The Lincoln Bicentennial

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In a recent LRC article, Joe Sobran anticipates next yearu2018s Lincoln bicentennial celebration with apprehension. Like many of us, Sobran knows that the eulogizing of Honest Abe will draw heavily on the Lincoln mythology so any flaws that Lincoln might have exhibited will not see the light of day. Public school students will be treated to the standard Lincoln repertoire and politicians will make glowing tributes to Honest Abe in which they will imply some sort of mystical connection between themselves and Lincoln. We can resign ourselves to a year-long ,overblown, worshipful adoration of Abraham Lincoln.

Sobran poses this question: "But if Lincoln was so great, we must ask why nobody seems to have realized it while he was still alive?" Sobran’s question reminds us that history is not an exact science like mathematics. Interpretations of history often tell us more about the ideology of the historian than the period they write about. And one of the common criticisms of history is that it is compromised by contemporary political and societal trends. Versions of history vary and mutate from one time period to another. This is especially true of historical versions of that locus of the era of Lincoln; the Civil War..

There are indeed countless historical renderings of this famous war. Unlike most historical events, there has never been anything approaching a consensus on the cause of the War. Historians can’t even agree on what to call it. In addition to the familiar name "Civil War", (an incorrect designation), the War has been variously described as the War of Rebellion; War of Secession, War to Save the Union, Mr. Lincoln’s War, Second American Revolution, War for Southern Independence, War of Northern Aggression, War Between the States (my preference), and so forth.

Some of these versions are similar enough to be lumped together into a "school" of historical causes of the War Between the States. Let’s take a brief look at the four basic schools that historians have identified.

In the years immediately following the War, the "nationalist" school of historians clung to the arguments that had been put forth by the Republican party. President Lincoln claimed that the War was fought to preserve the Union. There was also opposition to allowing slavery to spread into the new western territories. It was felt that, with slave labor, settlers there could produce and sell products more cheaply than farmers in the North. Newly arrived immigrants in the North feared losing their jobs to cheaper slave labor. There was also a small but vocal group of abolitionist voicing moral opposition to slavery. But they had little impact on the populace or the government. "Nationalist" historians accepted the "saving the Union" argument and the claim that the Union could not have survived if some states had been allowed to secede. Consequently, they felt that saving the Union justified the sacrifices of the War.

However, during the more industrialized 20th century, a new school of historians emerged and posited a second version of the causes of the War. These historians maintained that saving the Union and slavery were not as important a cause as the basic economic conflict between North and South. One region’s economy was becoming industrialized, while the other was still dependent upon agriculture. Charles Beard argued that Southerners resented the unfair tax burden placed on their region for protective tariffs and subsidies that favored Northern industry. Unable to effect any significant changes to the one-sided governmental policies, this gap, as well as the animosity between the two regions, widened into an irreconcilable conflict.

Similar to the "economic conflict" interpretation was the version developed by a school of historians whose views were profoundly influenced by the tragedy of World War One, with its immense loss of lives. These historians rejected both the "saving the Union and ending slavery" argument as well as the "economic conflict" theory. To them, the War resulted from the inflexibility and ineffectiveness of leaders on both sides, which prevented existing political institutions from functioning. Historian James G. Randall labeled the leaders in the period leading up to the war as "The Blundering Generation." Historians like Randall concluded that the War was a tragic mistake, that should have been and could have been avoided.

The decades preceding and following World War Two, that championed a Marxian thrust for egalitarianism, wrought a significant change in the thinking of historians. What has been called a "neo-national" point of view developed, and produced a fourth evaluation of the cause of the War. According to this interpretation, the War is portrayed as a collision of conflicting social values; a culture of stagnating, repressive traditions (the South) versus a progressive and virtuous culture (the North). This clash of disparate social values, especially views on how to deal with slavery, culminated in the War. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. maintained that the institution of slavery was so inhuman that the violence of war was necessary to end it. This school of historians claims that the War eliminated slavery in the South, dethroned an aristocracy; uplifted the less privileged and opened the door for the creation of a classless society for all races and groups. This version assumes a moral tone because its supporters decided that history should be written in a way that promotes "social justice." These "history as therapy" scholars view the War as both inevitable and beneficial.

This is the version that is currently in vogue; favored by many contemporary historians, PBS, the History Channel and other media "experts." As a result, we now have history textbooks for students that justifies War as appropriate method for the North to impose its moral beliefs upon the South. But such a viewpoint lends credence to our government’s use of our armed forces to impose its concept of "democracy" upon other nations. As many scholars are now questioning our government’s military involvement in the affairs of foreign countries, they may also feel prompted to fashion a new historical interpretation of the War Between the States, one that doesn’t portray war as beneficial.

While establishment historians appreciate how this current version benefited the Civil Rights movement, they know that we are now beset with a new set of problems. Histories of America that dwell on slavery are no longer necessary to mollify those who worry about excessive Civil Rights legislation. In fact, scholars are beginning to admit that some Civil Rights initiatives have been so zealously implemented that they have caused detrimental side effects to society at large. Many states are trying to eliminate ill-advised race-based endeavors and the Supreme Court has begun to overturn some of them. Consequently, historians may feel free to re-evaluate today’s version of the War. A revised perspective may now be permissible.

But there will be reluctance to abandon the current version, because as one current historian explains: " It is not merely that all the evidence is in and accounted for, that historians have finally found the one true interpretation. It may be, rather, that we like the current story too much to challenge it very deeply and that we foreclose questions by repeating familiar formulas. No one could ask for a richer subject, a better plot line of conflict and resolution, struggle and triumph, good and evil." To me, this is the main problem with the current version. It reads like a medieval morality play.

How will a new version of the War read? We don’t know but we hope it will present a more balanced view, one that does not put the onus of slavery solely upon the South, but takes the North’s complicity in the institution into account . The majority of the old well-to-families in the North, especially in New England, acquired their wealth directly or indirectly from the slave trade. Northern textile mills were dependent on Southern grown cotton. Northern shipping lines transported Southern grown cotton to other countries. Northern banks and investors financed Southern planters. Northern insurance companies insured their slaves. In fact, it was estimated that by 1850, Southern planters owed Northern commercial organizations about $300 million dollars, – an enormous sum for that time. Southern planters resented the enormous commissions and interest they were forced to pay Northern middlemen, bankers, agents, and shippers.

A more balanced view of the period surrounding the War should also include an account of the endemic utilization and abuse of child labor in Northern mills and factories. In the early 1800s, the labor force in Northern cotton mills consisted primarily of children; 47 per cent in Massachusetts, 55 per cent in Rhode Island, and 55 per cent in Connecticut. Children, some under ten years of age, were worked from "dark to dark." – Thirteen or more hours per day. Those who couldn’t keep up the pace were whipped. – Many establishments featured special "whipping rooms" where punishment was inflicted. Inhumane conditions in Northern mills physically and emotionally stunted those children that did not die from exhaustion and exposure.

Historians who truly wish to create a new version of the War will have to deflate some deep-seated and highly popular folklore. Much of the Lincoln mythology will have to be excised. And another high priest of the era, fanatical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, may have to be unfrocked. Garrison was so enraged over the South’s use of slaves that he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution because it did not forbid slavery. But Garrison showed no concern whatsoever for the appalling treatment of young children in factories in his own state of Massachusetts. Garrison’s moral blindness was also in evidence when he tried to rationalize the disgraceful conditions of blacks in the North by saying: "The toleration of slavery in the South is the chief cause of the unfortunate situation of free colored persons in the North."

A new version of the War Between the States should make it clear that, like all wars, it was not fought for moral reasons but for revenue, power, and politics. Certainly, a new version should indicate that the differences between North and South could have been resolved without war. As one scholar recently stated: "With the passing of time, all wars seem pointless. The America Civil War certainly looks that way at this time in history."

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.

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