The True Blue Federalist

I was at my favorite pub a while back, and a conversation began that drifted toward Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. “Well you know,” said the guy on my right, “the war wasn’t really about slavery.” I looked at him: he had the knowing leer of a conspiracy theorist. “And,” he continued, “Lincoln had no right to invade the South; the South really did have the right to leave the Union.” He was young-ish, white, seemingly educated. He had no drawl in his speech to suggest he was from somewhere else. He looked a tad smug after his observation. Without even setting down my Guinness, I let out my “inner professor,” and laid waste to his argument, such as it was. (Yes, I can be a prick that way.) In less than a minute and a half his opinion lay in ruins. After I finished, there was silence. (This is why you don’t pontificate at a bar: you kill the conversation.) “So,” said another drinker on the stool to my left, “how ’bout them Blazers?”

I don’t know if it’s because we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary, of secession and the American Civil War, or because of the recent rise of Libertarians who aspire to high political office, but I seem to be running into more and more of these neo-Confederate opinions—bogus arguments about how the Civil War was actually an unjust war that should never have been fought, and the blame for this monumental catastrophe lay at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. It never fails to surprise me. Being a native Californian, I had always assumed that the “Lost Cause” was a relic of the past found only in the South, that no-one of any real awareness could sincerely believe in such a thing. Not at all—that is a stereotype I much regret. My recent experience sitting in pubs having conversations with various people showed a disturbing trend: that close to half of the people I talked with—most of them educated people from places outside the South—believed in some form of the Lost Cause: that the war was over tariffs, that Lincoln started the war, that he was a tyrant, that secession was legal.

This, to me, is a grave problem.

As the writer Shelby Foote put it, the Civil War is to Americans “the crossroads of our being—and it was a helluva crossroads.” But if the nature of this great cataclysm is misunderstood or worse, purposely obscured—if the signposts of this crossroads are moved in the night by vandals—how are we to make sense of where we are today? Our ideas of government power; our notions of citizenship; our struggles with race—all these depend on a realistic interpretation of the Civil War and its aftermath.

The historian and Civil War blogger Kevin Levin believes that the people who support the notion of the “Lost Cause” are a dying breed, that they have lost their relevance. While I hope this is true, it hasn’t been my recent experience. Most worrisome, I see or hear too many instances of this false memory of history in the media, where they can have a much larger effect on public opinion than a hipster on a barstool in a brewpub.

If it was merely a matter of “Americans don’t understand the Civil War” (similar to the hand-wringing “Americans can’t find Asia on a map” or “one in four Americans don’t know the earth goes around the sun,” and other such declarations on the failure of the American education system), I could handle it. It’s not good, but it’s why I’m a teacher. But what’s happening here with the Civil War is much more insidious: it is the purposeful misrepresentation of Secession and the Civil War for modern political purposes.

A few days after Presidents’ Day, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore took on one of these misrepresentations on The Daily Show. Andrew Napolitano had appeared earlier in the week on a Fox show stating that Lincoln’s fighting a war to end slavery was wrong. Stewart and Wilmore confronted his statements directly as only The Daily Show can. While the segment necessarily oversimplified the issues around the profitability of slavery, it was still fabulous. A few days later, Stewart had Napolitano on the show for a segment called “The Weakest Lincoln”, and brought in three eminent historians, including Eric Foner, to judge Judge Napolitano’s warped misinformation on Lincoln and the war. Stewart and Wilmore have done this kind of thing more than once, beginning with the hilarious segment on the ordinances of secession (I actually play this one in my class).

There are two nagging problems with this method. First, Stewart and Wilmore (and Eric Foner) can’t be there every time a neo-Confederate or a Libertarian spouts nonsense about Lincoln or the war. Second, fitting these nuanced arguments into a two-and-a-half or three minute segment on a late-night fake news show necessarily means elements are going to be lost—that the public is not going to get the full meaning of why these are bogus arguments. (But I want to be clear that the fact that Jon Stewart even attempts this is awe-inspiring to me. I agree with the late great David Rakoff when he said of Mr. Stewart, “I would drink his bath water.”) Part of the idea for the True Blue Federalist, then, is to provide a kind of “one stop shopping” for arguments against the Lost Cause myth and its Libertarian counterpart, what I will call the “Evil Genius Lincoln” hypothesis.

And so, that’s the point of this blog. Now, there are many excellent Civil War blogs, by actual Civil War scholars, to be sure—Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory (which is brilliant, especially if you are a teacher); Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads (which is thoughtful, sharp and provocative); Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates (which is fun, sarcastic, and insanely genius for those of us fascinated by the maritime aspects Civil War), just to name three—but these blogs aren’t totally dedicated to “debunking” neo-Confederate BS in the popular media. (Although they sometimes do, and when they do so, they are all excellent.) Those blogs, especially Levin’s and Simpson’s, focus as much on actual scholarship as they do correcting false statements and impressions. (Again, when they choose to, they all do an excellent job debunking statements in the blogosphere from some of the more notable neo-Confederate groups.) The difference between those blogs and this is that “debunking,” especially in the media, will be the main focus.

In addition, I hope to cover a broader territory that deals with federalism over time—which helps to explain the title of this blog. That includes what we in Oregon refer to as the “three sovereigns”: the federal government, state governments, and Indian governments. Because, whatever you may think or feel, Indian sovereignty in real, and it has shaped our constitutional system is surprising (and, I argue, encouraging) ways.

So, away we go. I hope you enjoy.


About Christopher Shelley

Christopher Shelley teaches American history and American Indian history at Portland Community College. He is fond of border collies, and bleeds Dodger-blue. Any and all opinions expressed here are those of the expressors themselves, and in no way represent the views of Portland Community College.
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