He Who Errs About the Past, Errs About the Present

“People think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history just yet.” – William Shatner, as Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek VI

Shaun Kenney made a very important point in the final paragraph of his recent post on civility and the Civil War:

Until we settle on a proper diagnosis for the causes of our previous divisions, we will never address proper cures for our current ones.

Unfortunately, the paragraphs preceding them had enough errors to make clear he couldn’t practice what he was preaching, leading him to commit the very mistake against which he warned.

Shaun was attempting to draw a connection between the times in which we live and the Civil War era, anchored on this assertion: “The North really did hate the South.” From there, he asserts that “forces today that are cloaking their arguments in terms such as ‘social justice’ and ‘black lives matter’ ” are similarly driven not by these higher callings but rather by similar hatred.

I could discuss the potential motives behind this, or the psychological impacts, or the hidden relevance of a particular politician that was not named. However, to do so would distract from the flaws in Shaun’s argument, and I would rather not “read all of this in precisely the wrong light,” as Shaun himself warned (with emphasis in the original). So for this post, I will try to take what Shaun says at face value – and explain why he is incorrect.

Shaun attempts to shunt the critical issue that started the Civil War – slavery – to the side, which would be quite a surprise to the rebels of 1861, who made their concern for the defense of slavery perfectly clear. Instead, Shaun cites the hackneyed tariff trope: “… the South’s production of cotton for European markets made them opposed to the tariffs that would embolden Yankee manufactures.” Prior to that, however, he asserts that the North’s hatred for the South “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.”

To be clear, there were differences between “north” and “south” in the colonial era, when slavery was in fact legal throughout the colonies, but they were largely driven by the northern colonies’ traumatic experiences in wars with French forces (every state north of the Mason-Dixon line was drawn into at least one conflict with the French before 1754), a difference that faded from view with the French and Indian War.

The first sectional division that arose after that regarded the fifth clause in Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784, which was supported by all six states north of Mason-Dixon and by none south of it.

That clause was the banning of slavery in all territory west of the Appalachian Mountains … in a Continental Congress where tariffs weren’t an issue because it didn’t have tariff power in the first place.

Shaun then makes an assertion that could only come from badly misreading the actual election of 1860 and its aftermath: “… 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.” This statement implies that the South would have gone quietly. Even before the firing on Fort Sumter, the rebellion made it clear that wasn’t happening.

Rebel sympathizers in the spring of 1861 went well beyond “states rights” doctrine to claim a portion of New Mexico territory. The only reason behind that was a desire to expand slavery’s reach. Likewise, every attempt to avoid secession between late 1860 and mid-1861 involved the expansion of slavery (including cutting California in half and reversing its ban on slavery in the southern piece). The idea that President Lincoln, elected by the North on a specific promise to end slavery’s expansion, could sit back and let the southern rebellion achieve through violent irredentism what it couldn’t achieve at the ballot box is specious at best.

Finally, we have Shaun’s keystone paragraph:

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.

First of all, William Gladstone was in no position to declare war on anyone, as he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Palmerston’s Cabinet. Secondly, the “imprisonment of British diplomats” – presumably a reference to the Trent affair – was resolved in January 1862, eight months before the proclamation was issued in September. Finally, while Gladstone himself did openly support recognizing the rebellion as its own nation, he made his views known on 7 October 1862, which was two weeks after Lincoln issued the proclamation. In short, whatever Lincoln’s concern about the British was, it certainly wasn’t his chief motive behind the proclamation.

Why do I drill down on Shaun’s post in this matter? I cite Shaun himself – again – in my answer: “Until we settle on a proper diagnosis for the causes of our previous divisions, we will never address proper cures for our current ones.” His determination to whitewash the rebellion’s sins while tying the Unionists to his current political opponents are a disservice to both of them. Moreover, his critical mistakes about the past should leave the reader very skeptical about his observations of the present.

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