The North Were not the Good Guys, Part One

Neither were the South. The Civil War was not a battle between "good" and "evil." Slavery is evil, but the South doing lots of evil things is not the end of the story. Many conflicts are between bad and less bad people or groups. I want to talk about this because of a set of really bad arguments about the Civil War I came across in this YouTube video:

But before I do, I want to answer the question this video asks. No, we should not still be watching Gone With the Wind. It's a bad movie. Yeah, I said it. This video and a follow-up video are about whether or not racism and sexism in Gone With the Wind mean we shouldn't watch the movie, but to me, the bigger issue is the movie isn't good.

Don't get me wrong. The movie has some good aspects. There's a reason it has been as successful as it is. But it's like Citizen Kane, in that it is slow and boring. The difference is Citizen Kane wasn't nearly four hours long, and it is at least worth watching as a technical masterpiece. Plus somehow Citizen Kane has a more appealing set of characters

Yeah, I'm going there. Gone With the Wind is a movie which focuses on two protagonists who are bad people doing bad things and suffering for it. If I wanted to sate some sense of schadenfreude, I'd cut the pretension and watch a Saw movie. Not only would I save two hours of my life, I wouldn't have to see a main character commit rape and suffer no consequences for it.

To be clear, Scarlett O'Hara is a "strong, independent" woman. That's good. What's not good is that strength and independence is manifested by her being the tired, cliche "manipulative bitch." Put bluntly, Scarlett is a sociopathic murderer whose strength and independence comes from being willing to commit any act and harm any person in order to get what she wants.

Rhett Butler is a rapist. I don't have it in me to explore his character any further. These are bad people, and sitting for four hours to see them screw up their lives and the lives of the people around them is not something people should still be doing.

But I digress. I'm writing because of a 30 minute video I saw with the wonderful sentiment of:

I want to engage in good faith with the very best that Confederate apologists have to offer because I sincerely believe that if you can't summarize your opponent's position in a way that makes them say, "Yes, that's what I believe," then you're not in any position to debate them.

This is a sentiment I endorse wholeheartedly. When I heard it, I was hopeful. The Civil War was the result of many complex societal factors whose origins could be traced back a century or more before the war began. Despite that, most people refuse to go beyond the mindset, "Slavery was evil!" A thoughtful discussion of the subject is something I would love to see.

Sadly, that's not what I found. I was disappointed to find a series of terrible arguments, often based upon strawmen created to make Confederate apologists look idiotic. I'm not a Confederate apologist, but the pretension of integrity in the video offends me. I won't discuss the entire video, much less all of the follow-up piece, as that's an hour of material, but let's look at some examples. The first argument offered in defense of the Confederacy is:

"The South had every right to secede, and secession didn't make them traitors."

This is a reasonable statement save it overplays its case. There was no legal precedent determining whether or not states had the right to secede. That doesn't mean the South did have the right to secede, but as the video acknowledges, the issue was "decidedly undecided." There was a legitimate legal basis for believing states had the right to secede, yet the video begins its response to this point by saying:

From a legal standpoint, this is demonstrably false. A simple matter of fact.

The video cites things which happened after the war that decreed secession illegal, including a Supreme Court ruling, but here the argument begins to rest upon a strawman. Remember how I said that statement overplays its case? There's no need for that. The argument could have been presented as, "The South had a reasonable presumption of a right to secede." That would justify the South's actions, and it would neutralize the entirety of the videos' counterargument.

In fact, offering the better version of this argument would tie directly into what the video says later, showing this counterargument to be nonsensical:

And even if we accept at face value the claim secession was, or at least have been legal, why didn't the South simply petition the courts for that right? Why did they opt instead to instigate a war that claimed three percent of the entire U.S. population?

The first nonsensical part of this response is it is an obvious case of begging the question. Begging the question means the speaker presumes the answer he wants as a premise of what he says. Namely, the speaker says the South "opt[ed] instead to instigate a war." The speaker acknowledges Confederate apologists argue the South wanted to secede peacefully rather than instigate a war. You can't acknowledge someone is making an argument then make claims premised on the assumption that argument is false.

Beyond this logical fallacy, this argument makes no sense because the question is premised on the idea the South could have "petition[ed] the courts for that right." That's not a thing that can be done. You can't just petition courts for a right. There's no legal procedure for that. In fact, the South's actions followed the closet procedure there is to petitioning courts for a right.

To understand this, consider flag burning. In 1989, Texas v. Johnson overturned laws in 48 states which made burning the American flag illegal. Congress responded by passing a federal law banning flag burning. This law was widely assumed to be unconstitutional, and people wanted to establish that by having the Supreme Court strike it down too. So how did people "petition the courts"?

They burned a flag. People burned a flag with the express purpose of getting arrested so the courts could hear their arguments. They did so because you can't just write a letter to the courts asking it to acknowledge you have a right. You have to have some legal action for the courts to consider. In the South's case, that action was their act of secession.

It's worth noting the video doesn't ask why the North failed to petition the courts. After states declared they had seceded, the North had a legal claim it could have taken to the courts. It chose not to. The North, without input from the courts, decreed the South's actions unlawful based on nothing more than the President's opinions.

In short, the video asks the South to have done something which could not have been done while excusing of the North the same action despite the fact the North could have done it. Now back to how thee video begged the question, the second pro-Confederate argument it provides is:

"The South didn't instigate the war. They only took up arms in response to an unprovoked invasion from the North!"

Again, I'm calling foul over the speaker saying the South opted to instigate a war as though that was a fact everyone accepts. You can't do that. You also can't dismiss this argument with a ridiculous non-sequitur. As a quick aside, the video's description of how the war started is... lacking:

In April 1861, South Carolina demanded the abandonment of Fort Sumter by Union troops, and when the federal forces stationed there refused to budge, South Carolina saw it as an illegal occupation of their land by a foreign military power and opened fire. Thus began the Civil War.

This one-sided description goes back to the previous point about petitioning the courts. South Carolina had seceded four months prior to this battle. While they did demand the Union abandon Fort Sumter, they spent months waiting without any acts of violence. They did not open fire because the Union forces refused to budge. They spent months trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender, and they told the Union if it sent reinforcements to the fort they would view that as an act of war. The South only opened fire when the Union sent reinforcement to a disputed military fort in its territory.

That said, the real sin of this section of the video is how nonsensical the argument it makes is. Let's pick up right where it left off:

But here's the thing. South Carolina had already seceded months before the battle took place, and they didn't do it in response to any invasion.

The video offers this as a counterargument to the claim the South only took up arms in response to an unprovoked invasion. It claims to prove the argument wrong by discussing when South Carolina seceded, not how South Carolina took up arms. If one believes the South wished to secede peacefully, then the date of secession cannot be when they took up arms.

The video then goes on to make a confusing argument:

Now it's true that four Confederate states Virginia, Arkansas, Tennesee and North Carolina only agreed to secede after the battle of Fort Sumter took place. But lest we forget, that battle took place in South Carolina. Even if you accept at face value the claim the Union presence at Fort Sumter was an "invasion," it was only an invasion of South Carolina. These four states could have chosen to side with the Union in the ensuing conflict.

This argument holds, if we accept the presumption the North invaded South Carolina without provocation, four states that joined the Confederacy in response could have instead sided with the North. There's no follow-up explaining what point is being made here, but the implication is choosing to join the side which is the victim of an unprovoked attack is somehow bad, that these four states should have sided with the people engaging in unprovoked aggression.

I believe you should be able to summarize a person's views in a way they feel is accurate no matter how much you disagree with them. On this point, I cannot. I cannot create any cogent argument out of this segment. The point seems to be, "They didn't support this act of unprovoked aggression, therefore the Confederacy is bad!" I have to imagine something else was meant. But then, maybe not. The video does follow this by going into Godwin territory:

You see, when Confederate apologists makes the claim that it was the North who started the war, they're choosing to make a rather pedantic distinction between seceding and going to war. As far as the apologists are concerned, the South would have been thrilled to secede in peace, but those pesky Northerners couldn't leave well enough alone. And so when the North sent troops to try to quash the Confederacy, the South had no choice but to fight back in self-defense.

But that's like saying Germany didn't start World War II by invading Poland. It's the allies who started World War II by attacking Germany for invading Poland. The allies should have just let Germany invade in peace.

I don't think I need to explain why resorting to comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is a bad thing. Godwin's Law exists for a reason. And it's really just a distraction. After all, this argument makes no sense. Secession is not an act of violence. South Carolina didn't kill anyone when it seceded. It didn't kill people in the fourth months after it seceded, prior to the battle of Fort Sumter. It is beyond bewildering someone would compare that to Germany invading Poland, and within a matter of days, killing thousands of people and conquering the entire country.

I'm at the point where I can barely continue, so rather than go on with the rhetoric racing through my mind about how insane this argument is, let's look at the only justification offered for this claim.

It's an obtuse, ahistorical perspective that doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Secession was just as good as a formal declaration of war, and the South knew it. CSA President Jefferson Davis issued the first call for Confederate volunteers on February 28th, 1861, nearly two months before the battle of Fort Sumter.

That's the only justification. Some insults, and the fact the Confederacy wanted to have troops to form a military. A new nation whose future is uncertain seeks to have the means to defend itself, and... that proves the South knew secession was as good as declaring war...? That's not even an argument. There's nothing to connect the points. There's some vague implication here, but there's nothing to explain why the Confederacy raising troops means they knew peaceful secession wasn't possible.

At the same time, there is plenty of evidence the video ignores. South Carolina had been trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution at Fort Sumter from the end of December all the way up to the battle there. Jefferson Davis sent multiple letters suing for peace, offering to pay for the property the South was seizing (a fact the video conveniently leaves out in a section I'm not commenting on today). Similar offers had been made by others before states which had seceded even formed the Confederacy. There was even at least one delegation which went to Washington D.C. to try to negotiate a peaceful secession in person (Abraham Lincoln refused to even meet).

This video doesn't begin to hold up to scrutiny. I couldn't hope to cover it all in one post, and there is plenty to discuss on this topic beyond what the video brings up. I'll have more in a follow-up post.

As final note, I want to stress something. I don't think the South were the "good guys" of the Civil War. Slavery was, and still is, evil. But if O.J. Simpson had murdered Charles Manson, we wouldn't call Simpson one of the "good guys." We wouldn't excuse the evils Simpson had committed simply because he destroyed an even greater evil.

It's as dangerous as it is easy to turn off one's mind, say, "Slavery is evil so the South were the bad guys!" and leave it at that. During the Civil War, the North was a tyrannical state that rejected all authority outside the president's. It did things like illegally kidnap tens of thousands of people, including state officials and judges who it thought might oppose its tyrrany.

If we aren't willing to examine how and why that happened, including at least considering the possibility the South may have had some basis in its actions, how can we hope to avoid it happening again?

2 comments

  1. Brandon,
    As always, an interesting post. You make valid points about the video and deconstruct the argument. First, I wonder whether the authors of said video actually know they are engaging in logical fallacies and false arguments.

    Second, history is a wonderful subject where we "reinterpret" the past in terms of the present. I actually studied it at HE level before moving on to other things. But I still retain a fascination with the subject--and logical thinking. Historians have to make sense of the past and do so through providing narratives or explanations of what happened based on their interpretation of the evidence. What is to say "my" history is more correct than someone else's? Yes we have facts. But facts of themselves don't make history.

    There have been books and articles far too numerous to count on the causes of the American Civil War. Each provides a different facet on the events trying to tie them into a coherent narrative explanation. Historians are no less prone to look at the past through the lens of the present than anyone else. Just read history books written 50-100 years ago. Their concerns and selection of material is very different to what a modern historian writing about the same events will include in their tome.

    Which brings me to the motivations behind the video. Clearly, as you rightly state, there are no "good guys" here. The North won so was able to "rewrite" history in their favour. There was certainly some debate about whether a state could leave the Union. It was not clear cut--but the North fought for the Union, perhaps provoked by succeeding states--or not, and since they won the war. Well, it's like Richard III, if you loose, you are vilified.

    The authors of the video have an agenda. They want to paint the "other side", whoever they are, as being black in thought and deed. There is zero interest--which leads to your demolition--in getting at the truth. What we have here is myth making. It is propaganda pure and simple. Of the Goebbels kind. That may be the better comparison rather than deconstructing their false logics. Goebbels was a master at the selective use of facts, minor and not so distortions of the narrative and selective use of data. A fair use of evidence will acknowledge the limitations of what they are attempting. But they give the game away in what they are setting out to do: providing a justification for a course of action--here it is demonising a "romantic" view of the South before and during the Civil War.

    To finish: I follow your blog because you write intelligently and thoughtfully about important issues. Please do continue to do so. This post raises a lot of issues and these need to be aired in a forum such as this.

    Peter

  2. Peter Moles, thanks. The main thing which made me decide to write this post is the disparity between the stated objective of the speaker in the video and the actual content of the video. It's so strange I have to wonder, like you, if they knew what they were doing with these arguments.

    How views on historical events are shaped by biases in the people who examine the facts is a fascinating topic. I'd like to think good historians could avoid it, at least to a large extent, but I've never delved enough into the field to know. I'm cynical enough to doubt it. Certainly, history as discussed in the general public is not unbiased. If there is some class of historians who avoid these biases, they're not having that much influence on the wider world.

    Anyway, I had planned a follow-up to this post, and I hope to have it published by Friday. I'd have had it up sooner by I got wrapped up in a different project. It started with the thought of, "I could make some improvements in an hour or two." Four days later it was, "I know I should sleep, but there's this other thing I could do to improve things..."

    I honestly didn't realize it had been more than a week since I wrote this post. I guess I sometimes get too wrapped up in things

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