Sunday, July 19, 2009

Slavery was the Cause of the War Between the States

Revisionist historians are forever telling us that slavery had nothing to do with the War Between the States, what the Yankees call "the Civil War." It's an argument that just doesn't hold water.

In a brief note on his brilliant weblog, Scipio wrote:

I am reading another one of those books that works feverishly to prove that the US Civil War was not caused by slavery. Its arguments are the familiar ones—in this case, that the true cause was taxes. The book goes far to show how Lincoln was a military dictator who ignored the Constitution and created an imperial federal government. But behind all of such arguments and all of such books lies a black man in chains. Had not the South been resolved to retain slavery at all costs there would have been no civil war. Any reading of US history from 1781 until 1861 will find that an astounding amount of it revolved around the issue of slavery. And slavery won every single political argument. After Dred Scott it even became legal in every state.

As to those who today suggest that slavery would have eventually died out in the South, they should be aware that the South had long planned a massive expansion of slavery from Mexico to Cuba to Central America. It would have been an act of naked imperialism whose sole purpose was to enslave millions of human beings. Such a thing would have been quite recognizable to an Assyrian king or a Soviet premier. And yet the author of the book calls Lincoln an imperialist. Odd.

Punditarian commented as follows:

Dear Scipio,

Thank you for your interesting thoughts, as always. With respect to slavery as the cause of the War Between the States, as you note, the slavery issue was the over-riding controversy in American politics for over half a century . . . all of the famous major “compromises” of the first half of the XIXth century had slavery as their basis.

Moreover, anyone who doubts what prompted the first secessionist States to leave the union, should consult a very interesting little book, “Apostles of Disunion,” by Charles Dew (University Press of Virginia, 2001). He shows why those States thought they had to secede, in the words of their own ministers plenipotentiary.

Following their secession — in advance of the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, of course, South Carolina and Alabama appointed Commissioners to take their case to other sympathetic States, notably Virginia and North Carolina, to explain why secession was necessary, and why those other States should join them in leaving the Union.

They appeal to none of the revisionist hogwash that today’s apologists for this treason so blithely advance as the “real” cause of the Civil War. They use very explicit language to claim that the slave-holding States must secede in order to preserve the institution of slavery and prevent the Negro from acceding to a level of social equality with his white former masters.

It is sobering reading. The language is not pretty. But these men had no reason to feel they needed to conceal their thinking, nor their feelings, and they wanted to make the most persuasive case they could.

The same thing was stated by John Singleton Mosby well after the War was over: “Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding.”

It is important that we learn to face reality, both about the past and the present predicament. If we are afraid of the truth about yesterday, we will not be strong enough to confront our implacable enemies today.

The first of those major compromises was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. You can read about it here:
The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30' north except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.
Another major compromise, the Compromise of 1850, was also all about slavery:
The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills aimed at resolving the territorial and slavery controversies arising from the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). There were five laws which balanced the interests of the slave states of the South and the free states to the north.
Slavery was the most contentious issue in the United States for decades. And the South knew what it was fighting for, even if today's revisionist historians don't want to admit it.

They would do better to take to heart the wisdom of William Faulkner.

When I first saw the overtly lighthearted 1969 movie adaptation of William Faulkner's last great novel, The Reivers, I was struck by the poignant scene in which the young Lucius comes to grips with his shortcomings. I thought that Faulkner was saying something very profound about the way that a Southern Gentleman would have to come to terms with the history of slavery, and I think that his vision of the way forward was just right. It is even better stated in the book itself.

The Wikipedia summarizes the plot, but misses the point:
The basic plot of The Reivers takes place in the first decade of the 20th century. It involves a young boy named Lucius Priest (a distant cousin of the McCaslin/Edmonds family Faulkner wrote about in Go Down, Moses) who accompanies a family friend named Boon Hogganbeck to Memphis, where Boon hopes to woo a prostitute called "Miss Corrie". Since Boon has no way to get to Memphis, he steals (reives [1] thereby becoming a reiver) Lucius's grandfather's car, the first car in Yoknapatawpha County. They discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who works with Boon at Lucius's grandfather's horse stables, has stowed away with them (Ned is also a blood cousin of the Priests). When they reach Memphis, Boon and Lucius stay in the brothel while Ned disappears into the black part of town. Soon Ned returns, having traded the car for a racehorse.
Written in a very straightforward style, the simplicity of the picaresque story belies its seriousness. Lucius Priest is to me the crystallization of Faulkner's own childhood, and some of the details, such as his grandfather's purchase of the first car in the county, are drawn from Faulkner's own family history. The book was published only about a month before his death.

I think this was a very personal book for Faulkner, and he tried to tell it, this time, as plainly as he could.

Jonathan Yardley put it this way, in a perceptive essay published in the Washington Post in 2004:
One aspect of "The Reivers" that is both interesting and unusual is that it is a coming-of-age novel written not at the beginning of its author's career but at the very end. It has the wisdom of Faulkner's age and experience. What begins as a lark for Lucius turns into the most instructive experience of his life. His parents and grandparents have gone out of town. In their absence Boon persuades Lucius to climb aboard Grandfather Priest's new automobile -- a Winton Flyer that is Boon's "soul's lily maid, the virgin's love of his rough and innocent heart" -- and drive off for high adventure in Memphis. Ned comes along as a stowaway, and the romp is on.
The boy's coming of age comes at a price. As the Wikipedia describes it:

The remainder of the story involves Ned's attempts to race the horse in order to win enough money to help out his relative, and Boon's courtship with Miss Corrie (who is actually called Everbe Corinthia). Lucius, a young, wealthy, and sheltered boy, comes of age in Memphis. He comes into contact for the first time with the underside of society. Much of the novel involves Lucius trying to reconcile his genteel and idealized vision of life with the reality he is faced with on this trip. He meets Corrie's nephew, a boy a few years older than Lucius who acts as his foil and embodies many of the worst aspects of humanity. He degrades women, respects no one, blackmails the brothel owner, steals, and curses. Eventually Lucius, ever the white knight, fights him to defend Corrie's honor. She is so touched at his willingness to stand up for her that she determines to become an honest woman.

The climax comes when Lucius rides the horse (named Coppermine, but called Lightning by Ned) in an illicit race. Coppermine is a fast horse, but he likes to run just behind the other horses so he can see them at all times. Ned convinces him to make a final burst to win the race by bribing him with what may be a sardine. After they win the race, Lucius's grandfather shows up. This time Ned does not do the sardine trick, and Coppermine loses. Ned has bet against Coppermine in this race, and the poor black stable hand is able to get the better of the rich white grandfather.

The wisdom Faulkner imparts comes at the end of the story, when Lucius and his friends return to his home in his little Mississippi hometown, and Lucius has to face up to what has happened.

His father takes him down to the cellar, and is about to give him a whipping with a razor strop, but his grandfather, the "Boss" intervenes. The Boss sends his son upstairs. Faulkner continues:
Then Father was gone, the door closed again. Grandfather sat in the rocking chair: not fat, but with just the right amount of paunch to fill the white waistcoat and make the heavy gold watch chain hang right.

"I lied," I said.

"Come here," he said.

"I cant," I said. "I lied, I tell you."

"I know it," he said.

"Then do something about it. Do anything, just so it's something."

"I cant," he said.

"There aint anything to do? Not anything?"

"I didn't say that," Grandfather said. "I said I couldn't. You can."

"What?" I said. "How can I forget it? Tell me how to."

"You can't," he said. "Nothing is ever forgotten. Nothing is ever lost. It's too valuable."

"Then what can I do?"

"Live with it," Grandfather said.

"Live with it? You mean, forever? For the rest of my life? Not ever to get rid of it? Never? I cant. Dont you see I cant?"

"Yes you can," he said. "you will. A gentleman always does. A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn't say No though he knew he should. Come here." Then I was crying hard, bawling, standing, (no: kneeling; I was that tall now) between his knees, one of his hands at the small of my back, the other at the back of my head holding my face down against his stiff collar and shirt and I could smell him -- the starch and shaving lotion and chewing tobacco and benzine where Grandmother or Delphine had cleaned a spot from his coat, and always a faint smell of whiskey which I always believed was from the first toddy which he took in bed in the morning before he got up.
It is that phrase, about a gentleman accepting "the responsibility of his actions and the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced in them, didn't say No though he knew he should," that makes me think Faulkner is indicating how a moral gentleman would face up to the history of slavery in Mississippi.

Here's that scene in the movie version: