The Toxic Vibe at Antietam

A view of "Bloody Lane" from the observation tower.

Every Civil War battlefield is poignant, preserving within itself a base, murderous vibe.  Each speaks to us in its own way of American folly.  Nowhere is the vibe more toxic than at Antietam.

What led Americans to murder one another there in record numbers?  They had lost patience over a complex problem that they failed to solve politically, and each set of murderers would be damned before they would see their opponents prevail.  And so they were.

In a quiet corner of rural Maryland just off the Potomac River, legions of Union and Confederate soldiers—Americans all—converged in cornfields and country lanes outside Sharpsburg, shooting, bombing, and bayoneting one another in a merciless bloodbath.  It was just one day in a civil war that lasted four years and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, scarring their families and traumatizing a proud, optimistic nation.  There in the vicinity of Antietam Creek, on September 17, 1862, some 23,000 Americans were wounded or killed.

Masses of dead Americans lying in a field after Antietam in 1862

They were the victims of party politics.  The lofty language Lincoln and others used to give meaning to the Civil War tends to obscure the truth that the war was a travesty, a rebuke to the pretensions of republican government.  The Civil War was the nasty afterbirth of a colossal political deadlock that upended the political system and plunged the nation into catastrophe.  We rarely acknowledge the deeply shameful character of this domestic rumble. The nation’s leadership class so failed the people that at last they and their states lost patience, gave up negotiating, and gambled on settling their differences by force.

When the Civil War broke out, the United States was a young, forward-looking nation.  Its people were migratory and accustomed to risk.  They were experimental, improvisational, adept at breaking with established ways.  Yet, when it came to slavery, their leaders were blinkered.  They were irresponsible and cowardly.  (Historian James G. Randall once dubbed them “the blundering generation.”)  In the first half of the 19th century, when other countries were advancing toward the gradual abolition of slavery (often in their colonial possessions), a generation of American leaders proved incapable of finding a peaceful way past white Southerners’ longstanding reliance on negro slaves.

An enormous literature catalogs the reasons these “antebellum” statesmen failed.  Slavery was deeply rooted in the South’s colonial past. The slaveholding class perceived owning “property” in slaves as vital to Southern prosperity, which was based on export commodities (chiefly tobacco and cotton).  White Southerners also enjoyed more than their fair share of representation in Congress, thanks to the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.

Northern politicians meanwhile turned a blind eye to slavery (the “peculiar” institution), in part because of the North’s own variety of anti-black feeling, but also because agitating for change with respect to slavery threatened the solidarity of the political class across the North-South divide.  No one in power could envision the US with a large free black population.

Northern Democrats, whose party was pro-slavery, were keen to steer clear of the slavery issue because they wanted to remain in power.  They wanted their party to remain dominant and keep control of the White House.  They were committed to preventing the federal government from infringing on the rights of slave-holding states or individual slaveholders.

In short, until the rise of the Republican Party in the late 1850s, slavery was an uncomfortable issue that no mainstream politician wanted to face.  Slavery, that “fire bell in the night,” as Jefferson memorably described it circa 1820, was so potentially divisive a matter that, for many decades, American statesmen conspired to keep it from interfering in national life.

Politically, this strategy of avoidance allowed northern and southern states to enjoy a balance of power.  As territories were settled and new states admitted to the Union, Congress passed various measures in an attempt to ensure that the number of free and slave states would remain equal.  The Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 were all constructed along these lines.

When an initially tiny group of antislavery politicians succeeded in organizing the new Republican Party and putting their candidate Abraham Lincoln in the White House in 1860, Southern legislators were certain they knew what the future held.  They were convinced that the Republicans’ success (though attained solely with the support of Northern states) presaged slavery’s doom—and their own.  Southern leaders who might have stayed in power to mitigate the effects of this untoward political development, recoiled against their minority status.  Fearful and defiant, they withdrew from national politics.  Then they went home and convinced their states to withdraw from the Union.  In doing so, they placed themselves on the wrong side of history, failing their states and fellow-citizens, and spinning a narrative of bitterness and alienation that some Southerners continue to lean on today.

Suddenly, because of all that, the residents who had heretofore ferried back and forth across the Potomac on their daily errands became mortal enemies.  Confederates blew up the bridge at Shepherdstown, Virginia, that was normally used to get to the Maryland side.  Then, after the bridge was gone, tens of thousands of troops who were part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waded across the river at night to wage war in what was called the Maryland Campaign.

Lee sought to attack and defeat the Union Army on northern soil, but, even at this early point in the war, his soldiers and he may well have sensed the terrible futility and shamefulness of their resort to violence—the civic degeneration that “freed” them to attack their erstwhile compatriots, whose ancestors had fought with theirs to attain independence in the American Revolution.  Having disavowed their faith in federal politics and the Constitution, Southern “rebels” now poured their energies into slaughtering whomever they encountered in the “bloody cornfield.”

After both sides sickened from their atrocious duties, Lee’s forces retreated back across the river into rebel territory, an admission that their aggressive foray against the defenders of federalism had failed.

In retrospect, we can see how the visceral drama and valor of the Civil War took the heat off “the blundering generation.”  We do not excoriate the political establishment of that time for failing to hang together, for their cowardly abandonment of the federal system.

Because the Civil War at last secured the great goal of emancipation, we can easily be fooled into thinking of it as a noble, progressive event.  It’s blasphemy to admit the war was a terrible disservice to the nation, which would have been better off abolishing slavery by consensual means.  The partisan and sectional conflict leading up to the Civil War exposed frightening vulnerabilities in our Constitutional system, vulnerabilities that are still there, waiting for a freak combination of circumstances to exploit them again.

Sadly, the resort to force did not “settle our differences.”  A vast change in our internal relations occurred when slavery ended, but, as for the necessary change of heart, we’re waiting for it still.  Southern slaveholders never assented to slavery’s end.  Northerners never got serious about the concessions that might have induced the South to give up an immoral labor practice at odds with the nation’s ideals.  Ultimately, enslaved blacks attained freedom despite violent Southern opposition, engendering animosities that confound Americans still.  Still, America lacks consensus on racial equality as a fact and a blessing; still retrograde elements valorize their resistance to modern popular will.

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How wonderful it would be

Man cutting out stars in a flag factory (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“It would just be so wonderful if the answers could actually come from the South itself,” Isabella Wilkerson said.  She was talking about the Charleston shootings, the Confederate flag, and the influence the South’s slave-holding past continues to have on the region.  The race hatred that motivated a young white gunman to kill nine African-Americans in their own church is an extreme manifestation of the bitterness and resentment still lingering in some hearts after the Civil War—a conflict whose one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary the nation has just observed.

That long-ago conflict determined the superior power of the federal government over the states, while putting an end to Southern slavery.  The citizens of the sections warred against one another, one side sold on the merits of federalism, the other desiring to preserve states’ autonomy.  The South went to war over the right to pass and uphold whatever laws it pleased—specifically those that sanction chattel slavery.

The Union’s victory invalidated the rebels’ arguments, while setting up an asymmetrical dynamic vis-à-vis the South that persists.  In the wake of this rebuke, the federal government (in the so-called “Reconstruction” era) ruled Southern state governments for ten years, fearing that, if given political autonomy, the states would use it to resurrect slavery.  Later in the century, Southern states achieved something approximate through the Jim Crow laws.  During the civil rights era of the 1960s, the federal government again intervened to help secure and uphold black Southerners’ claims to legal and civil equality.  This legacy of intervention achieved progress by coercion–an achievement very different than that of racial reconciliation and political healing from inside.

When I traveled to Mississippi in the early 1990s, I was shocked to encounter whites who felt they couldn’t ‘win’ because of the weights the Civil War had placed on them.  They still felt diminished and beaten, and still resented and feared the state’s large black population, which could attain hegemony if empowered.  Enmeshed in an archaic social paradigm, they still regarded their black brethren as something other than Southern and equal.

The Southern tendency to predicate the present on this past is a baleful impediment to Southern progress.  It is, moreover, a baleful impediment to the vitality and strength of the entire country.  People of all sections are affected by the conditions prevailing in this one region.  Just imagine the transforming effects upon the entire nation if the South were finally to heal its own historical wounds!

Above: A man cuts out stars for a flag with a machine, in a photograph probably taken in 1909.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Nullifiers and Cliven Bundy

Nullification . . . despotism (1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett)Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.

Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.”  They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination.  (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.) Continue reading

A Great White Nation of Self-Made Men

The Republican National Convention created a strange impression, painting a peculiar picture of the US economy and its citizens’ woes.  Not only the present was distorted, but history, too.  I listened carefully to what the speakers and party-sponsored commercials praised, and compared it to the nation and the realities I knew.   There was a huge gap between the two.

America is at a cross-roads for many reasons, among them the fact that several enormous historical advantages we’ve enjoyed are waning.  The nation that once enjoyed an immense over-supply of land and relative scarcity of labor has matured into a nation where resources are becoming more precious and the population is more and more exposed to underemployment and fierce competition.  Global change is reinforcing the trend.  Yet rather than acknowledge or adjust to the change, Republicans have decided to dismiss it and argue that a flawed president is to blame.  Only bad people stand between us and the restoration of the nation’s former glory.

No credit was allowed to the great federal structure that allowed us to flourish in the first place, nor to the amazing natural inheritance that sustains the US—superior natural resources that should be husbanded rather than squandered or spoiled.

The vast historic role of the state in nation-building went unacknowledged—was belittled, even.  Rand Paul jeered at the idea that infrastructure investment creates prosperity, insisting the opposite was somehow the case.  Try telling that to the great 19th-century railway magnates, who depended entirely on land grants and laws enacted by Congress to create their lines.  Or to the era’s land-speculators, who knew that towns would grow mainly where railroads were placed.  Or to the first telegraph companies, whose networks piggybacked on the railroad rights-of-way that federal legislation had so thoughtfully made.  Without the federal government, states would have built useless networks of dead-end roads.

Even America’s private enterprises might have remained small had it not been for the protection that early Supreme Court decisions gave them.  Without such protection, all corporate entities would have been stymied, including those that built the nation’s first roads, bridges, and schools.

The Republicans committed other disturbing elisions.  I listened to the praise for families; I admired the attractiveness of Jenna Ryan and Ann Romney; their picture-perfect children were impressive, too.  The world of the 2012 Republicans is a world of stay-at-home mothers who don’t need to worry about limiting their family size or figuring out how to feed an additional mouth.  It’s a world where there’s plenty of time for charity, because the fortunate people in it somehow have plenty to spare.  And that’s good, because in this Republican world, government help is bad.  All we want, Paul Ryan tells us, is to be left alone.

Absent was any acknowledgment of the demographic trends of the last several decades, which have seen the rise of delayed child-bearing, increased family limitation and planning, and the rise of two-career couples working outside the home.  The party celebrated its female members—but these women apparently never needed a student loan, never needed protection from workplace bias, never needed family planning or contraception while single.  One must suppose this, because the Republicans have been active in opposing, attacking, and weakening the structure of support that has enabled more American women to gain education, control reproduction, contribute more to the family economy, and earn decent livings.

Without such support, how are young women supposed to take care of themselves and their families?  Implicit in the worldview paraded at the convention is that marriage in itself provides wives and mothers with adequate financial protection.  Yet the number of women living the dream that the beautiful Republican spouses embody is painfully few.

The Republican convention’s treatment of race was perhaps most astonishing.  The party sought to promote itself as a “brand” friendly to minorities, despite the fact that it has been working hard in states such as Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to raise voting requirements, restrict early voting, and redraw districts in a way that make it harder for minorities to vote or gain representation.

I was agog at efforts to depict President Obama as a lazy, do-nothing character who did not understand struggle, success, or hard work.  It was a “dog-whistle” portrayal of a super-high-achieving guy that played off of deeply engrained racial stereotypes.  The topper came when Clint Eastwood re-imagined the president as someone who was anti-social and vulgar, enacting a racist fantasy (perhaps unwittingly) at the close of his imaginary dialogue with the president by encouraging the crowd to chant “Make My Day.”  We all know what happens to low-lifes who dare to mess with Dirty Harry.

It was a shameful spectacle spelling a new nadir for the G. O. P.

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Echoes of an Uncompromising Time

Lithographed "Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union, 1862 (Courtesy Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons)

The tantrums.  The bad manners.  The stubbornness.  The ruptures.  I read the news and think of the Civil War times.

Fortunately, no single issue divides us geographically, as slavery did then; otherwise, there are startling similarities between the politics of that time and what we have now.

The 1850s were a cataclysmic time, as events intensified the need to solve the ‘problem’ of slavery, an entrenched point of controversy which for decades had defied solution.  Since the time of the Founding, some 60 years before, statesmen on different sides of the issue had found ways to compromise so that the nation could keep functioning.

Compromise was ‘good’ in the sense that it averted political paralysis or the breakdown of the Union, but ‘bad’ in the sense that it was merely a ‘settlement’—an agreement that temporarily put the issue to rest, without resolving it once and for all.

Compromise kept the nation and its government going, however.  It allowed the two major political parties (Whigs and Democrats then) to enjoy a fine balance of power.  But the possibility that one party might gain ascendency over the other, and thus resolve The Issue in their favor, raised the stakes on every controversy.  Every political battle was fought as though it were the ultimate one.

Little did the parties know that, in the coming decade, their organizations would be shattered into pieces—one party split in two, the other dead.  A new party would be born.

Or did they know?  It seems they suspected.  Yet, rather than rearrange their parties around The Issue, they, too, like us, engaged in a politics of avoidance.  Politicians tried to suppress slavery.  They introduced the gag rule in the House.  They devised temporary fixes.  Above all, they hoped the uncomfortable problem would go away.  That it would be resolved sometime, in the future, by someone; but not by them.

The repeated return of The Issue gradually wore civility away.  Eventually, politicians on the two sides of the slavery issue stopped socializing.  Their insults grew more personal, causing violence and occasional invitations to duel.  Content with power, the parties were fearful of what an ultimate resolution of the Issue would mean.

People in the states grew restive, too.  Being more particularized, they were not content with some of the federal compromises.  There were the same charges then: that federal action was a threat to their way of life.

Slaveholders worried that they would be deprived of their property; they railed against a federal government that would drain their prosperity away.  Abolitionists in the North were also unhappy: they didn’t want to have to return fugitive slaves to the South, as federal law decreed.  So they began to work against the federal law, not only in the courts, but by subverting it too.

Opinions became polarized, varying sharply depending on what part of the country you were in.  Countrymen looked on their opponents as people with whom they had nothing in common.  States began crafting arguments to justify their leaving the Union, growing weary of the yoke of federal compliance, and certain life would be better if they could have their own way.

Never had there been such partisan strife.  It was a time when the weaknesses of our political system lay fully exposed; when our parties, our leaders, and our devotion to the Union failed us.  It was an uncompromising time that left us divided in two.

Image: N. Mendal Shafer,
“Diagram of the Federal Government and American Union,”
1862 lithograph, from this source.
A shout-out to the Wikimedian who prepped this image
and made it so easy to find—thank you.

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Susan Barsy, Parties Made New: Our Critical Elections, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A World Without Lincoln, Our Polity.
Paul Finkelman, Lincoln’s Letter to the Editor, New York Times.

The Next Political Football: Medicaid

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act has placed a spotlight on the expansion of Medicaid benefits that the legislation envisioned.  Reactions to the Court’s ruling, which gave states the right to opt out of the expansion, again illustrate the state-level differences in our political culture.  Already a number of states, notably Florida, have declared their states will not be going along, while others (including California, New York, and Illinois) have embraced the measure.

THIS INTERACTIVE MAP on the PBS News Hour website allows you to see where each state stands with respect to the plan and the number of eligible recipients who will be affected in each.

Readers may also be interested in the maps below, showing the US House and Senate votes that led to the passage of the health reform bill.  Click on the maps to see larger maps and full legends.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg/256px-111th_Congress_roll_call_165.svg.png

US House vote on March 21, 2010,
by congressional district, showing yeas and nays by party.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/92/111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg/256px-111th_Congress_1st_session_Senate_roll_call_396.svg.png

US Senate vote on December 24, 2009, by state.

Maps courtesy of Kurykh on Wikimedia Commons.


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Susan Barsy, Progress Isn’t Popular, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, A Decision We’ll All Feel, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, The Map of Federal Benefits, Our Polity.
Susan Barsy, Help Understanding the Budget, Our Polity.

A World Without Lincoln

sketch by Charles Dix of Fort Monroe in the offing, 1863 (private collection)

For those whose consciousness is tuned to the Civil War, April is strewn with anniversaries.  The war began April 12th, 1861, with the Confederate barrage of Fort Sumter.  Four years later, it ended on April 9th, with the rebels’ surrender at Appomattox.  A week later, President Lincoln was slain while sitting in a box at Ford’s Theater.  That spring the injured nation lay under a blanket of a peace, a peace fraught with exhaustion, anger, uncertainty.

It’s hard to fathom what Americans at that time felt, experienced.  On the far side of a dreadful, violent division, they had run a course that intransigence — impatience — and distrust — dictated.  To say Progress Is Unpopular is putting it mildly.  Those who could not put up with change, those unhappy with the course of progress, those who were sick of compromise and unwilling to think even for one minute of living without slavery — these were the people who threw in the towel.  They walked away from Congress, from compromise and debate.  Rather than accept a turn of events they conceived of as a humiliating political defeat, they rebelled against the federal government and sought to go their own way.  The ensuing war was coercive, decisively establishing the ultimate authority of the Union and the federal government relative to other interests and claims.

Among my belongings is a small drawing, a bit of memorabilia from that unhappy time.  It’s a tiny sketch on Union stationery, showing a view of Fort Monroe from the water.  The artist was a young man, Charles T. Dix, whose father, John, was in charge of Union forces there at the time.

Located in Virginia at the tip of the peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and York Rivers, Fort Monroe became a haven for former slaves who gained their freedom by leaving rebel territory.  After the war, the fort was where former leaders of the Confederacy were imprisoned.  Jefferson Davis was held there for what many considered to be an unconscionably long period.  Hitting on the appropriate way to treat men who had presided over such a protracted and devastating rebellion took a long time.

It has taken far longer to discover how to realize the dream of freedom and equality that was an inseparable part of that dark struggle.  Ultimately, though, we have struggled toward it, however benightedly, struggled toward it with and without great statesmen, struggled toward it in a world without Lincoln.