Language, freedom and the debate surrounding the Civil War: What is the key?

Having seen several posts and several hundrend comments on CW blogs sites, I am becoming more convinced that some arguements related to the Civil War are a matter of semantics and how accurately the language we use reflects our knowledge of the topic or our response to the evidence of the said topic.

A couple of cases…

1) Most Americans I’ve encountered do not deny that slavery existed in the United States the way some Germans (and others) do that the Holocaust happened. Some people argue that it was not a major cause of the Civil War; some argue that it is. To argue that those who diminish the influence of slavery on the war are somehow “slavery deniers” in the same vein as “Holocaust deniers” is absolutely ridiculous. They might be called misguided, mistaken or not as careful with contemporary sources as we might wish in reaching their conclusions, but they are not denying anything other than the acceptance of the view that slavery was a chief cause of the war. How ever mistaken I might believe those people to be, it is still their right to hold that opinion — even in light of what can be termed “overwhelming evidence” (namely, the CSA Constitution and most Confederate states’ ordinances of secession).

2) Most Americans agree that blacks were involved in the Confederate army in some capacity. Some argue their involvement was as slaves, some argue it was as soldiers. I have my difficulties with blacks being considered soldiers during the era of the Civil War. I’m not sure the current definition of “soldier” matches the one held in the Confederate Army for most of the war. No matter what side of this issue you come down on, motivations for slaves, in whatever capacity, with regard to their presence must be examined and, like that for individuals of all races “attached” to Confederate units and individuals of all races “attached” to Federal units (including USCT units), motivations should be examined on an individual basis and in light of the changing perceptions of the war and its outcomes as it progressed. We also must not forget that, while this war ultimately determined the slave status of African-Americans, other races and ethnicities were also involved, e.g. Tejanos and Native Americans. Much more research needs to be conducted into the case of “black Confederates,” Colored Confederates,” “Confederate slaves” or whatever we choose to call them, just as I don’t think there’s enough research into the motivations and service of Tejanos and Native Americans during the Civil War to draw any significant conclusions. While you may believe I’m misguided, mistaken or not as careful with contemporary sources as you might wish in reaching my conclusions, I am still entitled to have my opinion.

Should people be free to draw their own conclusions, even false ones, from the evidence? Yes. Should they be held criminally liable for holding that opinion? No more than a person who has homicidal thoughts against another should be. We don’t prosecute people in the United States for thinking something; we prosecute them for acting on those thoughts. Just because someone is thinking about killing someone is not a prosecutable offense. When they act upon that thought and commit murder, then we prosecute. The last time I checked, it’s not a crime to have an idea, even a wrong one. If that idea causes someone to commit an unlawful act, then we prosecute the unlawful act, but not the idea itself.

So, how does this apply to Civil War issues debates? One may not like my views on certain topics, but I am entitled to them. To suggest that my ideas and opinions about history should be criminalized marginalizes the debate that must occur on other fronts in our society. If I am a criminal because of my opinions about the past, how much more of a criminal am I about current issues if my opinion does not match the status quo? Where does it end?

Finally, what is the key to this debate on how we express our differing opinions of history? Actually, there are several.

A) Research efforts by everyone, professional and amateur alike, must continue. Only through careful research can we delve into the difficult issues with any hope of undertanding them. This includes primary sources, anecdotal sources, oral histories, newspaper accounts and anything else we can find that sheds greater light on the topics discussed.

B) Interpretation is mandatory. We’ve done the research, but what do we think it means? We must not be afraid to offer an interpretation that is contrary to a particular view, no matter how popular or unpopular it may be. If we are going to be taken seriously, we have to offer our conclusions.

C)  Analysis of that research must be required. It must be subjected to opposing scrutiny even if nothing is ever settled. The researcher may not change my mind, I may not change his/hers, but to deny that scrutiny begs the question, “What’s there to hide?”

D) No matter the outcome of all this, if you don’t agree on the matter itself, agree to disagree about it. To suggest, in this country and under our Bill of Rights, that someone’s opinions be criminalized because it does not match the generally accepted norm makes you look like the bigger fool. It would be a very dull and uninteresting field if history were not subject to continual anlysis. For that to take place, there must and always will be a difference of opinion, but that’s not a crime.

OK, I’ve rambled on about this quite enough, so, I’ll leave you with some quotes that sum up my opinions of arguement and criminalizing thoughts and ideas.

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

Joseph Joubert

“All ‘public interest’ legislation (and any distribution of money taken by force from some men for the unearned benefit of others) comes down ultimately to the grant of an undefined undefinable, non-objective, arbitrary power to some government officials. The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity, cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle.”

Ayn Rand

14 Responses to Language, freedom and the debate surrounding the Civil War: What is the key?

  1. Thanks Greg. All excellent points. I believe it is in the best interest of our country, our ancestors who fought and died for our freedoms, and for posterity that we be vigilant and forceful in guarding our precious liberties. You’ve made that clear as well.

    Thanks again for your effort.


    • I saw a quote the other day, but don’t recall it origin, “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” If we stop debate, we not only impose upon freedom, but also learning.

  2. […] At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s why I bring this up.  It bears on the heated discussion of black Confederates troops that’s been roaring through the blogosphere, especially on Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog (see here, here, and here), but also on other history blogs (here and here).  […]

  3. True. I consider myself a conservative Republican with a strong Libertarian streak. My grandfather was a liberal Democrat (who flew a Confederate flag). We used to really go at it. But I learned much from that man and miss him dearly.

    I knew I had beat him in a debate when I’d drive home a point, he’d stop, smile, laugh, and shake his head.

    • I’m pretty conservative, but don’t claim any political party. I have a teaching colleague who is a Democrat and he and I debate issues a lot. I’m very Jeffersonian in my approach to most things political and, on most ocassions, Jacksonian in my attitude of sharing it. I can be abrasive at times!

  4. I, too, would consider myself more of a Jeffersonian. The only reason I’ve remained a Republican, is because it’s the closest thing I can find to my views. (Man, that’s scary!)

    Much of the “leadership” of both parties are corrupt to the core and their primary interest is power and reelection. I was once opposed to term limits, but see it as very necessary now. I prefer when government is divided and we have gridlock. Just another checks and balance as Mr. Jefferson suggested.

  5. renegadesouth says:

    Well, I just have to say that I don’t see any resemblence between the Republican Party of today and Jeffersonian ideals of democracy. Truthfully, I don’t think either major party–and certainly not the libertarians–would give Jefferson anything to be hopeful about . . . . I do think Frederick Douglass would take some comfort in the election of Barack Obama, but I think he would credit the people, not the parties. And that’s not to say Obama is a messiah, or even that he will have a successful presidency (especially after the Bush Administration wrecked the place) only that his candidacy spoke to the decency and common sense of the people, the electorate.

    For what it’s worth,

    • I believe Thomas Jefferson would have been an Independent in the truest sense of the word. Remember, he was sent to France as an ambassador while the Constitution was argued. He was a political wild card even in his day. I’ve done a of study into Jefferson and am convinced he would find little in common with the Democratic Party of today and certainly little of use with the Republicans. So would Andrew Jackson. But Abraham Lincoln, William Seward and Salmon P. Chase would find little in common with today’s Republicans also.

      • BTW, I just got a copy of Richard Brookhiser’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Now to find out more about why he and Jefferson were at such odds beyond the cursory commoner vs. aristocrat argument.

  6. The Republican Party, at least in principle, advocates smaller government. The Democratic Party advocates a larger government.

    “”I own I am not a friend to a very energetic government. It is always oppressive.” ~ Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787

    Yes, Bush left a mess. I agree. Of course, the Democrats controlled Congress for the last 2 years of the Bush administration, thus they are culpable as well. I would maintain, however, that Obama’s rush to socialism and massive debt commitments are doing much more damage, long term, to our Nation than did Bush.

  7. I think an interesting study would be charting our economic growth and production when government was in “gridlock” vs. when either party had control of all branches.

  8. jenn says:

    Hey there this week on Collectors’ Quest I am featuring people who collect all kinds of militaria. One guy has a huge collection of civil war soldier portraits and another has a whole WWII room. Check it out!

  9. Hello,

    My name is Brandon Samuels and I really liked reading your post. I think your blog about the American Civil War is very insightful and could be an interesting resource, so I thought that you might want to know about a new website, The idea is to create an interactive historical record of anything and everything, based on specific events that combine to form timelines. We’re trying to achieve a sort of user-created multimedia history, in which no event is too big or too small to record. Feel free to create events using excerpts and/or links from your blog. You will generate traffic and awareness of your blog, and you will be contributing to the recording of history.

    Check out this timeline about the American Civil War, so far it is a work in progress and we would definitely love for more people to contribute.

    Give us a try and let me know your thoughts.

    Brandon Samuels


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