I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory. As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law. In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration. This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:
WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?
Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.
So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.
Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors. For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside for now and take one step back. Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble. For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.
The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans. It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation. It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions. In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.
OK…but were they traitors to their country? In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American. It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn. Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history. On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country. I value its institutions and the rule of law. I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy. That’s right. If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary. Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well. So, were Confederates traitors? Yes! As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?
This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence. Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.