Reopening Old Wounds

One hundred fifty years ago this month, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in America’s history.  Brian Beulter at the New Republic thinks that this date, April 9 should be a national holiday celebrated every year.

In a speech one month ago, the first black president of the United States challenged millions of white Americans to resist the convenient allure of overlooking the country’s blemished moral record. It was a dual challenge, actually—first to the classical understanding of American exceptionalism, but also to America’s persistent critics, who abjure the concept of exceptionalism altogether.

In the self-critical America of Obama’s imagination, more people would know about the Edmund Pettus bridge and its namesake. The bridge itself wouldn’t necessarily be renamed after Martin Luther King or John Lewis or another civil rights hero; because it is synonymous with racist violence, the bridge should bear Pettus’s name eternally, with the explicit intent of linking the sins of the Confederacy to the sins of Jim Crow. But Obama’s America would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South, most of which don’t share the Pettus bridge’s incidental association with the struggle for civil rights.

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

He goes on in that vein, but you get the idea. The Confederacy and its leaders must be disavowed as traitors on the wrong side of history. The southern states must not be permitted to remember or appreciate their heritage which includes many great men who fought in the Civil War.

I think this it a bad idea. Generally, throughout history, when some province or region rebelled against its central government and is defeated, that central government punished the rebellious provinces with savage reprisals, including executing the leaders of that rebellion. This only increased the resentment and hatred of the people of that region against the central government and led to another rebellion a generation later, with another round of reprisals. This cycle continued until the rebellious province won its independence or was utterly crushed with its people killed or scattered.

In the United States, we managed to avoid that cycle. For the most part, the defeated rebel states were not treated as conquered territory but were welcomed back into the Union. The soldiers and officers of the Confederate armies were not massacred or imprisoned for treason but permitted to go home. General Robert E. Lee was not hanged. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for a short time but released. There was some trouble in the administration of the formerly rebellious regions during the Reconstruction Era, largely due to efforts to secure the rights of the former slaves, but in general the South was generally well treated after the war.

Because Lincoln and others treated the rebels so leniently, there was no lasting Southern separatist movement. Instead North and South became welded together into a new nation more united than before the war. This meant that the Civil War had to become America’s war. The soldiers and heroes of both sides had to become America’s heroes and the short history of the Confederate States of America had to become part of the shared history of the United States of America. This also meant that justice and equality for the African-Americans had to wait a century. This was unfortunate, but reunifying America had to take priority, just as establishing the new nation had to take priority over ending slavery in the time of the founders.

As a result of this welding together, the South, the former rebels is probably the most patriotic region of this country and southerners have always served in the military in disproportionate numbers. Lincoln’s policy of “letting them up easy” has been more than vindicated. Now, Mr. Beutler would like to undo all of that effort to punish the South once again for the Civil War. The Confederate story must no longer be America’s story. The rebels ought not be be considered our countrymen but as an evil enemy justly defeated.

We know from experience that there will be resistance to such efforts. Some critics will caution that singling out Confederate officers will give way to politically correct efforts to sideline other historically important Americans. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners. Shouldn’t we expiate their sins by banishment as well, starting with the $1 and $2 bills?

But figures like Washington and Jefferson fit comfortably within the framework of exceptionalism that Obama sketched in Selma, while supporters of secession do not. Obama’s telling of American history is one in which an establishment worthy of preservation is continually improved by righteous internal forces. You don’t need to be morally pristine to be immortalized in Obama’s America, but you can’t be on the side of forces that reject the establishment altogether when it advances incrementally toward its founding ideals. Likewise, those who would caution that a more accurate reckoning with the Confederacy would inflame racial tensions are merely restating the implication that the country is too weak to be introspective. If Obama’s expression of American exceptionalism is correct about anything, it’s that this kind of thinking has no merit.

By contrast, the Union’s victory, and the abolition of slavery, both merit celebration as exemplars of American improvement and renewal, even if many Unionists weren’t moral heroes. These twin accomplishments are as worthy of a federal holiday as any holiday we already celebrate. So let’s name April 9 New Birth of Freedom Day. And if that creates too much paid leave for government workers, we could swap out Columbus Day. We don’t yet live in the America Obama described, but we should strive to.

I don’t really want to live in the America Obama is trying to build. It seems clear that there is no room for Southern Whites in that America. I have to wonder is Mr. Beutler is trying to start a new Civil War by dividing this country and alienating the South. Actually, there is no great mystery why such a piece would appear in the New Republic. Progressives have generally hated the South, even more that the rest of flyover country because the South has usually been the most conservative region of the United States. The South with its religious, patriotic, and conservative people represents the aspects of America most progressives want to get as far as they can away from and which stands most in need of fundamental change.

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