The Washington Post’s popular A House Divided blog has welcomed Brag Bowling as its newest member. It will be interesting to see whether Bowling can move beyond advocacy and actually formulate an argument.
As I was perusing the site I noticed an announcement for the upcoming annual meeting of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, which happens to be the “educational arm” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. What concerns me is that Linda Wheeler chose to characterize it as offering a “southern view of the Civil War.” Well, it’s doesn’t. Wheeler goes on to include what I must assume is the organization’s own rhetoric of “presenting the true history of the South.” Again, it doesn’t. It is a fundamental mistake to assume that the Institute speaks for anyone other than their members. To casually suggest that they speak for “the South” is inexcusable and irresponsible. If we’ve seen anything over the past few months is that there are a number of competing narratives of the Civil War in the South.
They surely don’t speak for fellow southern bloggers, Robert Moore and Andy Hall. They don’t speak for the many professional historians who were born and raised in the South and who now work hard researching and teaching the history of this beautiful region of the country. We can safely assume that they do not speak for the vast majority of African Americans in the South. It’s not even clear that the Institute speaks for the majority or even a substantial minority of the region. In fact, it’s insulting to suggest that just because you live in the South that you necessarily hold firm to a certain narrative of the past. It would be nice if we could move beyond this naive view of Civil War memory.
Finally, I find it just a little troubling that Wheeler chose to announce this event at all. Of all the forthcoming events in the next few weeks why would anyone publicize a conference that has almost nothing to do with history and everything to do with advocacy?
Thanks once again to Vicki Betts for passing along documents related to the controversial issue of black Confederates. This latest gem is a letter from John C. Breckinridge’s cousin (Matilda Breckinridge Bowyer, of Fincastle, VA) recommending her son to recruit black soldiers, dated March 26, 1865. What is so striking, however, is how unremarkable it is. The document fits perfectly within the narrative accepted by professional Civil War historians and serious students of the war. Not until March 1865 did the Confederate government authorize the enlistment of a limited number of slaves into the Confederate army. There is nothing unusual about a mother with close ties to high political office, who attempts to advance her sons career following the passage of new legislation.
It is also worth commenting on what this letter fails to acknowledge. At no point does Matilda Breckenridge acknowledge that slaves were already serving in Confederate units. Nor does she suggest that her son had any experience with or prior understanding of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers. In fact, I have never seen a letter written by a Confederate civilian, soldier or politician that points to the presence of a significant number of slaves serving as soldier in the Confederate army.
One of the most important books published last year was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010). This talk was given at Duke University and I highly recommend it if you have not had an opportunity to read the book. McCurry spends a great deal of time laying out her hemispheric explanation of the Confederate slave enlistment debate.
This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse. I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate. To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this. That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.
As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context. Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence. Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:
This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.
First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy. We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology. That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture. As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally. We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided. As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.
I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s. Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war. Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this? I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well. Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.
I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”
Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book. At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life. As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship. In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.
It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!