These things may not seem related, but inside my head they all came together last week.
Jerry and I have been immersed in the civil war for a couple of months. We have been watching lectures from the Teaching Company, 48 of them, on the war years, the origins of the war and its effects on both the north and south. In addition we have just finished a biography of William Henry Seward by Walter Stahr. Seward was, first, Lincoln’s and then Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State. At the same time I read a biography of Ulysses S Grant by H.W. Brands and I am now in the middle of a biography of Lincoln by David Herbert Donald.
I surprised myself by getting so involved in the history of any war, and especially the American Civil War which was one of the bloodiest in modern history. It happened partly because we had some good lectures and books on the colonial period and the new American republic that followed. It’s natural to want to know about what came next. Besides that, both of the biographies were well written and presented the life of the times brilliantly. But the best were the lectures. University of Virginia Professor Gary W. Gallagher’s presentation was just what a college level course should be. He was a grown-up addressing other grown-ups about events, debates, issues that were not simple but complex and nuanced. He obviously was a master of his subject and although he often checked his notes, most of each lecture was delivered formally but conversationally as he moved around, obviously talking from a detailed knowledge and understanding of that time in history. The opinions that I will present here are, however, my own and not necessarily his.
I mentioned in an earlier post that my lawyer daughter and I had disagreed about the causes of the war. She was a history major 25 years ago and she had been taught that the war wasn’t really about slavery, it was about economics.
My friends, make no mistake, that war was about slavery. Ever since the war ended many people who participated, early historians, and those who came later have tried to de-emphasize slavery — that horrible invention of humans in their relations with other humans. We don’t like to think that the early decades of the American experiment were facilitated by something as ugly as slavery. People have been enslaving each other at least since the beginning of recorded history. At first in America slave labor was obtained through “indentured servitude”, but that became impractical in a new country that was mostly wilderness. White indentured servants could slip away too easily and blend into the frontier life. But black people were easy to spot. There were hardly any free black people, so it could be assumed that blacks wandering about were run-away slaves.
In the new American republic there was a general belief that slavery was an evil which should be eliminated gradually. John Adams was a life long hater of slavery and he tried to engage his friend, Thomas Jefferson, in a discussion of it. Jefferson himself paid lip service to the idea that slavery was wrong and should end. But he himself had 200 slaves and only freed a few of them in his will.
In the years before the war, at the time of the Second Great Awakening, evangelical religions developed arguments both against and for slavery. The southern churches came up with teachings asserting that slavery was a positive moral good, that slavery was part of a divine plan. They said that God created white men superior to black men, and intended black men for the use of the white race. They said that black people were happy in their appointed subservient state, taken care of by their owners; that if they were freed they would revert to savagery
The issue between the north and south that led to the war was the expansion of slavery into the territories. A majority of people in the north were opposed to slavery but most were willing to let it exist in the states where it was established, believing that it would disappear gradually. They were against its expansion into the territories. The south seceded because they came to believe that slavery would be excluded from territories which were being organized into new states; thus slave states would be outnumbered by free states in the United States Congress. The south seceded to preserve the institution of slavery and they knew that secession would lead to war.
They lost the war. They could have won if they could just hold the Union Army off until the north tired of the effort. They were unable to do it because they didn’t have leaders or generals with the skills and understanding that the North had. The south had Robert E Lee, who, contrary to popular fable, believed in slavery, and Stonewall Jackson, until he was killed at the battle of Chancellorsville by an accidental bullet from one of his own soldiers. These were the generals with real ability the south had. Contrary to popular fables, U S Grant was a better general than either Lee or Jackson. He was a true military genius. The president of the Confederacy was Jefferson Davis, a man of considerable ability, but one who was narrow minded and suspicious of those around him, unable to delegate.
Besides Grant and a number of other able military men, the United States had, above all, Abraham Lincoln with his extraordinary brilliance, humanity and wisdom, a leader of huge flexibility and craft. Is there a reason why the north had better men than the south? Sure there’s pure chance, but I think it’s unlikely that men of Grant and Lincoln’s stature could have been induced to fight a war to promote slavery. It takes lesser men with smaller minds to follow that path.
Now it’s 150 years since that terrible war, a war that cost more men than any in our history: a war that devastated great swaths of our country. The aftermath of the war was terrible for many southern whites but immeasurably worse for blacks. The white people took their revenge on the blacks for not agreeing to be slaves. When I was a young woman there were still people alive who had lived and fought in that war. When I got on buses in Virginia where my father lived there were signs that said “Colored people will seat from the rear.” There were separate schools for black children and white children. There were separate drinking fountains and public toilets for blacks and whites. And it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry.
When I reached the age of 76 the first black president of the United States was inaugurated and last week he took the oath of office for his second term. Obama is, of course, a Democrat, from the party which protected slavery 160 years ago. The Republican Party was the party of abolition then, but now it’s the party whose leader, Mich McConnell (from Tennessee) said his, and his party’s, one goal was to make sure Obama was a one term president. The once solid Democratic south is now the stronghold of the Republican Party whose policies are formulated to keep blacks, poor whites and Hispanics from voting. Quite a reversal.
Well, that’s the macrocosm of American racial politics. In my little world, the microcosm, my latest great-granddaughter was born last week, a few days after Obama’s inauguration. She’s the daughter of my lovely granddaughter, Sarah Grady, and her husband, Malik Grady, a tall handsome black man.
They live peacefully in Florida and have many friends, black and white. Next week I will visit there and meet this beautiful, healthy whopping 9 pound 11 ounce Ellana. How the world changes. Who knows what may happen next? Some day, perhaps, Ellana Grady will be the first black woman president.
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