Past and Present: The Question of Tragedy

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s raised some interesting questions about my commentary on several recent columns that have been circulating through the blogosphere.  Fresh from a reading of Gary Gallagher’s The Union War, Kevin wonders whether Americans at the time would have viewed a war that preserved the Union without destroying slavery as tragic, as well as what people at the time thought was tragic.

I couldn’t be more pleased to see that I’ve provoked this discussion.

As for what Americans thought at the time: it really depends on which Americans we are discussing.  Black Americans would have seen a war that preserved the Union without destroying slavery as more than a tragedy, given their concerns.  Confederates certainly would not have seen it as a success.  Nor would radical Republicans and abolitionists have seen it as a good thing.  All of these groups would have seen it as best a tragedy if not worse.  And, given that we’ve spent so much time talking about how the main threat to Union was slavery, would a war to preserve the Union that did not destroy slavery really be worth it?  Oh, I know what Lincoln said in 1862, but by 1863 and 1864 Lincoln and Grant were very, very clear that they saw the destruction of slavery as essential to the preservation of the Union.  In short, if we want to answer this question according to what the people at the time would have thought, well, the answers are neither simple nor obvious, and they certainly don’t apply across the board.  The people who would have been most overjoyed with reunion with slavery would have been northern Democrats.

That said, while one should pay proper and due respect to the notion that we should evaluate the past in context (especially when it comes to looking at attitudes and behavior), the entire obsession with Civil War memory is about how subsequent generations view the past.  One would think this would be so obvious that I need not point it out.  After all, if that’s not true, then I don’t think I need to read another single word on black Confederates.  Each of us may have a different sense of whether the Civil War was tragic, or in what way was it tragic, and I for one really don’t care if someone doesn’t share my belief that what happened during Reconstruction wasn’t truly tragic, or counters that by saying that Klansmen, for example, would disagree.

I happen to think that the enslavement of millions of human beings was both a tragedy and an evil.  It was counter to the espoused principles upon which this nation claimed it was founded.  Lincoln himself understood that we should never try to deny slavery’s fundamental immorality, even as he confessed (prior to the war) that he did not know what to do about it.  Not everyone agreed with Lincoln (say, the “slavery as positive good” crowd), and we’ve spend a lot of time and energy on the fundamental importance of slavery in the sectional conflict over American national destiny.   But just because some people at the time did not see it as a tragedy does not mean that it was not a tragedy (one could say the same for the treatment of Native Americans), and it certainly does not meant that it wasn’t a tragedy for other people at the time.

I do happen to think that it was an American tragedy that white Americans could not resolve the issue of ending slavery without going to war.  They certainly could have preserved the Union all along if they had agreed not to touch slavery.  Now, if you don’t think that would have been a tragedy … well, you are entitled to your own opinion.  And so am I.

One thought on “Past and Present: The Question of Tragedy

  1. Peter Reilly May 1, 2011 / 1:48 pm

    One perspective that I think is worth considering is that slavery had existed for thousands of years and that its abolition in the 19th Century was an innovation. Government by the people (with the debate being who exactly is the people) was another innovation. I we could look at Lincoln as caring more about the second innovation and believing that it was more in peril. That abolition might have been inevitable in the long run but not government by the people.

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