With malice toward none


malice 1

And that is what it looks like on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of the best-known paragraphs in American history. It was presented to a Republican Congress not at all ready to embrace it. The Republican majority in Congress at the time was called “Radical Republicans,” a designation no one ever gave Lincoln.

In the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia catastrophe and particularly in the wake of President Trump’s vacillation in response to it, statues are coming down all over the country. In Helena, Montana, they are removing a fountain, of all things. These statues are called “Confederate statues,” although some are and some aren’t.

I’d like to reflect a little today about what kind of a response to all this will help us in the long run—I am aware that elections occur in the short run—and what a way forward might look like.  I am really eager to sense that there is some way forward.

Cherishing the Peace

I’d like to begin with a re-appreciation of President Lincoln’s goals. The fighting part of the Civil War (the War of Northern Aggression in many southern history texts) lasted another month after Lincoln addressed the Congress. The end of the war was imminent, but there was a lot of killing left to do and I read the first phrase of Lincoln’s admonitions to include all that killing. “Strive on,” he says, “to finish the work.”

But Lincoln wasn’t all that big on war and he wasn’t all the big on ending slavery. [1] He was big on ending the threat to the union and he didn’t mean, by that, just ending the secession. He wanted the wholeness back.

Which is why he went on to say he wanted to bind up the nation’s wounds. What wounds did the nation have? The president who offered to protect slavery in the states that currently had it—to protect it by a constitutional amendment —would not have sanctioned a crusade to remove all public notice of the Southern leaders. Nothing about that binds up the wounds of the nation. These men were patriots in their own minds and in the minds of many of their citizens, slave-holding and not. Let the wounds be bound up.

Lincoln also wanted to care for the veterans and their families. These are persons who need to be comforted and healed; not just the nation, but the people. Now it turns out that the best will in the world could not heal both the white victims of the war and the black victims of slavery. But the best will in the world also didn’t have much chance to try. Lincoln was assassinated the month after this address to the Congress and the Radical Republicans did not have the best will in the world.

malice 6So even Lincoln’s program under Lincoln’s leadership would have failed in the short run, but Lincoln wasn’t really in it for the short run. He calls, in the final clauses, not only to achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, but also to cherish that just and lasting peace. I don’t think Lincoln would have achieved it, but I do think he would have cherished it and I think that is where we have fallen down in our time.

I don’t think we cherish it anymore. And I think the failure to cherish it is at the heart of the festering cultural wound the South clings to and reveres.

Irish Nationalism

I spent some time in Ireland this year and one of things that surprised me was the fervor with which many Irish clung to their traditional culture, especially the music. Then I discovered that the English, in their centuries-long failure to subdue the Irish people, had tried to eradicate their culture. They already had complete dominion in political and economic spheres, but that apparently wasn’t getting the job done. Playing the Irish harp, for instance, or teaching the playing of the Irish harp were capital crimes.

malice 3I saw the result of that during my visit. Every way of embracing and cherishing Irish culture was at the same time a rejection of the Anglicization project. If it didn’t take all ten fingers to play the harp, I think one of those fingers, a finger with its own significance, would have been raised meaningfully against the English. That is the present day expression of all those years of denial and derogation.

So it didn’t work there either.


Now what narrative will rescue the heroes of the Southern story from the quagmire of treason and treachery? I don’t know. I have some ideas, which I will share in due time, but what I really care about is who is going to participate in the crafting of that story. If it is only the recalcitrant bitter-end whites, it will not be a tolerable story. If you add the moderate industrial and post-industrial leaders, it will be better, but still not robust enough to survive Klan violence. What is needed is the participation in the story by the victims. “The South” needs to be able to say, “This is our story and we will protect it.” That means it can’t ignore slavery, but it also means it can’t be about slavery.

Let me add two footnotes to this consideration. I have seen only one official German/Nazi malice 4(you see the problem) death camp. It was in Mauthausen, Austria [2] But I saw it twice because I took the Elderhostel bicycle tour twice and it was the historical site featured on that day. Before we went out to see the camp, we saw a film about the era and the camp itself. It wasn’t a preachy film, but the condemnation was consistent and powerful. The first time I sat through the film, these processes were attributed to “the Germans.” The second time, some years later, they were attributed to “the Nazis.”

What a good idea, I thought. They are building a narrative that makes sense in a modern Western pro-democratic Germany. It didn’t sound to me like any attempt to evade responsibility, just to be clearer, now that the time allowed it, about whose ideology and whose initiative accomplished this. [3]

I know that not all of you are going to like that shift. It depends entirely, I am sure, on what you want to put in the foreground and what in the background. And a few other things, like why are you making that choice and what do you imagine the results of that choice to be. Things like that.

Common Southern Narrative

That is one of the ways of moving toward a Common Southern Narrative—a narrative that not only has an honorable place for most of the people of that period, but also a narrative devised by and supported by most of the people of our period. That means that some southerners will be singled out for “the Nazi treatment.” They would be people more than usually cruel or insensitive to the plight of the slaves; people who didn’t really care about the state sovereignty question except as a tool to keep the slaves; or people who violated some trust they had as members of the United States government.

That would free other Southerners, who would have done anything to avoid rebellion malice 5against their country, except, of course, being unfaithful to their state. They would be the Southern Statesmen in a Losing Cause. They would be “the Germans.” Their statues could be revered because of their place in the Common Southern Narrative. These statues would be protected in every relevant way, both verbal and physical, by the whole coalition who put the Narrative together.

Common Slavery Narrative

The second idea is my backup plan. It is based on the absurdity that it is fine to acquire and sell slaves, but horrible to acquire and use slaves. This idea puts the slave sellers and the family fortunes they amassed side by side with the slave buyers and the fortunes they amassed.

At this point, let me introduce James De Wolf (1764—1837) of Bristol, Rhode Island. You can look him up on Google; that’s how I know what I know about him.

[He was] a United States senator and a wealthy merchant who, at the time of his death, was reported to be the second richest person in the country..

The DeWolf family’s complicity in slavery continued after 1820 in other ways, too, as the family maintained slave plantations in Cuba and James DeWolf invested his slave trade profits in textile mills which used slave-produced cotton. Today, there are as many as half a million living descendants of the people traded as chattel by the DeWolfs.

So my second strategy would be to focus on the slave trade—the very part that is relegated to he background by the Common Southern Narrative—and extend it to the North as well. Not many people would want to do that, I am sure, but it is a perfectly valid alternative to the Common Southern Narrative. It is the Common American Narrative, with the Nazis of the North deprecated along with the Nazis of the South.


I’m not proposing either of these two solutions. They seem daunting to me, particularly with the White House-inspired resurgence of the White Power movement. But I do want to say this. What we are doing isn’t working. If the Civil War was about slavery and nothing else and if all the Southerners who participated in it were pro-slavery and nothing else, then there is no redemption for the culture and history of the South. Southerners will not live without heroes and a history they can be proud of. They don’t need to be proud of all of it. The rest of us, after all, manage to be proud of “the Westward Movement” without considering only how many Native Americans had to be sacrificed to it.

So it can be done. It just can’t be done by Southerners. And it won’t end. And I want it to end. And vilifying the few and valorizing the many will help. Even in the South.

[1] Read his justly famous letter to Horace Greeley if there is any doubt in your mind about that.
[2] Mauthausen isn’t the name of the camp. It is the name of the town. That means that there is, I have seen it myself, a Mauthausen McDonalds. And that is what is says on the sign. Ich liebe es.
[3] Nothing about that focus on the Nazis denies that many Germans thought it was a wonderful idea, but it wasn’t pitched to the Germans as a wonderful idea. It was hidden in the shadows wherever possible and the change in emphasis takes some account of that.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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