Sunday, November 07, 2010

the civil war's unteachable unreachable losers

WaPo | The North was bustling with new technologies and with what Isaiah Berlin would call a "new race of propagandists -- artists, poets, priests of a new secular religion, mobilizing men's emotions, without which the new industrial world could not be made to function."

Among those propagandists was Carl Schurz, a German revolutionary who would serve Lincoln as an ambassador and a general and who said to slaveholders in 1860: "You stand against a hopeful world, alone against a great century, fighting your hopeless fight . . . against the onward march of civilization."

Slavery, abolished in Mexico in 1829, throughout the British Empire beginning in 1833, and much of South America by the 1850s, stood athwart that onward march, that powerful, determining force of History.

The Southern argument
Against this idea, what could the South oppose? "Of 143 important inventions patented in the United States from 1790 to 1860, 93 percent came out of the free states," historian James McPherson wrote in "Battle Cry of Freedom." The South had less than a fifth of the country's industrial capacity, and despite periodic wake-up calls and exhortations to invest in infrastructure, it was greatly deficient in canals and railroads. Its "defensive-aggressive" temper in the 1850s, McPherson wrote, "stemmed in part from a sense of economic subordination to the North."

The South could appeal to the Constitution, which protected slavery. But Lincoln -- who had repeatedly said that although he abhorred slavery, he opposed only its extension -- had already assured them he wouldn't violate that protection. They could claim that slaves, as property, were better treated than Northern workers who were at the mercy of the market; but that meant that slaves were merely tools and less than human. They could appeal to Southern Honor, which seemed to mean the right to be left alone, but even that idea of honor was outdated. Southern Honor was hierarchical, almost feudal, and increasingly arcane in a world that, as Kwame Anthony Appiah demonstrates in his recent book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen," had come to base honor more on merit, esteem and shared human dignity.

The South did, however, have anger, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "angry parties went from bad to worse." Frequently in the writing of Lincoln, a lawyer, logician and the only president with a registered patent, one senses that he was arguing into the void. Shortly after the 1860 election, Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed, a Southern sympathizer (though ultimately loyal), wrote, "The eyes of the whole nation will be upon you, while unfortunately the ears of one half of it will be closed to any thing you might say." Lincoln, quoting the biblical book of Ezekiel, said the South "has eyes but does not see, and ears but does not hear." Before he even took office, the South had become "a whirlwind" of secession fever, and History was in motion.