The material here presented is meant to illuminate certain aspects of American history from the Civil War era, but it is also meant to establish arguments and to answer other arguments, either among professional historians or average Americans.
Some of the chapters will give due appreciation of the military effort put forth by the South -- both in comparison to the North and in its own right -- establish the legitimacy of the South's bid for independence, and encourage respect for the will to fight shown by the people of the Southern states. Others will re-emphasize that racism and slavery were, and remain, national experiences. Still others will give economics and politics their proper roles as causes of the American Civil War.
I am born and raised in the North; I have no moonlight-and-magnolias sentimental attachment to the ante-bellum South. I live in an urban neighborhood, and I teach my child to judge the people around him by their deeds and character, not their pigment. I have no moral argument to make in favor of American slavery, though, unlike some, I won't condemn every slaveowner in history as a monster.
These sort of disclaimers must be made. Anyone, even the most respected historian, who defends or even speaks objectively about the Old South or the Confederacy is liable to be shouted down. The great historian Avery O. Craven, son of Quaker parents who left the South because of their opposition to slavery, faced an avalanche of "Confederate sympathizer" charges after he published "The Coming of the Civil War" in 1942. In defending his book, Craven wrote:
"My book is not greatly concerned with the causes of the war or with war guilt. It is an attempt to show how the democratic process broke down under an unusual strain .... I did not set out to defend slavery. I do not attempt to do so; I do not even believe that it can be defended. I simply attempted to explain a section's institution in terms of its own day and to present both its advantages and disadvantages as a labor system."More than 40 years later, Gary W. Gallagher had to make extensive denials before writing his 1997 assessment of the South's war effort in "The Confederate War":
"Any historian who argues that the Confederate people demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, possessed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other segment of white society in United States history runs the risk of being labeled a neo-Confederate. As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any pro-Confederate special pleading during my formative years. Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me. In reaching my conclusions, I have gone where the sources led me. My assertions and speculations certainly are open to challenge, but they emerged from an effort to understand the Confederate experience through the actions and words of the people who lived it."Eugene Genovese is another who has observed that, in today's academic climate, "to speak positively of any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation." When Bernard Bailyn wrote the word "fanaticism" to refer to abolitionist beliefs, he was attacked for using "the vocabulary of proslavery apologists."
One stands up for the South with a resignation to being splattered by rotten vegetables. So why bother?
Because many otherwise thoughtful and open-minded Americans only see the South, past and present, as a failed society, poisoned by slavery and racism, peopled by evil masters and wretched rednecks -- Simon Legrees and "Deliverance" extras. Any love or respect for anything Southern, to these people, is just a transparent mask for racism. This is palpably false. And it is destructive. First, because objective historical inquiry is an essential aspect of a free, thinking people. To ask, "was slavery profitable?" is not to say, "slavery was justified," even if the answer you come up with is, "yes, it was." Moral abhorrence does not preclude honest study. The historian's job is not to tell you the way things ought to have been, but the way they were.
My second objection to unthinking South-bashing is more personal and patriotic. I have seen too many people shift the blame for America's modern race mess, and its violent past, onto that one-third of the nation that lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. This psychological shell game absolves the whole by cheating a part. Behind this scapegoating, perhaps, is frustration at a race problem that won't go away. We've given up on dialogue and understanding, and now we just hope to placate the demon with sacrifices. I have had conversations with sane, intelligent, liberal-hearted men who, without a trace of irony, have said that Jefferson and Madison should have been slaughtered by their slaves, and that this would have been fitting and proper and the best possible course of American history.
Scapegoating the South trains the mind to think the race problem is one that happens somewhere else, in someone else's town. Particularly, it encourages those of us outside the South to overlook our own communities. It ignores the oft-told truth -- told by Frederick Douglass and Alexis de Tocqueville and Martin Luther King Jr. -- that racism in the Northern cities has always been far more virulent than that in the Southern countryside.
Trash-talking the South also incidentally sanctifies a New England-based political and moral culture that is the root of much that is wrong in modern America. The North was a great deal more than just abolitionists and Freedom Riders, just as the South was more than the slave auction block and the lynch mob. Manichaean history does no justice to America's complexity.