McPherson's "The Battle Cry for Freedom"

Some of you may be familiar with NYTime's recent dedication of an entire magazine issue on the introduction of slavery to America via their 1619 Project that happened a few months ago. 1619 represented the year that "slaves" (they may have been indentured servants) entered into the US, and 2019 was the 400th anniversary of that event. The Times wanted to argue that 1619 was the actual founding year of America because America's economic and political might depended upon slavery.

McPherson's history of the Civil War ("Battle Cry for Freedom") is a good single-volume history for anyone looking for a good Civil War book. (It's also 700 pages.) It tends a little toward the economic history, and doesn't cover much of the drama of troop movements and battle tactics. But the economic stuff was quite good.

There are a lot of dates we could pick as America's "real" birthdate -- 1776, 1781, 1860, 1763, 1607, 1453, etc. etc. ... 1619 has never struck me as one, I guess it's a novel argument but I ultimately find it to only really be plausible as part of an ideological fixation. Slaves never made up more than, what, 10% of the US population? Cotton was the most profitable crop the US produced in the antebellum period, and a lot of capital that went North to factories came here through the British buying cotton down South. So maybe a decent chunk of the country's wealth was tied up in slavery -- but 50%? That really stretches credulity, if the South was that wealthy they would have won the war.

Actually, in lieu of more boring meditations, I'm going to quote from near the end of McPherson's history, which I think makes a pretty enlightening point about the development of American history, and which implicitly refutes the 1619 argument:

These figures symbolize a sharp and permanent change in the direction of American development. Through most of American history the South has seemed different from the rest of the United States, with "a separate and unique identity [...] which appeared to be out of the mainstream of American experience." But when did the northern stream become the mainstream? From a broader perspective it may have been the North that was exceptional and unique before the Civil War. The South more closely resembled a majority of the societies of the world than did the rapidly changing North during the antebellum generation. Despite the abolition of legal slavery or serfdom throughout much of the western hemisphere and western Europe, most of the world -- like the South -- had an unfree or quasi-free labor force. Most societies in the world remained bound by traditional values and networks of family kinship, hierarchy, and patriarchy. The North -- along with a few countries of northwestern Europe -- hurtled forward eagerly toward a future of industrial capitalism that many southerners found distasteful if not frightening; the South remained proudly and even defiantly rooted in the past before 1861.

Thus when secessionists protested that they were acting to preserve traditional rights and values, they were correct. They fought to protect their constitutional liberties against the perceived northern threat to overthrow them. The South's concept of republicanism had not changed in three-quarters of a century; the North's had. With complete sincerity the South fought to preserve its version of the republic of the founding fathers -- a government of limited powers that protected the rights of property and whose constituency comprised an independent gentry and yeomanry of the white race undisturbed by large cities, heartless factories, restless free workers, and class conflict. The accession to power of the Republican party, with its ideology of competitive, egalitarian, free-labor capitalism, was a signal to the South that the northern majority had turned irrevocably toward this frightening, revolutionary future. Indeed, the Black Republican party appeared to the eyes of many southerners as "essentially a revolutionary party" composed of "a motley throng of Sans culottes ... Infidels and freelovers, interspersed by Bloomer women, fugitive slaves, and amalgamationists." Therefore, secession was a pre-emptive counterrevolution to prevent the Black Republican revolution from engulfing the South. "We are not revolutionists," insisted James B. D. DeBow and Jefferson Davis during the Civil War, "We are resisting revolution ... We are conservative."

Union victory in the war destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured that the northern vision would become the American vision. Until 1861, however, it was the North that was out of the mainstream, not the South. Of course the northern states, along with Britain and a few countries in northwestern Europe, were cutting a new channel in world history that would doubtless have become the mainstream even if the American Civil War had not happened. Russia had abolished serfdom in 1861 to complete the dissolution of this ancient institution of bound labor in Europe. But for Americans the Civil War marked the turning point.