The Cold Civil War – Part I: ANTEBELLUM

The classic GOP response to removing statues of Confederate leaders or re-christening military bases named for Confederate officers is an exasperated, “What next?  Scratch Ben Franklin off the $100 bill?  Burn the Declaration of Independence?”

Their untenable point being, the Founding Fathers owned slaves; therefore, removing statues or re-naming bases is tantamount to demanding the obliteration of our nation’s entire history. 

“Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon”: Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

The insinuation embedded in this bogus argument is that as slavery is no longer legal in the United States, any issues directly or indirectly related to slavery are moot.

The false correlation is that we can’t 86 a statue of Robert E. Lee unless we also demolish the Jefferson Memorial.  That changing the name of Fort Bragg obliges us to re-label the Washington Monument.  That our approach to addressing one evil needs must be our approach to addressing them all.

The kernel of truth is the bit about the Founding Fathers.  The landed gentry who ran the American Revolution and subsequently took charge of the newly-minted US of A were slave owners.  Every one of ‘em.

The fundamental lie is that the ubiquitous commemorations of the Confederacy — the bases, vessels, educational institutions, parks, libraries, and people named in honor of Confederate big-wigs and victories, the Confederate anthems tagged as “traditional American music” that until very recently were taught to schoolchildren and played by marching bands nationwide, the statues, the memorial graveyards, the pro-Rebel stance of universally popular songs (The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down), the glorified “Lost Cause” slant of Civil War films and TV programs (Gone With the Wind, To Appomattox), the proudly displayed Confederate flags and proudly worn Johnny-Reb apparel — serve to preserve our nation’s history, when in fact, they serve to distort it.

The United States of America was born tainted by two race-related original sins:  the genocide and subjugation of the continent’s indigenous peoples and the institution of slavery.  In both cases, the sinning began well before the Founding Fathers founded squat.  And in both cases, the sinning went on . . . well, it’s still going on.  The trappings have changed, but the abuse, inequity, and oppression prevail.

Thanks to a journal entry by a British privateer who brought “20 and odd” Africans to what is now Hampton, Virginia and sold them for provisions, historians lit upon August 1619 as the birthdate of slavery in America.  More astute historians note that captive Africans were likely in this hemisphere in the 1400s and present in regions of the future United States as early as 1526.

As to who brought the first enslaved Africans to America, the prime suspect is the guy who “discovered” it, Christopher Columbus (aka Cristoforo Colombo (Italian), Cristóbal Colón (Spanish), or (my choice) Cristòfer Colum (Catalan: click HERE if you’re curious).  The quotes are there to point out that the Americas were inhabited because they’d already been discovered, that Leif Erikson’s voyages to Vinland preceded Columbus’ to the New World by about 500 years, and that Chris never set foot in North America.  The land he claimed for Spain was La Isla Española — Hispaniola, now the Greater Antilles, home to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Though the 1490s timeline dovetails nicely with what is known about the origins of the European slave trade, experts are still debating whether or not the Africans that reached Hispaniola with Columbus were free men.  Until proven otherwise, surely we should assume they were not. Is it likely that in 1492, a handful of free Africans would elect to help Spain — a nation that had been slave-raiding in Africa since 1441 — expand its global reach?  Entertaining doubts about the status of these men perpetuates the myth of 1619, thereby minimizing the extent and duration of the Euro-American investment in the brutal business of human bondage.

Africans were forcibly transported to these shores long before the colonies were a thing.  Slavery was initially integral to the survival of the first fragile settlements, later to the established colonies’ economic success.  When the colonies broke from Britain, enslaved African-Americans fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, trusting either in the Patriots’ egalitarian ideology or the Redcoats’ promises of freedom.  While their valor did earn the surviving members of America’s first Black regiment the freedom they innately deserved, when the war was over, slavery was grandfathered into the new Republic without hesitation.

A few signers of the Declaration of Independence noticed the discrepancy between the humanitarian sentiments of their political philosophy (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) and the inhumane institution permeating the socio-political fabric of their daily lives.

It so bothered them, indeed, they sometimes jotted down how bothered they were in their private journals.  They weren’t bothered enough to free their slaves, of course.  Except kinda-sorta George Washington, who arranged for a portion of his 300+ slaves to be released from their forced servitude . . . when he was dead.  Better than making them accompany him to the after-life to wait upon him there, I suppose.  Progress?

The Founding Fathers’ slightly-pricked consciences also inspired them to go to great lengths to obfuscate the existence of slavery in the new nation’s official paperwork.  The words slave/slaves never appear in the Constitution.  In their place are the euphemisms “other persons,” “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit,” and “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof.”

It’s fashionable — predominantly among historians and Constitutional scholars of the white persuasion — to believe the framers’ deliberate ambiguity stemmed from their hope and awareness that slavery would someday be passé in America.  For me, claiming they kept things vague in order to keep the Constitution relevant in more enlightened times gives them way too much credit for Nostradamus-like prescience.  My money says they used elusive language to dodge the moral imperative of condemning an evil they weren’t about to give up.  Scads of people abhor Amazon’s unjust business practices, yet shop Amazon all the time because it’s cheap and convenient.  Not on a moral par with owning other human beings, granted. But as rationalizations go, it’s the same deal. 

Alluding to slavery instead of naming it did nothing to improve the lives of the enslaved.  Obscuring the obvious did, however, provide the government a loophole through which it could officially tolerate and regulate the institution without overtly sanctioning it.  As to whether the infamous three-fifths clause proves slaves were viewed as property or as human beings with a limited wealth-producing capacity, the debate still rages.  (Article I, Section 3:  “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”)

Today’s amended Constitution is far less racist, but that’s nothing to boast about.  Even using the overly-generous 1619 metric, it took 251 years and a Civil War to make slavery illegal (Thirteenth Amendment), make former slaves citizens (Fourteenth Amendment), and ensure those citizens the right to vote (Fifteenth Amendment).

The slave trade was abolished in 1807; again, nothing to boast about.  The ban only applied to international trade and the importation of new slaves.  By then, the North’s reliance on slavery had diminished, but the South’s was greater than ever, thanks to the burgeoning cotton industry.  Even so, the bill garnered support from several Southern congressmen.  With a self-sustaining slave population of more than 4 million (children born to slaves were born into slavery), America had no need for imports.  To the contrary, for slave-owners, the ban was a welcome opportunity to increase the substantial profits they were already making in the domestic slave trade by eliminating the international competition.

The divergence between the North’s and South’s motivations for ratifying the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves was a harbinger of deeper divisions to come.  But what we forget, what our history books gloss over, what white America can’t wrap its denial-rigged brain around is that before slavery split the nation apart, it was the glue that held it together.

Slaves built the Capitol in the North and taught Southern farmers how to cultivate rice.  Technological innovations that helped catapult America into the Industrial Age, like the grain reaper, were invented by slaves, though their masters received all the patents and credit.  Slaves managed America’s households and raised her children.  Slaves were the heart, soul, and backbone of the maritime industry; without the enslaved riggers, pilots, mariners, shipwrights, lightermen, coopers, caulkers, sailmakers, and boatmen, loading, unloading, and transporting goods within the US or abroad would have been nigh-on impossible.

America’s white-washed antebellum narrative epically fails at painting an authentically colorful picture of our nation’s early days.  Consequently, white-America’s collective memory has amnesia when it comes to recalling the two slaves (whose names are lost to posterity) (and a woman, btw — Catherine Greene) who were instrumental in the invention of the cotton gin, or Ben York, William Clark’s slave since childhood, who was an integral part of the Lewis & Clark’s Expedition, or James Bowie’s and Stephen Austin’s slaves who lived (3 of them) or died at the Alamo . . .

Ironically, it’s the GOP that remembers slavery was endemic to colonial America and the American Republic for 2½ centuries . . . but only when it’s striking a blow for the Confederate cause by defending its extant symbols.

What’s that?  The Civil War ended in 1865?  The Confederate States of America was defeated?  There is no “Confederate cause”?

Oh, I beg to differ.  Or I will, next time, in The Cold Civil War – Part II:  WHISTLING DIXIE.

8 thoughts on “The Cold Civil War – Part I: ANTEBELLUM”

  1. Please don’t beg, as we don’t differ
    History is Truth because it will always be exactly as it was. Nothing can change History.
    The Civil war is only a symptom of a disease. The disease is Greed. Not only is slavery not over, it now has multiple forms One is a caste system that ignores color. It so subtle is has been embraced by all colors, faiths, creeds and political parties in this country. In what other world would such an unnatural separation of wealth have occurred? Where else could the economic system be supported by the contribution of $14,000,000,000.000 to the mortgage and lending industry? A system that sells self bondage as “ownership”? (Don’t shoot me. Honest to all the Gods of Creation I am not a communist)
    For a society to know the truth of history it must be gleaned from the records of its participants. (Providing they survived to record it) When viewed from the present, events of past changes have given birth to huge libraries filled with tome after tome of recorded events from the viewpoints of those who were there.
    In the case of the American Civil War these records are not often viewed by many. I am of the opinion that both financial pressure and fear of displeasure from the vanquished muffle these facts. If Reconstruction had been carried out as diligently as the occupation of Germany and Japan were after WWII, the Civil War the current apathy toward slavery would have been greatly reduced. Instead the problem was ignored. Currently true public opinion embraces the bigotry, hate, disregard and cruelty of the maximum inhumanity of mankind. A case in point of the power of true public opinion (meaning is what we say really what we believe) can be illustrated by the smoking phenomena. After years and years of general acceptance of a habit due to one of the most insidious propaganda machines. Something happened. A great portion of all but the most self indulgent uncaring population quit smoking. I give you the late Rush Limbaugh and his statement that he felt he deserved a medal for smoking so many cigars. (How’s that working for you Rush??) If the “True Public Opinion” of racism underwent the same metamorphosis as “The Cigarette” this would be a different world.
    Spending time in Germany we witnessed a society that ia facing its greatest mistake with an honesty than I don’t see at home. I don’t pretend to know if it is courage on the part of the Germans, the rules imposed on them by the Allied forces or both. The results are what counts. The buildings and monuments remaining from the Nazi regime are well maintained and have been turned into reminders of terror and places of learning a better way. We sat in the courtroom where the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials took place and listened to the recorded trials. We visited Hitler’s parade grounds and stadiums that are now public parks. We saw walls recently painted with the slogans ” Krieg nicht mehr” and “Nie wieder”. We talked to people on the streets and in restaurants. I had similar experiences while working in Japan.
    As far as Reconstruction after the Civil War: new laws and constitutional amendments permanently altered the federal system and the definition of American citizenship. Laws, constitutional amendments, systems and definitions are only words without enforcement. In this case they were only brought to the attention of the Confederate States and given temporary to no support. After a brief period the Union moved out and deserted the people we supposedly fought for. The Union soon left their Enemy (Antebellum does mean “after War”) to their own devices while pouring fuel on still smoldering fires. i.e. Licensing businessmen from the Union gain financial advantage over the defeated by exploiting those of the uneducated “freed” slave population that were pushed into public office.
    Now, over 150 years later, ill informed persons are attempting to destroy the remaining records of the past while inflaming the situation and causing further alienation in a country that has never healed it’s wounds.
    As I said the Civil War was only a symptom of the disease.

    • Ah, this is brilliant! We’re so in sync, you’ve basically written my next post(s) for me! (Only mine will be far less succinct, and it’ll take me far longer to get them posted.)
      True, the Civil War is a symptom of what ails us: GREED (or as I like to call it, capitalism).
      Since I’ll be diving into the Civil War in some depth directly, I’m going to leapfrog your insightful comments on that topic for now. I hope you’ll read my next public post (or maybe 2?) as a personal response to your eloquent words.
      But I must respond to your thoughts on, memories of, and experiences in Germany–because as I was writing, my mind went there as well. The de-Nazification programs instituted by the US after WWII were short-lived; at least in part because we had too many ex-Nazis we wanted to do business with. But according to everyone I know who grew up in Germany, lessons on what happened and the vigilance needed to ensure it never happens again was part of their high school education. How — and why — we failed to safeguard our own nation from the Confederate cause and instead have engaged in 156 years of Cold Civil War … like I said, stay tuned for Part II. I beg you. (lol)

  2. Remind us, lest we never forget! (Or in the case of some, inform us so we are enlightened!) Looking forward to part 2 . . .

    • I wager it’s the former (reminder), rather than the latter (enlightenment) among my savvy readership. ;) And not much new here, for anyone who’s been paying attention.
      But my best-ever history teacher (freshman year HS, Mr. Guelcher, one of 5 instructors in the US to win a prestigious teaching award from Yale University that year) taught the folly of looking at history as a series of isolated historical events and periods. History is a process, he said. Illustrating his point by drawing a meat grinder on the blackboard, he told us we’d never understand what had gone on in the grinder or what came out of it, if we didn’t know what went into it. Seeing as Mr. G had us ignoring the dismissal bell in order to hear the end of his lecture on the fall of the Roman Empire — a finale that had us literally leaping from our desks and onto our chairs with excitement — I thought I’d best take his lesson to heart and start my rant on the Cold Civil War with a “what went into it” post.

  3. Great stuff as always. Of course, here in Ireland, we are no strangers to the impact of colonial neighbours. But the real disaster is the death of history. And we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, as per the quote.

    If it’s one thing colonialism did to a grotesque degree, it was plundering. And today, it cannot plunder the present, so it chooses to plunder the past for its own ends. Apart from that, it’s business as usual. :-(

    • Thanks, Dec. Too true, Ireland has a tragic wealth of experience with colonization, and from a much earlier date. After the Tudor “reconquest”, the Plantation Period, the Irish Rebellion, and those wars in the 2nd half of the 17th century (Cromwellian-something… Williamite?), many Irish came to America, making the switch from colonized to colonizer. They were all for independence during the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, though more men (and women!) of Irish descent fought for the Union than for the Confederacy, the most notable of the bunch was Patrick Cleburne, “the Stonewall of the West,” a famous Confederate commander who now has a city in Texas and counties in Alabama and Arkansas named after him.
      TMI? I’m on a history roll here …


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