The Party of Jefferson Davis

CNN has an interesting poll out on the views of Americans on the Civil War and its causes.

Roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners.

When asked the reason behind the Civil War, whether it was fought over slavery or states' rights, 52 percent of all Americas said the leaders of the Confederacy seceded to keep slavery legal in their state, but a sizeable 42 percent minority said slavery was not the main reason why those states seceded.

"The results of that question show that there are still racial, political and geographic divisions over the Civil War that still exists a century and a half later," CNN Polling Director Holland Keating said.

When broken down by political party, most Democrats said southern states seceded over slavery, independents were split and most Republicans said slavery was not the main reason that Confederate states left the Union. Republicans were also most likely to say they admired the leaders of the southern states during the Civil War, with eight in 10 Republicans expressing admiration for the leaders in the South, virtually identical to the 79 percent of Republicans who admired the northern leaders during the Civil War.

In my earlier essay, I noted on how the Civil War is the defining event in American history transforming our sense of nationhood and what it means to be an American. From saying the United States are to saying the United States is encapsulates what the War ultimately accomplished in cultural and political terms. That change in our speech is transcendental underscoring the nature of the country as one country and not fifty separate sovereign states. 

But there has been a second transformation, albeit one more recent, that is truly rather remarkable though frankly bizarre to this observer and that is how the Republican party has gone from being the "Party of Lincoln" to the "Party of Jefferson Davis."

That transformation really began in the wake of World War II when the Democratic Party, long the dominant political force in the South, began on the national level to move legislatively against the quid quo pro that had existed since Reconstruction that allowed segregation to form the bedrock of Southern life. By 1948, Storm Thurmond of South Carolina had bolted to form his Dixiecrat insurgency candidacy. In the early 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement brought the undemocratic nature of Southern race-based institutions crashing down, white Southerners began a mass exit towards the Republican party. That exit would largely be completed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan in his first campaign speech as the Republican nominee went to Philadelphia, Mississippi where 16 years before three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered to invoke the cause of "states' rights" which for white southerners translates into nothing more than their presumed God-given right to discriminate against anyone who isn't like them.

Southerners have always been more conservative than the rest of the nation. And while in the era before the Great Depression, one could find liberal progressives and conservatives in both parties in the post Civil Rights era that fixture of the American political system began to unravel as white Southerners joined en masse with other conservatives to take over the Republican party. Even as late as the early 1980s, it was possible for men like Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Mathias, and Edward Brooke to be part of the GOP. Today, a GOP moderate like Lincoln Chafee is unwelcome in the Republican party.

The fact that both of the two long dominant political parties in the United States had liberal and conservative wings is something that allowed for grand bipartisan coalitions to be formed at critical junctures in the nation's history. Indeed, the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would not have passed if not for the support it received from liberal Republicans. 

The filmmaker Ken Burns notes that "American think themselves an uncompromising people but our greatest strength is compromise and when it broke down we killed each other in great numbers. This is the lesson the Civil War at its heart. Compromise is the essence of democratic conversation." Unfortunately, compromise is not word in the vocabulary in the Party of Jefferson Davis.

It Defined Us as a Nation

One hundred fifty years ago today, the American Civil War began in earnest when Confederate forces fired upon the Federal fort at Fort Sumter that guarded the approaches to Charleston. While the two day battle that led to a Union retreat marks the formal start to the War between the States, fighting had already been raging between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces in Kansas and Missouri on and off beginning as early as 1854. And while formal hostilities would cease in April 1865 after over 600,000 lives lost, the secessionist states would be occupied by Federal troops until 1877. And for some in the South, it sometimes seems that War has not yet ended.

While there are still a few people who first think themselves citizens of a given state, a custom perhaps most egregious in Texas, and then a citizen of the United States second, most Americans now, I would hope, see themselves as Americans first. Before the Civil War, this was certainly not the case. For John C. Calhoun, his country was South Carolina.

The War is no doubt the watershed event in American history. The most fundamental transformation brought forth by the Civil War is that before the War one would say that the United States are essentially defining the country as a collection of independent states but after the War, it became the United States is. In this regard, the War becomes the catalyst for a tightening of the American bond. Our conception of nationality was forged through the course of that bloody conflict. Indeed, the Civil War ushered in the first constitutional definition of US citizenship.

How that "are" became an "is" is the defining story of the country and that debate in the minds of some conservatives is not yet settled. The Tenther Movement is but one example how issues seemingly resolved by the Civil War continue to permeate our politics.

There is no escaping that the Civil War left an indelible mark on the South. It scarred the psyche of the southerners where the War is still to this day called the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Independence, or alternatively the Slaveholders' Rebellion. Nor do all southerners considered the War a conflict over the issue of slavery but rather a war over states' rights.

Southern apologists often go to great lengths to paint the War as anything but a conflict over slavery. Southern revisionism remains a cottage industry to this day. Take for example, Llewellyn H. Rockwell, president of the Ludwig van Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama who writes "the South was being looted to pay for the North's early version of industrial policy." Rockwell isn't even a historian nor an economist but rather a proponent of the Austrian School of Economics. For that matter, he isn't even a southerner but rather from Boston with a degree in English from Tufts. But for free traders, the South is a cause célèbre because the cotton exporting, finished goods importing South was against a high tariff policy. Taxes, then as now, are not a Southern thing.

But no historian views tariffs as the cause for the war in part because in 1857 tariffs were actually lowered in response to the financial panic of that year. If there is a single cause for the dissolution of the Union, and hence, the War it is the prolonged debate over expansion of slavery into the territories. If at independence, the political balance of the country was tilted in favor of the South by 1850 that balance was decisively moving in the North's direction as more free states entered the Union and as the North's population simply exploded. By 1860, the South was headed towards a permanent status as a political minority having failed to elect a southerner to the White House in three successive elections.

There can be no denying that the South that by 1865 was a defeated force whose culture was shattered. Economically, the region was devastated. The destruction of slavery meant that the entire Southern economy had to be rebuilt. Cotton exports would not match their pre-war high until 1879. Its share of US GDP would fall over the next 75 years as the North and Mid-West industrialized while the South remained an agricultural backwater. Overall, the region did not fully recover until the post World War II boom. To this day, Mississippi remains the poorest state in the Union and lowest socio-economic indicators are most prevalent in the South.

Still politically, the South has held together more than any other region of country giving it an outsized influence in national affairs even if no southerner would be elected to the White House between Zachary Taylor and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Woodrow Wilson was actually born in Virginia but he was elected from New Jersey and Andrew Johnson was from Tennessee but he was an accidental President). Its dominance was most acutely felt in the Senate during periods of Democratic control when southern Senators through use of the committee system effectively controlled that branch of government. And they would use that power to protect a race-based southern culture well into the 20th century.

Here are some collected thoughts of historian Shelby Foote on The Civil War:

Diaries

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