Cultural Critique / Politics / The Color Line

A House Still Divided: 150 Years Since the March to the Civil War

On December 20, this country more or less quietly marked the sesquicentennial anniversary of the day South Carolina drafted secession papers and formally seceded from the United States of America in 1860.  Their secession was ratified on December 24, four days later.  At issue for them was the nebulous idea of states’ rights entangled with just how did the Constitution protect said states’ rights pertaining mainly to the issue of slavery.  Other historians throughout the years have argued what exactly was the main cause of the American Civil War, and many have argued that it had to do with tariffs that would have benefited northern states over that of southern states.  However one looks at it from another perspective, the southern states voted in large blocs for the most part in Congress and certainly had their heels dug in when it came to the issue of slavery.  Even still, history would argue that the issue of slavery was the most prominent.  In the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union it didn’t mention tariffs, but rather explicitly mentioned slavery more than once probably relative to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and implicitly the perceived outlawing of slavery by the then incoming President, Abraham Lincoln.

Many historians also say that the Civil War was bound to happen from the moment that the country was framed because of slavery.  It was even at issue at the drafting of the Constitution because of the need for the 3/5ths compromise; everything in between was a mere march toward the first shots being fired at Fort Sumpter in April 1861.  From the moments that the Civil War ended and Reconstruction limped along until 1877, the South, understood as the former Confederate State of America, has maintained a certain je ne sais quoi about them that has not always jived well with the rest of the country.

The confederate flag flies over the State capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina February 18, 2000. The flying of the southern flag has once again become a political issue because of the racist connotations many feel it endorses. (Photo by Mark Wilson)

Still in the state of South Carolina, recently, many have taken issue with the Confederate flag still flying over the State House in Columbia.  For many blacks, seeing the Rebel flag symbolizes whites who want to go back to a time when descendants of enslaved Africans were in slavery.  That’s it.  There’s not much wiggle room on such an issue.  After driving through and living throughout the Deep South, most blacks take a pause when we see a Rebel flag hanging in a store shop window or on a bumper sticker on a pick up truck for this reason.  Even beyond that, many blacks still fail to see how mainstream culture has no problem with many a Southerner reveling in their ancestry in the Confederacy, but have no problem parsing and caricaturing many aspects of black culture.

Some Southerners have chosen to remember the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression in certain circles, which lets one know how many Southerners feel about the North even still to this day.  This deep-seated belief is entrenched in the ideals that the South had the moral and legal right to secede from the Union and that everything would have been alright if the North, and summarily President Lincoln, would have just let things be and let the South do their own thing.  Aside from the tragic logic behind that, it’s an emotion that was passed down through the generations that made the modern civil rights movement so bloody and painful.

It will be interesting to see how other states over the next four years will commemorate various battlefields and just how the country in general will respond.   The Secession Ball sponsored by Sons of Confederate Veterans organization was held Monday night in Charleston, South Carolina in honor of the secession 150 years ago.  For attendees this was a chance to honor their ancestors who they believed fought for their personal rights.  For the protesters, it was the equivalent of Nazi Germans holding a ball commemorating the glorious Third Reich under Hitler.

And let’s remember the South Carolina legislature did vote unanimously to leave the Union.

To me the secession stood as a clear acts of treason that should could have been leveled, but perhaps my bias as a black man in this country can’t help but come through.  And I still get mad when I think about how the Southern states were readmitted back into the Union without much penalty and how the abrupt end to Reconstruction adversely affected the black populace in this country, but again, that’s probably my bias as a black man coming through. Forgive me.  The fact that we live in a country where factions feel comfortable to tread on the liberties and the sensibilities of other Americans with such wanton hubris never ceases to amaze me.  Yes, this is America and the Sons of the Confederacy have just as much of a right to gather and celebrate what they want just as much as the NAACP had the right to protest their gathering.  But still, one has to wonder just how divided are we still today.

No, I don’t think another civil war is about to break out; certainly I hope not in a nuclear age.  Moreover, I think the American public couldn’t stomach a war on American soil. (For the record, the Civil War was the only official war fought on United States territory.)  And even beyond that, we’re nowhere near our breaking point internally.

But those questions certainly get tested when we recall Texas Governor Rick Perry making his comments about Texas seceding from the Union in 2009.  Because talks about secession in this country are only historically rooted in road toward the Civil War, for Perry to say that was not a careless remark, but probably a coded remark that gave a nod to certain conservative groups to let them know how he sided with them ideologically.

While yes we are a country that still is able to coalesce with each other, we need to recognize that there are powerful people and powerful factions that are to be reckoned with that do not have our united interest at heart.  Just in the last week, one must admit that President Obama has some steam coming out of the last two years as he begins drafting his State of the Union for next month that can now include the successful repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the passage of the S.T.A.R.T. treaty and providing a health care bill for 9/11 first responders, but this still does nothing more but make the other side become more entrenched in this warped idea that they need to “take back their country.”

One of our former "Fearless" leaders.

Seeing as how its almost impossible for me to imagine what it would have been like in the days leading up to the Civil War since I’m a free black male, and it’s equally hard for me to imagine what it would have been to be white in an antebellum United States, I still can’t help but ask what was the moment when just about everyone realized that we were going to war and that it was just a matter of time.  I say this because while compromise is not the dirty word that Sarah Palin and her ilk would have one believe such as was her Robin Roberts interview last week, this country had all of these major compromises that we learned about in U.S. History that did nothing but sweep the major issue under the rug.  From the 3/5th compromise, to the Missouri Compromise that did nothing but lead to the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the horrid Dred Scott Decision in 1857 which for me, was the moment that the line was officially drawn in the sand.  That line was drawn by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney who penned that:

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” [Emphasis added.]

At the risk of being unnecessarily hyperbolic, just about every time when we hear some of the more conservative members of Congress or any other persons who aren’t elected (think Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck) it always seems to draw upon the highly xenophobic and antiquated ideal that there are certain members of the human race based on skin color, class and other demographic differences that have “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”

If we’re taking that line of reasoning as a country, then we’re certainly recreating the aspects of “a house divided” that cannot stand.  The preeminent question is are we headed toward another Civil War.

I guess only time will tell.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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13 thoughts on “A House Still Divided: 150 Years Since the March to the Civil War

  1. Excellent post.

    I actually live in South Carolina in a suburb of Charleston. As far as I’m concerned, they should have hung all of the leadership of the Confederacy and the senior military officers as well.

    It was treason plain and simple.

    • I have studied the civil war for many years and, being from Chicago Illinois, I am a big fan of Abe Lincoln and US Grant. I have Libertarian high school classmates that hate Lincoln, they think he’s a murderer and they think that they have the right to secede and they are all for states rights as discussed in current news—they are Tea Party types–followers of Ron and Rand Paul. I argued with them that they had the right to revolt, but not to secede, and in my mind they were walking a treasonous line.

      Reggie, just within the last year or two, I have to say, I totally agree with you. It was (and is) treason, plain and simple.

      They did not understand that the only state right that was really important to the people of the antebellum south was the right to exploit the slaves that made them a fortune. Oddly, the south rebelled against the government that allowed them to have slaves.

      I read an amazing opinion today in the NYT about Frederick Douglass’s views on secession. He wrote 150 years ago exactly what I had been thinking lately.

      An out take;

      “The state (SC), he wrote within a week of its actions, was “out of the Union” only “on paper” and in “resolutions and telegrams.” Governments, he continued, “rest not upon paper, but upon power. They do not solicit obedience as a favor, but compel it as a duty.” Douglass acknowledged the “right of revolution” for a state or a political group, but no constitutional “right of secession.”
      As a result, he believed, conflict was inevitable: “But revolution in this country is rebellion,” he maintained, “and rebellion is treason, and treason is levying war against the United States, with something more than paper resolutions . . . there must be swords, guns, powder, balls, and men behind them to use them.” Secession, therefore, was no abstract debate over federalism or states’ rights, but a matter of power and guns. “The right of South Carolina to secede,” declared the abolitionist, “depends upon her ability to do so, and to stay so.”

      • Eighty years after separating from Britain, you idiots think you could force an entire region (what is really a sovereign jurisdiction) to stay within the “Union” so you could, up to the present time (look up welfare and unemployment stats in ‘The World Almanac’), be leeching off of it. You guys are hypocrites with a severe mental disease. Show us where the Constitution forbids secession. You pieces of garbage ignore legal precedent, and can’t point to anything that justified your invasion, but we can point to exactly what forbids it. The South is one-hundred fifty years later economically superior, and we didn’t need slavery to be so.

    • That you believe it was treason rather than liberty speaks volumes to your knowledge of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the united States.

  2. I maintain that Germany has done a much better job of dealing with their troubled past than the US has with our own. Denying the atrocities of Nazi Germany is a crime in Germany. Denying, or just downplaying, the atrocities of the Civil War, or the slavery era that preceded it, is still very alive and well here. Such thinking baffles and scares me.

  3. Wow, what a brilliant analysis. It was a pleasure and invigorating to read. I have always believed the cultural differences between the North and the South instigated the war as well. Northerners have always been more feverish and hurried, prone to intellectual and artistic pursuits whereas Southerners are more relaxed and casual and pour a great deal of energy into “gentilhommerie” or civility and decorum as a lifestyle.

    Northerns were always dissing Southerners as hillbillies and illiterates and Southerners were always dissing Northerners as pagans and elites.

    Oddly enough, if you look around the world, the cultural disparity between North and South exists in most industrialized nations: Northern/Southern France, Italy, Germany, England, etc.

  4. To call the Confederate States traitors.. but NOT the rebels in 1776 traitors.. is sad, and it just shows that you are very ignorant about the war for Southern Independance. The colonists SECEDED from England to PROTECT slavery when it was dying in English economics. But you probably wouldn’t know that. Because you’re ignorant. Many a good black volunteer died fighting for the battle flag that you do not know the true meaning of. There were actually several flags of the Confederacy, but I wouldn’t expect you to know that either. General Grant of the Union forced his “servants” to work until 1908, but I wouldn’t expect you to know that as well. I wouldn’t expect you to know many things. Also, I’m Norweigen, which means that my ancestors could have very likely been slaves back in the day. But you don’t see me bitching about it. I’m also not ignorant, like yourself, and anyone who does not know the true meaning of the CSA flags.

    • @Kevin

      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make–aside from making sure to point out what you perceive to be ignorance on my behalf.

      Regardless, if anyone chooses to refer to the American Civil War as the “war of Northern Aggression” or as you put it the “War for Southern Independence” acts as though the states in the South had a righteous cause for being independent–and they did not! Emphatically they did not. Regardless of the slave-owning practices of northerners and former presidents who were the framers of the Constitution, at least they were able to create artifacts that were the cornerstone of Democracy world wide that are still in use and have been modeled time after time across the globe.

      And what did the Confederate States contribute to the world?

      Absolutely nothing that was positive and long lasting.

      Moreover, if I’m “bitching” about something as you so eloquently put, save us both some time and don’t leave a comment, it makes you seem like a troll.

    • (I understand that your comment is almost a year old, but I’d still like to reply anyway.)
      Norwegians are not exactly known for being black. Chances are, your ancestors would have been at worst, indentured servants. Grant also died in 1885, and was also penniless at the time, which is why our presidents and their spouses today receive a hefty salary every year for the rest of their lives to prevent a president and his/her family going into financial ruin. So, unless he had some will (and considering that he was quite poor, he most likely wouldn’t have much to will off anyway, plus he probably would have gotten rid of all of his servants by then to save on cash) that forced them to work, that is impossible.
      Yes, the colonists were traitors to England, and not to protect slavery, but to protect themselves from an unfair king. (Many colonists were anti-slavery, however a compromise in the 1780′s was enacted that allowed Congress to not regulate slavery for 20 years, so the issue could be focused on then.)
      My dad’s side of the family fought for the Confederacy and my mom’s fought for the Union. My dad’s family today really doesn’t care that their side lost; none of them were in it and what’s past is past. Why whine and cry over spilled milk when we need to focus on the problems of today?
      The Union won, and the Confederates lost. Boo hoo.
      Maybe to you, the Stars and Bars mean Southern Heritage or rebellion or State’s Rights or whatever, but to others it means slavery and racism. Personally I think it looks tacky as hell and like a furious man squinting and snarling, but that’s my opinion. (Before I begin, I’ll say that I do hate comparing everything to Nazis, since that demonizes things that usually don’t deserve it and downplays the atrocities they committed, but this is the most obvious example.) The swastika was originally an Indian symbol for the sun. My grandmother even has a spoon from the 1904 World’s Fair that says “St. Louis Swastika” on it. Back then it had no connotation whatsoever to Hitler. Let’s say today you buy a nice tapestry from India with a swastika on it. Nobody there would bat an eye. But put it on display in America, and everyone’s going to wonder what the hell’s wrong with you. It’s all about perspective and putting yourself in others’ shoes.

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