The U.S. Civil War, Slavery, and Erasing History

When Dances With Wolves came out, my dad gave the family “Indian names.” We all got them, but mine was the only one that stuck: “Much To Say.” This particular article started as a response to some tumblr posts and got longer and longer and longer, at which point I thought, “Fuck it, I’ll expound to my heart’s content and foist it upon Persephone Magazine!” The prompt was Thursday’s round of posts on “Forgetting Slavery” as the cause of the U.S. Civil War. It’s always a topic worth revisiting, especially during periods of pervasive whitewashing of U.S. history. The problem with most of the response to the original post is the way the discussion is framed: as determining the “Main Issue Leading to the Civil War.” There was no “Main Issue,” but rather a veritable tangle of ideological and economic factors prompting the Secession; these are distinct, however, from the fundamental circumstances that allowed such issues to develop over time. The conflation of immediate and germinant causes is a symptom of oversimplifying history– a very useful technique for convincing ourselves that we won’t make the same mistakes, have the same faults, etc. History, and humanity, is always far more complex than this, and critical historical moments are products of longstanding, deeply rooted factors far more profound than their surface presentation.

Part of the discussion thus hinges around semantics. Why did the Civil War happen? States’ Rights was a reason… that is, the right of a given state to allow slavery. Economic rivalry and balance between North and South was a reason… because the economy of the South was based on slave labor. Abolition was a reason”¦ but only while Northerners could view slavery unimpeded by the racism that was triggered by actual interaction with large numbers of Black people. These are immediate causes, all of which grew out of deeper issues of humanism, racism, and morality.

Likewise, the surface cause was the Secession. The Secession started because of an economy– which was faltering– based on slave labor, and an argument over whether that economy would be allowed to spread and thus regain strength through variation within the western territories. The Union needed the South for stability and power, but the non-slave states together could have sustained a viable nation. Therefore, the propagation of slavery was a critical issue for the Union– hence the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision. But this was only for part of the country. The process initiated by an act of war in South Carolina was more ideological– you’re not the boss of me!– in nature, whereas it was a matter of preserving a way of life in Mississippi, and creating economic opportunities in the territories of the Louisiana Purchase. Similarly, Vermonters were fighting for different reasons than Pennsylvanians, borne of distance from root causes and foregrounding of moral and economic imperatives, respectively.

The differences in motivation among the many participants signals the depth of the underlying problems; such a multitude of reactions to surface factors– and the multitude of the surface factors themselves– is precisely why “Slavery v. States’ Rights v. Economics v. Whatever Else” is insufficient for real understanding of why the war happened. If the South tends to overstate the economic factors, that is in large part due to the ravages of Reconstruction– it’s important to remember that the southern states didn’t have viable economies for at least fifty years after the Civil War due to carpetbagging and similar economic infringements and restrictions. That breeds hostility, and the freed slaves were easy targets. The deeper, more fundamental racism that bred slavery in the first place was only a matter of where Blacks happened to be at any given point, and flowered wherever they landed (Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest defeat, after all, was in Chicago).

Fundamentally though, the reason for highlighting the slavery aspect is not because it makes Northerners– or Americans in general– look better. Yes, it’s much nicer to ascribe the actions of Union states to moral objections against slavery than to anger at the presence in the South of a feudal economic system perpetuated through that institution. Abolition was not, after all, the principle allowing for Emancipation: Lincoln emancipated the slaves due to expediency. If emancipation had been bad for the Union, he would not have done it, but he determined that the Union wasn’t sustainable while slavery was in place– or, in any case, contested. The century between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act is indicative of how little the actual plight of slaves/Black people mattered in the overriding political/social construct of the Union.

Rather, slavery must be treated as the root cause because its impact on the country, on the development of the nation, was predicted. When the Colonies declared independence, they did so knowing that slavery was a huge ideological split undermining every aspect of a “United” economy and social ethic. The Founders put off dealing with slavery knowing full well that it would come back to bite the union in the ass. They knew that compromise on the issue was impossible, and so avoided it as long as possible. From the very beginning, the presence of slavery was recognized as a crack in the Union that would maim or destroy it. The reason for identifying slavery as the deciding factor is because its presence predated the specific causes for secession and war.

This is especially disconcerting in today’s socio-political environment because the institution of slavery in the U.S. itself invokes the fundamental presence of racism as a driving factor. There has always been slavery in however many forms in however many cultures and societies; the post-Enlightenment U.S. version was very specifically justified by the assignment of non-human status to Black people. Whatever the history of slavery worldwide, in the U.S. it is driven by the belief that Black people are sub-human. In our supposedly ‘post-racial’ society, who wants to be reminded of such an anti-humanist guiding sentiment? When “nigger” is removed from Huckleberry Finn, White people can avoid facing the fact that they created and applied that slur to Black people in the first place; when slavery is removed from the Civil War, White people can pretend that the U.S. was not founded by racists, that its societal, economic, and moral structures are not infected by the pervasive legacy of people who truly believed that the color of your skin made you something other than Homo sapiens.

That is why so many White people will run around spewing the bullshit of “Race doesn’t matter!” It does. It won’t once White hegemony is a thing of the past, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon, certainly not when the country’s public figures show such disdain for the very concept of history as anything other than a list of facts to be memorized. The history of the U.S. Civil War is not merely about States’ Rights v. Slavery, about political v. moral imperatives, about the various economic structures that form the basis of most modern societies battling with one another. “The Cause of the Civil War” does not exist; what matters is the beliefs and mores that provided the context in which the various causes could develop. When we fail to see the events of 1861-65 as stemming directly from those of 1776, we are also failing to see events as the historical consequences of earlier decisions. In doing so, we erase the collective history that is the only source for a collective future.

4 thoughts on “The U.S. Civil War, Slavery, and Erasing History”

  1. Very interesting. I’ve always felt that Southern whites are insistant on painting the war as not being about slavery so as to make their ancestors look better, while Northern whites love to claim that not only was the war totally about slavery but that the Union was completely opposed to it and fought the war because they desperately wanted to win freedom for the slaves.

    Once a few centuries have passed and no one cares enough to pretend their ancestors weren’t assholes I think everything will finally be looked at objectively.

    1. Hopefully, but that depends a lot on the way race relations progress. If whitewashing and race-baiting remains current, why wouldn’t people still try to rewrite history to serve their own interests? So much of it will end up hinging on classrooms: as textbooks start eliminating everything that doesn’t fit into a Tea Party ideology, the kids who use them will be indoctrinated in a like manner whether or not their parents want that…

  2. I think the ignorance is a willful ignorance, and the failure to acknowledge the far-reaching effects of racism deliberate, the white-washing purposeful. As you articulated so succintly in your second to last paragraph.

    Pretending that racism is a thing of the past helps those who are benefiting from the system of racism that is still in effect maintain their status of privilege; it helps them to continue to enjoy all the perks that come with being White. They really just don’t want to give them up. The next step after acknowledgment is to right the wrong. The question will be, okay, you know this was done, now what will you do about it?

    I don’t think the vast majority want to do anything about it. I really don’t. And of course if you don’t learn from your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

    1. Precisely.
      I could just as easily title this post “Willful Ignorance, Privilege, and History.” For me, the public perception of history is the main factor–if we could drive into everyone’s head that history is more than a collection of names and dates, more schools/parents/media/whatever would convey its cause-effect circularity. That in turn would make it harder to ignore the reality of things like whitewashing and privileged perspectives.

      That’s actually my single favorite thing about President Obama: for all my complaints about him (what can I say? I’m a raging liberal at heart and he’s a centrist at heart; it’s just one of those things!), the man knows and understands history better than most other people currently breathing. The way he handled the revelation of bin Laden’s death is just the latest proof.

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