Some people need to construct strawmen in order to make a point, oblivious to the fact that by constructing the strawman, they damage their own argument, because they concede it’s not grounded in reality.
Take, for example, the argument I hear from those white southerners (and others) who declare that white northerners today believe that the North went to war in 1861 to free the slaves. When pressed to name names (and especially to cite historians who argue this), the argument loses much of its force. Oh, I’m sure there are some folks in the North who say the North went to war to free the slaves, just as there are some white southerners who say it was all about state rights or the tariff and had basically nothing to do with slavery. But no one would argue seriously that reputable scholars believe this: outliers and exceptions do not make the rule and serve as poor material for stereotypes.
So why make the argument? Why claim that this is what white northerners believe? After all, isn’t this argument the kissing cousin of Robert Penn Warren’s claim that today’s white northerners embrace a supposed Treasury of Virtue that allows them to lord it over the South?
The argument is made precisely because it’s a strawman. It serves as a touchstone of criticism that is far more political and ideological than it is historical. It’s also a way for those who make it to skirt the slavery issue itself and to avoid the notion that secessionists seceded to protect slavery, and many of those who had reservations about secession or opposed it worried about the impact of secession and war upon slavery.
So let’s get a few things out of the way. Saying that the underlying cause of the American Civil War was a debate over slavery is not the same thing as saying that the North went to war to free the slaves. Moreover, no one’s excusing or denying the racism of northern whites. Among northern whites, abolitionists were in a decided minority; the Republican party’s members held a wide range of perspectives on race and slavery, with a good number of them opposing slavery for one reason or another (and sometimes for more than one reason) without necessarily embracing equality for blacks (and there existed in American thought different levels of equality).
Moreover, saying that most white northerners did not support the war because they sought to destroy slavery (and pointing out the prevalence of racism in the North, etc.) has very little to do with why white southerners went to war in 1861. Slavery and its future were at the core of the debates over secession in 1860-61. That debate was fundamental to the secession of the first seven states that formed the Confederacy, and it was the major issue in the remaining slave states, including the four that eventually joined the Confederacy.
We might also consider that “slavery” represented various things to various white northerners. The expansion of slavery limited the area open to free labor; it enhanced the growth of southern political power (thus the “slave power,” which had no problem using the federal government to protect and promote its economic interests (this is something the advocates of “it’s all about the tariff” tend to overlook); and it did promote a system that many white northerners in fact did find distasteful. Thus, one could oppose “slavery” in its many manifestations without concentrating on the issue of its morality or embracing black equality.
That being said, the function of the claim becomes more apparent. It allows some people to have it both ways on Lincoln. Gee, these folks argue, why didn’t he simply free all the slaves in 1861? If he was really antislavery, wouldn’t he have done that? Why didn’t he simply seek a way to secure emancipation peacefully (right, Ron Paul?)? Why not offer compensation to masters and make emancipation gradual? (What, you say he made that offer?) Oh, he was a racist, because he believed in colonization. (What, you mean he advocated it in large part because of his beliefs concerning the persistence of racism in a post-emancipation society?) Well, he was a tyrant who broke the Constitution to establish an empire (wait … are you telling me that his actions concerning emancipation were conditioned by his understanding of what was constitutionally possible?).
The Yankee strawman is also a way for certain liberal white southerners to lash back at Yankee critics (real and imagined) in a way to confirm their credentials as southerners. They then stand on common ground with those conservative white southerners and defenders of Dixie who are sometimes mistermed neo-Confederates (and, with some more justice, Lost Causers) … although they would claim in polite company that they have next to nothing in common with those folks. This is especially delightful when the liberal white southerners in question accuse white northerners of stereotyping the South (or fashioning “the South as Other,” as some put it), because, of course, they are constructing their own strawmen and stereotypes, although the implications of this practice often elude their minds, because the argument they make is grounded in something other than their intellect.
And, of course, the Yankee strawman is simply a way for white southerners to mock white northerners. It makes them feel smug (even as they hope to mock Yankees smugness). It’s also a wonderful way to divert attention from looking at the South and slavery. People who make the “you, too” argument tend to emphasize the “you” in the hopes that everyone will forget the “too.” Highlighting that there was racism in the North, for example, in no way excuses racism in the South, but you would never know it from some of these advocates (who often highlight that some of their best friends are black, that their ancestors did not own slaves or were really kind masters, and that race relations in the South are … er, were … much better in the South than in the North, look what happened to Native Americans, and so on). In short, it’s as much an argument about themselves and who they are today as it is about history and events of 150 years ago. For these folks, history is identity (sometimes real, sometimes imagined, as in those people who hold to a romantic view of the antebellum South straight out of Gone With the Wind … the movie version).
Again, many white southerners do not feel the need to construct this strawman. But some do. Why?