Friday, August 8, 2014

Truth ("The Scorpion's Sting" by James Oakes)

Twenty-five years after the end of the American Civil War, small groups of Southerners arose to rewrite its story. Led--but in no way started--by organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans, the movement's goal was simple: scrutinize school textbooks and demand a more sympathetic view of the South, its attitudes toward slavery, and its reasons for fighting the Civil War. This was an almost direct extension of the pro-slavery propaganda promulgated by elected Southern officials during the war, who had depicted Union soldiers as elements of an unwarranted full-scale invasion and the emancipation of their slaves as the theft of lawfully-protected and God-given property. Unlike this propaganda, however, the crusade to indoctrinate children through revisionism was done to justify and expunge the sins that had led to war in the first place, and to make sure that false information was passed down as fact in the generations to come.

As recounted by historian James McPherson, some of the most overt examples of revisionism from the post-war South could be found in textbooks and the recommendations of grassroots committees. There was Susan Pendleton Lee, whose history of the United States included a justification of not only slavery--after all, she said, "hundreds of thousands of African savages had been Christianized under its influence"--but the Ku Klux Klan, which she claimed to be necessary "for protection against...outrages committed by misguided negroes.” There was also Mildred R. Rutherford, whose criteria for the instant rejection of a textbook, according to McPherson, included any book asserting that "the South fought to hold her slaves," that "speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves," or that "glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis." (Even more ridiculous, the recommended corrections for these alleged errors included an attempt to depict the Southern slave-owners as victims: "Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands.")*

This kind of revisionism, now referred to as "neoconfederate," has remained strong in the 150 years since the war ended, and in many cases the lies have remained exactly the same:  that the North was the aggressor and the South was simply exercising "state's rights," which was guaranteed by the Constitution; that secession was about taxes instead of slavery, and that the South was embracing the same civil disobedience of the Founding Fathers when they broke away from England; that slavery was already a waning institution, one that should have been "allowed" to die a natural, free-market death; and that Lincoln could have bought Southern slaves their freedom with federal money, sparing the nation the great costs of the Civil War.

It is these last two ideas--that the Civil War could have been prevented with proactive measures--that historian James Oakes hopes to debunk with his own short study of the subject, which traces the political and social discourse leading up to the Civil War. In 180 pages, Oakes demonstrates just how immovable the two opposing sides were when it came to slavery, with abolitionists arguing for full emancipation and the pro-slavery factions basing their arguments on a misreading of the Constitution, passages cherry-picked from the Bible, and bigoted ideas about the inferiority of other races. (Oakes makes sure to points out that many Northerners held these same despicable views on racial superiority, though these attitudes were much more widespread in the slave states.) Believing that a compromise could have been reached to avert the war, even after so many previous compromises had only exacerbated the issue, is foolish; after all, if you believe that your ideas are ethically and Constitutionally correct, why would your side bargain them away?

Oakes further discusses the long history of emancipation through military intervention--that is to say, during war--as a viable military and humanitarian strategy and not the "theft of property," thereby disproving the idea that slaves were anything other than subjugated human beings. Even during the Revolutionary War, before our nation's misguided belief in slavery was enshrined into law, military leaders on both sides understood the importance of slaves to achieving decisive victories, and promises of freedom were extended in order to gain loyalty and manpower in the fight over colonial control. (In the end, slaves who fought for the British were taken back to England by the thousands, where they could live in a society that had already abolished the practice.) Because the Confederacy was so devoted to the idea that slaves were property, they did not follow suit and offer freedom in exchange for military service, even though, as Oakes points out, a quarter-million conscripted slaves could easily have changed the dynamic of the war for the South; and counting as only six percent of the overall slave population, their freedom after the war would have had a negligible effect on the South. (This is an admittedly perverse way to think about history, but it's also factually sound and demonstrates once again the severity of the Confederacy's racism. What's more, a thought experiment, especially when supported with statistics and used only to highlight an important point, is still far more acceptable than revisionism.)

Oakes' book is in no way a comprehensive refutation of Civil War revisionism, and at times his research suffers from a narrowness that takes the speeches and writings of a few and applies them broadly across both sides. This is a worrisome, albeit editorially sound, practice only because it mirrors the very same strategy of neoconfederates when they take the words of a half-dozen minor historical figures and conflate them to give the appearance of a majority viewpoint. That's not to say Oakes should have quoted or cited as many politicians as possible, and the people he does cite are some of the most important from that era--Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Thaddeus Stephens, and so on. But this book--based, Oakes states at the end, on a series of lectures he delivered--could and should have been much longer. A cursory look online reveals that Civil War revisionism has not been given the due scrutiny it deserves, at least not in book form. (Even the McPherson text I quoted before is derived from an essay about the Civil War rather than a fully realized book all its own.) Neoconfederate writings and viewpoints have not lessened with the passage of time, and they will not lessen in the years to come; someone needs to debunk as much of the mythologized South as possible, and Oakes comes awfully close. Where history is concerned, however, close is not good enough.

*All of the information on post-war revisionism and textbook committees comes from the work of James McPherson, a portion of which can be read at the blog of Kevin Levin. The information I have presented herein is either quoted directly from McPherson's work or are summaries and paraphrases presented by Levin.