Why Changing The Way We See The Civil War Will Help Us Preserve Our Country

We should view the Civil War as a second American revolution — with that perspective, we'll be able to realize the reforms necessary to preserve our rights.
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November 25, 2019 6:00 a.m.
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The following is adapted from Gregory P. Down’s book, The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic, reprinted with the permission of the University of North Carolina Press. It is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. 

To most Americans today, the name of the country’s 1860s war over slavery seems obvious: the Civil War. You see that name in textbooks, in local historical societies and in reenactors’ clubs, and hear it in radio ads for movies, hamburgers and furniture. That name is so widely used that it can seem inevitable. But in fact, Americans have not always called that conflict the Civil War. They once used lots of other names for it, and those names mattered. Those names captured aspects of the war that Americans now tend to gloss over because they raise big questions about what kind of country we live in. Once the most popular name in the North was The War of the Rebellion, but to white Southerners that name made it too clear who was at fault. By the late 19th and early 20th century, as white Southerners and Northerners looked for ways to paper over some of the past, forget the overthrow of Reconstruction, and adjust to a reunited nation based on segregation and disfranchisement of the former slaves, the name the Civil War became popular as a way of covering up all the messiness and confusion of the conflict.

But that name leaves out the sense that the war was a genuine revolution. It wasn’t just a Brothers’ War or a family feud or a restorative war to save the Union, as the name Civil War implies. It was also something bigger than that: It was a revolution that deserved to stand next to the revolutions in England and Haiti and maybe even France. Like those revolutions, it was fought to remake the world, not just to determine who was in charge. And like those revolutions, it did not stay within the old boundaries of law and constitution but instead relied upon blunt, violent tools — military rule and occupation — to force through changes that the leaders could not accomplish by normal means. When Americans called the Civil War a revolution, they lifted the conflict out of the confines of U.S. history and made it part of the world’s history. And in the process, they also stripped away the fantasy that the United States had solved the problems of governance and constitutionalism that plagued other countries. Those are the two questions I follow in this book: What does it mean to put the Civil War back into the international worlds that helped cause it, and what does it mean to look at the United States the way we would look at other countries, as if it had its own collapses and re-creations?

The name Second American Revolution raises a number of disturbing questions about the system of government we live under. If the Constitution was so well designed, why did we need a second revolution? And if the new Constitution created out of occupation and martial law was so distinct, should we imagine that the First Constitution failed and fell into abeyance, and that we live under a Second Constitution? And does that mean we should call the period before the Civil War the First American Republic? And then that we live today in a Second American Republic, governed by this Second Constitution created by this Second Revolution? Those questions tell us something about the past, but they also tell us something about how we might see the present. The name the Civil War covered up the messiness in American history; many great historians have tried to uncover the full story through the language of revolution but they haven’t been able to convince the public or even other social scientists. But if we think of the Civil War as a revolution, we have to face some challenging ideas: that the system set up by the Founders faltered, that the country could not be saved by normal means, that slavery could not be killed by the typical procedures or laws and congressional debate. The Constitution could not prevent civil war, and it could not end slavery. Therefore, Republicans reluctantly and temporarily abandoned some of their faith in the Constitution to save the country and to end slavery. They broke constitutional norms, relied on military rule, added states, and threatened to dismantle the Supreme Court because they did not believe they could end slavery within the Constitution as it was.

Perhaps reckoning with the messiness and failures of the political system during the Civil War may help Americans think more imaginatively about politics today. Americans may have lost the sense of possibility that thrived during the Civil War and Reconstruction. In frustration or in relief, Americans tend to believe that the country’s institutions are permanent. This permanence may be a source of celebration for moderates or of exasperation for radicals and reactionaries, but it is widely held. At times the contemporary American vision of politics seems to drift between complacency, reformism, and resignation.

Myths about the Civil War have helped to construct and support this complacency, as earlier myths about the American Revolution also obscure the nation’s bloody, coercive, and undemocratic founding. The Civil War represents the gnawing challenge to American exceptionalism and to an American sense of stability. It is no wonder, then, that the Civil War has been the site of the most creative and significant efforts to wrestle this contradiction into submission, to turn the Civil War into proof of continuity. Unknotting that confusion — seeing clearly the failure of the Constitution and the political system — may be crucial for understanding how the American political and constitutional system does and does not work, arriving at a more mature sense of its dangers and a more robust sense of its possibilities, and writing bolder and more sweeping and weirder and thus more accurate political history.

To see the 1870s United States as a Second American Republic operating under a Second Constitution created by a Second American Revolution asks Americans to abandon their dreams of continuity and to develop a new, more vulnerable set of national understandings and also a new sense of the nation’s possibilities. Thinking through the implications of the Second American Revolution might lead us to see the First Founders as less successful and less consequential than celebrators and critics have imagined. As architects of a country that failed, the First American Republic, the First Founders might shimmer as warnings or ideals but not as guides. Americans might have to shed the sense that the Founders possess answers to our current predicaments or blame for our situation. They might retain their glamor — like José Martí in Cuba, Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico, even Toussaint-Louverture in Haiti — as emblems of romantic struggles that do not quite speak to the present political conditions. We might see their work the way the French see the First, Second, Third, or Fourth Republics, as important preludes but also as relics who, having used up their magic, can safely be held and examined. Voices of the past, not oracles of the future.

The First Founders retain their force partly because their Constitution presumably constrains and empowers Americans. But in fact, seen aright, their Constitution is less meaningful and less constraining than Americans imagine. Many of the constitutional rights that Americans enjoy are derived from either the Second Constitution or the creative interpretations of twentieth-century jurists, and none are — or ever will be — self-enforcing; all still rely on the promise of enforcement, of force. They will always depend on political will and thus on reinterpretation of their contents.

Taking the Second American Revolution seriously would lead Americans to ponder new forms of public memory. Who among the Second Founders should be recognized on dollar bills, in statues, in city names? Beyond Lincoln and, arguably, Grant and Frederick Douglass, few of the Second Founders are well remembered, and none for their role in remaking, not saving, the Republic. The nation has outrageously neglected Thaddeus Stevens — one of the two or three most significant Second Founders — and is only beginning to come to terms with black Second Founders like Robert Smalls and Henry McNeal Turner and Charlotte Forten and Harriet Tubman. The nation might rethink its holy sites. Instead of Philadelphia and Boston, cradles of the First Republic, the birthplace of the Second American Republic might be at the National Park Service sites in Beaufort or Natchez or New Orleans. More productive than raising new icons would be new debates. What would it mean to turn the congressional discussions over the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments — including the extraordinary testimony from ex-slaves themselves and the petitions from women and men across the country — into the nation’s founding texts, instead of the Federalist Papers?

A United States born from the bayonets of the 1860s and from the actions of terrified congressmen and generals may be a less appealing story. That narrative may even be a dangerous one. There is no shortage of fanatics ready to believe that the government can be changed only by violence and ready to turn that violence to bad ends. There may be good reason to forget the bloody and coercive roots of our rights and our freedoms. It may be safer to pretend that we live in a self-governing and perhaps self-correcting machine. Whitewashing has its purposes, even its pleasures. Liberals and leftists take shelter in a counteroriginalism that attempts to make equality an unimpeachable American value, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

But the past does not conform to our wishes. Nor does the future. Our hopes may not prepare us for the challenges Americans may face if their rights are attacked, if their legal system bends, if the nation’s structures once again dissolve. A false belief in the functioning of our system may prevent us from debating the changes necessary to preserve the nation in moments of great stress, and may prevent us from imagining the kinds of bold actions it may take to save the republic or to save the rights of its citizens. Although history may not teach as many lessons as historians might wish, history in general — and the Civil War era in particular — reminds us that conflict and crisis are the common states of human society. All too often Americans, like the Casablanca police, seem shocked at crises and conflicts that appear routinely in other countries. Part of the burden of teaching and studying Civil War history is the call to prepare citizens for the normality of conflict, to help them face crises as they come and with all the tools at their command. Although those tools may not be sufficient to sustain a republic, they are more resilient than amnesia, more effective than wishful thinking.

 


Gregory P. Downs is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War.

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