Friday, May 27, 2011

The (Other) Good War

In 1861: The Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart reminds us that a spirited majority of Americans loved the Union -- and fought the good fight to save it.

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

 In our lifetimes, the political connotation of the word “minority” typically refers to people we think of as underrepresented, even vulnerable. The most common pairing for the word is  “racial”; we sometimes think of women (inaccurately) in this sense as well. But for hundreds of years of North American life, the term “minority rights” referred to a uniquely powerful set of people: slaveholders. These individuals demanded, and got, special privileges, often by threatening to withdraw from national life if their demands were not met. This aggressive gamesmanship finally came to a head in 1861 when a non-slaveholding majority finally said: enough. In 1861, Adam Goodheart captures the moment – a three-month period spanning from April to July of that pivotal year – when resistance to minority blackmail crystallized into a movement which, notwithstanding multiple setbacks, finally liberated U.S. society from the most insistent form of this tyranny (which of course would persist in different form long after).

The role of what was called “The Slave Power” has been a subject of some probing analysis in recent years on the part of fine historians like William Gienapp and Stephanie McCurry. But Goodheart’s work is part of somewhat different, and quickening, historiographic current. We’ve had two full generations of emphasis on the fundamentally racist character of American life – North, South, even abolitionist
– stretching back to Eric Foner’s classic Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970). This view, which has seeped into collective common sense and is evident in movies like Ride with the Devil, Gangs of New York and Cold Mountain, where Union and Confederate are virtually indistinguishable in terms of their racial politics, and in which any loyalties that exist are outside, if not opposed, to the national state. But some historians are rediscovering the power of a concept that has almost disappeared from collective imagination: the idea that there were people who were willing to fight and die for a Union in which emancipation may not have been foregrounded, but which was nevertheless implicit in their notion of freedom, and a meaningful alternative to the Confederate vision of American society. In the approvingly quoted words of Walt Whitman, “The negro was not the chief thing: the chief thing was to stick together.”

Goodheart’s technique for making this argument is pointillistic. He takes a string of widely scattered incidents that will be familiar to any student of the war – Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden’s last ditch effort to craft a compromise bill; Major Robert Anderson’s maneuvers to resist the surrender of Fort Sumter; the sensational death and even more dramatic mourning for Abraham Lincoln acolyte Elmer Ellsworth, et. al. – and renders them in granular detail that glistens with fresh research. 1861 is a book that resists rapid reading; it’s closer to a work of historical tourism, in which you’re invited to luxuriate in the re-creation of young James Garfield’s activist Ohio, or experience the volatility of Jessie Benton Fremont’s California or Nathaniel Lyon’s St. Louis. The unsung hero – well, more like wrongly vilified villain – of the book is Benjamin Butler, the former Jefferson Davis supporter who found himself based in occupied Virginia in the interest of the Lincoln administration’s desire to be been as bipartisan in military appointments. It was Butler who shrewdly conceptualized a legal basis for confiscating slaves through the concept of “contraband,” and then drilled the logic of emancipation forward until it became not simply practical, but inevitable.

One of the more intriguing secondary arguments of 1861 is Goodheart’s assertion that Lincoln had already foreseen, and was in the process of framing, Butler’s ad hoc policies into a sturdy political framework. He places great emphasis on Lincoln’s meticulous preparation for his address to Congress on July 1, in which he stitched majoritarian logic together in ways that not only retroactively justified his mobilization in the preceding months, but amounted a chain of characteristically Lincolnian logic that would guide his actions for the next four years. At the core of this logic was a notion of majority rule in which the citizens of a republic – not the subjects of an tyrannical empire, as Confederates who conflated their secession with the American Revolution would have their fellow adherents believe – would freely deliberate and decide their future. Here, in embryo, was the stirring culmination of the Gettysburg address: “a government of the people, by the people for the people.”

As we know, the patriotic fervor that Goodyear limns in this book would be sorely tested, and stretched the breaking point of the course of the brutally long struggle. But for him the great drama of the Civil War is not that the Union prevailed – once established, the momentum of victory was forseeably likely – but rather that the slumbering spirit of democracy finally sprang to life in those warming months of 1861. The memory of that event is thrilling. One thing that makes it so is the prospect that it may yet happen again – and that powerful minorities like bankers, insurance companies, and their apologists may finally find that the logic of their political blackmail – pay us or you’ll really pay – may yet be refuted.