I’ve been rereading The Metaphysical Club in preparation for teaching US Intellectual History next semester and I noticed something–Menand argues that slavery was not the cause of the civil war, though it became central to the conflict as the war progressed. In African American history, whether or not you consider slavery to be the primary cause of the civil war reflects upon your seriousness of purpose and dedication to the field (i.e. it is argued that slavery was most definitely the cause of the Civil War). I’ve decided to use The Metaphysical Club as a jumping off point for a debate about this with my class.
But, hmmmm, what is “this”–is it the history of the way that the cause of the Civil War have been debated, or the causes themselves? Which is more important to discuss with students? When we teach intellectual history, does it behoove us to talk about the birth of an idea and its aftermath all in one day, or stretch it out across the semester? (I ask, because I am contemplating playing this episode of “Backstory” about “Evolution and Creation” in America for my students, but it discusses centuries of science in one hour, rather than discussing the first introduction of Darwin to the US as I had planned.)
“As it had been all along, the issue for most Northerners was not the morality of slavery; it was the balance of power between the North and the South. But the more the South intervened in the North’s affairs and frustrated the North’s political will, the more corrupt the institution of slavery began to seem. When it was relatively out of sight, slavery could be kept relatively out of mind. The more belligerently the South thrust its business in Northern faces, the more distasteful that business became.” (27)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been debating the causes of the Civil War on his blog for months, in preparation for a book he is writing. The debate has culminated in an article in The Atlantic which captures succinctly the consensus among many historians of African America. He argues that the reining narrative about the causes of the Civil War was created to unite the US by alienating black people.
Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn’t for us was the result of the country’s long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.
The fallen Confederacy’s chroniclers grasped this historiographic challenge and, immediately after the war, began erasing all evidence of the crime—that is to say, they began erasing black people—from the written record.
I’d suggest reading the whole article, but I can’t help quoting a few more lines:
The 20th century, with its struggles for equal rights, with the triumph of democracy as the ideal in Western thought, proved [Frederick] Douglass right. The Civil War marks the first great defense of democracy and the modern West. Its legacy lies in everything from women’s suffrage to the revolutions now sweeping the Middle East. It was during the Civil War that the heady principles of the Enlightenment were first, and most spectacularly, called fully to account.
In our present time, to express the view of the enslaved—to say that the Civil War was a significant battle in the long war against bondage and for government by the people—is to compromise the comfortable narrative. It is to remind us that some of our own forefathers once explicitly rejected the republic to which they’d pledged themselves, and dreamed up another country, with slavery not merely as a bug, but as its very premise.
In August, I returned to Gettysburg. My visits to battlefields are always unsettling. Repeatedly, I have dragged my family along, and upon arrival I generally wish that I hadn’t. Nowhere, as a black person, do I feel myself more of a problem than at these places, premised, to varying degrees, on talking around me. But of all the Civil War battlefields I’ve visited, Gettysburg now seems the most honest and forward-looking. The film in the visitor center begins with slavery, putting it at the center of the conflict.
For the portion of the country that still honors, or traces its ancestry to, the men who fired on Fort Sumter, and thus brought war, the truthful story of the Civil War tells of a defeat richly deserved, garnered in a pursuit now condemned. For the blameless North, it throws up the failed legacy of appeasement of slaveholders, the craven willingness to bargain on the backs of black people, and the unwillingness, in the Reconstruction years, to finish what the war started.
I should note that Menand does traces the “blameless North” side of that statement, without the same kind of moral conviction that Coates has about the evils of slavery. Menand seems to feel sympathy for the northerners who were exhausted by war and the moral certitude that took them there and thus did not fight to assure that the freed slaves would have some amount of their freedom preserved.
“The lesson Holmes took from the war [and never modified] can be put into a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” (61) “Abolitionism came to stand in his thought for the kind of superior certitude that drives men (frequently men other than the ones who are certain) to kill one another.” “Still Holmes did not think that the world would be better off without people like this, because he thought that everyone was like this” (62)
It is strange, as Coates points out, that it was Abolitionism that Holmes blamed for causing violence instead of the violence already existing within slavery that the war attempted to put an end to. Coates writes,
The Confederate army, during its march into Pennsylvania, routinely kidnapped blacks and sold them south. By the time Lee’s legions arrived in Gettysburg, virtually all of the town’s free blacks had hidden or fled. On the morning of July 3, General George Pickett’s division prepared for its legendary charge. Nearby, where the Union forces were gathered, lived Abraham Brien, a free black farmer who rented out a house on his property to Mag Palmer and her family. One evening before the war, two slave-catchers had fallen upon Palmer as she made her way home. (After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave-catchers patrolled the North, making little distinction between freeborn blacks and runaways.) They bound her hands, but with help from a passerby, she fought them off, biting off a thumb of one of the hunters.
Faulkner famously wrote of Pickett’s Charge:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet … That moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time.
These “Southern boys,” like Catton’s “people,” are all white. But I, standing on Brien’s property, standing where Mag Palmer lived, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright—the license to beat and shackle women under the cover of night. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.
Personally, I agree with Coates, but I think it would make sense in an intellectual history course to examine the debate, rather than the causes themselves. Perhaps I will ask students to read the Coates articles in addition to the first section of Menand’s book (we are reading it in chunks) and then hold a discussion. Do you all have suggestions for high points within the “causes of the Civil War” debate, which Coates does not mention?