The Long Defeat of History
David French writes this weekend about the growing divisions in American society, contrasting it with the “recent unpleasantness” during the Civil War.
Of course, French is a superior writer, and I find myself to be a fan despite the French-Ahmari debates (I was a spectator at the so-called “Thrilla at the Basilica” in 2019).
French uses a great deal of The Lord of the Rings references, of which one is reminded of Tolkein’s reflections on history as a “long defeat” pockmarked by individual acts of civility that create civili-zation.
Yet most of us know that we are in troubled waters. Spain 1936, if you will. Sociologists remind us that every generation feels the rising one is going to hell in a handbasket, but this time it feels different, doesn’t it?
For our forefathers who fought the Civil War, the distance between 1858 and 1861 was a chasm. No respectable person thought that the deep divisions of a nation bubbling since the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would descend into war, yet it did.
Yet French writes for his upcoming book Divided We Fall that the elements of disunion and the narrative of Northern hatred for Southern people was in no small part spawned by “irrational hate and fear” — he writes:
“Not only were Southerners unwilling to accept the results of a free and fair election, they were also consumed with the idea that the North hated the South, even to the point of believing that the North endorsed deadly violence against the South.”
Of course, there is one small problem with this narrative that stretches beyond the Missouri Compromise of 1820, beyond the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and beyond the Second Continental Congress’ debates on the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The North really did hate the South.
This is one of the greatest misunderstandings of that time period, and it is an argument that runs all the way back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The North really did hate the South, and not because of the contest between wage slavery vs. African slavery, but because the South’s production of cotton for European markets made them opposed to the tariffs that would embolden Yankee manufactures. In Short, “King Cotton” really was a thing.
Then there is the eternal argument for the causes of the war … bear in mind, the South might have seceded over slavery, but the North could have let them go — and chose to prosecute the war instead (which is what pushed Virginia into the war).
Diplomatic cables to London and Paris were clear that the war was being fought to “preserve the Union” and break the back of the Southern economy: cotton, slaves, and the entire agrarian system, an argument that historian Don Doyle of the University of South Carolina (soon to be Fulbright Specialist at the University of Toulouse and the Sorbonne in France) makes rather well in The Cause of All Nations.
Northern historians would argue that the “victory” at the Battle of Antietam spurred Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, Gladstone was within hours of declaring war on the United States over the imprisonment of British diplomats. Lincoln deftly moved the moral argument to something the British public would not support and kept Great Britain and the French Empire out by extension.
Thus over the next two years, the Civil War moved from “preserving the union” to “the battle cry of freedom.”
Reconstruction was supposed to fulfill that shift of narrative. Yet instead of a prosperous Freedman’s Bureau and the fulfillment of 40 acres and a mule, the Northern industrialists saw fit to preserve the Southern power centers, pushing their cotton and other resources to Chicago and New York rather than London and Paris. Sharecropping was tolerated; Jim Crow imposed; the North industrialized.
One reads the assessments of Malcolm X and the Abbeville Institute and can see a surprising deal of agreement, if for no other reason than both readily assert that the Civil War was never fought to achieve racial harmony. If it had been? We might not be struggling with the same questions today.
This constant baptizing of the historical record seems shocking to those of us who study history. Yet many accept unblinkingly that the Civil War was fought in a grand crusade for human freedom because after all, that’s what’s in the textbooks — it makes us feel better about our history.
Yet what should concern us with this narrative is that it papers over the racial divides that continue to plague America even today. No, the Civil War was not fought to “free the slaves” much less to end racial bigotry. Abolitionists were not in the vanguard; they were a useful footnote that covered the economic reasons for subjugation in a cloak of humanity.
The same army the “freed the slaves” in 1865 had in three years been turned west to wage a war of extermination against Native Americans. The same army burned through Georgia and South Carolina, destroyed mills throughout Virginia, conducted Stoneman’s infamous raid, and devastated the South was all done not in the name of freedom — but capitalism.
I write all of this not so much to reject David French?’s argument per se, but to adjust it.
The North *really did* hate the South, and for reasons that cannot be purified by the ancillary inclusion into the Northern narrative of an abolitionist contempt for human slavery.
Which brings us to the present day rather neatly.
In a similar sense? There are forces today that are cloaking their arguments in terms such as “social justice” and “black lives matter” — and while we can all feel the “deep breath before the plunge” that Tolkien writes about, so too should we understand that the veneer of justice too often carries that Menckian truth of false-faces using one person’s suffering as a shortcut to power:
“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve. This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel to foreign parts.”
— H.L. Mencken, “Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks” (1954)
How many times do we have to learn this lesson depends on how many can learn the lessons of the past pace Santayana:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, “The Life of Reason” (1906)
I am not confident that we care to remember much today.
Of course, we live in an era where grievance triumphs over ideas. I am quite certain that those who see leverage will read all of this in precisely the wrong light because there is advantage in doing so — such is the currency of the times. As I wrote in my previous article, such is the postmodern condition:
- We do not trust one another anymore.
- We cannot disagree without being disagreeable.
- We cannot state the other person’s argument in the best possible light.
Nevertheless, the historical record remains true if for no other reason than it feeds into the living present. Some of us should have the courage to state plain truths, even at the cost of emotive and invective. Such actions make them utterly complicit in the racial divisions they refuse to either recognize or address beyond a lit candle or slacktivism on social media. Anathema sit.
Until we settle on a proper diagnosis for the causes of our previous divisions, we will never address proper cures for our current ones — and that includes a very serious, deep and reflective conversation about racial injustice in America that goes well beyond the Yankee hagiography of the Civil War.