Showing posts with label Civil War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Civil War. Show all posts

Friday, 18 August 2017

Barbarian History

"I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my History, that Time may not draw the color from what Man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds manifested by both The Greeks and The Barbarians, fail of their report, and together, with all of this, the reason why They fought one another."

In a speech in 1878--like many other speeches he gave in the last third of his life--Frederick Douglass was at that point, 1878, already fed up with Lost Cause arguments about what the war had been about.

He was also already, early in the process, fed up with the ways in which Americans were beginning to reconcile this bloody, terrible conflict around the mutual valor of soldiers, and in his view forgetting what the whole terrible thing might have even been about. 

And at the end of a magnificent speech he gave at a veterans reunion he said this: 

"The Civil War"--this is Frederick Douglass--"was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield." He went on and on and on then to declare that the war had been about ideas, and he described the difference between those ideas, as he put it, was the difference between, quote, 

"Barbarism and Civilization."

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Southern Memory of the Civil War

Professor David Blight: Well, go South with me today. We're going to take up this question initially of — it's an old, old, old American question — how peculiar, or distinctive, or different is the American South? That used to be a question you could ask in quite some comfort. The "Dixie difference," as a recent book title called it, or "Dixie rising" as another recent book title called it. 

The South, of course, is many, many, many things and many, many, many peoples. There are so many South's today that it has rendered this question in some ways almost irrelevant, but, in other ways, of course not. 

We still keep finding our presidential elections won or lost in the South. Name me a modern American president who won the presidency without at least some success in the states of the old Confederacy. Look at the great realignments in American political history. They've had a great deal to do with the way the South would go, or parts of the South would go. 

We're on the verge now of the first southern primary in this year's election, in South Carolina, and everybody is wondering, is there a new modern South Carolina or not?

Now, this question is fun to have fun with in some ways because it's fraught with stereotypes, isn't it? The South: hot, slow, long vowels, great storytellers, and so on. Oh, and they love violence and football and stockcar racing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Well I grew up in Michigan and I can assure you that Michiganders love all those things too and probably even more. But the idea of Southern stereotypes is very, very old. It isn't a product of the Civil War by any means. 

The South as an idea, the South and its distinctiveness was very much there even in the Colonial Period. Travelers from England and elsewhere, France, who would come to the American colonies and would travel throughout the colonies, would often comment on this, that somehow Southerners were different culturally, attitudinally, behaviorally.

And none other than Thomas Jefferson himself left this famous description of characterizations of Southerners and Northerners. He wrote this in the mid-1780s. He was writing to a foreign — a French — correspondent. And Thomas Jefferson described the people of the North — this was in the 1780s now, this is before the cotton boom and all that — he described the people of the North this way. 

Jefferson: "Northerners are cool, sober, laborious, persevering, independent, jealous of their own liberties, chicaning, superstitious, and hypocritical in their religion." Take that Yankees. 

But Southerners, he said, "they are fiery, voluptuous, indolent, unsteady, independent, zealous of their own liberties" — he changed jealous to zealous there. If we're doing close readings we might go into that for twenty minutes, but we're not. He's not over: "zealous of their own liberties but trampling on those of others, generous, candid and without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of their own heart." 

Now we can debate what Jefferson got right or wrong there, or what's held up, but do note how he said both sides were either jealous or zealous of their own liberties. That could be an epigraph on this course, if you like, because in the end when this Civil War will finally come both sides will say over and over and over again that they are only fighting for liberty. 

Everybody in the Civil War will say they're fighting for liberty.

In one of the greatest books ever written on the South, by a Southerner, in particular Wilbur Cash's great classic in 1940 called The Mind of the South, he did something similar to Jefferson, although he's focusing only on Southerners here. Cash was a great journalist, intellectual historian in his own right, deeply critical of his beloved South. In fact it was Cash who wrote a book called The Mind of the South in which he argued, in part, that the South had no mind. He didn't really mean it. He said Southerners are "proud, brave, honorable by its" — The South is "proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible in its actions. Such was the South at its best," said Cash, "and such at its best it remains today." 

Then comes a "but." But the South, he says, is also characterized by, quote, "violence, intolerance, aversion, suspicion toward new ideas, an incapability for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice."