A recent post by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory piqued my interest. Kevin had the privilege of hearing renowned WBTS historian, James I. Robertson, Jr. speak at a recent conference. For those who have ever heard Bud speak, you know he never fires a dud. His commentary is always full of great insight and he has a polished delivery. His grasp of the issues, battles, and personalities that make the study of the Civil War so fascinating is as deep as it is broad. He is, without a doubt, my favorite living historian. He possesses the rare talent of being both an excellent historian and an excellent writer. There were a couple of comments made by Kevin which offer an excellent opportunity to clarify some issues and offer a different perspective. First:
"Robertson quoted Lincoln and rammed home his belief that the Civil War was nothing less than a test of whether the work of the Founding Fathers could be preserved. There is nothing surprising about such a view, but I bet some people are taken back [sic] by the fact that it is Robertson’s view. After all, Robertson is best known for biographies of Confederate leaders and he is to a certain extent the academic darling of organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans."
What I am taken aback by is that Kevin would think others would be "taken aback" that this is Professor Robertson's view. I've had the privilege of working with Professor Robertson on a couple of projects (he wrote the foreword to my book about Stonewall Jackson's black Sunday school class and was one of the historians featured in the Jackson documentary I co-produced), and I've heard him speak at least a half-dozen times. I once heard him remark that Virginia's decision to secede was "a foolish decision ." Didn't Lee feel the same way, at least initially? And his admiration for Lincoln is also no secret for those who have read his books and are familiar with his work and historical perspective and interpretation regarding the WBTS.
Yet Robertson is also well known for his admiration of Stonewall Jackson, as well as Robert E. Lee. Robertson also had an ancestor who served in the Confederate Army. He's also well known for serving as the chief historical consultant for Gods & Generals and for his opinion (often ridiculed by certain academics), that G&G was "The best Civil War movie I have ever seen and I've seen them all."
I believe Kevin's comments illustrate, at least in part, how many of those who are from outside the South, and/or are without familial Southern roots, so often misunderstand those Southerners who can revere Confederate leaders, their patriotism, and their loyalty to what the Confederates believed were constitutional principles regarding the legality of secession; while, at the same time, not necessarily agree with the wisdom or prudence of secession - and even admire Lincoln. These are major distinctions that are, apparently, difficult for some to grasp.
I believe Professor Robertson grasps them quite well and understands that there are different perspectives and differences in how various individuals approach the study of the WBTS. For example, I read this in an older post at CWM, regarding Professor Robertson's perspective and how he responded to a question from an interviewer about Gods & Generals:
Q: Are there a lot of scholars that are very Pro-Union or Pro-Confederate?
Robertson: The majority are Pro-Union. The overwhelming majority [of scholars] are Pro-Union, yes. We southerners are in the minority.
KL: "Very strange response indeed."
Really? How so? Professor Robertson simply acknowledges that these different perspectives, as nuanced as they often are, are often sectional. What is strange in my view is that this is news or "strange" to anyone.
Secondly, in the more recent post, Kevin also laments that he did not have time to,
". . . ask him [Robertson] how he views the uptick in rhetoric of secession that is coming from both the grass roots level as well as our elected leaders. To what extent should we view this as a legacy of the Civil War? I wanted to know, given his comments about the value of Union, whether we should encourage this rhetoric and whether he believes it ought to be viewed as patriotic."
But the current "uptick in rhetoric secession" is not all that recent. We heard the same rhetoric from the left in 2000 (ten years ago) and 2004 (six years ago). For example:
“These sentiments were so pronounced that they migrated into the mainstream. Speaking on ‘The McLaughlin Group’ the weekend after George W. Bush’s victory, panelist Lawrence O’Donnell, a former Democratic Senate staffer, noted that blue states subsidize the red ones with their tax dollars, and said, ‘The big problem the country now has, which is going to produce a serious discussion of secession over the next 20 years, is that the segment of the country that pays for the federal government is now being governed by the people who don’t pay for the federal government.’ A shocked Tony Blankley asked him, ‘Are you calling for civil war?’ To which O’Donnell replied, ‘You can secede without firing a shot.’” (This quote is from Salon Magazine, 16 November 2004.)
Also, Bob Beckel, who was at the time, a Senior political analyst for Fox News and who has also worked as a Democratic Party strategist and consultant, made the following comments after the 2004 election:
“‘I think now that slavery is taken care of, I’m for letting the South form its own nation. Really, I think they ought to have their own confederacy,’ Mr. Beckel said on the ‘Fox and Friends” program.’” (This quote is from the Washington Times, 9 November 2004)
And then there was the "Let's Ditch Dixie" piece that appeared in Slate Magazine after the 2000 election. That piece included these comments:
"The United States doesn't have to refight the Civil War to set matters right. Rather, North and South should simply follow the example of the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Shake hands, says it's been real, and go their separate ways. And if the South isn't inclined to leave anytime soon, then we should show them the door by seceding unilaterally."
And . . .
"Economically and socially, secession will be painless for the North. The South is a gangrenous limb that should have been lopped off decades ago." (How nice. Shows what many elites really think about Southerners, doesn't it?)
The author of the Slate piece was Mark Strauss, not someone who could be easily dismissed as some left-wing, hack-blogger. (Left-wing, yes. Hack, no.) He's a journalist and senior editor at Smithsonian Magazine and has written for a number of other left-leaning publications including The Washington Post and The New Republic.
So, again, we see that the "recent" uptick in secession rhetoric really isn't all that recent - it's just coming from the other end of the political spectrum than what it did in 2000 and 2004.
And regarding whether or not secessionist rhetoric is patriotic or not, perhaps one should ask the White House:
Freehawaii.org notes that, "In 1993 the 103rd Congress unanimously signed into Public Law the Apology Bill. America publicly admitted to illegally overthrowing its ally and trading partner the Sovereign Kingdom of Hawaii and falsely imprisoning the beloved Queen Liliuokalani. Since then, America, has done everything it can to avoid the consequences of this Bill. The inevitable result will be the restoration of a sovereign Hawaii."
The official Democratic platform (which President Obama supports) reads:
"We support the efforts for self-determination and sovereignty of native Hawaiians, consistent with principles enumerated in the Apology Resolution and the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act."
So we see that different perspectives are important to consider and that how we approach and think about the study of history influences us all to one extent or another. Different perspectives are often healthy as they, if nothing else, help us to reexamine and correct or confirm our own views. As General Patton once quipped, "If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn't thinking."