This week, ECW historians are offering their thoughts and reactions to recent events related to Confederate memory. Next up: Sam Smith
If we as Americans lose the memory of the war as a refounding of the republic, and replace it with a rush to find the South guilty, then we have all lost some of the truth.
The 19th century currents towards and away from centralization may not have triggered the war, but they were present in the minds of many on both sides. Other issues were settled for good in 1865, but the overwhelming centralization that has taken place since then might be the truest marker that the South, or what may more properly be termed Confederate ideology, has lost the war yet again.
I say “Confederate ideology” because the common narrative—that the framers of the Confederate Constitution only ensured the right to own slaves—has strayed far from the truth. They placed harsh limits upon their version of the interstate commerce clause, restricted Congressional spending, and gave states much more power in relation to Federal laws and appointees. The Confederacy was a different vision for American government, made different by more than its relationship with slavery. We are losing that part of the memory, for better or for worse.
The main point of history is to learn useful things about humanity. There are countless parables of honor, intelligence, courage, cowardice, stupidity, and knavery to be found in Confederate history. Many of these lessons come from the battlefield, where the faraway institution of slavery was less important to moral action than the mortal threat of hot lead and iron. I do not think that the actions taken and the lessons that result are rendered worthless and perverted for future study by one sin, no matter how fundamental and unforgivable.
Sam Smith is a Washington, D.C.,-based historian who contributes to Emerging Civil War.