In my last lecture, I tried to show that most Northern anti-slavery rhetoric was rooted either in sentimental anti-slavery; or fear and hatred of the race of the slave; or fear, hatred, or envy of the character and political power of the south; or finally in the terrorist morality of militant abolitionism. Now, none of these four forms of anti-slavery have any moral merit. If the war was about slavery, that means it was about establishing anti-slavery. But these are the only four forms - dominant forms - of anti-slavery, and to say that the war was about slavery is to say it was about establishing these four forms. That means the war had no moral merit, even if it were about slavery.
But it wasn't about slavery - even these forms.
There were occasions when Lincoln acknowledged that Southerners, like the rest of Americans, believed that slavery abstractly considered is wrong. (I argued this was a universal view of most all Americans.) In a debate with Douglas, August 21st, 1858, he said:
Before proceeding, let me say, I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we, I acknowledge the fact.
Now this frank acknowledgement of a common moral ground which would have - which could have been the foundation of genuine statesmanship - is rare in Lincoln. His speeches more often flatter the sentimental anti-slavery of northern audiences by presenting the conflict between north and south not as a practical moral issue but as an ultimate philosophical struggle between those who believe slavery is Right and those who believe slavery is Wrong (and he puts those in capitals in his speech.)
Now, philosophical disagreements are ultimate and non-negotiable disagreements. They're peculiar kinds of disagreements. When they shape political discourse, they necessarily generate hate and fear between parties. Instead of moderating passions, as a great statesman would have done, Lincoln heated up passions by playing the slavery card, by transforming a practical moral problem which had many aspects that pulled in different directions into a simplistic and implacable philosophical conflict between Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Freedom and Slavery. America, he famously said, must either become all slave or all free...
Hold it to the light at a different angle. Slavery was at the very heart of our disequilibrium. It was the core of the social, the economic, the political, and the constitutional conflicts. But in the fifteen years left to the United States in which to face and solve the problem of slavery, the final decade and a half which ended in civil war, it did not face that problem but faced only a peripheral and even unreal issue that was ancillary to it. The federal powers and the state rights in regard to slavery, the constitutional questions of slavery, the relation of all these to the structure and functioning of our society – were fought out not in regard to themselves, the only way in which there was a possibility that they might be solved peacefully, but in regard to the status of slavery in the territories, where slavery could not exist. There, if you will, is a fact of illimitable importance. There is a fact which, if we are to understand ourselves, historians must explain...
History is supposed to learn from the experience it studies and from those movements which it calls historical processes. Forty-six years into the twentieth century it is supposed to understand the relationship of events in the nineteenth century. Finally, it is supposed to understand that in the nineteenth century some Americans were mistaken, some ideas fallacious, and some actions in error and certain to fail. Perhaps the Confederacy could have survived in the cis-Allegheny, hand-labor, mercantilist, eighteenth-century America from which all its ideas were derived. It was, however, inconceivable, an impossibility, in an America which extended across the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific, the nineteenth-century America which the industrial revolution, the centripetal forces of developing commerce and communication, and the free movement of population had welded into a single nation occupying a unified geographical system – fifteen years before secession. Asa Whitney, Eli Whitney, Morse, the steamboats, the post roads, the public domain, California gold, and the Oregon emigration had made Calhoun an antique.
This is the overwhelming historical reality that [Civil war revisionism] ignores... it does so by evading the problem of slavery as the American people did in the middle of the nineteenth century. [This] position is typical: [they perceive] no economic obsolescence, no democratic frustration, and no moral urgency in the existence of slavery, and so [they are] exasperated not only by abolitionists but by everyone who opposed minority control by slaveholders...
Here too a century is supposed to have taught us something. History is supposed to understand the difference between a decaying economy and an expanding one, between solvency and bankruptcy, between a dying social idea and one coming to world acceptance. It is supposed to differentiate between historical forces that are regressive, of the past, and those that are dynamic, of the developing future. It is even supposed to understand implications of the difference between a man who is legally a slave and one who is legally free. Revisionism will not make such differentiations, which is [why it is] querulous, usually indignant, unsatisfactory, and in the end unrealistic. That is why it fails to explain the mid-nineteenth century to people who are living halfway through the twentieth century.
As I said last month, the most important duty of American historians is to explain the Civil War. It may be that the Civil War was inevitable: people who are not historians have lived to learn that some wars are. But if it was inevitable, history has got to show us why. And if it was not, history has got to show us how, why, wherein, and wherefore the American people precipitated their greatest tragedy. As a result of a generation of revisionist concentration on "the North's blunder" we are further from explanation than we were in 1920.
But the state of the world is such that we have got to focus this crucial part of our past on our present problems – fast. There appears to be no recourse for historians except to go back to be beginning and start over. Underlying the revisionist errors were our generation's fallacies about the origin of the First World War. They have now been corrected at high cost. Historians may begin by accepting those corrections, by acknowledging that we made mistakes, and by premising that some of our ancestors who were not abolitionists may also have been in error.
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