Did Democracy Cause the American Civil War?

Description: A hundred and fifty years ago the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. It was a war that was to result in the deaths of perhaps three quarters of a million people. Yet the United States in 1861 was the world’s first modern democratic nation — a place in which virtually all white men could vote and in which mass political parties vied for votes in noisy and hotly contested elections. What was the relationship between the coming of the war and this kind of democratic politics? Contrary to the assumptions of International Relations specialists who have posited that democracies do not go to war with one another, was this a war made more likely, and, once it started, more bloody, by the principles and practice of popular sovereignty?

Talk was presented by Dr. Adam Smith of University College, London.

Acquisitions, 02/02

A number of you have emailed me about the possibility of purchasing signed copies of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.  I just agreed to do a book signing at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago on July 28.  You should be able to secure a signed copy through their Virtual Book Signing program.  I am also hoping to coordinate with the Pritzker Military Library while I am in town.

Andrew Fleche, The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Brian Jordan, UNHOLY SABBATH: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 (Savas-Beatie, 2012).

Wesley Moody, Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Sydney Nathans, To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Carol Reardon, With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Why We Need History Education

Yesterday I spent the day in Virginia Beach working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers on how to teach the Civil War.  I was joined by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, who lectured during the morning session on the war through emancipation and I followed up with an overview of how to use Civil War monuments in the classroom.  The workshop was funded by the Teaching American History program, which as many of you know was recently cut by the federal government.  We spend so much time in this country focusing on bad teachers and other problems with public education that we completely ignore the incredible wealth of talent that we have in the classroom.  Here was a program that directly benefited thousands of history teachers throughout the country and it cost next to nothing.  We constantly complain about how little our kids know about American history, but when push comes to shove we do so little to combat it by supporting the very people who are working on the front lines in your neighborhood classrooms.

Well, this is what that gets you.

New Editorial Team at UNC Press’s Civil War America

No other academic press series has taught me more about the Civil War era over the past twelve years than Gary Gallagher’s Civil War America, which is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  He managed to bring together some of the most talented historians, many of who studied under Gallagher at either Penn State or University of Virginia.  While it’s been a great run it looks like Gallagher is transitioning out of the position of editor of the series and handing the reins over to a new generation of Civil War scholars.  I’ve known about this for quite some time, but was asked to hold off on announcing it until the change was made public.

The books that are now coming out include Peter Carmichael, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Caroline Janney as series editors.  All three studied under Gallagher at UVA and all three have published their dissertations in the series (see here, here, and here).  It’s fair to say that their scholarship, as well as many other books in the series, reflect Gallagher’s interest in the war in the East (Virginia) and the limits of Confederate nationalism and challenge to the “Lack of Will Thesis”.  Taken together the three books referenced above explore Confederate nationalism on the home front, in the Army of Northern Virginia, and among women both during and after the war.  I am looking forward to seeing how this new team moves forward.  Will they continue to build on the themes that Gallagher has emphasized or will they move in a different direction?

Whatever they decide to do I have every reason to believe that the quality of the work published will remain consistent.  I’ve worked with Aaron on two projects and Peter is the editor for the series that I will be published in at the University Press of Kentucky.  Both have been a pleasure to work with.  I wish all three the best with what I believe is the top academic Civil War series.

The Anatomy of Lincoln Day in Virginia

Lincoln's Civil War Class at Tredegar (2009)

I highly recommend heading over to Richard Williams’s Old Virginia Blog for a thoughtful commentary on the Lincoln Day resolution.  Richard points out what he sees as an inconsistency between how Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Day proclamation was received and Sen. Marsh’s Lincoln resolution.  Let’s be clear that this story has yet to hit the mainstream news so I must assume that Richard is responding to the debate over the past week on this blog.  From OVB:

But this proclamation also leaves out quite a bit of President Lincoln’s legacy. In light of all the negative hoopla last year over McDonnell’s Confederate History proclamation, I’m having difficulty reconciling all the celebration over this proclamation, with all the hysterical objections we heard over the Confederate History proclamation. It just doesn’t add up. Am I the only one who sees the inconsistencies here?

Richard goes on to suggest a number of things about Lincoln’s racial outlook that ought to be remembered to determine whether he, in fact, deserves such an honor.  They include references to colonization, the Emancipation Proclamation, the fugitive slave act, the Corwin Amendment, and a “fondness” for black minstrel shows and the “N” word.  Some of these points are more relevant than others, but that is up to each individual to decide.  Of course, I could come up with another short list that would tip the balance back in favor of Lincoln.  The bigger problem, however, is with the nature of these resolutions and their tendency to pluck out specific acts from any historical context.  In both Marsh’s resolution and Richard’s post we get no sense of Lincoln’s evolution in regard to his racial outlook nor do we understand his role at the time of the act.  The Lincoln of 1865 that is contemplating a limited suffrage for African Americans is not the Lincoln of 1850 or even 1862.

The bigger point for Richard is whether the resolution includes “the whole story.”

Personally, I don’t have a big problem with giving Lincoln his day – as long as the record includes the whole story, as was demanded for Confederate History month. We do want to be consistent and objective, don’t we?

This is a curious point given that no monument or commemoration includes the whole story; rather, it includes the story that an individual or community has a desire or need to remember.  In the case of Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation enough Virginians voiced their concerns that it had ignored a salient aspect of Confederate history.  This was enough to bring about a retraction and later a proclamation setting aside April as Civil War History in Virginia Month.  The other problem for Gov. McDonnell’s original proclamation was that it was framed as reflecting a “shared history” for all Virginians.  That was seen as problematic, especially among African Americans.

The verdict is still out on whether the Lincoln proclamation both includes the right historical references and whether it speaks to the preferred memory of the past and values of enough Virginians.  There is no objective answer to this question.  It depends entirely on who chooses to get involved and speak out through our democratic system.  As I’ve said before, I am just happy that we now live at a time when all Virginians can take part in these discussions.