Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Civil Discourse: A Memory?

In our increasingly polarized society there seems to have been a shift from a “live and let live” mentality to a vigorous prosecution of “thought crime” – no longer can we agree to disagree, but anyone who strays from what is considered the cultural mainstream is called out and proverbially tarred and feathered for not keeping in lockstep with the rest of us.

This creeps into the Civil War history community from time to time, usually in fairly innocuous ways. While I’m used to the usual back and forth about the merits of the newest ACW titles or the constant drumroll of snarky comments related to the latest gaffes of the “heritage” movement, I was more than a little troubled by the tone of a recent post over at Civil War Memory that features members of the history department of Liberty University.

The video explores the “enduring legacies” of the American Civil War and was put on Vimeo by an L.U. film student who apparently asked different members of the faculty to describe what they imagine to be the war’s major legacies.

The result can be seen here.

Levin states that the video is “just all around really bad,” and if he is referring to the overall watchability and quality of the film, I’m with him (but keep in mind this is the result of an undergrad film project, for crying out loud). But the vitriol aimed by Levin and the dozens of folks who took the time to leave their own acerbic musings is aimed at what the professors interviewed in the film said about how the war still affects the country to this day.

It would be one thing if these professors were wearing Dixie Outfitters shirts and talking about how tariffs were the real cause of the war and that slavery had nothing to do with it. But the views espoused by the faculty were not terribly out of the mainstream. Certainly not ideal or complete, but we aren’t even privy to everything these people said to the film student during the interviews.

For this reason I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but not so with Levin and his cohorts. For instance, Prof. Robert Ritchie is scorned for reducing “the war down to sectional differences.” Not exactly League of the South type stuff here.

Or consider Prof. Chris Jones, who said that slavery was the main cause of the war but goes on to say that modern Americans are being “enslaved” by the Federal government. He also cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that states that the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political climate. That might not be your particular outlook on life, but it’s not a harebrained conspiracy theory.

All of this leads to a dubious claim that these professors make the causes and impact of the Civil War “impossible to understand.”

And the comments? Wow.

Rather than attack what these professors actually said about the war, the commenters (not Levin himself) launch into a diatribe about the credibility of Liberty University itself. James Harrigan, who teaches at UVA, says Liberty is “not an actual university” while commenters on the blog and the blog’s Facebook page chime in with comments calling L.U. a “fake school” and suggesting that the professors quoted got their PhDs from the University of Phoenix. See the original post for more of this lowbrow fare.

I can personally attest that these representations are not accurate because I actually spent two years at Liberty University from 1998 – 2000 and during that time I took two Civil War courses. One was a survey course which had as its main text McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire and also included Thomas’s Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. Nothing by Clyde Wilson, sad to say.

The other course was a Civil War literature class taught by Kenneth Rowlette (who also runs the university’s well-regarded National Civil War Chaplains Museum) with readings that included Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane and more recent books such as Cold Mountain and Jacob's Ladder.

Can you just smell the vast Christian Right conspiracy? Somebody call the mayor of Houston!

I digress.

The point is that in no time during my two years at L.U. did I encounter the crude caricatures envisaged in these comments.

It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.

I can think of several Christians, such as Steven E. Woodworth (who also happens to be part of Liberty University’s distinguished adjunct faculty) and Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, who maintains the excellent Faith & History blog, who have made stellar contributions to Civil War history.

To quote another Christian historian, John Fea, “We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues.”

It is especially difficult for this dialogue to take place when you’re pre-judged by your religious views.


  1. Professor Price - I would agree with your assessment here. While its no secret that Kevin and I rarely agree, this is one of those situations where the accusations and comments at his blog were over the top. I think a lot of "secular" folks would be surprised at the level of Civil War scholarship at Liberty. Their annual seminar has hosted such diverse speakers as the Chaplain for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Professor George Rable.

    You mentioned Professor Rowlette. Kenny is a personal friend of mine and his work behind the scenes at Liberty promoting the school's teaching of Civil War history, including helping to found the National Civil War Chaplains Museum, is invaluable. Liberty has a lot to offer for students of the Civil War. I don't know if you've ever visited the Chaplains Museum but if you haven't, I hope you will find the opportunity at some point. I believe you'd enjoy it.

    Thank you for bringing some balance to the discussion.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Price. Your points are well taken.

    I tried to respond the one of Harrigan’s comments at Levin’s blog, but was censored.

    Levin and his followers continually lament a long lingering racial injustice in the south was the principal legacy of the war. It’s their chief focus, presumably because they can blame white southerners for it. However, they perpetually fail to discuss an even more lasting legacy, southern poverty.

    In 1860 seven of the states among the top ten as measured by per capita income joined the Confederacy. One hundred and fifty years later, only one (Virginia) made the top ten list. Instead, seven of the former Confederate sates ranked in the bottom ten (41 – 50). A classic example is Mississippi, which ranked number one in 1860 and dead last (50th) in 2011.

    Levin also repeatedly credits northerners for promoting racial equality in the south after the war. He applauds the Republicans for funding the Freedman’s Bureau. But he never mentions that such federal spending did not cost northerners anything.

    For example, they taxed cotton and raised $68 million in just a few years, which was almost three times the amount invested in the Freedman’s Bureau during its entire existence. Since the great majority of cotton was exported, the tax could not be passed along to buyers. Prices on the international markets were competitive to the Nth degree. Buyers would not pay extra for American cotton when supplies were coming in from Egypt, India, West Africa, and Brazil. Moreover, the cotton tax was a de facto export tax, which is prohibited under the US constitution. Since cotton prices dropped after the war, the tax averaged about 25% of the value of a bale.

    The lasting policies of the Republican Party were harmful to the South. Republican’s abandoned the black southern voters less than a dozen years after the war, because Republicans no longer needed them for votes, whereas earlier they did. For example, without the black southern voter in 1868, Grant would have had fewer popular votes than Democrat Seymour. Grant got 400,000 black votes to Seymour’s 50,000. It is a clear indication that Republican insistence upon black suffrage in the South was at least partially motivated by politics instead of altruism as so often implied at Levin’s blog.

    Incidentally, the Republicans only demanded universal black suffrage in the South whereas they left it as a state right at the North. I’ve never seen that mentioned at Levin’s blog either.

    While advocacy for the rights of African-Americans was not a lasting Republic policy, high tariffs, lax regulation of monopolies, and monetary policies discriminatory to the South were. For example, after the war the tariff on dutiable items averaged 45%. It remained high until Woodrow Wilson became president fifty years later. Since the southern economy remained reliant upon exports the prices southerners received on free markets provided them with no artificial protections as did the tariff for northern manufacturers. Banking regulations made it hard to start banks in the South thereby leaving the region dependent upon northern bankers.

  3. As a follow-up, it may be noted that there was little federal aid to the South after the war. As explained, the Freedman's Bureau was funded several times over from revenues obtained from the cotton tax. But let's also look at federal public works spending.

    From 1865 - 1873 less than 10% of federal public works spending was in the South although the region had a far greater need. During that period Massachusetts and New York alone received more than twice as much as all of the former Confederate sates combined.

    While Levin and his acolytes applaud Radical Republicans for promoting public services in the South, such as public schools, they fail to mention that the services were almost entirely paid for by taxes within the southern states individually. There was, at best, tiny federal investment. Yet, despite their extreme poverty, state taxes in the South were four times higher than before the war. It is NOT a fiction that southerners lost ownership of their land because they could not pay the tax. Carpetbaggers bought the great majority of such tax-deficient property, not African-Americans. Such points are seldom, if ever, discussed at Levin'g blog.

    In short, southern poverty was deliberately perpetuated as a means of transforming it into an exploited internal colony for the benefit of the North. It is only just now changing. Present day Detroit illustrates what the North would have become without the protective tariffs.