Over the last century and a half, "States Rights" that most hideous of political euphemisms, has raised its hydra's head to be cut down by men and women of good will and conscience.Is it time for the descendants ofthe Rebels to get another whiff of political grapeshot? This reporter thinks so.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.