Friday, August 29, 2014

The Civil War: From the Origins to Reconstruction

On August 23 The Dallas Morning News presented Professor Louis Masur's three-hour class on the origins of the Civil War.  The class covered the roots of the the discontent that led to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.  Masur explained how the questions of states rights and federal power, slavery and freedom collided for decades before culminating in secession and war. The event was held at the historic Scottish Rite Library and Museum in downtown Dallas.

Professor Masur traced the changes that occurred in the Nation from the American Revolution to the War of Rebellion.  He cited the Nullification crisis and other threats of secession as examples of the national fight over federal and state rights.  Following the invention of the cotton gin, southerners changed their arguments to justify slavery. It became a necessary evil that produced a positive good. Political cartoons contrast the "benign" American slavery with England's wage system's "industrial slavery."  He spoke of the role of the media, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, in changing public opinion.

He mentioned the industrial advantage the north had during the war and the southern belief that their soldiers were far superior to their northern counterparts. Masur described how the war changed from a limited war to restore the southern states to the Union to a total war involving citizens with the goal to end slavery.  In spite of the goals of their leaders, the opposing soldiers had difficulty hating each other and enjoyed fraternizing with each other in the intermissions between killing each other.

Dr. Masur said that the south believed the north's mobilization and supplies caused them to lose the war. Northerners attributed the victory to the Union's industrialized strength.  Similar answers to the same question.  Ultimately, the south may have lost because its soldiers refused to defend and die for an economic system that only benefited the wealthy. The pleas to return home from their families resulted in widespread desertion as the men put their families first.

The Reconstruction era began with hope in the black community and ended with despair as, in my opinion, physical slavery became industrial slavery. The Republican north lost the will to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments on a south that pursued a course of de-facto slavery through economic and political means. Ultimately, America emerged as an industrialized, capitalist, democratic nation. However, the issues faced by our ancestors in this bloody conflict remain with us today: federal vs. state control of government and individual rights vs. government restrictions and regulations.

Much of Professor Masur's commentary is contained in his book: The Civil War: A Concise History.  

Please see Books by Louis Masur for other titles.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Louis Mazur's Thoughts on Lincoln and "Modern-Day" Government

In the Sunday August 10, 2104 edition of the Dallas Morning News, Professor Louis Mazur presented a new cause for the American Civil War in his editorial "With our faith in modern-day government depleted, some lessons from Lincoln."  Mazur cites Lincoln's July 1, 1861 address to Congress in which the president  declared that the rebellion "presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy — a government of the people, by the same people — can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes."

Mazur wrote, "The goal of saving the Union and the emerging objective of abolishing slavery were both subsidiary to the primary question of whether a minority of 'discontented individuals' could combine to overturn the results of a national election and thereby 'put an end to free government upon the earth.' The Civil War demonstrated that there are many legitimate ways for minorities in a democracy to express themselves, but armed rebellion is not one of them."

Lincoln believed that there were democratic processes in-place to allow political minorities to express themselves and work for change. This may seem to be cynical in light of Lincoln's restrictions on the very process he went to war to defend. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, closed opposition newspapers, and arrested dissenters. Hardly reasonable actions for someone who proclaimed that there were legitimate ways for minorities to express themselves.

Mazur says the most significant lesson of the Civil War was to demonstrate that democracy was "tough and resilient." Mazur states that the people would endure almost unimaginable death and destruction to preserve a government whose ultimate object was “to elevate the condition of men.” Professor Mazur wrote, "The Civil War reminded a reunited nation that everyone should have an opportunity to rise, that everyone should be given a 'fair chance in the race of life.' This, after all, is what democracy was for."

While these are lofty goals, I would be shocked if a poll of citizens and Republicans would select that idea in explaining why they fought.  Preserving the Union was the typical response. The aspect of what this entails was a lot harder to grasp. Prior to Lincoln's election, the US Army had been called upon to put down a revolution in Utah. The territory refused to obey federal laws. The military presence in Utah had more to do with chastising an unruly group than giving the citizens a "fair chance in the race of life." The Civil War was pursued with the same intent. 

Southerners felt that they had no voice in the Congress and that they were out of "legitimate ways... to express themselves." This left rebellion as the only option.  The behavior of the Lincoln Administration concerning dissenters provided evidence of Southern fears.

I doubt if anyone in the Lincoln Administration in 1861 was interested in giving everyone a "fair chance in the race of life." Lincoln's actions in regard to Fremont's emancipation order and status of Black Americans indicate that this was the case.  Lincoln ideas should not be confused with Andrew Jackson's views on democracy and social equality. Lincoln did change his views as the war progressed and found abolishing slavery was a stronger basis on which to justify the war. 

What lessons did we learn? Amendments were passed granting freedom, equality, and a place at the voting box. Then they were forgotten and replaced by a series of local regulations that endeavored to return Black Americans to a pseudo-slavery existence. 

Mazur quotes Lincoln who said that the "The legitimate object of government" is to do those things that "they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities." This remains the true purpose of government and is the legitimate justification and reason for government.