The following post originally appeared on December 12, 2005
Being Ed Ayers
In the most recent issue of North and South there is a very interesting exchange between Ed Ayers and a letter to the editor in the Crossfire section. The writer responded to Ayers’s article, “What Caused the Civil War” which appeared in a previous issue (Vol. 8, #5); the article is essentially a reprint from his most recent book of essays titled, What Caused the Civil War: Reflections on the South and Southern History. I think Ayers is one of the more talented historians writing today. I’ve read through his Pulitzer-Prize nominated book, The Promise of the New South so many times that it has a rubber band around it to keep it together. The only other book in my library in that condition is Plato’s Republic. More recently Ayers won the Bancroft Prize for In the Presence of Mine Enemies which is based on his Valley of the Shadow project out of the University of Virginia.
What I find interesting is the writer’s interpretation of Ayers’s article and his specific criticisms. The reader argues that Ayers “does a great disservice to the understanding of this topic. The author appears to have over-analyzed and split hairs with this subject, causing confusion and deniable consequences. Is the author trying to say that slavery was not the primary cause of American Civil War?” The tone of the question rings of desperation in wanting to know one way or the other where the author stands. The reader closes the letter by answering in his own question in terms that are perhaps both to the point and comforting: “The institution, issue, and concept of slavery caused the Civil War. There were many side issues, but most related directly back to slavery. Sometimes in history we are blessed that the answer can be so simple. It’s sad that some people can’t accept that.” I never thought I would say this but it seems that Ed Ayers has made the mistake of asking his readers to think too hard.
We love our Civil War history both sanitized and reduced down to neat generalizations and distinctions. We know the routine: slavery v. states rights, Lee v. Grant, or Lincoln v. Davis. Look no further than the common failure to acknowledge the distinction between secession and war. What determines where most people stand on these dichotomies hinges on preconceived assumptions and emotional attachment to certain interpretations. I have to admit that my Civil War class had trouble reading Ayers’s article at the beginning of the year. They also wanted to know where he stood and had difficulty acknowledging the distinctions and fine tuning. It is interesting that after a semester of research on the Valley database [Note: Students were working on research projects at the time.] they are now more aware of the importance of questioning conclusions and steering clear of vague generalizations. Perhaps this is just a reflection of a human tendency that seeks the safety and comfort of answers. For many, and in the context of Civil War studies, anything that deviates from the standard narrative is set aside as overly intellectual or in the case of this writer, “revisionism.” Anyone who has read Ayers’ work over the years knows that he does not minimize the role of slavery; however, what he has done is to muddy the waters by reminding his readers that its role in bringing about secession was incredibly complex throughout the South. Generalizations simply will not do for Ayers. I suspect that much of his impatience with simplistic explanations of slavery’s importance stems from his work on the Valley of the Shadow which reveals layers of complexity in terms of how individuals related to the “Peculiar Institution” and how that particular relationship shaped responses to the ongoing national debate. Here is a bit from Ayers’ article:
Slavery held profound meaning for every person who lived within its orbit. Slavery’s powers stretched all the way to the Mason-Dixon Line, into every facet of life. Yet the force of slavery was refracted through prisms of social practice and belief. Slavery defended itself with Unionism as well as with secession, with delay as well as action. Each county’s and state’s strategy depended on where it fitted in the machinery of American politics.
If the writer had paid sufficient attention he would have noticed that at no point does Ayers deny the connection between slavery and secession. I should note that the writer referenced Charles Dew’s recent book on the secessionist commissioners as justification for his stand on slavery. This is important because it at least shows that he is aware of important studies and has digested their arguments. And that is what it really boils down to. Studying the Civil War is a wonderful arena in which to exercise the imagination. The issues involved could not be more important; why not engage the history in a way that acknowledges the complexity and the perspectives of those involved who struggled to make sense of what was going on and who in many cases stumbled along not knowing what was around the corner. Of course, that would mean setting aside your cookie cutters. Here is a bit more from Ayers:
There is no way to understand history except to study it to question it, to challenge it. History does not fit on a bumper sticker. New evidence new methods, and new perspectives necessarily change our understanding of history, and we should welcome revisionist history just as we welcome revisionist medicine and revisionist science. History that comes to us as nostalgia and fable does more harm than good. Honest history answers our questions only by asking something of us in return.