I ran across a fairly interesting editorial that recently appeared in the Japan Times. The short piece was written by Hiroaki Sato who is a translator and essayist and has lived in New York City since the late 1960’s. The focus of the essay is in reaction to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent ranking of the 100 greatest Americans. What struck me was the sophistication of Sato’s understanding of American history, especially the Civil War and reconciliation. Here is a bit from the editorial:
Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force
in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, "national
conciliation" — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South —
was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s
nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional
Amendment that prohibits slavery.
It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s
famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug.
22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery." In other words, emancipation was not the
I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read
the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational
institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in
racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905
when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes,
such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed
As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice
"Civil War buffs" — people apparently interested in the war between the North
and the South purely as a matter of military contests. The Civil War buff
quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E.
Lee, ranked 57th, because he "was a good general but a better symbol, embodying
conciliation in defeat." In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor
Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as
someone who "might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the
Battle of Chancellorsville." Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or
slavery, but that doesn’t matter.
While the terminology employed in reference to the thirteenth amendment is off I am struck by this individual’s grasp of how most Americans interpret their Civil War. Perhaps to a foreigner the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War is distinct; my guess is that the sentence in bold is not meant as a compliment, but as a point of curiosity. It would be interesting to know how he came by it.