Remembering the Civil War, Recovering Our Selves

Remembering the Civil War,
Recovering Our Selves

by Ken Masugi
August/September 2001

Originally published on Friday, March 26, 2001 as a Claremont Institute Precept

Virginia Governor James Gilmore stirred controversy by changing April from Confederate History Month to a Civil War heritage month. Predictably, Confederate heritage groups were outraged. One spokesman declared that the change honored “people who invaded this state and murdered, raped, and pillaged. It’s a cop-out, a sellout” to the forces of political correctness and the NAACP, which had threatened to boycott the state over the issue.

Perhaps most striking about the conservative Republican governor’s revised proclamation was its explicit recognition of slavery as “one of the causes” of the Civil War. “The practice of slavery was an affront to man’s natural dignity, deprived African-Americans of their God given inalienable rights, degraded the human spirit and is abhorred and condemned by Virginians . . . Had there been no slavery there would have been no war.”

This is not Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. But it was enough to move former Governor Douglas Wilder, who is black and a Democrat, to endorse it, and declare that Gilmore had acknowledged the Civil War as “an American tragedy.”

Having lived in Richmond for a short time and resided not two blocks away from historic St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his rousing “Give me liberty…” speech, I have an inkling of the seriousness with which Virginians take their history. Would that all Americans felt so strongly and took such pride in knowing about who they have been as a guide to what they should be. After all, those who lack respect for their ancestors will lack respect for themselves and the generations to come.

Ignorance of American history encourages its most perverse reading. Unfortunately, what many Americans — both black and white — choose to draw from their history is misleading: Lincoln was a racist and a tyrant who was indifferent at best to the fate of blacks; the Civil War was fought primarily over states’ rights; Robert E. Lee’s service on behalf of the Confederacy disqualifies him from being honored.

It may seem ironic that Confederate heritage groups and civil rights groups, who disagree so bitterly about which monument should stand or who was or was not a hero, actually share major premises about the Civil War. These premises are demonstrably false. Both factions, and most liberals and conservatives as well, deny that the Civil War was fought over the American proposition first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal — and reaffirmed on the Gettysburg battlefield, four score and seven years later.

Those who view the contemporary world through the imagined lenses of either the slave-holding South or the slaves distort the meaning of the war. Both sides agree on the prevalent view of American history, debunking Lincoln. This is well-represented by Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”; that the Declaration of Independence could not have been intended to include blacks; and that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document.

This is the mentality that leads officials to sanitize schools named after George Washington to avoid association with a man who is now to be recalled first and foremost as a slaveholder. This is the mentality that puts priority on Thomas Jefferson’s alleged sexual exploitation of his slaves rather than his genuine political achievements on behalf of all Americans.

As a result of such education, few know that Abraham Lincoln’s magnificence lies largely in knowing the evil of slavery while containing it through the rule of law — whose enforcement required war. “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,” he said. But the freedom to secede from the Union was equivalent to either anarchy or tyranny, both denials of government by consent.

So, why should Confederate heroes be honored today? Governor Gilmore’s proclamation strikes the right balance: “The noble spirit and inspiring leadership of great Confederate Generals, leaders and the ordinary men and women, free and not free, of the Confederate States is an integral part of the history of all America…” We can honor Robert E. Lee and still denounce the cause for which he fought.

Aristotle noted how qualities of human excellence such as courage transcend the political cause for which men fight. This does not make the cause any less wicked, nor does it make the soldier less courageous. It is a difficult lesson to swallow, but Governor Gilmore has prepared the way. This is part of the political maturity required of a self governing people. If we can begin to absorb this lesson, then “these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Ken Masugi is director of the Claremont Institute’s Center for Local Government.

Copyright © 2001 The Claremont Institute. All rights reserved.

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