Driving to and from work the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to presentations on the US Civil War by Yale professor David Blight. It got me thinking again about one of the odd, glaring omissions in the Schoolhouse Rock series in the early 70s on the lead-up to the US Bicentennial… no mention of the Civil War or the principles at stake in it.
I’m sure it must have come up across the table when they were deciding what aspects of US history to emphasize. Obviously they steered clear of this rather definitive moment. The reason was undoubtedly that it was controversial. But there’s a tinge of hypocrisy there. They had no problem demonizing and even dehumanizing the British in at least three of the presentations. But white slave owners who, by then, had been dead for at least two generations, were beyond reproach? The only reason could be that there were still people in the US in the 1970s who identified with those people and wouldn’t have taken kindly to any treatment of the subject that laid out the facts. Yes. Controversial. But I think they missed a real opportunity to elevate the tone beyond just “rah rah USA” and let kids know that sometimes threats to principles are to be found at home, as well as abroad. But the courage to imply that some Americans fought for the wrong things was lacking.
Leave the war out of it, even, if you must. What about simply the glorious idea of emancipation? For me, that’s a more important event in US history than simply breaking the bonds with Britain and accelerating democratic principles that were already in the works in the English-speaking world for centuries. No need to stress that some people were wrong, some to blame… they could have just pitched it as the people finally coming together and doing what was right. The song, the animation… I can imagine it set at the Lincoln Memorial, with kids gazing up in admiration, with cutaways to black people working hard in the field, and then being set free, and building their homes and hoisting Old Glory. Solemn, respectiful, inspiring. What would have been so bad about that?
I think even that, though, would have been touchy. This was an era where civil rights struggles were just finally beginning to cool down, but people were getting upset about things like busing (which happened even here in Canada; I myself was destined to eventually be bused to a different high school, but for a move to a different province before I was old enough). So I suppose in the end, the early 1970s—a hundred years after the Civil War—was still not enough time for the wounds to heal and for a presentation of those ideas to be something uniting instead of divisive.
Something else that’s come to up in Professor Blight’s dissertations is that some people still think the US Civil War could have, should have, been avoided; that if abolitionists in the North hadn’t been so pushy, slavery would have died of its own accord. This, in spite of that fact that it persisted till nearly the turn of the century in places like Brazil… and that’s with the example of the Civil War to inform and shame them. But I’m not convinced gradualism would have eliminated slavery in the US, and we have an example that contraindicates the idea. Eli Whitney produced the cotton gin in 1793. In the twenty years prior to that, the US imported 56,000 slaves from Africa. In the twenty years after the introduction of the cotton gin, the US imported 203,000 slaves from Africa… and this is at a time when most of the northern states were slavery. The slave population in the US went from just under 700,000 in the 1790 census to nearly 4 million by the 1860 census. The implications are clear: slavery’s fortunes were revived by the cotton gin, which made cotton—for a time the most important single product of the United States—both more profitable and easier to produce en masse.
Now, with that example, ask yourself what the fortunes of slavery would have been if it had still existed when, in the late 19th century, the principle of the legal personhood of corporations became accepted and entrenched. What kind of world would we be living in today if corporations in much of the US—and perhaps elsewhere—could have availed themselves of an unpaid work force? And one that could not strike, refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and could be traded and sold like equipment; unborn children auctioned off to pay the bills. In a world free of slavery (ostensibly), we still have Third World child labour and starvation wages. Is it really believable that slavery would have gradually disappeared if corporations could have gotten hold of it in the 1880s? That the US Civil War had to be fought is unfortunate… such bloodshed was avoided elsewhere in the struggle for abolition… but in having to be fought, it’s clear that it came at the last possible moment. We should be grateful we are the inheritors of that world, and not of the alternative. I’m not a religious person, but the US Civil War brings me close to seeing the hand of God at work in the world.