Day By Day

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Changing Perspectives on the Civil War

History is always in the process of revision. That is because historiography is an interpretive art -- one that, like all human activities, is shaped by the parochial biases and misunderstandings of the people who practice it. In the long run hardly anything is settled and those who rail against "revisionist" history are simply revealing a naive and fundamental misunderstanding of their subjects. Heck, professional historians are still arguing over whether the Roman Empire fell and, if so. why.

No episode in our nation's existence has occasioned more serious historical inquiry than the Civil War and successive generations of scholars, influenced by their contemporary concerns, have understood it in differing ways. For most of the lifetimes of people currently alive perspectives on the great crisis have been shaped and, it must be admitted, distorted by the moral and political imperatives associated with the Civil Rights movement. Official understanding was that the war was all about the institution and practice of slavery and that it pitted the forces of social justice against defenders of a corrupt, immoral, social order the defeat of which represented a great advance not just for the nation as a whole but for all mankind. Certainly, there were dissenting voices, but so strong was the moral imperative associated with the official interpretation that they were easily marginalized and ignored.

Well, now the dissenters are not being ignored and revisionism is again emerging. We can see some of the contours of the new understanding of the significance of the mid-nineteenth century crisis in a fascinating article by Christopher Clausen in the latest issue of the Wilson Quarterly.

Clausen notes that interpretations of what was at at stake in the Civil War have changed radically in the past and the struggle to control that meaning commenced even before the conflict ended.

One area currently open for reinterpretation is the constitutional context of the war. Southern sympathizers have long insisted that the broad nationalist agenda of the Republican Party was nothing less than a revolutionary reinterpretation of the constitution. From this point of view secession, far from being an illegal act, was a "preemptive counterrevolution against the Republicans' revolution." This understanding, once dismissed out of hand, has been endorsed by no less than Pulitzer prize-winning historian James M. McPherson.

Clausen also suggests that, while the "all about slavery" interpretation has a certain amount of validity when applied to the original seven secessionist States, it is far more problematic when applied to the border States and to southern sympathizers in the North.

He also argues that while the "Jeffersonian" doctrine of State sovereignty was brandished in defense of slavery, this was an "accident of history" and implies "no logical connection" between States rights and slavery. Moreover, moral condemnation of States rights ignores many positive and admirable aspects of the principle -- "the federal system, limited government, the defense of one’s homeland against long odds."

Clausen also points out that the strong moral context in which the sectional crisis has been interpreted stands in the way of deeper understanding. Necessarily the Civil War is reduced to a confrontation between good against evil that overshadows all other considerations. In this context he points to the incongruity of modern academics who strenuously demand that governments compromise and negotiate contemporary disputes rather than aggressively employing military force while simultaneously applauding Abraham Lincoln's uncompromising martial response to secession.

Finally, Clausen reminds us of some the negative consequences of treating the Civil War as a morality tale. Emphasizing slavery over all other factors has had the effect of solidifying in the minds of many people around the world a unique identification of , more so than any other people, with a universally condemned institution. Not only is this identification a distortion of the historical record, it has been readily picked up and used by America's enemies around the world.

Our unfortunate tendency to cast the past in stark moral tones has also precluded any resolution of the issues involved in the great American struggle. In a commentary on his article, Clausen notes to the shallow perspectives of recent pundits and politicians who have invoked the struggle and suggests a more reasonable approach, one that realizes that:

The participants lived in a different time, thought in different ways from us, and cannot reasonably be praised or blamed for not holding the attitudes of 2010. Nobody today doubts that slavery was an evil. The fate of that institution was settled in 1865, and nothing is gained by pretending that any controversy still exists on the subject.
The Civil War was tragic for many reasons, but one is that by almost any standard there were such large wrongs and large rights on both sides. Both sides fought bravely for freedom as they defined it; in hindsight, both sides had huge blind spots....
Whether or not you agree with Clausen, the arguments he puts forth are significant, for they have become matters of discussion within the community of professional historians, and that signals an impending shift in perspectives on the American past. The ideological hegemony of the civil rights era is beginning to fall apart. New questions are being asked and old ones revived. Slowly, but surely, a new synthesis will emerge and Clausen's article helps to illuminate, however dimly, the contours of a new understanding of our nation and its peoples.

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