The Civil War Isn't Tragic, Cont.

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Anyone who's going to deal in Civil War studies really needs to take a moment to grapple with James McPherson's This Mighty Scourge. I doubt that this was McPherson's intent, but the first essay in the book is really what set me on the path of questioning the "Civil War as American Tragedy" narrative on to the "Civil War as American Revolution" line of thinking.


I suspect McPherson might not agree with my reframing--I'm probably being a bit too pat. Nevertheless, his essay demonstrates that the idea of the Civil War as avoidable tragedy didn't materialize out of thin air; it comes not just out of American popular memory, but right out of American historiography.

The origins of the American Tragedy are rooted in the Civil War denialism of historians who held that the war wasn't about slavery but, in the words of Charles Beard, "a sectional struggle" between two powers divided by "accidents of climate, soil and geography." Attendant to that view was the Fitzhughesque notion that "wage slavery" was as bad as "chattel slavery." When you reduce the Civil War to a fight between two equivalent systems of labor, it becomes much easier to believe that 600,000 Americans died in vain. 

McPherson takes us deeper into the historiography:

An offshoot of this interpretation of the Civil War's causes dominated the work of academic historians during the 1940s. This offshoot came to be called revisionism. The revisionists denied that sectional conflicts between North and South--whether such conflicts occurred over slavery, state's rights, industry vs. agriculture, or whatever--were genuinely divisive. 

The differences between North and South, wrote Avery Craven, one of the leading revisionists, were no greater than those existing at different times between East and West. The other giant of revisionism, James G. Randall, even suggested that they were no more irreconcilable than the differences between Chicago and down-state Illinois. Such disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system. 

The Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a "repressible conflict," as Craven titled one of his books. The war was brought on not by genuine issues but by extremists on both sides--abolitionist fanatics and Southern fire-eaters--who whipped up emotions and hatreds in North and South for their own self-serving partisan purposes. The passions they stirred up got out of hand in 1861 and erupted into a tragic, unnecessary war, which achieved nothing that could not have been accomplished by negotiations and compromise.

The result not only lacking a moral component, but also the result of "radicals" on both sides (Sound familiar?), which could have been avoided through a moderate compromise--a compromise that would have left 4 million African-Americans still enslaved. 

McPherson goes on to shred the centrist pablum and point out all the ways in which the Civil War was so much more than an act of mass hypnosis perpetrated by fire-eaters and damned abolitionists.

Crucial to the revisionist view is the idea that the American South was merely a society with slavery, as opposed to a slave society. First McPherson positions the slave system in the world economy:

Slaves were the principal form of wealth in the South--indeed in the nation as a whole. The market value of the four million slaves in 1860 was close to $3 billion--more than the value of land, of cotton, or of anything else in the slave states, and more than the amount of capital invested in manufacturing and railroads combined for the whole United States. Slave labor made it possible for the American South to grow three-quarters of the world's marketed cotton, which in turn constituted more than half of all American exports in the antebellum era.

The slave system was not merely an economic boon. It was a means of social organization and control, the very foundation of a Southern white male free society:

"The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death," a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. "The South cannot exist without African slavery." Mississippi's commissioner to Maryland insisted that "slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity." If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his party, "the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone."

If these warnings were not sufficient to frighten hesitating Southerners into secession, commissioners played the race card. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to "substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races." 

Georgia's commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, "we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything." 

An Alabamian born in Kentucky tried to persuade his native state to secede by portraying Lincoln's election as "nothing less than an open declaration of war" by Yankee fanatics who intended to force the "sons and daughters" of the South to associate "with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality," thus "consigning her [the South's] citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans..."

This argument appealed as powerfully to nonslaveholders as to slaveholders. Whites of both classes considered the bondage of blacks to be the basis of liberty for whites. Slavery, they declared, elevated all whites to an equality of status by confining menial labor and caste subordination to blacks. "If slaves are freed," maintained proslavery spokesmen, whites "will become menials. We will lose every right and liberty which belongs to the name of freemen." 

To assure the security of this social system, and to protect wealth accumulated through property in man, the slaveholders and their allies did not appeal to "States Rights." On the contrary, the Southern slave system depended on the might of the federal government:

During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861, the presidents of the United States were Southerners--all of them slaveholders. The only presidents to be reelected were slaveholders. Two-thirds of the Speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tem of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861, a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners....

The dominant political party most of the time from 1800 to 1860 was the Democratic Republican Party under the Virginia dynasty of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which metamorphosed into the Democratic Party under the Tennessean Andrew Jackson. Southerners controlled this party and used that leverage to control Congress and the presidency. 

In 1828 and 1832 Jackson won 70 percent of the popular vote for president in the slave states and only 50 percent in the free states... As an example of how such leverage could translate into a Slave Power, six of the eight Supreme Court justices appointed by Jackson and his handpicked successor were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the notorious Dred Scott decision and of other rulings that strengthened slavery...

Southern politicians did not use this national power to buttress state's rights; quite the contrary. In the 1830s Congress imposed a gag rule to stifle antislavery petitions from Northern states. The Post Office banned antislavery literature from the mail if it was sent to Southern states. In 1850 Southerners in Congress plus a handful of Northern allies enacted a Fugitive Slave Law that was the strongest manifestation of national power thus far in American history. In the name of protecting the rights of slaveowners, it extended the long arm of federal law, enforced by marshals and the army, into Northern states to recover escaped slaves and return them to their owners.

This omits the power of slaveholders in Congress, where McPherson estimates that the Constitution actually gave them "thirty more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have entitled them to have."


Taken together, the slave system was, itself, a Leviathan--a force with deep roots in the economic, social and political system of this country. From the black perspective it was the nation-state mobilized for more than two and half centuries as a war-machine against that which so many regard as the foundation of humanity, itself--the family. And I do not merely mean the biological nuclear family: The slave system subjected family, in all its permutations--adoptive, same-sex, parent-less, child-less--to consistent, if capricious, violence. 

If there is such a thing as an African-American people--and I believe there is--then it must be said that that for 250 years, that people lived in a state of war. The period between 1860 and 1865 are but the final years of that war, during which as Lincoln put it:
 
...all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword

It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge. 

These are my truths. And this is my favorite sentence written by a historian pertaining to the Civil War:

[The Civil War] was fought over real, profound, intractable problems that Americans on both sides believed went to the heart of their society and its future.

Slavery was an actual thing. All else is garnish.

Read James McPherson. He just might change your life.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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