Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sesquicentennial Celebrations: Happy Civil War Everyone!

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the bloodiest war in American history.  It can be called many things: the American Civil War, the War Between the States, the War of Northern Aggression,etc.  But one thing stands out--the right side won.  While folks can claim that the war was not about slavery, but they would be wrong.  The Southerners chose to secede because Abraham Lincoln was elected, and it was not his anti-state's right position that caused such a reaction--it was the key issue of the day that defined the state's rights/federal government's responsibilities debate--slavery.

I am no expert on the Civil War, but we have seen over the past year here and elsewhere posts about the origins of the war that make it mighty clear why there was a war. Of course, individuals chose sides for all kinds of reasons that may or may not have related to the master narrative about slavery, but the war had a very clear outcome, one that the Southerners had fought to prevent: the end of slavery. 

The war did not solve America's race problems nor did it resolve the debate about state's rights (except to rule out secession).  Today, we still have a debate about what is the proper role of the federal government, with Southern states mostly lined up against the federal government.  Red vs. blue does not strictly correlate with Blue and Gray, but it damn near does.  Wouldn't it be cool if we could just not have all of those right wing voters and politicians that skew our political systems?  Sure, secession of the South today would be mighty cool since I no longer live in Texas.  But history is just a bit path dependent.

So, one could ask whether the war was worth it?  Well, that is a neat academic question, but given that there were people living and dying in chains, the question is hardly academic at all.  Sure, it took another hundred years to realize some of the promises made during and after the war (13th, 14th, 15 amendments) via the civil rights acts, the federal government using troops to integrate high schools and universities, the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and so on.  And, yes, many African-Americans live behind bars today as our war on drugs has been carried out in a way that is quite unjust.  But it took a great deal of bloodshed to address America's original sin, and slavery is such an abomination that, yes, it was worth it.

We will certainly spend the next four years re-visiting the war, which will provide ample opportunity for revisionists to try to gloss over this very central point.  But the words of past Presidents and the current one about "a more perfect union" have at their core the notion that we started flawed, but not fatally so.  That we overcame slavery, that we overcame much (although not all) oppression due to race, religion, gender, and sexuality, but there is much left to do.  Remembering where we started, how far we got, and what it cost might not be a bad way to spend the next four years. 

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