Before appealing to history, those who insist that America is, and has always been, a racist country should have read some. They would have learned, among other things, that one of the most serious complaints the American colonists had against British rule was that the British had introduced slavery and then stopped every effort the colonists made to end the importation of slaves. They would also have learned, if they did not already know, that the American Civil War was fought on a moral issue, an issue which Abraham Lincoln, in the Cooper Union Speech of February 27, 1860, framed with marvelous simplicity:
“If slavery is right, all words, acts, laws and constitutions against it, are themselves wrong, and should be silenced and swept away,” insisted Abraham Lincoln in his Cooper Union speech of February 27, 1860. “If it is right, we cannot justly object to its nationality – its universality; if it is wrong, they cannot justly insist upon its extension – its enlargement. All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy.”
What did those who fought the war, and those who lived through it, think of slavery as a moral issue, a question of right and wrong. Edmund Wilson, one of the country’s most important literary figures in the twentieth century and without question its greatest literary critic, tries to answer this question in his remarkable book, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, published in l962. Wilson, writes not about what happened, but what was written about it. He begins with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It is a story that “came so suddenly” to Harriet Beecher Stowe, “and seemed so irresistibly to write itself that she felt as if some power beyond her had laid hold of her to deliver its message, and she said sometimes that the book had been written by God.” If she thought it had been written by God, or at least with God’s assistance, it was because, Wilson explains, she assumed “that every worthy person in the United States must desire to preserve the integrity of our unprecedented republic; and she tires to show how Negro slavery must disrupt and degrade this…by tempting the North to the moral indifference, the half-deliberate ignorance, which encourages inhuman practices, and by weakening the character of the South through luxury and irresponsibility that the institution of slavery breeds.”
Everyone, or nearly everyone, has heard of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; no one, or nearly no one, remembers Francis Grierson. But, Edmund Wilson insists in a chapter entitled ‘Prophetic Visions,’ Grierson’s novel, The Valley of the Shadows, gives us more than any other book “the sense of the national crisis for which people daily felt they were being prepared without having been given the power to control it – not so much a storm that was gong to burst as a drama, a sacred drama, in which they would have to perform.” Grierson, who as a boy had heard Lincoln and Douglas debate, later wrote Abraham Lincoln the Practical Mystic, in which he describes Lincoln “as the designated and conscious instrument through which larger forces were working.” Grierson’s account of those larger forces, the sense of destiny that seemed almost palpable, deeper and more profound than the histories that do little more than chronicle events. He writes, “things came about not so much by preconceived method as by an impelling impulse. The appearance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not a reason, but an illumination; the founding of the Republican party was not an act of political wire-pulling, but an inspiration; the great religious revivals and the appearance of two comets were not regarded as coincidences, but accepted as signs of divine preparation and warning.”
Lincoln himself felt the force of it. He attended a camp meeting when he was only twenty three and heard a Methodist preacher declare that “the Dominion of Christ could not come in America until slavery was destroyed.” The sermon lasted three hours and, showing “that a great civil war would put an end to human bondage,” the minister cried out, “Who can tell but the man who shall lead us through this strife may be standing in this presence!” When the meeting was over, Lincoln told a friend, “when the preacher was describing the civil war, I distinctly saw myself, as in second sight, bearing an important part in that strife.”
Lincoln, who spoke about the “mystic chords of memory’ in his second inaugural speech, had foreseen that he would play an “important part” in the Civil War. Elected president, he “had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama.” He had for years had a recurring dream – a ship on its “steady way to some dark and infinite shore.” The night before he was murdered, he “dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination.”
And what of the South? Frederick L. Olmstead, who before he constructed Central Park in New York, had been a magazine editor, was sent by the New York Times in l852 on a three month trip through the South. He then wrote The Cotton Kingdom, in which he observed that slavery “not only degrades the slaves but demoralizes the master.” At the big plantations slaves work eighteen hours a day. Poor whites, “who live as badly or worse,” are despised by the other whites and in turn detest the Negro slaves because they cannot compete with them in the labor market. Few newspapers are published and almost no books. Virginia, “has declined from its once brilliant civilization.” The planter class has no interest in literature or art, science of foreign affairs and there is no discussion of slavery.
No open discussion, that is. A number of Confederate women wrote privately about the South’s Peculiar Institution. Kate Stone, living with her widowed mother on a thousand acre cotton planation worked by a hundred fifty slaves knew as well as any Northern abolitionist that slavery was wrong.
“I always felt the moral guilt of it, felt how impossible it must be for an owner of slaves to win his way into Heaven. Born and raised as we were, what would be our measure of responsibility!” Though the war “swept from us everything,” she never regretted the freeing of the slaves. “The great load of accountability has been lifted.”
Mrs. James Chestnut, whose father had been a leading force in the movement to secede and the first Southern U.S.Senator to resign, published her journal under the title, A Diary From Dixie. She had a horror of slavery. “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines; and the mullets one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing is the attitude of Robert E. Lee who led the Southern army. He had emancipated “most of his slaves years before the war, and had sent to Liberia those who were willing to go.” The Virginia legislature had come “within an ace of abolishing slavery in l832,” an attempt which Lee had approved. Lee favored abolition, did not believe there was a constitutional right to secession, nor that there was adequate cause for revolution, detested the boasting of the ‘Cotton States,’ despised “their habitual truculent arrogance and their threats against the ‘Border States’ for their reluctance to go along with them.”
Lee resigned form the Union army and fought for the South because, Wilson believes, of an “instinctive emulation of his ancestors, the manifestation of a regional patriotism more deeply rooted than loyalty to the United States,” the “same sense of honor and independence which stimulated Virginia to stand up to the Crown.” At the end of the Civil War, Lee said that, “So far from engaging in the war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interests of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this, as regards Virginia especially, that I would cheerfully have lost all I have lost by the war, and have suffered all I have suffered, to have this object attained.”
Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union armies and accepted Lee’s surrender, wrote a record of his campaigns which Mark Twain believed was the most remarkable work of its kind since the Commentaries of Julius Caesar. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin before the war, Grant’s Personal Memoirs sold three hundred thousand copies. He said of Lincoln: “He was a great man, a very great man. The more I saw of him, the more this impressed me. He was incontestably the greatest man I ever knew.” Grant understood why the war had been fought. Traveling to Europe, Grant met Bismarck who expressed the opinion that the American Civil War had really been about preserving the Union rather than ending slavery. Grant told Bismarck that he was wrong, that the war was about doing both. The moment “slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt it was a stain to the Union that men be bought and sold, like cattle.”
Lincoln had understood it from the beginning, that slavery was the sin of the whole nation, and that it was necessary, in the words of another author, to “emancipate the American republic from the curse of slavery, a curse which lay upon both races, and which in different ways enslaved them both.”