Sunday, August 20, 2017

Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics

Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet MosaicsDecommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics

Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics

€ 78.00

  incl. MwSt., excl. shipping costs
Yevgen Nikiforov (photographer)Olga Balashova, Lizaveta German
The book presents the first comprehensive study of Soviet monumental mosaics, outstanding artefacts of the cultural heritage of the era. Photographer Yevgen Nikiforov spent three years traveling all around Ukraine (including the presently occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts) in search of the most interesting art pieces of the 1950s–1980s within the context of Soviet Modernism. He covered 35,000 km of Ukrainian roads and visited 109 cities and villages to discover more than 1,000 surviving mosaics. The book includes around 200 unique photographs of monumental panels: officially sanctioned gigantic images of workers, farmers, astronauts and athletes of coloured smalto or ceramics illustrate Soviet life as it was meant to be represented. Some of the pieces featured here were demolished shortly after the photographs were taken: they fell afoul of the so-called decommunization laws that ban communist symbols and slogans. Though the content of Soviet art was meticulously controlled by state propaganda, Ukrainian artists managed to develop a visual language that transcends the Socialist Realist canon. Today these works serve as historical testimony, and show a new important page in the 20th-century art history.
235 x 275 mm
250 pages
200 pictures
ISBN 978-3-86922-583-8

BEGONE—WITH THE WIND: It’s Time for the Lost Cause of the South to Get Lost - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."; via CD on Facebook -- Many thanks!

The nation has been held back for decades because of Southerners’ dishonest propaganda about the causes of the Civil War. Enough, enough, enough.


In 1923, a year after the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, the Senate voted to appropriate $200,000 for a Mammy memorial in Washington to celebrate the faithful black slaves who, according to its sponsors, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, had lived dutifully under the beneficent hand of their gentle white masters. The measure failed in the House, but not for lack of widespread support throughout the South. Had it passed, a visitor could have paid homage to the Great Emancipator and, after a short stroll, lighted upon a monument that declared Lincoln’s efforts to have been unnecessary, together with the war he led to fulfill them.
The Mammy [JB see] statue in Washington was to have been the culmination of a two-decade campaign to erect such monuments in every southern state by the UDC and its companion United Confederate Veterans, which together formed one one of the most formidable lobbying groups of the age. Their goal was nothing less than to rewrite the history of the Civil War. It rested on three main precepts: that slavery was not the cause of the conflict; that it was a struggle for Southern independence over Northern aggression; and that slaves never sought their freedom but were only too glad to be civilized under the hand of a superior race. All of this was romanticized under the rubric of “The Lost Cause,” in which a martyred South was defeated by a rapacious North solely due to the weight of numbers. The Yankees had the bigger battalions, not the better reasons.
The South may have lost the war but in the 50 years after Reconstruction was undone in 1877, it won the second battle: an ideological struggle in which Southern apologists imposed on the national consciousness a revisionist narrative of the conflict, its causes and its consequences. Central to this enterprise, as the historian David Blight writes in his masterly Race and Reunion, was the construction of monuments that, from the mid-1880s to the mid-1920s, memorialized the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Their erection was not to memorialize, but to polemicize.
They were weapons in a campaign of revisionism to erase from memory the reality of slavery as the cornerstone of the Confederacy, its expansion as the reason for secession, its enforcement as coercion, and its maintenance as the bedrock of white supremacy. The monuments were part of a successful campaign to promote the Confederate portrayal of history in the nation’s schoolbooks and to impose the Southern version as the true one. Thus, the War of the Rebellion, as it was known at the time, became the War Between the States, a conflict between two sovereign entities, such as Athens and Sparta, thereby removing the taint of treason. Most important, the strategy was used to impose and codify the Jim Crow laws that subjugated black Americans for another 75 years.
The cause of Southern revisionism was a political movement that manipulated the past to justify a present that deprived blacks of civil and political rights through terror and intimidation. It is ironic that the appeal to “preserve heritage” is now being used to justify memorials built to erase historical memory.
To be sure, the monuments are part of the American past and should not be destroyed but relocated to an exhibition space where they can be placed in their appropriate historical context. This would mean restoring them to history rather than maintaining them in a prominent public place where they serve as a symbol of white supremacy. On Memorial Day 1890, a crowd of more than 100,000 people turned out in Richmond, Virginia, to celebrate the unveiling of a giant equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee. This was the apex of a cult that would deify Lee as a paragon of Southern chivalry and glorify the cause for which he fought.

To remove Lee’s statue, as has been proposed in Charlottesville, is not to remove him from the pages of American history, where he belongs. Lee is a complex character, perhaps a tragic one. To make him a stage villain would be as wrong as to canonize him. In the antebellum years Lee had made known his distaste for slavery as “a moral and political evil,” and had argued against secession. He declined the offer of his fellow Virginian, Federal General in Chief Winfield Scott, to lead the Union Army. And when the South seceded, he chose to remain with his native state.
But it is also true that Lee turned a blind eye to the massacre of black prisoners at Fort Pillow and other such killing fields as the Crater, and countenanced the execution of black soldiers who had fallen into Confederate hands—what would be considered war crimes today. Even a plan for humane prisoner exchanges was scotched when the North insisted that it include captured blacks. And when Confederate forces under Lee’s command marched into Pennsylvania on their way to Gettysburg, they seized blacks and sent them South to slavery. As a last desperate measure, with Union forces closing in on a depleted Army of Northern Virginia, Lee proposed recruiting slaves to the Southern cause with the promise of freedom. But this measure was voted down by the Confederate Senate. To concede that blacks could fight would acknowledge their humanity, a concession that Southern die-hards, even with their backs to the wall, could not tolerate, because it would topple their edifice of white supremacy and the war to preserve it.
In 1859, the year leading up to the Civil War, Lee was the U.S. officer who captured the abolitionist firebrand John Brown after his aborted raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry to lead a slave insurrection. At his trial, Brown declared he had acted to free the slaves, a cause for which he was willing to die. He was convicted of treason and insurrection and was hanged. Not a single Confederate leader who had engaged in treason and insurrection, in a war that led to 750,000 dead, was executed after the conflict. (The only Confederate condemned was Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville prison camp.) Some fled, a few served prison sentences and were honored as they emerged. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, spent his time after being released writing his memoirs in which he justified, without apology, the South’s right to secede and the justice of its cause. On his death in 1889 he was mourned throughout the South, which honored him with monuments. One is in Montgomery, Alabama, the first capitol of the Confederacy. Another, in New Orleans, was dedicated in 1911 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of secession. It was removed in May. It should be noted that Lee himself opposed the construction of Confederate monuments in the belief that it was best for the reunited nation to move on and leave behind the symbols of civil strife.
If the goal of those who kept the Confederate flame was to honor Southern military valor, we may wonder at the absence of one of the most prominent Confederate officers of the war: James Longstreet, probably the ablest Confederate general after Lee, who valued him highly, and a brilliant brigade and corps commander. Why did he become a non-person in the frenzy of memorializing? It seems that after the war, Longstreet had the audacity to transfer his allegiance to the Federal Government. He was thus considered a turncoat by those who had rebelled against the Union.
The “Grey Ghost,” John Mosby, one of the legendary guerilla commanders of the Confederacy, was similarly dismissed. His sin was to have worked for Grant’s election in 1872, and he disappeared from the Southern pantheon. Honoring Confederate heroes postwar was a selective process based on politics. As political symbols they’re fair game for the judgment of future generations.
No one is questioning the valor of Robert E. Lee, but the cause in which he served, dedicated to the expansion of racial slavery and the preservation of white supremacy.
President’s Trump concern about where it will end—Washington, Jefferson—is misplaced. The issue is not that they owned slaves, which was true of most Southern landowners in their time, and more than a few in the North. The point is that they pledged their fortunes to a revolution seeking freedom and independence against foreign tyranny. Almost a century later, Lee broke his oath to the United States and committed treason in the service of a slave power. Each man should be judged in the context of his time.
By this measure, Washington and Jefferson acted honorably and, whatever their flaws, should be honored for their service to the nation; Lee betrayed the nation, knowing full well the consequences of his actions. He did so in the service of an execrable cause. It was to sanitize this cause that Confederate memorials mushroomed in the decades after the war. The men in thrall to that cause should be remembered in history but not honored in the public square.
The second and third generation of Germans after World War II came to terms with the shame of the Third Reich and rejected the Nazi past. Whereas the second and third generations of Southerners after the Civil War sought to vindicate the Confederacy. The Germans fought valiantly at Stalingrad and tenaciously in Italy but it is because young Germans remember their history that Germany is not dedicating statues to the valor of the World War II-era Wehrmacht. Rommel and Guderian were brilliant commanders but their victories brought  a swath of devastation in their wake. They belong in the history books, yes. But not on pedestals.
The sad truth is that we have never come to grips with the harsh realities of the Civil War and its aftermath. It is no accident that the onset of Confederate monument building coincided in 1890 with the first Southern law explicitly disenfranchising blacks (the Mississippi state constitution), and reached a peak in 1924, the year of the Lee Monument at Charlottesville, with the imposition of racial quotas to keep out unwanted immigrants. It was all of a piece, a unity of racism and nativism that is still with us today.
Confederate apologists and Southern historians, abetted by kindred academic spirits in the North, controlled a racialist narrative that perpetuated the Lost Cause myth in revisionist histories, polemics, tracts, texts and films, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind. The appearance of D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular Nation in 1915 celebrated the reunion of an expedient North and a supremacist South at the expense of America’s blacks who would have to wait half a century before the nation began to redress their grievances, still a work in progress.
The demons of racism that animated the antebellum South as well as the North with its black codes, that betrayed Reconstruction, that terrorized blacks in the Gilded Age and segregated them in the Jim Crow era, have never disappeared but assumed different morphologies, most recently the form of white victimization. Its current practitioners are well aware that their demands of First Amendment rights—which their spiritual forebears would never grant to others—are nothing but a ploy to incite violence, infect the national discourse and seek traction for their white supremacist ideology.
They call themselves patriots but we can only wonder what the Americans fallen on the beaches of Normandy would have thought about their sacrifice when hardly more than 70 years later, homegrown Nazis would be mocking the cause for which they gave their lives. What would the GI’s who fought at Anzio and the Bulge have made of marching neo-Nazis invoking the torchlight parades of Hitler’s storm troopers on sacred American soil—and of the sight of a sitting president and commander in chief defending them. Sen. John McCain called the racists at Charlottesville traitors. Legally, they may not be so, but in a deeper sense, they are. Traitors to what is best in America, its basic decency, its promise of hope that is greater than the reality we often see, its wager on the possibility of promise for all its citizens, and its belief in the words of Langston Hughes, that “America will be!”

What to Do With a Heinous Statue; via JJ on Facebook -- many thanks!


What to Do With a Heinous Statue

What to Do With a Heinous Statue
All across the southern United States, sometimes in the dead of night, statues are falling. In the days since the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, over the fate of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, activists in Durham, North Carolina, have used ropes to tear down a statue of a Confederate soldier outside the city’s former courthouse; authorities in Baltimore moved in the early hours to take down the city’s Confederate monuments; and the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, where state law prohibits the removal of a Confederate monument from a city park, ordered it covered up with plastic.
The responses of many conservatives have been condemnatory. Commentator Scott Greer accused protesters of attempting to “wipe out any pride Southerners should have in their heritage.” In a Tuesday statement, President Donald Trump argued that the removal of these monuments amounted to “changing history,” adding, “I wonder, is it George Washington next week?”; on Thursday, he doubled down, tweeting that “the history and culture of our great country” are “being ripped apart” by those who wish to see the monuments gone. Those arguing that the statues must come down have been equally fierce: “You can’t force hurt and the reminders of hurt on a people who were suffering,” said James Muwakkil, the president of the Lee County, Virginia, chapter of the NAACP. “Robert E. Lee does not reflect the America that we live in.” 
At the heart of this debate is the question of how we treat hurtful or damaging aspects of our heritage. While America’s slaveholding history has a particularly painful resonance, the United States is not alone in struggling with monuments to a violent past. Many countries are obliged to constantly strike a balance between removing monuments that honor the reprehensible and maintaining them as sites of memory. Each situation has its own specific context, but some examples suggest a way forward for how to grapple with America’s fraught history.
The dictatorships of the past teemed with relics. If you walk through Budapest’s Memento Park today, you’ll see the towering edifices of a bygone age: statues of Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Hungarian communist leaders, all quietly oxidizing among the trees. Here, the ghosts of Hungary’s past are gathered together and, rather than being magnets for protest, draw groups of tourists, who walk through the detritus of recent history.
And yet the site recalls an acutely painful memory for the Hungarian people. The country was the stage for the first true rebellion against Soviet rule in Eastern Europe — the October Revolution of 1956 that was crushed with Russian tanks on the streets of Budapest. During the uprising, 2,500 Hungarians died in a matter of weeks, with 200,000 fleeing as refugees.
The rebellion was crushed, but even as the country continued to suffer under a new Soviet-imposed government, one iconic moment of the uprising remained alive in the public imagination: the day citizens marched on Budapest’s city park and tore down the 25-meter statue of Josef Stalin that towered over the city, leaving only the dictator’s feet remaining.

The remains of the Stalin Monument sit in City Park, in Budapest, 1956. Image: Pesti srác2 – FOTO:Fortepan — ID 46761; Wikimedia Creative Commons
In Budapest, as in many of the countries of the Warsaw Pact, Stalin statues had sprung up everywhere in the decades between 1930 and 1950. When the statue was first built, the Hungarian state media described it as a symbol of Stalin’s ever present influence in Budapest. “Stalin was with us earlier,” one journalist gushed. “Now he will be with us even more. He will watch over our work, and his smile will show us the way.” Its toppling marked a symbolic refusal of Stalin’s legacy only three years after his death.
In honor of this moment, one of the centerpieces of Memento Park today is a modern recreation of the ruined statue, known as “Stalin’s Boots.” The new, recontextualized monument inverts the traditional role of the statue — that of glorifying and celebrating. It points instead to an absence, with a note of humor. It makes ridiculous what once was a stamp of power.

“Stalin’s Boots,” Memento Park, 2007. Image: Ines Zgonc; Wikimedia Creative Commons
Monuments are places where memory crystallizes. But what kind of memory that is, and who the memories belong to, depends on the context in which the monuments are placed. One of the most important considerations in these situations is the monument’s original intent.
In the years following World War II, German authorities grappled with the question of what to do with the monumental remains of the Nazi regime. The Nazis didn’t build small. Impressed by the ruins of Rome (which he visited in 1938, at Benito Mussolini’s invitation), Adolf Hitler commissioned his favorite architect, Albert Speer, to design enormous edifices based on classical designs. The Führer was planning ahead: “If Berlin were to meet the fate of Rome,” Hitler wrote, “the coming generations could one day admire the department stores of Jews and the hotels of some corporations as the most imposing works of our time, the characteristic expression of the culture of our days.”
In response to Hitler’s fears, Speer developed a theory of Ruinenwert, or “ruin value.” In his memoirs, Speer recounted how “Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he remarked. What then remained of the emperors of the Roman Empire? What would still give evidence of them today, if not their buildings.… Our buildings must also speak to the conscience of future generations of Germans.”
This philosophy of architecture is particularly embodied in Speer’s Zeppelin Field grandstand at Nuremberg. Based on the Grecian Pergamon Altar still on display in Berlin, but blown up to enormous proportions and faced with blank limestone, this edifice held the podium from which the Führer spoke to crowds at his annual rallies. The architecture was designed to create what Hitler called “mass experiences.” The sharp symmetry and plain facades, along with the long wings of the building, intimidated onlookers and subdued feelings of individuality beneath the power of the state.

Zeppelin Field, 1937. Image: Wikimedia Creative Commons
In the postwar period, German governments were determined not to erase the record of Nazi atrocities and saw the architectural remnants of Nazism as a key part of that record. However, it was unthinkable to allow Hitler’s spirit to remain in the buildings or for the Ruinenwert to be preserved and, as Hitler put it, “speak to the conscience of future generations.” This created a paradox: how to remember the past but remember without recreating its effects.
For the Americans occupying Berlin, the immediate solution was obvious:
German Swastika emblem is demolished at Zeppelinfeld in Nurnberg,Germany. HD Stock Footage
Later, however, German authorities went further: The imposing wings of the grandstand were clipped, its ruin value neutralized. Sometimes monuments reveal hidden truths only in their moment of destruction. Today, the grandstand seems to speak to the intellectual poverty of National Socialist thought, its moral blankness reflected in those smooth limestone walls.

Zeppelin Field, 2004. Image: Stefan Wagner; Wikimedia Creative Commons
As the French historian Pierre Nora once quipped, “We speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left.” In the United States, ethnic minorities are largely denied sites of public memory, such as memorials and preserved buildings. As Nora put it, they possess “reserves of memory but little or no historical capital.” Black Americans instead walk through their own cities among the statuary of their former oppressors; there are thought to be at least 1,500 memorials to the Confederacy around the country today.
The clashes in Charlottesville that caused the death of anti-fascist demonstrator Heather Heyer began over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. A Confederate general, Lee oversaw, among other campaigns, the invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863, which resulted in a “slave hunt,” during which freed former slaves (or “contraband”) were rounded up and returned to their “rightful owners.” However, the Charlottesville statue is not a Civil War-era relic, as some conservatives seem to suggest. It was erected in 1924, nearly 60 years after Lee finally surrendered. This was at the height of a rash of revisionist history surrounding the Confederacy and the war it fought in defense of slavery, and a huge number of these Confederate statues went up during this period. These statues coincided, too, with the establishment of the segregationist Jim Crow laws and a devastating campaign of racial violence and murder by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently argued that “these statues were a part of … terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”
Like Stalin’s statue and the Zeppelin Field grandstand, these Confederate statues were designed with a specific effect in mind: to celebrate the cause of white supremacy in the United States and to shore up support for the relegation of black Americans to the status of second-class citizens. Many of the statues were built while American Nazis held rallies at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and some even later, during the fight for the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. They were cheap and mass-produced, designed to evoke a noble history that never existed. That’s why, when the protesters toppled the Confederate soldier statue outside the former courthouse in Durham, the whole world saw it fold like a Coke can, bending into an unrecognizable crumple. Like the Nuremberg grandstand, it conveyed its true essence in the moment of its destruction — hollow, superficial, weak.
It’s not too difficult to imagine a monument park one day existing in the American South. All the crumpled statues of Jim Crow can line its verges, along with pictures of their crimes and information about the age of slavery in the United States. Or perhaps the statues can remain in their current positions and be recentered around their true context. (See one suggestion for what that might look like here.)
In Hungary and in Germany, these recontextualizations were only possible, however, because communities were able to agree on a new reading of history and a new way of seeing these monuments. This required a democratic understanding of public memory as an active force. Whether this will be possible in the United States amid the current atmosphere of extreme polarization is another question. And public memory, as it ever was, is a product of power: who holds it, who gets to remember, whose histories are privileged above others.
The false appeals to the immutability of recorded history among the Republican right are a symptom of Confederate nostalgia, for a time when America was an apartheid state. This is the “again” in Trump’s campaign slogan, and these statues are the cheap bronze tokens of that imagined past. This sort of nostalgia was once thought to be a sickness of the body, a matter for leeches and medicine, something to be drawn physically from the patient. If there is to be any justice in our conception of memory, the Confederate statues as they are around the United States must be drawn out of public life. They must either be radically recontextualized or they must be removed. Authorities must understand that if they do not offer a democratic way for this to occur, protesters will take matters into their own hands, as they did in Budapest in 1956 and as they did this week in Durham. Unless these steps are taken, the statues will keep on falling.

Southern Comfort - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

image (not from article) from

Southern Comfort

Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

Charles B. Dew
University Press of Virginia, 124 pp., $22.95

The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination, 1780–1860

Leonard L. Richards
Louisiana State University Press,228 pp., $39.95; $19.95 (paper)
When Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, at the end of four years of civil war, few people in either the North or the South would have dissented from his statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.”1At the war’s outset in 1861 Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had justified secession as an act of self-defense against the incoming Lincoln administration, whose policy of excluding slavery from the territories would make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless,…thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars.”2
The Confederate vice-president, Alexander H. Stephens, had said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution” of Southern independence. The United States, said Stephens, had been founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, by contrast,
is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.3
Unlike Lincoln, Davis and Stephens survived the war to write their memoirs. By then, slavery was gone with the wind. To salvage as much honor and respectability as they could from their lost cause, they set to work to purge it of any association with the now dead and discredited institution of human bondage. In their postwar views, both Davis and Stephens hewed to the same line: Southern states had seceded not to protect slavery, but to vindicate state sovereignty. This theme became the virgin birth theory of secession: the Confederacy was conceived not by any worldly cause, but by divine principle.
The South, Davis insisted, fought solely for “the inalienable right of a people to change their government…to withdraw from a Union into which they had, as sovereign communities, voluntarily entered.” The “existence of African servitude,” he maintained, “was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.”4 Stephens likewise declared in his convoluted style that “the War had its origin in opposing principles” not concerning slavery but rather concerning “the organic Structure of the Government…. It was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other [JB emphasis]…. Slavery, so called, was but the question on which these antagonistic principles…were finally brought into…collision with each other on the field of battle.”5
Davis and Stephens set the tone for the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War during the next century and more: slavery was merely an incident; the real origin of the war that killed more than 620,000 people was a difference of opinion about the Constitution. Thus the Civil War was not a war to preserve the nation and, ultimately, to abolish slavery, but instead a war of Northern aggression against Southern constitutional rights. The superb anthology of essays, The Myth of the Lost Cause, edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan, explores all aspects of this myth. The editors intend the word “myth” to be understood not as “falsehood” but in its anthropological meaning: the collective memory of a people about their past, which sustains a belief system shaping their view of the world in which they live.
The Lost Cause myth helped Southern whites deal with the shattering reality of catastrophic defeat and impoverishment in a war they had been sure they would win. Southerners emerged from the war subdued but unrepentant; they had lost all save honor, and their unsullied honor became the foundation of the myth. Having outfought the enemy, they were eventually ground down by “overwhelming numbers and resources,” as Robert E. Lee told his grieving soldiers at Appomattox. This theme was echoed down the years in Southern memoirs, at reunions of Confederate veterans, and by heritage groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Genius and valor went down before brute force,” declared a Georgia veteran in 1890. The Confederacy “had surrendered but was never whipped.” Robert E. Lee was the war’s foremost general, indeed the greatest commander in American history, while Ulysses S. Grant was a mere bludgeoner whose army overcame his more skilled and courageous enemy only because of those overwhelming numbers and resources.
Not only did Confederate soldiers fight better; they also fought for a noble cause, the cause of state rights, constitutional liberty, and consent of the governed. Slavery had nothing to do with it. “Think of it, soldiers of Lee!” declared a speaker at a reunion of the United Confederate Veterans in 1904:
You were fighting, they say, for the privilege of holding your fellow man in bondage! Will you for one moment acknowledge the truth of that indictment? Oh, no! That banner of the Southern Cross was studded with the stars of God’s heaven…. You could not have followed a banner that was not a banner of liberty!
The theme of liberty, not slavery, as the cause for which the South fought became a mantra in the writings of old Confederates and has been taken up by neo-Confederates in our own time. The Confederacy contended for “Freedom’s cause,” a veteran told his comrades at an 1887 reunion, “a struggle for constitutional rights against aggression, oppression and wrong.” Other speakers at the same convention said they had “fought for the right of local self government,” for “the idea that liberty in a government like ours is best preserved by restraining central power and giving to the states…all the rights which are not distinctly and absolutely conferred upon the central power.”
These arguments remain alive. On a visit to a Confederate cemetery before she became President Bush’s secretary of the interior, Gale Norton expressed regret that with the Confederate defeat “we lost too much. We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives.” Senator John Ashcroft, now attorney general, told the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan that “traditionalists must do more” to defend the Southern heritage. “I’ve got to do more,” he said.6
The Lost Cause view of the origins of the Civil War entered the mainstream of historical writing in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1930 Frank Owsley, one of the foremost Southern historians of his generation, wrote that the Confederacy fought not only for the principles of states’ rights and self-government but also for the preservation of a stable, pastoral, agrarian civilization against the overbearing, acquisitive, aggressive ambitions of the urban-industrial Leviathan growing up in the North. The real issue that provoked secession was not slavery—this institution, wrote Owsley, “was part of the agrarian system, but only one element and not an essential one”—but rather such matters as the tariff, banks, subsidies to railroads, and similar matters in which the grasping industrialists of the North sought to advance their interests at the expense of Southern farmers and planters.7
From the 1930s to the 1950s the most influential interpretation of the causes of the Civil War was that put forth by the “revisionist” school of historians, whose leading figure was Avery Craven. The revisionists denied that sectional conflicts between North and South were genuinely divisive. The differences between these regions, wrote Craven, were no greater than those existing at different times between East and West. Such minor disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system.8 The Civil War was thus not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a “repressible conflict,” as Craven titled one of his books. The war was brought on not by genuine issues but by extremists on both sides, especially abolitionists and radical Republicans, who whipped up emotions and hatreds for their own self-serving partisan purposes. The passions they stirred up got out of hand in 1861 and erupted into a tragic, unnecessary war which accomplished nothing that could not have been achieved by negotiations and compromise.
Any such compromise in 1861, of course, would have left slavery in place and would have reinforced the right of slave owners to take their property into the territories. But revisionists considered slavery unimportant; as Craven once stated, the institution of bondage “played a rather minor part in the life of the South and the Negro.”9 Slavery would have died peacefully of natural causes in another generation or two had not fanatics forced the issue to armed conflict. Republicans who harped on the evils of slavery and expressed a determination to rein in what they called “the Slave Power” goaded the South into a defensive response that finally caused Southern states to secede to get free of the incessant pressure of these self-righteous Yankee zealots. Revisionism thus tended to portray Southern whites as victims reacting to Northern attacks; it was truly a war of Northern aggression.
Since the 1950s most professional historians have come to agree with Lincoln’s assertion that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Outside the universities, however, Lost Cause denial is still popular, especially among Southern heritage groups that insist the Confederate flag stands not for slavery but for a legacy of courage and honor in defense of principle. When Ken Burns’s PBS documentary on the Civil War portrayed slavery as the root cause of the conflict, the reaction among many Southern whites was hostile. “The cause of the war was secession,” declared a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “and the cause of secession could have been any number of things. This overemphasis on the slavery issue really rankles us.”10 Another Southerner, whose ancestor served in the 27th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, insists that slavery was “only one issue among many that lead [sic] to secession,” and a minor one at that. Of equal or greater importance was the commitment of Confederate Southerners to “states rights, agrarianism,…aristocracy, and habits of mind including individualism, personalism toward God and man, provincialism, and romanticism.”11
The states’-rights thesis has found its way into some odd corners of American culture. One of the questions in an exam administered to prospective citizens by the US Immigration and Naturalization service is: “The Civil War was fought over what important issue?” The right answer is either slavery or states’ rights. For Charles Dew growing up in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, there was no either/or. His ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy. His much-loved grandmother was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In his dorm room at prep school in Virginia he proudly hung a Confederate flag. And he knew “that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only: states’ rights…. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee.”
Later, however, as a distinguished historian of the antebellum South and the Confederacy, Dew was “stunned” to discover that protection of slavery from the perceived threat to its long-term survival posed by Lincoln’s election in 1860 was, in fact, the dominant theme in secessionist rhetoric. In Apostles of Disunion, which quotes and analyzes this rhetoric, Dew has produced an eye-opening study of the men appointed by seceding states as commissioners to visit other slave states—for example, Virginia and Kentucky—in order to persuade them also to leave the Union and join together to form the Confederacy. “I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write,” Dew acknowledges, but he nevertheless unflinchingly concludes that “to put it quite simply, slavery and race were absolutely critical elements in the coming of the war…. Defenders of the Lost Cause need only read the speeches and letters of the secession commissioners to learn what was really driving the Deep South to the brink of war in 1860–61.
Those who do read the excerpts from speeches and letters quoted by Dew will find plenty of confirmation for this conclusion. “The conflict between slavery and non-slavery is a conflict for life and death,” a South Carolina commissioner told Virginians in February 1861. “The South cannot exist without African slavery.” The Mississippi convention’s “Declaration of Immediate Causes” of that state’s secession formed the basis for their commissioners’ message to other Southern states: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” With Lincoln’s election,
there was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the union…. We must either submit to degradation and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede….
Mississippi’s commissioner to Maryland insisted that “slavery was ordained by God and sanctioned by humanity.” If slave states remained in a Union ruled by Lincoln and his Republican cohorts, “the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.”
And so on ad nauseam. The secession conventions and the commissioners grossly exaggerated the Republican threat to slavery in 1861. Lincoln had been elected on a platform of merely containing slavery’s future expansion. Republicans would not have a majority in Congress if the South stayed in the Union. But perhaps the commissioners deemed such exaggeration necessary to scare timid Southerners into support for disunion. That was surely true of their even more egregious distortion of the Republicans’ position on race. A Mississippi commissioner told Georgians that Republicans intended not only to abolish slavery but also to “substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.” Unless white Southerners wanted “submission to negro equality…secession is inevitable.”
Georgia’s commissioner to Virginia dutifully assured his listeners that if Southern states stayed in the Union, “we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” An Alabamian born in Kentucky tried to persuade his native state to secede by portraying Lincoln’s election as “nothing less than an open declaration of war” by Yankee fanatics who intended to force the “sons and daughters” of the South to associate “with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality,” thus “consigning her [the South’s] citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans.”
So much for states’ rights as the engine of secession. In American history, states’ rights have been mostly a means, not an end, a tool rather than a principle—a truth demonstrated once again in the recent disputes about Florida’s ballots in the presidential election. Republicans supposedly in favor of states’ rights pressed their case in federal courts while Democrats looked to state courts. In antebellum America, Southerners controlled the national government most of the time until 1860 and they used that control to defend slavery from all kinds of threats and perceived threats. They overrode the rights of Northern states that passed personal liberty laws to protect black people from kidnapping by agents who claimed them as fugitive slaves. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861 the presidents of the United States were Southerners—all of them slaveholders. The only presidents to be re-elected were slaveholders. Two thirds of the speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tem of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861 a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners. This domination constituted what antislavery Republicans called the “Slave Power” and sometimes, more darkly, the “Slave Power Conspiracy.”
Historians have often dismissed such labels as another example of the “paranoid style” of American politics. But in The Slave Power, Leonard Richards demonstrates conclusively that there was a Slave Power. It had no need to function by conspiracy, however, for it could use the constitutional structure of government and the open operation of party politics to exert its domination.
One constitutional source of the South’s disproportionate political power was unintentional: the stipulation that each state would be represented by two senators. This provision had been adopted in order to win the support of small states—not slave states—for the Constitution. At the time of the Constitutional Convention the respective populations of the states lying south of the Mason-Dixon line and of those lying north of it were virtually equal in size, and many Southerners expected their section to grow faster than the North. As time passed, however, the opposite occurred. By 1850, when the number of free and slave states was equal at fifteen, the free states contained 60 percent of the total population and 70 percent of the voters, but sent only 50 percent of the senators to Congress. And Southern senators had more than a veto power; because they could count on several Northern allies, they could in effect deny a veto power to Northern senators on measures concerning slavery.
The South also had disproportionate strength in the House of Representatives. The “three-fifths compromise” adopted by the Constitutional Convention stipulated that three fifths of the slaves were to be counted as part of a state’s population for purposes of determining the number of seats each state would have in the House. This provision gave slave states an average of twenty more congressmen after each census than they would have had on the basis of the free population alone. The combined effect of these two constitutional provisions also gave slave states about thirty more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have entitled them to have.
Even more than these constitutional provisions, the functioning of party politics created a Slave Power. The dominant political party most of the time from 1800 to 1860 was the Democratic Republican Party under the Virginia dynasty of Jefferson and Madison, which metamorphosed into the Democratic Party under the Tennessean Andrew Jackson and his successors. Southerners controlled this party and used their leverage to control Congress and the presidency. In 1828 and 1832 Jackson won 70 percent of the popular vote for president in the slave states and only 50 percent in the free states. In 1856 the Democrat James Buchanan carried only five of sixteen free states, but his victory in fourteen of the fifteen slave states assured his election—and Southern domination of his administration. As an example of how such leverage could translate into a Slave Power, six of the eight Supreme Court justices named by Jackson and his hand-picked successor were Southerners, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the notorious Dred Scott decision and of other decisions that strengthened slavery.
As Richards makes clear, Southern politicians did not use this national power to buttress states’ rights; quite the contrary. In the 1830s Congress imposed a gag rule to stifle antislavery petitions from Northern states. The Post Office banned antislavery literature from the mail if it was sent to Southern states. In 1850 Southerners in Congress, plus a handful of Northern allies, enacted a Fugitive Slave Law that was the strongest manifestation of national power thus far in American history. In the name of protecting the rights of slave owners, it extended the long arm of federal law, enforced by marshals and the army, into Northern states to recover escaped slaves and return them to their owners.
Senator Jefferson Davis, who later insisted that the Confederacy fought for the principle of state sovereignty, voted with enthusiasm for the Fugitive Slave Law. When Northern state legislatures invoked states’ rights and individual liberties against this federal law, the Supreme Court with its majority of Southern justices reaffirmed the supremacy of national law to protect slavery (Ableman v. Booth, 1859). Many observers in the 1850s would have predicted that if a rebellion in the name of states’ rights were to occur, it would be the North that would rebel.
The presidential election of 1860 changed the equation. Without a single electoral vote from the South, Lincoln won the presidency on a platform of containing the future expansion of slavery. Southerners saw the consequences that would likely follow. The Union now consisted of eighteen free states and fifteen slave states. Northern Republicans would soon control Congress, if not after this election then surely after the next. Loss of the Supreme Court would follow. Gone or going was the South’s national power to protect slavery; now was the time to invoke state sovereignty to leave the Union. With Lincoln’s election, wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr., the son and grandson of the only truly “Northern” presidents the country had known, “the great revolution has actually taken place…. The country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the Slaveholders.”12 Precisely. Slaveholders came to the same conclusion. So did other Southern whites. “If you are tame enough to submit,” the Baptist clergyman James Furman told South Carolinians, “Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.”13
They did not submit; they seceded. As another South Carolinian explained, “We are contending for all that we hold dear—our Property—our Institutions—our Honor…. A stand must be made for African slavery or it is forever lost.”14 One slave state after another followed. If it came to war, predicted a secessionist in December 1860, the Southern states “will have among themselves slavery, a bond stronger than any which holds the North together.”15 That bond did help to hold the Confederacy together through four grueling years of suffering, destruction, and death. In 1863 a cavalry lieutenant from Mississippi reaffirmed his belief that “this country without slave labor would be wholly worthless…. We can only live & exist by that species of labor: and hence I am willing to continue the fight to the last.”16
As Gary Gallagher notes in his introduction to The Myth of the Lost Cause, “White Southerners emerged from the Civil War thoroughly beaten but largely unrepentant.” Some proponents of the Lost Cause remained candid about the racial ideology that sustained the Confederacy. The unrepentant Edward Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner, wrote the first history of the Confederacy, with the appropriate title The Lost Cause. The war had ended slavery, Pollard acknowledged, but it “did not decide negro equality…. This new cause—or rather the true question of the war revived—is the supremacy of the white race.”17 In a speech to Confederate veterans in 1890, a former captain in the 7th Georgia Volunteer Infantry echoed Pollard: “We fought for the supremacy of the white race in America.”
Such candor was exceptional in commemorations of the Lost Cause. More popular was Jefferson Davis’s postwar assertion that slavery was “in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” In considering this “incident,” it would be well to keep in mind Henry David Thoreau’s observation that circumstantial evidence is sometimes conclusive—for example, when you find a “trout in the milk.” All of the Confederate states were slave states and all of the free states remained in the Union. That is a rather large trout.
  1. 1
    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy B. Basler, nine volumes (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 8, p. 332.  
  2. 2
    Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches, edited by Dunbar Rowland, ten volumes (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), Vol. 5, p. 72.  
  3. 3
    Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, March 30, 1861.  
  4. 4
    Jefferson Davis, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, two volumes (Da Capo, 1990), Vol. 1, pp. vii, 67, 156.  
  5. 5
    Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, two volumes (National Publishing Co., 1868–1870), Vol. 1, p. 10.  
  6. 6
    The Washington Post, January 16, 2001, p. A21.  
  7. 7
    Frank Lawrence Owsley, “The Irrepressible Conflict,” in I’ll Take My Stand, by Twelve Southerners (Harper and Brothers, 1930), pp. 61–91, quotation from p. 73.  
  8. 8
    Avery Craven, “Coming of the War Between the States: An Interpretation,” in An Historian and the Civil War(University of Chicago Press, 1964; essay first published in 1936), pp. 28–29.  
  9. 9
    Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 1942), p. 93.  
  10. 10
    Newsweek, October 8, 1990, pp. 62–63.  
  11. 11
    W. Keith Beason, letter in North & South, Vol. 4 (March 2001), p. 6. 
  12. 12
    Quoted in Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War(Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 223. 
  13. 13
    Quoted in Steven A. Channing, Crisis of Fear: Secession in South Carolina (Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 287. 
  14. 14
    William Grimball to Elizabeth Grimball, November 20, 1860, John Berkley Grimball Papers, Perkins Library, Duke University.  
  15. 15
    Berkley Grimball to Elizabeth Grimball, December 8, 1860, John Berkley Grimball Papers. 
  16. 16
    William Nugent to Eleanor Nugent, September 7, 1863, in My Dear Nellie: The Civil War Letters of William L. Nugent to Eleanor Smith Nugent, edited by William M. Cash and Lucy Somerville Howarth (University Press of Mississippi, 1977), p. 132. 
  17. 17
    Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (E.B. Treat, 1866), p. 752; Pollard, The Lost Cause Regained (G.W. Carleton, 1868), p. 154.