A Note on Civil War Historiography

The New York Times is running, on Facebook, an excellent series of articles on the Civil War. Although the series is for the most part free of raw neo-Secessionist lies about the Civil War (“the war was about states’ rights, not slavery”: “slaves fought for the Confederacy”, etc.) it nonetheless at times provides an illustration of how contemporary histories of the Civil War enable neo-Secessionism.

It’s a “dialectic of enlightenment”. That is, people generally think as if liberals, who self-perceive as enlightened, will just smoothly progress to “more liberal” or at a minimum stay in one place.

The possibility pointed out by Adorno and Horkheimer was that this progress could have an inflection point and reverse direction by means of “immanent” mechanisms. Its own logic would cause this reversal.

Here, in historiography (meta-history) it has long been a saw, received academic wisdom, that history in the tradition of (say) Winston Churchill is not only beneath contempt as popular but also out of date, and the use of morality to organize the material is intrinsically Eurocentric.

The model of Enlightenment reasoning, its cynosure, is scientific reasoning, the harder the better, ascending to physics and then mathematics. Modern humanists strive to emulate this.

The problem is that they do so in a willful ignorance of actual science and mathematics.

This is the origin, in my view, of the way in which historians of the Civil War enable racism. Basically, the median (a little bit of state’s rights, a little bit of slavery) seems more “objective”.

The problem is that this unscientifically ignores the fact that the same considerations (“are we arguing about state’s rights or slavery?”) occured to the participants in the ante-bellum era, and it was obviously in the interests of the slaveowners to declare themselves as motivated by state’s rights.

Slavery could not be defended on Christian grounds, since the Southerners were well aware of Christ’s admonition in Matthew 28:19:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”

which indirectly but strongly implies that all “nations” were fully human in the Christian sense of containing people with immortal souls. “Nations” included Africa.

The text was reinforced by the Pentecostal account of “speaking in tongues”, the gift of languages in which to “teach all nations”.

Which means that apart from Calhoun, who used pre-Christian Roman arguments of *force majeure* to justify slavery, the Southerners were arguing in bad faith.

The “objective” contemporary American historian who compromises between slavery and state’s rights to organize his account is not standing apart from the phenomenon he describes. Rather, he has become, unconsciously, part of the same phenomenon he pretends to observe.

Britons can today narrate their role in the conquest of Hong Kong objectively. Their historian’s narratives do not form part of that which they describe not only because of the passage of time but also because of specific actions taken by their government to undo what was done (the 1984 Sino-British Communique: the 1997 Handover).

But the interesting thing about the Civil War is that although specific forms of redress that would actually lay this past to rest were either not performed, or found to be too extreme, and thus, stillborn.

Reconstruction was famously opposed by Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, and formally canceled to resolve the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

Ten years after Brown v the Board of Education (which is hailed as a landmark but only, in truth, had to do with school desegregation) we were sitting down in the streets because even in the northern city of Chicago, it wasn’t implemented. And in the 1960s, George Wallace’s candidacy as a segregationist was a joke, while today people are taking Haley Barbour seriously as a candidate for 2012: this is the governor of the most “failed” of the fifty states who seems to approve of what were known as White Citizens’ Councils, not “Citizen’s Councils” as the media dishonestly says; immanent mechanisms, here a prissy refusal to use the racist word “white” directly cause us to forget that the White Citizen’s Councils were set up so the gentry could support lynch mobs without soiling their hands.

The motion is one of constant U turns and reversals, like driving with a bunch of drunks who say they’re going to church but seem to be encountering a lot of obstacles. This is the “dialectic of enlightenment”.

The reversals start at the elite level, in the academic attempt to be, in the Enlightenment playbook, the revisionist bad boy or enfant terrible.

This is to mistake an external sign of Enlightenment (the appearance of New Thought and Flaming Youth) for its essence. I am reminded of how my father, engaged as he was in a late rebellion against the Chicago medical establishment, describing himself as an “Old Turk” as opposed to a “Young Turk”: there is no apriori reason why New Thought may not be old malarkey.

To ignore lessons of deep science, that is lessons of the university physics class which the historian failed or did not take, becomes a fashion statement, and part of the reversal of Enlightenment is the quiet victimization of others, whether these are undergraduates so innocent as to believe that the Civil War was about slavery and are mocked in survey classes, the memories of the slaves who believed in Lincoln, and, most perniciously, modern African Americans.

Deep science (especially mathematics as in Godel) teaches the importance of self-reflexivity and shows the flaws and not the power of statistical reasoning. A crude example would be the fact, in which the more idiotic Pop revisionists glory, that most Southerners owned no slaves. Of course, that neglects the social power of the slaveocrats over poor whites (90% of the South Carolina legislators that voted for secession were slaveowners).

This economy with truth, mislabeled “objectivity” enables neo-Secessionists who will take an academic result as the swallow harbinger of the summer.

Lincoln supported the “evil 13th amendment” that in 1860 was passed but never ratified, protecting slavery in the existing slave states, at least in his 1860 Inaugural Address. The academic historian might retail this fact to make the case that Lincoln was not an Abolitionist, unscientifically neglecting that by 1863 Lincoln was one, or a part of one. Had the historian taken a goddamn physics course, he would have had a foil, in his knowledge of scientific method in detail, which would show jerkboy the difference between historical reasoning and reasoning in the hard sciences, and thus confirm the existence of a valid form of rationality outside the topos that, in the Enlightenment, is thought to be the only or the ultra form of “rationality”.

In astronomy, we learn more and more, especially using the Hubble Space Telescope. But in history, whether based on written records or on physical archeology, the object of study is red-shifting away from us every day. The data is decaying, and more and more recovery of archives is in a race with this decay. Therefore, we need not credit, in all cases, the claims of contemporary historians over, say, Carl Sandburg as a biographer of Lincoln. The texts must be balanced by the reader in reflective equilibrium.

The “state’s rights” cause was in part the theory that Lincoln had no Constitutional justification for using force to keep the Union together. But, that seems to be what federal republics do, same as non-federal states in fact. Yugoslavia warred on Slovenia, then Croatia, then Bosnia, then Kosovo from Belgrade between 1991 and 1999. I’m not saying, of course, that Yugoslavia was justified, or conducted the war justly.

Thomas Hobbes correctly recognized a premoral, existential right of the individual to make what he so charmingly spelled “Warre” upon the cops, a “right” different from a moral right in that it existed before moral rights and is its logical precondition. It’s a “right” in the sense that this is what people will do by nature. Lincoln had a Hobbesian right as the elected Leviathan to do what he could to raise troops and invade Northern Virginia.

“States’ Rights”, although guaranteed by the Ninth and Tenth amendments, could not trump/gainsay the deeper right of the entity, the Leviathan, constituted by the Constitution to persist.

I am given rights of the ordinary sort in civil society not because I’m a nice guy, but because in the state of nature I would naturally exercise my deeper right of making Warre. The Union, to preserve the rights-giving Constitution, could not be reduced to the District of Columbia, which a non-enumerated absolute right to secede would lead.

But…this is not how modern historians, or most “normal” people think. Stanley Fish would say “this is not what we do around here”. But that is the problem. A refusal to think outside demarcated lines creates the problem that much history, today, of the Civil War is less history than that which rubes call “histree”: a reassuring narrative of low white guilt (no need for the equivalent of a Hong Kong Handover in the form of reparations for slavery) that is enabled by the false, and profoundly unscientific split the difference (and Stanley Fishoid) “objectivity” of contemporary historians.

As I write, the largest prison revolt in United States history is erupting in Georgia and is under a complete media blackout. It has united black, Hispanic and white inmates. It erupted in large part because prisoners in this system are not paid, no not even nominal amounts in an escrow account or in money paid to their family, for their labor in prison! This violates, as have many forms of Southern prison labor for 150 years since Emancipation, the 13th amendment, but thanks in part to genteel revisionism, nobody seems to give a fuck.

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One Response to “A Note on Civil War Historiography”

  1. My Marxist understanding of Civil War influenced by Toffler’s Third Wave. Sees Civil War as conflict between feudal/agricultural society and industrial society.Which is second wave replacing first wave, age agriculture. Third wave information age start 1950’s. Naturally as industrial society evolves, trade, taxes,contra central government, immigration, banking will favor industrial society over agricultural/feudal societal which happens Russia 1917, China 1949. So banking, trade, expansion, taxes, expanding population = more Sens and Reps , north controls government at expense of south. Probably except for abolitionists slavery big cause but majority not issue until Emancipation Proclamation Most north indifferent. South to protect status quo. So Toffler posits that to call slavery main cause is to minimize and deny all social/economic/political issues of era. Would see it as a by-product issue or subordinate . Certainly protect African American rights no interest in north after presidency of Grant who did try enforce 13,14,15, and protect new black citizens.

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