The public discourse has sunk to a new low. Even John Kelly, an uptight pentagon general has triggered his very own mass moral hysteria by simply saying General Lee was “honorable” and wishing the US Civil War could have been prevented by compromise.
The result of these boring, mild statements was a firestorm of pundit-powered opprobrium. Ordinarily, I ignore these stupid hand-wringing scares as there are several of them a day, but this one in particular catches my interest because it marks another step in a progression of rising frenzy since we started to see the destruction of confederate statues.
The important thing to notice is they are trying to use fake moral outrage as a political weapon to rewrite history. The legions of political correctness are trying to march across the landscape of the past until even the US founders are dismissed as villains who were “on the wrong side of history.”
I could ignore the pundits easily enough but what got my attention was actual historians like Ken Burns seeming to support this Maoist hysteria when he undoubtedly knows better.
He doesn’t say that much here, but it is clear from context he was joining in the mass chastisement of General Kelly. Indeed, his rebuke went viral.
Burns is the creator of an entire documentary television series on the Civil War that has been considered for years to be a classic of its genre. He is known to have a bias as all people do, but in any serious treatment of a historical subject, one expects the investigator to at least try to understand the motivations of the people he’s studying without just venturing to vilify and crucify them.
Burns was trying to treat Kelly’s statements as though he was pushing the old Lost Cause argument that the war was really about States’ Rights. Kelly did not try to do this and it’s dishonest that Burns framed it this way for the benefit of a howling, angry mob.
The “Slavery caused the Civil War. Period.” refrain has become an ingrained establishment reaction to anyone who would suggest that there’s anything more to the Civil War than diversity injustice. Their favorite evidence is the declarations of secession that unanimously mention slavery as their main motive for seceding from the Union. Case closed, right?
The problem with their case is they interpret this to mean there was a seamlessly ongoing moral crusade for Black rights and freedoms from John Brown to Martin Luther King. The problem with their virtuous narrative is that slavery causing the war didn’t mean anyone actually cared about Blacks. The truth is, nobody really did except for a tiny handful of abolitionists who nobody liked. Slavery causing the war doesn’t mean what they think it means.
The more important thing to understand about slavery is that it was an incompatible economic system with the wage-driven industrializing North. I suspect the moment Lincoln was forever set against slavery is when the institution arrived in Kentucky and depressed the local economy, playing a role in his family moving to Illinois. To really understand what slavery meant to average white people back then, you need only reflect on how average workers feel now about the onslaught of tens of millions of 3rd world immigrants.
Slavery was incompatible because free labor was toxic to the wage economy. If anything, many people who opposed slavery would have despised the Black slaves, a seeming contradiction to revisionist moralizers.
Any historian who tries to portray the US Civil War primarily as moral conflict should be banned from the profession. In reality, people were back then as they are now. The vast majority of people just cared about making a living. No one except a few fanatics wanted to go to war over moralistic crises.
No one seems to impress on us now that the core founders of the United States were members of the Southern plantation culture. When we reflect on that, we much more easily realize why they saw themselves as the legitimate ruling class of America. Many of the Southern elite were the actual relatives of people who had signed the Declaration, fought in the Revolution, and helped draft the Constitution. The Virginia planters had been at the forefront of power, prestige, and cultural influence for decades by the time tensions began to escalate out of control and one of the rules of history is no elite class ever willingly steps down and allows itself to be replaced. Humans, whether elementary school janitors or Kings, tend to defend their accustomed social status at any cost.
The industrial revolution disrupted the accustomed hierarchy in America by placing the Northeast industrialists and merchants decisively ahead of the Planters and this gap only widened over time. To make things, worse, the Northern aristocracy flooded their cities and the Midwest frontier with millions of immigrants who tended to be sympathetic to their agenda. The flood of immigrants was as big an affront to the Southerners as the democrats trying to flood the country with 3rd world foreigners is now.
If there’s one phrase that seems to reliably cause moral panic complete with crazily rolling eyes like a spooked horse it’s “Three-fifths.” All anyone can ever seem to talk about is how everyone ran around telling Black slaves they were three-fifths of a man. In their hysteria they utterly miss the point.
The Southerners were calling out the Northern elites for importing millions of people who would eventually be able to drown out the South entirely in Congress. As you might imagine, this proposition was unacceptable to them. The real point of the three fifths compromise is it was an attempt to buoy up the fading political influence of the South by counting each slave enough to preserve their power in the House. Until people can calm down and soberly evaluate events it’s impossible to understand the important thing was a political arms race that was taking place between two competing groups of elites. This same force was behind most of the other compromises, as well as the urge for territorial expansion of the US.
The first American revolution was a revolt of local elites against the control of elites who were far away. The Southern elite saw secession as another iteration and continuation of what their parents and grandparents had started barely 70 years before. We have to understand that they saw themselves with some justification as the real United States that wanted to split off from New England as they had from England.
The Southern leaders were arrogant, stupid, and decadent, though. They ultimately demolished their credibility by using heavy handed methods to try to keep rigging the whole system in their favor indefinitely, just like the present-day elites. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led directly to the birth of a Republican party singularly dedicated to opposing them and the final demise of their power over the system. The ridiculous Dredd Scott case(that a president did actually collude with) followed by the Fugitive Slave Act destroyed any remaining hope for coexistence. This duplicitous sleight of hand through control of the judiciary resembles the machinations of the present elite classes.
The present rulers imagine themselves as Lincoln and Martin Luther King when in fact they are actually closer to Roger Taney and Jefferson Davis greedily clutching to the tatters of their power and trying with all their might to move back the inexorable hands of the clock. The present elites’ sanctimonious self-image very closely aligns with how secessionist planters saw themselves.
The stupid mistake of the Southern leaders is they tried to lead the entire country as long as they could and only lobbied for secession when all hope of their dominance was lost and the best part of their bargaining power was gone. Instead of trying to rule by deceit through weak presidents like Pierce and Buchanan, they needed to go their own way, or negotiate their role as a member of a looser confederation with a revised constitution when it might have been possible. By the time Lincoln actually came to power, it was far too late for them to preserve their top positions in the hierarchy.
Even then some kind of partition or understanding may have been possible. But stubborn to the end, Jeff Davis saw that enthusiasm for a partition was not as widespread as he liked, especially in border states outside the main plantation zones. The new order of power was swiftly becoming “normalized” and for Davis, this was unacceptable. All bets were off the moment he gave the order to Beauregard to fire on Fort Sumter. To Davis, this was the publicity stunt he needed to polarize public opinion and ultimately a final monument to the stupidity of the entrenched elites who went down kicking and screaming in rivers of blood.
No class of elites ever goes down willingly so the important lesson normal people can take away from the American Civil War isn’t some sappy story with spiritual hymn music in the background. They need to realize that these present moral hysterias are the attempt of a declining elite to manipulate millions of ordinary people into scrambling to grab their chestnuts out of the fire. If people fall for it, they will find themselves shocked one day when they end up on the wrong side of history.
And what about the Black slaves? African Colonial slavery largely disappeared worldwide by the 1880s to the 1890s even from places like Brazil where slavery had existed on a hugely greater scale. The importation of slaves had already been banned decades before the Civil War in the United States. In reality, slavery would have ceased altogether in the US within 20-30 years like it did everywhere else. The industrial revolution and the economy of cheap wage labor made slavery obsolete.
Historians with a narrative to push never talk about this though because it conflicts with their interpretation of the Civil War as a war of liberation and the triumph of good over evil. History, however, rarely ever plays out like a story from a safe space coloring book.
General Kelly was right to wish that a compromise had been possible because like many wars, the Civil War was ultimately a pointless slaughter. It was effectively a gangland war between the Crips and the Bloods that millions of ordinary people got sucked into and it did not affect the overall direction the winds of history were blowing in. The founders’ republic would have become a 19th century industrial nation-state in the mold of Germany, Italy, France, or Japan in that same period of history. Slavery would have died in the South on its own without 600,000 people killed in battle.
Of course, the moralistic interpreters of the Civil War see those 600,000 lives as a necessary sacrifice for politically correct justice. Once we understand their love of pious bloodshed, we begin to realize why no one liked the extreme 19th century abolitionists. In their secret hearts, no doubt, all those dead Euro-Americans are probably just a nice bonus.
I am no fan of Kelly who I see as a handler sent by the pentagon to make sure Trump sticks to their neo-con agenda and to cockblock their political enemies from having easy access to the president. Ironically, though, this first hand experience of being targeted by the shrieking masses will drive him closer than before to the Trumpian orbit. By all means, they should keep burning down Kelly’s establishment cred until he must side with the very forces he was sent to keep under control.