10 June 2011

Even Salon Engages in Civil War Revisionism

I thought there was something wrong with me when a linked to a Salon article last month, and even made so bold as to assert it would never happen again.  Now I know there's something wrong with me, because I'm doing it again.  When big-government-loving Salon admits the Civil War was in great part about extending Northern domination over the South, and throws the anti-Catholicism of some Northern evangelical Protestants into the mix, I thought I better post it.

Don't worry too much, there was one line in particular that reminded me not to get attached to Salon magazine-- when it referred to Lincoln as a "strict constitutionalist".  Ha!

From the full article:

Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong

Almost. Historian David Goldfield exposes how evangelical Protestants turned a conflict into a bloody conflagration

But there's still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it "America's greatest failure" in his fascinating new book, "America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation." It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war's goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war's main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately -- with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly -- that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.

Whether or not you accept that premise – more on that later – Goldfield shows definitively that Northern evangelical Protestants were the moral force behind the war, and once they turned it into a religious question, a matter of good v. evil, political compromise was impossible. The Second Great Awakening set its sights on purging the country of the sins of slavery, drunkenness, impiety -- as well as Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic immigrants. Better than any history I've seen, Goldfield tracks the disturbing links between abolitionism and nativism. In fact, he starts his book with the torching of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Mass., in 1834, a violent attack on Catholics which Goldfield shows was "incited" by Lyman Beecher, the father of the Beecher clan, most of whom turned out to be as anti-Irish Catholic as they were anti-slavery. To evangelical Protestant nativists, Catholicism was incompatible with democracy, because its adherents allegedly gave their loyalty to the Pope, not the president, and the religion's emphasis on obeying a hierarchy made them unfit for self-government. Also, rebellious Irish Catholics didn't show the proper discipline or deference to conform to emerging industrial America. The needs of Northern business were never far from some (though not all) abolitionists' minds.

Still, though nativism was widespread in the North, and within the Republican Party (which  absorbed some old Know-Nothing and nativist Whig party remnants), abolitionism remained at the party's fringe. Most Republicans were seeking compromise, not the abolition of slavery, in the years before the war, including Abraham Lincoln. Our first Republican president didn't like slavery, and he fiercely opposed its extension to the Territories, but he also expressed doubts about African-Americans' capacity for democracy, and he opposed black suffrage. Lincoln supported the Fugitive Slave Act, which let slave-owners call on law enforcement even in free states to capture their runaway "property." (As a lawyer, he'd represented a slave owner trying to recapture a fugitive slave.)

And as a strict constitutionalist, Lincoln resisted abolitionism, because like it or not, the Constitution made room for slavery. The president disliked slavery, but his priority was the union. He famously told abolitionist Republican Horace Greeley (who later turned against Reconstruction and ran for president as a Democrat, abandoning African Americans as did too many other abolitionists): "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."


StGuyFawkes said...

Although Joan Walsh's assessment of Lincoln's view of slavery and the Civil War is generally correct she gives a skewed interpretation of Lincoln's Second Inaugural when she writes:

"In his subdued Second Inaugural Address, he refused to blame the war on the Confederacy, or trumpet the righteousness of the Northern cause."

The speech was indeed "subdued", although "subtle" might be a better choice of words. In point of fact in the Second Inaugural Lincoln does blame the South when he says,

"Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."

Lincoln, is clearly placing heavier blame upon the South. There are a number of other places in the speech wherein the particular interest of slavery is pointed to as THE CAUSE of the war which in balance points to the South more than the North.

However, Walsh is more right than she is wrong. Readers of this blog may be shocked to find that Lincoln seems to distribute blame for the war on the North and South alike. How does he do this? Through Calvinist theolgoical speculation.

The sublime rarity and divine eloquence of the Second Inaugural comes from Lincoln's use of "Theodicy" or theological arguments showing the justice of God in human events. Lincoln's view seems to have been that slavery was the evil which a Providential God in His inscrutabiltity may have chosen to remove by a pestilential suffering placed upon North and South alike; and, since North and South were one people under god, indivisible, the blame is generally sharable within this essentially Calvinist framework of Puritan, Covenant theology.

Pay attention closely to these words. LIncoln said,

"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove,
ALWAYS ASCRIBE TO HIM?" (emphasis mine)

Lincoln's Second Inaugural, his sharing of blame, and his view of the Union as a "mystical entity" (Edmund Wilson) cannot be understood outside of the great tradition of Puritan Covenant theology whereby a whole nation, or community is judged and redeemed as a whole.

The sermon form Lincoln borrows from in the Second Inaugural is the "Jeremiad" much used by Cotton Mather and all the great American Calvinist divines.

It was later used to great effect by Martin Luther King and unborn right's activist Randall Terry who each in different ways warned that the nation, North and South, white and black, pro-life and pro-choice would suffer judgement for the crimes of the many perpetrated on the few.

Readers of this blog may feel they have little need to aquaint themselves with Calvinist theology but I recommend that if they wish to understand their country's mind they might make an effort.

I recommend Perry Miller's "The Life of the Mind in America" as a start.

St. Guy

thetimman said...

Stguy, the words

"one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish"

properly understood, place the blame squarely on the north. For the South accepted war rather than let it perish.

It perished anyway.

StGuyFawkes said...


If you can find a way to interpret this citation to mean that Lincoln places more blame on the North than than the South then you have hereby won the annual "St. Guy Fawkes Award for Exegetical Acrobatics."

St. Guy

thetimman said...

Keep the award-- of course Lincoln didn't mean it that way, but he stumbled on the truth just the same.

StGuyFawkes said...

If you are looking for a Lincoln text wherein he "stumbles on the truth just the same" might I suggest "On the Perpetuation of our Political Institutions: Address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois."


I'm surprised amidst all the Lincoln bashing this particular talk in which Lincoln forecasts a kind of Nietzchean overman who becomes an American dictator and goes on to smash American institutions -- it shocks me that his text has never been cited on this blog.

The speech curiously foretells the coming lawlessness of the Civil War and seems to presage a figure much like Lincoln who destroys American institutions while attempting to save them.

The text has been endlessly debated by historians and political theorists. It reveals Lincoln as a very subtle political thinker.

Apologies if you already know well this key Lincoln text.

St. Guy