As Ulysses S. Grant closed in on the final days of his life he reflected on the war that had catapulted him to fame and the Presidency, and on the future of the nation he had helped preserve. Rather than dwell on the heart rending tragedy of 620,000+ lives lost, Grant argued for a more positive interpretation:
“It is probably well that we had the war when we did. We are better off now than we would have been without it, and have made more rapid progress than we otherwise should have made. The civilized nations of Europe have been stimulated into unusual activity, so that commerce, trade, travel, and thorough acquaintance among people of different nationalities, has become common; whereas before, it was but the few who ever had the privilege of going beyond the limits of their own country or who knew anything about other people. Then, too, our republican institutions were regarded as experiments up to the breaking out of the rebellion, and monarchical Europe generally believed that our republic was a rope of sand that would part the moment the slightest strain was brought upon it. Now it has shown itself capable of dealing with one of the greatest wars that was ever made, and our people have proven themselves to be the most formidable in war of any nationality.”
Since witnessing the re-enactment of the slave auction Saturday morning, I have been reflecting on my own response and the responses of others. One blogger suggested that “white Civil War bloggers” should “shut the f— up and listen,” and suggested checking out this blog where African-Americans are voicing their opinions. I said in my last post that because I am not African-American I would not presume to tell anyone how to feel about this. But, I do think it is fair to explore my own reaction, and ask what an appropriate reaction would be. As one of my readers said, this was not just black history, it was white history too; it was American history. As Abbi wrote, this is our shared history.
My friends and colleagues who attended said that they were drawn into 1861. Abbi had a much more visceral response than I did. She was closer to the re-enactors. I was trying to observe the program and the crowd. I could not drown out the modern urban surroundings and the fact that the auctioneer had a headset microphone. But, obviously, the program has had me thinking ever since, even if I didn’t have the emotional response others had.
So how should a middle aged white man respond? Should I feel guilty? Abbi wrote that she came across a commenter who said he/she was tired of being made to feel guilty. I don’t think this response should be easily dismissed. This led me to explore the concept of white guilt, and to some interesting articles (here and here). I don’t know where I stand on this, but I have been struggling with some of the responses I have read that indicate some people would like to see America destroyed.
Kevin Levin asked why we feel a need to remember a war to end slavery. It’s a good question. Abbi said, “We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better.” I couldn’t agree more, but how does that translate into action and to public policy? During the post re-enactment discussion in the Old Courthouse rotunda, one man said remembering our history is great but we need to concentrate on today. In his opinion African-Americans are still not free; there is still no equality. He pointed out that black unemployment is over 16%; double that of the rest of the population. Does this mean more social programs? More affirmative action/ diversity programs?
No doubt there is still racial discrimination. There are also many other forms of discrimination; gender discrimination; class discrimination. Recent studies have shown that just being less than beautiful affects one’s prospects in life. Most of us, whatever our skin color, scratch and claw and struggle to maintain a middle class lifestyle (whatever that is). Fair or not, our society is built on competition. Competition has made America the greatest nation on earth, but just how unrestrained should that competition be? The free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans avowed that all people should have a fair chance in the race of life; that no one should be given an unfair advantage. It was this ideology that forced a confrontation with the institution of slavery. Slavery was the antithesis of free labor. Free labor was and is a noble idea, but putting it into practice has been more than challenging to say the least.
On a more personal level, I know there are thousands of people out there who would love to have my job. I hope this doesn’t sound too defensive, but, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I need to make a living too. I try every day to treat all people with respect. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the answers are to all the questions I’ve raised here. Greater minds than mine have wrestled with them and the answers are still elusive. But, I still believe in America. I still believe in the American people, in all their various shades of skin tone, and I believe that an honest examination of our past should make us stronger. And, no one can convince me that destroying the United States of America would be good for anyone. To use an old metaphor, “You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”