Why can’t we just get over the Civil War in America?
Why does it still have such a hold on our imagination, on our political habits and rhetoric, on the stories through which we define ourselves as a people and a nation?
Why is the Confederacy, a mere four-year experiment in revolution to preserve a slaveholding society, still so interesting to so many people?
Haven’t we had at least two “Reconstructions” — the first of the 1860s and ’70s, the second the civil rights movement a century later — to solve those issues at the war’s roots?
As we commemorate this most pivotal and transforming event — at the same time the country descends into some of the worst political polarization in modern times — it is important to visit these questions. The stakes are very high.
And, ideologically, many of the issues of 2011 are much the same as in 1861.
Given the hold the tea party seems to have on the base of the Republican Party, we should take notice when some in the group invoke the Confederate constitution as a model for anti-tax, anti-centralization libertarianism.
First, it was modeled closely after the U.S. Constitution. Second, its advocates may need a reminder of just how desperately the Jefferson Davis administration struggled to forge a centralized government out of the chaos of war, jealous localism, states’ rights and homegrown greed and individualism.
Indeed, yesterday’s secessionists and today’s nullifiers have much in common. Both are distinct minorities who have suddenly seized an inordinate degree of power.
One acted in revolution to save a slaveholders’ republic; the other seems determined to render modern federal government all but obsolete for any purpose but national defense.
Both claim their mantle of righteousness in the name of “liberty,” privatization and racial exclusion (one openly, the other using code that keeps it largely a white people’s party). Both vehemently claim the authority of the “Founders.”
Compromise? Both professed disinterest, indeed seemed to welcome rupture.
All this we might have thought all but buried in the mass slaughter of the Civil War. But, alas, history keeps happening.
This month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry chose to announce his presidential candidacy in Charleston, S.C., where secession and the Civil War began.
Merely coincidental? This is the man who in 2009 suggested his state might consider “secession” as resistance to federal authority.
Perry crafted this line for his now larger national audience: “I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”
What would the United States be if Abraham Lincoln’s administration and the federal government had decided to be “inconsequential” in 1861?
Texas secessionists would have realized their dream back then.
But how would have West Texas farmers in Depression-era Haskell County — where Perry grew up — have gotten electrification but from a consequential federal government?
Just how would racial segregation have been dismantled there or the rest of the country?
And would we prefer to have federal standards less consequential for food and drugs? Or how many national parks would there be if the feds had simply never bothered to be consequential in land use and natural resources. What kind of air might we be breathing if there were no Clean Air Act?
Interstate highways? Social Security? Workplace safety? College loans and the GI Bill, which helped forge an American middle class? An endless list.
We all make the past useful to our personal present, some more than others who might negate a social contract with their fellow humans in the service of private “freedom.”
Is it possible that at the heart of this dispute is that the federal government — however cumbersome amid the arcs of history bending forward and backward — has actually been a vehicle for the increase of democracy and equality, and that some Americans resent this?
We live in a society in 2011 not only divided over race and the advent of a black president, over the rights of immigrants, over religious tolerance, over a seemingly permanent state of war, over who and what are legitimate Americans and whether they shall be accorded birthright citizenship.
And we have ceaseless debate about the proper relation of federal to state power.
That “Union” preserved by the Civil War generation, turning 150 years old, is not a healthy organism.
Yes, the Civil War is rooted in states’ rights. But the significance of any exercise of states’ rights, like any other constitutional doctrine, is always in the issue to which it is employed.
Today, states’ rights claims are advanced by many governors and Republican-majority legislatures in the very language of “secession” and “nullification” made so infamous in antebellum America. They are aided and abetted by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, although the justices have not justified “nullification” by name.
What indeed has brought those words back into our political parlance?
A short list of examples among many tells us just how alive some Civil War legacies are in our time.
Kentucky has a bill pending to make that state a “sanctuary” from the Environmental Protection Agency. Arizona Republicans want to exempt products made in their state from federal interstate commerce laws. Montana has one bill that would “nullify” the federal Endangered Species Act and another to require the FBI to get a local sheriff’s permission to make any arrests.
Contexts change, of course, but we have a history with these ideas, and it had a terrible result in 1861.
Put most directly, either the United States reborn in slave emancipation is based on a social contract, forged and reforged by the new historical imperatives of industrialization and urbanization in the Progressive era and by a horrible economic Depression in the 1930s and a civil rights revolution of the 1960s, all of which for real reasons necessitated the increased exercise of federal power to protect human liberty, welfare and survival, or it is not.
The conservative movement in America, or at least its most radical wing, seems determined to repeal much of the 20th century and even its constitutional and social roots from the transformative 1860s.
The Civil War is not only not over, it can still be lost. As the sesquicentennial ensues in publishing and conferences and on television and countless websites, one can hope that we will pursue matters of legacy and memory with one eye on the past and the other acutely on the present.
The stakes are high.
David W. Blight teaches American history at Yale University and is the author of the just released “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era,” as well as the multiple-award-winning “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.”