The past is not dead; the past hasn’t even been acknowledged as having happened

The Civil War was fought over slavery.

White historians thought up the idea to make the “states rights” cause central to the war as a myth for Southern whites to save face. But it’s still a myth. I’ll repeat: the idea that the Civil War was fought over the principle of states rights is a myth designed to disguise the fact that the Civil War was fought over slavery.

Northern soldiers going into battle wrote in their diaries that they were going to end the vile practice of slavery for the honor of the union. Abraham Lincoln on meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is alleged by Stowe’s 1911 biographer to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this great war,” a testament to the moral presence of Stowe and her work’s brutal portrayal of the degradation of slavery in the public perception of Lincoln – a presence that during Lincoln’s life was customarily described as his conscience.

Southern politicians and military leaders uniformly described the reason for secession as the need to preserve the Southern institution of chattel slavery against the efforts of the anti-slavery Republicans who had won the White House and desired to end the practice. Southern orators regularly declaimed the difference between Northern and Southern climates as the reason why white people shouldn’t be responsible for heavy labor in the South, and for the innate suitability of black people from Africa to enforced servitude and heavy labor on their behalf, and for the both as being the primary rational behind secession and the war.

When the Civil War commenced, the majority population of the state of Virginia was opposed to secession and the Confederacy. Unfortunately many of them did not have a political voice because they were slaves, the de facto majority population of the state. The white population of Virginia wasn’t particularly enthused about it either, many perceiving the war as being conducted on the behalf of the wealthy minority slave-holding population at the expense of everyone else. That controversy literal split the state into Virginia and West Virginia, as the Scotch-Irish population of the Appalachian mountains were themselves too familiar with the conditions of servitude and oppression at the hands of the wealthy Anglo-Saxon elite to support the Confederate States. At the war’s end, the majority of Virginians – yes, black, but many whites as well – greeted the Union troops as liberators.

That’s history, but only some of it. Not the type that McDonnell and the fat-ass losers that make up the various Confederate nostalgia groups of Virginia are willing to learn and acknowledge, but that’s because some of the most important history of the past hundred and fifty years hasn’t even fully happened yet. Victors write the history? No. Victors assume a history. To write one necessitates dissent. And through that dissent is how history sometimes happens.

UPDATE: O.K., so there are some definite errors in my own sense of history. Slaves were not a clear majority population in Virginia; they were a majority population in some states deeper South where, of course, cotton plantations were more central to the economy. At the time of the civil war, Virginia’s slave population was a bit less than half the population of the state. It may not have been a majority of Virginians that celebrated the collapse of the Confederacy, but if not, it was likely close to that. I apologize for letting my indignation at McDonnell’s presumption rush me past the fact-checking.



Filed under history

4 responses to “The past is not dead; the past hasn’t even been acknowledged as having happened

  1. tbudd

    ok, I agree, sort of. Wasn’t the war of “Northern Aggression” fought over the rapidly accumulating wealth of the Southern states due, entirely, to slave labor? From what I’ve learned, the Union, in paying wages (even woefully low to immigrants) was lagging far behind their neighbors to the South, in terms of economic stability. If you say the war was fought over slavery, I think there’s a tendency to see as meaning the moral and ethical implications of it, rather than the practical (and very threatening) economic reality.


    • woodthrush

      You were taught what?!

      At the eve of the war, the North had a more healthy, booming, and flexible economy due to rapid industrialization and the second wave of European immigration. It was producing most of the nation’s wealth and had a higher standard of living despite it being more widely dispersed. The South’s economy was shrinking rapidly and nearly wholly dependent on chattel slavery. The economic causes for secession where not much self-sufficiency as desperation.

      One economic reason for the North refusing to accept secession was that the Confederacy didn’t need to encourage commodity sales to the North and could easily ship cotton to Europe. This is one of the core reasons why European nations supported the South – that and the recent global pro-democracy rebellions had made European governments a little uncomfortable with the democratic freedoms represented by the American government. The vision of a landed, hereditary aristocracy promoted by the Confederacy was much more congenial to Europe’s nostalgia for the ancien regime.


  2. tbudd

    Yes, your point about European allies is true. But the South *did* pose a threat to the Union precisely because they had slaves, and slave-owner politicians were vying for the homesteaders. Also, free labor is always more profitable than paid labor. Whoever claimed the westeward expansionists would ultimately control the country.
    My point is, the Civil War was not exclusively about human rights–there were many, many complicating factors and competing interests.


  3. woodthrush

    I had a longer comment that mysteriously vanished before I hit submit. So shorter comment: agreed, most certainly. Same as it ever was. My only beef is that so many schoolchildren grow up being taught that while one would think the issue of slavery was behind the civil war it was really these more noble political causes or these more pertinent economic issues, when in truth what appears on the face of it is what it is: it was about slavery.


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