Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

America's Changeable Civil War: A Century and a Half after the First State Seceded from the Union, a Lively Debate over What Caused the Civil War Continues

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

America's Changeable Civil War: A Century and a Half after the First State Seceded from the Union, a Lively Debate over What Caused the Civil War Continues

Article excerpt

AS THE CIVIL WAR SESQUICENTENNIAL APPROACHES cruising speed, North and South look a great deal more alike than they did on the eve of the war's last great anniversary just 50 years ago. That much-heralded celebration coincided with the rise of the civil fights movement with a precision that was almost too good to be true. A century after Gettysburg, President John E Kennedy had just proposed the bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the centennial of Appomattox rolled around, Congress was about to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and few people were paying much attention to ceremonies on old battlefields.

The fact that the White House is now occupied by a man born during the Civil War Centennial to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya represents a historical development hardly imaginable at the time, yet all but the most regressive now accept it as perfectly natural. The major civil fights laws of the 1960s are so well established that whatever disagreements may arise in their application, few Americans understand--or can even imagine--what life was like without them. Sometimes progress takes the form of historical amnesia.

Yet the question of what the Civil War was about, and therefore what was actually won and lost, is less settled than you might expect after 150 years. Both sides fought with determination, but their motives were shifting and sometimes ambiguous. To add to the confusion, as soon as conflict ended, the losing party readjusted its position sufficiently to win back in peacetime not only a more positive historical reputation, but some very tangible benefits.

When Jefferson Davis of Mississippi resigned from the U.S. Senate after his state left the Union--the second to do so, after South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860--he made a much-praised speech explaining his reasons. The essence of it was simple: "We but tread in the paths of our fathers when we proclaim our independence ... not in hostility to others, not to injure any section of the country, not even for our own pecuniary benefit, but from the high and solemn motive of defending and protecting the rights we inherited, and which it is our duty to transmit unshorn to our children" Defenders of the South since the war have taken much the same position. The 11 states that briefly constituted the Confederacy left the Union, they have said, for much the same reason the original 13 colonies left the British Empire. They fought to protect what they considered inalienable rights.

Not only did most secessionists believe in the constitutionality of their actions, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson has argued; they did indeed represent "traditional rights and views" about the relationship between the states and central government, views about which the North had largely changed its mind since the adoption of the Constitution. That is not to say that slavery was not the fundamental issue, in McPherson's view; it was indeed slavery, he asserts, that made the North-South division deep and irreconcilable. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, along with a Republican Congress hostile to the interests of the South, led those who favored secession--an overwhelming majority of white Southerners, McPherson concludes--to feel that the North had violated the compact embodied by the Union. Secession amounted to a preemptive counterrevolution against the Republicans' revolution.


Whether or not they owned slaves, Southerners almost universally professed the doctrine known then and now as states' rights, grounded in the federal system as originally understood, at least by the followers of Thomas Jefferson. When the South lost, states' rights lost with it, and the unquestionable supremacy of the central government has been with us ever since. That abstract phrase "states' rights" as used before the Civil War immediately prompts the question, states' fights to what? …

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