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The news and entertainment media love anniversaries. So it is strange that the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War has been so low key. The BBC has a regular item each evening explaining the Secession crisis, in contrast to the shrugs of the US channels. The New York Times has been the only publication to pay some attention but on April 12 it ran a piece by Ken Burns, co-director of the celebrated PBS series, pointing out that notwithstanding its centrality in the national story the conflict does not always receive the attention it merits. He compared this phenomenon to the ‘acoustic shadow’ noticed during the Civil War itself whereby towns quite close to a battlefield were bathed in silence while quite distant locations could distinctly hear the roar of the fusillades and the canon’s bark.. PBS is airing a re-run of the Civil War programmes but extensive cuts have reduced the fascinating and acute commentaries of the featured historians.
Harold Meyerson has argued in the Washington Post (14/04/11) that the issues that sparked the mighty conflict continually re-appear in new forms. In the 1860s the roots of the clash lay in rival labor systems, with Northerners fearing the expansionist longings of the ‘Slave Power’. Today, Meyerson points out, the Republicans – the then champions of an expansive ‘free labor’ regime embracing public education and the right to organize, are now the sworn foes of public expenditure and trade union rights.
While this observation is on the mark it still does not explain why so many avoid the topic. Apparently – even a century and a half later – there is no commonly-agreed narrative of the meaning of the war. What can still be called Northern opinion insists that the war was about slavery and race, something that many Southerners will not accept. Those South Carolinians who observed the anniversary of their own state’s secession last December portrayed it as a brave blow for state’s rights and minimal government.
It is easy for Northerners to see the bad faith in Southern denials that the glorious cause was no more than a wretched defense of racial bondage. The most insistent secessionists were indeed the large slave-owners, and the Confederacy’s very belated recourse to the freeing of some slaves to form a Confederate regiment cannot alter the fact that the rebellion was animated by the desire to insulate slavery from the peril of a Republican president and the persisting contempt of so many Northerners. Slavery was a delicate institution that could not be subjected to the rough and tumble of party politics.
But if Northerners can spot the beam in the eyes of the Southerners they don’t notice the mote in their own. This is the more difficult to do because it requires simultaneous attention to two considerations. Firstly, in April 1861, and for many months thereafter, slavery remained entirely lawful in the Union. Secondly, so long as both sides remained attached to slavery, the Union case against secession would remain flawed at best. Modern liberal and democratic theory allows for a right of self-determination and each of the seceding states had agreed the fateful step only after the deliberation of a representative body as determined by the prevailing authorities. Of course the slaves themselves had no say in the matter, but neither did they at most places in the North.
Indeed in February 1861 the Congress had endorsed a Thirteenth Amendment – never subsequently ratified by the states and very different from the later one — which would have renounced any right or ability to challenge slavery and reserved to the slave states themselves the entire responsibility for regulating slavery. Lincoln gave his support. Many urged that the Constitution itself already entailed such a concession but it remained unfortunate nevertheless. Lincoln wished to re-assure loyal slaveholders that they had nothing to fear from his administration.
Until president and Congress could agree initiatives to suppress slavery they could not offer abolitionism as the justification for making war against the rebels. Of course the Union had the right to condemn and deplore Secession, and even to refuse to recognise it, and to devise peaceful ways of dissuading them. But Lincoln himself in his first speech to the House of Representatives had insisted in the most emphatic terms that all peoples have a right of revolution and that this extended to communities that were in a minority nationally so long at they had a local majority.
In fact nineteenth-century democrats generally supported national secessions where this received local support, as it did when Belgium seceded from the Netherlands in 1830 or Norway from Sweden in 1905. However Lincoln was to specify an exception to this rule in his speech in Peoria in 1854. In that speech he says that slaveholders cannot claim this right as against a free community. In the US case acquiescence in secession would have allowed the North and the West to become a large and progressive state, a sort of vast and diversified Canada, hospitable to free labor, social protection and gun control. The Confederacy meanwhile, would have become a republican version of the ramshackle Brazilian Empire, a major slave society that eventually managed to shed slavery in a largely peaceful manner.
So the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment had a bearing on the legitimacy of the war against the secession, clearly putting the Union in the right. The virtuous measures taken in 1863 and after lent a quite new purpose to the struggle, rescuing it from its deficiency deficit. Karl Marx went further, since he was confident that the slavery issue could not be kept out of the conflict and the North would be driven to attack slavery since it was the very basis of the Confederate regime.
The coming months and years are going to furnish a succession of thorny topics for the commemoration industry – dating from Reconstruction as well as the War – and it will be fascinating to see how they are navigated. The terrible destructiveness of the war and its very unsatisfactory ultimate outcome for African Americans are issues that will have to be addressed.
But however the later sequence of events is addressed it remains highly unsatisfactory to allow the war’s inception to be enveloped by the ‘acoustic shadow’. We live in a world where the US and other Western governments believe themselves entitled to resort to military intervention almost at will, though the more scrupulous crave the rubber stamp of the UN Security Council, notwithstanding that the stamp of approval is issued from a supine position.
In this context a willingness on the part of the United States to admit the possibility that the war was not the best response to Secession would be a healthy sign. (Recent books by Drew Gilpin Faust, — This Republic of Suffering — and Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club is encouraging auguries.) A willingness to grant this, even if combined with the severest stricture on slavery and Jim Crow, could help the US to find a post-imperial vocation and to defeat threats to free and thriving labor. It would also help to clarify how Washington would react to any future wish of a state to withdraw from the Union. If that wish was reached by clear majorities, after democratic debate, is it really conceivable that anyone would wish the matter to be settled by tanks and aerial bombardment.
ROBIN BLACKBURN teaches at the University of Essex in the UK and is the author of An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, and The American Crucible, both Verso 2011. He speaks on Marx and America at the Heyman Center seminar room, Columbia University, 6.15 pm Thursday, April 21. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org