“The Northern onslaught upon slavery was no more than
a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire
for economic control of the Southern States.”
—Charles Dickens, 1862
“Slavery is no more the cause of this war
than gold is the cause of robbery.”
—Gov. Joel Parker of New Jersey, 1863
In 1931, sixteen years after publishing his classic collection of American poetry, Spoon River Anthology, and in the early stages of the Great Depression, Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography, Lincoln: The Man. In this work he wrote, commenting on the Gettysburg Address,
Lincoln carefully avoided one half of the American story. . . . The Gettysburg oration, therefore, remains a prose poem, but in the inferior sense that one must not inquire into its truth. One must read it apart from the facts. . . . Lincoln dared not face the facts of Gettysburg. . . . He was unable to deal realistically with the history of his country, even if the occasion had been one when the truth was acceptable to the audience. Thus we have in the Gettysburg Address that refusal of the truth which is written all over the American character and its expressions. The war then being waged was not glorious, it was brutal and hateful and mean minded. It had been initiated by radicals and fanatics.
Granting that gifted poets sometimes see things that the plodding rest of us miss, perhaps Masters’ words are worthy of our attention as we enter the sesquicentennial observance of the great war of 1861-65, in many ways still the central, formative event of American history. A “refusal of the truth which is written all over the American character”—what can the poet mean?
Masters had grown up in Lewistown, Illinois, near Lincoln’s New Salem, and practiced law in Petersburg, not far from Lincoln’s Springfield, before moving on to Chicago, a place, as Masters wrote in his autobiography, that would either break your heart or harden it. His family had been Democrats of Virginian background, engaged for years as lawyers and local leaders in a losing battle with the Republican machine of Lincoln’s state. Masters knew firsthand how that machine operated by fraud, bribery, and slander and manipulated the Protestant churches and the Grand Army of the Republic to maintain power and pursue its real agenda. It presided over a vast enterprise of political/financial corruption designed to support the savvy and incorporated bankers and industrialists enriched by government favoritism and subsidy. What Americans have long known as capitalism.
Masters hoped that the William Jennings Bryan campaign of 1896 “would sweep the country, and it would be reclaimed from the banks and the syndicates who had robbed the people since 1861 and whose course had made it so impossible for a young man to get along in the world, save by allying himself with the financial oligarchs.” Bryan’s defeat by every dirty trick in the very dirty Republican playbook, followed by the brutal imperial war in the Philippines, led Masters to begin to doubt the “American character.”
Historians have been quick to point out and condemn the “Great Barbecue” of corruption that followed the Civil War, which somehow mysteriously appeared after the saintly Lincoln had left the scene. Masters would have known what the Catholic philosopher Orestes Brownson described, writing from Michigan shortly after the war:
Nothing was more striking during the late civil war than the very general absence of loyalty or feeling of duty, on the part of the adherents of the Union. . . . The administration never dared confide in the loyalty of the federal people. The appeals were made to interest, to the democracy of the North against the aristocracy of the South; to anti-slavery fanaticism; or to the value and utility of the Union, rarely to the obligation in conscience to support the legitimate or legal authority; prominent civilians were bribed by high military commissions; others, by advantageous contracts for themselves or their friends for supplies to the army; and the rank and file, by large bounties and high wages. There were exceptions, but such was the rule.
Knowing many people who had known Lincoln, Masters would not have been impressed by the fairy tale of the noble but humble prairie saint who was sent by the Lord to save the holy Union and free the suffering slaves. That was a posthumous party-propaganda creation designed to bolster the Republican regime that Masters despised. He knew of the Lincoln who was “penurious, grasping, and shrewd,” well remembered in his home territory for his “cunning and his acting ability.” As for a glorious war, Masters had likely heard of the Yankee entrepreneur who had erected bleachers from which Chicagoans, for a small fee, could look over the wall at the freezing and deliberately starved Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, where the results of the daily death toll were thrown into the nearby swamp.
A people who would adopt as their greatest icon a corporation lawyer and crafty politician who had presided over a holocaust might well be guilty of a “refusal of the truth.” Master’s position was not eccentric. In fact, he was part of a very large and continuous minority of Northern dissenters whom historians have been zealous in ignoring or misrepresenting.
The sesquicentennial observance of the War Between the States is not going to be anything like the Civil War centennial observance. Fifty years ago, there was a broad consensus about American history. The War was viewed as a great national tragedy, with good and bad on both sides, from which a stronger nation had fortunately emerged. The War was furthermore a vast treasury of great people and great deeds, on both sides, a source of inexhaustible interest and celebration for all Americans. Southerners were glad that the Union had been preserved and slavery ended, and were eager to fight for the Union on all future occasions. Northerners agreed that Southerners, though misguided, had been honest and courageous in their fight for independence. This was about as healthy a way of accommodating the great bloodletting into the national consciousness as could be hoped for.
America in 2011 is a very different country from America in 1961. The long march of Cultural Marxism through American institutions, which began in the 1930’s, has achieved most of its objectives. Schools at every level, media, clergy, government agencies, and politicians are now captive to a false dogma of history as conflict between an evil past and the forces of revolution struggling toward a glorious future. (This is exactly the way that Karl Marx, who knew less than nothing about America, described the War.) Genuine intellectual debate and deliberation over great issues are now virtually absent from public discourse.
In regard to the War Between the States, the p.c. regime means that the demonization of the South, chronic throughout American history, has reemerged with a vengeance. The War is a morality play of good versus evil—specifically, of the progressive, freedom-loving forces of the North heroically and nobly vanquishing foolhardy Southern traitors fighting with no other motive than to preserve the evil institution of slavery. Whether they know it or not, many present-day commentators are following the program of V.I. Lenin: “We can and we must write in language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, scorn, and the like toward those who disagree with us.”
Gone are the days when Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill could speak in praise of the honor and courage of the Confederacy, its leaders, soldiers, and people. When R.E. Lee was an exemplary hero for all Americans. Gone the days when Confederates were shown in movies and on television as admirable characters and usually played by major stars. Gone the days when mainstream American historians had come to an understanding of the war as a complex event, the causes of which were multiple—economic, cultural, and political—brought to crisis by “radicals and fanatics.”
It is now established with Soviet party-line rigor that the War was “caused by” and “about” slavery, and nothing but slavery. This is not because the interpreters of history in 2011 are more knowledgeable and objective than those of 1961. Quite the reverse is true. The new orthodoxy does not result from new knowledge. Slavery has been elevated to the center place of the War because Americans are obsessed with race and devoted to the emotional and financial rewards of victimology. But slavery does not belong there. Black people had no place in Lincoln’s or Masters’ Illinois. The Union never did anything before, during, or after the war with the welfare of black Americans foremost in mind. As Frederick Douglass, the most important black American of the 19th century, put it, Lincoln “was preeminently the white man’s president, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” Ambrose Bierce, a hard-fighting Union soldier throughout the war, said that he never met an abolitionist in the Union Army and never saw any black people except the concubines and servants of Union officers. The status of black people is now a gargantuan presence in American consciousness. But neither side in the War of 1861-65 thought that way.
While the race-obsessed multiculturalists dominate the public discourse, there are still plenty of old-fashioned Union partisans around to give them support. I know whereof I speak. Appear (as I have) in any public forum to say that there may be something to be said on the Southern side of the case. You will be inundated with e-mails, mostly unsigned, shrieking “Treason!” and threatening that you will be disposed of summarily and fatally like your evil forebears. Homegrown fascists of the type that have been around at least as long as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—too dim-witted and bullying to perceive that love of country is not the same thing as worship of government power and that a cudgel is not an argument.
I have to give grudging credit to the anonymous gentleman from Portland, Maine, who took the trouble to package up and mail to me a chamber pot labeled “General Lee’s Soup Tureen.” (And they say Southerners should “get over” the War.) The prize among the dozens of nasty missives I have received: “You are the perfect moral argument for abortion. If you were black, you’d be the perfect moral argument for lynching, and if you were Jewish, you’d be the perfect moral argument for Auschwitz.” One might be tempted to ask why a cause, if righteous, need be defended in this way.
No honest student of history can accept a monocausal explanation for so vast and complex an event as that War and its aftermath. Good history is an account of human acts, and human acts are seldom that simple. And the motives of past generations are complicated and hard to know. “Slavery” cannot begin to account for the experience of Americans in what is still the bloodiest and most revolutionary event in our history. Yet that is the emphatically declared “expert” opinion of the great bulk of American historians. When all the “experts” agree about something, you can bet something unseemly is going on. In fact, many of the “experts” have no expertise at all in the history of 19th-century America. A good historian, presented with an opposing interpretation, will debate and present evidence. But our scholarly discourse has now reached the stage where contrary views are merely frowned down as having been presented by people not as wise as the “experts.” Very much like being blackballed from an exclusive club.
It is near certain that the p.c. version of the War will dominate the public space in the observance to come. A “refusal of the truth which is written all over the American character and its expressions”?