Four Interpretations

by Gail Jarvis

In a recent LRC article, Joe Sobran anticipates next year‘s Lincoln bicentennial celebration with apprehension. Like many of us, Sobran knows that the eulogizing of Honest Abe will draw heavily on the Lincoln mythology so any flaws that Lincoln might have exhibited will not see the light of day. Public school students will be treated to the standard Lincoln repertoire and politicians will make glowing tributes to the man in which they will imply some sort of mystical connection between themselves and Honest Abe. We can resign ourselves to a year-long, overblown, worshipful adoration of Abraham Lincoln.

Sobran poses this question: "But if Lincoln was so great, we must ask why nobody seems to have realized it while he was still alive?" The answer is that today’s Lincoln story is based on a selective interpretation of events. History is not an exact science like mathematics so interpretations of history often tell us more about the ideology of the historian than the period they write about. And one of the common criticisms of history is that it is compromised by contemporary political and societal trends.

Also, versions of history vary and mutate from one time period to another. This is especially true of historical versions of that locus of the era of Lincoln; the Civil War.

There are indeed countless historical renderings of this famous war. Unlike most historical events, there has never been anything approaching a consensus on the cause of the War. Historians can’t even agree on what to call it. In addition to the familiar name "Civil War," (an incorrect designation), the War has been variously described as the War of Rebellion; War of Secession, War to Save the Union, Mr. Lincoln’s War, Second American Revolution, War for Southern Independence, War of Northern Aggression, War Between the States (my preference), and so forth.

Some of these versions are similar enough to be lumped together into a "school"" of historical causes of the War Between the States. Let’s take a brief look at the four basic schools that historians have identified.

In the years immediately following the War, the "nationalist" school of historians clung to the arguments that had been put forth by the Republican party. President Lincoln claimed that the War was fought to preserve the Union. There was also opposition to allowing slavery to spread into the new western territories. It was felt that, with slave labor, settlers there could produce and sell products more cheaply than farmers in the North. Newly arrived immigrants in the North feared losing their jobs to cheaper slave labor. There was also a small but vocal group of abolitionists voicing moral opposition to slavery. But they had little impact on the populace or the government. "Nationalist" historians accepted the ""saving the Union" argument and the claim that the Union could not have survived if some states had been allowed to secede.

However, during the more industrialized 20th century, a new school of historians emerged and posited a second version of the causes of the War. These historians maintained that saving the Union and slavery were not as important a cause as the basic economic conflict between North and South. One region’s economy was becoming industrialized, while the other was still dependent upon agriculture. Charles Beard argued that Southerners resented the unfair tax burden placed on their region for protective tariffs and subsidies that favored Northern industry. Unable to effect any significant changes to the one-sided governmental policies, this gap, as well as the animosity between the two regions, widened into an irreconcilable conflict.

Similar to the "economic conflict" interpretation was the version developed by a school of historians whose views were profoundly influenced by the tragedy of World War One, with its immense loss of lives. These historians rejected both the "saving the Union and ending slavery" argument as well as the "economic conflict" theory. To them, the War resulted from the inflexibility and ineffectiveness of leaders on both sides, which prevented existing political institutions from functioning. Historian James G. Randall labeled the leaders in the period leading up to the war as "The Blundering Generation." Historians like Randall concluded that the War was a tragic mistake, that should have been and could have been avoided.

The decades preceding and following World War Two included a Marxian push for egalitarianism that wrought a significant change in the thinking of historians. They decided that history should be written in a way that promotes "social justice." So a fourth version of the causes of the war developed; a "neo-national" point of view. According to this interpretation, the War is portrayed as a collision of conflicting social values; a culture of stagnating, repressive traditions (the South) versus a progressive and virtuous culture (the North).

This clash of disparate social values, especially views on how to deal with slavery, culminated in the War. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. maintained that the institution of slavery was so inhuman that the violence of war was necessary to end it. This school of historians claims that the War eliminated slavery in the South, dethroned an aristocracy; uplifted the less privileged and opened the door for the creation of a classless society for all races and groups.

This is the version that is currently in vogue; favored by many contemporary historians, PBS, the History Channel and other media "experts." This version will be frequently cited during next year’s Lincoln Bicentennial celebration.

But, as a result of this version, we now have history textbooks for students that justifies the War as an appropriate method for the North to impose its moral beliefs upon the South. And such a viewpoint lends credence to our government’s use of our armed forces to impose its concept of "democracy" upon other nations. As many scholars are now questioning our government’s military involvement in the affairs of foreign countries, they may also feel prompted to fashion a new historical interpretation of the War Between the States, one that doesn’t portray war as necessary or beneficial.

While establishment historians appreciate how this current version benefited the Civil Rights movement, they know that we are now beset with a new set of problems. Histories of America that dwell on slavery are no longer necessary to mollify those who worry about excessive Civil Rights legislation. In fact, scholars are beginning to admit that some Civil Rights initiatives have been so zealously implemented that they have caused detrimental side effects to society at large. Many states are trying to eliminate ill-advised race-based endeavors and the Supreme Court has begun to overturn some of them. Consequently, historians may feel that a revised perspective of the War Between the States may now be permissible.

But there will be reluctance to abandon the current version because, as contemporary historian Edward L. Ayres explains: "It is not merely that all the evidence is in and accounted for, that historians have finally found the one true interpretation. It may be, rather, that we like the current story too much to challenge it very deeply and that we foreclose questions by repeating familiar formulas. No one could ask for a richer subject, a better plot line of conflict and resolution, struggle and triumph, good and evil."

But a history of the War Between the States shouldn’t read like a medieval morality play.

It should try to be more objective and present a more balanced view; hopefully one that does not put the onus of slavery solely upon the South, but takes the North’s complicity in the institution into account.

The majority of the old well-to-do families in the North, especially in New England, acquired their wealth directly or indirectly from the slave trade. Northern textile mills were dependent on Southern grown cotton. Northern shipping lines transported Southern grown cotton to other countries. Northern banks and investors financed Southern planters. Northern insurance companies insured their slaves. In fact, it was estimated that by 1850, Southern planters owed Northern commercial organizations about $300 million dollars – an enormous sum for that time. Southern planters resented the enormous commissions and interest they were forced to pay Northern middlemen, bankers, agents, and shippers.

Historians who truly wish to create a new version of the War will have to deflate some deep-seated and highly popular folklore. Much of the Lincoln mythology will have to be excised. And a new version of the War Between the States should make it clear that, like all wars, it was not fought for moral reasons but for revenue, power, and politics. Certainly, a new version should indicate that the differences between North and South could have been resolved without war. As one scholar recently stated:

"With the passing of time, all wars seem pointless. The America Civil War certainly looks that way at this time in history."

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