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Studying the War to Prevent Southern Independence
December 24, 2009 4:38 AM   Subscribe

Secretive Scholars of the Old South. The Abbeville Institute is a scholarly society that seeks to promote a "distinctly Southern interpretation of American history and identity ... a valuable intellectual and spiritual resource for exposing and correcting the errors of American modernity." Founded in 2003 by Donald Livingston, philosophy professor at Emory University, the Institute will hold its 8th annual conference, "State Nullification, Secession, and the Human Scale of Political Order" next February.
posted by Horace Rumpole (80 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would find more persuasive the argument that there is something peculiar and unique and worthy about the South- something worth preserving, studying, and championing- if that viewpoint was not in nearly every case championed by individuals who are obsessed with the secession. Is the greatest act of treason in the history of the United States- and the war which was fought against the government of the US to protect and extend that treason- truly what defines the South as special? Why are there no scholars exalting the South without glorifying and justifying the Confederacy?
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:51 AM on December 24, 2009 [17 favorites]


Seconding PG here. You know the subtext is racist.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:55 AM on December 24, 2009


The head of the group states that they do not advocate secession as policy, which seems technically true. But I wonder what happens if you poll individual members candidly.

Now that they no longer have slaves, any organization exploring secession of the American south should be encouraged. What's it going to take to make this happen?
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:04 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


In related news, "South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year."
posted by mhoye at 5:09 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


The chronicle article is actually very good. And that is all I am going to say about this.
posted by localroger at 5:13 AM on December 24, 2009


Given that the first shots fired in the Civil War were fired by the Confederate forces at Fort Sumter, and thus, from my understanding of such things, they actually started the war (I doubt these men would defend the bombing of the USS Cole as an aggressive move on the part of the United States), why is it constantly called the War of Northern Aggression? The forces of the United States Army were stationed at a fort that they were legally supposed to be at. A militia started shooting at them.

Color me confused.
posted by Hactar at 5:16 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why are there no scholars exalting the South without glorifying and justifying the Confederacy?

Hell, I'm from the south (or South, if you prefer), and I find there's not an incredible lot to study if you're not on about the antebellum south or the Confederacy. Mind you, there's history (and a lot of it), but once you look under items tagged 'South', you end up with gray uniforms and fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow's another day, etc.
posted by Pragmatica at 5:21 AM on December 24, 2009


Why does "State's Rights" almost always turn out to be a code for "protect our bigotry."
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:22 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


Hmm. I have to say that a lot of this site seems pretty disingenuous, as far as it goes - it doesn't cut to the heart of what Mr. Livingston seems to want to say, and I think it avoids doing so for political reasons. However, I found that by listening to this recent lecture of his, which it links to, I got a much better idea of where he's going with all of this. He conveniently leaves out a transcript of it - I say 'conveniently' because it contains more controversial statements than what I find elsewhere - so I've typed out the first few minutes, just to give an idea of what he's on about. Sorry this is long, but I find it very interesting; I'll make it small so you can skip over it if you like, and so as not to take up too much space:

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...
He continues, but you can see some of his theme. He really believes that Lincoln was a terrible statesman, that the war was a mistake, and that slavery would have died out in the South over time if left to its natural course.

Frankly, while it's interesting to see somebody questioning the paradigm, I think it's clear that Mr. Livingston is quite wrong. To mention the thing which is missing from his equation, as well as the equations of many historical considerations - I think it's fair to say that the civil war was about the West, that newly-emerging stretch of land on the horizon which both the North and the South knew would be a base of political power for the future. What precipitated the civil war was the conflict between the North and the South about who would control that power base, and the grounds of that conflict was the fiery subject of slavery. I don't think it's possible to deny that these things were at the very least pivotal in the conflict.

If I had a chance, I'd like to ask him how he squares himself on the fact that his argument seems to indicate that the civil rights movement was largely a mistake. I don't think he's a racist, or that he thinks slavery should have continued, but I do think he underestimates its toll.
posted by koeselitz at 5:24 AM on December 24, 2009 [15 favorites]


Argh. forgot that small outside a blockquote gets stripped on Mefi when you click 'post.' Sorry, folks. Oh well.
posted by koeselitz at 5:25 AM on December 24, 2009


- And I think it would be dangerous to say that Mr. Livingston is racist, as I think he would honestly deny it. I don't think he's a racist at all, and I don't think he would claim to be one. But I think he, like may of us white folks, seems to want to marginalize the extreme suffering that slavery caused in order to resurrect one of the few things he feels he can have pride in. I wish he could look to people like Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, Walker Percy, and so many others to see that you don't have to rewrite history or whitewash the sins of your parents to find something worth being proud of in the past.
posted by koeselitz at 5:31 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


So what are you saying? You're either pro or anti-bellum. You can't have it both ways.
posted by nola at 5:43 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think today so-called "states rights" would mostly benefit left wing causes, like health care, gay rights, education, etc., for several related reasons :

(1) Slow the brain drain that national politics imposes upon state politics, ideally slightly reducing corruption. You can even witness this brain drain in the E.U. today, slightly exacerbating Europe's rightward movement.

(2) Moderately left wing ideas frequently just make more economic sense, ala health care and education, so states implementing those ideas benefit significantly

(3) Moderately left wing states are often far more wealthy so smaller federal and higher state taxes funnels more money into moderately left wing ideas.

I'm less sure bout the effects of corporate lobbying, obviously more money can be brought to bear upon one state, but lobbyists may face far more serious uphill battles in those states.

Of course, you don't want to push down various things like the EPA. If you do make the EPA state level, then you must give states the power to prosecute polluters in other states whenever they can show the pollutants crossed the state boarder, and you'd probably want to prosecute them for "real" crimes like maybe "statistical manslaughter".
posted by jeffburdges at 5:58 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


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.

What is "sentimental anti-slavery"?

Some anti slavery rhetoric was based on "fear and hatred of the race of the slave", whaa?

Hating the political power of the south which came about because of slavery has no moral merit, whaaa?

The consistent problem I see with this crap can be boiled down to line argument: "Ok, slavery was wrong, but..." and usually there's some sort of reasoning about how not all Southerners owned slaves or the North wasn't exactly in love with blacks or some such.

There's never a simple declaration of "Ok, slavery was wrong, we shouldn't have done that and the fact that we built our base of power on it has left one helluva stain on the US." Until that's admitted and owned up to, the South will never really be able to forward in its heart and culture. There will always been tension.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:05 AM on December 24, 2009 [11 favorites]


Vilifying people of the past (or people-of-the-past wanabees) for not having contemporary attitudes is just a nasty form of confirmation bias. The South Professor Livingston admires is the South of James Branch Cabell's novels, as homey as Robert Capra's Mandrake Falls, Vermont, and Norman Rockwell's Massachusetts. The business of the Institute seems more convivial and sentimental than academic -- and hopeless.
posted by RichardS at 6:11 AM on December 24, 2009


Vilifying people of the past (or people-of-the-past wanabees) for not having contemporary attitudes

"Slavery is wrong" isn't exactly a new idea in 2009, nor was it in 1860.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:21 AM on December 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


Brandon Blatcher: “There's never a simple declaration of "Ok, slavery was wrong, we shouldn't have done that and the fact that we built our base of power on it has left one helluva stain on the US." Until that's admitted and owned up to, the South will never really be able to forward in its heart and culture. There will always been tension.”

What's really odd to me - and honestly it seems like this should be an easily-disproved factual statement - is that Livingstone's peculiar way of sidestepping this issue is to say that Southerners already agreed that slavery was wrong, and didn't need to be told it by the North. I'd like to hear him give some names or quotations of famous Southern statesmen who said that; while I've always known that there was some admission in the South that slavery is inherently wrong, it's hard for me to believe that the numerous congressmen and other representatives who adamantly spent decades arguing for the perpetuated legality of slavery actually believed that what they were arguing for was wrong.

I want to say, though, that I agree with Livingstone on the motivations of Northern anti-slavery, at least in a loose way. There were very few Northerners who had any idea that this issue was decisive in the future of the continent, and the connections, from the economic disaster in the South, to the newly-emerged power base in the West, to the North's recent industrialization, to the inevitable theme and centerpiece of the war - slavery - aren't easy to draw. I don't know about Livingstone's reasonings, but I suspect that most anti-slavery Northerners (and there were fewer than we imagine today) were against slavery primarily because they either hated or feared the South or because they wanted to think themselves righteous (which, by the way, is what I think he means by "sentimental anti-slavery.") Nonetheless, the war was necessary, and I think many of us can agree that no matter what your reason being anti-slavery is probably a good thing. Lincoln was one of the few men alive at the time who understood the currents and saw what was going on - this can be seen in the really brilliant statements in his inaugural speeches and in other pivotal writings of his. Livingstone's just turned off it because of associations, methinks.
posted by koeselitz at 6:39 AM on December 24, 2009


"I think it's fair to say that the civil war was about the West, that newly-emerging stretch of land on the horizon which both the North and the South knew would be a base of political power for the future"

Sure, but the debates about the new states all came down to whether or not they'd be slave or free. (Kansas, California, etc.)

Which is to say, you can cut the pie any way you want to (personally, I think of the Civil War as an argument about industrial vs. agrarian/plantation economies) but you always come back to slavery as the root issue. It cannot be avoided.

And slavery is an objectively evil thing. Something that many in the North profited from no doubt, but something the South can never (ahem) whitewash.
posted by bardic at 6:42 AM on December 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


From the Chron article: "Like that group, Mr. Livingston says, Abbeville recalls a simpler time, when people knew their neighbors, and children said 'sir' and 'ma'am.'"

You forgot "Massuh."
posted by bardic at 6:49 AM on December 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


Roger that, Pope G. Southern statesmen of founding father's generation knew slavery was hypocritical and wrong ("How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?) but with so much financial and social capital invested in it they couldn't conceive of a way out (Cf. Jefferson's "Wolf by the ears" quote.)

One thing folks who haven't studied the period might be unaware of is how much Southern elite thinking radicalized between 1800 and the eve of the Civil war, mutating from an uncomfortable ambivalence to espousing slavery as a positive good.

Remember, Lincoln committed that he would not touch slavery where it existed. He simply stated he would not let it expand. But that was enough for drive Succession.
posted by mojohand at 6:50 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"'The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others,' Mr. Livingston says."

Bullshit. I got an MA at the University of Virginia and even in the quite lefty English department Southern Culture was a popular subject, but in the context of cultural/literary/ and even linguistic/regional dialect studies. That probably constitutes "ideological" for these guys, but the professors who seemed to be getting accolades were doing involved work in exhuming what daily life was like for both slaves and slave owners.

This is a good FPP and an interesting discussion, but it's clear that there's a lot of bullshit Livingston is trying to peddle here.
posted by bardic at 6:55 AM on December 24, 2009


koeselitz has a serious point about political and economic control of the west, and the care he takes in establishing that as a major but not sole cause is commendable. it's true that you can't slice the pie without seeing slavery; but you also can't slice it without seeing commerce (which suits both bardic's and koeselitz's analyses).

where i agree with bardic is that even if the economic conflicts had resolved without the abolition of slavery, it would have still become a critical issue at some point. The "first world" was just plain moving past it, and we would have to do so also or become a cultural (and maybe commercial) backwater. Not to mention the moral tension that was rising in America.

w.r.t. to this idea: "Until that's admitted and owned up to, the South will never really be able to forward in its heart and culture." Maybe. But actually, I think it's quite possible the south will move beyond that without any important ritual marking the passage. I think that's actually what usually happens. After all, the "black south" (for want of a better term and mostly to avoid using the term "new south") has risen tremendously in the past 50 years. Eventually it's going to overshadow the white south culturally the way it's already overshadowing it commercially. We'll someday look at this as quaint or as just an ugly shadow from the past.
posted by lodurr at 7:07 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


btw, "black south" as I re-read it feels like an even worse term than I thought it was when I used it, so I'm happy to adopt a more apt term.
posted by lodurr at 7:08 AM on December 24, 2009


I wrote a (well received) scholarly book -- one that was generally positive -- on southern culture, published by a southern university press, begun as a PhD dissertation at a southern university.

But I would have nothing to do with these guys as a scholar. They exude racism in that gentrified Concerned Citizens Council mode. Look at the pictures of their retreat on the website -- all white, almost all male. Most of the language of their PR material is easily decoded euphemism.

The inferiority complex among southern white males of a certain generation -- those who watched the civil rights movement fearfully then and now -- is particularly well enshrined in certain, especially private, southern universities.

These uppity honkies don't know their fucking place.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:12 AM on December 24, 2009 [17 favorites]


Given that the first shots fired in the Civil War were fired by the Confederate forces at Fort Sumter, and thus, from my understanding of such things, they actually started the war (I doubt these men would defend the bombing of the USS Cole as an aggressive move on the part of the United States), why is it constantly called the War of Northern Aggression?

It's called the War of Northern Aggression (by idiots) because from the radical Confederate viewpoint it was the North that forced the South to war. Primarily, after the South "peacefully" seceded from the Union, the villainous North swore to force them back, and the tyrant Abraham Lincoln called for an army of 75,000 volunteers to crush this peaceful separatist movement. Add to the fact that about 95% of the war took place under the Mason-Dixon line and it seems like the North was perpetuating a beat down upon the poor South. As a trained historian, I automatically lower my opinion of any one or any group who use this terminology. It's just plain ignorant and embarrassing to me as a Southerner. (I do think that the term War Between the States is a much more neat descriptive title than just Civil War). Of note, the highly vaulted Official Records or OR that all Civil War historians rely on have the full title, "Official Records of the War of Rebellion."

Hell, I'm from the south (or South, if you prefer), and I find there's not an incredible lot to study if you're not on about the antebellum south or the Confederacy.

I would beg to differ. The history of the South post-Civil War is something unique and interesting to the United States. It's racial, social, and economic history is something you can lose yourself in learning about. A great book for non-Confederate / Antebellum South is Edward Ayers' Promise of a New South. He was a professor of History at the University of Virginia, but now has taken on an administrative position at another institution (VCU I think).

Lastly, I just have to add that groups such as this are creatures that only hold back the South, and do nothing to advance its interest or progress. The fact that they offer a deference to John C. Calhoun is evidence enough to me of their foolishness. The world, America, and the South are better off for not having followed his rantings. The thought they are attempting to advance is a way of thinking that existed prior to 1862. It's backward and embarrassing.
posted by Atreides at 7:48 AM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


koeselitz wrote you don't have to rewrite history or whitewash the sins of your parents to find something worth being proud of in the past.

I guess that part just puzzles me. Why do people think there's any need to be proud of the past? We weren't alive then, it isn't our fault if the past was bad, or anything to brag about if the past was good.

Speaking as a historian, the past was mostly so awful that it's hard for modern people to really grasp the true scope of it's awfulness. We should study the past, learn from it, but to find it either a source of pride or shame is unfathomable to me.

I'm also not at all sure I can agree with the first part of your statement. I think the average Japanese would have to rewrite a lot of history to find anything even remotely good in the period from around the Mukden Incident (1931, when WWII really started) until the end of WWII.

The actions of Japan during that time were so clearly evil that the modern Japanese right wing prefers to skim across it so quickly that it isn't really discussed. "Japan was forced by the Evil West to expand its empire, and was then defeated by a coalition of Evil Western nations despite having moral superiority, moving on to the post-war period...."

I can't think of anything Japan has to be proud of for that time.

More to the point, I can't think of why I, as a person who did not fight in WWII, should be proud of the fact that my nation was on the side of right. I wasn't involved, I have no responsibility for the fact that my nation did good. Those who were actually alive back then can be justly proud or ashamed of what happened, I can't and it seems presumptuous when I see people who weren't alive then unjustly appropriating pride or shame from events that they took no part in.

To me one of the most alien parts about the neo-Confederates, or pro-Confederates, or Confederate apologists, or whatever they are, is that they seem so insistant on thinking that their personal merit is tied up in some way with the merit, or lack thereof, in the Confederacy. To me that's almost as alien, as strange, as their continued insistence that slavery wasn't really all that bad.
posted by sotonohito at 8:04 AM on December 24, 2009 [9 favorites]


Interesting post and good discussion. I tend to think of Emory as a fairly liberal place but this guy and fourcheesemac's comment make me wonder about that. I find their choice of a name interesting; I live about an hour's drive from Abbeville, and it is a rural and impoverished area, so much so that it inspired the documentary "Corridor of Shame" about the inadequate funding of education in rural South Carolina. And it is no mere happenstance that education is viewed with suspicion in the south. Since antebellum times leaders here have realized that a lot of cognitive dissonance was needed to maintain their way of life. When the somewhat liberal Baptist denomination questioned the morality of slavery, the southerners formed their own brand of Baptism. From grade school on children here have it drummed into their heads that the USA was founded as a Christian nation and that the Civil War was fought because of economics and slavery had nothing to do with it. They are not given the critical thinking or research skills to question such things (and the whole sir/ma'am thing that seems so cute to outsiders is just another sign of deference to authority that goes along with this mindset). Just the other day I had a somewhat heated discussion on this topic with an aquaintance who insisted that the founding fathers were devout Christians and refused to believe me when I pointed out that Jefferson rewrote the bible to remove all of the miracles and other supernatural evidence of Jesus's divinity. So when these people insist that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, I direct them to the original articles of secession of South Carolina. None of them can be bothered to actually read the document, but if they did, they would see that slavery is mentioned 18 times in the document. Unfortunately this sort of thinking (or not thinking) has spread far beyond the south.
posted by TedW at 8:21 AM on December 24, 2009 [10 favorites]


To me one of the most alien parts about the neo-Confederates, or pro-Confederates, or Confederate apologists, or whatever they are, is that they seem so insistant on thinking that their personal merit is tied up in some way with the merit, or lack thereof, in the Confederacy.

Good point. I recently struck up a conversation with a fellow who was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words "CSS Hunley". For those not familiar with naval history, the Hunley was a submarine built by the Confederate navy that was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship; it sunk immediately afterward and recently has been recovered and is being researched and restored. Anyway, this guy had been involved with the restoration project but was only tangentially interested in the history and technology but rather wanted to be a part of honoring "those brave sailors who died for their cause." He was part of the honor guard (he is a Civil War re-enactor and has the right uniforms and such) that stood watch over the human remains recovered from the submarine, and told me the proudest moment of his life was when he was a pallbearer at the funeral for the sailors. It was more important to him than the birth of his children. People outside the south have no idea how the confederacy is venerated by a lot of the population here.
posted by TedW at 8:37 AM on December 24, 2009


Arguments like Mr. Livingstone's are notable because they are not antebellum at all. Rather, they are a form of post-Civil War reconciliation propaganda created in order to unify the country given the post-war Reconstruction stalemate.

The antebellum south was all about the glories and necessity of slavery as the cornerstone of southern society and the need to spread slavery throughout the rest of the country. Post-war discussion of the topic was about how no one really cared about slavery anyway and it would have died out on its own and all that mass killing in the war was just a big misunderstanding between brothers, egged on by a few abolitionist agitators.
posted by deanc at 8:41 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]


One aspect of secession/states rights that gets lost in the racial/slavery stuff is the answer to the question: How powerful should government be at various levels? People make sort of random guesses by fiat, but I'd love to see some kind of neuro- or socio-politics (as a counterpart to neuroeconomics) make some definitive judgement in one way or another.

Much as we can say that there is an optimal group size, is there an optimal county government size? state government size? federal government size? One could say that the federal-state balance was sort of empirically decided when the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, but for the South to decide to secede ultimately they are making a judgement that halving the size of the administrative area was better for them in the long run, which may or may not (I lean toward not) have been true.
posted by sandking at 8:49 AM on December 24, 2009


As a true son of the South, I'd just like to say that I am completely uninterested in arguments about the Civil Motherfucking War.

But having recently returned from Atlanta where I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic watching my life tick away, I'm totally OK with a bunch of Yankees burning it to the ground again.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:03 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm totally OK with a bunch of Yankees burning it to the ground again.

posted by BitterOldPunk


Need I say it?
posted by grubi at 9:10 AM on December 24, 2009


sandking I'm not sure it's really a matter of optimal federal/state/whatever size.

I think it's much more about the question of whether or not federalism makes any sort of sense for a modern nation.

I'm of the position that the answer to that question an unambiguous no. I'm not in favor of federalism in the slightest, and I'd be tremendously in favor of dismantling the whole mess and instituting a proper national government.

Our current existence, in which we have basically stretched the commerce and general welfare clauses in the Constitution to enable us to build what amounts to a real national government without actually amending the Constitution is not really a good or stable place to be.

Federalism was never anything but a measure to get reluctant states on board with a rebellion against what was then among the top military powers on the planet. I think it's time has long passed.

Unfortunately, I don't see any real changes happening, well, ever. The conservative, low population, states benefit greatly from their anti-democratic over representation in the House and especially in the Senate. They aren't likely to ever vote in favor of an amendment to end their special rights, and since it takes 3/4 of the states agreeing to amend the Constitution, we're basically stuck.
posted by sotonohito at 9:37 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


If the Confederacy was all about states' rights, smaller government, and ending slavery one day, why didn't they write that into their constitution? Look at a line-by-line comparison of their constitution and the US Constitution. It's basically a copy, with "persons in terms of bondage" replaced with "slaves," and explicit protections for slave-holding added.

Secession is unconstitutional according to Texas v. White.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:48 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Speaking as a historian, the past was mostly so awful that it's hard for modern people to really grasp the true scope of it's awfulness.

what

you mean the days before... oh god i dont even know why i bother. I seriously need to come up with a list? How about the days before we decided to dig up all the black stuff in the ground and burn it? And you're a historian? I weep.
posted by symbollocks at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2009


I'm totally OK with a bunch of Yankees burning it to the ground again.

But that's where I keep my stuff!
posted by absalom at 10:04 AM on December 24, 2009


I seriously need to come up with a list?

Well, if you want people to take your dismissal seriously, you kind of do.

I mean, I thought it was a broad brush and all, but agrarian luddism is really no proper response, IMO.
posted by lodurr at 10:07 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Great post, thanks. Also thanks to koeselitz for transcribing the text of the lecture. Fascinating.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:28 AM on December 24, 2009


Here's something long but (I think) worthwhile that I was perusing; I can't find it online anywhere, so I'll reprint a chunk of it. Sorry I'm taking up so much space, but I think this provides a pretty complete response to Donald Livingston's position, and anyway you can skip over it if you'd like to.
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.
— Bernard DeVoto, The War of the Rebellion and The Confederate Anachronism, 1946
[several months after the end of World War Two]

posted by koeselitz at 11:34 AM on December 24, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm glad that groups like this exist; the tendency to want to shut down offensive opinions is disconcerting, and incompatible with any commitment to free expression. Further: the idea that secession is "treason" is fundamentally fascist. Should people really be forced to belong to a nation whose fundamental ideas they don't agree with?

My problem with Dr. Livingstone (full disclosure: I took a class with him in grad school, and I think he's an exceptionally talented teacher) is the notion that Civil War wasn't about slavery. It's impossible to read the writings of Confederate theorists and still buy into the idea that Southerners were fighting for lower tariffs, or more reasonable agriculture policies: there were many things at issue in the middle of the 19th century, but the Peculiar Institution was the one that led to war. That part of our history can't be rationally discussed as long as there's a large faction in the South (more full disclosure: I'm a Southerner) which insists on denying that. We were fighting, in large part, to preserve our right to own our fellow humans. We were wrong. We lost. Deal with it.
posted by steambadger at 12:12 PM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


The giveaway that this isn't about states' rights at all is the lack of outcry about, you know, 8 years of executive decisions replacing our process, the end of the warrant process, domestic spying, the loss of habeas corpus, "enemy combatants have no rights", and ICE's disappearing of people.

If they were really concerned about centralized power overwhelming the local power, they'd be against military bases, military enlistment, and the right to "disappear" folks considered non-citizens. (and not in a theoretical "FEMA GONNA GET US" but rather the actual stuff that's BEEN happening).

You'd also think they'd be the first to push for having their states apologize to their own citizens who are descendants of those who were stripped of life, liberty, and property, not to mention, family, language, religion and fruits of labor... all pretty traditional things they're usually trying to defend from the big evil central government, right?

Yep. Damn those Yankees...
posted by yeloson at 12:37 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


yeloson, you're being slightly (but only slightly) unfair. While it's undoubtedly true that many of the neo-confederate hoi polloi manage to reconcile their concept of "state's rights" with support for the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush, there's no indication in the links given that Livingston does so. My only experience with him is twenty years old; but I don't recall that he was particularly interested in contemporary politics.

From a wider angle, though, you're right. I always get a bit kick out of people who, with no sense of irony at all, fly the Confederate battle flag next to the Stars and Stripes. For a revealing take on how real Confederates felt about the United States, dig up a recording of the post-Civil-War ditty "I'm a Good Old Rebel".
posted by steambadger at 12:56 PM on December 24, 2009


It still amazes me how much propaganda ends up in our children's textbooks. Whether it was my world history textbook in High School which spent two paragraphs on all of the reasons slavery was bad and two pages on how it was good for the young republic, or the idea that a disaster which killed 2% of the American population in battle and crippled the national economy for a generation was a good thing.

But these guys are just racist old stooges who are only serving to pervert an already twisted popular perception of history to their own self-justification. There really is a reason they're hiding out.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:15 PM on December 24, 2009


I think today so-called "states rights" would mostly benefit left wing causes

Oddly enough, when it comes to left-wing causes like consumer protection or pollution control, Republican rhetoric about states' rights suddenly flies out the window.

Go figure.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:23 PM on December 24, 2009


"'The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others,' Mr. Livingston says."

Pot, meet kettle.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:30 PM on December 24, 2009


If you read the Confederate Constitution, you'll find that a significant amount of the changes (viz. the US Constitution) could be ideological identical to many right-wing policies today. Whether states rights or slavery was the cause will, then, be as contentious as whether opposition to health care reform is about the intrusion of the federal government vs. apathy toward the suffering of the poor. In order to sidestep the cognitive dissonance generated by holding an indefensible opinion, an individual will tend to frame an argument in less contentious terms so as to maintain an opinion that would otherwise be unthinkable. .
posted by jefficator at 1:31 PM on December 24, 2009


"'The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others,' Mr. Livingston says."

I do want to speak to this.

I was born in rural Alabama. My great-grandparents were all sharecroppers. My great-great grandfathers all fought for the Confederacy. Two of them died in Union prisoner of war camps. I have two uncles who are regular Civil War re-enactors. My father's bookshelves were filled with Southern apologia. But went I moved to Cambridge to attend Harvard, I learned very quickly that I needed to unlearn my Southern accent. Some of the most brilliant and liberal minds in the world were openly dismissive of this entire region.

For many people in the South who have the vocabulary to express this, the frustration with being positioned as a lingering "Other" is utterly demeaning. Anything south of the beltway with the possible exception of Raleigh-Durham and Atlanta is brandied about like some Conradian Heart of Darkness where you're more like to be raped than greeted with a handshake.

I wouldn't cast my lot with anyone attempting to justify the unjustifiable, but I do grow tired of the inevitable "Oh, but you seem so smart?" that so often follows my admission of having been raised in the Deepest part of the South.
posted by jefficator at 1:39 PM on December 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


The Chronicle quotes John Stuhr, who I know and trust, and Stuhr defends Livingston's scholarship, so I'm guessing that there's more of value in this project than the news reports let on. That said, this 'more of value' is not at all evident in the quotes pulled from his highly tendentious lectures.

The best arguments I've heard against the Civil War are these:

1. The North could have lost. Then we'd have done a lot of damage to each other and the Confederacy would have remained a separate slave nation, now with even more entrenched commitments to chattel slavery.

2. Reconstruction itself was predicated on a false notion of what it's possible for an invading power to foist upon a colonized population, and was bound to fail. (See similar arguments around the invasion of Iraq or Afganistan.) Reconstruction didn't really succeed in eliminating slavery, but rather drove it underground. Though African-Americans were able to leave the South more easily after war, those that remained were still subjected to the organized oppression of whites for more than a century after the war ended.

I tend to think that there are better ways to consider the uncertainty of war or the limitations of state coercion's capacity to remake the culture without messing around with one of our nation's most fraught conflicts. Moreover, similar cautionary tales can be told about any number of other political innovations, but especially desegregation. That said, so many of our contemporary problems with race are deeply rooted in the Civil War and its aftermath that I don't think any student of politics can justify ignoring these issues or settling for a knee-jerk condemnation. Too often, we Northerners use our disgust for slavery and Southern culture to hide our own forms of racism and intolerance.

Consider: African-Americans who fled to the North during Jim Crow weren't treated much better, in part because their large numbers overwhelmed Northern labor markets. African-Americans who had already ensconced themselves in Northern cities seem to have had similar "pull-the-ladder-up-after-you" feelings to Italian and Irish immigrants then or Latino immigrants today: the new influx of poorly educated ex-slaves fleeing political violence were a threat to their orderly assimilation and normalized status. What we now think of as the problem of 'inner cities' is akin to the problem we see whenever refugees flee political violence and find themselves in a new place, unwanted but unable to find a fair wage in the labor market or a place of honor in established social hierarchies. A New York housing project has a lot in common with a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip....

Mostly, though, I find that the outrageousness of slavery or segregation, the disgust one feels when faced with an unjust *legal* order, short-circuits my capacity to charitably consider potentially neo-Confederate arguments. Much of the argument here ends up looking like an ad hominem, but I can't bring myself to care. Justice delayed is justice denied, I suspect. Plus Lincoln was awesome.

Is it so bad that I want to deceive myself into believing that I'm not racist, or, if I can't really make that claim with a straight face, that my biases are somehow less bad because I struggle to uproot them where I find them? I hope not, especially because I also try to be aware of this signaling role and to actively challenge my own personal narratives of virtue.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:00 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some people are going to have to get over the fact that a black man is in the White House. Because, uh, you already tried this shit and we whipped you.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:16 PM on December 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


steambadger wrote Further: the idea that secession is "treason" is fundamentally fascist. Should people really be forced to belong to a nation whose fundamental ideas they don't agree with?

There's a difference between secession and people leaving the nation.

I agree completely, 100%, that people should be free to leave a nation if they don't like it.

I'm not at all sure that I agree they should be allowed to take a huge chunk of land along with them, certainly not without a mutual agreement with the nation that has jurisdiction over that land.

symbollocks Do please make a list. IIRC, in the days before we decided to dig up all the black stuff and burn it over 70% of the human population was serfs, slaves, or peasants. Any illness could result in death or permanent health problems. Women died in childbirth at a rather horrifying rate, and even if they didn't die often suffered from rather dreadful medical complications as a result of childbirth, see obstetric fistulas as an example. Malnutrition, famine, and other food shortage problems were a fact of life planetwide. Child labor was assumed, for all but the wealthiest of people, which often resulted in developmental deformations [1].

War, rape, arson, genocide, pogrom, etc were all a part of daily life.

Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc were unknown, "justice" was arbitrary, capricious, and often involved judicially ordered torture.

I have studied the past, mainly the past of Japan, and it was unremittingly awful for the reasons I outlined, and many others.. The present is hardly universally better, but even in the third world life today is better than it was 400 years ago. Or even 200 years ago.

Since you obviously disagree, please elaborate on my disagreement.

[1] In ancient Rome, for example, most slaves had curved spines as a result of carrying heavy loads during childhood.
posted by sotonohito at 2:25 PM on December 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


"your disagreement", not "my disagreement".
posted by sotonohito at 2:26 PM on December 24, 2009


"Consider: African-Americans who fled to the North during Jim Crow weren't treated much better, in part because their large numbers overwhelmed Northern labor markets."

While the North has precious little in the way of moral authority, its silly to deny the voice of the millions of refugees who voted with their feet as they marched north and west as soon as they were free to. I would think we can safely defer to their expertise.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:29 PM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]


As a light aside, Jefficator, my ancestry is pretty similar to yours except my people owned their small farms, rather than share cropped and my family is from Virginia (and my great-great-great grandfather survived the Northern prison - though a cousin of his did not). Usually when I meet someone from Alabama, they'll quickly mention how as Virginia isn't the South, I must not be as Southern as them.

Sotonohito, I can understand your perspective as your area of expertise is Japanese history. Feudal Japan was anywhere but a nice place for all but the ruling. However, isn't a phrase like this:

"War, rape, arson, genocide, pogrom, etc were all a part of daily life."

Rather too general to make? While any of that might have been happening somewhere in the world, it wasn't always happening everywhere at the same time. All of that is happening right now, even in our modern world to one degree or another.
posted by Atreides at 2:42 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Didn't we thump these fuckers in 1865? Boy, get me my thumping stick ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:31 PM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


sotonohito: “I agree completely, 100%, that people should be free to leave a nation if they don't like it. I'm not at all sure that I agree they should be allowed to take a huge chunk of land along with them, certainly not without a mutual agreement with the nation that has jurisdiction over that land.”

Indeed. In fact, the argument that Lincoln made (and I quoted above) was that it was flatly physically impossible for one side to pack up its land and walk away. The states were and are connected to each other - not only in a simple geographical sense, but also economically and socially.

“IIRC, in the days before we decided to dig up all the black stuff and burn it over 70% of the human population was serfs, slaves, or peasants. Any illness could result in death or permanent health problems. Women died in childbirth at a rather horrifying rate, and even if they didn't die often suffered from rather dreadful medical complications as a result of childbirth, see obstetric fistulas as an example. Malnutrition, famine, and other food shortage problems were a fact of life planetwide. Child labor was assumed, for all but the wealthiest of people, which often resulted in developmental deformations. War, rape, arson, genocide, pogrom, etc were all a part of daily life. Freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc were unknown, "justice" was arbitrary, capricious, and often involved judicially ordered torture. I have studied the past, mainly the past of Japan, and it was unremittingly awful for the reasons I outlined, and many others.. The present is hardly universally better, but even in the third world life today is better than it was 400 years ago. Or even 200 years ago.”

Sorry, but is 'past bad, present much better' really a useful attitude for a historian? If you honestly believe that every single life lived in every single society by more than ONE HUNDRED BILLION PEOPLE who have ever lived (about 90% of whom, by the way, lived in that vile era before we started 'digging up black stuff and burning it' - see page 3 of this PDF) - if you really believe that the past was an awful, horrible time with little to no merit, doesn't that make your interest in and continued study of history sort of.... masochistic?

More to the point, obviously not even the greatest historian has come to understand all of history thus far, so aren't you the least bit worried that your flat dismissal of the major portion of human events might, well, bias you and keep you from seeing it with a clear eye? I don't think history is a science in the way that biology or physics are sciences, but it ought to carry the same sobriety, I think, and you rarely hear competent physicists saying things like: "oh, all the quarks are just top quarks. I looked at a few, and they were definitely top quarks, so I'm sure they're all that way."

It always seemed to me that the best thing that a study of history can do for us is to raise us above the prejudices of our own time, which T.S. Eliot so aptly called "temporal provincialism," and help us see things with a clearer eye by allowing us to try to understand what it must have been like to be someone else. My favorite historian, Thucydides, is notorious for this, and it's the most striking thing, I think, about his work; first, he'll give you a speech by a representative of one city, and by the end of the speech you'll agree completely with it, thinking that city is correct - and then he'll give you the opposing city's speech, and you'll feel the same way. That vexation, that unsettling realization that lots of different people have very good reasons for believing what they believe but they can't all be right, seems to me to be the thrill at the heart of the study of history.

Sorry, but something about what you're saying about history really bugs me.
posted by koeselitz at 4:03 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's agony, watching an intelligent person struggling and failing to force recalcitrant facts into an impossible accord.
posted by clockzero at 4:08 PM on December 24, 2009


I grew up in Northern Virginia, which although not The South, nevertheless had tons of stuff named after General Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and essay scholarships about the Confederacy. I learned in history class that the Civil War (we did call it that, not being in The South) was not about slavery. It was something I didn't question, in part because relatively "recent" history mostly bored me. Looking back, I think it was all the apologia. No one felt the need to say the Sumerians meant well and that when they conquered the Uruk, it was to spread freedom and the Uruk were glad they did. The Sumerians were a fucked-up empire that did heinous shit to gain wealth and power, and they were also normal people, and you could see those things at once. But somehow the Civil War was just some unfortunate misunderstanding between well-meaning people.

I became more exposed to the idea that the Civil War was about slavery (at least in large part) from the internet. I think the thing that really sums it up for me is the fugitive slave laws, which are nearly the opposite of states rights, yet were (obviously) pushed by the slave states.

Changing topic: I assumed that sotonohito was speaking about his audience: middle class citizens of wealthy countries. Obviously now is a shitty time to live in Darfur. I don't think it's that controversial to note that comfortable middle-class life is an extreme rarity in history, and to the extent that it existed, it was largely propped up by slavery and conquest. Our infant and child mortality is spectacularly low, to the point that having a child die is seen as a rare, terrible tragedy. But that used to just be what happened. Our modern special-snowflakeness with few untimely deaths and codified human rights is a weird anomaly compared to the vast majority of the past, and I think it's possible to acknowledge how fortunate we are while simultaneously being fascinated by our tougher, more brutal ancestors.
posted by Humanzee at 5:18 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


What is "sentimental anti-slavery"?

The phrase is used in literature to refer to Uncle Tom's Cabin and related works. I assume it is this Sally Struthers Children in Need ad form of appeal to emotion that is being referred to.

Some anti slavery rhetoric was based on "fear and hatred of the race of the slave", whaa?

This likely refers to the Free Soil movement -- a working class political front that believed in the abolition of slavery in part due to the competition offered by the plantation system (a stance not unlike the modern one favoring the "family" vs. the "corporate" farm), and in part due to the manifest destiny desire to seed the West with "yeoman farmers", that is to say, whites rather than blacks. Although anti-slavery, free soil was not necessarily anti-racist in any modern sense.

This is of course directly related to koeselitz's statement above
I think it's fair to say that the civil war was about the West, that newly-emerging stretch of land on the horizon which both the North and the South knew would be a base of political power for the future. What precipitated the civil war was the conflict between the North and the South about who would control that power base

Returning to the original quote, it may also refer to colonization.
posted by dhartung at 6:22 PM on December 24, 2009


What is "sentimental anti-slavery"?

It's a canard used to denigrate genuine moral concerns.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:00 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


sotonohito and koeselitz: The US was founded as a union of states and, despite the Articles of Confederation yielding to the Constitution, was widely understood as such until after the Civil War. I can't find anything in the origin of the republic forbidding states, having voluntarily entered into said union, from voluntarily withdrawing. I'm prevented from Southern partisanship by the cause that led the South to secede; but it's hard for me to buy the argument that they did not, in theory, have the right to do so. I'm also loath to argue for compulsory eternal statehood because, as the twenty-first century bursts into awful flower, I suspect that the US has become too big to sustain itself and will need in the not-too-distant future to break into some arrangement of its component parts.

As I said, the debate is academic as it concerns the War of Northern Aggression (I've lived in the South all my life, and I've never heard anyone say that, at least not without irony. Many of my relatives do, however, continue to call it the War Between the States) -- the malignant nature of our Peculiar Institution justified every bullet fired at us, regardless of whether the bullets were fired with pure intention. But, in the abstract, secession isn't a dirty word.
posted by steambadger at 8:01 PM on December 24, 2009


why is it constantly called the War of Northern Aggression?

I like the term James Nicoll uses: "The Slave-Owner's Rebellion". Count on a Canadian to give a trenchent analysis.

And I think it would be dangerous to say that Mr. Livingston is racist, as I think he would honestly deny it.

I'm not surprised. Funny how nobody admits to being a racist no matter what the views they promote are.

Anyway, from the modern multicultural academic perspective, Livingston would be considered "racist", as in being brought up in and a beneficiary of a racist society. In this perspective, racism doesn't even need to be consciously racist. By contrast, in terms of the popular conception of "racist" he'd be- ah fuck it. He's still a racist prick, and it's just sad that his views are being given any credence at all.
posted by happyroach at 8:05 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Vilifying people of the past (or people-of-the-past wanabees) for not having contemporary attitudes is just a nasty form of confirmation bias.

By 1860 pretty much the entire Western world had ditched slavery, usually without warfare, and had forced it to be abandoned in their colonies. The United States was the only significant hold out that springs to mind.

It's like suggesting that I'm only showing the attitudes of my time if I'm a guy in the 1950s opposed to giving women the vote, or a guy in 2000 suggesting there shouldn't be inter-racial marriage.
posted by rodgerd at 12:03 AM on December 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


steambadger: “sotonohito and koeselitz: The US was founded as a union of states and, despite the Articles of Confederation yielding to the Constitution, was widely understood as such until after the Civil War. I can't find anything in the origin of the republic forbidding states, having voluntarily entered into said union, from voluntarily withdrawing. I'm prevented from Southern partisanship by the cause that led the South to secede; but it's hard for me to buy the argument that they did not, in theory, have the right to do so. I'm also loath to argue for compulsory eternal statehood because, as the twenty-first century bursts into awful flower, I suspect that the US has become too big to sustain itself and will need in the not-too-distant future to break into some arrangement of its component parts.”

Well I understand your perspective, and, though I've heard it many times, I can see where you're coming from. But first of all - you say "despite the Articles of Confederation yielding to the Constitution" like you already know that that's one of the biggest grounds of the Federalist argument. Unfortunately, saying despite doesn't make it go away, and for my part I can find no evidence whatsoever for your statement that the US was widely understood as a mere collection of states until after the civil war. People are always saying this; but where's the evidence? I've never seen it anywhere. The South was happy in their prewar stolidity, politically powerful in the federal government and able to wield that power for its own good, as every region always wants to in a government. This was well understood, and my recollection is that at the constitutional convention the Northern states actually put up more resistance to Federalism than the southern. Of course, the point is that, in the end, Federalism - which was a fully-fleshed ideal, a well-thought political conception which was immediately propagated as quickly as its partisans could spread the word - won the day, and was accepted by all. There was no vague sense, in the South or anywhere else, that Federalism didn't make sense.

But I guess that's sort of what you're saying. After all, you mention that you can't stand on the principles for which the South was actually fighting during the war; you only can't see why they didn't at least have the bare right to secede. And I appreciate that. There ae several reasons, I think.

The first and most important one is that secession is simply a practical impossibility considering the geographical and socio-economic makeup of the United States. Lincoln was wholly correct that such a split could lead only to long-standing and painful war, especially given the national climate at the time, a fevered imperialist furor. Even in the present day, while we might be better equipped to prevent war in the event of secession (although I'm not betting on it) a national split would still cause a good deal of poverty and economic turmoil. I have to say that I share your skepticism that a nation of nearly a billion people across a swath of antire continent is stupefyingly difficult to govern, even for experts, which we generally seem to lack. However, what would secession mean today? We have at least a passing amount of local government as it is, and frankly there's nothing in our laws preventing us from having a go at beefing up those local governments a good deal. We have plenty of local determination in the largest senses that it matters. Splitting the country up would only mean (a) splitting up our armed forces, only to probably recombine them in some sort of coalition, and (b) separating ourselves through economic divisions and tariffs, only to probably drop those tariffs when it becomes apparent to us that Europe has the right idea and freer economic borders make sense. I know that governing a nation as large as ours is now seems like an awkward stunt, but unfortunately I can't see any alternatives right now. And I can picture the nation having to break up, as you say, but I can't picture that happening nicely.

And above and beyond my own predilection for small city-states, I have to say that I find Lincoln's argument that secession is criminal in itself quite convincing. How can such withdrawal from a very real and serious governmental contract be anything else? As I say, I think the South as much as anyone else agreed with and voted in favor of a strong Federal component of government; and, although it's unpopular now, I believe that the authors of the Federalist Papers had a very good idea of what they were doing when they chose the form of government they did. They made very clear and direct arguments why the nation as it was couldn't be a collection of free states, but had to join together; those arguments were not only convincing to me, they convinced the whole nation, and I think for good reason. Lincoln said in 1861 that the war was a presentation before all of humanity of "the queston whether discontented individuals... can... break up their government and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth." If this had been an orderly, careful, democratically-considered secession (which no doubt would-be Confederates would like to believe it was) I often wonder if Lincoln would have felt the same; but it was clear to him (and it is clear to me) that the "secession" was the act of individuals acting on their own and in their own spirit. And given the reasons they seem to have held for beginning the fight, I think that's a fair conclusion. Lincoln said that his aim was to show human beings that "what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war." I think that's a fair stance, and while I know you're not trying to argue that Lincoln was in the wrong, I am also convinced, as I say, by his arguments that "secession" is in no way legitimate unless perhaps it gathers a vast and inexhorable social force behind it before firing a shot or charging a hill.
posted by koeselitz at 12:56 AM on December 25, 2009


koeselitz I must have misstated myself. I'm not at all interested in dismissing the past, as I said I'm a historian, I study the past which is hardly dismissive.

But that doesn't preclude me from recognizing that the modern world, even the modern third world, is a better time to live than any time in the past. I like studying the past, but that doesn't mean I have a falsely idealized view of it, or want to live there. I like reading war stories too, but I wouldn't want to be in a war.

If you honestly believe that every single life lived in every single society by more than ONE HUNDRED BILLION PEOPLE who have ever lived [was awful[ [...]

Of course not, and I never said so. But for most people, life was pretty bad. The upper classes, of course, lived semi-well, but even for them much of what we modern people take for granted didn't exist. Any illness, including the common cold, was a potential death sentence even for kings and emperors, just to pick a minor example.

It always seemed to me that the best thing that a study of history can do for us is to raise us above the prejudices of our own time, which T.S. Eliot so aptly called "temporal provincialism," and help us see things with a clearer eye by allowing us to try to understand what it must have been like to be someone else.

I agree completely, but that doesn't mean we should romanticize the past or try to pretend that life there wasn't quite unpleasant.

I think the best thing about history is the way it shows the extreme variation in how people live and think. By modern standards a citizen of Imperial Rome would be considered literally insane (clinically sadistic, psychopathic, etc). By their standards that was perfectly normal and just how people lived. When I hear people talk about how "human nature" means we must act in X fashion, I know I'm dealing with someone who is most likely completely ignorant of the incredible variation in how humans have lived over the course of existence.

But modern people, even in the third world, simply, objectively, live better lives than people did even 200 years ago. To pretend otherwise, to pretend that all times were equally good is foolish. Life is better now, moreso in the first world of course, but even in the more economically blighted parts of the planet it's better today than it was in the past.
posted by sotonohito at 5:43 AM on December 25, 2009


As someone with a couple history degrees under his belt, I don't think Sotonohito's opinion necessarily misplaced as a professional historian. So long as they don't unduly prejudice how he presents history, it shouldn't be up to debate.

I grew up in Northern Virginia, which although not The South, nevertheless had tons of stuff named after General Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and essay scholarships about the Confederacy.


Well, it was the South until a bunch of Yankees moved in. ;)


I had something typed of concerning secession and what not, but it looked like dribble, so I deleted it. Instead, I'll just say Merry Christmas!
posted by Atreides at 7:30 AM on December 25, 2009


Slavery is pure evil. Slavery to a corrupt national government replaced direct human bondage.

Is it still slavery if most people don't realize they are slaves?
posted by MikeWarot at 5:15 PM on December 25, 2009


Hahaha, yes, MikeWarot, the government not being the way you want it to be is TOTALLY the same thing as OWNING HUMAN BEINGS AS FUCKING PROPERTY WITH NO RIGHTS and oh fuck wait no it isn't.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:34 PM on December 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


It's slavery, to a different degree... it's not as direct, nor obvious, but it's a modern version of debt slavery.

Owning people is wrong.
posted by MikeWarot at 7:56 PM on December 25, 2009


Don't be so coy, Mike. Which corrupt national government are you talking about?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 9:21 PM on December 25, 2009


rodgerd:"By 1860 pretty much the entire Western world had ditched slavery, usually without warfare, and had forced it to be abandoned in their colonies. The United States was the only significant hold out that springs to mind."

We were late, but here is a list of other significant holdouts (emphasis mine)

* 1865 United States abolishes slavery

* 1869 Portugal abolishes slavery in the African colonies

* 1886 Cuba abolishes slavery

* 1888 Brazil abolishes slavery

* 1894 Korea abolishes slavery

* 1905 Siam (Thailand) abolishes slavery

* 1906 China abolishes slavery

* 1923 Afghanistan abolishes slavery

* 1942 Ethiopia abolishes slavery

* 1958 Bhutan abolishes slavery

* 1962 Saudi Arabia abolishes slavery

* 1963 United Arab Emirates abolishes slavery

* 1970 Oman abolishes slavery

* 1981 Mauritania abolishes slavery

See this for a more complete timeline


Also many Caribbean islands held out for a very long time as we bought their sugar and only until very recently had situations indistinguishable from slavery except in name, now only somewhat distinguishable.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:45 PM on December 25, 2009


I gather that the sugar/slavery issue was why there was a political element to the use of fine northern maple sugar.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:14 AM on December 26, 2009


Mike Warot: It's slavery, to a different degree... it's not as direct, nor obvious, but it's a modern version of debt slavery.

I'm a pretty strong advocate of the idea that people don't really have options unless they know that they have them, but this kind of equivalence is really pretty counter-productive.

Let's try a couple of use-cases:
  1. You're a black slave in South Carolina in 1850, and you want to leave the plantation and go somewhere else.
  2. You're a black textile worker in South Carolina in 1990 and your job has just been moved to Mexico.
Given those scenarios, what are your options -- that is, what are the options that you can reasonably be expected to know about and can potentially act on -- in each case? Just for fun, let's limit it to options that won't result in you getting whipped, beaten, shot, hung, torn apart by dogs or any combination thereof.

It seems kind of clear to me that using "slavery" to describe the conditions of the latter case pretty much renders the word "slavery" useless for defining anything much.
posted by lodurr at 10:35 AM on December 26, 2009


Lodurr: Point taken... debt slavery needs to be called something else... slavery isn't the appropriate term...

Capitalistic Feudalism?

Or is that redundant? ;-)
posted by MikeWarot at 8:19 PM on December 26, 2009


Can you make valid accusations of debt slavery when a country has a system of bankruptcy?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:02 AM on December 27, 2009


sure. why not?

or are you under the mistaken apprehension that bankruptcy is a cost-free get-out-of-debt free card? or that people don't feel bound by social or cultural constraints?
posted by lodurr at 10:43 AM on December 28, 2009


The primary premise of slavery is that there is no escape (although some societies did allow the slave to buy his freedom). If there is a way, no matter how inconvenient, to release the burden of debt, it's ridiculous to claim that a system works on debt slavery.

Not to say that we don't have an economic system that is built almost entirely on debt...the Time article on Ben Bernanke had a very revealing sidebar about how, through the magic of lending, $100 of savings deposit becomes $1000 in the economy.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 1:18 PM on December 28, 2009


So, would you support the following paraphrase of your position: If there is a way, no matter how inconvenient, to release the burden of debt, it's ridiculous to claim that a system works on slavery. ["debt" deleted]

If so, then it looks like just another variation on the old Libertarian canard that 'the only thing a free man can be forced to do is die.'
posted by lodurr at 4:30 PM on December 28, 2009


eh, f*ck. I gotta stop doing this stuff in a hurry.

Let me try that again:

So, would you support the following paraphrase of your position: If there is a way, no matter how inconvenient, to release yourself from bondage, it's ridiculous to claim that a system works on slavery. ["debt" deleted]

If so, then it looks like just another variation on the old Libertarian canard that 'the only thing a free man can be forced to do is die.'


OK, that should do it...and no, i probably wouldn't have caught it on preview.
posted by lodurr at 4:43 PM on December 28, 2009


Well, there's a significant difference between bondage and debt. I'd say that involuntary servitude is slavery, no matter what. I consider military service to be riding the line of slavery, even if its voluntary.

But I do take back the part about "no matter how inconvenient." The release from debt should be reasonable enough that it is a realistic option. The "reforms" of bankruptcy we've seen recently have reduced the reasonableness of that release.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 8:04 PM on December 28, 2009


Thanks. I don't want to be jousting at that windmill again and somehow I wasn't reckoning you for the extreme libertarian position.
posted by lodurr at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2009


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