Monday, August 05, 2013

Goldfield's War

Pretty good travel reading: David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. It has its strengths and its weaknesses but very much its strongest aspect is its discussion of the motives and intentions of both adversaries—north and south—in the years leading up to the great conflict. 

Goldfield would have you believe he intends to be more even handed than some sources about the differing visions of the two sides. He is, but it's not what you think: he is as thoroughgoing as anybody in exposing the rapacity and the callous indifference to common humanity so pervasive in the slaveocracy. Rather, the point is how shows that the northerners weren't a lot better. He gives remarkably little attention to the abolitionists per se (except the remarkable exception of John Brown). He does save some of his harshest judgment for “evangelical Christians” who drove the northern cause with a fervor and implacability that seemed to remove the issue from the realm of politics (ironic how a position like this can reverse itself after 150 years). 

But his real point is that the northeners—even or perhaps especially the “anti-slavery” forces—really didn't like blacks very much. Indeed if Goldfield is to be believed, the whole point of the move to “keep slavery out of the territories” was to keep black people out of the territories. He (gleefully?) points out how Lincoln on campaign sought to assure voters that an end to slavery would not necessarily mean a flood of black faces in southern Illinois. And he suggests that even (Some of? All of?) the abolitionists were willing to wash their hands of the whole problem once the southerners had seceded, as in “not our country, not our problem.”

One almost comic moment, new to me, occurs near the end of the war narrative when both sides were exhausted and desperate for any way out of a fight for which they had lost all appetite. The suggestion arises that what out to happen is that north and south should get together again and they all should go off and conquer Maximilian's Mexico. Hey, worked nicely in '46. The record will show that the idea never caught on and that, for whatever it may be worth, the Mexicans did for Maximilian right nicely on their own.

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