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Published: Wednesday, 4/14/2010

The Civil War was all about slavery

GOV. Bob McDonnell of Virginia named April Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery. Then, under pressure, he added slavery, in the process raising a very ugly American question:

Is it possible to show an interest in the history of the Confederate States of America or to honor people or commemorate events in the life of that regime without taking a sympathetic attitude toward slavery?

As a lifelong student of American history and, perhaps more morbidly, as a sometime student of failed regimes, I would answer "yes."

But as I look at the current American political context of Mr. McDonnell's action, and his presumably presidential ambition-driven change of stance, I wonder whether the answer isn't "no."

Let's be clear about one point. The American Civil War was about slavery. It was about states' rights, but the states' right that it was about was slaveholding.

Slavery was the issue that dogged the new United States in that part of the 19th century that led up to the Civil War. Sometimes, national debate seemed to focus on other subjects, but in the end, the issue that remained on the surface or boiling just beneath it was slavery - its maintenance in the slave-holding states, its extension to new states entering the union.

The scrapping over slavery led to secession, the proximate cause of the Civil War, with the underlying cause being the South's desire to perpetuate slavery.

So what is the problem now?

Part of the problem is that some American politicians are waving around some of the old issues that led to secession (such as states' rights), issues that fundamentally weaken the union. Some of the states - notably Texas and Alaska - actually have hosted mentions of secession.

They can't be serious in 2010. Where would any one American state be if it weren't part of the United States in terms of trade, defense, infrastructure, and so forth? Think, for example, whether the United States would have become as great a power if it had been split in 1861.

Then there is race.

Is any of the talk of some states attempting to nullify the health-care legislation prompted by some sort of atavistic response to the idea of how the United States would have been if the South had succeeded in seceding? Is an element of the resistance to the legislation the fact that the President who pushed it through is African-American? One would like to think not, but I'm not sure.

So we return to the question of whether a historical focus on the Confederacy includes perforce a morbid nostalgia for slavery?

Again, I would like to think not. I read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell when I was young. It shamelessly glorifies slavery, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Lost Cause of the South.

Slavery is unspeakable. The idea of one person owning another on the basis of his skin color is abhorrent. And there is no way of savoring the Confederacy without savoring slavery.

Another troubling aspect of what is happening now is the slur that is being slipped into the package surreptitiously.

I just finished reading an interesting biography of America's 11th president, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, The Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry. It is largely about Mr. Polk's success in adding territory to the United States, territory we took from Mexico in the Mexican War and the Oregon Territory, which we bargained away from the United Kingdom.

Mr. Merry sees Mr. Polk as a great and underrated president.

Presumably in the name of making that case as convincing as possible, Mr. Merry omits until page 404 of 477 the fact that Mr. Polk was a slaveholder and even then gives the subject only one word.

Lots of people owned slaves at the time, and one could have figured it out sooner from context, but how a reputable historian covering that period could simply leave out any discussion of his subject's personal position on the period's pre-eminent issue is remarkable.

Another subject that I would like to put a large cannonball right through is the idea that, because of their economic misery, the people of some African countries think they would be better off if they were still under white colonial rule.

This is a point of view that is sometimes attributed to Zimbabweans, for example, who were ruled until 1980 by a small white minority and who ever since have been under the tender ministrations of President Robert G. Mugabe, who has destroyed Zimbabwe's economy, infrastructure, and domestic peace.

This line of argument is silly. It is true that some African countries have been ruled badly by their own people since independence.

At the same time, anyone who could imagine that Africans would consider themselves to have been happier ruled arbitrarily by a small number of people of a different race, with no hope of deliverance, simply doesn't understand anything.

Try the idea on America.

How long would it take us to get rid of such rule? Better economic circumstances are no trade-off for the right to be ruled by one's own people, even if they are rotten.

Let's just leave dopey talk about secession and glorifying the Confederacy to those who choose to live dreamily in the past. America is doing just fine moving forward.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact dsimpson@

post-gazette.com



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