On this 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, Americans mark the end of the Civil War. The questions at the heart of the war, though, still occupy the nation, which has never truly gotten over that conflict. The great issues of the war were not resolved on that April morning at Appomattox. In this sense, not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.
“It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God,” wrote James Baldwin in 1956 as the Civil Rights Movement took hold in America; “it is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.” Philosophically and theologically, claims of human equality are as old as the hills. But the real struggles for genuine equality of natural rights, of equality before law, and of equality of opportunity are much more recent in historical time. And such a profound—sacred and legal—quest as equality is not a destination, a place over the horizon, but a long, grinding process of human striving. In short, equality is process of historical change. It forever tacks against the trade winds of individualism, self-interest, material accumulation, and widely varying notions of the idea of “liberty” from which it draws momentum.
Americans often begin conversations about equality with Thomas Jefferson’s invocation of it as one of the four first principles in the Declaration of Independence. Americans like being “first” with ideas. But as Abraham Lincoln reminded us, more than four-score years later, the nation founded in a revolution against monarchy had to fight a second revolution against itself in order to determine whether the “proposition” of “equality” had a future in any republic. And that second revolution—the Civil War—was so bloody, so devastating, a “result so fundamental and astounding,” as Lincoln put it, that ever since, Americans of all backgrounds have yearned to declare, or at least feel, its deepest issues over and resolved. Americans may love the epic story of their Civil War, but would, by and large, prefer its nightmarish causes and consequences to fall quiet, to rest in peace.
Over time, the Civil War became the subject of great romanticization and sentimentalism in cultural memory. For veteran soldiers on both sides, reconciliation required time and the pressure of political imperatives imposed by the larger society on them and on the conflict’s memory. In the wake of this war, Americans faced a profound and all but impossible challenge of achieving two deeply contradictory goals—healing and justice. Healing took generations in many families, if it ever came at all. Justice was fiercely contested. It was not the same proposition for the freedmen and their children as it was for white Southerners, in the wake of their military, economic and psychological defeat. And in America, as much as it sometimes astonishes foreigners, the defeated in this civil war eventually came to control large elements of the event’s meaning, legacies, and policy implications, a reality wracked with irony and driven by the nation’s persistence racism.
Much of America’s devastating failures with race relations and the origins of the Jim Crow segregation that took firm hold across the South by 1900 can be traced to the nation’s failure to face the unending legacies of emancipation. The bitterly contested Reconstruction policies of the federal government of the late 1860s, at the heart of which stood the unprecedented participation by blacks in southern political life, and the violent counter-revolution by the former Confederate states in the 1870s, laid the groundwork for such a debacle. In his modern synthesis of the period, Eric Foner called this revolution, and the counter-revolution it provoked, “a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.” Since so much of Reconstruction, in political terms and in labor relations, remained essentially the unfinished Civil War, firm “endings” for the meaning and consequences of this event have remained elusive.
A shooting war between huge formal armies did indeed end in the spring of 1865 after four years of physical, environmental, social, and human devastation. Militarily, the United States was the clear victor; the war ended in four formal surrenders of Confederate armies to Union commanders. The first and most famous was at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 12, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered 21,000 starving troops to General Ulysses S. Grant, in a scene immortalized in American memory. Lee had retreated westward to fight on after the fall of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia, but had been cut off by a decisive extraordinary march of the Union army. The terms, which also set the tone for the subsequent surrenders, were extraordinarily lenient for such a long and bloody civil war. Confederate officers and men, many of whom were ill-clad and without rations, were simply allowed to “go home,” and were issued printed “paroles.” Line soldiers were required to stack their muskets and fold their flags as they delivered them to their foes, unit by unit, in an unforgettable six-hour ceremony of stern, quiet military honor. But officers were allowed to keep their side arms and their horses and mules, in order to resume farming and plant crops on their return to homes. Lee himself was for a while put under a kind of house arrest after he returned on horseback to Richmond, the devastated Southern capital, although his confinement was short-lived and he was never tried for treason. The extraordinary surrender terms were carried out with grace and compassion by both generals at Appomattox. They were designed in part to stave off guerrilla war, in accordance with President Lincoln’s orders to his generals.
The very word “Appomattox” would settle into American memory and parlance as a prime marker of historical time, as a flashbulb memory (people would always remember where they were when they heard the news), as a divider between a world before and a world after “the war.” Among former slaves it would emerge as “The Surrender,” the beginning of a new calendar of time. Much had ended and much had begun in what one of its greatest chroniclers, Bruce Catton, called “the enormous silence” at Appomattox in April, 1865.
Yet Appomattox was not the end of the war. Three more military surrenders occurred over the next month and a half. On April 26, at a farmhouse called Bennett Place between Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Further west in Alabama, on May 4, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops east of the Mississippi River. And finally, on May 26, in Arkansas, General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the remainder of a Confederate trans-Mississippi army. Formally, the hostilities were over; the affair of arms and exhausted soldiers, indeed the dying, seemed at an end.
But these apparently conclusive and clean surrenders masked the difficult and conflicted post-war era that would follow. The war ended with revolutionary and lasting results that echo down to the present day—especially in the two broad questions of racial equality and federalism. A great deal of American political, constitutional, and social history can be read through these two broad, likely eternal challenges.
The “Union,” and all that it meant to northerners as a kind of shield for liberal democracy against oligarchy and aristocracy, survived. It was transformed through blood and reimagined for later generations. The first American republic, created out of revolution in the late 18th century, was in effect destroyed. A new, second republic took its place, given a violent birth in the emancipation of four million slaves and the re-crafting of the U. S. Constitution in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Those Amendments—ending legal slavery forever, sanctifying birthright citizenship and establishing “equal protection of the law,” and creating black male suffrage—in effect re-made the United States Constitution. This comprised a second American revolution.
The death toll, the sheer sense of human loss experienced in the war, North and South, among blacks and whites, left a profound and haunting pall on American society and culture for generations to come. The old, official count of Civil War dead relied upon for a century and a half was approximately 620,000. According to some remarkable new research, as many as 750,000 American soldiers and sailors may have died in the conflict, the majority from disease. Approximately 1.2 million were wounded, including perhaps 30-40,000 northern amputees (there are no equivalent numbers for Southerners) who struggled with life and livelihood well into the late nineteenth century. There is no reasonable count of civilian deaths, nor of the numbers of freed slaves who perished in the struggle for their own emancipation. Research now suggests that a quarter of all freedmen who made it to contraband camps operated by the Union forces died in the process. Based on the military death count alone, per capita, if the Civil War were fought in the United States today with its ten-fold greater population, 7.5 million soldiers would die. For most Americans that is an unthinkable toll, but such was the equivalence for their kinfolk in the 1860s. Whenever Americans have been compelled to face and understand experiences of great loss and suffering—the World Wars, the Great Depression, the attacks of 9/11—they have returned to the Civil War-era for touchstones of understanding.
Hundreds of thousands of Civil War soldiers and sailors survived, and they formed large veterans organizations in both North and South. They forged local chapters, fraternal orders of men who often felt set apart from civilian life, and in the North at least they made huge demands on a federal pension system that was not always as generous as the aging men wished. Veterans were a major lobbying force for their own interests, and they were often the subject of public honor at reunions and countless monument unveilings. By the 1880s and 1890s, most state governors and presidential candidates burnished the status of war veteran in both South and North. Although presented as public symbols of patriotism, traditional values, and rectitude, many veterans also suffered mightily from their old wounds and hardships borne during the war. Some veterans’ hospitals and homes existed, but there simply was nothing in the way of publicly provided health care, nor was there any formal recognition of what today is widely known as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome for combat veterans.
In the Civil War’s aftermath, alcoholism, unemployment, mental illness, and suicide were chronic problems among the old soldiers who frequented too many saloons and jails, as well as the public spaces of train stations and town centers. Veterans with the “empty sleeve” were very common sights in Gilded Age America. What the public did not so often see, however, was the social and psychological devastation in many veterans’ lives, which scholars have only recently begun to explore. For many survivors of deadly prison camps or of lingering diseases and wounds experienced in the campaigns of 1863-65, the war truly possessed them as an “unending” trauma.
On an evening in 1888, “a slender, tobacco-spitting misanthrope,” only known as “Charley the Boatman,” sliced his throat in the boathouse of the Milwaukee Soldiers’ Home, surrounded by the silvery wads of tin foil that he had passed countless hours shaping into “cannon balls.” In the winter of 1890, Emily Lippincott, who worked as a maid at the Illinois State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home, described her repeated encounter with “an insane man” who was fighting “his battles over again.” He “fought the rebels all day,” she said, “tearing his bed and clothes until exhausted.” The Union veteran, Patrick Cleary, lived on his brother-in-law’s farm in Hollandtown, Wisconsin. In 1871, his relatives described him talking “in a rambling, incoherent way,” often standing with a blank stare, muttering to himself about George McClellan, General Grant, and a certain Captain Chase. William Cunningham, himself a veteran, and who also boarded on the same farm, remembered being aroused from sleep by his agitated former comrade. Into the ground behind a barn, Cleary had pounded a row of wooden stakes to represent “an imaginary enemy,” and by moonlight, would drill a white bull dog and command him to charge the stakes and fight the supposed rebels.”
Even veterans who managed to keep their bodies and wits intact often proved unable or unwilling to escape the pull of the war. They created numerous magazines, attended post meetings, and wrote a blizzard of reminiscences and regimental histories in which they forged a culture of memory, of military detail, of mutual recognition and heroism, of communal support. Civil War veterans, drawing and pouring over their countless hand-drawn maps, arguing about old campaigns in letters and in sketches and speeches they delivered to each other, raising funds for monuments to their own units, were themselves the first Civil war “buffs,” a tradition passed on now through at least six or seven generations of readers, re-enactors, and Civil War roundtable members.
The Reconstruction era, stretching from 1865 to 1877, was one long referendum on the meaning and memory of the verdicts reached at Appomattox. Differing visions of America’s future were at stake. Well before the war ended, Lincoln proposed a plan of Reconstruction that would be rapid and relatively lenient to former Confederates, and which would include at least the beginnings of black voting rights. Lincoln greatly feared recurrent guerrilla warfare and hoped to keep Reconstruction policy firmly under presidential authority. Hence, his attempts to create new southern state governments with as few as 10 percent of their “loyal” citizens taking oaths to the United States, drafting new constitutions, and then gaining readmission to the Union under executive power. But even before his death, Lincoln faced strong opposition from the “Radicals” in his own Republican party, led by Charles Sumner in the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens in the House of Representatives. The Radicals fashioned a very different vision of Reconstruction—harsher, longer, and under Congressional control. They treated the ex-Confederate states as “conquered provinces” legitimately taken in war; no state would therefore be readmitted to the Union without federal military occupation, a majority of white voters taking loyalty oaths, and much broader guarantees of black civil and political rights.
Neither Lincoln nor the Radicals, though, conducted treason trials for any ex-Confederates in the wake of this civil war, though millions had indeed committed such offenses by any legal definition. Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled southward after the fall of Richmond in early April, 1865, and after a desperate flight with a small band of aides and cabinet officials, was captured by Union troops near Irwinsville, Georgia on May 10. Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe, Virginia, but he had never been formally indicted or tried, and political pressure eventually led to the Confederate leader’s release on bail, paid largely by wealthy Northerners, in April, 1867. Davis was stripped of his citizenship and could never again hold office, but he lived until 1889, an increasingly public symbol of the Confederate Lost Cause. In a nearly 1200-page memoir, he argued bitterly for the vindication of states’ rights doctrines, for the right of secession, and that the South had never fought to preserve slavery or white supremacy. He also portrayed both systems as wholly justified and natural. Many high-ranking Confederate generals and officials fled, often temporarily, into exile at the close of the war—to Canada, Mexico, Cuba, England, Brazil, and other lands. Henry Wirz, the commander of the notorious Confederate prison in Andersonville, Georgia, was arrested, tried for war crimes, and with considerable long-term controversy, executed (the sole Confederate of any rank tried and hanged). Moreover, members of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination conspiracy, which killed Lincoln and attempted the murders of Vice President Andrew Johnson and other cabinet officials, were captured, tried, and executed with public fanfare. But these executions were the rare exceptions that proved the rule.
The politics of Reconstruction quickly became deeply conflicted. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, became the Radicals’ nemesis. Johnson was an old Jacksonian Democrat, and though a Unionist from a seceded state during the war, he was an ardent states’ rightist and a white supremacist. Over Johnson’s eventual vetoes and other obstructions, the Republicans put in place the Freedmen’s Bureau, an unprecedented agency charged with providing food, labor contracts, schools and other basic needs for former slaves as well as white refugees. They passed the 14th Amendment in 1866 and the First Reconstruction Act in 1867, which required former Confederate states to renounce their acts of secession, and placed them under temporary military rule. This military Reconstruction Act also disfranchised certain classes of white Southerners, established black male suffrage, and forced majority approval of new state constitutions (which had to include the equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment) for readmission to the Union. Under this constitutional regime, the eleven ex-Confederate states, with huge numbers of white Southerners defiantly refusing to participate, formally re-entered the Union under Congressional authority by 1870.
In a new book, historian Gregory Downs persuasively argues that a long and persistent “occupation” occurred for at least three years, and perhaps as long as six years, after the end of actual hostilities in spring, 1865. Downs also demonstrates that, although a massive demobilization of Union troops occurred in 1865-66, the United States Army has been far too neglected as a player—a force—in the history of Reconstruction. The Army, at first in hundreds of outposts in the countryside, and eventually largely in towns or coastal forts, remained the “eyes” of the government and the real and symbolic presence in an “ideologically and spatially ambitious occupation.” As the federal troops receded from view over time, large swaths of the former Confederate states descended into chaos, anarchy and violence, requiring a sustained use of Constitutional “war powers” to maintain any order. Indeed, as Downs shows, a genuine, if inadequate “occupation” was engineered by the U. S. government, almost without precedent, in order to try to bring control to a region that fell into “statelessness,” as it also revolted against defeat and all that it meant. Downs wants his work to speak to the present, and indeed it should. He urges libertarians of today to take notice because this history, as he says, demonstrates that “freedom is only possible within the state.”
But as the occupation gave way to a political process of reunion, especially around elections in the South, widespread vigilante and organized violence broke out all over the region. Indeed, violence left Reconstruction’s most vexing, twisted legacy. In 1866, bloody massacres of blacks and the destruction of freedmen’s communities wracked the cities of Memphis and New Orleans. In the political violence of Reconstruction, especially in the periods 1868-71 and again in 1875-77, a counter-revolution unfolded. Terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and its many imitators served as paramilitary arms of the reviving southern Democratic Party. Their violence reveals the implications of an unending struggle over race, power, land, and hugely different visions of the ideas of liberty and federalism. For a very long time, white Southerners experienced a lethal case of alienation and an explosive sense of grievance, however mythical the origins of those grievances or horrible their outcomes. Since most of the rural South was unpoliced by Union troops, despite the accusations of colonial “occupation” and “bayonet rule,” white Southerners unleashed a bloody fury against blacks and white Republicans born of lost battles, lost mastery, alleged political repression, and the need for “scapegoats” in their scorn for a racial order turned upside down.
The white counter-revolution and its uses of terror reversed the Clauswitzian doctrine: In America, too much of the political process of Reconstruction became war by other means. By whippings, rapes, the burning of houses, schools and churches, the violent disruption or intimidation of local Republican party meetings, and hundreds of murders and lynchings over a period of less than a decade the Klan and its minions (called variously “Red Shirts” or “white leaguers” and many other names) sought to win back as much of a status quo antebellum as they could achieve. Their victims were teachers, black students, white and black politicians, and uncounted numbers of freedmen and their families who participated in politics or gained some economic autonomy. The record of Reconstruction violence has been clinically detailed, but it is a piece of history that most Americans still prefer to avoid.
Blacks had become voters, office holders, and landowners in Colfax in the Red River district of Louisiana by April 1873 when a white mob massacred perhaps 100 freedmen, many slain execution-style. At least 10 percent of the black members of constitutional conventions in the South in 1867-68 were victims of violence, including seven who were murdered. In Greene County, Alabama in 1870, attackers killed four and wounded fifty-four; that same year in Laurens County, South Carolina, after Republicans won a local election, some 150 blacks were chased from their homes and thirteen murdered. In South Carolina alone, from the fall elections of 1870 to April 1871, formal testimony recorded some thirty-eight murders and hundreds of whippings and tortures. In Meridian, Mississippi, in 1871, local black orators were arrested for delivering “incendiary speeches.” At a court hearing, gunfire erupted, and the white Republican judge and two defendants were killed. In a day-long riot that followed in Meridian, at least thirty blacks were murdered by mobs.
This litany of horror and blood can become almost endless, and it represents the one time in American history when sustained uses of terror successfully worked to transform political regimes. In a process Southerners called “Southern Redemption,” eight of the 11 ex-Confederate states came back under white supremacist, Democratic party control by 1875. The final three—South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana—achieved that goal in the smoked-filled room political compromise of 1877 that settled the disputed presidential election of 1876 and provided the traditional chronological “end” of Reconstruction even as so many of its issues were left to later generations to face. The former slave and African American orator-intellectual, Frederick Douglass, remained a staunch supporter of the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Although he praised the party and President Ulysses S. Grant for their efforts to crush the Klan, Douglass grieved over the scale of unpunished violence in the South against blacks. Disgusted by what he saw in the impending election of 1872 as the “deceitful cry that all the questions raised by the war… are now settled,” he warned that “the slave demon still rides the southern gale, and breathes out fire and wrath.” The black leader had long interpreted the Klan, Democrats, and the survival of the southern rebellion as a continuous political force. Douglass resented what he called “this cry of peace! peace! where there is no peace.” In this sense, on the ground in the South, the war had not yet ended.
In his classic, The Legacy of the Civil War, the southern poet, novelist, and historian Robert Penn Warren claimed that “somewhere in their bones,” most Americans possessed a storehouse of lessons drawn from that conflict. Full of “sibylline significance,” he believed the war reached “in a thousand ways into our blood stream and our personal present.” These flourishes certainly represented Warren’s own background and his historical self-definition (he was born in 1905 in southern Kentucky, grandson of a Confederate veteran whose stories made the Civil War the “emotional furniture” of the young boy’s mind and the wellspring of his adult literary imagination). But they were hardly true for Southerners alone.
Whether the war still has such a hold on the national consciousness at 150 as it did at 100 is doubtful. No one can grow up anymore at their Civil War veteran grandfather’s knee, learning deeply mythic stories of the Blue and the Gray, or hearing of slavery times from a formerly enslaved grandparent. But the Civil War epoch has always resonated as a family affair for many Americans, transmitted through the generations: Fully one-third of this immigrant nation of over 300,000 million can still today, if they choose, trace their ancestry to someone who experienced the Civil War. The great narrative historian of the 1950s and 1960s, Bruce Catton, the writer who with his matchless prose as well as superb research, likely garnered more readers for this subject than anyone, demonstrated how much the war defined family histories. Catton received thousands of fan letters from his legions of readers. His books, which strongly emphasized the role of common soldiers, put readers in emotional touch with their fathers and mothers, grandparents, uncles and great-uncles who had fought in or otherwise endured the war. One “thrilled” reader from Florida said Catton had helped him comprehend the lives of his “eight grand uncles… five northern, three southern,” he had known in his youth. Another Floridian thanked Catton for finally helping him at last to know the grandfather he had never met, “6th Wisconsin, Iron Brigade.” Many readers wrote with stunning recognition as they found their father’s or grandfather’s diaries or letters quoted in Catton’s books. After reading Catton’s classic, Stillness at Appomattox (1954), a Clarence Foster of Southampton, New York, gushed with pride and informed Catton that the story he told from the “Reminiscences” of one Alonzo Foster was that of his own father. As Foster read Catton’s books, he sat surrounded with personal mementos: “Dad’s… cap, with two bullet holes thru it, the canteen which his comrade… took from his own shoulder and hung around Dad’s neck when he was wounded, the belt he wore and the bullet which was taken from his hand at the field hospital.” Many more such personal reactions abound in Catton’s personal papers.
Catton struck a mother lode of more than mere family nostalgia. During the one-hundredth anniversary season of the Civil War, millions of Americans still felt intimately and elementally connected to the blood and sacrifice, the place names and stories, the unending search for American identities rooted in the 1860s. The war for or against “Union” could be as much familial as it was national or regional. Subsequent generations of Americans could never actually be there in America’s Armageddon, but Catton, as their personal troubadour, could take them, through filial connection, into very close recognition with it.
But in the 1960s, although the Lost Cause tradition still had a stranglehold on the national memory of the Civil War, the centennial coincided with the civil rights revolution. The Civil War and civil rights have been forever intertwined in American history and mythology, but in that troubled and violent period, the two phenomena were like planets in separate orbits around different suns. On August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, a young Baptist minister tried to alter those orbits as he delivered a transcendent oration on the meaning of the unfinished Civil War. What will always be known as the “I Have a Dream Speech” should also be counted as the most important Civil War centennial speech ever delivered. King too, like Douglass, announced to a world audience that peace had not yet fully come to America’s internal civil wars. As the speech opened, the orator announced the text of his sermon, suggested the historical weight of the moment, and gazed forward as he also took a hard look back through one hundred years:
Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of Discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on an island of Poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later,The Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds Himself an exile in his own land.
No one could miss the significance of “Fivescore.” As Lincoln implied in his brief address at the Gettysburg cemetery in November, 1863, beginning with “forescore and seven,” the Civil War, the outcome of which was still far from determined, necessitated a new founding, a re-definition of the United States as a “nation.” King was arguing precisely the same thing for his own era as he delivered the Gettysburg Address of the twentieth century. The civil-rights revolution heralded yet another refounding, rooted this time more fully in the principle of racial and human equality. King did not reach his “dream” metaphor until the fourteenth minute of a seventeen-minute speech. But in those magnificent moments in the hot summer breeze along the Washington DC mall, King’s rhetoric broke down the segregated gravitational pulls of the two planets—civil rights and Civil War—and brought them into the same orbit. Befitting his role, however, as the leader of a radical, if non-violent protest movement, King’s arguments were hardly mainstream in the Cold War American political culture of 1963. But some of the barriers, at least, around that century-old stream were breaking down.
Much has changed in the fifty years since the crises of 1963—in law, in schooling, in scholarship, in race relations. But whatever the engines of history actually are, what seems apparent is that the legacies of the American Civil War have tended to subside and reemerge in a never-ending succession of revolutions and counter-revolutions. Indeed, the presidency of Barack Obama might be seen as a robust new chapter in this story. A significant segment of American society hates the President and cannot seem to abide a black family living in the White House.
American society seems to surge forward one moment, and then in the next sink back into polarization over race and ethnicity, over the advent of the nation’s first black president, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance and birthright citizenship, over reproductive freedom, over the use of basic science to understand climate change, over the extent and protection of voting rights, over civil rights based on sexual preference, and over endless and incompatible claims of “liberty” about the possession and use of firearms, taxation, environmental protection, or the right to health insurance. Perhaps above all, America is a society riven by conflict over federalism, the never-ending debate over the proper relation of federal to state power, perhaps the most lasting a legacy of what many nineteenth century Americans called the “secession war” or simply “the rebellion.” In short, despite enormous changes of heart, head and law, Americans still struggle every day to discern and enact that society of equality that the Civil War at least made imaginable.
Yes, the Civil War was rooted in states’ rights, but like any other constitutional doctrine, it significance rests with the issue in whose service it is employed. States’ rights for or to do what? For whom or against whom? In 1860 and 1861, some Southerners exercised “state sovereignty” as an act of revolution in the interest, as they said over and over themselves, of preserving a racial order founded on slavery. Today, states’ rights claims are advanced by many governors, legislatures, and presidential candidates in the ubiquitous language of “limited government,” or resistance to “big government.” Every now and then, though, these claims are couched in the rhetoric of “secession” or even “nullification” made so infamous during the Civil War era. More often, such claims have manifested in a new Orwellian language etched into laws to protect the “right to work,” or “religious freedom,” or the “integrity of the ballot.”
Although these contemporary echoes from previous centuries ought not be treated as straight equivalence between past and present, far-right federalists, who dominate the movement called the Tea Party, and who have found a vigorous leadership position at the heart of the Republican Party and on the federal judiciary, have much in common with the secessionists of 1861. Both groups are distinct minorities who have suddenly seized an inordinate degree of power due to congressional districting practices and effective use of conspiracy theories about centralization and the “leviathan” state. One acted in revolution to create and save a slaveholders’ republic; the other seems determined to render the modern federal government all but obsolete for any purpose beyond national defense and the protection of private citizens from having to participate in a social contract with their fellow citizens in tax-supported programs such as Social Security, Medicare, public education, environmental protection, or disaster relief. Both groups claim their mantle of righteousness in the name of “liberty,” privatization, hyper-individualism and racial supremacy (one openly, the other covertly). Both vehemently claim the authority of the “Founders” as though the American Revolution and the creation of the Constitution have no history. Modern-day states’ rightists and sometimes nullifiers embrace versions of federalism that might once have been thought all but buried in the mass slaughter of the Civil War, or in the imperatives of the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression, or in the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, or in the battle over the Environmental Protection Agency. But history does not end; it keeps happening. The radical wing of the conservative movement in America, still ascendant in Congress and dominant in most of the South, seems determined to repeal much of the twentieth-century social legislation, and even tear up its constitutional and social roots in the transformations of the 1860s. As Americans disturbingly learn, generation after generation, many have never fully accepted the verdicts of Appomattox.
In 1867, Edward A. Pollard, a former Confederate partisan and editor of the Richmond Examiner, published The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates, one of the first of the thousands of books that have contested the meaning of the Civil War’s results. Pollard issued a warning to all who would ever try to shape the meaning and memory of the war or of Reconstruction policies and their legacies. “All that is left the South,” wrote Pollard, “is the war of ideas.” The war may have decided “the restoration of the Union and the excision of slavery,” he declared, “but the war did not decide Negro equality.” Wars of ideas, hopefully always conducted with civility and without weapons, are the essence of republicanism and democracy. But every time a federalist such as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas vows to “stand on principle” and “stand up for liberty” in order to “reestablish the crucial boundary of dual sovereignty,” or pledges to protect “self-government” through a “return to our founding principles of limited government and local control,” his audience should be alert not only for political ambition, not only for policy positions advancing the liberties of the powerful against those of the powerless, but for an effort to push the present back into the lost causes of the past.
History may seem to have its lulls when it slows down and impinges less on our lives; then we are hit with massive crises, often to our utter surprise, and history speeds up beyond human comprehension. It is impossible to grasp a turning point in history until it has happened, and understanding it may take a generation or more. But history never stops, and although it is an ancient human utopian dream to live above and beyond it, or to ideologically control its pace, only fools think they can turn off its gears. Past and present are always utterly interdependent. Such was the claim of the great historian Marc Bloch, murdered in the Holocaust, about a “solidarity of the ages.” “Misunderstanding of the present,” wrote Bloch, “is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present.” Wars end loudly and in ruins, and sometimes on silent, beautiful spring landscapes such as the surrender field at Appomattox; but history keeps happening. Making “men equal on earth in the sight of other men,” to borrow again from Baldwin, is a long-term proposition, and for that matter, a definition of the meaning of America.