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Secession Was Stupid (My First Civil War Sesquicentennial Thought)

Bob Duggan, BIG THINK’s artistic blogger, worries that nobody is thinking about the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  I agree that there’s not enough political reflection about that war. 

Political reflection means, among other things, looking to statesmanship–or political leadership–as a cause of success and failure.  A neglected classic, Burton J. Hendrick’s Statesmen of the Lost Cause (1939), shows us that there’s a lot of truth to the proposition that the Confederacy’s defeat was a failure of statesmanship.  The outstanding generals–mainly from Virginia–were victimized, so to speak, by the weak political leaders–mainly from the deep South or “cotton belt.”

I’m sure historians have found much wrong with Hendrick’s analysis, but I still find its basic approach compelling. It’s certainly the approach that can most effectively achieve Bob’s goal of demystifying the “lost cause” romanticism that animates the tradition of southern apologetics. It’s also the approach that reminds us that what great men and women think and do is as important as impersonal causes–such as the economy and technology–in determining historical change.

The book is also of special interest to us in Georgia because it focuses so much on the perverse and borderline treasonous leaders from our state.  They had a lot to do with the Confederacy’s demise.

Nobody fascinates and repulses Henrick more than Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the most brilliant of the South’s political leaders. Stephens’ speeches and actions during the war can rightly be charged with vain and neurotic perversity and something like treason. Henrick revels, maybe too much, in describing what we would now call Stephens’ “body image” and “self-esteem” issues.

But, at the beginning, the statesman Stephens offered his state indispensable advice.  Don’t secede!  The argument he made at the state’s special convention (there’s a taste of it in the quote below) almost carried the day.  The vote for secession was only 164 to 131.  Had Georgia stayed in the Union, it’s very doubtful the Confederacy could have gotten off the ground. Stephens, the staesman, was a failure only because his eloquent and truthful argument was not quite persuasive enough.

For now, let’s remember that February, 1861 is the sesquicentennial of the Montgmery convention assembled to frame the new government.  Stephens reluctantly consented to be one of Georgia’s ten representatives to the convention, and he was selected the Confederacy’s vice president.

In a letter to his brother Linton sent from the Montgomery convention, Stephens wrote that the argument for secession “arises more from a spirit of peevishness or restless fretfulness than from calm and deliberate judgment….With but few exceptions the South has controlled the government in its every important action from the beginning.  It has aided in making and susaining the administration for sixty years out of seventy-two of the government’s existence.  Does this look like we were or are an abject minority at the mercy of a despotic northern majority, rapacious to rob and plunder us?”

There was, of course, no point in making such observations in public in Montgomery.  But Stephens was right:  Secession itself was the first of many of the South’s failures of statesmanship.

I’ll be returning to happiness next post, but from time to time I will be returning to key events of the war and their relation to thoughts and deeds of statesmen.  The next will be the Confederacy’s first big mistake:  the firing on Fort Sumter.

It goes without saying that it would have been a disaster if the South had won the war.  But the point of view of statesmanship allows us to consider why the South might have won.


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