During the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the National Park Service undertook an ambitious plan to commemorate and educate people about the war’s history and connect it to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “Civil War to Civil Rights” included more than 100 units of the NPS and lasted from 2011 until 2015. The NPS recently published its summary report of the commemoration and you can read it here.
My own perspective on what happened across the agency during the Sesquicentennial is fairly limited. For most of the commemoration I was away from the agency working as a teacher and going to graduate school; I only started working for the NPS during the last year of the Sesquicentennial. Nevertheless, there are a few broad takeaways I have about this report and the program as a whole:
- I had issues with the “Civil War to Civil Rights” theme, which I previously wrote about here. Overall I thought the theme was too limiting and exclusionary in that it tended to focus on the Black freedom struggle without giving appropriate attention to other important stories about gender, immigration, indigenous rights, and the very meaning of the Union and why it was worth fighting for. To cite one example, the story of this nation’s indigenous peoples is not one of “Civil War to Civil Rights” and does not fit nicely into that interpretive box. By extension, the time period from roughly 1880 to 1950 was largely overlooked. For most visitors I suspect that they made the connection between 1860 and 1960 but never thought too much about what happened during the bulk of the time in between those years. Connecting those dots, particularly with regards to the Reconstruction Era, will be another challenge to face moving forward.
- At the same time, I thought the Park Service did a nice job (and continues to do a nice job) of interpreting the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. I am currently reading Robert J. Cook’s publication on the Civil War Centennial commemoration from 1961-1965, which convincingly shows that the Civil War Centennial Commission tasked by the federal government to commemorate the Civil War during that era largely ignored the stories of slavery and emancipation in favor of a “consensus” interpretation that extolled the mutual valor of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We have thankfully moved beyond that interpretive model today.
- During the Sesquicentennial I did some preliminary research on visitation to Civil War battlefields and related historic sites and found that overall attendance was up at many sites during the commemoration. The NPS final report seems to validate my findings. We don’t know what exactly each visitor took away from their experience and we still have much work to do in bringing new audiences to NPS Civil War sites, but overall I think it should be no surprise that the Sesquicentennial brought a much more diverse audience pool to these sites thanks to a more inclusive and accurate interpretation of the war and an expansive educational initiative that went beyond military tactics into the realms of economics, politics, and culture.
- I can’t say that I saw a lot of radically dynamic programs within the agency that really broke the mold of traditional education/entertainment interpretive programs (e.g. battle reenactments, ranger-led talks, school and scout programs), but the agency did engage in a lot of thoughtful programming and updated its museum panels and technological media to reflect contemporary historical scholarship on the war.
- This NPS report and a lot of the rhetoric within the interpretation and education wing of the agency has focused around talk of “multiple perspectives,” “moving beyond facts,” and “relevant” stories that speak to contemporary issues. In particular the ascension of facilitated dialogue as a legitimate form of educational programming was notable during the Sesquicentennial, although I think there are a lot of sites that continue to solely rely on traditional ranger-led interpretive programming. I believe these developments are good, but only to an extent. The root of any educational program must be planted on a foundation of historical scholarship and primary source evidence. It all starts with educating people about the actual history itself and the importance of studying the past today. I want to have good, meaningful dialogues with people, but if someone shares a perspective rooted in misinformation (“Thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy”; “Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War”; “Ulysses S. Grant is a terrorist”), I will call them out on it. Doing so, however, means I need to have an understanding of the evidence at hand. Having an ability to do interpretive programs like facilitated dialogue without an understanding of the history involved in the discussion is meaningless to me.
- The overall cultural influence of the Civil War Sesquicentennial was shaped by two remarkable developments outside the agency. One is the emergence of the internet as a medium for learning, discussing, and writing about the war. For any contribution the NPS offered in enhancing the nation’s collective understanding of the war, the internet contributed in ways both good and bad on a level that far exceeded the reach of the NPS’s educational offerings. The second remarkable development was the rise of explosive contemporary events that accompanied the Sesquicentennial. The Ferguson unrest began a mere 30 minutes from where I work at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site and I imagine that it introduced a great number of people to the histories of racial violence, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement who may have not taken an interest if not for contemporary events. The shining moment for us at ULSG was most likely the effort to bring every eighth grader from the Ferguson-Florissant School District to the site to discuss these topics in early 2015, which I thought was pretty successful. Likewise, the Charleston shooting ignited a firestorm over the appropriate displaying of the Confederate flag in today’s society. Visitors were not hesitant to share their thoughts with me on that topic, which in turn led to (mostly) good conversations about the meaning of the flag and the origins of the Confederacy. Ultimately I believe the NPS’s Sesquicentennial events were successful, but were in many ways overshadowed by what was going on in the larger world.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do – let’s keep it up.
The African American Intellectual History Society has a thought-provoking piece from sociologist Jennifer Patrice Sims on imaginary and implied whiteness in literature, theater, and film that is worth a read by Civil War historians. I’ll explain.
Sims points out numerous instances in recent memory when black actors were cast for presumably white roles in films like Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter, and how a good number of whites reacted with “incredulity” at these casting decisions. She argues that such reactions occur because book readers and performing arts viewers often assume that the characters in the performance will be white. Whiteness is the default setting. Writers must use explicit language to express to readers that the character is a racial minority, something that does not need to be done for a white character.
It strikes me that I often see a somewhat similar pattern of thinking when studying the Civil War and Southern identity during the nineteenth century. Part of the problem is that many history textbooks and public history sites talk about the Civil War as a fight between Northerners and Southerners instead of a fight between the United States and the Confederacy. The terms are not synonymous. White Southerners in every state except South Carolina formed regiments in the U.S. military during the Civil War, nearly two-hundred thousand blacks–many of whom were born in the South–served in United States Colored Troops regiments, and states generally accepted to be at least partly “Southern” in nature, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, stayed in the Union during the war. The other equally important factor is that blacks born in the South are sometimes not considered “Southern.” As historian Kevin Gannon points out, decades of historical scholarship on the Civil War era has defaulted to whiteness when explaining political and social thought in the South:
Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than [a] “catastrophe[.]” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term . . . “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.
Indeed, words matter a great deal. Explaining how “Southerners” react to events necessitates further word qualifications such as “black,” “white,” “upper-region,” “Appalachian,” etc., since an entire region of people could never completely agree on a uniform mode of social and political thought.
Confederate veteran and Southern-born George W. Cable offered his own intriguing theory in an 1886 Memorial Day speech in Massachusetts for explaining the relationship between whiteness, Southern identity, and who gets to call themselves a Southerner. He suggested that “Southerner” referred less to the geographical location where one was born and instead reflected a particular way of thinking about the world:
You hear the phrase “true Southerner,” “true South.” . . . where a man or woman is born is no matter. A colored man is never esteemed a Southerner. And there are hundreds of men now in the South of any one of whom you may hear it said at any time, “Why, he is Northern born, but he is a good Southerner.” It is a matter of belief in a social order . . . the white [Southerner] for an arbitrary supremacy, confessedly inconsistent with American liberty, but in his sincere conviction essential to social order and his self-preservation . . . It believes that the preservation of society requires the domination of a fixed privileged class over a lower; that the white constitute this privileged class, and that the blacks do, and must, and shall comprise the lower.
I think there are many other ways–and many of them more positive than Cable’s assessment–to identify oneself as “Southern,” but he offers us some interesting food for thought with this speech.
Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?
The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.
This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.
Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.
It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”
So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.
I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.
On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”
General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.
A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.
For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.
These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.
Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.
The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.
One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history who have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.
It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners. (I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).
There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.
In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).
All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most of Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.
History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” have aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of the nation-state, the Church, or what have you. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.
I am currently working my way through The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by historian Stephanie Coontz. It’s a very provocative book that challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about family structures in U.S. history, and Coontz convincingly argues that the concept of “traditional family values” is really an invention of contemporary politics rather than anything rooted in historical fact.
Coontz points out that a common and persistent myth in current political discourse is that families today are suffering from the effects of modern “rootlessness”: this belief suggests that families today are more mobile and transient than they used to be, children generally have more fractured relationships with their parents and grandparents, and that children are being raised less by their parents and more by surrounding influences such as television, the internet, popular media, friends, and other community members. Coontz challenges this interpretation with a stunning fact that I have never seen before:
Families are not more mobile and transient than they used to be. In most nineteenth-century cities, both large and small, more than 50 percent–and often 75 percent–of the residents in any given year were no longer there ten years later. People born in the twentieth century are much more likely to live near their birthplace than were people in the nineteenth century (14).
She goes on to suggest that families today actually have stronger bonds than those of the nineteenth century. Grandparents are living longer and forging stronger relationships with their children, visits with relatives have increased, and only four percent of children today do not live with either parent, as compared to ten percent in 1940 and perhaps even higher in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, enslaved people in the nineteenth century often saw their families broken up and torn apart while family struggles and employment structures like apprenticeships for white families also demonstrate how communities and outside factors have always played an integral role in raising children.
This discussion got me thinking about the sorts of identities and allegiances nineteenth century Americans would have forged for themselves.
There is a school of thought that argues that more people identified with and considered themselves citizens of a state before aligning with the United States as a whole, especially before the Civil War. Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen as the archetype figure for this line of thinking. At the outbreak of war and with Virginia choosing to side with the Confederacy, Lee asserted that “I have been unable to make up my mind to raise my hand against my native state, my relations, my children & my home . . . & never desire again to draw my sword save in defence of my State.” Despite his years of service to the U.S. Army, Lee’s first allegiance was to Virginia and, by extension, his family. In his mind he had little agency in the matter since a choice to fight for the Union would be the ultimate form of betrayal to his primary allegiance. The novelist Shelby Foote infamously crystallized this state allegiance theory to millions of viewers on Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War:
Before the war, it was said ‘the United States are’—grammatically it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war it was always ‘the United States is,’ as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.’
While this theory is compelling, I think there is room to question its accuracy.
Lee’s life experiences before the war represent an aberration from those of most nineteenth century Americans. He grew up in a prosperous, stable family with deep roots in his native state, and those roots were solidified even more when he married into the Custis family. Most families had neither the wealth nor the state roots of Lee’s family in the years before the Civil War. While it’s true that Lee’s army career took him to places far away from Virginia such as St. Louis and Texas, those travels initially strengthened his allegiance to the Union, not his state. As the late historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor pointed out, Lee commented in 1857 that his patriotism extended to the whole country and that it “contained no North, no South, no East no West, but embraced the broad Union, in all its might & strength, present & future.” That argument clearly contradicts his later statements at the outbreak of war. Moreover, there were a number of Lee relatives that felt differently about their allegiances and eagerly signed up to fight for the United States against secession, and other notable Virginians like George Thomas and Winfield Scott had no qualms about maintaining their commissions in the U.S. army and their allegiance to the Union.
Shelby Foote’s assertion is also questionable. Andy Hall analyzed nineteenth century publications using Google Ngram and discovered that while “United States are” and “United States is” were used interchangeably during the early years of the Republic, the 1840s witnessed a sharp spike in the use of the term “United States is,” which may be indicative of wartime passions and calls for unity during the Mexican-American War. These calls were often led by nationalists North and South like Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, and Daniel Webster. But beyond the written word we may also question how nineteenth-century Americans could have developed such strong allegiances to a state if they were so geographically mobile. And what about the millions of immigrants who came to the United States in the years before the Civil War? Did they emigrate out of an allegiance and identification with a particular city or state within the country, or did they come because of a belief in American ideals and a love of the whole Union?
Nineteenth century Americans were a mobile people. In an age of cheap, federally subsidized land, ever-developing transportation and communication technology, and rapid westward expansion, many Americans moved from place-to-place in search of communities and infrastructures that gave them the best chance at maintaining a stable family and economic life. It’s not evident to me that they would have automatically identified with a state more so than a local community, a city, or the whole Union. Their allegiances may have been multiple and endearing, but for many Americans their love of Union was paramount.
One of the more eclectic works of scholarship in my library was published on the cusp of the Civil War sesquicentennial in 2010 and, as far as I know, has not received the attention I think it deserves. Don Doyle’s edited volume Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements brings together philosophers, political scientists, lawyers, and historians for many useful discussions about secessionist movements around the globe, both past and present. While an entire section of the book is dedicated to the exploration of Confederate secession and the American Civil War, other sections focus on secessionist movements in Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, and still another section focuses on the philosophical challenges of developing what we might term an ethics of secession – a set of standards for establishing when and how a separatist group might establish the right of self-determination and be accepted into the global family of nations. For this overview I will mostly focus on a treatment of the essays that discuss the latter philosophical concerns. While discussions of Confederate secession and the causes of the Civil War are of great interest to me and many other scholars, this book’s strength lies in allowing readers a chance to look at secession with a broader focus.
Philosopher Christopher Wellman takes a fairly permissive view towards secession and argues that the sole factor determining when a separatist group can leave an established nation lies in its ability to perform basic political functions. If such a group demonstrates an ability to govern and protect “the human rights of their constituents,” he argues, then that group maintains a fairly solid case for establishing its own sovereignty in a separate state. Significantly, Wellman suggests that any cultural arguments for self-determination based on factors such as a group’s shared language, ethnicity, or religion are irrelevant to the secession process because a group that cannot conduct basic political functions will fail to lay claim to a given territory. This arguments goes against the history of many 19th and 20th century separatist movements that based their claims of self-determination largely on cultural factors, but I think it’s a sound one to make for assessing the political merits of contemporary secessionist movements.
Wellman also takes issue with scholars who simultaneously oppose unilateral secession and advocate for a voting process that allows secession only if a supermajority of voters in an entire territory approve such a measure. He argues that a simple majority in one or multiple elections over a quick period of time is preferable to a supermajority process that can be burdensome and undemocratic, since 51 percent of the population could hypothetically support secession and yet be denied their desire to separate because of the minority’s wishes to maintain the union. Wellman acknowledges that states often posses an amendment process like the one in the U.S. Constitution that requires a supermajority vote before making changes to their governing documents, since such proposals concern the stability and fundamental political concerns of the state. But apparently such a process for secession does not concern the stability of the state in Wellman’s eyes because the root question for him is whether the secessionist group can make the case for its own self-determination. On this point I am not as convinced by Wellman’s arguments.
Historian David Armitage explores the relationship between secession and civil war, and how active separatist movements (especially ones with arms) are frequently accompanied by severe warfare and violence, although that does not always have to be the case. He argues that commonly accepted definitions of secession and civil war today have been largely shaped by how they were defined at the time of the American Civil War, specifically through the legal definitions of lawyer and professor Francis Lieber’s famous “Lieber Code” that attempted to outline acceptable laws of war for pursuing the Union war effort. Armitage points out, however, that many conflicts today that could be considered an act of secession and/or a civil war don’t meet Lieber’s definition of those terms. Moreover, he suggests that a term like “Civil War” is reflective of a Unionist interpretation of a given conflict because it portrays events as a internal war, whereas secessionists would argue that such conflicts are analogous to an international conflict and not necessarily a civil war.
Armitage concludes his essay by arguing that the American Revolution was actually a civil war perpetuated by an act of secession by the American colonies. He asserts that the colonists initially wished to remain in the British empire and that their political concerns against the crown were born out of the perception that their rights as Englishmen were being compromised, not that they were a separate people distinct from the mainland British populace. When those rights were not acknowledged, the colonists presented the Declaration of Independence as an act of secession from the British empire. I personally do not buy most of this argument. While I’m willing to concede that the conflict had characteristics of a civil war, the Declaration of Independence asserts that the colonists were employing their natural right to revolution and not their political right to secession, which did not exist under the British empire. The colonist leaders of the war effort with Britain understood that they were breaking away from the empire through an act of revolution, not secession. Brooks Simpson has a thoughtful explanation of the distinction between revolution and secession here.
Much like the aforementioned two essays, law professor Peter Radan’s essay on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address has points of agreement and disagreement with me. In particular Radan focuses on Lincoln’s arguments that the Union preceded the States, that a state could not secede without the Union’s consent, and that a morally justifiable reason was necessary for Confederate secession to be valid. Radan disagrees with Lincoln’s reasoning in a number of ways by arguing that the States came before the Union, that unilateral secession can be justified if the terms of the political contract are altered (he posits scenarios in which both North and South violated this contract), and that a moral justification for secession is unnecessary for it to succeed and gain international acceptance. I believe Radan might be correct on the last point in that secessions and revolutions often occur regardless of their moral implications, but his other points have problems.
Radan points out, for example, that the Declaration of Independence’s wording states that the colonies were “free and independent States” and that “they [had] full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” “This assertion,” argues Radan, “can hardly be said to express the notion that there is a union and no independent states [in 1776].” But Lincoln himself gave a pretty convincing argument in his First Inaugural to suggest that some form of a union did already exist. Lincoln acknowledged the “free and independent states” clause of the Declaration, but argued that “even then the object plainly was not to declare their independence of one another or of the Union, but directly the contrary, as their mutual pledge and their mutual action before, at the time, and afterwords abundantly show.” Indeed, Virginia, New York, or any other state never assumed the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, or generally function as “free and independent states” as Radan conceives the term. Ultimately neither Radan nor Lincoln are completely correct about whether the States or the Union came first because the documentary evidence is complex and contradictory on this point. Historian Kenneth Stampp is closer to a correct answer when he argues that the question is moot because the 1787 Constitution aimed to “form a more perfect union” that established a clear break with all past forms of governance in the colonies and early nation. Stampp simply describes as the 1787 Constitution as “a new and better one” that completely overthrew the Articles of Confederation. What existed before that point no longer mattered, so perhaps Lincoln’s claims of the Union being older than the states may not hold as much weight as he hoped they would.
Radan’s arguments against Lincoln’s position on the illegality of unilateral secession are rooted in the belief that the union is (or was) a compact between states, what James Madison described as the assumption that “every party to a compact, has a right to take for granted, that its construction is the infallible one, and to act upon it against the construction of all others, having an equal right to expound the instrument.” In other words, the states are fully sovereign and can unilaterally break away from the compact at will. But is the Union really a compact of states that can be broken at will by any one of the states, or is it a nation whose powers are vested in the people of the states working in concert as a unified body? Madison himself pioneered the idea of dual sovereignty–that various forms of sovereignty could exist at both the national and state level–but concluded towards the end of his life that a state could not unilaterally nullify a federal law or break away from the Union. In an 1830 letter to Nicholas Trist he commented that “no State can at pleasure release itself therefrom, and set up for itself. The compact can only be dissolved by the consent of the other parties, or by usurpations or abuses of power justly having that effect. It will hardly be contended that there is anything in the terms or nature of the compact, authorizing a party to dissolve it at pleasure.” This is not to suggest that Madison is the last word on the subject, but only to suggest that the idea of the constitution granting the right of unilateral secession to the states would have been a surprise to many of the people who played a role in the writing of that very constitution.
Finally, there are two essays by Bruno Coppieters and Aleksander Pavkovic that are worth briefly mentioning. Coppieters focuses on recent separatist movements in Europe and how the European Union has addressed these conflicts within countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Slovenia. He demonstrates how the EU has distinguished between separatist movements based on just cause (that the state has committed a wrongdoing against a specific group of people) and movements based on choice theory (that a group should have the right to self-determination simply because they choose to do so, and not based on any moral considerations or wrongdoings). Coppieters concludes that the EU has attempted to mediate secessionist crises in the interest of maintaining peace and has more often supported separatist movements with specific grievances and wrongdoings committed against them rather than movements based solely on choice theory. He suggests that the EU should establish a clearer “institutional framework within which conflict transformation and resolution may take place” for maintaining peace and orderly transitions for new nations when secession is viewed as a viable solution.
Pavkovic offers what is perhaps my favorite and most provocative essay of the book by criticizing all nationalist ideologies because they “privilege, on no justifiable grounds, one group against all other groups and individuals.” He rightly points out that both the anti-secessionist state AND secessionist separatist groups run the risk of committing immoral acts of violence against unarmed civilians and opposition groups in the name of nationalism. Pavkovic wades into territory the other essays leave untouched by asking if “the use of military force in order to achieve or to prevent a secession is justified on moral grounds” and whether or not, in the case of warfare, “independent statehood is worth the sacrifice of human lives and misery that attends any military conflict.” Whereas Wellman is primarily concerned about the ability of separatist groups to demonstrate political self-determination and Radan seemingly discredits any moral implications of secession and its potential for prolonged violence, Pavkovic challenges readers to face the moral implications of secession head on and consider whether or not the national allegiances we hold are worth killing and dying for.
I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink here and I’ve barely touched the surface on what this great book has to offer. Go out and buy it!
I always said, blacks need to stop bringing up slavery all the time. It was a long time ago. Why can’t they just move on and forget about it? But then they wanted to move on and get rid of these confederate statues, and I was all like, “Things that happened a long time ago are still important. You shouldn’t forget about them!”
The above quote comes from a really funny piece of satire that a friend shared with me from The Push Pole, a website based out of Southern Louisiana. Its title seems apt for the times: “Thousands of History Buffs Magically Appear After City Council Votes to Remove Confederate Monuments.” The piece is funny because it’s rooted in a partial truth about the complex and contradictory ways Americans often choose to remember their history: “Never Forget” is an arbitrary term that extends to historical events and people we care about, but when it comes to historical things we consider to be overblown or simply not worth caring about, “we need to move on” becomes the default response. (See Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s essential essay on “Never Forget” for more thoughts on the subjective nature of the term).
The taking down or altering of some public statues, monuments, and memorials honoring the Confederacy sparked a vigorous debate in 2015 about the place of Confederate iconography in America’s commemorative landscape and whether or not some of these icons–particularly the ones in places of public governance, public schools, town squares, and the like–should remain in their place of honor. The online discussion took place through blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and thousands upon thousands of comments. While some of these discussions were productive and enlightening, we were also treated to excessive and misleading cries of “erasing history” (which is a flawed argument to take when analyzing public iconography), poor analogies that compared changes to Confederate iconography to ISIS-led destruction of Middle Eastern history, and emotion-filled hysterics that often said more about the politics of the present than any actual grasp of historical knowledge. And while folks got emotionally heated about Confederate icons, other historical artifacts such as this 19th century Virginia slave cabin are being demolished or in other cases facing potential demolition in the near future, all amid the sound of near silence on and offline.
What is the point of preserving symbolic icons that commemorate historic events and people if the actual historical artifacts that act as tangible representations of these events and people go away; things like letters, historic homes, battlefields, and other material artifacts? What would happen if some of that energy expended on debating iconography went towards preserving local history, Civil War battlefields, slave cabins, historic cemeteries, material artifacts, or archival records?
You and I can write blog posts or comment on newspaper articles until our fingers break off, but none of it really matters unless we get involved in our local communities and work towards convincing our neighbors of the importance of preserving history. Contact your local officials and tell them why public funding is important for ensuring a future grounded in an honest, responsible understanding of the past. Tell them to support historic preservation efforts in your area. Tell them that it’s important to support history education initiatives in the k-12 classroom such as National History Day and humanities programs in community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Tell them to support local institutions like historical societies, museums, and archival repositories. Join a preservation group like the Civil War Trust or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Go visit a nearby National Historic Site. Attend a historical reenactment. Ask questions and be willing to listen and learn about the past, even if it’s difficult and unpleasant.
If you live in a community where a statue, monument, or memorial is currently garnering controversy, read up on relevant scholarship about the historical event being commemorated and why a symbolic icon was erected to preserve the memory of that event. Honestly consider whether or not that symbolic icon should remain in a place of honor in your community. If town hall meetings or other events are taking place about the history in your area, go to them. Listen to the perspective of other community members and express your own thoughts as well. Work towards becoming an active member of your community and an advocate for history.
If 2015 marks the beginning of a renewed conversation about history and memory in American society, let us use 2016 as a starting point for a renewed effort towards advancing the importance of supporting, preserving, and educating people about the history that is all around us. Get off the message boards and get to work in your community.
Cheers to a great new year.