Monday, August 19, 2013

Save Your Confederate Money, Boys...

A word about my backup travel reading these past few days. It's something with the restrained and scholarly title of America Aflame, subtitled “How the Civil War Created a Nation,” by one David Goldfield, hitherto unknown to me. It's an imperfect book, starting with the subtitle. The fulcrum is indeed the Civil War but it would be better (if less pithily) described as an account of how white Americans in the 19th Century understood what they might perhaps have called “the Negro problem.”

Here's a defining point: except for a gripping account of the mad zealotry of John Brown, Goldfield says next to nothing about abolitionism per se. His tenet, if I read him right, is that abolitionism really wasn't an important factor in northern opposition to slavery. Far more important, in this reading, is that northerners really didn't like blacks very much and would have been happy to see them and their attendant complications just fade away. They particularly didn't like the threat of competition from slave labor which, as they saw it, would have simply undercut the aspirations of honest white folks. This reading would explain why so much turned on the question of extending slavery to the territories—the Kansas-Nebraska act, and suchlike. Indeed, Goldfield doesn't spell out but one comes away that the matter of the territories probably drove the pre-war agenda as much as or more than any other issue.

This perspective helps to explain the other important strand in pre-Civil-War politics--“internal improvements,” as Henry Clay put it; more generally, the use of government resources to open up the country for settlers, particularly those with a purpose to become “yeoman farmers” on the opening frontier.

Goldfield is at his best in describing the swirls and eddies of politics in those pre-war years.   But he seems to hold to the belief that the Civil War was an avoidable war. I'd agree that it would have been nice for it to be avoided—I have heard, and tend to believe, that the sovereign could have paid off both the slaves and the slaveholders at less gross cost than the war exacted. But I don't find anything here by way of plausible roadmap as to just how that might have come about.

Goldfield is less impressive on the war itself, not least because he has such overwhelming competition. My guess is he might have been better off to say, “look, you all know the narrative, so I'll just skip it except insofar as it impinges on his particular concerns.”

His treatment of the postwar period is a more complicated issue. He feels obliged to give a narrative summary of the economic explosion—the railroads, the giant corporations, unions and union violence. Again this is an oft-told tale and it is one in which Goldfield seems a bit ill at ease. Yet its telling is essential to the other and perhaps most important part of his story—his account of the swift and dramatic sea change in northern white attitudes to the race issue in general and blacks in particular. Some northern whites seem to have been surprised and disappointed to discover that the new freedmen were not as enchanting as the northern whites had hoped they would be. Others remembered that they had never liked blacks that much in the first place. And many discovered how much blacks reminded them of new immigrants, particularly the Irish who quickly developed an aspect in the popular mind as ill-educated scoundrels and buffoons.

But perhaps most interesting is the way in which northern whites simply lost interest in the race issue—lost interest as they turned their attention to opening up the west, building railroads and such like, and, yes, destroying the Indians. For good or ill (or both) northern whites turned their face to the future. Southern whites, for no good reason at all, remained fixed on its disappointments and resentments from the past.

Which means that southern whites were at last free to relitigate the old battles—to strip away the protections that the War had won for blacks (had won with, it must be noted, the active participation of blacks themselves)--the “slow grinding of hard boards”--by which southern whites came at last, to win what they had lost.   The climax is, necessarily, the corrupt Hayes-Tilden election, the one in which the north laid down its arms just as surely as the south had done at Appomattox,   I don't think it ever occurred to me before that 1876 was the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. 
Slow boring of hard boards, relitigating dead issues, refighting and last winning the last war. Nice to know we don't have to live through all that again. Oh tee hee.

Slow boring of hard boards, relitigating dead issues, refighting and last winning the last war. Nice to know we don't have to live through all that again. Oh tee hee.

Update:  I see I wrote this post before.   But this is the  improved, expanded, updated version.

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