Texas' resolution for Confederate History Month makes the characteristically bold move of mentioning slavery as a reason for the season, emphasizing the opportunity to teach schoolchildren that slavery was indeed not what the war was all about. A portion of the 1999 resolution reads (emphasis mine):
In years since the war, the morally abhorrent practice of slavery has in the minds of many Texans become the prime motivation of Southern soldiers, despite the fact that 98 percent of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave and never fought to defend slavery; and WHEREAS, Politically correct revisionists would have Texas children believe that their Confederate ancestors fought for slavery when in fact most Texans joined the Confederate armed forces to defend their homes, their families, and their proud heritage as Texans...
To be clear, the civil war was about more than just slavery. There were important economic issues at stake, as well as ideological divisions over notions of states' rights and the limits of federal power. But when people mention these mitigating factors, they often neglect to acknowledge the fact that the South's economy was inextricably tied to slave labor, and that part of their quarrel with federal power was over the government's attempts to limit slavery in new states.
So in some ways the "Civil War wasn't about slavery" argument is a red herring. The Civil War was not one fought entirely over slavery, but the enslavement of human beings was at the root of many of the issues behind secession.
Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that the fighting itself was about seceding from the Union. With all the recent news of home-grown terrorism and militia groups waging war against the federal government, it's important for political leaders to keep issues of states' rights in their proper, nonviolent context.
Before you northerners dismiss this issue as regional, be aware that it's being discussed on a national level as well. Less than a year ago, there was a fracas over whether or not President Obama should continue the tradition of sending a wreath to a confederate memorial site that was associated with White Supremacists.
Historians petitioned the president to end the practice, arguing that "monument should not be elevated in prestige above other monuments by a presidential wreath" and that the monument asserts "that the humanity of Africans and African Americans is of no significance." I agreed with their premise, but my calculation at the time was this:
These are not American values, and Obama does not personify them. But if the only thing these wackos want is a wreath, I have to say that frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.
That's right; give the intolerant bastards their silly wreath. OK, can I have my universal healthcare now?
Well, we all know how that worked out, don't we?
What I didn't realize was that at the same time that Obama was honoring seditious soldiers of the South, the leadership of Arlington National Cemetery had been systematically neglecting an area of the burial grounds known as Section 27 for decades, apparently because its occupants are predominantly African American. A Salon.com investigation uncovered the depth of the disservice, which resulted in hundreds of unmarked or mislabeled graves.
"The only reason that we know of why they did not take the proper responsibility towards that section was because these were black people," former congressman and African-American history buff Louis Stokes told Salon.
Finally, there's no doubt tea partiers and the Republican lawmakers latching onto them are using the Civil War secession story to stir up passions against the president's agenda. As I noted last month:
...the tea party movement is steeped in a colorful re-imagining of our founding fathers as God-fearing men who hated Obamacare. The many references to the Revolutionary War -- from "Don't Tread on Me" to lovingly misreading the Constitution to the ill-fated naming of the movement in the first place -- are clear attempts to align themselves simultaneously with patriotism and revolt. Without such a willingness to blend history with fantasy, they'd have to admit they're the losers advocating for slavery in their bizarre Civil War reenactment, or that they have more in common with British loyalists than Paul Revere...
At a tea party rally against healthcare reform this past Sunday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) suggested teabaggers are the "best" stock with which to make a new nation, if it, uh, should come to that.
Aside from making the country look racially intolerant, the policy of rewriting our own history for political gain makes us look weak and downright silly. If we can't confront the ghosts of the Civil War with honesty, what chance do we have of solving the big issues of our day?