Last year I wrote a post responding to a video I saw which asks if we should still be watching the classic movie, Gone With the Wind. A couple days ago I heard HBO had pulled that movie from its new streaming service, saying:
'Gone With The Wind’ is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society.
These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible
This reminded me of my previous post and my failure to write a follow-up to it like I had planned. Given the current atmosphere of our society, it seems like a good time to go ahead and write it. The reason I think this is I think it's important we recognize the North were not the "good guys" of the Civil War.
I don't think the South were the "good guys" of the Civil War either. Like many wars, I don't think one side was "good" and the other "evil." What I think is portraying the Civil War as a simple thing, a war fought by the "good guys" to end slavery by the "bad guys" whitewashes history and invites further wrongdoing.
People can be on the "right" side of a conflict and still be terrible people or do terrible things. Refusing to speak up about them because the people are on the "right side" of a conflict sabotages any effort for genuine improvement. This is true with people's hypocritical support of Al Sharpton, and it's true with people's blind support for the North. The sad truth is, Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant whose abuses of power would make Donald Trump blush.
Before I get to that, I want to mention the video my last post was made in response to. The video is utter garbage. I can't tell if its writing is dishonest, imbecilic or delusional, and it doesn't really matter. I said more than enough about the video in my last post. I won't be focusing on it again. I also won't be discussing Gone With the Wind again. I rewatched it recently, and I dislike it enough the idea of talking about it in unappealing. (My previous post provides my view on the movie.)
Instead, I'd like to look at why the Civil War happened. Some people will claim any answer other than the one-word answer, "Slavery" is wrong. That's sort of facile argument is nothing more than a whitewash of history by people covering up the sins and misdeeds of the North. If you'd like to see the argument in action, and why it's nonsense, feel free to check out my previous post which goes into detail.
Otherwise, it should suffice to note conflicts are rarely, if ever, fought over something so simple. You and your spouse may get in a fight after you left dirty dishes in the sink, but that doesn't mean the yelling match is because of the dishes. Odds are there were many other factors and the dishes were just an inciting incident that served as an outlet for a conflict that had already been brewing.
The same is true for the Civil War. There was conflict and resentment between the North and South for decades before the Civil War. It goes back at least as far as the founding of the nation. When seeking independence from Great Britain, some figures in the north wanted to abolish slavery in their new country. The South adamantly refused, saying there would be no American Revolution if their "peculiar institution" was not tolerated.
Northerners accepted that condition, making promises to protect the institution of slavery that got codified in laws and the Constitution itself. As time passed, the North started trying to renege on those promises. That, along with other points of conflict between the regions, led to much hostility and many conflicts over the years. Abraham Lincoln being elected as President of the United States pushed things to the breaking point, with a number of southern states seceding.
At this point, people like to say, "The South seceded because of slavery, therefore the Civil War was fought because of slavery." That's nonsense. One issue I discussed in some detail in my previous post is how the South tried to secede peacefully, having no desire for war. The Civil War was fought because the North refused to let the South go. Abraham Lincoln himself made this clear:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.
Lincoln did ont fight the Civil War because of slavery. He fought it to preserve the Union. That people pretend otherwise is baffling if we consider some basic facts. The most important of these facts is of the 15 states slavery was legal in, four fought on the side of the Union. Here's a basic timeline.
Slaves were freed in any Southern land conquered by the North after the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. This meant 10 of the 11 Confederate states had slavery abolished by the Civil War. One Confederate state, Tennessee, had been conquered before the proclamation and thus was not covered by it. Tennessee then passed a law abolishing slavery in January 1865. The Confederacy surrendered May 9th, 1865, at which point all slaves in the South were free citizens.
Four slave states, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri remained part of the Union and fought on the side of the North. These states kept slavery legal during the Civil War. Maryland abolished slavery in November 1864, Missouri in January 1865. Delaware and Kentucky did not abolish slavery at all, with slavery remaining legal in them until the Thirteenth Amendment went into effect on December 6, 1865.
If the Civil War were truly fought only because of slavery, why then were 25% of slave states in the Union? Why was slavery legal within the NOrth months after it had been abolished in the South? Cleraly, things are more complicated than people like to pretend.
The reality is Southern states feared the North would act in unlawful ways to attempt to deprive the South of rights, primarily the right to own slaves. To avoid this, they decided to leave the Union so they could not be "oppressed" by the North. As it turns out, they were completely correct in their fears. Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant who, at the first opportunity, abused his power as President to engage in numerous unlawful and oppressive acts.
Some people might find this hard to believe because Lincoln has become a symbol of... good things. He shouldn't be one. The truth is Lincoln was a racist who didn't want equality for black people. Here's one sample of what he had to say:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,
Lincoln didn't even want black people to be able to vote. His most remarkable idea when it comes to black people and how they should be treated was, I kid you not, to have black people all leave the country.
So Lincoln was a segregationist whose ultimate goal was to preserve power for the Union not to abolish slavery or help black people. When he was elected, Southern states were afraid he would abuse his power as President to "oppress" them, such as by depriving them of their right to have slaves so they seceded.
Some people will say slavery is bad so it doesn't matter if people's right to it was unlawfully hindered because morality trumps legality. The problem with that is who gets to make that decision? If a president engages in unlawful activity, who decides if it should be tolerated or not? Is it just a question of how many people decide the unlawful action is "good"? Can a president do whatever he wants, completely disregarding the law, as long as enough people support him?
This question is an important question for us right now as Donald Trump is alleged to routinely abuse the power of his office. The South was afraid the answer to that question would be yes. The South was afraid Lincoln would abuse his power as President and there'd be no recourse because he'd have enough support in it. Leaving the country was the only option they saw.
It's not difficult to see how this crisis could happen in modern times. Some would say it already has with Donald Trump. And that's a worrying thought. What unlawful things can a president do simply because he has enough support? Can a president order newspapers shut down just because he dislikes the things they say? Trump would love to; Lincoln actually did.
Can a president order members of state goverments arrested to prevent them from holding votes he's afraid won't go his way? Trump would love to; Lincoln actually did.
Can a president ignore the judicial system when it says he is breaking the law and abusing his power? Trump tries to; Lincoln did. In fact, Lincoln not only flouted the court system, he had a number of judges who ruled against him kidnapped and imprisoned. In some cases, they were even beaten and dragged out of their own courtrooms.
Can a president order people of a particular ethnicity rounded up and imprisoned simply because the flames of racism have been fanned within the public? Okay, that last one wasn't Lincoln. That was FDR. Lincoln had people kidnapped because they had views he disliked not because their skin was the wrong color. Though hey, given the chance maybe he'd have rounded up all the black people and thrown them out of the country. I mean, he did think it'd be a good idea.
The point of this is it shows the South was right to fear the abuse of power by the North, especially by Abraham Lincoln. That doesn't make the South the "good guys." It doesn't mean they were justified in seceding. What it means is we should ask ourselves how people should respond if their government acts in an unlawful way.
Lincoln justified everything he did in a very simple way:
Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken if the Government should be overthrown when it was believed that disregarding the single law would tend to preserve it?
Lincoln's view was he could do whatever he felt he needed to do to hold the Union together. To the North, the Civil War wasn't about freeing slaves. The Civil War wasn't about helping black people. To the North, the Civil war was just imperialism. Lincoln's view was he could do whatever he felt was necessary to preserve the power of the nation.
The South wanted out because they felt, in a sickly ironic way, they were being oppressed by an unlawful government. The North had no divine right to stop them. The North didn't even have a legal right to stop them as there was no legal precedent determining if secession was legal. The North simply decided it didn't want to lot the South leave, and it didn't matter what any laws said.
Whitewashing history by pretending the North did nothing wrong, that the cause of the Civil War can be given with a single word, "Slavery," lets people avoid dealing with some very troubling issues, issues which are directly relevant to us today. We should all be willing to ask ourselves at what point we're willing to pick our personal sense of morality over legality. We should ask ourselves when we are willing to accept our leaders and governments acting in unlawful ways. And most importantly, we should ask ourselves how we should react when the government decides it can ignore the laws which created it.
I don't think the South were "good guys." I think they were evil, but I'm not certain they were wrong. If you can't stop the government from abusing its power, what should you do?