Sunday, May 6, 2018
I am posting this essay a bit early, as circumstances seem unlikely to allow me to keep to the more usual schedule. So you get a book report.
Now and again one rather casually picks up a book to find that it is hardly possible to put down. That just happened to me. For the past several years the Library of America has been bringing out a series of books entitled The Civil War, distributed in four volumes devoted successively to the four intense war years from the spring of 1861 to the spring of 1865. Though each volume is the work of historical experts, secondary commentary is limited to chronologies, brief biographies, and textual annotations rather than historical analysis or opinion. The volumes are really anthologies of original documents from a very wide range of authors: the war “told by those who lived it.” While absolutely “neutral” or “objective” history is an impossibility for any work depending entirely upon written documents and their editorial selection, the volume devoted to the war’s first year, seems scrupulous in its “objective” ambition. This first volume is devoted only in small part to the war’s early military actions, concentrating instead on the political crisis preceding the outbreak of hostilities.
Several sobering facts impress themselves upon the mind of a twenty-first century reader of these old documents—at least upon mine. The sobering facts are of different orders of magnitude. The first, which for me is by no means the least impressive in its gravitas, is that in 1860 our country--in which the proportion of the college-educated was minute--was practically overrun with elected officials and private citizens who could read, write, and speak the English language with correctness, accuracy, elegance and forensic force. The editors of the volume have put on the dust jacket a rhetorical question posed by Edmund Wilson: “Has there even been another historical crisis of the magnitude of 1861-65 in which so many people were so articulate?” I am writing this on a day when a featured story in the national press documents what I am tempted to call an inarticulateness contest between the President of the United States and his new lawyer, the former mayor of our largest city, the ostensible subject of their shared obfuscation being Mr. Trump’s large payment of hush-money to an entrepreneurial sex-worker. Mr. Giuliani adds social insult to linguistic injury by treating the huge sum involved as approaching the risible, “almost pocket change” to the super-rich, though in fact it is roughly five times the annual average per capita income in this country. “All I'm telling you,” says the President, “is that this country is right now running so smooth. And to be bringing up that kind of crap, and to be bringing up witch hunts all the time — that's all you want to talk about."
More importantly—or at least more substantially—this book has definitively answered for me the question of whether the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. All my life people north and south have seemed eager to persuade me that it really was about something else, despite a very explicit verse in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free. What becomes clear from reading this anthology of original documents, whether they be formal political manifestos laid out for public discussion by public officials or private and informal communications among friends or family members, is the general apprehension—most explicit among southern politicians but widely shared also in the North—that the fact and magnitude of Lincoln’s victory in November of 1860 spelled the doom of the system of chattel slavery in the United States. Abolition was not Lincoln’s policy. It was not the policy of the Republican Party. It was precisely with regard to the acceptance of the status quo in the South that the victorious “moderates” expressed their “moderation” in the face of noisy Abolitionism. But for that considerable part of the country whose principal wealth was capital investment in four and a half million souls in human bondage, reluctant toleration was scarcely better than frank opposition. The southerners correctly considered “Black Republicanism”—their slur approved by Douglas in his famous debates with Lincoln—a conspiracy to contain and strangle slavery by forbidding its extension in the new territories.
Their recourse for the protection of their property was the rule of law. The Republic was not then a hundred years old, yet to read these southern politicians one might imagine that the Constitution was as ancient as the Magna Charta. They repeatedly invoke “the Constitution of our fathers.” They speak of Andrew Jackson, who died in 1845, as an Englishman might speak of Henry II, who was born in 1133. They did so appropriately, because chattel slavery was entirely constitutional. Politics has been famously defined as “the art of the possible”. A less charitable definition might be “expertise in can-kicking.” The hagiography of our Founding Fathers rarely emphasizes the Constitution’s epic can-kick on the issue of slavery.
The politicians from the slave states knew what Lincoln had said before his election. “A house divided against itself, cannot stand,” candidate Lincoln had said in 1858, quoting the Gospels. “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” Even then you didn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing.