Slavery and Treason, Really?
I’m happy to see on this sesquicentennial that some of us are finally admitting that the Civil War had something to do with slavery. Back when I was a kid in the 50’s, the conflict starred Scarlett O’Hara and Uncle Remus and was all about tradition, chivalry, romantic rebels and devilish Yankees. Millions, mostly in lower America, still buy that nonsense. Thanks to the civil rights movement, Roots and some good and popular scholarship, lots of us came to understand that the war was fought, in Lincoln’s simple but perfect truth, because the nation could no longer exist half slave and half free.
We never liked to talk about slavery because it revealed the hypocrisy of our central freedom myth. So we pretended that the chains and whips in our historical attic could be forever ignored. Meanwhile, the more shameless of us actually held that slavery was not so bad. After all, they smirked, it Christianized heathen.
That reluctance is still there. All across the south this spring, fat white men are donning gray and clumsily pretending to be young and lean Johnny Rebs--only with fire crackers for minie balls and no blood and blacks to remind them of the horror of this country’s greatest killing fest. But to their annoyance, there are now lots of voices ruining their fantasies by bringing up slavery and sedition.
The latter is another skeleton in our attic that we are only beginning to acknowledge. Forget about terrorism or communism. The greatest treason and existential threat we ever faced came from fellow Americans determined to destroy these United States and supplant it with a slave empire stretching west to the Pacific and south to Latin America. Such was the founding ambition of those who created the Confederacy. To realize it, they trampled our flag and and made war on the United States. It took 600,000 dead to end that imperious impetus.
Americans at the time detested that betrayal. Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Judah Benjamin and their confederates were condemned as treacherous and anti-American.They fled or were jailed when their cause got lost in gore. For decades afterward, Yankee politicians made hay by waving “the bloody shirt,” which meant denouncing the sedition of the south and the rise of the KKK after the war.
But over the years something odd happened. Northerners gradually forgot about the conflict while southerners rewrote its history to make themselves the victims of what they dubbed The War of Northern Aggression. They claimed to be merely affirming “states rights” when the Yankees viciously set upon them. Never mentioned was that the particular state right they had in mind was owning, buying, selling, working, whipping, raping and killing other human beings.
Dang if the upholders of bondage didn’t win their propaganda war, mostly thanks to indifference and racism in the rest of the country. For Americans, the Civil War became summed up in the romanticism of Gone With The Wind. More outrageously, the south began to hold itself up as the most patriotic corner of the country. Its politicians became vital, if not dominant, in Washington (five of our last ten presidents hailed from formerly Confederate states). It supplied officer cadre and endless bases to the U.S. military which it had formerly so murderously despised. When reactionary, imperial, racist and yahoo opinions flooded our media, they were often delivered in the dulcet drawls of Dixie.
So here we are today perfectly indulgent of those who still sympathize with ancestors who would have destroyed the United States. And though all stripes of progressive reformers continue to be labeled “un-American or, more commonly nowadays, ‘European’ or ‘soft on Canada,’ no one dreams of questioning the Americanism of those unashamedly harboring warm spots for secession, segregation and, yes, even slavery.
One of the great frauds in this land is that right wingers are considered super patriots. Quite the contrary. When they’re not whistling Dixie, they’re championing an economic system that has long since shed any pretense of patriotism and now calls itself multinational. That sounds right furren to me.