Georgia on My Mind
Doug Walker, a writer for the News-Tribune in Rome, Georgia, yesterday marked the sesquicentennial of his state's secession from the union as follows:
A little more than a year after John Brown’s raid on a federal armory in West Virginia and three months before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., leaders of the state of Georgia saw the handwriting on the wall. It was Jan. 19, 1861, when lawmakers in Georgia adopted an ordinance dissolving the union between the state and the United States.*
|Georgia's Secession Flag, 1860|
Why can't romancers of Confederate secession come clean about their own history? First they tell us that the war was about "states rights," not slavery. Then they tell us that Lincoln started the war, and that it was a "war of northern aggression." Now they tell us that Georgia, on the vanguard of the Confederate rebellion, could "read the handwriting on the wall" in some sort of flash of great foresight. Foresight of what? The answer is that the only "handwriting on the wall" that Georgia and the other rebellious states could see was that which they projected in their own minds--particularly in the lustful determination of wealthy southern leaders to "eat their cake and have it too"--that is, to keep their chattel (as Lincoln and the Republicans would surely have granted) and to continue to pursue a policy of expanding slavery into new territories (which Lincoln and the Republicans would not have granted). The only real "handwriting on the wall" foreseen by the leaders of the militant slave states was that the future would not be kind to their imperial, expansionist slavocracy. And for this reason, the wealthy Southern slave owners sent hundreds of thousands of their sons to their deaths in the name of patriotism.
|Davis, Lee, and Jackson--|
Stone Mountain, Ga. memorial
Speaking of John Brown, the Old Man had no particular grudge with the South and Southerners, only with the so-called "peculiar institution." Had the heart of slavery been in Boston, Massachusetts, he would have as happily invaded the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, in the hopes of assaulting that wicked system of oppression. The point is not to defend Lincoln and all of his policies, or to demonize Southerners to the exclusion of blaming the entire nation for slavery (which, after all, was a U.S. institution, not just a Southern institution). Nor am I suggesting Southerners simply need to "get over it." But as far as Southern apologetics go, it's time for some integrity. Own up or shut up. Southern statecraft was mightily influential throughout the antebellum era. Republicans did not enter the White House with the intention of emancipation or Southern repression, only the containment of slavery. Lincoln was not pro-slavery, but he was most certainly a man of compromise, and would have kept blacks in slavery longer if it had suited his white brethren in the South sufficient to keep them in the Union. There was no need for the Civil War as far as the politics of what Frederick Douglass called "the peculiar aristocracy" of this nation (i.e., white people's interests).
Of course, it took civil conflict to end slavery, which only proves the extent to which matters had to go before the agenda got "real." Yet in retrospect, entering the sesquicentennial of the war, it seems we have largely forgotten the lessons of history. Either people sentimentalize the war as if it were a bloody political football game between two equally noble and admirable teams (i.e., military history fascination, which often is bereft of any political interpretation); or they form in huddles of Confederate or Lincolnian romanticism; or they form a third huddle which bemoans the tremendous loss of life resulting from the Civil War, insinuating that it was unnecessary and might have played out differently had fanatics--Northern and Southern--not taken control. None of this is reality, nor does it assist us toward getting to the truth of our nation's history.
Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles--the so-called "victims" of the Pottawatomie "massacre"--were either political terrorists or aids to malicious terrorists. Brown lived in a neighborly fashion with Southern people in the Kansas territory prior to the terrorist assault on Lawrence in May 1856. He made trips back and forth between the territory and Missouri to buy and trade; he conversed hopefully with Southern settlers who were neither pro-slavery nor pro-black, in the hopes of their attaining a correct vision of humanity; in Kansas territory, he never initiated aggression toward any Southerner purely on sectional or political basis; there is even some evidence that he reared his children to understand what today we would call the "psychology" and "sociology" of Southern people regarding slavery, so as not to demonize them apart from the rest of the [white] people of this nation. Only when pro-slavery people became aggressive and conspiratorial did he take up arms. Were Sherman, Wilkinson, and the Doyles from southern Ohio, he would have as quickly split their skulls because of their wicked designs against his family. They were not killed because they were Southern, nor even because they were pro-slavery. They were killed because they were actually mortal enemies with malicious and criminal intentions, and in the absence of any protection, killing them--in the midst of a de facto civil war--was a legitimate response on the part of Brown, his family, and associates. As to old Virginia and Brown's invasion there, his best witnesses are the slave masters that he took captive, for their courtroom testimonies are harmonious in attesting to Brown's humane behavior toward them and his single-minded hostility toward slavery.
Regardless, let John Brown have the last word in commemoration of Georgia's secession from the Union:
. . . all you people of the South -- prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily -- I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled -- this negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet.Here was the real "handwriting on the wall" of history. But I doubt anyone in Georgia had paused to read it before rushing down the suicidal trail of secession 150 years ago yesterday.
*Doug Walker, "Georgia seceded 150 years ago today." Rome News-Tribune on line [Rome, Ga.], Jan. 19, 2011