Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It’s The Perfect Time To Debate Civil War’s Cause

Is it just “stirring the pot” to discuss the cause of the Civil War during its 150th anniversary or does debating lead to a better understanding of history?  
Depiction of Fort Sumter
in Charleston Harbor, S.C. 
The chair of the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Advisory Board argues that we in South Carolina should not be debating the cause beyond what’s necessary for “genuine discussion.”  Instead, writes Dr. Eric Emerson in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., we should “concentrate on those tangible links to the past that not only capture our attention, but also fire our imaginations (letters, visit to a slave cabin, or look at a battle flag and artifacts) that generate interest, curiosity and education.” 

I couldn’t disagree more. Although I applaud the idea that we should use the sesquicentennial to connect to history by participating in the many wonderful events at hand and encourage “enlightened debate,” Dr. Emerson threw cold water on my enthusiasm by saying  “At the center of the debate are the two competing claims for the war’s primary cause: slavery and states’ rights.”

Let me address Dr. Emerson’s last statement first:  Really?  We can only choose between slavery and states’ rights as the war’s cause?  Setting aside the fact that these choices essentially are one and the same (since states’ rights meant the preservation of slavery), what about preserving the Union?  That cause deserves at least passing comment. 

Even here in South Carolina, many saw the U.S. Constitution as more than a gentleman’s agreement that could be freely joined and freely abandoned.

As for Dr. Emerson’s assertion that “the next four years should not be a referendum on the war’s causes…because if South Carolinians come to the end of the sesquicentennial with only an understanding of why the war began, then the commemoration has been a failure.”  Really?

I counter that if the Civil War commemoration helps us understand why the war began and the state’s role in a war that cost 620,000 American lives and decades of hardship in the South, the sesquicentennial will have been a great success. Then we might get past our genteel Southern fear of controversy to examine, debate and reflect about America’s complex history.   

We must seize the moment to scrutinize the Civil War legacy that paved the way for our state’s current “plantation politics” that continue to protect the “haves” and ignore the “have-nots,” as if they don’t count or remain three-fifths a person, as slaves were enumerated in the census of 1860.  We must note that African Americans, mostly descendants of slaves, comprise nearly one-third of the state’s population; that nearly 13 percent of the people in the state live in poverty; and that only 55 percent of its youth graduate from high school on time.  These statistics place South Carolina at the bottom of the barrel nationally when it comes to quality of life for many of its people.
Although debating the Civil War’s causes – and there are many beyond slavery and states’ rights – seems enigmatic, effacing, even embarrassing to many of us, that’s no reason to ignore it or squash sometimes heated discussion about it. The war’s 150th anniversary presents the perfect time to study the Civil War’s true history, realize its sad legacy, heal our current wounds, and have South Carolina take its place in a more perfect Union.

Find Dr. Emerson’s guest column in The State at EMERSON.
Do you think we should examine the cause of the Civil War during the war's sesquicentennial?  Go to COMMENT to post your reply.