Will America’s Civil War Ever End?

Seems I prematurely announced my departure as a guest blogger last week.  Concurring Opinions has kindly asked me to stay on for another month, so here is my first offering for May.

It recently occurred to me that there is a connection between the persistent belief of some Americans that President Obama is not a natural born citizen and continuing debates about the Civil War.  Both go to fundamental questions about national identity, citizenship and governance.  Almost a decade ago I wrote a quirky piece entitled Exploring White Resistance to Racial Reconciliation. The article was triggered by what I regarded as a shocking action by Congress, namely, the rejection of a 1997 proposal by a dozen Democrat and Republican congress members calling on Congress to issue an apology to the descendants of kidnapped West Africans for their enslavement.  In 2008, after it became apparent that then Senator Barack Obama would be the Democrat’s presidential nominee, Congress quietly issued an apology for slavery.  Ironically, President Obama is not descended from West Africans, or to my knowledge, slaves.

In my article I speculated that this proposal was rejected because most Americans remain woefully ignorant about the causes and conflicting political agendas surrounding the Civil War.  This ignorance has been reinforced, I theorized, by popular culture, particularly films like the pernicious Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind, that romanticize the “lost cause.”  I offered many proposals, including better education about the Civil War, its causes and effects.

Why, you may ask, am I blogging about “old” news?  Well, a study funded by the Pew Foundation and released last month found that most Americans still consider the Civil War relevant to “American politics and political life.”  As the 150th anniversary of the War approached, two major newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times, featured series or periodic articles about the War.  The Post also hosts a blog, A House Divided, “dedicated to news and issues of importance to Civil War enthusiasts across the country and around the world.”  Even my local paper, The Baltimore Sun, has a series about the War.  Maryland, although a slave-holding border state, saw many battles during the War.  Further, Maryland considers the April 17, 1861 Baltimore Riot, when Union troops passing through the City were attacked by local confederate sympathizers, to be one of the War’s first conflicts.  I celebrate these educational efforts mentioned above because most Americans still do not fully understand the reasons for this war and why it continues to bedevil the Nation.

One of the most factious long-standing debates is over the causes of the War, namely, whether it was fought over slavery or states’ rights.  According to the Pew study, 48% of Americans surveyed think that states’ rights was the main cause of the War, while 34% said slavery was the cause. Documents linked in The Times, and essays by noted historians, acknowledge that states’ rights was an issue, but that the continuation of slavery was a primary triggering cause.   Even the State of Georgia, a former confederate state, finally conceded that slavery was the cause of the War.  Nevertheless, some Americans continue to reject the historical evidence.  For example, Baltimore Sun readers, in response to a columnist’s assertion that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, challenged and vigorously debated each other.  Commentators offer various, mostly benign, explanations for the reluctance to acknowledge slavery’s role in triggering the Civil War.

Still you might say, this too is “old” news that has nothing to do with President Obama, but I urge you to read on. A subtext of my earlier post, The Entitlements Debate: Are Social Compacts Possible in Heterogeneous Countries?, was that some people in this country still cling to, or yearn for, pre-civil war Dred Scott notions of citizenship.  Nothing better exemplifies this notion more than the prolonged debate over whether President Obama was born in the United States.  Even the production of his long-form birth certificate has only slightly diminished the discussion over his right to govern the country.

In other words, the real reason that we continue to disagree about the meaning and significance of the Civil War, goes to the very idea of citizenship – to whom does this country belong, and who has the right to participate in its governance.  I remind my Constitutional Law II students that the 14th Amendment grant of birthright citizenship was not fully accepted by the states.  For example, in 1867 Maryland rejected the Amendment waiting until 1959 when it, and California, ratified it.  Oregon (1973), Kentucky (1976), New Jersey (2003) and Ohio (2003) waited even longer.  The birthright citizenship guarantee continues to be debated today as more “brown” immigrants have children who are American citizens.

Similarly, despite the 15th Amendment’s guarantee that no citizen should be denied the vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude”, voter intimidation of non-white voters continues.  Hostility to this principle is reflected in the fact that Maryland did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1973, eight years after the Voting Rights Act.  Kentucky ratified that Amendment in 1976.  The last state to ratified this Amendment was Tennessee in 1997.

The persistent attacks on President Obama’s right to govern, as distinct from his particular policies, are couched in racial code words.  It also is arguable that a woman president might engender similar gender-based attacks.  Long gone are the days when northern European Protestant males governed this Nation by right.  Like the confederate defeat, this too is a lost cause – gone with the wind, but not a loss some Americans feel they can openly bemoan.

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24 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    Thanks for staying on. Well said, especially reminding us what you remind your conlaw students. I wonder if other conlaw profs provide similar reminders to their students. Reminders of such past dates help us to understand the present and better prepare for the future.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “In my article I speculated that this proposal was rejected because most Americans remain woefully ignorant about the causes and conflicting political agendas surrounding the Civil War. “

    Alternatively, it could be because we figure we’re not 150 years old, and are rather hostile to suggestions that we apologize for something somebody else, long dead, did.

  3. Shag from Brookline says:

    Apologies are in recognition of wrongs of others, years ago, that continue to impact us today. (There are too many wrongs to list, but one of them had to do with atrocities in the Philippines in the Spanish American War; I’m not sure if Congress/Executive formally apologized.) Apologies are not made in the sense of being responsible for what others did in the past. Rather, apologies are made in an attempt to heal, going forward and, in the words of Rodney King, just getting along.

    Brett is of course not 150 years old but he apparently wants to whitewash the past, reject history. Perhaps Brett is also hostile to the impact of original sin today, which goes back well beyond 150 years, but impacts many religious people to this day. Even as an agnostic leaning towards atheism, I’ll pray for his salvation.

  4. Thankfully, many Christians and Catholics in particular have not followed Brett’s reasoning here, formally and informally apologizing, if not attempting to atone for, the egregious sins of anti-Semitism for which they bear much historical responsibility. In the case of Christians, such apologies in no way logically interfere with the individual efforts of Christians to express their personal and moral autonomy or establish their individual integrity as Christians. Nor is this tantamount to believing contemporary Christians must carry the burden of blame for historical atrocities, any more than every Christian is to be held personally responsible for the Inquisition (or every papal pronouncement on Nazism for that matter).

    My subscription to a cluster of Marxist beliefs does not make me accountable for Stalinist purges nor the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961), but if States, insititutions or groups of self-identified Marxists historically connected with crimes committed in Marx’s name (under, say, the rubrics of the Party-State, Marxist-Leninist ideology, or Maoism) made apologies for such crimes this would go a long way toward clearing the air and allowing Marxists of all kinds have their actions speak for themselves, unburdened by the weight (insinuated or otherwise) of historical blame. Similarly, my identification with socialism does not make me responsible for or in any way tie me to the political repression and immorality of Politbureau dictatorships of Communist Party-State regimes in East and Central Europe during the Cold War.

    Apologies can help communicate the sincerity of our efforts to admit all men and women into the banquet of life, can enhance our capacity to hear the cries of human suffering, make meaningful our endeavors to break the chains of the wretched of the earth, in short, concretely incarnate our struggles to act as our brother’s keeper. Apologies foster a climate conducive to expressions of effortless compassion for the dispossessed and underprivileged. Apologies are part of the alchemical transmutation of historical nightmares into lucid dreams that inspire “fearless honesty, uncalculating self-examination and unqualified empathy.”

    One of the more obvious reasons for apologizing for slavery could be said to arise from the fact that many of us have benefited from the actions of those who earlier profited, literally and figuratively, from slavery. In his book, On Apology (2004), Aaron Lazare listed a host of reasons that help explain how and why apologies—both private and public, individual and corporate in form—heal. Among other things, apologies speak to the psychological needs (sometimes compensatory but often emancipatory) of the offended party, and thus play a part in the restoration of self-respect and dignity, assure all parties of shared values, identify the proper locus of responsibility and accountability, consider the role of reparations for harms done, and create propitious conditions for meaningful dialogue.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:


    Thanks for putting apology into more fitting language. So I apologize to Brett and others who may have been offended by my comment in response to Brett, and incorporate your comments, adding only that religions beyond Christianity as well as humanists understand the appropriateness of apology in the circumstances described.

  6. Shag,

    Re: “…religions beyond Christianity as well as humanists understand the appropriateness of apology in the circumstances described.”

    Indeed, I was only using the case of Chistianity by way of illustration (being myself an aspiring Buddhist…well, like the Dalai Lama, half Marxist and half Buddhist!).

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    Shag, whether you like it or not, a rather large portion of the population are hostile to the idea of apologizing for something somebody else did, view suggestions that they so apologize as tantamount to an accusation of guilt, (And rightly so, because it’s nonsensical to think that you should apologize for somebody else’s crime, demands for an apology are always equivalent to accusations.) and this is far more likely the explanation for why people oppose these apologies than any ignorance of the past.

    You are, of course, perfectly free to apologize on your OWN behalf for sins somebody else committed. The Rape of Nanjing seems to be inadequately apologized for, why don’t you start there?

  8. Yet more evidence of the difficulties faced in opening closed minds and thawing cold hearts.

  9. Taunya Banks says:

    Ok, I can’t resist weighing in on the apology issue, even though it is only one example of the point I was making. We can debate ad infinitum the value of apologizing for slavery; to me the government sanctioned policy for which an apology seems most appropriate, and for which documented harm is readily available, is the 90+ years of de jure and de facto racial segregation that followed the emancipation of Americans of African descendant enslaved in Africa!

  10. And cannot we agree that it is racism: overt, covert, conscious, sub-conscious or otherwise that links slavery to this de jure and de facto segregation…and many of the ongoing failures and glaring injustices of the “criminal justice system”?

  11. Brett Bellmore says:

    Patrick, it cheapens the very notion of apoligy, to expect one of somebody who didn’t do the deed in question. It’s like, when a crime goes down, picking some random dude off the street, and demanding he show contrition, and getting mad at him when he refuses.

    It’s really just a thinly disguised form of moral agression, your way of claiming that the random dude IS guilty.

    Well, I’m waiting, Patrick: Let’s have your apoligy for all the things YOU didn’t do. Must be a lot of them weighting your soul…

  12. Shag from Brookline says:

    Yeah, Brett, Germany’s apology concerning the Holocaust ” … cheapens the very notion of apoligy [sic, and sick!]” of those Germans ” … who didn’t do the deed in question.” Brett, you not only have a way with words but with analogy.

  13. Ken Rhodes says:

    I think y’all have conflated the word “sorry” with the word “apology” and that simply isn’t correct.

    “Apology” specifically denotes remorse for one’s actions. Here is a pretty good dictionary definition:

    Apology–a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.

    “Sorry,” on the other hand, is expressed irrespective of one’s responsibility:

    Sorry–feeling regret, compunction, sympathy, pity, etc.

    My wife says I “pick on words.” But I believe carelessly chosen words indicate carelessly formulated thoughts. In the instant case, I think most people are very careless in making the distinction I do, and that carelessness leads to “ships that pass in the night” debates like this one.

  14. Brett Bellmore says:

    Ok, set aside for a moment the fact that the German government apologized for the Holocaust while there were still victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust alive.

    Set aside for the moment the fact that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the German government, while the federal government defeated the slave states, making a federal apology for slavery analogous to the Allies, or at best the EU, apologizing for the Holocaust.

    So that a federal apology for the Japanese internment actually made a lot more sense, and who objected to it? Not nearly so many people.

    Setting these things aside, the specific assertion was that objections to a federal apology for slavery were due to historical ignorance. My counter-claim is that they’re due to a moral understanding of the nature of apology, and what it’s appropriate for somebody to apologize for.

    Now that you’ve shifted to a defense of the proposition that it IS appropriate to apologize for things you didn’t do, have you not conceeded my case?

  15. Shag from Brookline says:

    Ken, you should listen to your wife more – and recheck other dictionaries. My New World Webster’s Dictionary doesn’t support the ones you provide for “apology” and “sorry” and ignores nuance, context and usage. (By the way, did you intend to include “not” between “careless” and “in” in the last sentence of your comment?)

  16. Shag from Brookline says:

    My comment 15 was made before Brett’s comment 14 appeared on the screen and sets forth this position:

    “My counter-claim is that they’re [objections to a federal apology for slavery] due to a moral understanding of the nature of apology, and what it’s appropriate for somebody to apologize for.”

    This “moral understanding” from a man who noted on another post involving slavery that “Some of my best friends are black.”

    And Brett can convince his wife that no apology is owed for America’s treatment of Filipinos during and after the Spanish American War because it was so long ago? (It’s a good thing that Mark Twain was around at the time.)

    As to the Holocaust, there are still deniers out there just as there are deniers today of Jim Crow, which continues in various forms. In addition to the deniers, there are the enablers.

    Both your set asides and your case are set aside.

  17. Brett Bellmore says:

    I really love the rhetorical judo involved in this whole “some of my best friends are black” thing, where if a guy who does have black friends is accused of racism, and he dares to mention it, it supposedly counts against him. Bizarrely illogical. Am I to take it that, to really prove your racial virtue, you have to strictly avoid any inter-racial social relationships?

    What in fact happened was that I mentioned that the inter-racial couples of my acquaintance here in SC were not suffering from any kind of prejudice, possibly because social attitudes down here have changed since the Civil war. At which point YOU brought up the whole “Some of my best friends” thing, and I confirmed that I had black friends. (Which I guess you don’t, since you find it so damning…)

    As for the Spanish American war, I assure you that if you actually KNEW any Filipinos, you’d be aware that they’d be puzzled if you started groveling about it, since their attitude towards America tends to be shaped more by the Americans driving out the Japanese during WWII, a rather more recent event.

    Look, bottom line: Refusing to apologize for ancient history doesn’t require being ignorant of ancient history. All it requires is not being ancient, and a rather common-place, I might even say normal, understanding of what people are supposed to apologize for: The things THEY have done…

  18. Shag from Brookline says:

    So according to Brett, it would be inappropriate – not normal – for parents to apologize for what their children might have done wrong to someone else on the basis that the deed was not done by the parents but by their children. As I suggested to Ken, check some more dictionaries and don’t forget nuance, context and usage.

    And of course the Filipinos post WW II were “pleased” with leadership foisted on them with the support of the U.S. Perhaps this attributed to the attraction of mail-order brides. (I somehow doubt the demand for mail-order Filipino grooms. As a generalization, it would seem that white males marrying women of color is less problematic than vice-versa in the reactions of whites to inter-racial couples. Apparently men of color are to be feared. Think of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”)

  19. Brett Bellmore says:

    Shag, when my son does something wrong, the next thing he hears typically is, “Victor! You apologize right now!” Not me apologizing, though I will express my sorrow that my (2.5 year old) son is sometimes ill behaved. I might even apologize for my own poor parenting skills. But, then, I do not go on to express my sorrow about something somebody else’s son did 150 years ago.

    If I were to diagnose your thinking, this would, I think hit pretty close. You need people who disagree with you to be racists. It helps to validate your own virtue.

    In the mean while I will again note: The claim was that people opposed a public apology for slavery because they were ignorant of how bad it was. I assert they oppose the apology because they figure it was a long time ago and they have never owned slaves.

    Whether you think that’s a GOOD reason for refusing to apologize for something has nothing to do with whether that’s their reason.

    And, finally, I’m still waiting for you to apologize for the Rape of Nanjing. There are so many evils in history, that you’re adamantly refusing to apologize for. If not because they happened a long time ago, and you didn’t do them, why? It’s surely not because you’re unaware they happened…

  20. Brett Bellmore says:

    By the way, we could, I suppose, discuss the sociology of international, inter-racial marriage. But I’m not sure you could refrain from trying to use it as an occasion to accuse other people of racism, rather than actually understand what’s going on. In any case, I prefer INXS.

  21. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett seems oblivious regarding code words and phrases. When I suggested that he might next comment that some of his best friends are black, what did he do but then say that. I was reminded of this by Donald T-Rump’s recent statement that “Black people love me.” Lo and behold, on his Celebrity Apprentice unReality show, which presumably was already “in the can,” he reinstated LaToya Jackson after she had been “fired” by her peers. (Maybe T-Rump was “apologizing” for the meanness of others, or, hint, hint, advancing his chances for nomination of the no-longer-Abraham-Lincoln-Republican Party for 2012.)

    And I do not adamantly refuse to apologize for the Rape of Nanjing and other evils going back to the beginnings, except that I do adamantly refuse to apologize for original sin (Genesis I and II). With that exception, I apologize for all past atrocities against humanity AND nature.

    Brett plays psychologist with this: “If I were to diagnose your thinking, this would, I think hit pretty close. You need people who disagree with you to be racists. It helps to validate your own virtue.” Sure, when Brett says: “Some of my best friends are black” I wonder what these best friends feel about him.

    This is the sesqui-centennial year of the start of the Civil War. The heading for this post is: “Will America’s Civil War Ever End?” Maybe, but not quite yet. But there have been some advances since the Civil War’s centennial. Perhaps by the Civil War’s bicentennial there will be further improvements. By then there may be fewer Bretts with their heads stuck in the sand, to put it politely, ignoring the past. Brett will continue to bellow about apology and sorry to mask reality. Brett seems to be the spokesman for rednecks with this: “I assert they oppose the apology because they figure it was a long time ago and they have never owned slaves” presumably to validate their won virtue.

  22. Brett Bellmore says:

    The only person bellowing about apologies here is you. I’m perfectly content to ignore the matter whenever somebody isn’t irrationally demanding that I apologize for somebody else’s misdeeds.

    And, yes, I’m aware that liberals delight in creating “code words”, in order to present those who disagree with them with a rhetorical mine field to navigate. Suffice to say that declaring something a code word doesn’t make somebody else’s use of it mean something new. It amounts to little more than a declaration that you find it easier to win arguments if you can replace what people actually said with something else.

    Throw away the secret decoder ring, Shag, it’s only getting in the way of understanding what other people are saying.

  23. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett doesn’t go back and check the record of comments, perhaps proving that the memory is the second thing to go. I started off with comment 1 that did NOT include or otherwise refer to apology. Like the res gestae of a redneck, Brett made reference to “apologize” with comment 2 in response to the post. This suggests the technique of slanting the discussion. No one who has commented at this post has demanded, rationally or irrationally, that Brett “apologize for somebody else’s misdeeds.” One doesn’t need a decoder ring to understand Brett and his ilk; it’s as plain as his reflection in a mirror.

  24. B-Mod says:

    The GOP efforts to “repress the vote” for 2012 smacks of Jim Crow laws for the new millenium. We have more voter participation for American Idol than general elections so why is there so much energy put into making it hard for AMERICAN citizens to exercise their right to vote and be properly represented in our government “for the people, by the people” ???