Thursday, January 27, 2011

Slavery and Southern "Memory"

Just finished reading "The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," all billion pages of it which was published originally in two fat volumes in 1885 (initially published by Mark Twain, incidentally).

I found myself a paperback copy of all billion pages when I was last in a Barnes & Noble, mainly because in my reading of modern histories of the Civil War, I kept stumbling on references to General Grant's Memoirs as one of the truly great reads in American literature.

They were right.

More than that, the man's "Memoirs" have completely changed my mind about him. I associated his name primarily with government corruption during his two terms as president (1869-1877). He bears the blame since he was chief executive and allowed certain men into office who generously helped themselves. The justification for that blame is another study altogether and not one I've undertaken or plan to undertake.

His writing about the Civil War is another matter, and he comes across as brutally honest (especially about himself), with a sharp intelligence and a quiet but active wit. He was no brute, which is also a part of the reputation I absorbed from somewhere.

I found this passage near the end of those billion pages:
The cause of the the Great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that "A state half slave and half free cannot exist." All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed, and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution. They were enabled to maintain this control long after the States where slavery existed had ceased to have the controlling power, through the assistance they received from odd men here and there throughout the Northern States. They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man. Northern marshals became slave-catchers, and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.

This was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books. Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution....

Out of curiosity, I just Googled "Civil War not about slavery" to see what would turn up and was actually not at all surprised that a great deal of special pleading turned up, a concerted effort to erase slavery as the prime mover for the Civil War and replace it with reasons a good deal more high-minded and, incidentally, a good deal more flattering to those political forces of this day that are resisting our current president and his legislative initiatives.

Resistance is one thing. Mythological history to justify it is something else and quite debilitating to boot.


amjp said...

Very interesting piece, J.W. There's a lot of rewriting of American history going on lately, and not just about the Civil War.

I doubt that I'd have the energy to read something as long as Grant's memoirs, but his story is compelling. PBS recently showed a program on Grant as part of its "American Experience" series. It, too, presented a much more well rounded picture of him than is usually encountered. It was generally favorable, and it was certainly worth viewing.

Harry Moncelle said...

Thanks for your illumitive comments re: cause of Civil War. I just finished reading, The Neo-Cofederqte Reader: The great Truth about the lost cause" This book explores the rationale for the war by a study of the original documents of the leaders of the time, Turns out "SLAVERY" was the issue.

Robert said...

Great piece JW. The "Lost Cause of the Confederacy" myth has been around since the end of the CW and gets tiresome. It seems to be accepted by many throughout the US, not just the South. Luckily, there is a good deal of scholarship about it.
When I hear the States Rights argument, I frequently retort "States rights to own slaves, you mean?"

Brushfire said...

Facts don't mean squat any more. It's all about the narrative, and if you control the narrative (if you own the media outlets), you can rewrite history. 1984 anyone?

Mike D. said...

Speaking of wars and the true reasons why they are fought, I am very curious about something, and this seems like an appropriate forum thread, filled with people who may know the answer.

During the earlier stages of the current war between the United States and Iraq, numerous highly educated individuals in Boone plastered bumper stickers on their cars, insisting that we were there to take Iraq's oil for ourselves.

For now, let's set aside the obvious irony that these bumper stickers were affixed to vehicles which run on the very oil that their owners seem to abhor. Instead, let's review what the bumper stickers said. I remember "What's Our Oil Doing Under Their Soil?". I remember "No Blood For Oil". And there was even "Bomb Texas, They Have Oil Too".

So, now that military operations are drawing to a close in Iraq, whatever became of Iraq's oil? Did we take it?

Well, ok, I suppose This article pretty well sums it up.

just wondering said...

You seem to ignore the sates rights issue, the taxation of cotton issue, and the working conditions in the north as opposed to those of the slaves.

However, it is true the emotional reason for the war was slavery. It was just as hard to get people to fight for cotton as it is to get them to fight for oil (the Japanese in the Second World War), so there has to be a propaganda campaign to fire them up over a moral issue. It could even be argued we went to war in the Mid East over oil, except for the fact we didn't take it.

By the way, when did slavery end in this country? It was not with the Emancipation Proclamation. This only freed the slaves in the south. It was probably with passage of the 13th. Amendment, which was ratified after the war.


South Carolina Declares War on the USA .

President Barack Obama was in the Oval Office when histelephone rang.

"Hello, President Obama" a heavily accented southern voice said. "This is Archie, down here at Joe's Catfish Shack, in Charleston, and I am callin' to tell ya'll that we are
officially declaring war on ya!"

"Well Archie," Barack replied, "This is indeed important
news! How big is your army?"

"Right now," said Archie, after a moments calculation "there is myself, my cousin Harold, my next-door-neighbor Randy,
and the whole dart team from Hooters. That makes eight!"

Barack paused. "I must tell you Archie that I have one
million men in my army waiting to move on my command."

"Wow," said Archie. "I'll have at call ya back!"

Sure enough, the next day, Archie called again. "Mr. Obama,
the war is still on! We have managed to acquire some
infantry equipment!"

"And what equipment would that be Archie?" Barack asked.

"Well sir, we have two combines, a bulldozer, and Harry's farm tractor

President Obama sighed. "I must tell you Archie, that I have
16,000 tanks and 14,000 armored personnel carriers. Also, I've increased my army to one and a half million since we last spoke."

"Lord above", said Archie, "I'll be getting back to ya."

Sure enough, Archie called again the next day. "President
Obama! I am sorry to have to tell you that we have had to call off this here war.

"I'm sorry to hear that" said Barack. "Why the sudden change
of heart?"

Well, sir," said Archie, "we've all sat ourselves down and had a long chat over sweet tea, and come to realize that there's just no way we can feed two million prisoners."



Anonymous said...

JW, you conveniently forgot about the rich northern mercantilists, like Morrill, who desired to force a huge initial tariff, which would have increased with time, on the southern states.

This tariff, the real reason for the war, would have reduced the southern states, and subsequently the West, to the status of an economic satellite of northern interests.

Oh, yes, slavery was exploited to later justify the invasion of the South, but slavery existed in both sections, plus there were black freedmen who owned slaves and property also.

Also, isn't it ironic that Lee and Jackson years before had freed their inherited slaves, but the Grants, who owned slaves also, were forced to later by law?

As to "revisionism", it is true, but a sad commentary, that the victors always write the history of a conflict, and the loser is always depicted as the evil villian.

Again, JW, I doubt if you will post the above, but it is a perspective that court historians will never formally and seriously discuss in publication form.

shyster said...

YANKEE GO HOME, That just proves what I have long thought - Sweet Tea (or swee'tea if you prefer) and hush puppies are hallucinogens.

Brushfire said...

Mike D - Read this
No one (not I, anyway) was under any illusion that the war was being fought for the benefit of American citizens. It was being fought for the benefit of the corporations that control our government. This of course continues a long tradition of imperialism and intervention in other countries for the benefit of said corporations. Smedly Butler was right on when he called it in the 30's, and nothing has changed since then.