Friday, 6 July 2012

Fuck you, Abraham Lincoln: the American Civil War and political storytelling

Name me one war in history that was fought for entirely moral reasons.

Coming up short? I'm not surprised. They don't exist. Call me a Marxist throwback if you will, but I'll bet you good money that for any conflict you can name, once you peel away the layers of ideology and religion and moral crusadery, you'll find the hard kernel of money and power. Which isn't as depressing as it sounds: people, as individuals or communities, can do unambiguously good things, even go to war for good reasons (the International Brigades being a lovely example - go on, treat yourself to this song); states exist solely to propagate themselves, and so can't.

None of which is particularly ground-breaking news. Except when you're talking about the American Civil War.

Even bright, well-informed, historically-literate people, when asked what that war was about, will answer, "freeing the slaves?".

Luckily, I am rereading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, so I have a whole load of facts to lay on you:

"Me? Give a shit about slaves? You're so funny"
1. The South had been clashing with the North over various economic policy issues - the North was pushing for laissez-faire economics internally, high tarriffs internationally, and a federal bank - for a good long while before Lincoln was elected. Lincoln being the poster boy for these initiatives, they took his inauguration as a sign that the end of their days was nigh, and so seven states seceded from the Union.

2. At this time, Lincoln was saying fun stuff like "I have no purpose ... to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Woah: stirring abolutionist words, am I right? Another choice quote: "I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white man".

3. The federal government's opening of hostilities was not, therefore, anything to do with slavery: it was to do with keeping its power; indeed, with maintaining its own existence.

4. White people in the North weren't less racist than their Southern counterparts: they found a million and one ways to oppress, exploit, and generally fuck over black people. It's just that enslaving black people wasn't profitable to them: while an agricultural economy thrives on forcible free labour, the burgeoning industry in the North needed a flexible workforce which could be hired and fired at will, and which you weren't obliged to feed even if you had no use for them this week. It wasn't that the majority of people, or their elites, found slavery abhorrent; they just had no use for it.

I mean, come on: the idea of a state going to war out of the goodness of its heart to right an injustice? Seriously? We're not that naive.

I think why this argument is so contentious is because of its hijacking by big old racists, nostalgic for the days of mint juleps and cotton plantations and owning people as commodities. They argue that the South went to war not to maintain slavery, but to defend states' rights. Which they did: they were defending states' right to maintain slavery.

My argument is not about the motives of the South: I think that one's been pretty comprehensively settled. (One word: slavery.) It's about the motives of the North. Just because one party in a conflict is fighting for one thing, it doesn't automatically follow that the other party is fighting against it: they can be fighting for a dozen other reasons, many of which I outlined above, and none of which are as laudable as 'ending a 350 year crime against humanity'.

It's easy to see why this narrative became dominant. It's no less true for being a truism that history is written by the victors: and what victor doesn't want to imagine herself as a moral crusader, on the side of all that is good and pure and marching with the beat of progress? It makes for a better story than 'we wanted to establish a federal bank and some people got a bit pissed off about that'. (Similarly, Britain fucking loves celebrating the fact that it OUTLAWED THE SLAVE TRADE!!1, neatly sidestepping the fact that this only had such a major impact because Britain had dominated the slave trade for several decades beforehand.)

History is about telling stories. Which part your emphasise, who's story you tell, depends on your ideological position. The left loves a good martyr-strewn story of failure - the Spanish Civil War will always be more romantic than World War II - and sometimes it seems that our victories are so scarce that we'll grasp at any straw, however tenuous. And so Lincoln is beatified as a slave-freeing, anti-racist hero, with his pragmatic motives and really quite racist beliefs glossed over because they don't fit the narrative.

But there's no point in telling that story. It's not true, and it doesn't help us. Seek out the real story, and tell it: the stories of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, the Underground Railroad and the countless people who campaigned to reveal the true horrors of slavery to the nation, and who truly brought it to its end. The real story might be messier, but its morals, and its truth, shine clear.

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