A Bit of Historical Perspective Concerning the Purported Civil War in Light of its Continuing Impact on the Present

Robert E. Lee

One of the incidental consequences of the disaster at Charlottesville, Virginia is that it is again illustrating how little United States citizens know about their own history.  Not surprising because it is written and taught almost exclusively for purposes of disseminating propaganda.  I was taken today by a Facebook post by someone I believe to be both well-educated and intelligent explaining how the Confederacy sought to overthrow the Union government and execute its leaders and thus should be perceived as no different than other invaders.  Interestingly, only the United Kingdom has ever invaded the United States.

The truth is that the “Civil War” was not a civil war in the strict sense but rather, like the American Revolution, a war of secession and independence.  The North was the aggressor and the South the one invaded.  When the United Colonies fought the Revolutionary War their intent was not to overthrow the government of the United Kingdom nor was the Confederacy’s goal to assume control of states outside of those that had elected to secede.  Secession was not a novel concept, the New England states, the bulwark of the Union during the “Civil War”, had actually voted to secede in protest over the War of 1812, only to discover that the war had already ended, so, … “never mind”.  What was good for the goose was not necessarily good for the gander, and anyway, do as I say, not as I do is an American tradition.

So, … about putting an end to slavery back then, ….

It is evident for many reasons that putting an end to slavery was not the North’s objective in the Civil War.  Lincoln admitted as much on numerous occasions, starting with his inaugural address.  Slavery existed in a number of Union states until after the end of the Civil War and even in the District of Columbia until 1862, when it was abolished through a plan of compensation (District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862).  Many in the South had been willing to accept a similar solution to their “peculiar institution” but, alas, that option was not adopted despite efforts by Lincoln to encourage it (Compensated Emancipation)[1].  It is arguable that the federal government could, in fact, have availed itself of its power of eminent domain to have legally forced slaveholders to surrender their slaves in exchange for compensation, sharing the economic consequences among the entire nation.  Indeed, the Emancipation Proclamation’s legality was defended on the basis of the special aspect of eminent domain associated with property in conquered countries (booty).  While the proposal for overall compensated emancipation was considered, it was determined by the Union Congress to be too expensive, i.e., that only the 25% of Southerners who owned slaves ought to bear the economic burden while the New England “entrepreneurs” who had originally acquired, imported and sold them their slaves should be exonerated.  The foregoing is not to say that there has ever been or could ever be a justification for slavery, an “institution” demeaning in every way for all participants and a horror for those who were its victims.  The Bible’s approval of the institution, which has been used to delay abolition of slavery on numerous occasions (including by slavery proponents in the South) is abhorrently unjustifiable.  It makes one seriously doubt its purportedly divine origin.  There was never a justification for slavery in the United States, … ever.  In contrast to the decisions of the Founding Fathers to protect both the institution and the slave trade, Latin American states immediately abolished slavery upon attaining independence from Spain.  Nothing there about a slave being 60% of a political human being.

Revisionist historians seeking justification for the Civil War, especially after the right of territorial self-determination became a United States orchestrated policy following the First World War, point out that slavery was the catalyst for secession in all Southern States and must therefore be assigned as the reason the Civil War was initiated: the first part is partly true (the issue dealt with expansion of slavery, not its preservation) but not the second.  With reference to the first part, while it is accurate, it is more complex than would appear at first glance.  The “peculiar institution’s importance had more to do with the refusal to provide compensation (as was done in the District of Columbia) and the impact on control of the Senate and related divergent agrarian – industrialist political priorities where it to be prohibited in new states entering the Union.  But even had slavery been the only reason for secession, freeing the slaves was still not why the Civil War was fought.  It did not even become an issue until the secessionist states refused to head Lincoln’s late 1862 threat to take executive action to free the slaves unless the rebellious states returned to the fold.  And when slaves were freed by executive action the next year, they were not freed in the many Union states where the “peculiar institution” remained legal.  The complex truth is that while efforts to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the territories appropriated from Mexico in 1845 may have been a principle reason for Southern secession, the Civil war itself was not fought with the objective of freeing slaves in any state where the institution was already legal.

Truth is often very unpopular where politics is involved and the truths dealt with in this article may be especially unpopular right now, but times like these are when the quest for truth is most important.  Unfortunately, as behaviorist techniques become more and more popular, emotions take center stage and the logical and rational become the butts of clever witticism and ridicule rather than honest discussion.  The sad reality, one most blacks fully understand, is that slaves and their now free descendants were and have always been used as political pawns in battles for political power by individuals and groups who care very little for their legitimate rights and interests but who find them useful for the nonce, and then forget about them.  Consider the 3/5 compromise in the Constitution of 1789, where slaves were treated as 60 of a person for both purposes of electoral apportionment as for taxation.  Much more recently, consider the Clinton administration’s welfare and crime legislation during the 1990’s, legislation designed to appeal to white voters at the expense of vulnerable black families in order to “reposition” the Democratic Party and make electoral success more probable.  A strategy that left the real left without any major political participation.  And then consider Hillary Clinton’s pleas for Black electoral support during 2016.  And then consider further how surprising it should have been, given the facts, that she received it.

The issue of Confederate monuments is, of course, a separate albeit related matter.  Some of the subjects of historical statuary, like Robert E. Lee, were paragons of virtue caught in untenably impossible situations, situations such as we who oppose current American international policies might face were the United States invaded by an irate victim, as in the case of the attacks on September 11, 2011, but accompanied by a full scale invasion.  Most of us would, as did Lee, fight to protect our homeland, albeit perhaps conflicted and with guilty regrets.  Others subjects, on all sides, as is always the case, were intemperate and evil men who gleefully human rights.  Consider the monuments to those like General William Tecumseh Sherman responsible for genocide perpetrated on indigenous Americans.  Military monuments and even merely political monuments (e.g., John C. Calhoun) always offend some of us but are deeply important to others.  And while their construction ought to be carefully debated, their destruction is rarely appropriate.  I cannot see the nexus between Robert E. Lee and political currents born sixty-five years or more years after he’d passed on and for the life of me I cannot see the logic of tearing down monuments honoring Robert E. Lee but preserving and honoring those to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson if slavery were the relevant focus.

So why the relatively current interest in destroying historical monuments built decades and decades ago?  Clearly it is a part of “identity politics” strategies and tactics which actively seeks division and polarization as means of attaining electoral victories.  Gays versus straights, believers versus non-believers, immigrants versus the native born, whites versus blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans.  Not much of a melting pot.

United States citizens of African descent are again useful tools, this time in an effort to somehow undo the results of the 2016 presidential election; so … tear down those Confederate monuments and fan the flames of racial bigotry, it’s probably the Russians’ fault anyway.

Divide and conquer and divide and divide and divide again.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen).  Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at wacalvo3@autonoma.edu.co or guillermo.calvo.mahe@gmail.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at http://www.guillermocalvo.com.

[1] Lincoln here admits that that it was during the Civil War that the North experienced a convenient epiphany concerning slavery, not before, but not enough of an epiphany to outlaw slavery within the boundaries of its own states.  That Lincoln was unsuccessful in freeing slaves in the Union, except with reference to Compensated Emancipation in the District of Columbia, despite strenuous efforts to do so (e.g., in Delaware) says all too much with respect to the fact that freeing the slaves was not the objective of the Civil war.

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