this late, great unpleasantness

April 14, 2010

A serious post for you today!  My apologies if you’re here for inanity.

I noticed recently that everyone who’s anyone on the internet has felt the need to remind us all that slavery was bad, and announce that if you don’t think it was the reason for the Civil War, then you’re a big redneck dumbass.  I did not, however, notice what happened to precipitate this increasingly irritating lecture from the internet.  Last night I went hunting, and found a couple of little gems from the governors of Virginia and Mississippi.

From Virginia, we had a formal announcement from the governor’s office that April is “Confederate History Month”…but conveniently, there’s no mention whatsoever that slavery was ever a part of the Confederacy’s history.  When the Mississippi governor was asked whether he felt this to be inappropriate, he had this to say about the importance of mentioning slavery in relation to the Civil War or the Confederacy:

“To me it’s a sort of feeling that it’s just a nit. That it is not significant. It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.”

Whoops.  Now, to be a little bit fair, this sounds like it could have been taken highly out of context, and he could have been referring to the general ruckus surrounding the Virginia governor’s whoops moment.  That would be charitable to assume, but still doesn’t entirely take away what makes his statement feel a bit shady. The dude is saying, one way or another, that slavery isn’t important, or it’s not important to correct someone for assuming it’s not important.  All this is shitty, sure, but it has definitely inspired me to do a little bit of reading and to think a bit about my own ideas about the Civil War.

To be totally honest, I grew up thinking that the Civil War was about “states’ rights.”  It was, it’s true, but “states’ rights” is just a coded way of saying “the states’ right to decide the question of slavery independently.” I used to think I learned that in school, but now I’m not so sure.

I studied American history three times in school (well, one of those was NC history, but obviously there’s a lot of overlap).  In 11th grade, the most recent time I visited any of this before last night, I don’t even remember talking about the Civil War; the only thing that sticks with me from that year’s history class is the lecture on Gilded Age presidents titled “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game” (though I doubt I could tell you who the Gilded Age presidents actually were).  Somehow I got a 5 on the AP exam, and that’s a little scary to ponder in relation to what I remember from it.  My 8th grade teacher’s idea of studying NC history was to do “county sheets” (little worksheets about NC’s 100 counties, helping us learn things like where it is on the map, its county seat, who it was named after, etc.) and popping in videos of the “Roots” miniseries.  I could probably still make my best friends from that era laugh by just mentioning Kunta-Kinte.  In 5th grade, I remember reading a book about a little boy during the American Revolution and making a project about Wyoming out of a Cheerios box, but nothing about the Civil War.

The point of all this is that I’m not sure where my ideas about the Civil War actually came from.  I suppose it must have been from books I read on my own; I do recall reading most of the American Girls books for Abby, the escaped slave girl (though Felicity, the girl living during the American Revolution, was my favorite), and doing a project at some point on Sojourner Truth, but yeah, really I don’t know.  I would swear that I know a good bit about the Civil War, but I can’t for the life of me remember ever learning it formally.  I imagine a lot of my purported knowledge is oral history from conversations with family.

This all seems ironic to me now, because I’ve repeatedly insisted in conversations with friends from outside the south that they don’t know much about the Civil War and aren’t as qualified to make broad statements about it, like, “you’re an idiot, of course it was a war to end slavery,” when I disagree and try to twist it into that slippery “states’ rights” business.  It’s really a tricky thing, the impulse to do that.  I think there’s an implicit guilt about these things, which shows up quietly sometimes, in the way I always make sure to point out that NC was the last to secede, or that my own ancestors were largely not slave owners.  It’s a response to the implicit accusation in talking about the Civil War with someone white born and bred in the south, especially because the discussion usually grows out of a question like, “does anyone really wear Confederate-flag bikinis?”

That’s what bothers me most about this whole ugly business, I’ve decided: the accusation (implicit or otherwise) that comes with all of this discussion, and that I’ve seen in every high-minded, politely condescending newspaper or blog article about this sorry business.  It’s not an accusation, obviously, that I believe slavery was a morally good thing, but an accusation — even if it is a joking one — that me, my friends, and my family are more likely to be bigoted than others, just because we happen to come from a place where yes, people do occasionally wear Confederate-flag bikinis.  It’s not really all that funny in the end.  There’s something even less funny about it when folks who’ve always lived in the whitest, least-diverse places in the country are the ones making the joke.

I have no desire to defend the practice of slavery, but I do want to point out that the issue was much more complicated at the time than everyone writing these high-minded articles is allowing.   I don’t for one second believe that the Civil War was a war of righteousness, that every person fighting and campaigning for the cause of the Union was morally opposed to slavery, and that every person for the Confederacy was morally in favor of it.  While I can’t find any primary sources to back me up here, it just doesn’t make sense that way.  For many people — because most southerners were never slave owners (about 6% owned slaves, according to the 1860 census) — at least in oral history versions of things, it was more of a “it’s none of your business how we run our society” kind of war, which is really just a common man’s version of the states’ rights argument.

Yes, that business was slavery, but the question on the floor was not just slavery as a moral issue, but slavery as a moral and economic issue.  There is a difference between those two statements; yes, it may be slimy, and yes, it may be motivated partially by some cultural guilt, but there is still a difference, and it’s important.  The argument that they’re not different is also slimy (because it ignores entirely that slavery was important economically), and motivated partially by an accusation, so I think we’re square here.

It’s a lot easier to  find something morally reprehensible when your livelihood doesn’t depend on it.  That doesn’t make it any less morally reprehensible, but it does make it a hell of a lot more complicated.


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