Nikki’s Lost Cause

What happened in late December to Nikki Haley when she answered a question during a New Hampshire townhall about why the Civil War took place tells more about the state of this country than it does about Haley or the quality of her response. 

“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms in what people could and couldn’t do,” she responded. “I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government.”

Haley was immediately attacked in the media and by her rivals for her failure to mention slavery in her response. One is no longer allowed to provide historical explanations that contradict the narratives of our media betters or their interpretations of reality; therefore, it might be best to read the gibberish on Wikipedia to learn the politically correct explanation for what’s been going on in the Western world for the last several centuries.

If someone asks you in public about what caused the American Civil War, the now obligatory response is to bleed all over the floor about the evils of slavery and then rave against the white racists who inflicted this unprecedented inhumanity on hapless blacks. Anyone who fails to meet this PC test will be slammed, not only by the utterly partisan mainstream media, but also by the conservative establishment, which I’ve aptly described as “the late coming Left.”

Never mind that the slaves who reached our shores were sold by the black, not white, rulers of African slave empires and that the relatively small number of slaves that were brought to America lived much longer and in far better circumstances than those who were kept in Africa or sold to South American, not to mention Muslim masters. What may be equally relevant is that no matter how garbled Haley’s syntax, her answer was essentially correct. Our civil war had more than one cause; and the role of the central state was certainly a bone of contention between the two sides.

It was by no means an accidental consequence of the war, as Lord Acton noted in a famous letter to Robert E. Lee in November 1866, that a consolidated regime emerged from the Union victory. Acton “saw in States Rights the only available check on the absolutism of the sovereign will.” It’s quite possible to cheer the disappearance of slavery while utterly deploring the rise of a highly centralized regime, which by now has morphed into an all-powerful, perpetually mischievous deep state armed with media propagandists. That development came from reducing American states to creatures of the central government, which was the eventual result of the Civil War.

Since race has now become the only filter for understanding the Civil War, which is known, not at all incidentally, in French and German as “the War of Secession,” the debates over states rights and federal power in the antebellum period and even after the war, have become at best irrelevant and at worst symptomatic of systemic white racism. The Encyclopedia Britannica now attacks the impeccably anti-slavery, pro-Union historian James Ford Rhodes for his “racist” account of widespread corruption in the military occupation of the defeated Southern states. Instead of wasting our time on this polluted history, we are urged to read the supposedly more objective account of leftist historian Eric Foner

Slavery was a shaping factor for antebellum Southern politics and culture, even if only a minority of Southerners held slaves. Servile labor undergirded a hierarchical order that looked in some ways like European conservative societies and clearly distinguished it from the more bourgeois and capitalist North. Given its smaller population and less dynamic economy, the American South, like feudal societies in Europe, tried to preserve itself from the centralizing tendencies of a rising nation-state and its economically ascendant ruling class. The vast majority of Southern whites did not own slaves but they did rally to the Confederates after Northern armies overran their territory and/or because they identified more with their region than the federal government that invaded them. 

Traditional Marxist as well as pre-woke historians could grasp this source of conflict. Unfortunately, neither our media nor our politicians have patience for understandings that don’t align with or serve their moralizing rage.

This brings me to the more practical question of what can be done to bring back a more open discussion of historical questions without having to deal with the ideological fog that now envelops my discipline. It has become hard to tell apart what we are made to believe are the two opposing but still permissible American historical narratives. Both sides agree that the American past abounded in white racism, sexism, and homophobia. But our “conservatives” insist that the bad old times are now mostly behind us and in fact can be disposed of completely once we oust reactionary “racist” Democrats from public office. These make-believe conservatives, like those they are arguing with, view the American social and political past as mostly a burden to be overcome. 

Although these wannabe conservatives praise certain lines in the Declaration of Independence and more generally, the Constitution, their view of the American past doesn’t differ significantly from that of the Left. In this account, slavery is the taint that we had to wash away by defeating the evil South in battle; and it is sacrilegious to talk about the devastation of that war without making white racism and the need to overcome it the focus of our discussion. We may ask how such narratives help the black underclass in this country. Like pulling down the statues of Confederate war heroes or degrading white students in college classes, the answer is “not at all.”

The proper response to this vulgar presentism, I would argue as an historian, is to try to understand the past on its own terms, as Herbert Butterfield, Leopold von Ranke, Shelby Foote, and Eugene Genovese (just to mention four exemplary historians) tried to do. I’ve no idea how we can get back to pursuing that ideal, but it’s clear from the dismaying reactions to Haley’s impromptu interpretation that we can’t be any further from that ideal than we are right now. Especially annoying in this regard were the supercilious reactions from Republican presidential contenders Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump who, as if on cue, mocked Haley’s historical ignorance.

DeSantis, we might note, took the opportunity not only to ridicule Haley but to assure us that “slavery” was the only permissible answer to what Nikki was asked in New Hampshire. Like Trump, DeSantis viewed Haley’s “gaffe” as evidence she’s not ready for “prime time.” DeSantis also asserted quite self-importantly that slavery was the sole cause of the American Civil War and cited South Carolina’s declaration of secession in December 1860 as proof.

Although some declarations of secession in 1860 and 1861 did indeed stress the threat to the South’s peculiar institution, most of them, e.g. those of Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, do not. They simply affirm the right of these states to leave the Union. Moreover, even those declarations focusing on Northern attacks on slavery and attempts to strip Southern slaveowners of their human chattel, also dwell on deeper regional animosities. It might be an oversimplification on the part of the “slavery was everything” school to exclude other factors in trying to understand this sectional split. 

Finally, the facts that most of those who fought on the Confederate side owned no slaves and that there is no evidence that most Union soldiers cared about the issue of slavery suggests that there were other reasons this bloodbath took place. Haley (in her muddled syntax) or her high school history teacher in rural South Carolina may have been telling us, however awkwardly, a now frenetically concealed truth.

—Paul Gottfried

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