The Myth of American History
“Is the past that is reconstructed by historians a revival or a ‘new show’?” Paul A. Cohen asks in his book History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia UP, 1997). He answers that the history created by historians is different from the history made by the people of the times. The historian’s objective is to understand the past and then explain it as “event”, whereas those who made the history explain it as “experience”. The historian tries to look at the past objectively, whereas the people who made the history tend to look at it subjectively, and in a fashion that is psychologically tolerable to themselves. If such subjectivity becomes validated by communal consensus, then myths can be created in place of intellectual truth. “Myth” is the third way of looking at history.
Can an objective historian be a purveyor of myth? However committed he may be to the objective truth, he remains a product of his own culture, and he is subjected in varying degrees to its cultural imperatives, its “world view”. How much cultural subjectivity goes into a historian’s selection of historical matter to be examined or theses to be argued? How much pressure are professional historians under to be admitted to a course of study, to hold tenure, to gain grants, and to stay in good professional and financial graces with the powers that dispense these things?
It should come as no surprise to find that the most powerful nation in history has at its disposal the most powerful means of disseminating its own version of history. From the history books used in government-accredited schools and colleges with their facts given or omitted, to television “docu-dramas”, Hollywood romantics, National Park Service presentations, and the politically correct sensationalism of the media, America has just as much incentive to tell its own story as “creatively” as anyone, and it has its own stable of “Court Historians” with government-accredited PhDs groomed to tell it – and, when necessary, to shout down, deride, or debunk with voluminous obfuscation anyone who disagrees with it.
The North’s war against the South’s secession is a glaring example. The story trumpeted from the heights is that the war was all about slavery, that the North fought to free the slaves and the South fought to keep them. But something doesn’t compute, here. The North was just as complicit with slavery as was the South. Slave-produced staples were the backbone of the North’s economy, while Northern-induced tariffs sucked the life’s blood out of the South for the profit of the North’s industries. Northern wealth was further built on the illicit African Slave-trade to Cuba and Brazil. The January 1862 Continental Monthly stated that New York was the largest African Slave-trading port in the world, with Abolitionist Boston second. As for the Abolitionists, noted Independent Southern Historian Howard Ray White points out that there were three categories. The minority were for abolition and the education of freed slaves for responsible citizenship; the second were Exclusionists, who wanted to keep slavery out of their States and out of the Territories because they wanted to keep African-Americans out of their States and out of the Territories; the third category of Abolitionists were the Deportationists, who wanted to send the freed slaves back to Africa or to someplace in Latin America. Abraham Lincoln was of this last category.
So what was the war really all about? Follow the dollar. The slavery issue was the North’s “red herring” used as moral cover for the true “Irrepressible Conflict” that was building within her classical mercantile system: the conflict between an increasingly predatory Northern industrial center that wanted to burst the constraints of the Constitution in order to achieve its ambitions, and a resistant Southern agricultural periphery that insisted on the federative nature of that Constitution that was the charter of the Union of Sovereign States that each had acceded to with ratification in 1788.
The attempted peaceful secession of the seven “Cotton States” at the election of Lincoln, the presidential candidate of the first strictly sectional party in US history, should have resolved the differences, but with these States out of the Union, the North would have lost its largest source of cotton for its mills, its largest source of tariff revenues, its largest source of exports for its shipping, a major market for its manufactured goods, and control of the mouth of the Mississippi. The South would do business with England while the North’s economy would collapse into bankruptcy and social anarchy, so – at the behest of the Northern industrialists, railroad magnates, financiers and crony capitalists who had gotten him elected – Lincoln provoked the South into firing the first shot, got the war he wanted, marched his armies across the South to the tune of the militantly Puritanical “Battle Hymn of the Republic” - burning, pillaging, raping, and killing - and drove the Southern States back into the Union at the point of the bayonet. As many as 38,000 citizens in the North who disagreed with Lincoln’s policies got locked up without trial after he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1862. So much for the lofty sentiments of his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued halfway through the war when the South was winning it, was not issued for the slave, but against his master. Its design was to keep Europe from recognizing the Confederacy, to deprive the Confederacy of some of her “support troops”, and perhaps to even spark a slave insurrection which would empty the Confederate ranks. Though many slaves ran away, most remained, looking after the farms and plantations, with many accompanying the Confederate armies.
It is common practice for us to confuse the causes of secession with the cause of the war, and the North wants to keep it that way, for the Truth is an indictment against it. Secession had many reasons, but the war was Lincoln’s choice. The noted historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, called it “The North’s War against the South’s Secession.” It is the precise description of what the war was all about, proven when Lincoln raised his imperial fist above his lofty rhetoric.
During the secession crisis, Virginia, the “Mother of States and of Statesmen,” called a Peace Conference and tried to hold the Union together, but warned Lincoln that any attempt at coercion of the seceded States would mean war. When Lincoln called for troops with just that intention, Virginia indicted him for choosing to inaugurate civil war and immediately seceded. Just as the Prophet Nathan said to King David (II Samuel 12:7), Virginia’s secession forever says to “The Great Emancipator” residing in his Olympian temple on the Mall: “Thou art the man!”
But this doesn’t dance well to the plaintive fiddle tunes on a Ken Burns TV show, so the North’s war of invasion, conquest, and coerced political allegiance must be turned into an Orwellian war of liberation. This “doublespeak” is “The Myth of American History,” validated by communal consensus, and eternally re-enforced by “Court Historians,” government textbooks, Hollywood sensationalism, race-hustling politicians, and ham-fisted morality plays. But the Truth cannot be killed. It can only be buried alive.
A native of Lynchburg, Virginia, the author graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1967 with a degree in Civil Engineering and a Regular Commission in the US Army. His service included qualification as an Airborne Ranger, and command of an Engineer company in Vietnam, where he received the Bronze Star. After his return, he resigned his Commission and ended by making a career as a tugboat captain. During this time he was able to earn a Master of Liberal Arts from the University of Richmond, with an international focus on war and cultural revolution. He is a member of the Jamestowne Society, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the Society of Independent Southern Historians. He currently lives in Richmond, where he writes, studies history, literature and cultural revolution, and occasionally commutes to Norfolk to serve as a tugboat pilot