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Opinion: Why can't Americans be honest about the Civil War?

alan bean
Alan Bean

By Alan Bean

(ABP) -- As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, a new Harris Interactive Poll suggests that 54 percent of Americans believe the South seceded over states rights, not slavery. That would have been news to the folks at the helm of the Confederacy.

Consider this lead quote from A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin."

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll provides results almost as skewed:

When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states' rights, 52 percent of all Americans said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.

"The results of that question show that there are still racial, political and geographic divisions over the Civil War that still exist a century and a half later," CNN Polling Director Holland Keating said.

A recent Tine essay asks why Americans, 150 years after the shooting stopped, are so unwilling to admit that slavery was the primary issue and why so many white Americans identify with the Lost Cause.

David von Drehle points out that for 20 years after the end of the Civil War, most Americans, North and South, were too traumatized by the carnage to ask hard questions about what it was all about. Then came a self-serving treatise from Jefferson Davis arguing that the South fought to preserve a treasured way of life against Yankee aggression. The myth of the Lost Cause was born and has never died.

The essay asserts that prior to the end of the Second World War, American historians (and Hollywood producers) showed great sympathy for the Southern position and that the assumption of black inferiority shaped the mainstream academic consensus until the 1950s.

Von Drehle doesn't argue that most soldiers in gray were consciously fighting to preserve slavery or that most Yankee soldiers were fervent abolitionists. But he reminds us that the Founding Fathers left it to later generations to work out the slavery issue. The North and South muddled along pretty well until the age of western expansion raised the stakes.

Ultimately, he suggests:

"The Union and slavery had become irreconcilable. The proposition on which the revolutionaries of 1776 had staked their efforts -- the fundamental equality of individuals -- was diametrically opposed by the constitution of the new Confederacy. '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 superior race, is his natural and normal condition,' explained Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. In other words, the warring sides had stripped their arguments to first principles, and those principles could no longer be compromised."

It is refreshing to hear VP Stephens telling it like it was.

I can't help feeling that our contemporary prophets of American colorblindness, 50 years on, will sound very much like the bigoted Ivy League historians who so recently took up cudgels for white supremacy because the price of doing otherwise was unacceptable.

Alan Bean, an ordained American Baptist minister, directs Friends of Justice, a non-profit agency based in Arlington, Texas, dedicated to ending mass incarceration and respecting human dignity in the criminal-justice system. This commentary is adapted from his blog.

Published May 14, 2011

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