Monday, May 31, 2010

The Lost Cause Theory.

This series began with trying to answer the accusations made by so many today against Abraham Lincoln and the Union by many from the South, and so many Libertarians today. Let's wrap up with a look at where these accusations have arisen, from whom, and why.

Had Lincoln lived, perhaps the wounds from the war also healed with a much less revenge led Reconstruction. With Lincoln's death, the opportunity for tolerance and mercy vanished, and the divisions that brought on the war mutated into new strains of sectional, political , and racial tensions that created the perverted legend of "the Lost Cause."

In the decades that followed the Civil War, an amazing thing happened. The rebellious South, which had been utterly destroyed and humiliated, concocted a dubious explanation of its past. This reconstruction of history reshaped every aspect of the Civil War debate, from causes trying to paint that it was not about slavery, to battlefield defeats claiming it was due to the ineptness of some of its generals, mostly James Longstreet at Gettysburg, to the legality and Constitutionality of secession, to the absurd notion that the South if left alone would have eventually given up slavery. The Lost Cause myth gained strength in the twentieth century when pop historians and even a few trained scholars bought into the false premise.

The Lost Cause theorists emphasized the irrelevancy of slavery as a cause of war, and sought to make the war about economic issues such as the tariff and cultural differences between the "honorable South" and the immoral North. They try to emphasize Constitutional values and states' rights, not the issue of human chattel. However, the record is quite different. Jefferson Davis "had frequently spoken to the United States Senate about the significance of slavery to the South and had threatened secession if what he perceived as Northern threats to the institution continued." (Alan Nolan from "The anatomy of a Myth") In 1861 Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens called the "great truth" of slavery the "foundation" and "cornerstone" of the Confederacy. The Confederate constitution specifically provided for protection of the "right of property in slaves." Far from moving toward emancipation anywhere, the South, was making slavery harsher and more permanent. New laws reinforced slavery, outlawed abolitionist materials, and spread a net of compliance to more and more nonslavingholding whites.

Contrary to those who promote the Lost Cause story, once the Southerner saw the war on their doorsteps, their defense of states' rights and principles all but disappeared as the Confederacy increasingly considered the idea of emancipating its own slaves if they would fight for the CSA. The first such recommendations came in February 1861, but most officials dismissed them. However, by 1863 after Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy strongly considered emancipation. "Cannot we who have been raised with our Negroes and know how to command them, make them more efficient than the Yankees can?"

The Lost Cause myth took root during the Reconstruction, with pro-Southern writers emphasizing the corruption of federal occupation and the helplessness of white citizens against the power of the federal government and the proportionately large numbers of blacks who went to the polls. Neo-Confederate writers attempted to portray the antebellum South as a utopia where outrageously distorted and ultimately destructive. They planted in a large number of Southerners, though not the majority, the notion that the Confederacy had fought for important moral principles, and they worked to move the argument away from slavery.

Today's voices of the Lost Cause came from modern Libertarians who, for the most part, viewed the Union government as more oppressive than the Confederacy. Emphasizing the infractions against civil and economic liberties by the Union government during and after the war, this view has continued with a small, but dedicated, group of adherents. To these Lost Cause disciples, Lincoln remains the ultimate monster, a tyrant whose thirst for power enabled him to provoke the South into firing on Fort Sumter. Had he only let the Confederacy secede, their argument goes, the remaining United States would have gone into a golden age of liberty, and the South, eventually would because of the market forces, or it's own noble character, would have emancipated the slaves. Of course there is no evidence of either other than in those proponents minds. Equally destructive is the notion that the states could choose their own terms when it suited them to be in the Union.

Equally perverse is the neo-Marxist/New Left interpretation of the Civil War as merely a war "to retain the enormous national territory and market resources of the United States." Reviving the old Charles Beard interpretations of the triumph of capitalism over an agrarian society, leftist critics find themselves in agreement with the more radical Libertarian writers.

The Civil War was ultimately and overwhelmingly about the idea of freedom. About whether one group of people could restrict the God-given liberty of others. That the Republicans, in their zeal to free slaves, enacted numerous ill-advised taxes, railroads, and banking laws, is regrettable but, nevertheless, of minor consequence in the big picture. In that regard the South perverted classic libertarianism, libertarianism didn't pervert the South.

The Civil War was a struggle over the definition of union. No concept of union can survive any secession, any more than a body can survive the "secession" of its heart or lungs. The forging of a nation undertaken in blood and faith in 1776 and culminating in the Constitution in 1787, brought the American people together as a single nation, not a country club of members who could choose to leave at the slightest sign of discomfort. The Civil War finalized that contract and gave to "all men" the promises of the Declaration of Independence, and purposes of the Constitution.

Although thousands paid the ultimate price for completing that process, what emerged was truly "one nation, under God."

4 comments:

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