Was It Worth It?

During the last week Tony Horwitz and Ta-Nehisi Coates offered their opinions on whether the Civil War was worth it … or, as some would put it, whether it was a “good war.”

These arguments tell us much more about the perspective and the values of the person presenting the argument than anything else. Yes, I believe secession and war represent a failure of the American system of government to resolve certain problems. However, I’ll add that when I hear that it failed “to resolve certain problems,” implicit in that phrasing is that the resolution would have brought an end to slavery. What if American whites had decided to resolve their problems in the first half of the nineteenth century by retaining slavery in a way that most people found acceptable? Would that represent a triumph of democracy? For whom?

What happened between 1861 and 1865 came at great cost to many Americans. So did what happened between 1619 and 1860, especially to the enslaved. Yet one of the ugly truths of American history is that much of the nation’s early strength was erected on the foundations provided by slave labor. And please spare me the discussions about peaceful emancipation: after all, the British Empire had no problem proclaiming its moral purity on the issue after 1833 while it continued to import the products of enslaved labor … and there were those who advocated intervention in the conflict to protect that flow of raw materials that was so essential to British industrialization. Do a little more reading before you tell me all about peaceful emancipation.

I think it’s a mistake to engage in the simple-minded balance sheet discussions that weighs 640,000 … or 750,000 … or whatever number we decide was the war’s toll in human deaths … in exchange for the emancipation of some four million African Americans, especially as the people who engage in this discussion were not asked to pay those prices. But let’s humor some folks. If slavery persisted beyond 1865, one would add those born into slavery after 1865 to one’s balance sheet. One could also argue that one does not discuss the generations never born as a result of the war’s slaughter. It all depends on who you believe is paying the price … although it astonishes me that people continue to forget that a good number of those who died in the American Civil War died not to destroy slavery, but to preserve it, and many people gave their lives for other reasons. So let’s be careful when we throw around numbers and confuse intent with result.

Let’s also not forget what the war wrought … and what it did not wrought. No one likes to talk about Reconstruction, of course, and how it represents another failure of the American promise (or, as Eric Foner calls it, “an unfinished revolution”).

Was it worth it? You tell me. Is it a shame that we have to ask that question? Yes.

Closing Credits

You know the story … the film ends, and, as the credits roll, you start to get up, check to make sure no one spilled an ICEE or popcorn on you, and step over that sticky thing as you make your way out of the theater. No one reads credits, right? And just try doing in on television, where the credits race past at amazing speed, sometimes sharing the screen with a promotion for what’s coming next.

So here are the credits from Saving Lincoln (2013). See how many people you know and how many times their name appears. Warning: the list is populated by many names you should recognize. If nothing else, you’ll become more adept at using the scroll function.