In The Atlantic’s special issue commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Ta-Nehisi Coates has an article titled “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” Coates is an amateur Civil War scholar and he devotes the article in large part to refuting the convenient fiction that the Civil War was fought over anything other than the issue of slavery. It really is very good and I highly recommend clicking over to read it.
This passage in particular caught my attention:
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. (emphasis added)
No doubt that this resonated with me because I am still working my way through Colin Woodard’s American Nations.
AsI mentioned when I first started reading the book, Woodard argues that from the very start the country was divided by the northern states’ Germanic idea of “Freiheit” and the southern states’ Latin idea of “libertas.” Essentially, Freiheit (“freedom”) held that all people are born free and equal before the law, that they all possess at least certain minimal rights that have to be mutually respected, and that they are capable of self-governance. Conversely, libertas (“liberty”) held that most people are born into bondage, that liberties are granted as a privilege, that most people are not capable of self-governance, and that only a very few, governing elite could or should enjoy the full blessings of liberty.
Woodard returns to this theme in his chapter outlining how the states subsequently split over the issue of slavery. Woodard shows that the secessionist states most wedded to the concept of libertas had embraced it in order to justify their slaveholding, and this embrace inexorably led them to the idea that even more people should be enslaved:
There is no question that the Deep South seceded and fought the Civil War to defend slavery, and its leaders made no secret of this motive. Slavery, they argued ad nauseum, was the foundation for a virtuous, biblically sanctioned social system superior to that of the free states.
When nineteenth-century Deep Southerners spoke of defending their “traditions,” “heritage,” and “way of life,” they proudly identified the enslavement of others as the centerpiece of all three. Indeed, many of their leaders even argued that all lower-class people should be enslaved, regardless of race, for their own good.
. . . . James Henry Hammond, former governor of South Carolina, published a seminal book arguing that enslaved laborers were happier, fitter, and better looked after than their “free” counterparts in Britain and the North, who were ruthlessly exploited by industrial capitalists. Free societies were therefore unstable, as there was always a danger that the exploited would rise up, creating “a fearful crisis in Republican institutions.” Slaves, by contrast, were kept in their place by violent means and denied the right to vote, resist, or testify, ensuring the “foundation of every well-designed and durable” republic. Enslavement of the white working class would be, in his words, “a most glorious act of emancipation.”
George Fitzhugh, scion of one of Virginia’s oldest families, became the [Tidewater] region’s proslavery standard-bearer. In his voluminous writings, Fitzhugh endorsed and expanded upon Hammond’s argument to enslave all poor people. Aristocrats, he explained, were really “the nation’s magna carta” because they owned so much and had the “affection which all men feel for what belongs to them,” which naturally led them to protect and provide for “wives, children, and slaves.” Fitzhugh, whose books were enormously popular, declared he was “quite as intent on abolishing Free Society as you [Northerners] are on abolishing slavery.”
Placed within this historical context, Coates’s statement that the Civil War called the very principles of the Enlightenment into account by requiring that violent action be taken against bondage and in favor of self-governance seems all the more exact. The Civil War was the most violent conflict in the eternal political struggle between – in Jefferson’s words – “aristocrats and democrats,” and in 1865 the idea of democracy won by sheer force of arms.