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Time for a Whiff of Union Grapeshot? The Ugly Return of States' Rights

By       Message Richard Rapaport     Permalink
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Traveling in New England, particularly through Maine, you cannot miss the simple, imposing granite obelisks set on the greens of so many villages, town and cities across the State and region. These monuments commemorate those who fought and died in what, at least in New England, was known simply as "The Rebellion of 1861-1865."

Although the fighting took place hundreds of miles away, the Civil War was a visceral chapter of New England's history. Part of it was the toll; Maine, which alone sent more than 80,000 young men to the fight, suffered a nearly 20% casualty rate -- the highest of any Union state. The reason, in part, was the immortal heroism of units like the Twentieth Maine Infantry at Gettysburg. The regiment, under command of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, anchored the end of the Union line on a hill called Little Roundtop, driving off the Confederate charge in the key moment of the key battle of the Civil War.

Over the last century-and-a-half, Maine, like many of the other Union states, has commemorated the victory in unprepossessing ways. In New England, Civil War commemorations are often folded into Fourth of July or Veteran's Day celebrations. There is, simply, no Northern "Civil War" Day, Week or Month. Again, part of it is that this understatement is simply the Yankee way. Perhaps more has to do with the fact that the reasons for fighting the war were so universally understood in New England, that quiet pride seemed the just response to having preserved the Union and, most crucially, excising the cancer of slavery from the American South. In retrospect, perhaps the North has kept a little too quiet about the righteousness of the Union cause in the most seminal of American conflicts.

Not so the South. There, over the last century-and-a-half, the noisy affirmation of the Confederate cause has been the political currency with the effect of transforming what was an unconditional surrender into something like a political photo finish. To this day, Southern politicians, without so much as a tip-of-the-rebel-cap for being so seamlessly let back into the Union, still variously refer to the "War of Yankee Aggression," "The War of Secession," "the Northern Invasion," and "The War Between the States" -- the latter suggesting that the United States barely existed at the time and various states merely chose up sides.

So we should probably thank Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour for what is either their breathtaking ignorance, or a desire to send a coded message to the American right, when both proclaimed April as "Confederate History Month" without so much as a hint that African-American slavery might have had something to do with the bloodiest war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

Whether Governors McDonnell and Barbour are red-neck muttonheads, or sly apologists for "the Cause," they have given a welcome opportunity to bring up what sounds like the return of "States Rights," the vicious euphemism that was the Southern battle-cry during the insurrection and today, the ugly reaction to the recent passage of Barack Obama's universal health care. Today, we find that it is not only politicians from the old Confederacy who are again waving the bloody flag of "States Rights," but also leaders of states in the Mountain West and Southwest, who similarly find it useful to denounce the Federal Government, albeit at pretty much at the same time they sup so heartily at the Federal trough.

In Governors McDonnell's and Barbour's "misstatement," we clearly hear what might be considered the new "States Rights-Speak" coming also from Governors Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Rick Perry of Texas. This go-round, they are joined by a passel of other Republican Chief Executives who have undertaken to sue the Feds over the constitutionality of health care reform, again under the rubric of "States Rights." It has been Perry of Texas who has most vocally flirted with the States Right's theme of secession as if the issue had not already been settled in blood. States Rights has also become a popular rallying cry for the new crop of tea-partyists.

There is even a popular, if high-schoolish, argument that the Civil War was about "States Rights," rather than slavery. It is instructive to listen to Abraham Lincoln's own explanation of the roots of the Civil War and the need for the Union to fight on to final victory. He made the argument during his March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural, one of the finest orations in the history of the English language. In his speech, Lincoln urged his Union compatriots on to triumph even, he told the crowd gathered on the west side of the Capitol, "if God wills that it continue " until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword."

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For those who believe there was sneaky intelligence behind Governors McDonnell's and Barbour's omission of slavery as the cause of the Civil War, there is additional angst to the fact that April, chosen to be both Virginia and Mississippi's "Confederate History Month," is the most bitter of Civil War times. Less than a week after Lee's April 9, 1865 surrender to Grant at central Virginia's Appomattox Courthouse, President Lincoln was murdered by a Southern sympathizer. When Lincoln was killed that April, his fellow Unionists, for the most part, did not cry out for retribution. What they did was take to heart the soaring phrase from the Second Inaugural -- "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

If the North was willing to follow the peaceable dictates of its martyred President, the South, physically and socially wrecked by the war, found its own angry post-Civil War agenda and an ability among Southerners to ignore reality and believe somehow that theirs was not only a moral victory, but something like a military victory.

The South never did truly accept the verdict of the war nor the strictures of the peace that followed. Reconstruction, which sought to integrate former slaves into the national life, was despised and discredited by southern whites, whose States Rights ideology led to Jim Crow -- an era of lynch law exemplified by the arch-racist film epic, "Birth of a Nation." By 1900, many states had voted to systematize American apartheid into law, backed up by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1948, when Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order, Southerners responded by bolting the Democratic Party and running Sen. Strom Thurman of South Carolina for President on what was, not surprisingly, called the "States Rights Party," "Dixiecrat," for short. It was not until the 1960s, a century after the War Between the States, that the nation underwent a virtual "Second Civil War," the early-1960s non-violent uprising against the forces of States Rights that finally achieved a modicum of civil and voting rights for the descendants of former slaves.

It would be comforting to believe, as some did, that the 2008 election of Barack Obama ushered in the start of a new era. With the rise of the Tea Party, and the rightward lurch of the Republican Party, it may be that the celebration of the end of American racism was premature. Remember this, however. Just as the forces opposed to slavery enlisted the power of righteousness to defeat the South, so too will the opponents of this latest outbreak of the virus of "States Rights" unite in favor of Federalism in the face of the return of the euphemism behind which hides America's original sin. Perhaps it is time again for the Rebels to taste another whiff of Union grapeshot!

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Richard Rapaport is a Bay Area-based writer. Originally from New England, he understands the quiet Yankee ways, and thinks its time to make a little noise.

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