14 August 2010
A Response to Professor David Blight's Article
“A man who would not defend his father's grave is worse than a wild animal.”
~ Chief Joseph
Yale history professor, author, and Civil War scholar David Blight, Ph.D., recently wrote a piece which appeared in The Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The title of the piece is: "THE MYTHS OF GRAY: WHAT GIVES THE CONFEDERACY ITS STAYING POWER?" Blight wrote the piece in response to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation. An offense that Blight, and other academics like him, cannot seem to forgive. In the piece Professor Blight asks, with apparent frustration, “Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away?”
Since Blight is a Civil War scholar, I think it is reasonable to assume he knows that the Confederacy died in April of 1865. So the title of the article begins with a false premise and what follows in the piece continues in perfect harmony. For the sake of argument and discussion, I believe it is safe to assume he is really referring to those who honor their Confederate heritage and ancestors when he uses the term “Confederacy.” Allow me to offer a contrary view from the perspective of a Confederate soldier's descendant.
As I’ve already noted, Professor Blight's piece centers on Governor McDonnell's Confederate History Month proclamation. Though the proclamation was in April, some academics and the conformist media just can’t seem to leave it alone, obsessively contemplating a collective navel—though not their own. McDonnell’s proclamation was discussed ad nauseum in the blogosphere as well as in a recent issue of Civil War Times. And now, almost three months later, Blight finds it necessary to continue the discussion. To use a common phrase, it's the gift that keeps on giving.
It appears to me that Blight's real issue is not that the Confederacy has “staying power”, as his title suggests. No, what really seems to be bothering Blight is that there are still people in the South who can find honor and heroism in those who fought for Southern Independence, which is all the proclamation was about.
Blight spends much of his time presenting “evidence” that the War for Southern Independence was fought solely over slavery, though he contradicts himself by admitting, “There were deep, long-term causes, as well as immediate, short-term catalysts that precipitated secession and armed conflict in 1861.” And also: “The war is rooted in the historically contentious separation of powers between states and the federal government.” He goes on to suggest that all these “causes” and “contentious separation” were, however, directly related to slavery. But he fails to make the case. There are a number of things wrong with Blight’s simplified analysis of something so complicated as the American Civil War. Blight reads dutifully from the current script—citing various secession documents from the Deep South to support his argument. But he omits discussion of the Upper South and overlooks the fact that the secession ordinances were political documents and proclamations. While no one would disagree many were fighting for the preservation of slavery, we know that politicians don’t always state publicly the real or complete reasons for war. Anyone remember “weapons of mass destruction?”
Was slavery central to the WBTS? Yes. But to say it was the cause of the war is over simplification and shallow analysis. It doesn’t tell the whole story.
As Clyde Wilson pointed out in reviewing Gary W. Gallagher’s and Alan T. Nolan’s book, The Myth Of The Lost Cause And Civil War History. (Indiana University Press, 2000):
A single-issue treatment of the causes of any other great war in history, like Nolan's of the Civil War, would be laughed out of school. One of the greatest of American historians, Charles A. Beard, thought economics played the major part. But in Nolan's universe Unionists are always governed by the highest motives – they are never moved like other human beings by self-interest, vanity, a lust for domination, opportunism, and just plain old misapprehension and fecklessness. Apparently the long-standing economic conflict of the sections was insignificant.
Let’s consider a modern analogy. Did the United States invade Iraq over WMD’s? That’s what we were told. Did we invade because Hussein would not permit UN arms inspections? That was the “official reason” but does it tell the whole story? No, it does not. Did we invade Iraq over possible terrorist threats to the United States? Yes. Did we invade Iraq because we wanted to establish a strong presence in the Middle East to guarantee the free flow of oil at market prices? I believe so. Did we invade Iraq in order to establish a pro-Western government that would ostensibly have positive, long term consequences? Yes. Did we invade Iraq to rid the region of a mad man like Hussein? Yes. Did we invade Iraq because the United States government wanted revenge over Hussein’s plan to assassinate Bush’s father? Yes. All of these were reasons for going to war with Iraq. (You may disagree with all of these "reasons" - that's not the point, just that there were ostensibly multiple reasons.) It is extremely naïve to take the public, political statements and documents of politicians at face value when it comes to giving the reason for invading Iraq. It is ridiculous to claim one reason for our invasion of Iraq, just as it is with most wars; there were multiple reasons and tensions that built over decades for a whole host of reasons. It was no different with the WBTS.
And, as historian Douglas Harper has noted:
The American Civil War was "about" slavery like the Boston Tea Party was "about" tea. Slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader whose party made so much of this, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question." (Emphasis mine.)
Despite what current orthodoxy proclaims as “the official” reason of the WBTS, state sovereignty was a compelling issue, as were religious and cultural differences, tariffs and other economic frictions. There were multiple causes that led to the War Between the States. And there were multiple reasons among the various states. Virginia did not secede for the same reason as did South Carolina, Alabama, et al. Blight’s citing of secession documents excludes the Upper South’s motivations. Moreover, Blight seems to accept, at face value, Southern proclamations when they support his perspective, but either ignore or dismiss those that don’t support his perspective, as he does with Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address which he admits does “not mention the word ‘slavery’; instead, since the world was now the audience, he founded the Confederacy on states' rights and the ‘consent of the governed.’”
Blight suggests we dismiss Davis's inaugural address because "the world was now the audience." How was the world any more the audience than it was with the various state secession documents? Blight then constructs another straw man: “But the Confederate Constitution mentioned and guaranteed the right of slave ownership.” True, but the United States Constitution, in its intentional avoidance of mentioning the words "slavery" or "slave", did the same. So the two documents were not at odds over the issue. The former affirmed, the latter, in dancing around the issue, assumed. The results were the same. Even President Lincoln acknowledged this fact. Moreover, the Confederate Constitution also guaranteed that the government could not impose protective tariffs nor grant subsidies. So, following Blight's line of reasoning, this proves the conflict was also over economic issues. If the mentioning of a specific issue in the Confederate Constitution supports an argument over the causes of the WBTS, let's at least be consistent.
Blight then cites Jefferson Davis’s racism in defending slavery to support his argument. I’m not going to insult the intelligence of readers here, as most are fully aware of Lincoln’s own racist views including his frequent use of racial slurs, as well as his belief that blacks would never be equals to whites. Suffice it to say that quoting either Davis or Lincoln on race proves nothing, as all 19th century Americans would be considered racists by our standards today.
Blight then asks a few rhetorical questions which undermine his whole argument that slavery was the cause of the Civil War:
Why doesn't the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history?
So what is it that involves “federal authority” that “the Confederacy” is resisting “to this day?” Slavery is certainly dead and no one would lament that fact. Civil rights and racism is no more (probably less) of a problem in the South today than it is in any other region of the country. By framing the question in this way, Blight suggests that there is strong sentiment in the South, extending since the WBTS, to resist “federal authority.” He’s right and he unwittingly provides evidence that this “conservative resistance” was the underlying principle which brought North and South to war in 1861. Since this resistance has been alive for generations, and since Blight admits it was the same sentiment alive in 1861, he undermines his whole notion that slavery was "the" cause of the WBTS. Did Blight commit a Freudian slip and thereby admit that much of the South’s inherent “conservative resistance to federal authority” was as much a cause of the WBTS as anything else?
And then we have the “quote” by John S. Mosby. In quoting the Confederacy’s most famous guerrilla warrior, Blight claims Mosby “. . . drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery.” First of all, to suggest that one quote from one Confederate officer (who, by the way, happened to become a Republican after the war) ends the never-ending debate over the causes of the WBTS is absurd on its face. Secondly, there’s a problem with the quote itself. Here is what Blight claims Mosby said: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery--a soldier fights for his country the South was my country.”
So what’s the problem? The quote is edited and incomplete. That would not necessarily be a problem had Blight not violated a fundamental rule of quoting by failing to insert ellipses (. . .) to alert the reader that the quote is incomplete and/or edited for brevity. Mosby’s original words are contained in a letter to his former Chaplain, Sam Chapman, dated 4 June 1907. Here’s the full context of the quote, without the omissions:
Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. The truth is the modern Virginians departed from the teachings of the Father’s. John C. Calhoun's last speech had a bitter attack on Mr Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of `87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. Calhoun was in a dying condition – was too weak to read it – So James M. Mason, a Virginia Senator, read it in the Senate about two weeks before Calhoun's death – Mch. 1850. Mason & Hunter not only voted against The admission of California (1850) as a free state but offered a protest against wh. the Senate refused to record on its Journal Nor in the Convention wh. Gen. Taylor had called to from a Constitution for California, there were 52 Northern & 50 Southern men – but it was unanimous against slavery -- But the Virginia Senator, with Ron Tucker & Co. were opposed to giving self-government to California. Ask Sam Yost to give Christian a skinning. I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in. The South was my country. (You can read the complete letter here.)
I believe it’s obvious that the complete quote puts a slightly different—though important—spin on Mosby’s attitude and complicates Mosby’s attitude somewhat. I wonder how Professor Blight would have viewed the same error in one of his student’s papers? But even if Mosby’s words had been more direct and to the point, so what? We could exchange cherry-picked quotes now until doomsday. Here are just a few examples:
“So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.” ~ Robert E. Lee
“With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relative, my children, my home. I have, therefore, resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State (with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed) I hope I may never be called upon to draw my sword.” ~ Robert E. Lee
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps save the Union.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
Professor Blight has his dagger, I have mine.
And then there there is this comment from Blight’s piece:
Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day? (Emphasis mine.)
The last part of that “question” is leading, presumptuous, condescending, and inflammatory and reveals an astonishing misunderstanding of the background, ethnicity, and ancestral makeup of many families in the South. Apparently, the insulated and monolithic world of academia has kept Professor Blight from the truth about many Southern families. Take mine for example: I have three great-great grandfathers who fought honorably for the Confederacy. Two were wounded in action and served time as prisoners of war. I am extremely proud of that heritage of honor and sacrifice. Yet, I am also descended from fine New England stock, which includes being a direct descendant of the Reverend Roger Williams who founded the colony of Rhode Island. I am also proud of that heritage. I married a woman of American Indian descent. She is proud of that heritage; as well she should be. She is also descended from two Confederate soldiers. She is just as proud of that heritage. Our oldest son married a beautiful young lady who was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in Puerto Rico, and then immigrated to the United States. Their union has produced two very fine and handsome boys—our grandsons. Their skin is brown. They have Confederate ancestors. Our youngest son also married a beautiful young lady whose grandfather immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. Their union has produced two very fine and beautiful daughters—our granddaughters. Their skin is brown. They have Confederate ancestors. These grandchildren, like the other nine (soon to be ten) who have a mixture of Scots-Irish, Welsh, English, German, American Indian, and Jewish ancestry will all be taught to honor their fathers and their grandfathers, which include Vietnam, Korean, WWII, WWI, and Confederate veterans. This tradition of honoring our collective and mixed heritage, including that of our Confederate ancestors, has nothing to do with how much melanin any of us happen to have in our skin. It is, in fact, based on honor, tradition, and valor. So whatever Blight is basing his “solidarity” comment on, it’s certainly not the facts. Making false assumptions regarding motivations, and based on stereotyping people you don’t know, makes for poor commentary. I could make false assumptions about Blight’s motivations, but I won’t.
I could assume that since Professor Blight, “as a historian” publicly endorsed, for President, an ultra-liberal Democrat who favors greater federal authority; and since McDonnell is a conservative Republican whose administration is resisting greater federal authority (Virginia’s lawsuits against the EPA and healthcare “reform”); and since Blight seems to indicate he’s frustrated with “the Confederacy” being “to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history”; I could assume that his real motivation in writing this piece was purely political and has nothing to do with historical analysis or perspective. I could assume that it is actually “the Confederacy’s” conservative resistance to federal authority that Blight really wishes would “just fade away.” I could assume this, but I won’t.
And finally, to answer the good Professor’s question: “Why doesn't the Confederacy just fade away?” The answer is simple—because many Southerners continue to teach our children and our grandchildren what our fathers and mothers and grandparents have taught us and passed down for generations. We still share our family history around the supper table; eating harvest that was grown and nourished from the very soil that contains the blood of our kin—blood that was shed while defending our homes. We still share our family history on the front porches of our homes in the fading light of summer evenings surrounded by great trees that were present when our ancestors lived. We still share our family history before a crackling fire in our homes on cold winter nights with our children and grandchildren gathered close around us—we continue to share the stories, the sadness, the glory, the bravery, the love, the patriotism, the loyalty, and the sacrifices of those who have gone before us. We do this, in part, that we might “honor our fathers” as the Scriptures command us. And our children and our grandchildren, despite the relentless and misguided assault on their heritage by the likes of Professor Blight, will do the same when their turn comes.