Wednesday, April 13, 2011

150 years of avoidance: It was all about the slaves...

Yesterday marked the 150th Anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, better known 'round these parts as the firing on Fort Sumter. That means, that yesterday morning, on the battery in Charleston, there was a plethora of folks watching civil war buffs and re-enactors strut around in uniforms and civil war-era garb, while firing off authentic cannons.

We'd be willing to bet that a large number of those people who got all decked out, when asked, would explain to you how slavery was not the reason we had a civil war. Those people would be completely full of shit and/or ignorant.

Listen, the Civil War was fought for the same reason all wars are fought: MONEY. On April 12, 1861, slaves were the single biggest financial asset in the United States. They were worth $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars--that's more than the value of America's railroads, banks, factories or ships at the time. What was the south's biggest hope throughout the war for victory? That England would intervene. Why? King Cotton. Cotton was America's biggest export before the war. Cotton built Wall Street and it built the economic base of New England, through the textile mills. The South hoped that Britain's dependence on cotton would force England to recognize the south and help force the North to negotiate (1 in 5 British depended on cotton for a living). And what allowed cotton to become king? SLAVES. In the decade before the war, per capita wealth grew more than twice as fast in the South than it did in the North. The prices of slaves and land increased by 70%.

Ladies and gentlemen, GREED is the God of War. And the Civil War happened because the powers that be in the South did not want to give up the basis for their wealth.

Last night, a friend of ours commented on a poll another friend had posted on FB about people's views on slavery's role in the war. His comment seemed to indicate that if one reviewed contemporaneous writings from both sides during the war, one would not hold the belief that slavery caused the war. We think that's malarkey. 150 years from now, if someone reads contemporaneous writings from the run up to the invasion of Iraq, one could surmise our military action into Iraq was caused by WMDs, the hope for democracy in the Middle East, revenge against 9/11 terrorists, or any host of ideas. That don't make it so. We invaded Iraq for one reason: MONEY, ie., OIL.

The idea that the South went to war for "state's rights," liberty, honor, of anything other than preserving their right to keep an institution that allowed them cheap labor upon which to grow their wealth is a myth. It's a myth perpetuated by the likes former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Most of the post-war publishing immediately following the war was of the "battles and leaders" variety. Americans had just been ravaged by war and, understandably, had no appetite to revisit the root cause for the wounds that had been inflicted on both the North and South. Davis' book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government was the first popular book to tackle the subject, and it paved the way for the "Lost Cause" school of history that leaves Americans today confused into thinking the war was caused by anything other than slavery. In Davis' view, the genteel planters of the South lived in harmony with slaves who were "contented with their lot...Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other." Yes...we're sure. Written with the sure, self-righteousness of a man who was only familiar with one end of the whip.

Of course, the author of that Lost Cause "bible" had previously summed up his reasons for the war much more candidly: "Will you consent to be robbed of your property or will you strike bravely for liberty, property honor and life?" There you have it, Davis' real reason for breaking from the Union: his honor demanded he have the liberty to protect his property--Slaves.

Listen, there is no secret Slavery was the cause of the war. President Lincoln knew it. A few weeks before those famous shots were fired in Charleston, Lincoln spoke at his inauguration:
One section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute

The truth is, the Civil War was the result of a long festering problem. One that is evident simply in our Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...But they weren't, were they? In fact, our founding fathers had to argue over the subject and a compromise was reached: some men, BLACK men, were worth only 3/5ths of a man. As James Madison noted during the drafting of our Constitution:
It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line.

Slavery is what led to Bleeding Kansas. It's what led t0 blood on the Senate floor, when South Carolina's own Congressman Preston Brooks nearly clubbed to death Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. It's what led abolitionist John Brown to guerilla movement at Harper's Ferry. It's what led to the god-awful Dred Scott decision. It's what led South Carolinian leaders to, as they declared their independence, indict the North for encouraging "thousands of our slaves to leave their homes, and those who have remained have been servile insurrection." It's what led Mississippi to declare: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery--the greatest material interest in the world. There was no choice left to us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union." It's what led Georgians to declare: "We refuse to submit." matter how many people at the time may have believed they were individually fighting for something else (like US Gen. George McClellan, who wrote: "I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the government--on no other issue"), any objective analysis knows that's just one individual's personal opinion. Further, it's an opinion that ignores reality: without slavery there is no war. The very foundation of that Union Gen. McClellan wanted to preserve, that all men are created equal, was diametrically opposed by the Confederacy. As Confederate VP, Alexander Stephens noted:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

Folks...that's ballgame, right there. Contemporaneous historical commentary is great. But you still have to shift through the bullshit. People were just as uninformed, misleading, gullible or dense back then as they are today. By any objective big picture analysis, you can't hide the undeniable truth: The American Civil War was fought because of slavery. That this is still even a question for some people is the very reason we haven't been able to get over race in this country. It's been 150 years. Time to accept this fact and move on.

Hattip David Von Drehle's excellent "The Way We Weren't," in this week's Time, from which this post is heavily cribbed.

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