(I've linked all the books I've mentioned throughout the article to amazon links in case you're interested in reading them.)
Recently the writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, published a Civil War reading list, "Five Books To Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War." It was in response to White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, stating, “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War," which one of the stupider things anyone could say about American history.
I had read one of the books on the list, "The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas," but not any of the others. I'm a bit of a history nut, so my knowledge of the Civil War, informed by school and the Ken Burns Civil War Documentary, was probably better than most. But still, I knew I was lacking in knowledge about what is undoubtedly the central event in American History.
Coates praise of one book caught my eye,
"1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing."
So I picked it up and started to read it immediately. In about 2 weeks I've read about 600 of its 900 pages. It's an incredible book, one of the best books I've ever read, and along with Tony Judt's Postwar.
Although I'm not close to finishing, I've had a running list of thoughts and insights that have emerged from this books, and I'd like to share a few.
The Civil War Was About Slavery
But those alternative narratives about the causes of the Civil War are wrong. It was about slavery, pure and simple. If you want proof, read about the 1850 compromise. Or the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Or any of the LIncoln-Douglas debates in 1858, which were entirely about slavery. Or how about the state of Georgia's Declaration of Secession, which reads (emphasis is mine),
"The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slaveholding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery."
No one tried to hide their motives when they were actually seceding. It was always about slavery. It wasn't till the war was lost that America tried to rewrite its history.
The Similarities Between Obama and Lincoln Are Apparent
I'm not the first to say this, course. The similarities are too numerous to name. Some of them are obvious like both being from Illinois. Other similarities are less obvious.
For example, both were political moderates in a time of great political rancor, and a result were hated by extremes from the left and the right. For example, Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican, and the Bernie Sanders of his day, was no fan of Lincoln, just as most progressives found faults with Obama's presidency. And the South vilified both men as well.
And even more saliently, both Obama and Lincoln were among the most eloquent men to have ever lived. Take this famous passage from Lincoln's first inauguration,
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."
It's just a stunning piece of speechwriting, one of the great passages in any speech. Compare that with Obama's 2008 election night speech,
This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight's about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.
She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.
And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can."
Both are just poetic and beautiful and eloquent in ways that no other presidents have been.
The United States Has Never Reconciled With Its Past
Our nation is built on genocide, exploitation and most importantly slavery. Slavery, in particular, is the most inhuman institution ever created by man and is America's first and lasting sin. It informs almost everything that has come after it.
The problem lies not with blacks or any other minority in this country, but the strain of white supremacy which this country was founded on and continues to reinforce.
Bringing this back to the civil war, one only needs to read about The Cult of the Lost Cause to tell you how White Supremacy has tried to erase its greatest sin. Instead, they have propped themselves as noble and hide the real, ugly truths of the Confederacy, which was above all else about continuing to enslave a race of people, under the pretense of moral and racial superiority, for continued economic gain, all the while using the bible as justification.
Anyway, I'd like to stop there. As I get further along in the book and continue my rampage of reading American history books, I will continue to update you on any new thoughts or insights I have.
Lastly, I wanted to leave you with a speech from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu about removing Confederate statues. It was one of the better examples of how white people can confront the ugly past of the Confederacy and slavery,
"But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America's largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.
America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined 'separate but equal'; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp...
And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.
So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission."