• September 5, 2015

Scholars Nostalgic for the Old South Study the Virtues of Secession, Quietly

To avoid being tagged as racist, professors retreat to the Abbeville Institute to study the virtues of secession

Scholars Nostalgic for the Old South Study the Virtues of Secession, Quietly 1

Billy Howard for The Chronicle

Donald W. Livingston, a philosophy professor at Emory U., sits in a historic plantation house. He founded the Abbeville Institute, named for the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, an advocate of state's rights and slavery.

In 1991, Donald W. Livingston threw a party—well, a conference—and nobody showed up.

It was during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Mr. Livingston, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and raised in South Carolina, decided there should be more thoughtful discourse on the topic of secession.

A political philosopher who specializes in David Hume, he searched philosophy papers published since 1940 and turned up only seven on the matter of secession from federal unions: five reviews of a book and two articles about Quebec. Thinking he had the market to himself, he held a conference on secession at the 1991 meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

He was right about his share of the market. Nobody came.

Today Mr. Livingston is drawing slightly larger crowds. In 2003 he started the Abbeville Institute, named after the South Carolina birthplace of John C. Calhoun, seventh vice president of the United States and a forceful advocate of slavery and states' rights. The institute now has 64 associated scholars from various colleges and disciplines. They gather to discuss topics about the South that they feel are misrepresented in today's classrooms. Feeling a chilly reception to its ideas—officials of the Southern Poverty Law Center say its work borders on white supremacy—the group has kept a low profile. Mr. Livingston's own department chair, as well as a number of Emory history professors, say they have never heard of it.

That may change. Mr. Livingston says Abbeville is, for the first time, publicly advertising a conference, on secession and nullification—the refusal of states to recognize given federal laws within their territory—to be held February 4 to 7 in Charleston, S.C. It is the institute's eighth annual conference. The group does not endorse secession but does say the idea has moral and political validity.

"The university should be the place where the unthinkable can be thought and the unspeakable said as long as it is backed by civil conduct and argument," says Mr. Livingston, who runs the institute from his house. "It is not that today."

A Guarded Society

On his own campus, Abbe­ville's founder is anything but a pariah. "Mr. Livingston has a great reputation as a professor among his students," says John J. Stuhr, chair of the philosophy department at Emory. "His connection with this institute has not impacted his teaching, research, or campus service by any standard professional measure."

The other Abbeville scholars teach history, philosophy, economics, and literature at institutions including Emory, the University of South Carolina, the University of Georgia, and the University of Virginia. They write books with titles like Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture (published by the Foundation for American Education, a nonprofit group "dedicated to the preservation of American culture and learning") and The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, his Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Prima). They say the institute's work, although academic in nature, is ­really about values. Its members study the South in search of a history of piety, humility, and manners. The scholars acknowledge a history of bigotry and slavery, but they focus primarily on what they say are the positive aspects of Southern history and culture.

To do so, they have created their own guarded society, something of a secession in its own right. Mr. Livingston will not provide Abbeville's entire list of scholars and participants, because he fears "academics who claim to find something valuable in the Southern tradition are sure to suffer abuse." Institute members say they rarely submit work in the field to mainstream journals. Now they are creating a Web periodical, called Arator, as an outlet. The title is taken from an 1813 book by a Virginia planter and senator named John Taylor, who defended "the socioeconomic and political order of an agrarian republic," according to one description.

Still, the outsiders who have heard of Abbeville tend not to like what they hear. One historian, whose research includes the cultural history of racism and white supremacy in the United States, and who asked for anonymity to avoid becoming a target of "Southern identity groups," says the lectures he has listened to on the Abbeville Web site (http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org) are dominated by racialism and are "ideological, through and through." There is the condemnation from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group. In 2005, Time magazine pegged Abbeville as a group of "Lincoln loathers." Mr. Livingston initially declined to be interviewed for this article, citing bad experiences with the news media. But he eventually agreed to talk, as did a handful of scholars and students involved with the institute.

Thinking about secession and what it means to be a Southerner came with his territory, Mr. Livingston says. "Anyone raised in the South has a certain dissonance in his imagination because he receives a history of his own identity and country that he knows is not quite right."

Abbeville's scholars contend, for example, that the Civil War—or as they often refer to it, the War of Northern Aggression or the War to Prevent Southern Independence—was not about slavery (the system was on its way out anyway, they argue) and that the antebellum Southern states had every right to secede. They say they are not able to make these points to their campus colleagues, however, without being painted into a corner as racists. So instead of discussing them with professors down the hall, they turn to Abbeville.

And though they offer many historical and philosophical justifications for secession, Abbeville's members say the argument boils down to two points. First, the United States was founded on the basis of secession (from Britain and then from the Articles of Confederation). Second, the best way to combat an unwieldy central government is to allow states the ultimate right: their independence.

Abbeville is growing steadily and attracts about $30,000 in donations annually, according to public records. But for those involved with it, Abbeville is about passion, not money. Its members participate free and pay their own way to conferences.

Arming the Next Generation

One of Abbeville's most important purposes, according to Mr. Livingston, is to arm the next generation of Southern intellectuals with an education they cannot expect to get from their high-school or college curricula.

"The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others," Mr. Livingston says. "It is not examined in terms of its own inner light. It is as if you had programs of Jewish studies explored from the point of view of Catholics, or worse, of Nazis."

To try and rectify this, Abbeville members hold an annual summer program in which they give talks to 35 undergraduate and graduate students, who apply to attend. Most are from the South and are educated there.

One of the attendees at this year's program, Stephen L. Heiner, is earning an M.B.A. at Rockhurst University, in Kansas City, Mo., and was born in Singapore. He describes a camplike atmosphere with banjo playing, nightly beach bonfires, and group meals. Instead of tetherball and archery, of course, the days were filled with lectures. And, unlike at some summer camps, he says, everyone was polite.

To listen to those lectures posted online is to hear a rarely told side of the American story: Abraham Lincoln is not the Great Emancipator; he is Dishonest Abe, a president hellbent on creating a big central government, even if that meant waging war. Reconstruction could be seen as a Yankee power grab that did more harm than good. Secession itself did not cause the Civil War. (Mr. Livingston said in one lecture that "war is actually caused by forced attempts at unification.")

Alan J. Harrelson, who is working on a master's degree in Southern history at the College of Charleston and aspires to be a professor, says the summer program allowed him to see how students responded to lectures from a "Southern perspective" and encouraged him to continue with his studies.

"There are scholars nowadays who are advocating that a South does not exist, that it has merely been engulfed by mainstream American culture," Mr. Harrelson says. "But the Southern mind and intellect, which recognize there is something peculiar to the South, is there, and that's important to keep alive."

In fact, scholarly conversation about Southern identity is alive and well, says Harry L. Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The South is a wellspring of American culture," says Mr. Watson, who was born in North Carolina and has taught history courses on the South for more than 30 years. "There are plenty of people who are genuinely fascinated by the place who find both positive and negative things to teach about it."

Agrarian Tradition

Abbeville itself consciously keeps alive a tradition that harks back to the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers and professors, many from Vanderbilt University, who in 1930 wrote a collection of essays called I'll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition, which amounted to a manifesto. All 12 authors "support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way," it said. Like that group, Mr. Livingston says, Abbeville recalls a simpler time, when people knew their neighbors, and children said "sir" and "ma'am."

To skeptics, however, Abbeville's rendering of the antebellum South is a misrepresentation of a place that was defined by its racism.

In 2004, the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, which tracks what it describes as "hate groups," listed Mr. Livingston as a neo-Confederate "ideologue." The article pointed out his connection with the League of the South, which bills itself as 'the premier state sovereignty and secessionist organization" and has been labeled a "hate group" by the law center since 2000. According to the center, the league's director, Michael Hill, wrote on a neo-Confederate Web site that slavery was "God ordained." It was for this group that in the mid-1990s that Mr. Livingston founded and directed an institute similar to Abbeville.

Mr. Livingston says that the League of the South is not racist but that he left it almost a decade ago because it was "avowedly secessionist," while he was more interested in understanding and explaining secession. He emphasizes that Abbeville does not advocate policy.

Heidi Beirich, research director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, stops short of calling Abbeville a hate group, but pointed to a passage in its mission statement that troubles her greatly. It quotes Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxist-turned-conservative historian: "Rarely these days, even on Southern campuses, is it possible to acknowledge the achievements of white people in the South."

That line speaks volumes about the goals of organization, says Ms. Beirich, who adds that the idea that white people are America's underappreciated stepchildren is ludicrous. "At the end of the day, they are just trying to revise the history of the South in favor of whites," she says.

A founding member of Abbeville, Clyde N. Wilson, a recently retired professor of history at the University of South Carolina, calls that criticism bunk. It's easy to use racism as a trump card to end a conversation with a group whose values differ from "conformist" academe, he says. "The academic tendency now, because of America's preoccupation with the race question the last half-century or so, is to put the whole Southern history into a dark little corner of American history," says Mr. Wilson, who edited Calhoun's collected writings.

Both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Livingston say that Abbeville does discuss the importance of wrongs such as slavery, but that such injustices were a national issue, hardly limited to the South. Mr. Livingston adds that no part of any of his lectures has been "even remotely white supremacist."

Tolerating Intolerance

There are mainstream scholars who find room in academe for the Abbeville Institute. David Goldfield, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (Louisiana State University Press), says he is in the "more views the merrier" camp when it comes to scholarship. He disagrees that secession should be a policy option in the United States, but he respects the right of Abbeville to exist, and—like Mr. Livingston—notes that there is a difference between discussing an issue and advocating it.

"Quite honestly, there is some intolerance on the academic left of differing viewpoints," Mr. Goldfield says. "Sure, they might be conservative with strange ideas. But if we isolated everyone with strange ideas, it would be a lightly populated country."


1. lagcclibrary - December 07, 2009 at 10:31 am

Mr. Livingston refers to the "Southern tradition." I wish this could be defined more specifically. "White Southern tradition?"
"Secessionist Southern tradition?" "White supremacy southern tradition?" "Slave owning soutehrn tradition?" Does the "Southern Tradition" include white unionists, slaves, free blacks (to name a few), or is it just a code word for white supremacy and the defense of slavery?

2. teacherspaddle - December 07, 2009 at 01:20 pm

How can you begin to theorize and give scholarly weight to the "[Southern] history of piety, humility, and manners" without defining these categories alongside the history, development, and culture of slavery?

And if by the "history of piety, humility, and manners" they mean the history of the white, male culture of gentility, then hasn't this been adequately theorized?

This sounds like an identity-politics group for academics drawn to antebellum white Southern culture, not an academic think tank.

3. jffoster - December 10, 2009 at 10:04 pm

:..hasn't this been adequately theorized? "

"Theorized?" ????

Do you humanists have any conception of what a theory really is?

4. asloan2 - December 11, 2009 at 08:28 am

Any of you Southern-bashing geniuses ever heard of the DeWolf family...? Any idea how many of Yale University's oldest buildings had "slave quarters"...? The racial tensions that exist in this country today are a direct result of the myth that slavery was peculiar to the South, fostering the notion that there was and is no such thing as racism in the rest of the country... I applaud the Abbeville Institute for making the effort to study the true history of this nation's sometimes ignoble past.

5. jdbeatty - December 11, 2009 at 08:52 am

"The group does not endorse secession but does say the idea has moral and political validity."

So what? With it and a sawbuck you can buy lunch for two at McDonald's. This entire discussion is just a waste of resources that demonstrates, once again, how out of touch academia is with the real world.

6. 22228715 - December 11, 2009 at 09:00 am

This article, and the debate it seems to be raising, seems to be about at least three or four questions, not a single topic. It's not very well-framed, if it is intended to be about the study of an historical topic or area.

Topic 1: Yes, it is OK, if not essential, that someone study the perspectives of Southern leaders during the CIvil War. If no one does (or does enough), we will never come close to understanding the era or the event, which is almost undeniably historically important. And yes, that might mean empathizing to represent their perspectives, which might mean painting some of their motives, actions, or outcomes as not entirely bad (very little in this world is entirely good or bad, especially in history.) If an historian wanders into making it a contemporary crusade to change society, that makes him or her a suspect or shaky historian and scholar, and we should do the same thing we'd do with any shoddy scholar. (Different debate.)

Topic 2: Yes, if a scholar flips the perceived imbalance and only studies the positive aspects of people or actions or topics in a way that doesn't acknowledge or weigh the available data and scholarship, that's not good. That makes her or him a poor scholar (see above.)

Topic 3:There were a whole bunch of implications that people were doing contemporary hate-mongering, social oppression, political activism... that's a different topic, that wanders into questions of political science, sociology, and the ethics of faculty/historians blending personal political or social beliefs with professional activities. If someone violates the AAUP code of ethics, or is just an icky person, we should respond as we would for other shady personal behavior. But at that point we're no longer talking about the Civil War or scholarship.

7. rburns - December 11, 2009 at 09:08 am

Just as the members expected the race card hits the table immediately. Waste of resources? Out of touch with the real world? Compare to full-blown academic degree programs in African-American Pan-African Women's GLBTetc. theatre. Interesting that this aspect of the national history and culture is the one that cannot be studied or discussed except as a negative, though its elements touched and still touch millions. We act as if slavery wsre merely an historical element and that secession is a settled question when in fact both are current issues around the globe. Walling out study of these matters is foolishness.

8. mathews5 - December 11, 2009 at 09:08 am

I'm extremely surprised a student from Rockhurst participated in such a tragic event. Jesuits are fairly open-minded and live for social justice.

9. cwoodw1 - December 11, 2009 at 09:29 am

"This entire discussion is just a waste of resources that demonstrates, once again, how out of touch academia is with the real world."

Huh? For some of the Tea Partyers or Tea Baggers or whatever they want to be called, secession is alive and well. Just the other day, I heard a Tea Party woman on NPR advocating the secession of Texas (odd how "patriotism" and secession go hand in hand, no?). And as with Mr. Livingston's group, these Tea Baggers say it's not about race, despite the overwhelming whiteness of their movement, its members hatred of their African American president (who often invokes Lincoln), and their fears of increased immigration from Mexico and South America. Yes, these Right wing views are extreme, but they are widely held by Americans.

10. cmsmw - December 11, 2009 at 09:34 am

"Do you humanists have any conception of what a theory really is?"

Who says that the concept of a theory should be precisely the same between disparate fields? But to answer the question, regardless of the differences, the commonality in theories across the disciplines is their property of providing an over-arching explanation for a given body of evidence. So, I'd answer the question in the affirmative.

11. pokerpoodle - December 11, 2009 at 10:09 am

I grew up in the south of the 1950's and 1960's and heard this drivel in almost every white segregated history class I had. My senior year six black students integrated my white high school of 2000 students. This is the rhetoric of the southern segregationist. This goes along with, "save your confederate money boys; the south shall rise again." All students and faculty stood up when Dixie was played.

The United States fought the Civil War to determine the outcome of this idea. The South lost. It took a hundred more years before the civil rights movement made this mode of thought no longer respectable along with white supremacy, Nazism, and most other forms of bigotry even in the South.

This is not just another academic idea over which to ponder. Lincoln was not just a politician out to enlarge the sphere of government. It was at Fort Sumter in South Carolina where the Confederacy fired on the Union. An action like that has a tendency to start war.

12. jwielmak - December 11, 2009 at 10:49 am

It's odd that an esteemed scholar desirous of preserving a cultural tradition and history is castigated by some when the object of the scholarship is seen by some as being politically incorrect.

Academia - politics comes first, second, and third.

Makes one wonder at the credibility of American scholarship in general.

13. bdbailey - December 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

What I found intriguing and attractive is the call for civil discourse.

14. bdbailey - December 11, 2009 at 10:56 am

Rather than racists, they sound to me more like cultural luddites.

15. wwriter - December 11, 2009 at 11:24 am

The essential story of what happened between the north and the south is best captured by Noam Chomsky's analyses of how imperial powers operate to maintain their empires. i.e., prevent secession.

There are many parallels between the southern states breaking away, and contemporary examples of secession like Bosnia or Albania leaving Serbia or Georgia leaving the Soviet Union. The only difference is that in the U.S. it seems to be off-limits to mention such obvious things. (Again, as Chomsky always points out.)

Today, the imperial power usually gives a moral-sounding justification for their invasion: We need to protect the minority (Russians in Georgia, Serbians in Bosnia/Albania). In the 19th century such justifications were not necessary; Lincoln didn't claim that he was protecting the slaves with his invasion. He was quite explicit that the invasion of the south was not to abolish slavery, but was to preserve the union. Nothing different than any other imperial power did during the 19th century. (And the U.S. was very much in empire-building mode in the mid 19th century.)

How many readers know that the emancipation proclamation did not "free the slaves"? African Americans know this well...it only "freed" slaves within confederate controlled territory (which had no practical effect whatsoever). This part of the document is commonly elided when being taught to schoolchildren.

That doesn't make the union "bad" but it does mean that the invasion of the south was not a moral act, but a typical imperialist move. It is a misrepresentation when history books present it as a moral necessity.

"The winner gets to write history" is a universal truth. But for serious scholars, we should not be bound to tell the winner's story. If you want other imperialists to be honest (e.g. Russia and Serbia) then we have to be honest too.

P.S. I am a card-carrying liberal and ACLU member, and have never once voted republican.

16. jaysanderson - December 11, 2009 at 11:43 am

It seems clear that the intent of this story was to out an academic as a "white supremacist". Quotes from the Southern Poverty Law Center? The SPLC can label as racist any person or organization with impunity.

For goodness sake, what does it say about us when academics cannot research topics of their choosing? It doesn't seem like it will be long before we are all goose-stepping to our destruction under the social justice banner. The tyranny of the social justice movement is oddly ironic.

17. cwinton - December 11, 2009 at 11:48 am

Plenty of people, both North and South, in the lead up to the Civil War viewed slavery as a moral wrong, and were conflicted by benefiting from it either directly or indirectly (sound familiar ... how much of what you own was made abroad under dubious circumstances). The difference was in who held the reigns of power in various parts of the nation. Lincoln clearly played politics with the issue, and had his own ideas of somewhat dubious worth for addressing the moral dilemma. In that context one can wonder if the Emancipation Proclamation was a moral or a political document. Secession likewise had been a topic of political debate from the Constitutional Convention forward. It would be naive to separate the slavery question from the secession question of that day; both were significant factors in the lead up to war, with the South Carolina action at Fort Sumter being the final trigger. Secession is still a common issue (and we have seen elements of the nationalism behind it in the former Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, and most recently Iraq). One would hope we have settled the issue of slavery, but it is still with us in other guises and likewise for secession. If we are to understand the forces behind these, serious study is needed of the rationale of those who pushed our own country to Civil War. It may be that the Abbeville Institute is nothing more than a variant of the Flat Earth Society, but the issues and viewpoints that presumably are on its agenda need serious attention in the context of today's world.

18. issalerhra - December 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

If any institute in America values secession and its barons are supporters of Slavery, I am not surprised that no one attended the first meeting. I am also not surprised that it is now picking up steam. The United States is at the confluence of democracy in books and democracy in practice, with practice taking a slighter lead for the first time. The world saw US democracy at its best as it chose good ideas, not persons. The statusquo, which saw majority as one race, choosing for all the other races all the time, fail. As democracy in practice is winning, bigotry is not only looking back in "nostalgia" it is "Look[ing] Back in Anger".

To rationalize this racist nostalgia, it proponents are attempting to give it credence through pseudo-academics. It reminds me of the old time pseudo-scientific validations/studies such as in "The Bell Curve" by Richard Hermstein & Charles Murray, Jenson's Dysgenic, "The Journal of Mankind" financed by The Pioneer Fund, the Harvard "Immigration Restriction League" etc...We all know how many people were victimized, when the false claims of these studies became basis for social policy in USA.

Abbeville is nothing but a center for "The Study of the Value of Evil", we must call it what it is, and I won't be surprised if it financed by David Duke and the Tea Baggers". Slavery was evil, if secession was fostered to maintain slavery, they can be no value in such a study. I am glad you have exposed them, they will no longer "Be Secretive", meaning in hidding. Many a scholar is watching them.

19. 11134078 - December 11, 2009 at 12:36 pm

I have no interest in debating the Civil War because I am not competent to do so. But I am deeply concerned that these people have reason to feel scorned solely because of the nature of their research (and, necessarily, their beliefs). It is just views like theirs that because they are so broadly unpopular deserve the protection of the right of free speech in public and in the academy.

20. 22079340 - December 11, 2009 at 02:10 pm

Southern "patriots" should acknowledge that they lost the Civil War and in the process killed more Americans than Hitler, Tojo, the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden put together. The confederate flag is a symbol of treason not "heritage." Perhaps the day will come when apologists like these seek to recast Al Qaeda....

21. _perplexed_ - December 11, 2009 at 02:44 pm

I have no quibble with an attempt to understand the motives and values of Southern secessionists; but I would condemn the belief that what was "peculiar to the South" then is worth preserving as anything other than history.

22. minnesotan - December 11, 2009 at 02:52 pm

Academia is in serious trouble when academics think they have the right to stop other people's research programs because they don't like the topics (or the results!). If you disagree with a study's methods, fine; raise your objections. But to try to blacklist someone because they are studying a topic that ticks you off? That's a type of authoritarianism that needs to get rooted out of this system, and fast!

23. jaysanderson - December 11, 2009 at 04:04 pm

issalerhra, That is not what they seem to be saying or doing. You are intentionally villifying people (e.g., "tea baggers")to avoid having to debate their ideas, an all-too-common tactic right now in our country. Little minds talk about people, productive minds discuss ideas.

24. behaha - December 11, 2009 at 05:57 pm

Anyone who thinks the Civil War was about anything other than slavery should go to the source and read the actual Ordinances of Secession, 1861 -- for any state that seceded. Here are Texas'


A document written from the southern perspective demonstrates conclusively, in my veiw, that the southern states seceded due to slavery. The North was more conflicted, but the result was a big win for big government in the service of corporate power.

25. jffoster - December 11, 2009 at 08:05 pm

#20 writes: "The confederate flag is a symbol of treason not "heritage."

There was not then and still is no constitutional statement regarding secession. There are the 9th and 10th ammendments. (I am aware of White v Texas.).

What about the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star?

26. oioioi - December 12, 2009 at 04:21 am

One need only read the secession statements from Southern legislatures or the editorial pages of Southern newspapers of the era. The war was about slavery, full stop. Slavery not because Southerners were more evil than their Northern neighbors, but slavery because it was the basis of the economic system. Yes, the North had its own reasons for the war which may not have been morally pure. But one cannot doubt that the South mobilized and struck out because the institution of slavery was under threat from Washington.

I was born and raised in South Carolina and still live here. I'm not proud of these things either and I think I can understand the impulse to label our ancestors as something other than hateful, ignorant people. But overwhelmingly, they were, along with most other Americans of the period (maybe that's changed, eh?). We don't have to be that way as well. We must live with our conflicted past and guard against a revisionism that prevents us from understanding our past and living together in peace.

27. jffoster - December 12, 2009 at 12:37 pm

thank your 26 for one of the more reasoned and calm observations here. I concur that without slavery, the Recent Unpleasantness would not have occurred. I do not concurr that it was about slavery only.

Sometimes even the calmer of us get a little over rhetorical on these things--Ive dont it myself. But I doubt you really think that all those Confederate infantrymen, most of whom never owned slaves, were "hateful". And it's very hard to read biographies, especially James I Robertson's latest, of Thomas Jonathan Jackson and conclude that Stonewall was a "hateful" person. Or R E Lee, or James P Longstreet, Patrick Cleburne, .... There's been more "hatefulness" exhibited in some of the comments to this original article than I am aware of those gentlemen having manifested.

28. kwsterling - December 12, 2009 at 02:38 pm

Some of the ignorant comments on this site lend credence to the need for a discussion of secession and the causes of the War. First, we need to teach the truth about secession. It is indeed a valid concept, for it is the exact thing we did when we declared our independence from Britain. We were seceding from the British empire. The two actions are identical. So if secession is not a valid concept or political theory, then we need to beg the Brits' forgiveness and return to the fold. Secession was certainly viewed as valid in northern states, several of which threatened to secede at various times prior to the Civil War. See particularly the histories of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Second, we need to teach the whole truth about the firing on Sumpter, and the actions of Lincoln - specifically, the lies he told to representatives from South Carolina who were attempting to negotiate in good faith - that led to the firing on the fort. Lincoln promised not to reinforce the fort - he was warned that reinforcement would be seen as an aggressive action. Lincoln promised not to do so, even while proceeding to do that very thing. When the reinforcements came, the South Carolina militia fired on the fort. It has been well documented that Lincoln did this deliberately so that he could blame the South for starting a war that he wanted. The South, remember, only wanted to be left alone. The South would never have fired a shot without the North invading Southern territory and being the aggressor.

Ever wonder why Jefferson Davis and others were not prosecuted? The U.S. wanted very much to make an example of Davis. Two different attorneys general examined the "case" against him and wrote letters to the president arguing against any prosecution. In effect, they told Pres. Johnson that if Davis were tried in court, it would soon be realized that the North had instigated an illegal war, and the combined wrath of the mothers, wives, and sisters of the 600,000 deceased would descend on the White House. Their advice, in other words, was to leave it alone, lest the terrible truth come out.

Remember, too, that the Union included several slave states that never seceded (Delaware, for instance) and supplied troops to fight the war against the South. So it is difficult, if not impossible, to claim that the war was fought over slavery. In actual fact the North was complicit in slavery, and many Northern fortunes, especially on Wall Street, were built on the slave trade. This continued to be true in the decade prior to the War. it is also true that many Southern men such as Robert E. Lee, who was married to an abolitionist, argued for the abolition of slavery, but in a gradual way so that slaves could be educated and trained in a skill they could then use to earn a living. Had emancipation proceeded in the manner outlined by Lee, the fortunes of blacks would have been far better. As it happened, however, they were used as pawns by the North during the Reconstruction years and then left in poverty, with no property, little education, and no way to earn a living.

For further reading, I suggest "Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery," written by Anne Farrow and two other journalists from New England who have done tremendous research demonstrating that the North had no right to point fingers at the South, since it was profiting nicely from the slave trade. Another excellent book, written by Thomas Sugrue, a professor at Penn, is "Sweet Land of Liberty" The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North." It represents the most recent research on discrimination against blacks - both before and since the Civil War - in the North. It's time we realized slavery and discrimination were widespread evils, not confined to the South but instead rampant everywhere in America.

Many of the comments here merely echo the stereotyped views that have become commonplace in public schools and academia since 1950. I suggest that the opposition to the Abbeville Institute is nothing but a sort of reverse discrimination. These scholars are merely trying to open a dialogue, but many of the commenters here are apparently afraid to engage in that dialogue for fear they will have to confront the truth, and the truth might deviate from what they have always believed. There really is no other reason to oppose them. No one in their right mind believes these folks are out to praise slavery or defend it in any way; even in the 1840s it was understood that slavery was not a boon but a hindrance to the development and economy of any region where it existed. If you doubt that understanding, I suggest you look up the writings of Ezekiel Birdseye, who traveled widely in the South in the 1840s and 1850s and corresponded with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

It is very clear we need some balance in this discussion. The truth is never simple or clear-cut, and those in our public schools and in present-day academia have done us a disservice by reducing the discussion to simplistic statements and stereotypes. It's just as wrong to vilify all Southerners as it is to exalt them. With 93% of Confederate soldiers being poor men who never owned, or hoped to own, a slave, the truth is obviously complicated. It's time to open up the debate and examine the facts as they really were and are, not as we want them to be.

29. eelalien - December 13, 2009 at 02:13 am

But ENOUGH of this nonsensical banter on long-dead theories of white male hegemony - anyone hear of moral relativism...?

30. amnirov - December 13, 2009 at 06:26 am

I'm sorry but whenever I hear the phrase "long-dead theories of white male hegemony" I throw up a little in my mouth.

31. allens - December 13, 2009 at 10:01 pm

As someone raised in a border state (Kentucky) by parents from the South but who's now in the North, I'd have to say that it is indeed the case that the North currently is at _least_ as racist as the South, just somewhat more covertly so. It's sort of like Germany vs Japan on war crimes trials - the Germans were forced to acknowledge the wrongs; the Japanese weren't; this has left German society overall less racist, etc than Japanese society (nobody in Germany'g national government is visiting a shrine to Hitler!). Similarly, the South has had to confront its misdeeds more than the North has. Admittedly, just as with Japan, the Reconstruction's control ended far too soon in the South, but Northern racism was probably one explanation for that, with many others.

It is unfortunate that people are still falling into the idea of emphasizing agriculture. It's understandable - even such an otherwise intelligent figure as Jefferson did so - but ultimately a dead end. The proportion of people employed in agriculture goes down as a society develops economically (and is thus able to get other things done, most importantly scientific research and its implementation in technology like the Internet). I am reminded in this emphasis on agriculture of the economics of the Physiocrats, who believed that economic wealth derived solely from the land (similarly to Marx with his belief that only human labor gave rise to economic wealth, and thus labor-saving machinery didn't actually save any labor; his predictions for capitalism are a lot more accurate - and positive for capitalism - if one removes this error).

32. prendera - December 14, 2009 at 06:32 am

What has been ignored up until 31. allens' post is the important issue of the Southern emphasis on agriculture. Allens has explained it so I won't repeat it but this longing or wishful thinking some Southerners have for the old way/"Southern Tradition" is impractical and has been confined to history, to try and re-engage that mode of production is regressive and unsustainable.

All facets of history should be discussed, once they don't incite hatred or violence. It would be best to understand the history of the Civil War from a comparative perspective, ie. not limited to the views of just the South or just the Union. For all the debate about the causes of the War and the rights to secede it is unrealistic and irresponsible for anyone to seriously advocate its merits in a modern context. The CSA lost the War; it was largely impossible for them to win it, they simply did not have the capacity to beat the Union. Because the South lost, there is inevitably going to be romantic histories of their way of life before defeat just as history is written by the winners. The "Southern Tradition" is confined to history, where it can be studied at length if people wish to do so. But it should be portrayed in a balanced manner (warts and all) in educational institutions.

p.s. A revision of Southern figures can still not refute that the good majority of them were inveterate racists, particularly Davis and Stephens. This does not imply that Northern figures were angels but there's no point in being ridiculous about romanticising much of the Southerners.

33. andersonblogs - December 14, 2009 at 09:03 am

People who claim the Civil War was "not about slavery" need to read the secession proclamations from leading Southern states like South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, which will leave no doubt that they seceded first and foremost to protect slavery.

As for the "right of secession," the American Revolution proves no such thing. It's called a "revolution" for a reason. There was no legal basis for secession in 1776, which was why we had to fight a war, and there was still no such basis in 1861, which is why the South had to fight a war -- unsuccessfully, thank God.

34. amnirov - December 14, 2009 at 09:22 am

As far as number 33 goes... I guess you're defining the idea of what you call "revolution for a reason" based on who wins a civil war. That's not entirely a legitimate argument. Unless you're willing to concede that if the colonial rebellion had been unsuccessful that their gripes could have been seen as meritless.

35. nacrandell - December 14, 2009 at 10:09 am

Unfortunately, their arguments are biased before completing the needed research.

It was the South who had control of the government. The 3/5 rule subsidized the South's power. In short the South adopted the idea that taxation without representation is good government. Africans were good enough to work and be counted for government representation, but not good enough to be free. A fear of losing control of "property", business model and governmental control became a mania for Southerners. It was a paranoid fear of losing it "all" that created the Civil War.

But since this isn't about scholarship and just book sales, why give them press?

36. rhancuff - December 14, 2009 at 10:39 am

The funny thing about the article was that not once did I read anything about Abbeville's scholarship on secession (except for renaming of Lincoln "Dishonest Abe," which is hardly a deep argument for rebellion). Mainly what I took away from the article was a huge serving of Southern Agrarian leftovers that hearken back to a certain past. So what are the differences between the break up of Yugoslavia and the Confederacy? Or other "breakaway regions"? At no point in this article did I get any insight into the research on this issue; instead I got unsupported innuendo -- repeated as articles of faith by some commenters -- that these scholars are being silenced or intimidated by the big bad academy.

If #28 is an example of what such scholarship produces, then it's not disdain for the topic but rather for the shallow analysis that's causing these scholars to be ignored/dismissed.

37. jffoster - December 14, 2009 at 10:52 am

Yugoslavia was a non-nation formed by the Versailles "Peace" Conference. Indeed, it was originally called the Kingdom of the Serbs, the Croats, and the Slovenes. (The Macedonians got no billing.) The United States was a federation of, at the time, willing sovereign states. But its constitution contained no reference at all to secession, or deratification, and the Southern States would never have ratified it had they not assumed they could get out of it. And indeed, the first rumblings of secession occurred in New England.

38. rhancuff - December 14, 2009 at 10:56 am

Exactly my point. There's no discussion in the article itself about the scholarship that the Abbeville Institute produces on secession. It's an interesting topic. However, the examples given seem to be more about a "Southern Way of Life" -- interpreted however you like, that's not my point -- and not about what could be very interesting work on secession.

39. plefkowicz - December 14, 2009 at 11:48 am

Unfortunately missing from this article is any acknowledgement that we have been through this debate before, and not so very long ago.

The first half of the 20th century saw the rise of the Civil War Revisionists, led primarily by Avery Craven (U. Chicago) and James G. Randall (U. Illinois). It is these Revisionists' footsteps that Livingston et. al. are following in, not the Agrarians'. Craven's The Coming of the Civil War and Randall's "The Blundering Generation," are only the most famous tracts from a wide swath of scholars (including Charles and Mary Beard) who, though their points of focus varied, all resisted the idea that the Civil War was in some sense inevitable. This "Needless War" school was in turn forcefully countered by many historians. Most instructive, perhaps, is Arthur Schlesinger's Partisan Review 1949 article, "The Causes of the Civil War: A Note on Historical Sentimentalism."

This period of historical scholarship is nicely reviewed in Thomas Bonner's "Civil War Historians and the 'Needless War' Doctrine." Mendel Cohen's "Causation in History" insightfully points out the fundamental issue that both sides ignore.

Finally, this debate over the causes of the Civil War and the role of slavery did not mysteriously disappear, only to be resurrected by Livingston and his colleagues. Several scholars have sharpened the discussion, as the reappraisals of slaverly in the years following 1960 show. Eric Foner's work comes first to mind, but there are numerous others.

The point of all of this is to ask how the author somehow missed what has been one of the most interesting and vigorous discussions in the field of American history in the past 100 years. I'm a mere high school teacher, but my 11th and 12th grade students study the controversy over the causes of the Civil War, as well as the historiography outlined above.

40. liberaliberaliberal - December 14, 2009 at 12:19 pm

As a historian of nineteenth century U.S. history who has just written a book on the origins of the Civil War, I though I would weigh in on some of the misleading notions the Abbeville folks seem to be disseminating. First, there is no discrimination against those who "speak out" in favor of the numerous accomplishments of Whites from slave states in the antebellum period. There are several journals, many presses, and conferences available to legitimate scholars with this argument. However, there are professional requirements for the acceptance of such scholarship. Regardless of the so-called "political correctness," it cannot be mere assertion, it must acknowledge slavery, and it cannot deny basic historical fact including that slave state societies were built on slavery.

Second, the Southern Poverty Law Center is on the side of the angels. They have fought the Klan and other racist, violent, hate groups despite death threats and violence against them both from private individuals and public authorities. I do not know of a single history textbook that does not acknowledge the accomplishments of White and African-American Southerners alongside the very real evils of slave holding societies. This is not to deny the virulent racism in the free states, but anyone who disparages "Yankee" Reconstruction and celebrates the Confederacy had better be prepared to defend that argument against charges of racism. There is very little else behind such an argument that denies the evils of slavery in much the same way false scholars deny the existence of the Holocaust.

Third, when someone makes a legal argument, aka the legitimacy of the Confederacy, they had better know their law. Britain had broken its trust with the American colonies by denying them their basic rights and representation. The United States government did no such thing. As for the argument that Lincoln somehow betrayed the South Carolina militia that was negotiating in "good faith," this is a patent lie. The South Carolina militia was threatening federal property and threatening to fire on federal troops in lawful performance of their duties. Lincoln was fulfilling his oath of office. The future Confederates were committing treason. Calhoun's arguments for secession were wrong and could only be made legitimate by a successful rebellion. To deny these basic facts of history does the white South no favors. It only keeps everyone in a state of permanent degradation.

Fourth, academic freedom is a guaranteed privilege of all university faculty. Afraid of being labeled a racist? Try to avoid making racist arguments. But, do not label yourself a victim of political correctness when what you are really practicing is propaganda for "the Lost Cause," which only serves the forces of reaction and repression in the Old South.

41. digbydolben - December 14, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Most of the folks here write as if they've never seen the film The Gangs of New York, which is--as I know, in particular--very accurate historically.

Not all of those who opposed Mr. Lincoln's war were Southerners; I am descended from people who were, as a matter of principle, "Copperhead Democrats" and resisters against Mr. Lincoln's tyranny. My ancestors, recent Catholic refugees from Britain's ruinous penalties for opposing the Anglican Establishment, resented the "pressing" of their co-religionists from Ireland into the Union Army at the very docks where their ships arrived.

I believe that Madison and Jefferson would have vociferously defended the right of the Southern States to secede--not over slavery, but over the principle of devolution of power to the states. Those Founding Fathers, in particular--as opposed to Hamilton--did not want the kind of executive tyranny that Lincoln stands for in American history--and which rears its ugly head in our politics to this day, in the form of the theory of the "unitary executive."

The folks on this thread ahead of me who have written with the most scrupulous regard for the historical truth are "kwesterling" and "wwriter." I particularly like what "wwriter" says about Noam Chomsky's ideas regarding the "imperialism" of 19th century American politicians.

And, as for what "andersonblogs" says about how much we should be "thankful" for the Civil War, I'd like to point out something I think is true, but counter-intuitive about wars in general: as somebody who grew up, by hazard, in the American South (my dad took us there to make money), I believe that, politically and culturally speaking, what happened in the aftermath of the American Civil War is what often happens in civil wars (like the English one)--they never really end, as T.S. Eliot observed, and the loser is often the winner, from any cultural or social perspective.

I propose to you that twenty years after the American Civil War, and then, for almost a hundred years after that, the South turned out to be the WINNER of the American Civil War, in terms of the de facto preservation of its now stream-lined, neo-capitalist "Jim Crow" system of racial segregation (which never would have come about if the South had won its independence and then been sucked into the orbit of that industrial colossus, the slavery-forbidding British Empire, which would have leached her of all her wealth, like they did India, in their mercantile way, and probably induced her to come crawling back, begging to be re-admitted--which would have set America up for even another war with the British Empire, admittedly). That system allowed the Southern landowners, in collusion with Yankee industrialists, to continue to exploit cheap labour, and to continue to create an economy based on war and armaments.

If the South had been allowed to leave, an enormously negative cultural influence--one that prioritizes class differences, militarism, violent--usually fundamentalist--religiosity and patriarchal control of females (but NOT racism, any more than any other American region--would have been removed from American national life for at least one generation--long enough for a chastened South to recognise at least the economic consequences of its racism--which very well may have been long enough for the whole society to recognise the social and economic benefits of European-style social democracy.

Then there might never have occurred the "chicken-frying" of American politics, through the machinations of the modern Republican Party, and there might never have been our ruinous, empire-destroying "crusades for liberty" in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan--campaigns that I'm convinced will now put "paid" to American world hegemony.

42. digbydolben - December 14, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Britain had broken its trust with the American colonies by denying them their basic rights and representation. The United States government did no such thing.

Excuse me, "liberaliberaliberal," but that is EXACTLY what the United States Government was trying to do in attempting to restrict the "right" of the South to expand its evil slave system into the American Southwest. Like it or not, the Constitution that the Founders actually wrote guaranteed the rights of slave-holders, and you know it.

It's wonderful, isn't it, how "politically correct" modern liberals attempt to rewrite the history of America as something belonging, always, to the camp of the angels. As modern anti-immigration-reform politicos are pointing out--accurately, unfortunately--the Declaration of Independence was meant to secure liberty and freedom only for "our posterity"--and it actually SAYS THAT. The Founding Fathers KNEW that meant only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, just like most of them.

The Founders would have been on the side of the Confederates--which doesn't, I fully agree, say anything good about the Founders, but the American constitutional tradition has been a hypocritical travesty of true social democracy from the very beginning. I think that European feudal systems, in fact, paid more respect to the "personhood" of humans--at least in the shreds of political theory that reflected their theology; they certainly could never have rationalized a "citizen's" being--what was it?--5/6ths?--of a human being!

43. ovation - December 14, 2009 at 01:29 pm

The war was about slavery. To deny that is to deny reality. NO other source of friction between "North and South", by itself or in combination (without slavery in the mix) was sufficient to lead to armed insurrection. NONE. Does this make the North "morally pure"? Of course not. And I'd really like to find a copy of this mythical collection of history books that paints the North in that fashion (I've been teaching history for 20 years and I've yet to find one such example).

Is the concept of secession worthy of examination and understanding? Of course it is. Does it have to be discussed in a "secret society" for fear of repression? Not unless one suffers from paranoia or a persecution complex.

The perniciousness and persistence of neo-Confederate apologists is regrettable, but it should not be simply "shouted down". That only serves to legitimize their persecution complex. Neo-confederate apologia needs to be heard and then clearly and methodically refuted (a laborious task, but not an especially complex one given the numerous flaws found therein--several of which have already been nicely summarized above).

In any event, the idea that neo-Confederate "ideas" don't get enough exposure is laughable. Wander into any Borders, Barnes and Noble or the like and check out the US History sections. For a "repressed" and "shunned" perspective, it sure gets a lot of shelf space in mainstream book stores.

As for the rights of "slave-holders", no where in the constitution does it guarantee "equal territorial rights" for slave states. That was a convention followed, mostly from 1820 to 1850, for political expediency. It was not EVER an enumerated "right" in the US constitution.

44. markcaplan - December 14, 2009 at 01:45 pm

I was surprised to learn in MY BONDAGE AND MY FREEDOM by Frederick Douglass that the Northern abolitionists of the 1830s favored secession from the United States. The abolitionists believed the U.S. Constitution strongly backed slavery and gave dominant political power to the slave states. The recently published SLAVERY'S CONSTITUTION by David Waldstreicher supports that view as well.

James M. McPherson gives a superb analysis of the states rights justification for the Civil War in THIS MIGHTY SCOURGE: PERSPECTIVES ON THE CIVIL WAR. He demonstrates that, from the nation's founding until just before the Civil War, the South thoroughly dominated the central government, largely controlling the presidency, the Supreme Court and Congress. For that entire period, the South had little use for states rights.

A thoroughly specious comparison is the "secession" of the Czech Republic from the Soviet empire to the secession of South Carolina from the United States. South Carolina wasn't a conquered, vassal state. South Carolina had voluntarily entered into a contractual bond with the United States. To dissolve a binding contract, BOTH parties must agree to the new arrangement. Saying that South Carolina can UNILATERALLY rescind that contract would be like my saying I can unilaterally stop paying the mortgage.

45. digbydolben - December 14, 2009 at 02:02 pm

Saying that South Carolina can UNILATERALLY rescind that contract would be like my saying I can unilaterally stop paying the mortgage.

46. digbydolben - December 14, 2009 at 02:05 pm

The comment I italicized above is an example of a ridiculous comparison of apples and oranges, if I've ever heard one: of course the bank will take your house away from you, if you "UNILATERALLY" stop paying your mortgage; that's an ECONOMIC consequence, but the bank will not invade you, will not shoot at you, will not take your citizenship away.

A typical comment from a citizen of the "land that war made"!

47. epm522 - December 14, 2009 at 02:06 pm

#43 Thanks for your calm response.

Re: DigbyDolben: Slavery is always wrong irregardless of how the Constituition addressed the issue. The 3/5 compromise was included because of the southern founders knew that the more populous Northern states would have more power in Congress.

Jefferson and Madison as smart as they were, were not above using veiled methods to get Southern views in place. Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions anyone? Thanks Messrs. Jefferson and Madison for the Compact Theory which lead to the whole nullification issue.

We also know that many Irish immigrants were not interested in fighting a war to free slaves to take their jobs on the bottom rungs. We also know England shipped Irish to their Caribbean colonies as slaves well before the American Revolution.

In my view, it is unfortunate that Reconstruction ended so soon. Its demise caused close to century's worth of Jim Crow laws and other barabarous acts like Rosewood, Florida. No one denies there is racism in the North. No one denies fortunes in the North were made from slavery. No one denies there was slavery in the North. I think New Jersey was the last state to officially end it?

It is 2009. Accept the fact that the Civil War ended. There is no room in the United States for slavery and racism. Outmoded thinking like the Abbeville group skirts the real issues. Until they make a stand and agree that Slavery made the South what it was there is nothing to gain in listening to them now.

48. nacrandell - December 14, 2009 at 02:43 pm

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches it is not suprising to see new books on the era. What is suprising is to see a planted marketing "article" in the Chronicle.

Come on and stop with the fluff and the "responses" from the subjects themselves to sell their books, which are quite prominently displayed on the website provided. What is the Chronicle's cut of any sales?

49. pseudotriton - December 14, 2009 at 04:30 pm

Since the US is usually so adamantly supportive of separatist, ehh, I mean independence movements in many other countries, it is only fair that it has some substantive independence, eh-hmm, I mean secession movements of its own. Unfortunately, American Exceptionalism prevents their advocates ever becoming mainstream. Instead, American separatists are relegated to small groups of outcasts who are usually targets of ridicule. And the ones who dare to speak up (somewhat) keep a low profile. This is why there's no need for censorship in the US, because self-censorship works great wonders here. (For an example of American Exceptionalism, refer to the comparison with the Cezh Rep--which was never part of the USSR, BTW--given by #44.)

Also, anyone who believes that the American Civil War was fought solely for the abolition of slavery demonstrates the highest level of naiveté. And surely noone can honestly believe that any modern secessionist are doing it to revive slavery?

50. ovation - December 14, 2009 at 04:41 pm

Further to the subject of "states' rights" (that delightful "red herring" of the neo-Confederate apologists), one should read the CSA constitution, along with the pre-1865 writings of Davis and Stephens. Not much there that supports the notion of "states' rights". POST-1865 writings of Davis and Stephens (among others), in an attempt to rehabilitate the "southern cause" after the fact, went on at length about the struggle to preserve "states' rights" from federal tyranny and other such poppycock. Unfortunately, a truncated Reconstruction and other measures taken in the name of "national healing" and political expediency from Grant onward in the latter third of the nineteenth century gave credence to this myth.

Ultimately, the inescapable truth remains that slavery was the primary (by quite a margin) source of the conflict. Attempts to obfuscate this by grossly exaggerating the "North as morally pure" strain of historiography (I still await some concrete evidence of this) so as to better set up a strawman against which the noble efforts at rehabilitating the "southern cause" can be measured are, frankly, intellectually dishonest. The North was not "innocent and pure" but that is not cause for replacing one distortion (leaving aside its exaggerated status) with another one that is equally without foundation--that of the noble struggle for "states' rights" wherein slavery was merely an incidental, even tertiary concern.

51. ovation - December 14, 2009 at 04:48 pm

To #51: Name one reputable historian who argues that the Civil War was fought to ABOLISH slavery. Just one will do.

The war was caused by the existence of slavery. Slavery had an impact on the overwhelming majority of major policy decisions since the inception of the US. The "rebuttal" of "the war wasn't about ending slavery" is the position of someone who is either not very familiar with the issues or someone who seeks to cloud them in a feeble attempt to create controversy where there is none (reminiscent of creationists and their attempts to "rebut" evolution). Do not conflate the FACT that slavery was the primary issue of the conflict with the erroneous notion that slavery's abolition was the primary goal of the war (for the Union) at its onset.

52. ovation - December 14, 2009 at 04:49 pm

sorry, that was meant to say "to #49" in the previous post

53. dmaratto - December 14, 2009 at 06:19 pm

In a way, they have a point: the U.S.A. was founded on secession, we seceded from the British Empire.

As the Simpsons so perfectly put it: when Apu, the Indian store clerk, goes into the oral portion of his citizenship test, and is asked what caused the Civil War, he starts talking in depth about the many varied and complicated reasons behind the war, the multiple socioeconomic and historical factors ... the American interviewer interrupts him with "Just say slavery!" His wise response: "Slavery it is, sir."

54. marka - December 14, 2009 at 07:01 pm

Hmm ... Some very odd views about the 'law,' 'secession' v. rebellion v. revolution, history & 'revisionism,' States Rights v. slavery, etc.

Secession is in the eye of the beholder, as is rebellion. The Founding Fathers were considered rebels & traitors, and had prices on their head as such. The British government didn't see them as 'revolutionaries' fighting a 'just cause' because their 'rights' had been denied. We only see it that way because we've been taught that our cause was just, and we happened to win. Win or not, those perceptions are subject to how one is raised, 'educated,' or brainwashed. A trip through Quebec history, and other 'secessionsist' movements, such as those of Scotland & Ireland, among others, is enlightening in this regard.

Likewise, Unionist Northerners variously saw the Southerners as 'rebels' or 'secessionists' or 'slaveholders' (as well as vagabonds & worse). But Copperhead Northerners didn't see it that way at all. Southerners didn't necessarily see themselves that way either -- they believed they were fighting for their 'rights.'

All history has constantly been subject to 'revision' - it might be said that all history is simply the story one side or another promotes, subject to someone else later on changing the story to fit current needs, desires, and views.

And of course someone can break a 'contract' 'unilaterally' - it happens every day. And of course there are often differences of opinion about what the 'contract' was - and wasn't. There certainly is a very good argument for 'states' rights' - arguments that continue today. As already noted, go ahead and read the 9th, 10th, and 11th amendments to the US Constitution. And while you are at it, read the Constitution itself - there is nothing in it prohibiting 'secession,' and it explicitly preserves many sovereign aspects for the States, as individual sovereignties. An individual sovereign might legitimately claim that it is able to leave the union of States -- surely no one could legitimately argue that one party to a relationship can't unilaterally leave -- or are we still in a time & place where a woman needs to stay in a marriage that she considers abusive ... because she can't unilaterally terminate the marriage contract?

So, the seceding States took the position that they had the right to leave the Union (marriage contract), because the North was trying to take away their ability to determine their own policies - slavery being the predominant one, but not the only one. No, not every Confederate supported slavery, nor fought to continue it, but fought for pride and a sense of duty, however misguided.

And speaking of slavery, ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, British, American, and other civilizations and empires were based on slave labor - the slaves building monuments to the victorious. This includes many US Northerners who benefited from the slave trade, including those pious Quakers and other shipowners who made huge profits on the trade. So let's not kid ourselves about who was 'right' and who was 'wrong' -- we still tolerate slavery today -- in the form of the international trade in cheap labor, including the sex trade.

55. miminator - December 14, 2009 at 09:01 pm

I agree with the contention that for this to be a free republic, states should be allowed to succeed. That's why I don't recite the pledge, it declares that we are "one nation indivisible". I often wish the south had been allowed to succeed because I believe we would have been better off without them and that slaves would have risen up in revolt soon enough and their descendents would be in a stronger position today because of it. Perhaps the yankees could have supplied and funded such a revolt.

The idea of special southern virtue strikes me as ludicrous. I have often noticed how only the toothless virtues such as politeness and piety are encouraged or even allowed among the wealthy and powerful and their imitators.

56. jffoster - December 14, 2009 at 10:52 pm

Minimator, we Southerners have "succeeded". What we have not succeeded in doing was SECEEDING.

Not yet, anyhow.

57. msommer - December 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm

When Livingston refers to "southerners," he has only white people in mind. When he claims that "Anyone raised in the South has a certain dissonance in his imagination because he receives a history of his own identity and country that he knows is not quite right," his "anyone" obviously does not include black southerners. At the time of secession, slaves actually comprised the majority of the population in many regions of the south, but the views and experiences of black southerners obviously have no place in Livingston's revisionist fantasy of southern tradition. For these "scholars" to pretend that their nostalgia for the old south and for the idea of secession has nothing to do w/ white supremacy is disingenuous at best.

58. superdude - December 15, 2009 at 02:13 pm

Livingston is a fool, and deserves derision, not an article dedicated to his organization in the CHE.

The Civil War is over, and the good guys won.

59. pseudotriton - December 15, 2009 at 06:11 pm

superdude, you mean the winners were good guys (who also wrote the history).

msommer, I just find it hard to imagine that any modern day seccession advocates who want to be taken seriously would propose a reversion to white supremacist rule and purge the south of any non-white-males. Such association of American South seccession with racism is but a convenient attack on separatist movements in the US. The same argument could easily be made on many other separatist movements in the world, but it is curiously reserved for the domestic case.

60. ovation - December 15, 2009 at 08:06 pm

Separatist movements frequently have a significant element of xenophobia attached to them, so even if an overt desire to return to "the days of white supremacy" is not in the cards, an underlying nostalgia for "the good old days" is not too hard to discern in much of neo-Confederate apologia. I happen to live in a society with a far more vigorous separatist movement exists than anywhere in the US and xenophobia is certainly an element of that movement. The argument DOES easily apply to many such movements.

The Confederacy has far too little to offer by way of positive heritage to be lionized anywhere nearly as much as it is. If anything, it gets off too easy already. That there were admirable qualities in the antebellum South is certainly true. That the Confederacy represents any of them, however, is not--at least not sufficiently to outweigh all the negatives. Those who seek to repair the damage done to the reputation of the South by way of rehabilitating the Confederacy are making a very poor choice. It is akin to trying to rehabilitate Russia by defending the Soviet Union.

61. kunsthistorikerin - December 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

The article doesn't give me enough to make a judgment about this particular group, but there is one thing that makes me raise an eyebrow. The article suggests that the mission is to promote "what is good" about the South, Southern history, etc.

[To set the scene before you judge my comment further: I'm a neutral child-of-immigrants with no personal attachment to the topic, but I married into an old Virginia family (with various Revolutionary and Civil War heroes tucked into their big family tree) and I can safely say there's plenty of good and plenty of bad on both sides, and that saying "Civil War = slavery" is about as offensive as saying "WWII = Hitler's bad" of "Irag War = oil" -- by which I mean: Sure, if you have to describe it in three words that's more or less true, but if you have any desire to sum the greatest military conflicts of the modern era in three words each, then you (my good Sir) are an imbecile. My dear students would be expelled for trying to get away with that. The real story is always much more complicated.]

Here is why I raise an eyebrow: I'm a medievalist. If someone were to propose a project/conference/etc where the topic was an answer, not a question, I would have a problem with it. So, if your topic amounts to "What was going on in the ninth century in Europe", you are good. If, however, your topic is "Charlemagne was great and let's discuss why," we need to talk. Another example: "How did the Crusades affect East-West Interaction?" is super; "Western Civilization owes much to Islam, and has since the twelfth century" is no good. It doesn't matter that I happen to agree with that last conference title; some of my colleagues may disagree with it. They'd be foolish to do so -- in part due to history; in part due to a current scholarly trend which is striving to include multiple perspectives and to emphasize points which had previously been ignored -- but they have the right.

So, this is the problem I have with the Abbeville group, assuming that I am reading the hints in the article correctly: "There are things in Southern history to celebrate" sounds like an opinion, not a field of study. If the discussion were framed from the beginning as "let's bring nuance to our understanding of the South by trying to integrate multiple perspectives, positive and negative, into one coherent discourse" I'd be far more sympathetic. This sounds more like "let's search for what was good in our past, and let's talk only about that because it's the part that evokes our sense of compassion and sympathy." As someone who pursues fieldwork in former East Germany and frequently encounters shadows of the 1930s and 40s in my work, I can tell you that any teaching of one-sided history (medieval or modern) to a generation of dissatisfied youth is NOT a good idea.

62. ovation - December 16, 2009 at 09:37 am

While I agree with a great deal of what you say in your post, I have a bit of trouble with the following:

From # 61: saying "Civil War = slavery" is about as offensive as saying "WWII = Hitler's bad" of "Irag War = oil" -- by which I mean: Sure, if you have to describe it in three words that's more or less true, but if you have any desire to sum the greatest military conflicts of the modern era in three words each, then you (my good Sir) are an imbecile. My dear students would be expelled for trying to get away with that. The real story is always much more complicated.

This is a casual comments page, not a forum for the proposal of graduate level research papers, so a "three word" shorthand is not especially "offensive" if basically correct (and of your three examples, Civil War = Slavery certainly qualifies). Moreover, I'd like to see someone try to accurately explain the US Civil War without placing slavery at the heart of the conflict. Hitler and oil were important to the other conflicts you mention, but neither was AS important as slavery was to the US Civil War as a cause (both underlying and proximate). That there are underlying complexities to each of those conflicts does not alter the fact that each of those factors was important.

The "usual suspect" alternatives (invoked by those seeking to erroneously diminish the importance of the slavery question) are all linked to slavery. Territorial expansion debates? Slavery was at the heart of the friction as restrictions on the expansion of slave state numbers was a threat to a de facto "balance of power" in the Senate. Tariff policy disputes? No longer a problem after Walker and the Tariff of 1857 and overwhelmingly a problem because of a failure to diversify the economy of the Lower South (the Upper South had seen the benefits of economic diversification and was far less troubled by tariff policies in general). "States' rights"? What right does anyone suppose the states who favoured secession were attempting to protect?

People seem to think that saying the Civil War as about slavery is the same as arguing it was about ENDING slavery. It is not. However, the institution of slavery distorted the very core of the governing system of the country and it affected the vast majority of policy disputes by magnifying them. Tariff policy without slavery would likely have encouraged economic diversification in the whole of the South much earlier (such policies are what allowed the US to emerge as an industrial powerhouse when it did) and would have been far less sectionally divisive. Territorial expansion without slavery would have been a non-issue.

Attempting to make slavery a tertiary issue with regards to the Civil War and its causes is akin to Holocaust denial. And THAT is an offensive position indeed. No serious scholar denies that other factors were at play in the conflict. No serious scholar denies that abolition was NOT the primary goal of the Union at the onset. No serious scholar denies that significant numbers of southerners found slavery abhorrent. But no serious scholar, in the face of the overwhelming evidence, can honestly deny the primacy of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. And no serious scholar should let those who attempt to do so go unchallenged.

63. kunsthistorikerin - December 16, 2009 at 09:00 pm

I don't know. My post was about questions, not answers, being at the center of scholarship. I feel that institutions should support research questions which are of interest, not answers which are perceived to be "correct" one way or another -- there will always be more than one answer to a question.

Now, an individual scholar can and should disagree with incorrect conclusions -- but the objections should be based on the historical methods we teach, not the personal moral standards we feel inside. Holocaust denial is an interesting example -- I am against Holocaust denial because I am a historian and I have read the primary sources, not because the idea offends me personally.

I am rationally aware that there is a direct correlation between most Holocaust deniers and people who are anti-Semitic, but if I encounter a person who denies the Holocaust I do not automatically accuse them of anti-Semitism. I realize that is not easy, but still it must be done: think of all the people who were burned in the Middle Ages for supporting concepts that the Church deemed false. It's one thing to say that someone's conclusions are false; it's something else to condemn them for it, or to deny them the right to publish their findings, no matter how "wrong". Time and discourse, not anger and censorship, are the true tests of our scholarship.

So, if you say that "attempting to make slavery a tertiary issue with regards to the Civil War and its causes is akin to Holocaust denial," well, I would say that the fact that these topics offend you isn't really enough to establish kinship. Two things can both be disliked by you and not be the same thing, right? Now, if you see a methodological similarity between the historical study of the Civil War and WWII, that's a different matter. I think the evidence from the Civil War is more complex than the evidence from Nazi Germany, but maybe that's just me. At the end of the day, both are still painful, open, pressing topics that require a thoughtful discussion, not an angry silence.

64. ovation - December 16, 2009 at 09:36 pm

What I find offensive from both Holocaust deniers and Neo-Confederate apologists is both personal and professional. On a personal level, I find the notions repugnant. On a professional level, I'm offended at the willful disregarding of overwhelmingly clear evidence and I do see a methodological similarity in each camp's attempt to present their erroneous and distorted perspective. I do not favour silencing either group. I do feel duty bound to challenge them at every turn when I have the opportunity to do so.

65. winstonsmith1987 - December 19, 2009 at 03:31 pm

Nobody should be silenced and debate should be wide open in a free society, however disturbing is the topic.
But, the neo-Confederacy proponents, and their ideology, should be recognized for what it is...Southern historical and Civil War revisionism.
These Old South "scholars" may try to dress or disguise issues w/ novel language or selective logic, but the South pulled out of the Union, thereby triggering the Civil War, b/c they were meeting resistance in Congress to the expansion of the "institution" of slavery to new states. The wealthy, plantation and slave-owning, elite politicians representing the South in Congress, over-reacted as they succeeded while claiming the North was on the verge of banning slavery throughout the country.
The Old South "scholars" may deny it, but the Confederacy devasted our nation in a Civil War causing hundreds of thousands of Americans to die b/c wealthy, elite politicians of the South wanted to continue owning humans who would do their grunt work.

66. sobserver - December 22, 2009 at 02:04 pm

It seems to me that there are two questions to be decided . The first is the question of slavery and the second is the right of states to secede. The first answer is obvious. Slavery was and is an odious and horrible institution. It also was a major cause, but not the only cause, of the War. Trace the history of the debates over tariffs in the years preceding the Civil War. They largely pitted the agricultural South against the industrialized North. In fact, Lincoln did not make slavery an issue until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. To him, the primary goal of the North was to restore the Union.

This leads to the question of secession. Southern states believed they had the right to leave a Union they had voluntarily joined. Lincoln and many of his Republicans disagreed. The war settled the issue, not the law. Indeed, Jefferson Davis was arrested and charged with treason but never tried since most legal experts feared that the courts would find no reason for the North to invade the South since it could not be shown that secession was in any way illegal.

67. ovation - December 23, 2009 at 12:52 am

The "agricultural South" failed to diversify its economy sufficiently in large part because of slavery's distorting effects on the economy which made the tariff issue far more contentious than it otherwise would have been. The issue of secession is, technically, a separate issue. However, it was the issue of slavery that made southern secession a policy with any support in the first place. Lincoln did not have to specifically make slavery "an issue". It had been "an issue" since the inception of the Union. What Lincoln did with the Proclamation was make abolition an issue and that was something not part of the original war aims of the Union. This distinction is almost always ignored yet it is a vital one if we are to understand just how pervasive the influence of slavery was on the political and social structure of the entire country--not just the South.

68. janehay - January 18, 2010 at 01:47 pm

Without entering into a debate about whether slavery was a central issue in the War (I believe it clearly was), is it truly racist to suggest that just as we study other aspects of British culture before they abolished the slave trade, there are other aspects of Southern culture to be studied? Rich white slave owners were a minority in the South, were they not? And in response to someone who stated earlier that any examination of "other aspects" of Southern culture before emancipation and reconstruction was simply euphemistic for white culture, I don't believe that's true. I would have loved to have studied the history of the gens de colour libre in school, rather than having to learn of their existence on my own at a later date. Leaving all of these issues aside, however, I have to agree with the individual who criticized the emphasis of the article: if this group is dedicated to studying secession as a political ideaology, not simply as connected with the War here, then why were we not treated to more of this presumed dialogue? Why the cloak and dagger treatment? Doesn't that simply perpetuate the atmosphere they are supposedly unhappy with as scholars?

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