Why the Civil War?

Several members of Five College Learning in Retirement have been spending the last several months organizing 5CLIR Sesquicentennial Symposium: Civil War Causes and Consequences, a Mass Humanities’ funded project that respond’s to the foundation’s thematic initiative, “Crisis, Community and Civic Culture”. As Project Director I have occasionally been asked, “Why this interest in history, especially, the Civil War?” Some object since we are putting the focus on causes and consequences and not the kind of stuff that Civil War buffs usually go crazy over—battles, uniforms, weapons and ordnance.

The first answer is that for some of us our past is just plain interesting. Why are we the nation we are? Why haven’t we solved all the problems that have beset us for years? Why aren’t we more like social democratic Europe? etc. These kinds of questions, of course, apply to other aspects of our history as well as the Civil War.

But the Civil War is special. The greatest trauma in our nation’s short history—causing more deaths and other casualties than all other wars in our history. The event that changed us from a Union of States to the United States and gave citizenship to all born here —confirming our commitment to common values, rather than ethnicity or language. And, most importantly, it ended one of the great sins of our founding, slavery.

But probably what really drives this project is the persistent sense that there is massive misunderstanding of the meaning of the War — that the supposed lessons of it have been distorted and manipulated over the years.

A recent Pew Foundation survey asked respondents, “What caused the Civil War?” Until 50 years ago there were multiple answers to that question: states’ rights, cultural differences between North and South, an economic clash between an agricultural society and an industrial one, incompetent politicians, and, of course, slavery. Historians now overwhelmingly will answer, “slavery.” Even if some concede that the other listed causes played a role they will note that slavery was integral to each of them. Yet, the public answered the Pew question primarily with “states’ rights,” and, most disturbingly, younger respondents more so than older. Why is this so?

One has to assume that this misunderstanding can be attributed to the long period of Southern dominance in American politics and culture following the Civil War. “Who really won the war?” remains a legitimate question from the “settlement” of 1876 to the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. We finally had a more complete and honest assessment of the causes of the war and its meaning. If slavery had not existed on our soil since 1619 it is reasonable to assume that all issues between North and South would have been resolved peacefully.

But, in fact, Africans were forcibly brought to these shores. Some thought the humane thing to do was return all former slaves to Africa. But African-Americans rejected this notion and claimed citizenship equal to everyone else, taking 75 – 100 years for this to become something of a reality.

In addition, our observations of Civil War era issues playing out today in our culture and politics motivated us to organize the symposium. Though the Fourteenth Amendment supposedly gives citizenship to all born in this country (overturning Dred Scott’s version that certain peoples have NO rights comparable to the “original” white citizens), some today do not accept this. In the 1830s many states attempted to “nullify” federal law (ostensibly on the tariff, but a cover for forthcoming differences on slavery). Echoes of this nullification effort are present in the current controversy over the recent federal health law reform, where many states are challenging the law in court or in the streets.

Most serious are the legacies of slavery and racism. Many may think we have achieved a “post racial” society, but some suspect the birth certificate attack on President Obama is based in racism; the tea party movement has been accused of being racist; prison statistics and other social measures indicate persistent racial bias either in our justice system or in society at large. In any event, it seems obvious that we are far from the race neutral society hoped for in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

One short symposium can’t correct the flaws in our knowledge of history or significantly change the way we deal with old problems, but perhaps it will inspire some of us to think anew.

The 5CLIR Sesquicentennial Symposium: Civil War Causes and Consequences will take place Friday October 14 and Saturday, October 15, with some events taking place at the Mahar Auditorium and others at the Isenberg School of Management, both on the UMass Amherst Campus.

Author: Chuck Gillies

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