Last Friday I wrote a column criticizing a celebration of the Confederacy's heritage because it did not take into account the system of slavery that it attempted to perpetuate through its rebellion. I have been inundated with e-mails from various readers, all except for one attempting to educate me on the real truth behind the Civil War. They pointed out that slavery had at one point existed throughout the United States and was perpetuated by many Northern actions. They wrote that tariffs on imported goods and states' rights were important causes of the war. Above all, many of them wrote that slavery was not a large part of Southern society, and not a reason for the secession movement. While I agree with much of the above, saying that slavery was not among the primary causes of the Civil War constitutes nothing less than the worst kind of revisionist history.
A simple look at the primary documents of the era set to rest any doubts whatsoever that slavery was the root cause of the secession of at least some of the Southern states. The second paragraph of the Mississippi document declaring their secession from the Union begins, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world." The declarations made by South Carolina, Texas and Georgia — all of which I have read — contain similar language throughout their declarations. They go on to detail various grievances against the North regarding its anti-slavery actions as constituting an assault on states' rights and civilization itself. While the documents include states' rights and tariffs as issues, they do so in the context of slavery! After reading these documents, it certainly seems to me that slavery was the most important issue behind the secession of the southern states.
Beyond the issue of slavery, there is another issue that I have with honoring the legacy of the Confederacy. This came up in a discussion that Gerald Cox, a fellow opinion columnist at The Badger Herald, and I had discussing the result of the Civil War. Gerald made this argument: In a way, glorifying the Confederacy is a rejection of the United States as we know it today. This argument made me think deeply, and I believe that it deserves some serious consideration.
Rejecting the concept of the United States as a single country is ill considered. Had the South succeeded in its bid for independence, the world today would be very different. Instead of 36 states making up a single country, the North American continent would have had 25 Union states alongside 11 Confederate states. No one can say how many countless wars, conflicts or other serious consequences this might have had. With the former United States consumed by internal conflict, the 20th century would never have become the American Century, with all the attendant impact of a weak North America on world affairs. Frankly, I can hardly think of a worse outcome for the people living in the Union, the Confederacy or the rest of the world than imagining the United States split into two different nations.
There is a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche that goes like this: "'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that' — says my pride, and remains adamant. At last — memory yields." When faced with the reality of a situation, there is a tendency for many people to shy away from the unpleasantness that often comes with the revelation of the truth. While I don't have space here to go into the details of the North's involvement in the slave trade and slavery, they played a hand in ensuring it lasted as long as it did in this country. This is important to remember as well. However, mistaken and revisionist attempts to minimize the institution of slavery in the post-Civil War time period misrepresents and confuses an important issue in American history.
From what I have just written, it may sound like I want to shut down free speech or curtail the right of American citizens to freely form their own opinions. This is far from the case. However, I do believe that sensitive issues such as slavery and the Civil War deserve careful scrutiny, particularly when states or other sub-federal levels of government begin to legislate the heritage and history of these issues. The combination of the Civil War and slavery invokes the bloodiest and most divisive conflict in American history and emphasizes the need for care when dealing with it.
Andrew Wagner ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in computer science and political science.