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Secession fever revisited
We can take an honest look at history, or just revise it to make it more palatable

Try this version of history: 150 years ago this spring, North Carolina and Tennessee became the final two Southern states to secede illegally from the sacred American Union in order to keep 4 million blacks in perpetual bondage. With Jefferson Davis newly ensconced in his Richmond capital just a hundred miles south of Abraham Lincoln’s legally elected government in Washington, recruit­ing volunteers to fight for his “na­tion,” there could be little doubt that the rebellion would soon turn bloody. The Union was understandably prepared to fight for its own existence.

Or should the scenario read this way? A century and a half ago, North Carolina and Tennes­see joined other brave Southern states in asserting their right to govern themselves, limit the evils of unchecked federal power, protect the integrity of the cotton market from burdensome tariffs, and fulfill the promise of liberty that the nation’s founders had guaranteed in the Dec­laration of Independence. With Abraham Lincoln’s hostile minority government now raising militia to invade sovereign states, there could be little doubt that peaceful secession would soon turn into bloody war. The Confederacy was understandably prepared to fight for its own freedom.

Which version is true? And which is myth? Although the Civil War sesquicentennial is only a few months old, questions like this, which most serious readers believed had been asked and answered 50—if not 150—years ago, are resurfacing with surprising frequency. So-called Southern heritage Web sites are ablaze with alternative explanations for secession that make such scant mention of chattel slavery that the modern observer might think shackled plantation laborers were dues-paying members of the AFL-CIO. Some of the more egregious comments currently proliferating on the new Civil War blogs of both the New York Times (“Disunion”) and Washington Post (“A House Divided”) suggest that many contributors continue to believe slavery had little to do with secession: Lincoln had no right to serve as president, they argue; his policies threatened state sovereignty; Republicans wanted to impose crippling tariffs that would have de­stroyed the cotton industry; it was all about honor. Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, has dubbed such skewed memory as “the whitewash ex­planation” for secession. He is right.

As Ball and scholars like William Freehling, author of Prelude to Civil War and The Road to Disunion, have pointed out, all today’s readers need to do in order to understand what truly motivated secession is to study the proceedings of the state conventions where separation from the Union was openly discussed and enthusiastically authorized. Many of these dusty records have been digitized and made available online—discrediting this fairy tale once and for all.

Consider these excerpts. South Caro­lina voted for secession first in December 1860, bluntly citing the rationale that Northern states had “denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.”

Georgia delegates similarly warned against the “progress of anti-slavery.” As delegate Thomas R.R. Cobb proudly insisted in an 1860 address to the Legislature, “Our slaves are the most happy and contented of workers.”

Mississippians boasted, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world…. There is no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” And an Alabama newspaper opined that Lincoln’s election plainly showed the North planned “to free the negroes and force amalgamation between them and the children of the poor men of the South.”

Certainly the effort to “whitewash” secession is not new. Jefferson Davis himself was maddeningly vague when he provocatively asked fellow Missis­sippians, “Will you be slaves or will you be independent?…Will you consent to be robbed of your property [or] strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?” Non-slaveholders—the majority of Southerners—were bombarded with similarly inflammatory rhetoric designed to paint Northerners as integrationist aggressors scheming to make blacks the equal of whites and impose race-mixing on a helpless population. The whitewash worked in 1861—but does that mean that it should be taken seriously today?

From 1960-65, the Civil War Cen­tennial Commission wrestled with similar issues, and ultimately bowed too deeply to segregationists who worried that an emphasis on slavery—much less freedom—would embolden the civil rights movement then beginning to gain national traction. Keeping the focus on battlefield re-enactments, regional pride and uncritical celebration took the spotlight off the real cause of the war, and its potential inspiration to modern freedom marchers and their sympathizers. Some members of the national centennial commission actually argued against staging a 100th anniversary commemoration of emancipation at the Lincoln Memorial. Doing so, they contended, would encourage “agitators.”

In a way, it is more difficult to understand why so much space is again being devoted to this debate. Fifty years have passed since the centennial. The nation has been vastly transformed by legislation and attitude. We supposedly live in a “post-racial era.” And just two years ago, Americans (including voters in the former Confederate states of Virginia and North Carolina), chose the first African-American president of the United States.

Or is this, perhaps, the real underlying problem—the salt that still irritates the scab covering this country’s unhealed racial divide?

Just as some Southern conservatives decried a 1961 emphasis on slavery because it might embolden civil rights, 2011 revisionists may have a hidden agenda of their own: Beat back federal authority, reinvigorate the states’ rights movement and perhaps turn back the re-election of a black president who has been labeled as everything from a Communist to a foreigner (not unlike the insults hurled at the freedom riders half a century ago).

Fifty years from now, Americans will either celebrate the honesty that animated the Civil War sesquicentennial, or subject it to the same criticisms that have been leveled against the centennial celebrations of the 1960s. The choice is ours. As Lincoln once said, “The struggle of today is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.”

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.