The War for Southern Independence: My Myth or Yours?

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In the antebellum era, Matthew Carey, Philadelphia publisher and journalist, was the most zealous and articulate advocate of a protective tariff to raise the price of imported goods so high that American manufacturers would be guaranteed a closed internal market that would provide them with growth and profits. He believed fervently that this was necessary to build a strong country.   Being a refugee Irishman, he wanted the United States to have powerful industry supported by a powerful navy that could compete with the hated Great Britain for the world market in manufactured goods.

In 1834 Carey was an unhappy man. As a result of South Carolina’s stand against the protective tariffs of 1828 and 1832, Congress had just passed a compromise measure that would lower the tariff by stages over the next ten years until it reached a revenue-only level. Carey penned an editorial warning the South that if it did not submit to future increases in the tariff, it would face the righteous fury of the North. He reminded Southerners that the North was superior in manpower and warships and that the long undefended Southern coastline could easily be invaded.

This is exactly what Lincoln’s armies were to do less than three decades later. Note that Carey has nothing to say about slavery and that he aggressively wishes to punish the South simply because by defending its own interests it was thwarting his agenda. His son Henry carried on his mission.   After the war of 1861-1865 Henry Carey was to blame the war on free trade. If there had been a consistently high tariff, he said, the South would either have been impoverished or else forced to become like the North and there would have been no war.

The great civil war was caused by free trade?

I get this from the brilliant dissertation of my student Scott Trask on the state rights, free trade, and Southern supporting men of Philadelphia, far more numerous, well-informed, and respectable than has been assumed. Throughout the period before, during, and after the war there was always a large part of the Northern population that agreed with the South on the issues. Far more numerous than “Unionists” were in the South and virtually lost to mainstream history. This is a vacuum in American history that this conference can begin to fill.

I thought about Matthew and Henry Carey a few years ago when 60-some historians in South Carolina presented a manifesto declaring that the Confederate flag atop the capitol building in Columbia should come down—because it represented slavery and nothing but slavery. And I thought about the remark of Charles Dickens, who had spent much time in the United States just a few years before the war: “The Northern onslaught on slavery was no more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern States.”

Our 60-odd historians declared that they were not expressing an interpretation—they were stating an indisputable truth established by their expert knowledge. Let’s leave aside the fact that most of those historians, if experts at all, were in fields remote from the period they were asserting knowledge of and had never read a primary document from the period. They had been told that the South Carolina ordinance of secession mentioned the defense of slavery, which was apparently all the evidence needed to conclude that the war was all about slavery and naught else. In fact, they were not making a historical judgment at all but merely asserting their membership in the exclusive club of true experts who possess so much more knowledge than the mere stupid and backward citizens of South Carolina.

Long ago and far away, in another age and another galaxy, it was thought that historians ought to immerse themselves in the primary sources of a period before making a judgment about large events, and even then that judgments should be a cautiously put forward. And that genuine students of history should strive to be, as far as possible, independent jurors and not hanging judges. Be especially careful of moral judgments about the past, warned Sir Herbert Butterfield. Scripture tells us “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” For historians, it is more important to understand than to judge, and we cannot understand all the circumstances that led to men’s actions in other times. Too often in calling something good or evil we are really saying “I like this, and I don’t like that.”

I could spend all the rest of our time discussing how the historical profession reached its current condition, but that would take us too far afield into the minds of dead white European philosophers and revolutionaries who created the mental universe in which so many American scholars work, whether they know it or not.. For a long time history was “philosophy teaching by example,” that is, the account of men’s actions as good or evil in relation to the health of their societies. In the new form of history, actions are not good or evil in themselves, but only to be praised or condemned to the degree they forward or retard progress as definied by ideology. One effect of this is that, like my 60-odd examples, historians do not care about the weight of evidence but only about cherry-picking facts to suit the predetermined theory. The duty of historians, they think, is to make a better world, not to tell the truth.

Good historians know that causation is a difficult concept and that the the cause of any great event like the war of 1861-1865 is complex, multi-layered, and many-headed . Can one portion of one document.like the South Carolina secession ordinance   explain that millions of people engaged in an intense four-year conflict over an immense territory—by far the largest and bloodiest event ever to happen in American history and on this continent?   The war began with the firing on Fort Sumter?   But what caused that? And why was slavery at issue when it had been an accepted part of American life for two centuries?   And what about the thirty years of conflict that preceded the firing on Sumter?

And so on backward in search of causes until we reach the great primary cause–Original Sin.

Let us grant that the secession of the lower South was related to a desire to defend slavery. It used to be customary to examine and evaluate both sides in a conflict.   Our historians fail to notice that if slavery was a cause of secession that does not mean that it was a cause of war. Neither secession nor slavery in themselves  necessarily called for Lincoln to raise the largest armies ever seen in this hemisphere and conduct a war of invasion and conquest against the Southern people. For that is precisely what the war was, an invasion and conquest of the South by the Northern party that had control of the federal machinery. A simple truth that seems to be totally absent from American consciousness. It never occurs to the historians or garden-variety American nationalists to even   consider this. Their automatic and unrecognised assumption is that Southerners are bad people who naturally needed to be put down. If one looks at Lincoln’s party in 1860-1861, even before the firing on Fort Sumter, one finds major spokesmen filling the air with calls for blockade, invasion, domination, the healthy purging of a little bloodletting, and the ruthless pursuit of Northern economic interests. That is the weight of the evidence, but what we always hear are a few insincere conciliatory words from Lincoln.

Forget the bosh about “restoring the Union.” It had long been understood that the Union could not be restored by destroying legitimate governments in nearly half the States and subjecting their citizens to military control. The very attempt changed the Union into something else—something which might reasonably be described as imperial.

Historians have spilled oceans of ink to explain why the South was so peculiar—how it was so evil or perverted  that it did not to want to be governed by Yankees— who as all the world knows have only the noblest intentions, even when they are dropping bombs on you. I have long thought that what we really need to investigate was the North. It was the North that changed radically: the Founding Fathers, even Alexander Hamilton, could not have understood Matthew Carey or Abraham Lincoln The South expanded tremendously in territory but its basic social structure and beliefs remained the same. Some work has been done on the North in the era of conflict but a vast amount is still to be done. I recommend this wide open field of research to any young historian who wants to tell the truth and have his career blighted from the start.

Let’s look at the Careys’ assumptions about the Union. For them the national government was something to be controlled and its power used to carry out their agenda. The South was not made up of sister States and fellow citizens. Southerners were merely an obstacle who were blocking the agenda and should be pushed aside. The South was not entitled to its own life, its own interests and opinions, but was just raw material for the will of the North.

If I had to make one thing the cause of the war it would not be slavery. It would be this aggressive attitude on the part of the North.   One Confederate wag observed that the war happened because Southerners were a contented people and Yankees were not.   Southerners did not regard the Union as a weapon. They knew perfectly well that their fathers and grandfathers had created a confederation that was to be to the mutual benefit and protection of its members. They had agreed to no such an arrangement in which they would be merely instruments of others’ purposes and have their society altered at others’ will. When it was clear that the purpose of the Union was to be perpetually perverted, secession was a logical remedy. All this Southern statesman pointed out all along.

There is the famous exchange between Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun at the time of nullification. Jackson toasted the Union. Calhoun replied: “The Union, next to our liberty most dear.” They almost never quote the rest of Calhoun’s words: “May its benefits and its burdens always be equally distributed.” Even advocates of the most extreme Southern position never suggested they had any wish or power to interfere with the North. They merely wished to be let alone.   To this end, they showed for decades a willingness to compromise.   Calhoun had readily agreed that the hated tariff should come down only gradually so that Northern interests would have time to adjust and not be too upset. And though he took a strong position on slavery in the territories, he always indicated his willingness to abide by the Missouri Compromise if the North would do so in good faith.

I suggest that the unexamined assumption that Southerners are simply evil people who don’t count and who can be put down without need for much justification lies behind the discussion of the war to this day. In fact, having written a number of articles suggesting there might be something to be said on the Southern side, I am accustommed to email and mail messages charging me with treason and threatening with me the same deadly treatment that was administered to my ancestors.   With such people, American nationalism starts to resemble fascism. The Confederacy is these days is routinely likened to Hitler’s Germany. This is indeed a propaganda lie of the very worst sort. It was the North, after all, that gloried in conquest and superiority, created a police state still unmatched in U.S. history, invaded other people, and often treated them as subhuman.

Recently a. historian, self-identified as a Christian and conservative, wrote in celebration of how the American people had always rallied in great crises—such as 9/11, Pearl Harbour, and Fort Sumter. Hold on a moment.

Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were sneak attacks by foreign enemies. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, there were no casualties, no civilians targeted, and the garrison were allowed to march out with honour and go home. Are Southerners not Americans?   Are we just like Japs and Arab terrorists, evil people to be overcome by real Americans?

Further, he is simply wrong about the response to Fort Sumter. There was an outpouring of public sentiment and some volunteering after that; but it has recently been shown that volunteering had as much to do with unemployment in the Northeast as with patriotism; after those first few months Lincoln always had trouble raising his armies. It could only be done by offering large bonuses and importing foreigners. Northerners numbering several hundreds of thousands bought substitutes, went to Canada or Europe, or otherwise avoided conscription. For many Northerners the war was simply a money-making proposition. This was affirmed by numerous outraged patriots and foreign visitors. The British journalist Frank Vitzelly reported from Washington: “The only persons who seemed to display any activity are the hordes of hungry contractors.”

Here is another good subject that has not been touched as far as I know. Did the event a Fort Sumter justify an all-out invasion which immediately forced the choosing of sides by all who wanted peace and inaugurated a war of immense destruction?   How about examining Lincoln’s actions in the light of of Christian just war theory, which would clearly show that the invasion of the South was unjust.

The fact is that a great many Americans believe enthusiastically a lot of things about the great war that are not true. This conference points to a many subjects that challenge the predominant interpretation of the most important event in American history. I wish I had time to demonstrate how the theme of this conference could be vastly expanded. In everything I say I believe I am validated by the weight of evidence. In a subject as vast as the war of 1861-1865 you can find an example of anything you wish to find—the same is true of the institution of slavery and of Reconstruction.   It is all too easy for a historian to cherry-pick evidence to support the established view. Of course, evidence does not necessarily lead to a change in beliefs that are based on powerful emotions and self-serving agendas. We can only hope that the cumulative weight of truth can make a slow inroad into false ideas. In fact, this is already happening to some small degree.

The North American War of 1861-1865 is still in many ways the central event of American history. It is unmatched in the scale of mobilisation, casualties, hostilities and material destruction on American soil, and revolutionary change in the American regime. The war, and especially Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, are perceived by many Americans and others around the world as the defining story of the United States. The essential myth that sustains the identity of Americans.

I am led to think about “myth” as a way of summing up historical experience by a fashionable notion bandied about in our day to interpret the losing side in the great war.   This is what historians call “the Lost Cause Myth.” In this interpretation myth is definitely meant pejoratively to designate something that is   false and bad. The Lost Cause Myth claims to destroy the traditional idea, shared by many Northerners, including those who fought against them, that Confederates were brave, sincere, honorable, and heroic in their bid for independence and make a respectable part of the American heritage. This, they say these days, was all bosh made up after the war by Southerners to cover up their evil and failed actions. They were defenders of slavery and traitors and they lost. End of story.

Again, I wish I had time to describe the ridiculous falsehoods that are put forward to support such an interpretation of the Confederacy, which interpretation is discredited at every point by the weight of evidence. Perhaps next year’s Abbeville Institute Scholars Conference could take up this theme. I don’t think I have ever recommended to any group, even students, that they read my humble scribblings. However, I suggest you might join the Abbeville Institute and read some of the material in my archive that relates to what we are hearing these few days in Stone Mountain.

It is not unreasonable to use the concept of myth in the nonpejorative sense that myth is a story that is neither true nor false, but is an artistic way to sum up the meaning of great events of the past and the character of a people. A myth does not have to be precisely and pedantically accurate to be valid.   However, I submit to you that there are grounds to argue that the American national myth is not true enough to qualify for myth in the nonpejorative sense. It is, in fact, a distorted and unhealthy legacy, an artificial concoction that lends itself to bad purposes. What these few days are about is to challenge and qualify this myth, and that is, alas, an uphill and thankless task.

I believe it can be shown that what Robert Penn Warren called the Northern Treasury of Virtue is full of wooden nickels and counterfeit coins. The American myth is demonstrated to near perfection in the1940 film Young Mr. Lincoln.  The handsome Henry Fonda, impersonating an imaginary humble and idealistic Lincoln, is chosen by God and the voice of the people to meet the great crisis —to save the Union and free the slaves. This is ludicrously far from the actual moody corporation lawyer and relentlessly ambitious and crafty politician who had manipulated himself into a nomination. Not to mention that there might have been no crisis if he had not been elected and that 60 per cent of the American people had voted against him, his party, his platform, and his poitential to create conflict.

One of the historians who has been most zealous in putting forward the claim that everything positive that has been said about Southerners in their war of independence is a falsehood made up after the fact, does not understand why despite his wisdom and eloquence, people still continue to admire the Confederates. Why don’t we see admiring books and movies about Grant? Why, people even write books about Lee’s horse! One must feel sympathy for someone so impoverished in imagination and humane values that he can’t understand why someone might prefer Lee to Grant.

I doubt if this will offer him much comfort, but I read that Spielberg is as we speak making a movie to be called “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” to be released this summer.

 

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