The Civil War is, for the American imagination, the great single event of our history. Without too much wrenching, it may, in fact, be said to be American history. Before the Civil War we had no history in the deepest and most inward sense.
Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War, 1961
The United States is an amazing and complicated place. We routinely do abominable things as the wash of history transports us madly along. We may not know what we’re doing. We don’t know much history—at least I don’t—and we probably get most of that wrong. We’re good at scrambling up our minds and political discourse. Most of us can paralyze a political discussion in seconds. It’s something of a national talent.
Nothing is hopeless though. Understanding is possible. It might be useful to have a set of crib notes for penetrating the smokescreen of political discourse and translating events into glimpses of reality. My list is arbitrary, as well as tentative. You’re welcome to try your hand at the art. Make up your own notes. Also, feel free to discard or rewrite mine.
1. Along side the devastation of Native peoples, slavery is the evil that has haunted the nation from its beginning and bedevils us still.
2. The United States was formed as a slave nation rooted in an assumption of white supremacy. (See Blumrosen and Blumrosen, Slave Nation, 2005)
3. Slavery is institutionalized in the Constitution of the United States. The slave counted for administrative purposes as 3/5th of a person, but has no citizenship rights, no right to vote. On July 4th, 1854, 65 years after its ratification, William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist editor of The Liberator, burned the Constitution, calling it “a covenant with death, an agreement with hell.” Slavery was the problem. Less than three years later, on March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott Decision holding that “Persons of African descent cannot be, nor were ever intended to be, citizens under the U.S. Constitution.” This opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, foreshadowed the coming of the Civil War four years later. Taney’s statue at the State Capitol in Maryland was taken down recently, on August 12, 2017, four days after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was fallout from the event.
4. Political attitudes today exhibit potent residues from slavery
5. The Declaration of Independence is the nation’s redeeming spiritual document; it straight up forbids slavery and asserts human equality, citing inalienable rights granted to all humankind by their Creator, including the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
6. The blatant contradiction between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is the confounding condition that haunts and bedazzles Americans.
7. The Preamble to the Constitution convokes “We the People,” an idea taken from the Declaration of Independence. The sovereign “We” implicitly promises to redeem African people from slavery and to restore inalienable rights granted to them as a birthright by their Creator.
8. While the Declaration promises freedom and equality, no deliverance day for African slaves is specified in the document. As we saw in The Dred Scott decision, deliverance was ruled impossible 78 years after the nation’s founding!. Long overdue, “the promise,” as Martin Luther King’s decried in his I have A Dream Speech (August 28, 1963), has not been realized. Despite its seeming arrival with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments during Reconstruction, full equality has by hook, by crook, and by terror been indefinitely postponed. Without sustained effort by a big hearted people, the celebrated “We,” the equality day promised by our Declaration need never come.
9. Americans of all kinds, while they await full justice for their compatriots, are mired in place, transfixed into brittle partisan statues. Their political utterances feature sound bites, stereotypical scripts, and racial skits.
10. White Americans want to be truthful, honest, and good. Most believe in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; they are patriotic Americans. They know a contradiction exists between their two sacred documents. This conflict is the one Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist, called An American Dilemma in his seminal two volume book by that title published in 1944. The problem in essence is to explain slavery convincingly to oneself while retaining a belief in the Declaration of Independence, or, if unable to do that, getting rid of slavery and racism entirely. This is hard to do and requires more than a little mumbo-jumbo and gibberish.
11. A people transfixed in time, wedded to both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, yet practicing slavery and race discrimination, forces its politicians to make up and tell outrageous lies. Dissembling is virtually insisted upon. It takes wild propositions, weird theories, creative ignorance, illogic, and moral vacuity to advocate for slavery, racism, and its continuance. One can’t get away with such falsehoods and sophistry forever, one would suppose, but the nation has given it a good, long, sustained try without losing much momentum.
12. Clever fictions-suitable for the defense of slavery existed in the countries of Europe and their colonies long before the American Revolution. The framers of the Constitution inherited an ample store of tested cultural fabrications to draw upon in calming their minds while completing their drafting work. These fictions had mainly to do with presumed states of ‘civilization,’ ‘biology,’ ‘evolution,’ ‘race,’ ‘animality,’ ’savagery,’ ‘devils,’ ‘heathen,’ ‘magic,’ ‘superstition,’ ‘God,’ and ‘religion.’ The favored story was that God and the Bible sanctioned slavery as a way of bringing the virtues of civilization and the saving grace of Christianity to barbaric animals and primitive heathens. The slaves in this view were animals, not human, and the slave masters were honorable mentors, civilized paragons, and virtuous Christians.
13. African slaves acquired and their posterity carry forward a unique history and outlook on people, self, race, country, and world as a result of slavery. These memories and perspectives are a precious inheritance they bring to the nation. The nation will have received the gift when ‘Black History’ transforms into ‘American History.’
14. White slave owners acquired and their posterity carry forth a unique history and outlook on people, race, self, the Civil War, country, and world as a result of owning and commanding slaves. These memories and perspectives are an inheritance that burdens the nation. This burden will begin to lift when what is called ‘American History’ is seen to be ‘White History.’
15. People of color from everywhere, and native peoples too, are typically bequeathed a courtesy stigma by white Americans that liken them more to the African slave and each other than to white Americans. America thereby narrows itself into a two-faced, two-sided nation.
16. The fictions available from colonial times to justify the continuation of slavery had vocal opposition. Abolitionists and their arguments were common knowledge before the drafting convention. Slavery at the time was on the wane in London. Virginian planters were being warned not to bring their slaves to London if they wished to hold on to them and return with their property. The International slave trade was on a course to be abolished entirely in 1808, soon after President Jefferson would himself sign an act forbidding their sale and transport into the United States. Thereafter, slave owners would have to capture or buy slaves within the country or grow their own supply, and they did. Jefferson, a large slave owner himself, had included in his first draft of the Declaration a section blaming slavery on King George, and he later failed at the Constitutional Convention to pass a ‘slavery ends after twelve years’ provision in the Constitution. The American Dilemma was a problem colonists faced well before it became the problem of the founders, future slave holders, and us.
17. Lies track mathematics: they add up; they multiply; they combine. They metastasize like cancer cells. Archeological exploration of the garbage dump of race fictions could pay dividends for all. For example, the plantation slave was literally imprisoned, guarded like a criminal. He was presumed by the master to be a probable ‘criminal,’ a ‘runaway,’ a ‘thief,’ a ‘liar,’ a ‘rebel,’ a ‘danger,’ a ‘rapist,’ and the list goes on. There is a direct link between the ‘dangerous animal,’ ’criminal’ stereotype of the slave on the plantation, the convict labor system subsequently adopted in the south, the disproportionate incarceration of black men today, and the profiling of African-Americans by police. Similar examples of racial theory and its influence through the centuries are legion today. Raids on undocumented immigrants and attacks on ‘Sanctuary Cities’ recall enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, and escapes to Canada. Attacks on black athletes in the NFL and NBA, coupled with pleas to white owners to fire them, recall both the slave market and the plantation economy. The athletes are “uppity.” And, on it goes.
18. The Declaration of Independence infuses the soul and spirit of the American People. Whenever its spirit holds sway in public affairs, the nation is comfortable with itself, and in good spirits. It is welcoming of refugees and immigrants, and caring of the sick, needy, and poor. Women’s rights are recognized and advanced. Difference is respected. Race discrimination is fought. Voting rights are protected. Whenever, the Declaration is set aside and forgotten, the nation turns fearful, scary, unjust, greedy, and miserable. The rich attack the poor. White people attack people of color. Males want control of women. LBGTQ people are vilified and harassed. Full-throated white supremacists come out of their holes.
19. The Declaration held sway at the forefront of public consciousness during the American Revolution, Reconstruction, the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Era of the 1950’s and sixties. When else has it marked and distinguished a political era?
20. The Declaration has been set aside today; the Trump administration has lured us into a spiritual dead zone, a black hole of the soul. Depression and fear are the prevailing atmospherics. Trump’s policies on immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Mexicans, ‘The Wall,’ ‘DACA,’ ‘law and order,’ and ‘America First’ are informed by a set of emotions that directly oppose the Declaration of Independence.
21. Thankfully, the Declaration is never far from Americans’ hearts even when politically unpopular among its leaders. Witness, for example, the enthusiasms of the millions of participants who rallied in the remarkable Women’s March of January 21, 2017.
22. When Americans set aside the Declaration of Independence, public policy tends to be inspirited instead by what can be called the plantation owner’s concept of personal liberty under the Constitution. For over seventy years, from the ratification of the Constitution up to the Emancipation Proclamation, the white, male, plantation owner claimed for himself all of the freedoms and liberty guaranteed by the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. When he thought of freedom, independence, liberty, rights, and democracy, he meant only for himself and other white men. Slave ownership was taken by him to be a constitutionally protected property right! It is the slave-holding plantation owner’s view of the Constitution that has taken over the minds of disgruntled white voters today, sweeping over the rural landscape north and south, and coast to coast. These voters consider themselves neglected, victimized, and forgotten people whose rights have somehow been impinged upon, and even taken away. The nation they pine for is a white man’s country, and an old man’s country of long ago. Equality loses all meaning.
23. The “Make America Great” slogan comes directly from the Southern plantation owner scrapbook, as well more recently from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The times referred to are depicted in the “Lost Cause” mythology developed by the defeated confederacy to salve its conscience and restore its pride. The pseudo-historical story was used to restore the race line by force following Reconstruction; it justified taking back from freed Africans the rights granted to them by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. We know “Lost Cause” mythology from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1939), in which gallant, honorable, brave men “redeem” a great “lost” civilization, the agrarian society of the idyllic plantation, from carpetbaggers, scalawags, marauding gangs, and drunk, corrupt black politicians. With the establishment of the ‘Black Codes’ and Jim Crow legislation, “Lost Cause” mythology became the grand lie the nation told itself as official history all the way up to the 1960s. It still passes as accurate history in most of the Southern states today. That view is known to historians as the Dunning School version of Civil War history, named after William A. Dunning (1857-1922), the Columbia University historian who formulated it. It recounts the Confederacy’s ex-post facto story of why it fought, why it lost, and the idyllic civilization that was defended and destroyed. Under its aegis, monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers were erected in the South and the nation’s capitol, memorials to white supremacy. The Lost Cause myth and the Dunning version of Civil War history have been discredited by American Historians. Intimidation, mass terror, assassination, hangings, massacre, and other forms of white violence are now the featured explanation of how ‘The South’ was won.
24. Not only has the Civil War not ended, uncertainty remains as to why it started. In less tragic times, an auditor would have been inclined to smile when President Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address (1865): “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Then, he added that no one could have expected that “the cause of the conflict might cease . . . before the conflict itself should cease.” “Peculiar?” In what way? “Somehow?” Well, how? And if slavery was the cause, and the slaves were by then free, why were the two sides still massacring their armies on the battlefield? Those questions have not been clearly answered by the secessionist states to this day, where the conflict is still referred to by zealots as the “War of Northern Aggression.” The South asserts that it fought an unjust war to defend liberty and states rights, (thereby heroically redeeming itself by fortitude and courage.) Their sovereign states rights were taken away from them by a radical national government using illegal force. Slavery, in their account, was coincidental.
25. The fundamental problem retarding national maturity is the failure of the South to own up in any way to the Civil War. They have not taken responsibility for slavery, disloyalty, causing the war, firing the first shots, losing the war, and fracturing the nation. They have not apologized, asked forgiveness, proposed reparations, or sought reconciliation. They have not atoned for slavery.
26. In his book, The Soul of Black Folks (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois portrays two figures looking back in old age on the Civil War period.
. . . it is doubly difficult to write of this period calmly, so intense was the feeling, so mighty the human passions that swayed and blinded men. Amid it all, two figures ever stand to typify that day to coming ages,–the one, a gray-haired gentleman, whose fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless graves; who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition threatened untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes;–and the other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black with the mists of centuries, had aforetime quailed at that white master’s command, had bent in love over the cradles of his sons and daughters, and closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife,–aye, too, at his behest had laid herself low to his lust, and borne a tawny man-child to the world, only to see her dark boy’s limbs scattered to the winds by midnight marauders riding after “damned Niggers.” These were the saddest sights of that woful day; and no man clasped the hands of these two passing figures of the present-past; but, hating, they went to their long home, and, hating, their children’s children live to-day.
27. The nation divides famously today into ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ states. Half of the country—give or take three percent—dislikes, even hates, the other fifty percent. The two hateful figures in Du Bois’s image haunt us still. For example, the fierce debate on the Second Amendment—pertaining to hand guns, assault rifles, ‘hold your ground,’ and ‘open-carry’ legislation—are inheritances from the Civil War and slavery. So is the fear of terrorism. I suspect it works this way: I, a white man, would not tolerate being a slave. If you enslaved me, I’d bide my time, mobilize victims, pile up resources, buy weapons, ambush you, and get revenge. So, watch your back. After all, a slave revolt happened in Haiti, and John Brown tried to form one at Harper’s Ferry! Then too, there was Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. Racist whites have expected blacks to revolt, take up arms, and take revenge, because they would if the situation were reversed,! The fear of immigrants and refugees is invigorated by the same fear. Racism and Colonialism tend to come as a package deal.
28. I may have made it sound as if slavery, the Civil War, race relations, Jim Crow, separate-but-equal, and all the rest was a southern, not a northern problem, and a regional, not a national problem. No, the issue and its resolution has always been national, and indeed Atlantic and global. Good and evil don’t easily separate into neat human blocks. To cite just one important example: the Radical Republicans in Congress and their supporters in the North had, along with the rest of the nation, tired of Reconstruction by the election of 1876. The 15th Amendment was ratified with a kind of ‘good luck to you, Freedmen, you’re on your own after this’ attitude as the Republicans and Democrats conspired to withdraw the military from the restored Southern states; ‘we’re going on to other matters now,’ such as railroads and financial scandals. Everyone in politics understood that the Democrats had a free hand in the Southern States to “put the Negro back in his place” by force. White supremacy remained a widely held, general assumption, even among freedmen, before and after the war.
29. A ‘Negro Problem’ surely existed after emancipation. Think of yourself as a typical freed slave. There you are walking behind a victorious Union army with just your freedom to claim, but no home, bed, clothing, tools, and food. You can’t read. You have no tools, no gun, and no horse. You are a hunted criminal to your owner and captured contraband to the Army, if they are willing to take charge of you. If you are a woman, it is worse. All the rest and you’ve got the kids to care for and rapists to avoid. What a freedman family wanted and desperately needed was tools, a piece of land to farm, and a donkey. The condition of these freedmen explains why the Freedmen’s Bureau was formed. On balance, the Bureau made a good go of it for a decade or so. The Freedmen’s Bureau legislation is among the finer pieces of social legislation and social work intervention the nation has conducted.
30. Many freedmen made a decision rarely noted or celebrated. Thousands joined the military! Of 2, 800, 000 Union troops, 179,000 were African American. 19,000 more served in the Navy. About 40,000 black soldiers died. These figures are strong evidence that blacks earned their emancipation and civil rights. Whites, not even President Lincoln, ‘gave’ it to them. Early in his administration Lincoln was quite positive about colonization in Africa as an approach to managing freed slaves. He changed his mind when he saw people sign up and fight. They had earned citizenship.
31. A large, coercive federal government was required to fight and win the Civil War, and to reconstruct the nation. The defeated states seethed under the yoke of centralized military administration and mandatory compliance. This exacerbated the fear of central government that led to the American Revolution and informed Jefferson’s vision of democracy, which in turn contended with Alexander Hamilton’s vision of federalism. The explosive fusion between southern resentment of the Union and the traditional American fear of remote government explains the revile of government that so paralyzes us now. “Government is not the solution,” President Reagan famously proclaimed, “It is the problem.” (Emphasis added.) This absurd yet passionate view is a hateful legacy of the Civil War
32. It is unfair that former slaves and their posterity are expected to endure the burden of being labelled a “problem” (“the Negro Problem”) by white liberals and bigots alike. This fact alone is an excellent marker of the good standing of white supremacy in the nation. While there was a problem for freedmen after emancipation, as discussed earlier, there is no justification for that appellation now. Yet, it prevails. But the truth is opposite. Whites are a “white problem” for themselves and others. They give themselves the privilege of thinking themselves superior mentally, spiritually, and biologically. Yet, they were the people who sought, bought, drove, and killed slaves. Their ex post facto account of their reasoning is what poisons their minds and mortifies their souls.
James Baldwin spoke clearly to this point in his 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Oxford University. The white supremacist enforcing the color line doesn’t himself have to even think about or even “know” the consequences of his acts on his victims. What awful emotions and terrifying thoughts go through the bigot’s mind in silence that he knows not of. The white supremacist is the African-American’s problem, more than the other way around. The bigot diminishes himself.
33. The first African slaves came to the colonies in 1629. Slavery existed here for 250 years before emancipation! African families are among the nation’s oldest citizens. Is the white man whose ancestors arrived later wise to suppose that his national bonafides and knowledge of blacks is superior to their knowledge of him. That too is a problem African Americans have to bear. A little humility and self-understanding by white people would be helpful to all!
34. Think of racism toward African-Americans, or toward any other group, as a set of discrete templates in a stack, each featuring a stereotype, some negative like “criminal,” some positive like “musician.” All are stereotypes held of Africans by non-Africans. Many more are negative than positive. Way down at the bottom of the stack is one that reads “white is better than black.” If over the centuries an African person, family, or community is able to overcome all of the negative templates except the last, while benefiting from all of the positive templates, the remaining one asserting white superiority remains to mess people over. That’s the issue black people face. The pack of stereotypes is so massive that escaping the bulk of them leaves you set up for further humiliation and mortification. It doesn’t matter what you do; you get the disdain anyway.
35. We should remember that concepts of race, including “white” and “black” are inventions, cultural fictions. Biologists don’t use the words because they describe nothing real in the biological world. Racial categories are facts of anthropology, sociology, and politics. A ‘white’ uses the noun only when ‘blacks,’ ‘yellows,’ and ‘reds,’ are around, and vice-versa. In my neighborhood growing up in the forties, with no ‘blacks’ around, we never called ourselves ‘whites!’ Blacks and whites always dance together, even when they are mainly fighting.
36. Reconstruction, the twelve year period between 1865–1877 is called“the Second American Revolution” by American Historians, not just because emancipation brought the Constitution of the United States in alignment with the Declaration of Independence. Reconstruction didn’t just improve on the revolution of 1776. A more fundamental reason is the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, along with the Military Reconstruction acts of 1867 and 1868, and the imposition of military administration upon the eleven defeated states. This gave the national government substantial, new, and enduring powers over the states. Whereas the Constitution and Bill of Rights protected citizens from the national government in Washington, these measures gave the national government powers to protect citizens from injustice by the states. The second Revolution protects each of us from the abuses of localities and states. Both concerns are of enduring importance, but the focus of the two approaches is reversed. For the first time, Africans were Americans, not slaves, and the nation was in a position to protect them and other discriminated against groups from state sponsored discrimination.
37. It is easy to see why this revolution happened. It had to happen once a want-to-be, stand alone, slave nation had been destroyed in war, its slaves emancipated, and the states returned to their original status in the Union. President Lincoln, with wise foresight, had never allowed the states to secede in the first place, only rebel. Such a saved union must first legally abolish slavery for perpetuity. (The Emancipation Proclamation, followed by The 13th Amendment). Next, a brand new problem has to be addressed. If the freed ex-slaves are now citizens of the nation, what is a citizen and what are their rights? (The Civil Rights Act of 1866; followed by the Fourteenth Amendment). Once citizenship and its rights are defined for everyone, how are they to be accessed by freed people? By suffrage, the right to vote. (the Fifteenth Amendment. Women excluded) But what’s to be done if whites don’t allow blacks these rights? What if they massacre, intimidate, and hang people? (Military occupation, supervised registration and elections, state constitutional conventions, policing, literacy classes, affirmative action.) What happens when the money ends and political support wanes? (Defend yourself, fight, stand up for your own rights, sue!) How did all of these measures work after 1877. (Very badly, they were rolled back until the 1950s.)
38. Even with the Black Codes, the terror, massacres, Jim Crow, separate but equal, segregation, and all the ingenious forms of discrimination heaped upon African-Americans, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments remained in the Constitution and these rights had to and finally did prevail. All are crucial, but one, the Fourteenth, advances geometrically the work of the Second Revolution. It is the one that defines citizenship and its rights. It also is the one that mandates “due process” and “equal protection” of the law. In short, the 14th Amendment provides the route to justice for all people, whatever their distinguishing condition and particular views and grievances. When people with differing viewpoints and situations experience mistreatment, the Fourteenth Amendment is an important tool available in seeking redress. The Fourteenth Amendment values equality and redresses the excesses of runaway liberty.
If the nation is to fulfill its promise, inspirited by the vision bequeathed to it by the Declaration of Independence, it must beget a mood to resume the long postponed work of reconstruction. Legislation and litigation may prove necessary to that purpose, but mutual regard, sympathy, and simple patriotism are essential ingredients. Our Declaration: A Reading of The Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by Danielle Allen, published in 2014, is likely to transport the willing reader to a fitting mood. When Americans, despite apparent differences, generously regard themselves as one people, a rainbow “We,” each citizen equal to all, with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they are well positioned to reconcile their long civil war, value life on earth, improve society, and contribute to a more humane world.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
September 28, 2017
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good