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Guest Blog: Understanding Charlottesville – How Did We Learn to Hate?

By Dr. Michael Green

In April 1861, America went to war with itself. The Confederates were determined to preserve its institution of slavery that judged a person’s worth by the color of one’s skin. Though their army would ultimately be defeated four years later, their ideology persisted in finding new ways to enforce laws based on hate.

In August 2017, white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville. The marching and violence in Charlottesville last weekend were about history: the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The hatred in question has a history of its own.

Hatred is ancient.

Cain slew Abel for reasons involving hate, and Hannibal told the Romans he would always feel hatred toward them. Expecting to solve or resolve it suddenly in 2017 seems unlikely, especially when human nature has so long dictated that we find others to blame for our own folly or when something goes wrong.

In this case, Lee was the commander of something that went wrong. Seven southern states seceded from the Union after the 1860 election rather than accept that Abraham Lincoln had won the electoral college fair and square. Four more joined them after the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861.

What actually caused the Civil War?

The secession ordinances, the speeches in favor of them, the editorials defending them had one thing in common: they defended the institution of slavery. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, delivered what became known as the Cornerstone Speech on March 21, 1861—before the war began, and 17 days after Lincoln’s inauguration. Stephens declared, “Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Historians also have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why northerners and southerners went to war. The oversimplified answer is that both sides sought to preserve their way of life, but both ways involved slavery. Many northerners benefited financially from the products the South sent north, but others suffered because of the competition from unfree labor. Most southerners owned few or no slaves, but they could aspire to the wealth that would enable them to own more slaves.

Yes, it was about slavery.

Contrary to claims that they believed in states’ rights, southerners long had insisted on federal protection for slavery and insulation against attacks on it—from banning abolitionist literature from their mail to the “gag rule” that barred presenting abolitionist petitions in Congress. During the war, they enslaved African Americans they encountered on their invasions of the North, and they threatened to treat black soldiers differently than white soldiers if they became prisoners of war. At the Battle of Fort Pillow, they massacred black soldiers attempting to surrender.

That southern soldiers fought bravely and some of their generals led them brilliantly should be beyond argument. That they fought for a terrible cause should not be. But they lost. And after the war, southerners developed the “Myth of the Lost Cause”, honoring their fighting, depicting southern society much as it was in Gone With the Wind, but also denying that slavery was the war’s cause, or even that it was a wrong.

The mythology extended to Lee—that he was especially humane toward his slaves (no), that he built bridges to the North when the war ended (if so, they were poorly constructed), that he was a great general (he may have been, but he also may well have cost the Confederacy its chances of winning).

The legacy of hate that remains with us today

Lee’s statue was the one that might be removed, and that inspired the protests by devotees of the Confederacy as well as outright white supremacists at Charlottesville. Instead of choosing to make a historical argument that most scholars would find difficult to make, they resorted to violence. In turn, the president refused to criticize them directly for 48 hours, and later did so grudgingly, and did so after criticizing an African-American business leader who had just quit his manufacturing council in protest.

The issues behind the history are complicated: when some commentators pointed out that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the line that “all men are created equal,” was the father of the university in Charlottesville, others noted that he was a slave owner and ordered the freeing of only those slaves he fathered. We will not untangle these strands today or in one discussion of the issue.

The hate on display in Charlottesville is a reminder that we must know our past.

We must know our entire past—the facts, and the conflicting interpretations of it—to know one another. It also reminds us that there is right and wrong, and just as the South fought for something that was wrong (and some northerners agreed with or benefited from the wrong), we cannot make things right. But we can understand what is right.

Dr. Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV. He has written three books on Civil War history: Freedom, Union, and Power: Lincoln and His Party during the Civil War (Fordham University Press, 2004), Politics and America in Crisis: The Coming of the Civil War (ABC-CLIO, 2010), and Lincoln and the Election of 1860 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011).

Cover photo by User Something Original, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.

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