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Essay: The Civil War taught us to fight for the right to be wrong

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; R03

Twice before, the United States has celebrated major anniversaries of the Civil War, and twice before, a nervous sense of reticence governed the events. Fifty years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox, there were still living Civil War veterans, racial antagonism was virulent throughout the country, and segregation was both pervasive and institutionalized. Fifty years later, when the nation commemorated the centennial of the war, communism loomed as an outside threat, while many believed that the civil rights era was creating instability from within. In both cases, official policy was to stress reconciliation rather than reopening old wounds.

Now we have come to the 150th anniversary, and the habits of treading lightly on the old divisions that caused the Civil War are thoroughly engrained. Interest in the war remains vital -- the Library of Congress estimates that it has about 26,000 volumes about the war, twice as many as about the Revolutionary War. In a nation that frets about historical illiteracy, we congratulate ourselves on our passion for the Civil War, even as politicians and self-appointed cultural defenders regularly obfuscate its causes and allow essential chapters to be distorted or discarded from the annals.

As the 1968 Civil War Centennial Commission report to Congress described the state of American history before the last big anniversary, "The social, cultural and economic history of the war era were neglected in favor of drum, bugle, and cannon smoke." We are not much better off today.

And so some of the most powerful lessons of the war years, and the events leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln, remain elusive. The Civil War taught us, as a nation, our patterns of argument, our impatience with hypocrisy, our sense that every election is an apocalypse. It taught us how to be stupid, how to provoke our enemies, how to resist modernity, how to fight on after logic and argument have failed. Even the central idea upon which Lincoln ran for office, and which governed his decisions over the course of his presidency, is still painful for many people to accept.

Lincoln, who was elected the 16th president of the United States on Nov. 6, 1860, came to office believing history was on his side.

Two Americas

Shortly after he was elected president, Lincoln had a vision: He looked in the mirror and saw his face twice, one image "reflecting the full glow of health and hopeful life" and the other "showing a ghostly paleness." According to his friend Ward Lamon, Lincoln believed this was a premonition of the future, that he would die during a second term in office.

There is a simpler and less superstitious reading. For years, Lincoln and his Republican allies had argued that there were two Americas -- a house divided -- in the young republic: a vital, strong and growing North, and an enervated South, doomed by slavery to failure. Republicans were more than capable of what Southerners decried as arrogance and "insolence" in their sociology of the South. But the Republican view was based on ineluctable fact: The North had more and better railroads, canals and schools; its economy was more diverse; its population was growing. Some strata of Southern society flourished when cotton prices were high -- the average white male was richer in the South than the North -- but by almost every social and economic metric, the South was behind and falling more so.

But Lincoln's view of two Americas was also based on an idea which we might call History, with a capital H. This was a 19th-century understanding of history, which included and transcended religion, economics, politics and morality. The idea of History as an upward spiral of progress is out of fashion today. But for Lincoln, it was everywhere, including in the books in his Springfield, Ill., law office, and on the north pediment of the U.S. Capitol, where a sculpture finished in 1863 shows America embodied as a woman in flowing robes, flanked by figures of progress, with a sun rising at her feet.

History, with a capital H, could be read even in the smallest details of daily life. When Northerners toured the South, they saw fences in disrepair. William Seward, who would be Lincoln's secretary of state, wrote in 1846 that in the South "the land was sterile, the fences mean." The broken fence, like an unmowed lawn, was a visual metaphor for a broken society in which slavery was dragging an entire culture into barbarism.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who as a father of American landscape design would create refuges for the huddled, wage-earning, urban masses common in the North, visited the South and compared the two regions, asking, "Why it is that here has been stagnation, and there constant, healthy progress . . . ?"

His answer: "It is the old, fettered, barbarian labor-system."

Fences were an ideal image to explain the "Free Labor" ideal of Northern Republicans. A multiplicity of fences on the landscape suggested a community of prosperous small entrepreneurs, invested in property; and a well-maintained fence demonstrated a man's commitment to self-improvement and prosperity. The broken fence proved that the laborers of the South -- slaves -- would never be emotionally invested in their work, and by extension in economic progress.

The broken fence had no place in Lincoln's greatest, and perhaps most flawed, idea: that there was a nascent middle-class utopia rising in the North, a mix of small farms and industry, in which work invested citizens in community and labor wasn't just about survival but a positive process of education. He seemed to envision Thomas Jefferson's yeoman farmer educated in a land grant university. In an 1859 speech, Lincoln described what he called "thorough work," which meant not just productive farming, but mental and intellectual engagement with labor. He praised the effects of "thorough cultivation upon the farmer's own mind," and by extension, he argued that by "the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward."

Lincoln had a fatalistic side, a belief in deterministic forces that were more powerful than free will. But he also believed in progress. A European intellectual listening to his speeches would hear dim but clear echoes of the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that there was a pattern and a progress to history, rather than endless cycles of growth, violence and decay. And perhaps also Hegel, for whom history involved epic conflicts and assimilation of past accomplishment into a grand "progress of the consciousness of Freedom."

Whether Lincoln, whose law partner William Herndon said "read less and thought more than any other man" (in America), had direct contact with these authors' work doesn't matter. Their ideas were everywhere densely interwoven with the narcissistic certainty that America was the future of the world. The North was bustling with new technologies and with what Isaiah Berlin would call a "new race of propagandists -- artists, poets, priests of a new secular religion, mobilizing men's emotions, without which the new industrial world could not be made to function."

Among those propagandists was Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary who would serve Lincoln as an ambassador and a general and who said to slaveholders in 1860: "You stand against a hopeful world, alone against a great century, fighting your hopeless fight . . . against the onward march of civilization."

Slavery, abolished in Mexico in 1829, throughout the British Empire beginning in 1833, and much of South America by the 1850s, stood athwart that onward march, that powerful, determining force of History.

The Southern argument

Against this idea, what could the South oppose? "Of 143 important inventions patented in the United States from 1790 to 1860, 93 percent came out of the free states," historian James McPherson wrote in "Battle Cry of Freedom." The South had less than a fifth of the country's industrial capacity, and despite periodic wake-up calls and exhortations to invest in infrastructure, it was greatly deficient in canals and railroads. Its "defensive-aggressive" temper in the 1850s, McPherson wrote, "stemmed in part from a sense of economic subordination to the North."

The South could appeal to the Constitution, which protected slavery. But Lincoln -- who had repeatedly said that although he abhorred slavery, he opposed only its extension -- had already assured them he wouldn't violate that protection. They could claim that slaves, as property, were better treated than Northern workers who were at the mercy of the market; but that meant that slaves were merely tools and less than human. They could appeal to Southern Honor, which seemed to mean the right to be left alone, but even that idea of honor was outdated. Southern Honor was hierarchical, almost feudal, and increasingly arcane in a world that, as Kwame Anthony Appiah demonstrates in his recent book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," had come to base honor more on merit, esteem and shared human dignity.

The South did, however, have anger, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "angry parties went from bad to worse." Frequently in the writing of Lincoln, a lawyer, logician and the only president with a registered patent, one senses that he was arguing into the void. Shortly after the 1860 election, Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed, a Southern sympathizer (though ultimately loyal), wrote, "The eyes of the whole nation will be upon you, while unfortunately the ears of one half of it will be closed to any thing you might say." Lincoln, quoting the biblical book of Ezekiel, said the South "has eyes but does not see, and ears but does not hear." Before he even took office, the South had become "a whirlwind" of secession fever, and History was in motion.

Bravery and bromides

Every politician wants the mantle of Lincoln, but few would wear it entire. Conservatives resist his focus on federal power, while liberals are embarrassed by his devotion to the untrammeled market. After the war, the Gilded Age showed the fault lines in his middle-class utopia. Lincoln was also an enthusiastic proponent of shipping liberated slaves to Africa, a necessity he premised on consciousness of his own racism. He also died before he wrote a definitive explanation of his thinking, unlike Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who wrote a book asserting that "the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict."

One might easily believe that, given how irrelevant African Americans and their history were to the first major anniversaries. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson attended the Great Reunion of Northern and Southern veterans at Gettysburg -- and then allowed the segregation of federal offices. A glance at the annals of Congress during the 50th anniversary reveals how much the war was still an open wound. There were dozens of bills still dealing with the human wreckage of war -- "Bills relative to issue of artificial limbs to officers, soldiers, sailors, and marines" and "Bill to pay claims for use, occupation, or destruction of churches, libraries, etc. . . ."

In the late 1950s, with the congressionally established Centennial Commission planning what its chairman, Ulysses S. Grant III, called "the greatest pageant in our history," one legislator called for the suppression of any lingering resentments about the war while "America's survival is being challenged by communist ideology." But that didn't stop organizers of a commission meeting in Charleston, S.C., a few years later from choosing a segregated hotel, which in turn caused "a Northern state commission with a Negro member" to protest. President John F. Kennedy proposed a compromise: The commission would meet on a desegregated naval base near the city. A congressional move to defund the commission unless it guaranteed future meetings would be desegregated failed by a lopsided vote.

It seems there's never been a good time to consider properly what Lincoln really accomplished, which was to lead the country during its primal encounter with modernity. The country is again polarized, and the easy default will be to fall back on the bromides of the war: that it brought suffering to all, that all were complicit in the sin of slavery, that no matter the causes or the ideas behind them, we always have the comforting narratives of bravery and leadership.

If one reads the annals closely, however, it becomes clear that the Civil War legitimized something essential, and dark, that remains with us. Ultimately, the South was fighting for the right to be wrong, for the right to retain (and expand) something ugly and indefensible. It lost the war, and slavery was abolished. But the right to be wrong, the right to resist the progress of freedom, the right to say "no, thank you" to modernity, to leave the fences in disrepair and retreat into a world of private conviction, remains as much a part of the American character as the blood spilled to preserve the Union. Nothing great has been accomplished in America since the Civil War -- not footsteps on the moon, or women's suffrage, or the right (if not the reality) of equal, unsegregated education -- without people also passionately fighting for that dark right, too.

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