The Real Lost Cause

Because I’m up to my eyeballs grading midterms, I haven’t had a chance to finish my series on slavery as the cause of the Civil War. So, to entertain readers in the meantime, here’s a video of a talk by historian Gary Gallagher.

One of the things that is difficult for us to comprehend today is the idea that most Americans 150 years ago considered the Union sacred—sacred enough to die for. Lincoln was not the only Northerner who realized that secession meant the destruction of the American government, and thereby the destruction of, as Lincoln put it, “The last best hope of mankind.” Prof. Gallagher is a pretty funny guy and does an excellent job of conveying this urgency in this lecture and entertaining at the same time.


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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2 Responses to The Real Lost Cause

  1. Jimmy Dick says:

    It is interesting to consider this aspect. One thing I try to stress to my students is that we are looking back 150 years to the CW. The people of that time lived in a different world than we do. They were only 84 years removed from the American Revolution. It was for them like WWII is for us, a conflict waged by people we knew personally. First hand accounts were being passed down from the lips of the people who were there, but only by a few as most had already passed away. So naturally people will view events differently.

    Our understanding of the Revolution is not the same as the people’s interpretation in 1860. Naturally the vision of union is going to be different as well. We take the existence of the Union as natural as breathing. To the people of 1860 it was still an experiment. How many other nations had undergone a successful revolution? What nations were democracies in that world? Throw in the strife over slavery between our sections and the concept of union in 1860 is radically different than ours in 2014.

    Yes, secession meant the end of that Union and the vision of mankind’s best hope, democracy. That is because the South was not the land of democracy, but rather one where elites controlled the political institutions. It was not based upon democratic principles because its constitution limited voting rights. How was the vision of the South that of liberty, freedom, and the Jeffersonian concept that all men were created equal? It was not rooted in those ideas. The nation was addressing the paradox that was presented by having slavery in an empire of liberty.

    Now to give some credit to the people of the South, that was their way of life. They knew no other and it was perfectly rational for them or at least a large part of them to react to the threat to slavery’s existence. They acted within their culture, society, and with the knowledge they had. I think that is what angers me about the Lost Cause. It completely obscures the truth and really presents the CW incorrectly. I do not blame the people of the South for the way they acted because they were just reacting within the boundaries of their time. The CW was decision time for the nation over slavery. The decision was made to end its expansion and that was something the slave owners could not allow if they were to retain their power over the people.


    • One of the things that’s always struck me, Jimmy, is how Northern and Southern states drew on different aspects of 18th century republicanism as they developed into the 19th century. The North emphasized the old idea of civic virtue and a dedication to the “common good”, and drew increasingly on the the notion of public education, especially the liberal arts. Northerners took the “independence-via-land ownership” idea and democratized it. The South also looked to the ideas of independence-via-land ownership, but they emphasized the version that landed gentry didn’t work so they could provide leadership–their version of the Jeffersonian “meritocracy”.

      This is a hasty sketch of course, and not meant to paint the North as a hippy commune–the headlong rush for individualist wealth was a crude and at times destructive force. But it sure seems to me that the two regions drew some very different lessons from the classical republican tradition.


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