level politicians most particularly. I'm certainly not arguing that decision makers, or even average slavers, had never heard of abolition -that would indeed be patently ridiculous.

Yes, yes it would.

Of course they had heard of abolition, and of course they probably knew the bare-bones arguments against it.

Or, you know, massive amounts of historical debate on the singular issue of the times. Ta-MAY-to, ta-MAH-to.

What I'm suggesting is that your average Southerner benefiting from slavery did not often have exposure to clear, cogent, complete arguments for immediate abolition - in part because of said self-imposed social isolation, and isolation from ideas practiced by others, many of whom had a vested interest in the perpetuation of slavery as a system.

What I'm suggesting is that you don't know what you're talking about and are inventing histories to give your bald argument a wig. Seriously, people knew, people remarked, people debated. That they were not convinced because it was convenient for them is not an argument that they were ignorant, it's an argument that they were so selfish as to deny the humanity of their slaves. Post-facto rationalization is not the same as blissful ignorance.

"In some states, the bringing in of abolitionist material was strongly discouraged or illegal - making it much more difficult for people to gain access to it. It was illegal in South Carolina for a time, beginning in 1820. Booksellers daring to sell even the extremely popular "Uncle Tom's Cabin" could be run out of town. "

Ergo, they'd never heard of it? That's an argument that they'd heard of it and were reacting against it.

"Think about today - today, in the information age, when everyone has free access to any kind of material if they should go looking for it, and then consider how many people are still stuck inside a filter bubble. They are aware that controversy exists. But when they go looking for sources, they look to the familiar, they look to the ones they are used to, that their parents used, that everyone around them uses. Metafilter itself has very strong views about what are acceptable sources to learn from and what are not. "

Yup. But… wait, I thought we were no different from them? And again, this was the national debate for some 70 years. Further, it's not like you're making a stronger case by trying to justify the pro-slavery sentiments of plebes. Plebes weren't the ones that started the war, though they did, and this is worth highlighting to you because you don't seem at all interested in taking it in, really fight for slavery. Which does make them deeply, deeply wrong. And to be willing to put your life on the line for a belief does sort of imply a responsibility to be conversant in the argument.

Now, in many ways, it is correct that people - even Southern slaveholders - themselves debated on the morality of slavery. But they were doing so for very different reasons and about very different concepts than Northern Abolitionists. Robert E Lee is said to have written,

Well, no, they were doing so for pretty much the same reasons that the Northerners were. Before Georgia was even a state, their governor was calling for the abolition of slavery on the grounds that it dehumanized the slaves and corrupted the slave owners.
posted by klangklangston at 1:39 PM on March 5 [18 favorites]


Certainly I don't agree with the impression I get from some of corb's arguments that we outright shouldn't morally judge slaveowners. We should, in the same way that we might morally judge someone who, say, killed a person as part of a drug deal gone bad even though stuctural forces they had no control over strongly pushed them into the drug trade.

I'm not saying no one can be morally judged, because of cultural relativism. I'm saying that if we are going to morally judge people, we need to judge them in the context of their lives and the society we live in. We need to judge them with empathy, as we would like to be judged ourselves. We need to understand why they would have done the things they did, and not just intellectually, but emotionally.

The notion of what we think of the losers, or the other side, of a war is hardly an abstract to me. It is extremely personal. As a soldier, I experienced the dehumanization of our enemy. My skin was in that game. My skin will always be in that game. Their flaws were highlighted and their redeeming features were elided. Every instance of their brutality was brought to mind as often as possible. As far as we were concerned, they never kissed their children to sleep at night, or loved, or read poetry. We were encouraged to think of them as subhuman - and yes, evil, so we could sleep more comfortably with killing them.

I understand how it is that good people can dehumanize other people. So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for people who found all their paths leading to that. But at the same time, I am not comfortable with dehumanization, and I don't think I should have to be. Yes, the people are long dead. Yes, it could be argued that it doesn't matter no matter what we do, in our minds, to a centuries-conquered enemy. But those impulses, the impulses to create a category of people who had different ideas from us as evil and unredeemable and incomprehensible, bad, nogoodniks who deserve what they got, I find completely reprehensible. Those are living impulses, and they get real people killed. They get real corpses desecrated.

People I personally knew, people I loved and still love and have to live in the presence of, gave prisoners into the hands of IPs that they knew were going to torture them, because they were convinced that the enemy was evil and beyond redemption. Is it really that hard to grok that I viscerally hate the entire concept of stripping people of their humanity?

Or what the hell, just decide I'm trolling, I guess. That is definitely easier than trying to understand someone.
posted by corb at 1:44 PM on March 5


Offa the cross, we need the wood. It's entirely possible that we understand you, find your arguments ahistorical and riddled with special pleading, and find it frankly frightening that you're more concerned with the figurative dehumanization of Confederate slave owners than you are with the actual dehumanization of slaves. I would hope that if I was making such an oblivious, privileged and ignorant argument that I would be swiftly and bluntly corrected.
posted by klangklangston at 1:55 PM on March 5 [20 favorites]


Is it really that hard to grok that I viscerally hate the entire concept of stripping people of their humanity?

No, but it's kind of hard to understand why "the endemic slavery of Civil War era southern United States" somehow needs to be, at great length, the canvas for you working through that, as if the most important thing about the moral travesty that is historic slave ownership in the US is that we do our best to make circumstantial excuses for a bunch of dead folks unambiguously implicated in terrible wrong-doing so that they don't feel bad.

Or what the hell, just decide I'm trolling, I guess.

"Troll" is a word people often use when they've lost their patience with someone. I don't think it's a particularly useful word because it has all kinds of overloaded baggage, but I certainly understand the loss-of-patience thing here; you've been going back to this same bizarrely tone-deaf well, in this thread alone, for literally weeks now. Start a blog.
posted by cortex at 1:57 PM on March 5 [8 favorites]


So yes, I have a lot of sympathy for people who found all their paths leading to that. But at the same time, I am not comfortable with dehumanization, and I don't think I should have to be.

Of course you shouldn't be. But that impulse should not be driving you to make shit up about an extremely well-documented part of history and its actors. And it really, really should not drive you to never acknowledge in these threads that the slave-owners dehumanized the people they owned in the most brutal ways possible.

Look at your own language in these threads, when you talk about "people" and when you talk about "property." Your blind spot about this is astonishing in its scope and persistence.
posted by rtha at 2:00 PM on March 5 [13 favorites]


I'm saying that if we are going to morally judge people, we need to judge them in the context of their lives and the society we live in. We need to judge them with empathy, as we would like to be judged ourselves.

There is no context, none, which absolves anyone from the moral horror that is slavery. Not one. Ever. Anywhere. Slavery is unabashedly and profoundly evil, and I am perfectly comfortable judging the shit out of it.

Or what the hell, just decide I'm trolling, I guess.

If Miko, one of the more levelheaded people on this site if not the whole planet, is calling you a troll it may be time to re-evaluate some life decisions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:00 PM on March 5 [2 favorites]


But those impulses, the impulses to create a category of people who had different ideas from us as evil and unredeemable and incomprehensible, bad, nogoodniks who deserve what they got, I find completely reprehensible. Those are living impulses, and they get real people killed. They get real corpses desecrated.

Who here believes the motives for the people involved in Southern slavery were incomprehensible or inhuman? Please raise your hands so we can all see them. Who here believes that white Southerners tried to preserve slavery because they were eeeeeeeevil? Let's settle this question.

I hope we all agree beyond doubt that slavery is an evil institution; insofar as a person participates in it, supports it, and defends it, so far is that person evil. They are not defending it because they're evil; they're evil because they're defending it. That's the nature of the moral question here.

But the moral question is irrelevant. It's a derail from the material facts of history, which pose slavery as the cause of the war whether you hold it to be evil or not. And people are trying even today to prevent kids from learning those material facts.

And let's not talk about dehumanization and once again ignore the black dehumanized 40% of the Deep South's population in 1861. Let's not do that.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:05 PM on March 5 [16 favorites]


For whatever it's worth, corb, I don't think your intent is to troll anyone. You haven't come off that way to me. But I do think you're factually wrong about antebellum American society, that you're wrong in describing (and understanding) the criticisms that people here (and elsewhere) are and have made about slavery in America and its impact on American society, and the way you frame your understanding of history is in effect occasionally indistinguishable from trolling, even if you don't mean it.

The notion of what we think of the losers, or the other side, of a war is hardly an abstract to me. It is extremely personal.

It may help to remember that the 'losing side' was, for decade upon decade, generation upon generation, not free citizens of the south but their enslaved countrymen who were actually dehumanized in life, in law, in society. The wounds of that crime are still fresh to many, and focusing again and again on the rhetorical injustices done to those who fought with the effect (and often, though not always, the intent) of continuing those injustices -- slavery would certainly have continued all the longer had the north not won -- serves to pivot the discuss here away from slavery, when the FPP is specifically about how people trying to deny the importance of slavery as a cause of the American Civil War...tend to pivot the discussion away from slavery.

You also seem to be reading more into people's statements than they intend, particularly here:
But those impulses, the impulses to create a category of people who had different ideas from us as evil and unredeemable and incomprehensible, bad, nogoodniks who deserve what they got, I find completely reprehensible.

Plenty of people in this thread have already pointed out that you can condemn the actions and beliefs of slaveholders within the context of their own time while still acknowledging that they were real people deserving of sympathy, victims of a slave society themselves (I would also note that the real victims of slavery were, again, slaves, which is why people do tend to focus on that aspect of things).

Is it really that hard to grok that I viscerally hate the entire concept of stripping people of their humanity?

No, it's not hard. And I sympathize. But please try to understand that many people feel a visceral hatred for the historical reality that the American nation spent a considerable portion of its youth stripping people away from their homes, away from their families, and doing its utmost to strip them of their humanity.

Or, on preview, what Rustic Etruscan just said.
posted by cjelli at 2:11 PM on March 5 [3 favorites]


Or what the hell, just decide I'm trolling, I guess. That is definitely easier than trying to understand someone.

I'm going to politely ask you and everyone else to move on from this.
posted by jessamyn at 2:19 PM on March 5


Who Benefits from “12 Years A Slave’s” Oscar Bump?
posted by homunculus at 5:53 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


Lupita N'yongo, if there's any justice in this world.
posted by Sara C. at 5:56 PM on March 5


I just realized I meant to respond to this:

Did war reenactments start with the Civil War or originally center only on the South, or something?

They actually started during Reconstruction, at annual picnic-type events which honored Civil War veterans in both North and South. A whole lot of our public memory of the Civil War can be traced to the atmosphere around those picnics, which influenced more people directly than even the war itself ever did.

Most of them are run by various government parks departments and historical preservation orgs, not some kind of SCA for Klan members.

Usually what's really happening is not that the government parks department or historical organization is running the reenactment. The reenactment groups are private associations, and as with any category of private association, some of them are good and responsible and some shoddy, goofy, and yes, potentially containing people with lousy racial attitudes, which is a distinct motivation for some (the idea of an SCA for Klansmen is extreme, but I have certainly encountered groups I wouldn't work with again because of their thinly veiled politics in interactions with visitors). But certainly not all. Motivations are complex. Anyway, either a private organization of reeanctors approaches you, the site, because they want to host an event at your site because it's a great setting for them (and you have parking and bathrooms and stuff their audiences need), or you approach them because you're staging an event like a battle commemmoration or 4th of July or "Town Day" or what-have-you, and you just make a contract between the two entities. It's like hiring any other performer. I don't know of any historical organization that runs its own reenactment group.

It might be a little confusing with living history museums like Old Sturbridge Village where they do a militia demonstration all summer, but that's not a reenactors group, it's their regular paid interpretive staff running a demonstration to meet specific educational goals. They don't go out on the weekends and do that for fun, as a general rule.

The couple of people I know who roleplay in Confederate groups - one's a rural New England, well, racist, but I think his motivation has more to do with an idea of Southern "gentlemanliness" and the other is more drawn to the Confederates because the story feels more dramatically romantic to them - the poverty, the desperation, the confusion, the unsupported struggle, the camaraderie, devotion to a losing cause, etc. It just seems like more fun to be the rabbley underdog to them. There are a lot of different motivations for getting into reenacting, regardless of time period - some tied to people's politics, some not. My favorite is the guy I work with who's super into "RevWar" - he's the son of Polish immigrants who arrived after the turn of the 20th century.
posted by Miko at 6:02 AM on March 6 [7 favorites]


[Comment deleted. Personal observations about other members are better communicated via email. ]
posted by taz at 6:46 AM on March 6


It might be a little confusing with living history museums like Old Sturbridge Village where they do a militia demonstration all summer, but that's not a reenactors group, it's their regular paid interpretive staff running a demonstration to meet specific educational goals.

I guess I'm also a little muddied about how it works because I've only experienced Civil War reenactors at actual Civil War battlefield sites. Reenacting the battles that actually took place there and in general sort of acting as docents and historical interpreters at specific Civil War oriented sites.

There's a similar setup in Chalmette, Louisiana, on the anniversaries of the Battle Of New Orleans, which doesn't have nearly the cultural baggage that any Civil War adjacent historical thing has. Which is another reason I didn't necessarily connect "war reenactor" with "sketchy ahistorical political views".

It didn't really occur to me that there are rogue Civil War reenactor groups all over the US that just like wander the countryside reenacting battles with no particular context.

BTW, I just flagged your post for FANTASTIC COMMENT.
posted by Sara C. at 9:26 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


This is only one of many, many Civil War reenactor groups in California alone!
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on March 6 [1 favorite]


. Reenacting the battles that actually took place there and in general sort of acting as docents and historical interpreters at specific Civil War oriented sites.

Yeah, even those are usually private associations, not employees of the site - just hired for the event. Many of them do a decent job running interactive educational experiences, kids' games, and sharing historical information. There is a vast, amazing network of living history reenactors - they're not "rogue," really, they're just all independent (example: 28th Mass Regiment). Some of them are organized into larger guilds (example:Midwest Civil War Council). They even have their own big rendezvous events that aren't about a battle reenactment, where they have swaps, auctions, and exhibitors. It's a life-consuming type hobby for a lot of people.

As far as reenacting battles with no context, they usually will be like "we're going to demonstrate the maneuver from Blake's second charge at Vicksburg" (I made that up but you get the idea) or just say "camp and drill demonstrations." The rarest part is really reenacting a battle on the actual battlefield and that's a special event. And for a lot of reenactor groups that aren't Civil War, they have no choice - WWII and Viet Nam reenactors and the like have to kind of invent the landscape of their performance.

Thanks for the flag. It's nice to have a use for the more arcane things that happen in a day's work.
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Yeah, "rogue" was a joke.

I do like the idea of rogue historical reenactors roaming the countryside, though.

Ya need somethin' reenacted? We'll be there.
posted by Sara C. at 1:41 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


huh... I didn't realize there where Viet Nam war reenactors.
I'm not sure what I feel in regards to that.
posted by edgeways at 1:57 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


In 2010, Rich Iott, a republican congressional candidate in Ohio got into trouble when it was learned he'd been part of a group that re-enacted the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. There are pictures of him in an SS uniform.
posted by Area Man at 2:12 PM on March 6


There are people who just like war. They understand that war is bad, m'kay, but inasmuch as it has happened anyway it involves a lot of totally cool forces colliding in ways worth studying and remembering. My best friend in high school was like this; he was the gentlest and most politically left-leaning person you'd ever meet, a massive Dr. Who fan who made a small career of dressing like Tom Baker's Doctor, but absolutely obsessed with battles. WWII naval battles were a particular obsession, but he could entertain himself for days with numbingly detailed accounts of any land or sea battle. I'm pretty sure he's never fired an actual gun himself but he could rattle off detailed statistics about what any of the ones used in armored warfare ever could do, from the longarms to every big gun ever installed on a ship by anybody.

It's a short step from that kind of fascination to re-enacting, getting even closer to the sights and sounds and real-time progression without the messy getting killed part that the real soldiers had to deal with.

And battles have two sides. The Confederates were romantic underdogs (and fighting for evil in the course of fighting for your home can be a part of that). And the Nazis had a lot of cool hardware and very snazzy uniforms.
posted by localroger at 3:25 PM on March 6


I do like the idea of rogue historical reenactors roaming the countryside, though.

Me too. I'd be all over that.
posted by Miko at 4:35 PM on March 6


They understand that war is bad, m'kay, but inasmuch as it has happened anyway it involves a lot of totally cool forces colliding in ways worth studying and remembering.

Yeah, and I'm sometimes really moved talking to veterans about their combat experiences - because even when they were objectively "bad," they were also very powerful and unique, and those people felt emotions they had never access to before and in many cases never really felt that deeply again, everything from camaraderie and interdependency and love to terror and capability and confidence and a sense of themselves as agents in history. So there is that aspect, which I can somewhat understand people wanting to feel a piece of even if they are tremendously romanticizing, and also the just plain cool-equipment-and-loud-noises aspect, and dress-up and pretending, that I think are all at play in reenacting.
posted by Miko at 4:38 PM on March 6


Meanwhile, in Brazil: Rio’s Race to Future Intersects Slave Past
posted by homunculus at 4:24 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


I do like the idea of rogue historical reenactors roaming the countryside, though.

The correct term is "feral." If left alone, feral reenactors can quickly increase in population and become a danger to hikers and motorists. The best practice is to capture, neuter, make sure their vaccinations are up to date, and release again. It's the most humane approach.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 PM on March 9 [11 favorites]


I'm ambivalent about Civil War reenacting. I do think nearly everyone who gets into it is trying at some level to connect with the past, whether they had ancestors who served or are just fascinated by what was a very interesting period in our history.

As a spectator, walking onto a field of canvas tents with soldiers walking around in period attire can give you a bit of a rush (at least until you see that one guy in every camp plunking away on a steel string banjo or dreadnought guitar that couldn't have been made before 1930.) I totally get the appeal of the uniforms, the camping, the guns, the cannons. I've never joined a unit but I've been to a couple of reenactments in period civilian attire, and once performed in a camp at night (after all the spectators get kicked out), and it was pretty magical.

But there's an awkward line where it goes from being about reverentially bringing the past to life (and hopefully having fun doing it) to either being a joyless paramilitary experience centered around drilling, chain of command, and obsessive nitpicking about authenticity OR being an excuse for grown-ups to play dress-up and/or guns while camping and drinking on the weekends; the Union and the Confederacy might as well be sports teams for some guys, never mind all that history that's uncomfortable to think about. It doesn't help when most of the guys on the field are 20+ years older and 50+ pounds heavier than an actual soldier would have been. I had to unsubscribe from one friend's facebook feed after seeing one too many cheesily-vignetted, sepia-toned digital photos of paunchy middle-aged guys doing their best Noble Steely-Eyed Stare into the distance.
posted by usonian at 2:48 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Well, and I think that you can play "bad guys" and have fun with it too, honestly. Like, while I think that anyone who plays a Stormtrooper as cosplay should have a basic understanding of why the Empire is evil, I don't get all bent out of shape about somebody dressing up as Vader. Likewise, if someone recognizes why the South was so incredibly fucked up, I don't have any real problem with them re-enacting the Civil War. I think people can pretty reasonably separate a lot of that stuff.
posted by klangklangston at 3:48 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Of course, Darth Vader's genocides and mass racial enslavements were fictional, which helps. Whereas Confederate soldiers were fighting in the name of, and to preserve, the attempted genocide and mass racial enslavement of actual people in actual history.

Civil War reenactments strike be as fundamentally the same thing as reenacting a World War 2 battle in, say, Poland. I'd be real fucking skeptical of the people who make a lengthy and involved pasttime of playing the Nazis. The only real differences between the two are the hemisphere in which it happened, and our incredibly fucked up public consciousness that wants to condone this bullshit.
posted by kafziel at 1:01 AM on March 12


Of course, Darth Vader's genocides and mass racial enslavements were fictional, which helps. Whereas Confederate soldiers were fighting in the name of, and to preserve, the attempted genocide and mass racial enslavement of actual people in actual history.

Except part of the problem (as articulated in the original article and the memories of at least some of the posters) is that, in many places, the educational message is such that the crimes of the Cinfederacy are about as real and visceral as those of the Empire....
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:04 AM on March 12


I'd be real fucking skeptical of the people who make a lengthy and involved pasttime of playing the Nazis.

Really?
posted by localroger at 5:56 AM on March 12


Yes, really. I am real fuckin' skeptical of the motives of members of those groups.
posted by kafziel at 1:00 PM on March 12


Especially when you consider that there were no WW2 battles with Germany fought on US soil. It gets very SCA, very quickly.
posted by Sara C. at 1:04 PM on March 12


I honestly have a very, very difficult time understanding war re-enactments, particularly modern war re-enactments. I kind of want to bring them all to actual warzones and let them smell corpses. It may be worse for "bad guys", but really I just question re-creating a war without the awfulness of it. I wonder how much it contributes to people feeling war is glamorous and has no real down sides and they'll all come home alive.
posted by corb at 1:19 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Especially when you consider that there were no WW2 battles with Germany fought on US soil.

But there were a hell of a lot of US troops fighting Germans in Europe. What mildly surprises me is that there is even the one group in Germany, given the problems there with displaying Nazi paraphernalia. They must have gone to hell and back to get a dispensation.

As I posted above, some people love the trappings of war. They love the pomp and grandeur and the cool machines and the uniforms. That they want to play dress-up and fondle the hardware doesn't mean they want to smell corpses; it means they prefer to experience the fun part without the bad part, with their battles more tidy, predictable, and safe than the real variety.

In addition to the re-enactors there are truly vast numbers of people who take the cheaper, easier route of playing video games which hew toward maximum verisimilitude. The fact that someone has watched all the Terminator movies six times doesn't imply that they want the civilization that created those movies overrun by homicidal robots. People like this stuff; not all people but plenty, some more than others, and some enough to make a significant investment in time and money.

It does not make sense to think there is some modal difference between war re-enactors and people who create elaborate costumes for SF conventions or Mardi Gras. Or for that matter the SCA. Or people who turn their basements into elaborate model railway landscapes. Or people who fly elaborate replica model airplanes. Or people who cast and paint armies of pot-metal soldiers.

Some people have hobbies. To people who do not share their passion those hobbies are always a bit inexplicable, but there is obviously a large subpopulation who like this kind of activity. To think that those who direct their attention to the very common and dramatic human activity of war, or to any particular conflict or army, are somehow in a different class does not really make any sense.
posted by localroger at 3:06 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


It does not make sense to think there is some modal difference between war re-enactors and people who create elaborate costumes for SF conventions or Mardi Gras

We've already Godwinned ourselves here so...

What about the people who like to dress up as concentration camp guards?

Isn't there a point when you look at someone's cosplay and think "there's some more going on here than a healthy adult interest in history."?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:45 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Isn't there a point when you look at someone's cosplay and think "there's some more going on here than a healthy adult interest in history."?
It is interesting to realize that I have a visceral reaction of WTFness at the idea of WWII reenacting (especially the idea of people portraying Nazis) but not so much U.S. Civil War reenacting... and my reaction to WWI reenacting is somewhere in between. Maybe it just has to do with how well I feel like I can relate to the respective time periods? WWII happened recently enough for me to have personally known people who fought in it. My late grandfather could remember hearing the bells on Armistice day when he was a little boy. The U.S. Civil War... I have a photo of my great great grandfather in his private's uniform, but even with as many photographs as were taken of that conflict, the world was so different then.

I don't know about people who portray WWII Germans, but in Civil War reenacting I think people get increasingly comfortable within that community, where portraying a pro-slavery confederate soldier is expected/necessary behavior and pretty much accepted without much further hand-wringing. Among the people I know who belong to confederate reenacting groups, they are truly not actually sympathetic to the confederate cause in real life, no matter what they might portray during a reenactment. For people who get really into it I think it is easy to forget that it seems frankly monstrous to a lot of people, or that the idea may have even seemed uncomfortable to themselves at first.
posted by usonian at 8:01 AM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Minor uproar in Minneapolis over a Nazi themed dinner party
posted by miyabo at 8:16 PM on March 20


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