The Civil War, Slavery, and Historical Revisionism

Historical revisionists abound in our day. From 911 Truthers to Holocaust deniers, they are out there busily plying their trade, re-crafting historical events to make them fit whatever narrative happens to tickle their fancy. Many of them end up actually believing their modified versions of reality. Instead of seeking the truth, they imagine they already “know” the truth before they start the search. As a result, they become victims of what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls “confirmation bias.” In his words, “By a mental mechanism I call naive empiricism, we have a natural tendency to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world – these instances are always easy to find. Alas, with tools, and fools, anything can be easy to find. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and you treat them as evidence.

The US Civil War must certainly rank near the top when it comes to “most revised” historical events. It has been sliced and diced to fit the narratives of everyone from southern schoolmarms in the 1920’s, whose continued employment depended on their ability to demonstrate to their students that their heroic granddads were fighting for a cause more noble than chattel slavery, to Marxist “historians,” eager to “corroborate their theories” regarding the nuances of class structure in the antebellum North and South. Like all recent historical revisionists, they have a problem; there are mounds of source material out there for anyone who cares to take the time to fact check their pet theories. I just ran across some telling examples thereof in an old copy of the “Edinburgh Review,” published in 1860. One appears in an article on the subject of serf emancipation in Russia, and reads as follows:

The subject of serf-emancipation in Russia is a very interesting one to the civilized world generally, and particularly those nations in Europe and America who have been or are vexed by the calamity of Negro slavery. Those who have abolished that slavery speak confidently of the practicability of emancipating the serfs of Russia; while, in the United States, where the very existence of the Republic now immediately depends on the approaching settlement of the slavery question, the two sections of the nation are respectively triumphing in the avowed intention of the Russian Emperor to emancipate the serfs, and in the obvious difficulty which attends the operation.

In a later article about the presidency of Mr. Buchanan, one finds much more in a similar vein.  For example:

Buchanan was elected in the interest of the (slaveholding) minority; and he lost no time in intimating that his policy would be regulated in favour of that interest. If this appears astonishing, we can only remind our readers that the Republican Party of the present day was then in its infancy; and that of the 20,000,000 of non-slaveholders, the larger portion were politically paralyzed by fear; – fear of an explosion of the Union; fear for their commerce; fear of the disgrace of civil war.

On Mr. Buchanan’s accession to office, therefore, the struggles of many parties had just been converted into a distinct and circumscribed conflict between two, – the Northern and Southern or the Anti-slavery and Pro slavery parties.

Several Southern States had, throughout the Presidential election, propounded schemes of marching on Washington, in case of Colonel Fremont’s (Republican Presidential candidate in 1856) success, seizing the archives, and assuming the government and bringing the political quarrel to the issue of civil war.

By the testimony of all parties, the election orators of the South were answerable for the disorders of the autumn and winter of 1857. They had made speeches to multitudes throughout the Slave States, in which they had dwelt on the certainty of the abolition of slavery if Fremont were elected. They insisted on the menacing appearance of the Republican party, and the necessity of every Southern man exerting himself, if the planters would not see the property and their domestic authority wrenched from their grasp.

We see in Southern newspapers white and black lists of Northern mercantile firms, the members of which are set down by guess as pro or anti-slavery;… The mails are searched for matter of an incendiary (anti-slavery) character.

The North protests against the pro-slavery legislation of late years, and supplies an organisation to agitate for the dissolution and reconstitution of the Union; and at the same time several Southern States are openly proposing to secede from the Union.

Thus far, recent Presidents have lent their whole force to the attempt to spread the fatal institution of slavery over the whole Union; and the question now is whether this policy shall be pushed forward or reversed. This alternative has swallowed up all political subdivisions, and has left the stage clear for the conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties on a definite question.

It is universally known that the Democratic party, deeply divided before, gave way altogether at the Charleston Convention; and that the slaveholders who do not look beyond preserving slavery or perishing in the attempt to secede from the Union have nominated a candidate in the person of Mr. Breckinridge.

and finally, there are these prophetic words;

The “irrepressible conflict” indicated by Mr. Seward must be encountered and dealt with in one way or another. The Slave Statesmen persist in supposing this to mean civil war thrust upon the South by a tyrannical majority in the North; while the North always understood the expression to refer to the eternal opposition of the principles of free and despotic institutions. The man who might so preside over the struggle as to bring it to a favorable issue would be the true comrade of Washington. Such a man is nowhere recognised at present.

Now we recognize that man. 

The Edinburgh Review was the premier “liberal” British journal of the first half of the 19th century, but one can find similar allusions to the possibility that the American Union may break apart over the issue of slavery in its “conservative” twin, the Quarterly Review.  The Americans themselves were no more confused about the matter before the war than the Europeans.  Read the texts of the state and county proclamations calling for secession in the South, and the decisive significance of slavery is obvious.  Here’s an example from one Virginia county’s Call for Secession:

Owing to a spirit of pharasaical fanaticism prevailing in the North in reference to the institution of slavery, incited by foreign emissaries and fostered by corrupt political demagogues in search of power and place, a feeling has been aroused between the people of the two sections, of what was once a common country, which of itself would almost preclude the administration of a united government in harmony.

John C. Calhoun, perhaps the greatest southern politician of them all, began his final speech before the Senate in 1850 with the line, “I have, senators, believed from the first that the agitation of the subject of slavery would, if not prevented by some timely and effective measure, end in disunion.”  When it came to the significance of slavery, politicians in the North were in cordial agreement with Calhoun.  Read the northern newspapers of the time, and you’ll find they’re no more “confused” about the role of slavery in the breakup of the Union than their colleagues in the South.  In short, then, European liberals believed the decisive issue was slavery, European conservatives believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the North believed the decisive issue was slavery, citizens in the South believed the decisive issue was slavery, and virtually anyone else alive at the time who happened to take a passing interest in the subject believed the decisive issue was slavery, albeit southern planters occasionally embellished their pronunciamentos with references to such noble causes as “states’ rights” and “liberty,” perhaps with some perfunctory grumbling about the tariff thrown in for good measure.

One can but lament the fact that the southern schoolmarms and Marxist scholars of the 20th century were born too late to explain the “real” reasons for the Civil War to this benighted generation.  The process goes on in our own day.  Consider, for example, the periodic European outbursts of anti-Americanism, the most recent, and probably the most violent of which began metastasizing following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and reached a peak of almost incredible obsessiveness and fury at some point in the Bush Administration.  To any nascent Ph.D. in sociology who cares to study the phenomena, I suggest finding all the references to US historical events in the top two or three news magazines or newspapers in a broad sample of western European states during the decade from, say, 1998 to 2008.  Categorize them into the categories “negative” and “positive,” and see what you find.  I rather suspect that all but a vanishingly small remnant will “confirm their story and their vision of the world” that the United States is an evil empire.

Would you study history?  Don’t fail to look at the source material.  If your history was written by a journalist, heaven help you.

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