Tuesday, December 4, 2012

my Civil War high school education

In another post that touches on the Lincoln controversy, Corey Robin has asked about how school influences our cultural understanding of the Civil War. I had a somewhat unusual high school experience in this regard, and it speaks to the very controversy about the movie.

First-- I find, as with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin, and most other people that the Civil War was of course about slavery, and that efforts to claim otherwise are misguided at best and offensive at worst. Some people linger on the fact that what the North was really fighting for was to preserve the union. And, well, yeah, but herp de derp-- the union had to be preserved because of slavery. Yes, the stated reasons for fighting the war, frequently coming from Lincoln himself, often included the need to maintain the territorial and political integrity of the United States, but the historical record shows that the issue of slavery was broadly understood as the central conflict in the Civil War. Disputing that sidelines the most important issue, morally and practically, of what is perhaps the most important historical period of our history. Worse still are people like Ron Paul, who will admit the immorality of chattel slavery but insist on the noble aspirations of the Confederacy in fighting for the right to secede and the principles of federalism. This ignores the fact that the South wanted to secede only because of their desire to preserve the system of racist chattel slavery and makes a hash of the elementary moral ideas at play in the Civil War, in a way I find unforgivable.

I actually had a high school history teacher who looked at the question a little differently, though. He stressed the fact that the Civil War was not just about slavery (and I know that "just" is pretty loaded) not as an excuse for the South but as an indictment of the North.

What I mean is that he wanted us as students to be very skeptical of an unduly heroic picture of the Union and its role in the Civil War; he wanted us to see that the fact that the North was on the right side of that conflict, and that the North's victory was an immense benefit to slaves and America, should not be confused with our thinking that the North was "the good guys" who behaved out of a principled stance against racism. He made the point several times that many prominent figures in the North, despite their support for abolition, were explicitly and virulently racist. Here, the eternal question of historical era and context creeps in: I can understand, and to a degree agree with, those who say that the broader cultural understanding of issues like racism should color our judgments of historical figures. But that context does not excuse these Northerners for their racism, as there were white people at the time who exhibited racial attitudes that we would recognize as more or less enlightened. That the material consequences of their opposition to slavery overwhelms these qualms doesn't, I think, obscure the basic point. Northern opposition to slavery was founded on enlightened principles, but it came packaged with profoundly ugly beliefs as well. Those beliefs are not merely a side issue, as they either tacitly permitted or contributed directly to the great post-Civil War oppression of freed blacks. And as with any conflict, there were self-interested reasons for the politicians of the North that were not in any sense enlightened.

My teacher had a broader point about history, I've come to think in the years since, and particularly about American history: it isn't and shouldn't be understood as a march from less to more enlightenment or the triumph of good over evil. To understand history this way is ahistorical. Lincoln himself was a complex figure who held some views that many of us would find distasteful. A historical figure's attitudes towards topics like race and gender, and their context in that figure's era, are neither everything nor nothing. But when you believe in a Great Man theory of history, or when you advance a reading of American history that amounts to American propaganda, those considerations of simplistic goodness and badness can overwhelm everything. The North was better but it was not good; the fact that the end of slavery was followed by decades of structural inequality, concerted violence, and institutionalized racism should tell us that.

Perhaps these are obvious points. But remember, this was a high school history class, in a country where we like our national stories to be filled with uplift and heroism. Whether this insight was worth the risk of coming too close to the offensive portrait of Civil War as test case for federalism, I couldn't say.

6 comments:

Corey said...

Man. This..

Northern opposition to slavery was founded on enlightened principles

I'm not so sure about.

Freddie said...

Well, I mean... that's the point of this post. Perhaps that line is an inapt construction.

Freddie said...

Try, instead, "opposition to slavery itself was an enlightened principle, but..." and all the rest.

Jay said...

In general, it's wise to resist the temptation to make the perfect the enemy of the good. The abolition of slavery was a major step forward for this country. Progress is made by people, not by angels.

Bruce Wilder said...

I wonder if we try too hard to transmute the Lincoln of historical memory and myth from politician to philosopher, on account of the rare analytic clarity and force of his rhetoric.

A politician -- or if you want to honor his accomplishments, stateman -- aspires to shepherd cats, and Lincoln's most important ideas were about how to unite a broad, political coalition, of diverse (and often self-interested, if not thoroughly reprehensible) views.

Do we have to go all Manichean, either in hero-worship, or in arch-critique?

Politics must confront interests with ideas. The enlightenment part comes with extending and expanding the shared understanding of what interests are, and what interests are justifiable. The "practical" politics part comes with the incrementalism of incremental reform, and the need to reach consensus within something approaching a majority.

One thing I got out of the movie -- and I admit to being exactly the middle-brow audience most receptive to it -- was the abolition of slavery, as a political enactment, was the work of conservatives, (damn them to hell! ;-)

InMD said...

I largely agree with the sentiments here. My frustration with writers like Coates discussing history stems from what I perceive as disingenuous motives. It doesn't mean that journalists shouldn't write about history but I'm often left with the impression that their true goal isn't to understand why events unfolded the way they did but rather to score points against their own modern political adversaries.

There are plenty of meritorious arguments against people in the 21st century romanticizing the Confederacy but people shouldn't pretend this is the same thing as historical research. I hate to say it but I think that Coates' writing is as much about the study of the Civil War as the neoconservatives constant invocation of the Munich Agreement circa 2002 was about the study of World War 2.