I haven’t read The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage, and judging by Donald Livingston’s review (May 2019 issue) I probably won’t. Why? Because it sounds like yet another attempt to defend “Lost Cause” ideology. According to the book’s author, Boyd Cathey, the real reason the South seceded had little to do with slavery and everything to do with resisting the revolutionary, sectional Republicans whose “goal was to consolidate the states into a centralized regime of crony capitalism ruled by the emerging New York-Chicago industrial axis.” The Secessionists were the true Americans who “took the Founders’ Constitution with them, word for word, except for a few reforms…” Reforms such as this gem in Article IV: “…the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress…” 

The reason many Southerners have stopped defending Confederate monuments is not because they’ve lost their traditional virtues as Livingston suggests, but because with the benefit of 150 years of hindsight they realize their ancestors were morally obtuse and on the wrong side of history.  One doesn’t have to be a Cultural Marxist to believe that while the Civil War and the Jim Crow era are a part of our heritage that needs to be remembered, it should no longer be glorified.

        —Keith Burtner
Dallas, Texas

Prof. Livingston Replies:

Mr. Burtner says the Confederate “ancestors” of Southerners were “morally obtuse and on the wrong side of history.” But were they? First, slavery was a national enormity, not merely a Southern thing. For over two centuries the wealth of the Northeast had come from servicing the export of slave-produced staples. And New England’s brutal slave trade lasted 170 years. Estimates are that Yankees got around 40 cents on every dollar earned by the planters.

The morally right thing would have been a nationally funded program of compensated emancipation (as the British had done in 1833) and integration of the African population into American society. But Northerners were not interested in doing their part to abolish slavery. They were especially opposed to free blacks entering their states or the Western territories. “What I would most desire,” Lincoln said, “would be the separation of the white and black races.”

And he meant it. The Illinois Constitution with his approval prohibited free blacks from entering the state and denied basic civil rights to those within it. H. Ford Douglas, a free black in Illinois, said that if he dared send his children to a public school, “Abraham Lincoln would kick them out, in the name of Republicanism and antislavery!” 

So long as slaves were confined to the South, Lincoln said “the institution might be let alone for a hundred years.” He said he opposed slavery in the West because that would save the region from “the troublesome presence of free negroes” in the future. Ohio and Indiana passed legislation to gradually send all free blacks out of their states by sending them as colonists to the Western territories or Africa. This disposition prevailed throughout the North.

James Shepherd Pike, an abolitionist correspondent for the New York Tribune, wrote in the February 1861 Atlantic Monthly

We say the Free States should say, confine the Negro to the smallest possible area. Hem him in. Coop him up. Slough him off. Preserve just so much of North America as is possible for the white man. . . .

Likewise, the Republican-controlled House Committee on Emancipation Policy said in its 1862 report, “the highest interests of the white race, whether Anglo-Saxon, Celt, or Scandinavian, requires that the whole country should be held and occupied by those races alone.” Many believed that, once freed, blacks could not compete and would gradually leave or die out. Ralph Waldo Emerson cheerfully predicted, “It will happen by & by that the black man will only be destined for museums like the Dodo.” 

The South did not secede to protect slavery from a morally responsible proposal to abolish it, because no such proposal was ever put forth. Lincoln said repeatedly that the point of the War was merely to prevent secession. He lived in an age when centralization and empire building were viewed as instruments of human progress. He estimated that by 1930 America would have a population capable of competing with the great empires of Europe. But that would not happen if there was a negotiated separation. 

There was much that was “morally obtuse”—to use Mr. Burtner’s phrase—in the North’s refusal to acknowledge its moral responsibility for originating, servicing, and profiting from slavery. Also in Lincoln’s refusal to negotiate a separation from what was clearly, for both sides, a suffocating and dysfunctional Union.

As to the right side of history, I observe that a Zogby poll last year found that 39 percent of Americans favor secession for their state, and 29 percent are not sure. That means 68 percent are willing to entertain the concept of secession. Lincoln’s war to prevent a negotiated separation cost a million lives, or the equivalent of 10 million if adjusted for today’s population size. The Union was not “indivisible” in 1860, nor was the Soviet Union in 1991, nor was the EU in 2016—and neither is the United States today.