Why we can’t forget we were once willing to destroy America over the issue of race
I am not particularly interested in the details of Civil War battles. I am very interested, though, in the infinitely more important question of why there was a Civil War.
That’s because secession was a near-death experience for this country. Like a faulty heart, our system of government failed. Only the bloody, painful surgery of the costliest war in our history saved its life. It was not Mexicans, or communists, or jihadis that caused the malfunction. We did it to ourselves. Therefore, even now, the reason for the conflict should be seen as more than an academic debate. Out of self-interest, I would think that those who love this country would demand to know the truth about what caused this almost fatal trauma. After all, was the condition congenital? Could it happen again? Under the circumstances, self-delusion about the ailment is self-destructively foolish.
Luckily though, there is a nearly universal consensus among scholars about the diagnosis — overwhelmingly, singly, the systemic failure was due to conflict over the institution of racial slavery. But some say that that interpretation is now so widely accepted, even among Neo-Confederates, that there is no need for people like me to belabor the point. So, everybody, one more time with feeling, “Get over it, Wiggins.”
That claim of popular-scholarly agreement comes with no documentation, of course, because there is none. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have certainly not gotten the memo. But then, in 2011 the Pew Research Center conducted a nationwide poll inquiring into “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent of respondents answered that it was slavery alone. The winning “cause of war”? States-rights, naturally. In other words, the ailment that almost destroyed us is the ailment we still refuse to face honestly. And this, we are told, is the ailment we don’t need to discuss anymore. No, we are still in denial, and those who suggest otherwise are trying to keep us there.
But if the illness was slavery, wasn’t that problem solved with abolition in 1865? No, because the problem was not simply slavery. The issue that brought on secession and war was white supremacist slavery. The end of slavery implied the coming of racial equality. And that, as much or more than the end of slavery as an economic system, is what many refused to abide. Such as Mississippi governor John Pettus, who called for secession in order to unfurl “a banner inscribed Superiority and Supremacy of the White Race.” Such as High Court Judge William Harris, who demanded secession since Mississippi “had rather see the last of her race — men, women and children — immolated in one common funeral pyre, than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the negro race.”
And this unhinged racism — which racial slavery had spawned — was not abolished in 1865 any more than it was abolished in 1965. Grasping this aspect of our country’s history is as essential to its present-day health as an understanding of our personal medical histories are to our present well-being. Because the nearly lethal condition of 150 odd years ago really is inborn.
Race, during slavery and after, is the issue over which we have been willing to betray every American value through our history — to pervert democracy, suppress liberties, enshrine inequality before the law; to kill one another in our bloodiest war, and to unleash our greatest wave of terrorism during Reconstruction. Over race, we were once willing to destroy America. It remains our Great Republic’s Achilles’ heel. With ethno-racial bigotry on the rise once more, to deny all this is not just willful ignorance. It is suicidal.
Is it “tilting at windmills” to point this out? Or is it tilting at our racist windbags, of yesterday and today? Regardless, if we love this country, we should do so again, and again, and again.
Jim Wiggins is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor. This was originally published by The Natchez Democrat.