Will America’s Civil War Ever End?
Seems I prematurely announced my departure as a guest blogger last week. Concurring Opinions has kindly asked me to stay on for another month, so here is my first offering for May.
It recently occurred to me that there is a connection between the persistent belief of some Americans that President Obama is not a natural born citizen and continuing debates about the Civil War. Both go to fundamental questions about national identity, citizenship and governance. Almost a decade ago I wrote a quirky piece entitled Exploring White Resistance to Racial Reconciliation. The article was triggered by what I regarded as a shocking action by Congress, namely, the rejection of a 1997 proposal by a dozen Democrat and Republican congress members calling on Congress to issue an apology to the descendants of kidnapped West Africans for their enslavement. In 2008, after it became apparent that then Senator Barack Obama would be the Democrat’s presidential nominee, Congress quietly issued an apology for slavery. Ironically, President Obama is not descended from West Africans, or to my knowledge, slaves.
In my article I speculated that this proposal was rejected because most Americans remain woefully ignorant about the causes and conflicting political agendas surrounding the Civil War. This ignorance has been reinforced, I theorized, by popular culture, particularly films like the pernicious Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, that romanticize the “lost cause.” I offered many proposals, including better education about the Civil War, its causes and effects.
Why, you may ask, am I blogging about “old” news? Well, a study funded by the Pew Foundation and released last month found that most Americans still consider the Civil War relevant to “American politics and political life.” As the 150th anniversary of the War approached, two major newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times, featured series or periodic articles about the War. The Post also hosts a blog, A House Divided, “dedicated to news and issues of importance to Civil War enthusiasts across the country and around the world.” Even my local paper, The Baltimore Sun, has a series about the War. Maryland, although a slave-holding border state, saw many battles during the War. Further, Maryland considers the April 17, 1861 Baltimore Riot, when Union troops passing through the City were attacked by local confederate sympathizers, to be one of the War’s first conflicts. I celebrate these educational efforts mentioned above because most Americans still do not fully understand the reasons for this war and why it continues to bedevil the Nation.
One of the most factious long-standing debates is over the causes of the War, namely, whether it was fought over slavery or states’ rights. According to the Pew study, 48% of Americans surveyed think that states’ rights was the main cause of the War, while 34% said slavery was the cause. Documents linked in The Times, and essays by noted historians, acknowledge that states’ rights was an issue, but that the continuation of slavery was a primary triggering cause. Even the State of Georgia, a former confederate state, finally conceded that slavery was the cause of the War. Nevertheless, some Americans continue to reject the historical evidence. For example, Baltimore Sun readers, in response to a columnist’s assertion that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, challenged and vigorously debated each other. Commentators offer various, mostly benign, explanations for the reluctance to acknowledge slavery’s role in triggering the Civil War.
Still you might say, this too is “old” news that has nothing to do with President Obama, but I urge you to read on. A subtext of my earlier post, The Entitlements Debate: Are Social Compacts Possible in Heterogeneous Countries?, was that some people in this country still cling to, or yearn for, pre-civil war Dred Scott notions of citizenship. Nothing better exemplifies this notion more than the prolonged debate over whether President Obama was born in the United States. Even the production of his long-form birth certificate has only slightly diminished the discussion over his right to govern the country.
In other words, the real reason that we continue to disagree about the meaning and significance of the Civil War, goes to the very idea of citizenship – to whom does this country belong, and who has the right to participate in its governance. I remind my Constitutional Law II students that the 14th Amendment grant of birthright citizenship was not fully accepted by the states. For example, in 1867 Maryland rejected the Amendment waiting until 1959 when it, and California, ratified it. Oregon (1973), Kentucky (1976), New Jersey (2003) and Ohio (2003) waited even longer. The birthright citizenship guarantee continues to be debated today as more “brown” immigrants have children who are American citizens.
Similarly, despite the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that no citizen should be denied the vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude”, voter intimidation of non-white voters continues. Hostility to this principle is reflected in the fact that Maryland did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1973, eight years after the Voting Rights Act. Kentucky ratified that Amendment in 1976. The last state to ratified this Amendment was Tennessee in 1997.
The persistent attacks on President Obama’s right to govern, as distinct from his particular policies, are couched in racial code words. It also is arguable that a woman president might engender similar gender-based attacks. Long gone are the days when northern European Protestant males governed this Nation by right. Like the confederate defeat, this too is a lost cause – gone with the wind, but not a loss some Americans feel they can openly bemoan.