Saturday, July 4, 2015

Grant on the War of Rebellion and the 4th of July

Biking around town, from the street and at biking speed, I have noticed two homes where people feature the Confederate flag prominently and publicly.

It is of course their own free speech, and there is no reason to dwell on the particulars.

But it is the still unfulfilled promises of "all men are created equal," and of the Civil War and Reconstruction that seem most relevant today on this 4th of July.

Oregon Constitution, 1857,
excluding "free negros or mulattos"
Article 18 as proposed, via Oregon Encyclopedia
(Article 1, Section 35 as adopted)

Oregon's exclusion clause that was meant to exclude "free negros or mulattos" wasn't repealed until 1926. Other discriminatory and racist language lingered until 2002.

For obvious reasons I have been rereading Grant's Memoirs. He signed the Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 into law, and these included the so-called Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

At the end of the Memoirs, Grant says:
The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United Status will have to be attributed to slavery. For some years before the war began it was a trite saying among some politicians that "A state half slave and half free cannot exist." All must become slave or all free, or the state will go down. I took no part myself in any such view of the case at the time, but since the war is over, reviewing the whole question, I have come to the conclusion that the saying is quite true.

Slavery was an institution that required unusual guarantees for its security wherever it existed; and in a country like ours where the larger portion of it was free territory inhabited by an intelligent and well-to-do population, the people would naturally have but little sympathy with demands upon them for its protection. Hence the people of the South were dependent upon keeping control of the general government to secure the perpetuation of their favorite institution. They were enabled to maintain this control long after the States where slavery existed had ceased to have the controlling power, through the assistance they received from odd men here and there throughout the Northern States. They saw their power waning, and this led them to encroach upon the prerogatives and independence of the Northern States by enacting such laws as the Fugitive Slave Law. By this law every Northern man was obliged, when properly summoned, to turn out and help apprehend the runaway slave of a Southern man. Northern marshals became slave-catchers, and Northern courts had to contribute to the support and protection of the institution.

This was a degradation which the North would not permit any longer than until they could get the power to expunge such laws from the statute books. Prior to the time of these encroachments the great majority of the people of the North had no particular quarrel with slavery, so long as they were not forced to have it themselves. But they were not willing to play the role of police for the South in the protection of this particular institution.

In the early days of the country, before we had railroads, telegraphs and steamboats—in a word, rapid transit of any sort—the States were each almost a separate nationality. At that time the subject of slavery caused but little or no disturbance to the public mind. But the country grew, rapid transit was established, and trade and commerce between the States got to be so much greater than before, that the power of the National government became more felt and recognized and, therefore, had to be enlisted in the cause of this institution.

It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. The civilized nations of Europe have been stimulated into unusual activity, so that commerce, trade, travel, and thorough acquaintance among people of different nationalities, has become common; whereas, before, it was but the few who had ever had the privilege of going beyond the limits of their own country or who knew anything about other people. Then, too, our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.

But this war was a fearful lesson, and should teach us the necessity of avoiding wars in the future.
In other related reading, The Atlantic has a terrific - and also terrifying in the old sense of the word - compilation of what the seceding states said themselves about the cause of the war. And the New York Review of Books has an interesting piece that briefly sketches a case for interpreting the Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War as a revolt against "austerity" economic policy. And while it has a bit of academic jargon, this essay looking at tension between northern European notions like "vision zero" or "cycle tracks" and the Latin American origins of the ciclovĂ­a movement is very interesting, and more than a little relevant here.

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