Monday, April 11, 2011

April 12, 1861

On April 12, 1861 – 150 years ago today – Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, marking the beginning of the Civil War.

Suffice it to say, the North and South have always had a complicated relationship. We banded together in 1776 to fight an oppressive regime that infringed on our civil liberties and taxed us without representation. But throughout the history of the United States, there’s always been a cultural divide between us.

Still is, really. There’s a casualness down South that doesn’t exist up here. Whenever I’m down South, strangers come up to me and strike up conversation. This is something with which I’m very uncomfortable. Up here, in the North, I only make conversation with people I don’t know when it’s absolutely necessary (like, with the cashier at CVS).

This makes total sense to me. It’s part of the stoicism and self-sufficiency that makes us New Englanders. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. But it’s who we are. I’m skeptical of strangers who start up conversations with me, because it generally means one of two things – they either want to sell me something or are using the conversation as a ruse to gain my confidence so they can drag me behind an alley and slice me to pieces. When in the South and faced with strangers talking to me I do my best to be social and engage the conversation, because it’s what’s expected down there and I don’t want to come across as an a-hole. It definitely takes me out of my comfort zone and I’m not great at it. But I do my best to adjust.

And periodically, I’ll encounter someone from the South who makes waves by coming up North and calling us “Yankees” in a sneering, derisive tone. And then, after they’ve been shunned and are wondering why everybody thinks they’re a dickhead, I have to explain to them that, while adopting a combative, taunting tone in the South may be considered good-natured ribbing, even to those you don’t know well, when you’re in the North and you say these things to people who are barely acquaintances, those people will take you at face value and consider you an asshole. It, too, may be part of who they are, and I try to factor in that someone may be from a different culture. But it’s always a best practice that when you’re in Rome (or Connecticut), it’s probably in your best interest to do as the Romans (or Nutmeggers) do.

So, it’s all about adjustments.

The one thing I can’t adjust for though, is the conversation I have from time to time with some Southerners. The conversation is about the Civil War and it goes something like this – they get pissed and tell me, “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. It was about states’ rights.”

Because I just don’t buy that.

First of all, let me say that I have no issue with secession. If Texas or Vermont or Wyoming or some combination of states says, “This whole United States thing isn’t working out for us. We want out,” then I would say, “Hey, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you. I wish you the best in your new endeavor.”

But there are reasons to secede. Some are noble and some are not. When Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, said in 1861:  

Then it makes it hard for me to buy that this war was about states’ rights.

Also, it doesn’t require a close scrutiny of the Confederate State of America’s constitution to notice that the Confederate and United States constitutions were almost identical. There are some minor changes – for one, the Confederate constitution allowed for a presidential line-item veto, something that virtually every state now has, and something that would probably help prevent a lot of the budget squabbles the President and Congress are currently embroiled.

And that’s crap. Slavery goes against everything human rights stand for. If Stephens said, “Our new Government is founded upon the line-item veto,” then I’d be like, “Hey, the guy makes an interesting point.” But he mentions nothing of line-item vetoes in his famed Cornerstone Speech. And that’s why I have to call shenanigans any time I hear the “states’ rights” defense.

I just find it peculiar that so many seem hell-bent on defending the Civil War as a “war for states’ rights,” rather than calling a spade a spade. I mean, thankfully in this day and age anyone who actually believes in slavery is so far on the fringe that they’re treated as a lunatic anyway. Why not just say, “Yeah, our representatives 150 years ago, they kind of dropped the ball on that debate.” They’re all dead. So it’s not like you’re defending your father or uncle or anything. Why fight it?

I don’t mean today’s blog to be inflammatory (though clearly, in many ways it is). I just feel like the insistence of putting a different spin on the Civil War leads to more problems. All it does is perpetuate more bad blood, which sets us all back.

In many ways, back to April 12, 1861.


  1. The truly incriminating evidence that the Civil War was about slavery is the South's attitude toward the Fugitive Slave Act.

    They wanted their escaped slaves back, and were entirely happy to have the Federal Gov't. impose federal law above state law if that's what it took.

  2. Wow Phil, who knew you were so controversial?