Last Thursday a rancid article appeared on Salon.com, written by the magazine’s editor Joan Walsh. Titled “Everything you know about the Civil War is wrong”, it is a fawning review of David Goldfield’s newly published “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.” Walsh writes:
On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Americans are engaged in new debates over what it was about. Southern revisionists have long tried to claim it wasn’t about slavery, but rather “Northern aggression” – which is a tough sell since they seceded from the Union despite Lincoln’s attempts at compromise on slavery, and then attacked the federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina. That would be Southern aggression, by any standard.
But there’s still room for smart revisionism. Instead of the traditional view that finds the Civil War a great moral and political triumph, David Goldfield calls it “America’s greatest failure” in his fascinating new book, “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation.” It killed a half-million Americans and devastated the South for generations, maybe through today. And while many Northern Republicans came to embrace abolishing slavery as one of the war’s goals, Goldfield shows that Southerners are partly right when they say the war’s main thrust was to establish Northern domination, in business and in culture. Most controversially, Goldfield argues passionately — with strong data and argument, but not entirely convincingly — that the Civil War was a mistake. Instead of liberating African Americans, he says, it left them subject to poverty, sharecropping and Jim Crow violence and probably retarded their progress to become free citizens.
Apparently this kind of objectively pro-secessionist revisionism has gladdened the hearts of at least one racist website in the South. The Southern Nationalist Network endorses Walsh’s review, stating “It’s … pleasantly surprising that Salon.com has is running an article by Joan Walsh which reviews David Goldfield’s new book America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. While Walsh’s article and Goldfield’s book are not Southern-friendly, they do attack many of the myths supporting the Yankee view of American history. For this reason, Walsh’s article should be welcomed and applauded by Southern nationalists.”
(For what it’s worth, the Southern Nationalist Network is militantly opposed to intervention in Libya and condemns Obama as an “imperial” president.)
If I ever had access to big time pundit like Walsh, I’d ask her what she meant by this:
It’s popular to suggest that had Lincoln lived, Reconstruction would have been more successful. But Lincoln’s pattern of compromise throughout his political career makes speculating on what he’d have done very difficult. Goldfield makes clear, though, that Lincoln wanted reconciliation with the South, not Southern humiliation.
Southern humiliation? What the fuck?
This is a dead giveaway that there is a natural affinity between the Southern Nationalist Network and David Goldfield’s scholarship. The idea that the south was being “humiliated” is a canard that belongs to “Birth of the Nation” and “Gone With the Wind”, not a liberal online publication like Salon.com. What exactly did this humiliation amount to? Having former slaves as Congressmen? Putting up with uppity men and women who insisted on their right to forty acres and a mule?
In Goldfield’s version of post-Civil War history, things turned out badly for the Blacks because their emancipators were committed to “free soil and free labor” to use Eric Foner’s formulation:
Republicans were first and foremost the party of small business, an emerging class of industrialists, the nascent middle class, and anti-Catholic nativists. They despised the working class – or denied it existed. Lincoln himself talked of the emerging caste of wage-earners optimistically as “young beginners,” who would work for a time, save money, then buy land and/or their own business. Republicans either couldn’t imagine an America with a permanent class of laborers (like Lincoln), or they dreamed of one, but found ways to convince those workers it was all in their interest. In their defense, in the decades after the Civil War, the Horatio Alger, rags to riches story was never more true.
When reading this, I could not help but think of the revisionism of Eugene Genovese, who started out as a Marxist but ended up as a neo-confederate. For Genovese—like many 60s radicals—the big bourgeoisie was to blame for the nation’s ills (and surely it was.) In developing a counter-narrative of the South, one in which the plantation was far more benign than the northern factory, Genovese eventually became seduced by the pastoralism of the Old South, the same world that the Southern Nationalist Network celebrates.
There is a grain of truth in Goldfield’s analysis. The northern bourgeoisie was reactionary and anti-working class but the failure to follow through on Reconstruction did not flow from their own class interests but from a perceived need to get on with the business of business in the South even if it meant retaining the semi-feudal institutions that the northern victory was intended to remove.
According to a NY Times review of “America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation,” Goldfield prefers what we would call centrists nowadays:
Goldfield’s heroes are those who, in the face of this impasse, sought a solution short of secession — men like Alexander Stephens, a congressman from Georgia, later a reluctant vice president of the Confederacy, who was, in his words, ”utterly opposed to mingling religion with politics,” and Stephen Douglas, a figure ”of selfless patriotism and personal courage” who, recognizing his impending defeat in the election of 1860, campaigned through the South in an effort to save the Union and, after the attack on Fort Sumter, threw his support to Lincoln.
One supposes that Stephen Douglas was a “patriot” and had “personal courage”, for what that’s worth, but he was also a supporter of slavery. In 1854 he backed the Kansas-Nebraska act that would allow settlers in new territories to decide whether they would permit slavery or not. And just three years later he gave his nod to the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court that said that slaves were not protected by the Constitution.
More fundamentally, the problem with Goldfield’s book is that it fails to understand that social revolutions tend to be messy affairs and not the sort of thing that follow some conscious plan. The North represented progress in history because it rose to the challenge of wiping out a mode of production in the South that was not only a fetter on future industrial progress but also a violation of fundamental human rights. Because the working class was too weak politically to act in its own independent interests, the northern industrialists were able to betray the broader vision of Reconstruction which would have threatened inequality in the North as well.
There will come a time in when a Third American Revolution will be on the agenda, one in which the working class will be in the driver’s seat. And at just such a time, people like Joan Walsh and David Goldfield will wring their hands over the prospects of a change so sweeping that it might unleash unpredictable results. This much we can be sure of. The longer we persist in maintaining a social system that will destroy the planet either through environmental or thermonuclear cataclysm, the deeper the hole we will be digging for ourselves. In a time of polarization such as we are living through now, there will be voices urging restraint but we should take our cue from those Northern Protestants like John Brown who threw caution to the wind.