« Previous  
 Next »

Gilbert: In Fact Slavery

02/01/11 5:55PM By Peter Gilbert
 MP3   Download MP3 

(HOST) As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, the Vermont Humanities Council has been sending out weekly emails reporting on what happened - and what people said and wrote - during that week 150 years ago.  Commentator and council executive director Peter Gilbert thinks that this weekly "play-by-play" brings the cause of the war into sharp focus.

(GILBERT) It's often said that history is written by the victors.  The American Civil War is an exception to that rule. For nearly a century its history was, to a large extent, written by southerners, who asserted, among other things, that the South seceded not to preserve slavery, but on a matter of principle - states rights.  That's what a lot of us were taught growing up.  In recent decades, however, most historians agree that the war was in fact, about slavery.

A hundred and fifty years ago today, delegates to a state convention in Texas voted to secede - the seventh state to do so.  If one looks at what they themselves - and other states - said about why they were seceding, it's one issue - slavery.  Yes, they asserted forcefully that states have the right to secede; but the reason they're compelled to exercise that right?  Slavery.  In Texas they wrote specifically about the North's hostility to what they called the South's "beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, [and the North's advocating] the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color - a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law."

Why has the war's cause been such a sensitive issue?  First, after the war, even the South recognized that the preservation of slavery was hardly an idealistic cause.  Moreover, after the war, we all - north and south - wanted to move beyond the war and the division.  We were reluctant to talk about the ugly truth that race, and slavery, was the nub of the matter, and the inconvenient truth that the North was, to some degree, complicit with that "peculiar institution."  The North's economy - especially manufacturing and banking - was linked to the perpetuation of slavery in the South.

And so, as writer Robert Penn Warren, historian David Blight, and others have pointed out, America implicitly agreed not to talk about slavery; we agreed to let Reconstruction fail in the South.  (We do get compassion fatigue sometimes, don't we, and weary of nation-building, too.)  The nation agreed to let southern blacks be disenfranchised and re-subjugated under Jim Crow.  (Indeed it might be said that the South lost the war but won the peace.)  And we agreed to honor the bravery, sacrifice, and dedication of those who fought on both sides, and, like a dysfunctional family, agreed not to talk about why eleven southern states seceded.

There's a famous photo from the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, of old veterans, white men wearing Blue and Gray, shaking hands where they had once fought a bloody battle.  That reconciliation of North and South may only have been possible because black Americans had been written out of the story.

It would take a century before the Civil Rights movement insisted that we address the issue of race.  As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, our nation still wrestles with it.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter