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Lessons from the Civil War for America’s Fractured Present: Part Two

Timothy William Waters

Why Remembering the Civil War Matters: Talking about Belonging in America

How we remember the Civil War matters for thinking about our increasingly fragile union today—how we talk about identity, belonging, and leaving. The war seems to offer an obvious moral model. But that solution dissolves when we remember that how the war ended isn’t how it began—that the Union first fought to preserve itself, not free slaves. And because that Union was a slaveholding power, fighting to preserve itself “as it was” was a more ambiguous proposition than the now-remembered “war against slavery.”

Today, it’s common to conflate the South’s slaving and its secession, calling it treason. But the moral value of treason is different: slavery is an evil absolute; treason is a relational act. Treason can be committed only by someone who belongs to a community and is meaningful only if the thing betrayed has worth. We know the moral value of opposing slavery—but what is the value of union?

You won’t find the answer at the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln’s second inaugural address, condemning slavery on the cusp of the Union’s victory, is carved on its walls. His first, defending both slavery and union, isn’t. It’s a deceptive entanglement, because union requires its own justification. Lincoln’s defense of union for its own sake should remind us of the twin challenges any political community faces: not to treat dis-identity as treason, and not to substitute the existence of the state for its justification. After all, secession wasn’t only a slaveholder’s strategy: before the war, prominent abolitionists proposed secession of free states from slaveholding America. Today we honor them—no one is taking their statues down!—while condemning those who actually seceded not only as immoral slaveholders, but as traitors, not to the Union as it was, but to what we imagine it had been.

If we are indeed to inform present politics with the past, let us remember that past’s full complexity: that in the hour before Fort Sumter was shelled, Fort Sumter was there to be shelled; that the one thing Lincoln did not offer a slavery-maddened South was exit; and that a slaveholding Union went to war to preserve itself, and only along the way did its war become the moral crusade we remember.

We know what we should do if we encountered slavery or its moral equivalent today—and for some, the stakes in our present politics are that high. But if it really came to it, what would be the right response to secession in 2020? We might oppose a new immoral regime. But if the separatists’ reason—their “treason”—were the desire for separation itself, I see no grounds for opposing it. There is no value in union in and of itself.

Because remember, the Declaration of Independence advances two theories—oppression, but also consent of the governed. It seems to me that if a sizable group—a people—no longer wishes to share our political community—no longer wishes to be an “us”—then we have to let them go. As long as they don’t propose to do something immoral, we have no cause to compel their staying. (Or they ours—after all, if things get bad enough, it might be you who wants to leave, not “them.”) That’s the lesson of our Revolution, a lesson our Civil War—precisely because it conflated a moral crusade with the preservation of a state—has hidden.

So what lesson for our present politics, whether we stay together or split apart?

Humility, I should think. We must act upon our convictions. But we should do so in the knowledge that we may be in error—after all, the South is there to remind us that even those who are wrong feel wronged. Unless we truly face the modern equivalent of slavery, the better angels of our nature would instead give those wishing to leave reason to stay, drawing them back with shared values, not guns or walls. And if that does not work, letting those with whom we cannot agree or who will not compromise leave is a possible, moral response. You cannot betray that to which you no longer belong, and so we must be free to ask ourselves, and each other, if we still do.

It’s no coincidence that talk of division has arisen at the same time as calls for closing borders: both are about who belongs. Those invoking American greatness too often traffic in exclusivist notions about who constitutes that greatness; but those on the other end of our political divide exhibit their own exclusions, scorning the sanity and moral fitness of those who see, and voted for, a different future for this, our still-shared country.

Talking about belonging can be a good thing—though not, I think, the way too often done now, forgoing the hard work of justification and denying the moral value of others’ consent. The language of treason feeds an easier but darker narrative: it makes disunity cause for fighting, rather than a claim we must answer.

It’s the answer that matters. It’s risky to start talking about division, because taking it seriously makes it more serious. But a necessary risk: we can’t have a conversation about belonging—who we are, what we require of each other, what we are prepared to give—if we close the borders to ourselves.

You can find Part One of this two-part series here.


Timothy William Waters is professor of law and associate director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University. Author of numerous scholarly articles and op-eds on international law and politics, he also edited The Miloševic Trial: An Autopsy.


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