Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Confederacy: America's Worst Idea

If You Know How to Pick Cherries That Is
By: Jonathan Harris

A Feminist Look at the Antebellum South

In the December 2010 edition of American History magazine, the editors chose Stephanie McCurry, an author and professor of history at Penn State to author their front page article entitled, The Confederacy: America's Worst Idea with the cover title Did the Confederacy get What it Deserved?: Coming to Grips with the Civil War. McCurry's faculty biography states that she "is a specialist in Nineteenth Century American history, with a focus on the American South and the Civil War era, and the history of women and gender." However, the biography should have read, "specialist in Nineteenth Century American history, with a focus in reinterpreting the American South and the Civil War era, through the lens of the history of women and gender." McCurry is nothing more than a modern-day revisionist motivated by her commitment to feminism maintaining that:

. . . the mass of Southern women had emerged as formidable adversaries of the government in the long struggle over its military policies. By insisting that the state live up to its promises to protect and support them, even taking up arms to do so, these poor white women, who had never participated in politics before, stepped decisively into the making of history.

To support her assertion she cites the fact that, "Mobs of women. . . carried out at least 12 violent attacks on stores, government warehouses, army convoys, railroad depots, salt-works and granaries" between the middle of March and the middle of April in 1863. Yeah, that was what crippled the Confederacy. A month in which wives rioted for food. It wasn't so much the Northern Army, lack of resources, and lack of man-power- it was a handful of angry women. Even more ridiculous is McCurry's insensate characterization of the Confederacy as "the white man's new republic" because "3.5 million were enslaved" and another 3 million (women) were "disenfranchised" since they couldn't vote. My question for Professor McCurry would be, "And how did this differ from the North?" She forgets that the Northern states didn't allow women to vote either, and the few blacks that did live there were almost universally barred from voting. Naturally, I was appalled at what I was reading. A cover story in American History ends up really being just an opinion piece on how women get the credit for defeating the South and they should have been given the right to vote? Something's wrong in our history departments, and I think it can be traced back.

It was twenty-one years ago that Drew Gilpin Faust- the present day president of Harvard University- managed to "rub everyone the wrong way" by stating that the Confederacy lost the War Between the States most likely as a result of the lack of support among women in the South. Stephanie McCurry, who was moderating Faust's panel at the time, remembers the audiences reaction.

The audience at the talk, she says, "went nuts." To military specialists, to historians of slavery, to economic historians, even to some feminist historians, Faust's argument seemed at once radical and wrong-headed, and at the conference and afterward many people let her know that. Faust was verbally attacked. "I'd never seen anything like it."

Even other revisionists and anti-South historical hacks such as James McPherson had a problem with Faust. However, as we can see, what was out of step twenty-one years ago is now the front page of one of the premier American history magazines.What's happening to our educational integrity in this country?

Who Started It?

Naturally, the feminist reinterpretation of the South was not the only problem with McCurry's article. Just about every sentence had some kind of a bias or blatant inaccuracy, and without actual citations, most references are hard to actually look up. McCurry starts her "historically researched" article by saying, "In December America will mark a unique and largely embarrassing anniversary [i.e. the beginning of the War for Southern Independence]." Yeah, that's the way to start a historical paper. Tell us what you really think right off the bat. She continues, "The secessionist states hazarded all [meaning since they started the war, they are responsible for all the damage it brought.]" However, could not one say equally that the North "hazarded all." After all, Lincoln was the one that mobilized an army and sent in troops. The Battle of Fort Sumter- in which no one died- was a manipulated event with Lincoln's name all over it. However, even if you for some reason think that the South Carolina "started" the war (despite the riots in Maryland and Missouri instigated by Federal troops enforcing marshal law to keep them from seceding), this does not explain why the Feds went after the other ten Confederate States. The South seceded, the North invaded. It's as simple as that. Tell me, who's the one causing the hazard- the folks wanting to be left alone, or the invading force?

He Said It Once, He Said It Again, But He Was Lying

In the next paragraph, McCurry indirectly contradicts herself. She states, "Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders cast secession as a constitutional move designed simply to restore government to what the Founding Fathers had in mind." She then quotes Davis as saying in his post-war memoir The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government:

The goal of secession was merely to protect the rights of "sovereign" states from "tremendous and sweeping usurpation by the federal government. . ."The existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, bot only an incident."

What would a normal person gather from all this? That if the Confederate leaders reasons at the outset and after the war were the same, they must be the actual reasons for which they fought (at the very least in their minds). What does McCurry say? Nothing of the kind. She says people who believe this line of thinking have, "lost sight of the true nature of what the Confederates attempted to do" which was of course keeping slavery legal. So basically the Confederate leaders were involved in a conspiracy to reinterpret the war in their favor before the war even started? Davis's account of the war she labels "mythology." After all, he was only the president of the country, what did he know anyway?

The Confederate Constitution

As the article goes on, the claims become more and more bizarre. Maintaining that the Confederacy had no right to secede- without supporting it with one shred of evidence- McCurry then notes that the Confederate Constitution precluded their own states from seceding. This has to be one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Davis, who says secession is inherent in the U.S. Constitution, becomes president of a country which forms a constitution which is almost verbatim the same as the U.S. (with a couple common-sense changes), yet somehow what he "really meant" was that no state could leave. Really? McCurry continues to put her lack of knowledge on display by even claiming that the document "eliminated any opportunity for the new government ever to change the law of slavery." She quotes from the Article 1, Section 9, "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed." It's key to remember here that the effect of the U.S. Constitution was really the same exact thing, excluding the term "negro slave," even though by law they were covered under "property." However, what the U.S. Constitution did not allow for was the individual banning of slavery by States, which the Confederacy allowed. Neither did the U.S. Constitution itself ban the slave trade which the Confederate Constitution specifically did in Article 1:

The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.

I mean, you can tell right? These guys really wanted to preserve slavery!


There exists a pile of other inaccuracies and misinformation contained in McCurry's article, however if I were address all of them I would likely have an essay on my hands five times the length of this one. We could talk about her handling of the Cornerstone Speech, characterization of slave insurrections, predictions on how slavery would have continued for generations if the South had won, etc. Suffice it to say, whatever McCurry is, she's not a historian. She's a pop-mystic, speaking about history as if it is a type of deity ordaining the ultimate triumph of almighty woman. I will be canceling my subscription to American History.


Lisa Knight said...

I too am cancelling my subscription to American History Magazine due to this woman's article. It is by far the worst and most biased piece of drivel I've ever read on the Civil War. I think your analysis was right on.

Norfolk_Va said...

"However, what the U.S. Constitution did not allow for was the individual banning of slavery by States, which the Confederacy allowed."

Where is this in the Confederate Constitution? I always thought it did the exact opposite (as it requires new states entering the Confederacy to recognize Negro slavery).

I'll be glad if you can explain it to me ... because this issue was the one biggest stumbling block I've encountered when debating Yankees!

Jon said...


Our culture has been completely inundated with nationalism to the point that we don't recognize our federal history. The constitution of both the CSA and USA were meant to limit Federal authority, not the authority of the states. Therefore, the Federal government wasn't allowed to interfere with the ownership of slavery but they could regulate it and kill it by restricting trade. The states were given the authority to abolish it if they wished and in their own time.