May 9th was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. It passed unnoticed in most national media. Despite Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, America’s black citizens were not truly free until MLK made us really see their problems during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. In 1965, the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, the Voting Rights Act was passed.
The Voting Rights Act, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were the largest step forward for equal rights in our nation’s history, certainly more important than the Emancipation Proclamation.
We are fascinated by the Civil War because it is an epic story. The American Republic was founded in 1789, and the nation only lives 72 years with slavery before it is torn apart by the argument over states’ rights, and the right to own slaves. We go on to fight a war that kills some 750,000 people, (equal to 7 million today). We then free 3.5 million people overnight, and then take years to try to put the country back together. Today, about 1 in 3 Americans can trace an ancestor to one side or the other in the Civil War. That adds up to about 100 million of our population who are remotely connected to the war.
What is sometimes lost in the story is that Lincoln, a Republican, introduced big government to America. At the start of the war, the country had a weak central government. Lincoln built the centralized state. Consider what Lincoln created:
• The first national income tax
• The first military draft
• The Quartermaster Corps, which became the 2nd largest employer in the country during the war, behind only the Union Army
• The largest confiscation of property in US history when he emancipated the slaves. Slave owners in the South lost $3.5 billion of net worth in the process
• A re-imagining of the US Constitution, passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, ending slavery, formalizing birthright citizenship, creating black male suffrage, and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. It can be said that these Amendments were a second American revolution.
Conservatives ask: “Where did big government come from?” It was invented by Lincoln, a Republican, to win the Civil War. If the Civil War ended with Constitutional Amendments that can be called a 2nd American Revolution, perhaps the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid-1960’s was yet a 3rd American Revolution. And there may be other “revolutions” to come.
Yale University Professor of Civil War History, David Blight wrote in The Atlantic that the nation has never truly gotten over that conflict. He says that the great issues of the war were not resolved at Appomattox, and in a sense, not only is the Civil War not over, it can still be lost.
When we think about the legacy of the Civil War, one of the issues that we have re-visited since the Reagan era is the revival of a debate about states’ rights and the place of federalism in our Republic. This is a persistent legacy of the Civil War, the issue of state power versus federal power: does America owe its first loyalty to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, that says the Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties are “the supreme law of the land?” Or does the 10th Amendment come first, which states that the federal government possesses only those powers delegated to it under the Constitution?
Professor Blight says that the question we have to ask the states’ rights supporters is: “states’ rights to do what?” Or, “for whom and against whom?”
During the Civil War, the states’ rights argument was used to preserve the racial order in the South. Today, the states’ rights debate is hidden in the term “limited government”, versus the right’s categorization of “big government”.
Lately, conservative partisans have brought back “nullification”, but couched in near-Orwellian terms, such as “right to work,” or, “religious freedom.” We have 36 state legislatures controlled by Republicans that are trying to eliminate abortions, remove environmental protections, enhance gun rights, and privatize education, all of which need a weaker federal government to succeed.
And every time a politician of the South says she/he is “standing on principle” and pledges “a return to our founding principles of limited government and local control,” our progress from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, through the New Deal reforms, to the 1960’s Civil Rights acts are again threatened.
50 years after the Voting Rights Act, we are finally aware that there are millions of Americans who have never fully accepted the verdict of Appomattox.
As Professor Blight said this week in a BBC lecture, as long as we continue to debate states’ rights, and as long as we continue to leave the “problem” of racism unresolved, we will need to study our Civil War.