Has the “Lost Cause” Lost?

Last month I was honored to be asked by an editor at the Wilson Quarterly to respond to an essay by Christopher Clausen.  I was given roughly a 300-400 word limit, which didn’t give me room to go into much detail so I decided to offer a few words about one particular passage that I thought was worth a response.  Regular readers of this blog probably will not see much of anything that is new in terms of my own thinking about this subject.  You can now read Clausen’s essay on the WQ website.  Here is my response, which will appear in the next issue:

Christopher Clausen’s article [America’s Changeable Civil War,” Spring 2010] offers a helpful overview of the influence that the Lost Cause and the broader trend of national reunion exercised on the nation’s collective memory through the Civil Rights Movement.  Few will deny that the tendency to ignore the role of slavery and emancipation as crucial aspects of Civil War history and public remembrance were exposed as Americans were confronted with images of bus boycotts, “Freedom Rides,” and marches.  While the nation confronted its “most ignominious legacy” through legislation it did not significantly alter the nation’s Civil War memory.  However, much has changed over the past forty years, which may give us pause in accepting Clausen’s assumption that “what was actually won and lost [in the Civil War] is less settled than you might expect after 150 years.”

The election of Barack Obama has opened up numerous opportunities to discuss the history and legacy of slavery and race and our understanding of the Civil War specifically.  In 2009 the president was petitioned to discontinue sending a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery – a monument that glorifies the Lost Cause with images of “loyal slaves” and an emphasis on states rights.  Rather than incite further controversy, President Obama chose to send an additional wreath to the African American Soldier’s Memorial, which celebrates the history of United States Colored Troops.  Those states that have organized Civil War Sesquicentennial commissions are choosing to emphasize the “Emancipationist Legacy” of the Civil War, including Virginia, which will hold a day-long symposium in September 2010 on slavery and emancipation.

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“A Christian Land Governed By Christian Principles”

It is a sad day for the teaching of American history in Texas.  Unfortunately, we have a system that allows a dentist and others without any qualifications whatsoever to rewrite American history in a way that satisfies their own agenda.  Fortunately, they’ve been honest about that agenda from the beginning.  In the end, the state Board of Education failed to understand the difference between interpreting the crucial role that religion has played in American history and using history to advocate for a Christian world view.

No amount of prayer changes the fact that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are secular documents.  No, I didn’t arrive at that conclusion through prayer. I had to read important historical studies by such reputable historians as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, Jack Rakove, Saul Cornell, and Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick.  I think when it comes to understanding the past I will continue to do so.


Jefferson Davis → Franklin Roosevelt → Barack Obama

Glad to see that everyone had some fun with the Clyde Wilson quiz.  While the list as a whole serves as a case study of how not to frame historical questions, the one I have the most trouble with comes at the very end.  Of course, it is true that President Obama is most commonly compared with Abraham Lincoln.  Obama himself encouraged these comparisons from the beginning when he announced his candidacy for the presidency on the steps of the old statehouse in Springfield, Illinois.  However, if I were a libertarian, paleoconservative, or just plain old neo-conservative I would object to such a comparison.  If it’s the amount of government oversight and intrusiveness that is being measured than I would argue that the proper comparison is with Jefferson Davis.

I just came across a wonderful passage in Stephanie McCurry’s new book that I thought I might share with you.  I’ve made similar points in the past:

The ensuing expansion of state capacity and intrusiveness of the policies adopted by the C.S.A. can hardly be exaggerated.  Historians have been consistently struck, by the irony for sure–this was a republic erected on the principles of states rights, after all–but also by the sheer scale of the state-building project undertaken.  It has been called a “revolutionary experience,” even an example of “state socialism.”  In terms of central state structure and policies, and especially mobilization of national material and human resources, the C.S.A. was far more statist and modern than their counterpart in the Union, almost futuristic” in its assumption of central state power.  Indeed, so “well organized and powerful” was the Confederacy, one historian has argued, that the United States would not see a central government with comparable authority until the emergence of the New Deal. (p. 153)

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American Confederate Heroes

Here’s a nice little Lost Cause tune for ya’ all.  I especially love the following lyric from the beginning of the song: “It’s not founded on old politics or race or slavery.  Those who see no more than that care not for history.”  For some reason poor old Braxton Bragg gets the back of the hand in this tune. Enjoy.


A Must Read

I don’t usually advertise new books like this, but I wanted to give all of you a heads up regarding Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, which is shaping up to be one of the most thought provoking books of the year.  Over the past few years I’ve read a couple of chapters in edited collections and journals, but it is nice to be able to read this study of Confederate politics in its complete form.  I am about half-way through it, but you will be hearing quite a bit about it in the near future.  Here is the book description:

The story of the Confederate States of America, the proslavery, antidemocratic nation created by white Southern slaveholders to protect their property, has been told many times in heroic and martial narratives. Now, however, Stephanie McCurry tells a very different tale of the Confederate experience. When the grandiosity of Southerners’ national ambitions met the harsh realities of wartime crises, unintended consequences ensued. Although Southern statesmen and generals had built the most powerful slave regime in the Western world, they had excluded the majority of their own people—white women and slaves—and thereby sowed the seeds of their demise.

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