May 23, 2013
Every Man His Own Historian
Posted on Dec 9, 2010
The chestnut of secession, slavery and the Civil War still divides us, but here, too, the historical presumptions border on the absurd. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican (certainly there is a historical joke in this label), seems to have a corner on the microphone to proclaim the virtues of his constitutionalism. His television appearances are marked by a backdrop of the flag and the Constitution. DeMint insists he will reject legislation not tied to specific constitutional authorization. Perhaps that means Social Security and Medicare, which are nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, but instead derive from the proviso of the “power to tax and spend ... for the general welfare.” We can only anxiously await his views on the post-Civil War amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th.
DeMint’s congressional and ideological predecessors believed in the right to secession and disunion—of course without constitutional authorization, as Abraham Lincoln steadfastly maintained. It took four years of bloody war to quash that notion.
DeMint’s allies in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Confederate Heritage Trust are preparing a sesquicentennial secession ball in Charleston and a 10-day re-enactment at Fort Sumter, apparently with the support of the state. The sponsors insist they merely will honor those who signed the secession ordinances. A spokesman maintained they were not defending slavery, but rather “defending the South’s right to secede, the soldiers’ right to defend their homes, and the right to self-government.” And now, 200 years later, they can celebrate history without acknowledging slavery as the cause of secession. They will not quote what Mississippi said in its secession ordinances, that slavery was “the greatest material interest of the world,” or mention its fear that abolition would undermine “commerce and civilization.” Slavery obviously caused the Civil War, Confederate glorifiers notwithstanding.
The right’s twist of history to please its backers and fuel its agenda is a vigorous enterprise. Serious history, serious scholarship and serious discussion of facts and ideas are dismissed with tunnel vision. In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Humpty Dumpty scornfully said “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice protested, Humpty Dumpty replied that the issue was “which is to be master—that’s all.” But take hope—Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
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