Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Standards of the Day

As a history teacher, I try to remind my students that one of the dangers of studying the past is assuming an undeserved superiority over our predecessors.  In my experience, the Vietnam war is particularly ripe for this treatment: “how could they be so wrong?”

But that reflexive response is due to the simple fact that we know something that policymakers did not know: how the story ends.  Whenever we view the past through that lens, it is easy—too easy—for people in the past to seem unimaginably dumb.  We need to put ourselves in their shoes, and see things as they saw them, if we truly seek to understand history.

So I am sympathetic to the idea that we need to approach the past with a certain humility.  That, however, is not what Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, was doing yesterday when he defended the gala held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession:

It’s hard for us to judge the situation that existed then by today’s standards.  I think slavery is an abomination.  But it’s part of history, legal at the time.  I don’t agree with it, but it was.

Indeed, it was.  But as Burbage and the rest of the Confederacy’s defenders refuse to admit, the secession movement was dedicated to insuring that it always would be.

But by referring to “today’s standards,” Burbage cleverly uses the truth I note above.  Today’s standards are not yesterday’s standards.  But what were the standards of 1860?

The unstated implication of Burbage’s statement is that slavery was not considered an “abomination” back then.  And that is simply not true.

People did not discover slavery’s evil in the 20th century.  Patrick Henry in 1773 called it a “lamentable evil” and looked forward to abolition.  Thomas Jefferson called it a “necessary evil.”  Yes, he said “necessary,” but he did not pretend it was anything but evil.  Thus when John C. Calhoun in the 1830s called it a “positive good,” it represented a regression, a forceful denial of what slavery’s earlier defenders readily admitted.

Even before the Declaration of Independence, in 1775, American Quakers formed an antislavery society in the colonies.  In 1783, they petitioned Congress to end the slave trade, which they said was “in opposition to the solemn declaration often repeated in favor of universal liberty.” 

Pennsylvania, in part due to Quaker influence, passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, and six other northern states followed in the next 24 years.

In 1794, the French Republic voted to abolish slavery in its colonies.  In 1833, the British abolished the slavery, and devoted significant naval resources to policing against the international slave trade (thus gaining great enmity among American southerners).

By 1860, most European states—and most other central and South American states—had abolished slavery.

In short, by the standards of western civilization, slavery was already considered an "abomination" in 1860.  Yes, it was legal in the American South.  But it had been outlawed in the rest of the United States, and throughout most of the western world.  The American South was the outlier then.  And the kind of historical denialism represented by the Confederate Heritage Trust and the Sons of Confederate Veterans  is among the reasons that it still remains something of an outlier today.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Today’s GOP: It’s Calhoun’s Party Now

John C. Calhoun did not live to see the rise of the Republican Party, or the secession of South Carolina, but he anticipated and dreaded both.  Ten years before the election of Lincoln, he foresaw the emergence of “two great hostile sectional parties,” and expected that within the next ten or twelve years a presidential election would bring things to a head and lead to secession and the dissolution of the Union.

Calhoun came to mind last week when I was bemoaning the fact that, despite a 57-40 margin in favor of voting on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the minority Senate Republicans were able to use the filibuster to block a measure that the vast majority of Americans support.  In a Facebook exchange on that subject, Wofford College archivist Phillip Stone observed: “Maybe Calhoun won after all.”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that today’s GOP really has become Calhoun’s party.  Like Calhoun, they see themselves as defenders of a besieged (and privileged) minority.  Like him, they foreswear compromise.  Like him, they claim that the original balance of the Constitution has been altered.  And like him, they seek to find ways to thwart the will of the majority when it suits their political agenda.

Last Sunday on “60 Minutes,” Speaker-to-be John Boehner refused to even use the word “compromise.”  Recent polls have shown Republican voters far less supportive of the idea of compromise than either independents or Democrats.

Here is Calhoun 1847: “I see my way in the constitution; I cannot in a compromise…. Let us be done with compromises!  Let us go back and stand upon the constitution!”

Last week on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli defended his proposed “repeal” amendment to the Constitution as “an attempt to bring back the balance of authority between the federal government and what goes on in the states … back toward establishing, re-establishing the balance of the Founders.”

Here is Calhoun: “the original character of the government has been radically changed … the equilibrium between the two sections, in the Government as it stood when the constitution was ratified and the Government put into action, has been destroyed.”

Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota has organized a Tea Party caucus for the new Congress, and is planning a program to teach the Constitution to new members.  Her spokesman called it “a response to conservatives’ calls for a return to constitutional principles in governing.”

Calhoun in 1850: “The South … has no compromise to offer but the Constitution, and no concession or surrender to make.”

Republican legal challenges to the health care law have centered on the individual mandate as an unconstitutional expansion of federal power. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said the recent ruling against it "sets the correct limits on federal power in favor of individual liberty, and supports the critical tenets of federalism enshrined in the U.S. Constitution."  His attorney general has suggested that any other ruling would mean the government could force anyone to do virtually anything.

Calhoun: “the government claims and practically maintains the right to decide in the last resort, as to the extent of its powers.”

But it is Senate Republicans who over the last two years have really been Calhoun’s acolytes.  Calhoun’s main concern was that the slaveholding South was becoming a permanent minority, and for the last 15 years or so of his life he frantically sought ways to thwart majority rule.  He wanted, he said, “a change which shall so modify the Constitution as to give to the weaker section, in some form or another, a negative on the action of the government.”

Calhoun came up with the idea of the “concurrent majority,” which implied that nothing should be done by government without the consent of each section.  He even toyed with the idea of a dual presidency—one for each section, each one with a veto.  What both ideas had in common was minority veto.

It turns out Calhoun had nothing on Mitch McConnell.  Through his unprecedented abuse of the filibuster in the Senate, McConnell has achieved what Calhoun only dreamed of: a de facto minority veto.  Note who the participants were in the recent tax negotiations: the president and the Senate minority leader.

Republicans in the Senate have used the “minority veto” to get their way on the tax issue.  They refused to allow any bill but their own to pass—even though the Democrats had the presidency and a clear majority in both Houses, even though numerous pubic opinion polls demonstrated that the majority of Americans favored the Democratic proposal.  The House passed the president’s proposal, and 53 Senators voted for it—but it died by minority veto.

But perhaps most chilling to me is not these surface similarities, but the victim mentality that both Calhoun and today’s Republicans share. Calhoun in his famous final speech said: “the responsibility of saving the Union rests on the North, and not on the South.”  He warned that the Union could only be preserved if the majority submitted completely to the demands of the minority.  If northerners ignored his warning, he said, the consequences would be their fault: “I shall have the consolation, let what will come, that I am free from all responsibility.”

That last phrase could be the slogan of the Senate Republicans.  They have held everything—unemployment benefits, a nuclear arms treaty, the Defense authorization act, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”—hostage to their desire to protect the wealthiest two percent of Americans from paying the same tax rate on income over $250,000 that they did in the 1990s. 

The Republicans have taken no responsibility.  They have said to Democrats: “if you do not submit to the demands of the minority, if you fail to give us the bill we want, then the failure of all of those other bills, and the resultant increase of everyone’s taxes on Jan. 1, will be your fault.  We shall have the consolation, let what will come, that we are free from all responsibility.”

A decade later, Calhoun's irresponsible mindset would lead to the Civil War.  Today's Republicans will not, one must hope, produce any calamity on such a dramatic and grand scale.  But they embody the same narrow, anti-majoritarian, self-destructive approach to politics that the senator from South Carolina did.  And the results of that will not be pretty.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate, Ctd.

Much to my surprise, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal ran an editorial last Sunday which echoed my post about the secession celebration.  As I expected, the local head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans replied with the same tired claim that "slavery was not the primary cause" of the Civil War.  The Herald-Journal published my reply yesterday:

Mark Simpson’s letter Thursday objecting to the Herald-Journal’s unassailable case that South Carolina seceded to protect slavery is an example of distraction and diversion masquerading as argument.
Mr. Simpson never actually addresses the subject of the motive behind secession. Instead, he makes the point that Northerners were complicit in slavery. That’s true, but it is irrelevant. It tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded. He tells us there was no “nationally funded program” to end slavery before the Civil War. Again, true but irrelevant.
Lastly, he notes that Southerners generally (but not universally) opposed the tariff. True again. But no serious student of the secession crisis can argue that this was a meaningful motive for secession. At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated this fact as plainly as is possible: “The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude. ... Our people come upon this on the question of slavery. ... It is the central point from which we are now proceeding.” Not a single delegate contradicted him.
Real respect for history means listening to the past. Mr. Simpson asserts that “slavery wasn’t the primary cause.” The people who made the decision said it was “the central point.” When the South Carolina secessionists say repeatedly that they seceded to protect slavery, I believe them. Mr. Simpson would have us believe that they either didn’t know why they did what they did or that they lied about it. I take them at their word.
Mr. Simpson’s dilemma is this: He condemns slavery, but the people he venerates not only supported it but considered it a “positive good.” Unable to resolve that dilemma, he throws up a smoke screen to distract from it. No matter how much be objects, he cannot change the facts.

Mr. Simpson's position is truly puzzling to me.  He is not stupid.  His response to the editorial shows that he knows quite a bit about the facts.  For example, when I teach the Civil War, I always make the point that slavery was an American problem, as Simpson does in his letter.  But as I note in my reply, he employs facts to distort rather than illuminate.

In a previous exchange we had four years ago, it was the same.  It is hard to see this as mere misunderstanding, or an inability to comprehend causation.  This is denialism: a state of being so invested in a specific position that no amount of evidence, no degree of logical argumentation can put so much as a dent in the near-religious certainty.

Where that comes from I don't pretend to know.  But the existence of such imperviousness to reason has real consequences for our politics.  If 150 years later we cannot find agreement on something which the perspective of history should leave us with no doubt about, the chances of true consensus on contemporary controversial issues begin to seem rather slim.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Properties of the Founders

In a guest post on my old friend Bill Carleton’s blog in August, I speculated that what some Tea Party leaders are really concerned about is property rights:

Ultimately, I think the tea party claim to the legacy of the Founders would require them to admit that what really bothers them is that their property is not adequately represented, that the "interests" … can violate their property rights.

Logically, such an admission would also mean advocating property qualifications for voting.

Now one, Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips, has finally said it:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

He is right that there were usually property qualifications for voting in the early republic.  What he fails to appreciate, however, is that it was the generation of the founders that also began to eliminate those restrictions on the franchise.  As Gordon Wood tells us in Empire of Liberty, in "the first decade of the nineteenth century … states that had not already done so began to expand the franchise by eliminating property qualifications or transforming the requirement into the mere paying of taxes."

In short, during the lives and political careers of many of the founders, universal suffrage for adult white males became the norm.  No state admitted to the Union after 1815 had a property qualification.  By the time of the Civil War, only one state still had one: South Carolina.

While Phillips and other Tea Partiers present themselves merely as proponents of returning to the wisdom of the founders, they are actually repudiating the history of those years, and arguably the legacy of the revolution itself.  Daniel Walker Howe, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought, has argued that the elimination of property qualifications "reflected in part the success of the American Revolution and general acceptance of its natural-rights ideology."

The idolatry that is Tea Party ideology prevents him from seeing that basic truth.  They want to fix "the time of the founders" as a golden age, frozen in time, never to be changed.  Every deviation from the wisdom of the founders is dangerous declension from perfection.

But as this example demonstrates so well, the United States changed significantly even during their time.  Unlike today's Tea Partiers, the founders were not averse to change.  The willingness to embrace change is part of that wisdom.  And they knew change took time. 

Tea Partiers love to quote Thomas Jefferson on revolution: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."  

They would do well to listen also to an older, wiser Jefferson writing to John Adams in 1823: "The generation which commences a revolution can rarely compleat it."  His vision was one of ever-increasing freedom over time—not of one moment of perfection captured for all time.

The very Constitution that the Tea Partiers pretend to venerate takes for granted the need for change.  It was itself a product of dissatisfaction with the government created during the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation (the main failure of which, by the way, was too much power in the hands of the states and a correspondingly weak national government).  

The Constitution was a change, and, most tellingly of all, it contains within it a mechanism to change it: the amendment process.  The Constitution that emerged from the convention was changed twelve times within the first sixteen years of its existence.  It has been changed a mere fifteen additional times in the last 206 years.

The reflexive Tea Party deference to the founders always seems to ignore that key characteristic: the founders understood the necessity of change, and they were never under the illusion that they had all of the answers for all time. 

The English reformer, Thomas Macualay, said during the debate over the 1832 Reform Bill: “We talk of the wisdom of our ancestors; and in one respect at least they were wiser than we. They legislated for their own times.”  By contrast, the Tea Partiers would have us governed today by what Jefferson called “the dead hand of the past.”  I prefer the living.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nothing to Celebrate

As a historian, my usual instinct is to welcome an event that draws attention to the past.  Then I read this article in the New York Times about the South Carolina Secession Gala to be held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, complete with “a 45 minute theatrical play re-enacting the signing of the original Ordinance of Secession.”  In the re-enactment, Republican state senator Glenn F. McConnell, President Pro-Tempore of the South Carolina senate, will take the role of Convention chair.  The event is sponsored by the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

I’ve encountered the SCV before. Back in 2006, a one of its members, in a letter in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, stated flatly: "Slavery was not a major issue" in the Civil War.  As I noted in reply, any reasonable reading of the secession documents clearly reveals that the protection of slavery was the motive behind secession.  How do we know that?  They said so.

While the Confederacy’s modern apologists shy away from the subject of slavery, the Confederates themselves did not.  The South Carolina secession declaration plainly states the centrality of slavery. The statement of the causes of secession includes the complaint that

the non-slaveholding States … have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Those things had been going on for years, so why secession in December 1860?  They were clear about that, too.  It was the election of Abraham Lincoln,

a man … whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

Lincoln’s Republican Party, they said, was committed to the idea that “a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.”  As a result, they said, “The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.” (It is worth noting that the adjective they used to describe themselves was “slaveholding.”  It was that characteristic, and no other, that they believed distinguished them.)

This is not a close call.  South Carolina seceded to protect slavery.  The people who made that decision said so.

But SCV members, in their desperation to separate the Confederate cause from the infamy of slavery, insist that some other reason, like high tariffs rates, was the real reason for secession. (I have it on good authority that this nonsense is even peddled by some economics professors, but I know of no respectable historian today who holds that view.)  One SCV member wrote back in 2006: "It was economics and tariffs that prompted Lincoln to force the South to remain in the Union."

As I noted in my reply, even if that were true (and it is not), it tells us nothing about why Southerners seceded.  At the South Carolina secession convention, delegate Lawrence Keitt stated it as plainly as is possible: "The tariff is not the question which brought the people up to their present attitude…. Our people come upon this on the question of slavery…. It is the central point from which we are now proceeding."  Not a single delegate contradicted him.

When all else fails, the SCV fall back on their ultimate trump card: the "valor" and "courage" of individual soldiers.  I have no trouble with descendants of Confederate veterans honoring the memory of their ancestors.  It is possible for an individual to fight with bravery and honor in a flawed cause.

What I find most interesting about this gala celebration, however, is that it gives the lie to the argument that the SCV is all about honoring the valor of Confederate veterans.  This event commemorates not a military engagement, not personal martial bravery, but a political decision (and an utterly disastrous one at that, regardless of what one thinks of the cause).  And that decision, as the historical record clearly shows, was to separate from the Union for the purpose of defending the institution of slavery.

There can be no pretense, no hiding behind military courage in this instance.  This event proudly supports and celebrates the decision that precipitated the worst bloodshed in all of American history.  It supports the act of people who forthrightly declared that they hoped to create a "Confederacy of Slaveholding States."  One hundred and fifty years later, it is appalling that any American could fail to see how wrong that is.  The secession of South Carolina is no cause for celebration.