Monday, December 27, 2010

The Civil War

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has begun. In some ways, the war is being fought all over again. The latest shot is a column by E. J. Dionne Jr. Dionne's main point is that the war was about slavery instead of states rights and that no one should argue the point.

In the interests of history, I am going to argue the point. I will start out by agreeing that slavery was a root issue. The fight over slavery was a major defining point of 19th century politics up to that point. The Republican party was created mainly around anti-slavery. The only disagreement within the party was how to do it. Many demanded that Congress simply declare slaves freed. Others, including Lincoln, wanted to stop slavery from being allowed in new territories and states with the goal of isolating the slave states and slowly forcing them to give up their slaves. The southern states were well aware of this and succeeded.

The succession did not start the war. Lincoln forced the issue by insisting that the US Government retained ownership and control of forts, even ones in the heart of the South. He provoked South Carolina by resupplying Fort Sumter which controlled access to Charleston, the South's most important port. South Carolina responded by shelling and eventually taking the fort. Lincoln used this to declare the South in a state of rebellion and got authorization to pacify them.

But, while slavery was the root cause, it was not what the armies were fighting for. We know that from recruiting posters and other period records. Soldiers from the North did not sign on to free negroes. They wanted to punish the rebels. Similarly, most southerners did not own slaves. They were fighting against what they saw as northern aggression.

By reducing the war to nothing but a fight over slavery, Dionne and others are also trying to divide it into a simple conflict between good and bad. This has subtle political implications for today.

Keep in mind that the word "state" usually means the government. When the United States was founded it was meant to be a collection of small countries, united for their own defense, much like the European Union is now. That is why we call if the "federal government". In the wake of the Civil War the North felt that the states had been allowed too much authority. This is when federal law started taking president over state law.

Now, many people feel that the federal government has taken too much authority and are calling for a reversal.

That is why Dionne and others are simplifying the Civil War. If the war was a fight between good and evil and the evil side invoked "states' rights" then any modern person who uses those words must be evil and "states' rights" is nothing more than code words for reestablishing slavery. Similarly, any commemoration of the war must be a racist celebration of slavery.

In essence, how we remember the Civil War has become a new battleground in the fight over expanding federal authority. Ironically, the Party of Lincoln is now trying to stop a trend that he began and the party that was willing to accommodate slavery is now invoking the fight against it.

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