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2011 is a lot like 1861

Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but 150 years on, many seem willing to refight issues that should have been settled by the Civil War.

National Park Service

Grant accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but 150 years on, many seem willing to refight issues that should have been settled by the Civil War.


The Civil War — or is it the War Between the States? The War of Northern Aggression? My great-aunts referred to it as the Late Unpleasantness. We can't decide what to call it, nor can we agree on what caused it: slavery? States' rights?

In any case, Americans are commemorating the heck out of it and will be for the next four years. In Alabama, they re-staged the inauguration of Jefferson Davis; South Carolina replayed the siege at Fort Sumter; here in Tallahassee, a passel of ancestor-worshipers dressed up in 1860s clothes and re-created Florida's Secession Convention. Come summer, we'll re-enact battles from Philippi Races to First Manassas.

But all this sesquicentennial memorializing doesn't mean we're not still fighting the war. Slavery was abolished, but its legacy, and that of slavery's hateful stepchild Jim Crow, lives on. The Union was preserved, but we've still got people from the frostbit outliers of the Alaskan Independence Party to the democratically elected officials of Sun Belt Texas threatening to secede.

The "Civil War Amendments" (Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen), guaranteeing equal protection under the law, citizenship and voting rights regardless of race or ethnicity, are under attack from the right. Gov. Rick Scott seems to feel that if he doesn't like a federal law, he can simply ignore it.

We have been here before. The original Constitution left unresolved the question of slavery in the supposed Land of the Free. The Republic was only a few decades old when Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, reacting against federal centralization, began to push the idea that states can veto or "nullify" acts of Congress.

In 1832, South Carolina obstructed collection of tariffs on cotton exports — basically, they refused to pay federal tax. South Carolina and other southern states called for radical devolution, proposing a loose "confederacy" liberated from federal control. For the next 28 years, the slave-holding states regularly threatened to quit the Union, always pulling back after extracting concessions from Congress.

Then Abraham Lincoln became president. Florida's white elite branded him "an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation." Remind anybody of how some of Barack Obama's critics talk?

Campaigning in Macon, Ga., the other day, Newt Gingrich declared that the 2012 presidential election is the most important since 1860. Some commentators have described his statement as "racist dog-whistling."

But that's wrong: the rest of us can hear it loud and clear. Without wading into the sawbladed weeds over Lincoln's complex views about race, black colonization, etc., suffice it to say that to white Southerners he was not, to paraphrase former Gov. Sarah Palin, a man who saw America as they saw America.

Florida's "Justification of the Causes of Secession" of 1861, based on a similar South Carolina document, cites Lincoln's "often proclaimed hostility to our institutions" and "fixed purpose to abolish them." Pro-slavery apologists linked Lincoln with abolitionist John Brown, the leader of a bloody raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859: "The felon chief of that murderous band has been canonized as a heroic martyr by public meetings by the press and pulpit of all of the Northern States." Lincoln was clearly palling around with terrorists, and the plantation South meant to take their country back.

Lincoln didn't have to contend with the same challenges to his presidential legitimacy as Obama — maybe they didn't have long-form birth certificates back then. Still, he was painted as a radical, hellbent on wrecking American society, often depicted in pro-slavery illustrations as Satan. Obama will see Lincoln's devil and raise him a Hitler, a Stalin, a band of gorillas and a witch doctor, complete with a bone through his nose.

Conservatives holler that their objection to Obama isn't his color, it's his health care plan. Or his environmental policies. Or his "liberal" judge appointments. Or his "socialism." But Franklin D. Roosevelt looks a lot more "socialist," with his Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and his minimum wage legislation and his Social Security Act. Nobody seemed terribly interested in seceding back then.

Now we've got a black man in the White House (coming in through the front door, no less) and some on the right are deploying the language of 150 years ago. As a North Carolina tea party leader thundered in his newsletter: "Washington, D.C., has become destructive of our economy and liberty. It is our right and our duty to throw off such a government."

A number of Republican politicians go so far as to insist that the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which delegates to the states all powers not specifically accorded to the federal government, gives them the right to leave the Union at any time (never mind that pesky supremacy clause in Article VI). There's a proposed constitutional amendment, the "Repeal Act," which would allow states, by a two-thirds majority, to overturn or ignore federal law.

Imagine what might become of the Civil Rights Act or the Endangered Species Act if members of 34 state legislatures, "encouraged" by the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, billionaire financiers committed to remorseless Ayn Randian capitalism, or Big Ag or anyone else who bankrolls election campaigns decided to rid themselves of such constraints on their profitmaking abilities.

Maybe citizenship should only be for certain people: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (who has expressed disapproval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) would like to "reform" the 14th Amendment, making it harder for the children of immigrants — children born in the United States — to have acquire full citizenship. Under such a change, Barack Obama not only could never have become president, he couldn't even vote.

And then there are the 26 Republican-controlled state governments that are suing the Obama administration, claiming that the "individual mandate," the requirement that most citizens buy health insurance, is unconstitutional.

Not to be outdone, Florida is suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency for having the brass-faced gall to enforce the Clean Water Act (signed by a Republican president and on the books for more than 30 years). In 2009, Rep. Ritch Workman of Melbourne referred to the federal government as a "foreign entity" (Florida's Secession convention would be proud). His fellow Republican, Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, is offended that the feds think they can force Florida to clean up its nutrient-choked waterways: "What else do we do other than secede?"

At the same time, conservatives want to diminish democracy in Florida. The governor has signed a radical bill that restricts the ability of groups like the League of Women Voters to register people to vote and throws up roadblocks for young and minority voters — just like in the good old days back when we were marking the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.

As we begin to commemorate our bloodiest, most devisive conflict, we find ourselves re-fighting the battles of 150 years ago. We'll celebrate the valor of our ancestors; we'll remember Antietam and Chickamauga, Shiloh and Gettysburg, right on up to when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. The absurdly tragic thing is that there are thousands today who wish it had been the other way around.

Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, an historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University.

2011 is a lot like 1861 05/28/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 28, 2011 4:30am]
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