U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How should we as a nation mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War?

Or, in some minds, will white Southerns use the occasion to herald the Confederacy and obliquely celebrate slavery and racism?

I really appreciate the way that the New York Times has been handling this question–through the column “Disunion” that regularly offers primary sources from the period to trace just how South and North divided. This week is about “The Minds of the South” so I thought of ya’ll.

Explanation of “Disunion”: One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Americans went to war with themselves. Disunion revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.

Teaser for “The Minds of the South”:  “Secession wasn’t evidence that the South didn’t have a reasoned intellectual life. In fact, it was the strongest evidence that it did.”

One thing I would note is the use of “Southerner” to mean all Southerners, but really only whites–this happens a lot in contemporary popular discourse and ignores the very large numbers of Southerners who were black and anti-slavery.

The author, Cambridge University Professor Michael O’Brien, notes that the white Southern idea of secession arose out of a rational idea of the role of states in the union and that the fear of the end of slavery was at least in part a fear of the economic collapse that would follow the complete upheaval of the Southern economy. He argues that it was not a war of the wise North against the irrational South. Yet, no mention is made of the biggest reason that today we consider the South irrational–the massive abuse of human beings in the institution of slavery. It is possible to have rational discourse that upholds an abhorrent system (that may work perfectly rationally). My philosophy professor brother once argued that women shouldn’t have the vote because every family should have one vote and it is divisive for the family structure if a husband and wife votes’ cancel each other out. That is in some form rational, but I find it immoral. Sometimes we equate rationality with correctness, but they are not synonymous.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Sure, Southerners were rational; being rational is the sine qua non of rationalizing.

    I am reading the Genoveses’ _Mind of the Master Class_ this week. I very much appreciate their scholarship; I’m less sanguine about their subjects.

    Of all the books I’ve read in graduate studies, I think that _Race and Reunion_ by David W. Blight has been the most helpful to me in getting a handle on how we teach the history of the civil war. I have a post about it on my blog, but I’ll summarize quickly here:

    Unfortunately, the pernicious poison of Lost Cause ideology is still alive and well. In fact, it has spread like kudzu thanks to the concerted efforts of the DOC, as Blight points out in _Race and Reunion_. I hear the “it was really about economics” or “it was really about states’ rights” trotted out from time to time in my own graduate seminars, and I know that these notions are taught in many K-12 textbooks and classrooms in every region of the country.

    It tries my patience.

  2. Did you see the article over at Immanent Frame linking to the article at Religion News Service about John MacArthur’s new book which encourages all Christians — presumably including African-American Christians — to think of themselves not as “servants” of Christ, but as “slaves” of Christ? Here is my blog post about it, w/ links to the various articles:

    Servant or Slave

    This history with all its vexing and troubling issues isn’t going away any time soon.

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