Friday, December 2, 2011

Oxymoron - “The Civil War”

David Goldfield, in his wonderful book, America Aflame, makes numerous pointed observations about US history, and several claims. First, the observation that this country was, and perhaps always has been, marked by a high degree of conflict and violence, having to do mostly with national origin, religion, and political interests and ideology.

He begins his analysis in 1834, in Boston, when a Congregationalist preacher, Lyman Beecher, fired the flames of anti-Catholic hatred against an Ursaline Convent (in what is now Somerville). A young Episcopalian woman who had attended school there (Only 6 of 47 students were Catholic) had written an attack on the nuns. It is hard to believe now that there was no Diocese of Boston til 1820, but Catholics were new to New England, and a threat to the Protestant establishment. Rumors arose about nuns being kept in the Convent against their will (by the priests, for sexual purposes!), and in two nights of riots, the convent was burned to the ground. The Diocese petitioned the state many times until 1855 for restitution. The legislature repeatedly denied it. To get a grip on this religious, nationality, and cultural conflict think the film, Gangs of New York portraying a situation in 1857.

1834 seems to be a good place to begin a 550 page book on the Civil War. When did it begin? Perhaps in 1834. Ah, those evangelical Protestants. In 1833 The American Anti-Slavery Society was established. They convinced many people in the following 30 years that slavery was sinful. This leads to Goldfield’s claims: That northern Evangelicals (we might call them “liberals”) were a major cause of the war by insisting on an end to slavery, slavery could have been ended without a war, therefore the war could have been avoided.

It is difficult for anyone now to believe that slavery was anything but sinful. But Goldfield comes close to blaming the anti-slavery religious folk for causing the war. As he lays out the complicated and polarized history of the 19th century, I cannot see how the war could have been avoided or that slavery could have been ended without the war.

But let’s give him a break. England ended slavery throughout “her” (an interesting locution) colonies officially in 1833, taking effect in August, 1834, the time of the Ursaline Convent violence. However, a judicial ruling in 1772(!) (Somersett’s Case) had already eliminated slavery in England, but not the profitable slave trade. I had to learn of this and the details of the anti-slavery act of 1833 elsewhere. Here is how England ended slavery:

(1) Immediate and effective measures shall be taken for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies. (2) All children born under the passing of the Act, or under the age of six shall be free. (3) All slaves over the age of six years would have to serve an apprenticeship of six years in the case of field slaves, and four years in the case of others. (4) Apprentices should work for not more than 45 hours per week without pay, and any additional hours for pay. (5) Apprentices should be provided with food and clothing by the plantation owner. (6) Funds should be provided for an efficient stipendiary magistracy, and for the moral and religious education of the ex-slaves. (7) Compensation in the form of a free gift of 20 million English pounds should be paid to the slave owners for the loss of their slaves.

Basically, these provisions worked, but the U.S. did not try to emulate them. (I think there was no money to pay off slaveholders and no desire to do so.) In the U.S.the fight was over extending slavery or not into the new territories of the west, the subject of another blog post. Meanwhile, violence continued. The New Yorker reported last summer that Charles Dickens visited America in 1842 and wrote this about it:

“Look at the exhausted treasury; the paralyzed government; the unworthy representatives of a free people; the desperate contests between the North and the South; the iron curb and brazen muzzle fastened up on every man who speaks his mind, even in that great Republican Hall, to which Republican men are sent by a Republican people to speak Republican Truths – the stabbings, and shootings, and coarse and brutal threatenings exchanged between Senators under the very Senate’s roof – the intrusion of the most pitiful, mean, malicious, creeping, crawling, sneaking party spirit into all transactions of life.”

(Congressman Thomas Arnold of Tennessee was threatened and beaten in 1832 on the steps of the Capitol and in 1842, in the chambers. Reporters did not write of these and other similar events because their lives were threatened. This changed with the introduction of the telegraph, evidence perhaps that technology makes us more human.)

Let’s all go watch 30 minutes of Fox News and celebrate being Americans.

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