When Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell declared April “Confederate History Month” he was quickly attacked for failing to mention slavery. On MSNBC’s Hardball, said an indignant Chris Matthews to his Confederacy-defending guest Pat Buchanan, “600,000 Americans were dead because you guys wanted to keep slaves.” Replied Buchanan:
“Virginia did not secede over slavery. Virginia stayed in the union when Lincoln was elected… at the time of Fort Sumter it was still in the Union. What took them out of the union was when Abraham Lincoln said we want 75,000 volunteers, your militia, your soldiers in Virginia, to attack the Deep South and bring them back into the union. They said we’re not going to kill our kinsmen. That’s how Virginia left the union… There were eight slave states in the union at the time of Fort Sumter and seven in the Confederacy… Lincoln’s first inaugural offered to make slavery permanent. He offered to help run down fugitive slaves if the seceding states came back…”
Ignoring all of Buchanan’s points, Matthews replied, “The point of the Civil War was slavery, let’s not get confused.” Yes, let’s not get “confused.” In fact, let’s never question, reflect, or reexamine any part of our history ever again. The Civil War was about slavery, period, any and all facts, logic or Pat Buchanans be damned.
Admittedly, only a fool or a Southern partisan would say that the War for Southern Independence had absolutely nothing to do with slavery. Likewise, only a fool or a blind partisan would say that it had only to do with slavery, and Matthews certainly fits this bill.
To reexamine the Civil War beyond the issue of slavery, inevitably invites questions concerning federalism, the nature of the union, state rights’, the Constitution’s delegation of authority, federal power and the scope of the executive branch-all questions that continue to be pertinent to modern American politics, including the Bush and Obama administrations. For liberals like Matthews, these questions are already settled because the Civil War settled them. Yet when Buchanan or anyone else attempts to unsettle them by making states’ rights or similar arguments on their own merits, the Left automatically dismisses the very legitimacy of any such debate on the grounds that it’s racist. Liberals, and quite a few mainstream conservatives, believe that any questioning of official Civil War history is not even to be permitted. “Let’s not defend the right to slavery,” MSNBC political analyst Karen Finney said during the spat between Matthews and Buchanan, ignoring the glaring fact that Buchanan did not even remotely approach defending anything of the sort.
Whittling down complex history to a single, divisive issue in order to prevent debate or serious examination is nothing new, and Buchanan is certainly no stranger to questioning official records. In his book “Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War,” Buchanan writes:
“In his memoirs, Churchill, who led Britain to victory in World War II, wrote: ‘One day President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.”
Without getting into the intimate details of Buchanan’s argument, it is worth recognizing that he questions the necessity of WW II by noting that even Churchill questioned it. Buchanan questions the mainstream narrative that the Civil War was just about slavery by noting that Lincoln himself vowed to protect slavery if only the seceding states would return. For pursuing such obvious logic, Buchanan is often painted as a racist, or worse.
This is not to say that I necessarily agree with Buchanan or others who dare to question conventional history — the point is, they aren’t even allowed to ask such questions. Did the size and nature of American government change radically after the Civil War? Well yes, but of course this was all necessary, justified and not even worth debating, according to men like Matthews. In aiding Josef Stalin to defeat Adolph Hitler, did we not accommodate and encourage a Communist regime that murdered more innocent people than the Nazis and led to a costly, decades-long Cold War? Sure, but it’s nearly impossible to contemplate this publicly.
Today, anyone who suggests states’ rights solutions — or who simply seeks to honor his Confederate ancestors — is automatically marginalized by accusations of racism, and anyone who suggests the US adopt a more practical, less interventionist foreign policy is accused of “isolationism” or of appeasing the next Hitler. This stems from the prevailing logic that if all prior history is unquestionably justified, there can be no justification for any questions to the contrary, including any alternative solutions that might stem from such contrarian views. Such a constrictive public discourse will always limit our ability to effectively change the status quo — something no one will admit to being happy with-precisely because we are not allowed to make suggestions or changes that deviate from the status quo. And the degree to which settled history continues to dictate the present is exactly why guardians of the establishment are so quick to pounce on anyone who might unsettle it.