On this day in 1868, Andrew Johnson, the disgraced president of the United States, gave the people of the former Confederacy a Christmas present: he issued blanket amnesty for anyone who had rebelled against the federal government during the Civil War. Johnson had earlier barely avoided conviction during impeachment proceedings and was about to leave office. So his pardon represented one of the last among many instances in which he thumbed his nose at congress, which, at the time, hoped to remake the South through the Reconstruction policies.
It’s easy and amusing enough to fight about the causes of the Civil War, though you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I agree entirely with Eric: beneath all of the arguments about states’ rights lurked slavery. Slavery was the reason that the nation split in two, the reason that 600,000 Americans died, the reason that North and South continue to squabble to this day about history. I also agree with Eric when he says that suggesting otherwise, though perhaps an amusing intellectual exercise, dishonors the memory of the dead — even if unintentionally.
We have these arguments, whether we know it or not, because the South won the peace. Southern Redeemers fought off efforts to upend their region’s social and economic order during the era of Reconstruction. At the same time, they won the memory fight. In the wake of the War, and especially after Reconstruction, most white Americans, regardless of whether they lived above or below the Mason-Dixon line, wanted to live peacefully, to consolidate or regain political power, or to get back to the business of doing business. They wanted no more conflict.
Reconciliation, then, seemed far more appealing — and far more profitable — than delving continually into the complicated and unresolved question of causation surrounding the War. As a result, in the same moment that Southern propagandists were producing the Myth of the Lost Cause, most Northerners accepted a narrative in which both Billy Yank and Johnny Reb had fought hard, fought bravely, and fought well during the War. What they had fought for, though, was a conversation best avoided. Heritage organizations, as David Blight and others have argued, led the charge in this memory fight. They erected monuments, published regimental histories, and gathered to remember the dead. And, to a remarkable extent, they avoided recriminations over which side bore the most repsonsiblity for the War. Again, reconciliation served the interests — economic, cultural, and political — of the majority of white Northerners and Southerners.
But, as the comments on a post I put up two days ago indicate, the fight over the meaning of the Civil War still lingers. And, it runs so deep that we can spend endless hours arguing about why we’re still fighting, going meta in other words. So let me suggest here that the blame lies, in large measure, with Andrew Johnson, easily our nation’s worst president (present company included). Johnson framed his 1868 amnesty order as a key step on the road to reconciliation. But he actually was propping up the South’s crumbling social order. Previous amnesties had been conditional, predicated on Southerners taking loyalty oaths. And while those oaths were hardly binding, they had cultural weight. The idea was: you want to rejoin the Union? Fine. But let’s first make certain that you acknowledge your rebellion.
Such an acknowledgement was important because the South at the time still might have been remade. Remade that is, had President Johnson not been such a successful obstructionist. The Christmas Amnesty, for example, included no loyalty oath, no requirement that Southerners reckon with their decision to have left the Union. Johnson’s failure of leadership, coupled with violence perpetrated by a slew of white terrorists — again, the Redeemers, who worked in service of the Southern Democratic Party — and the spineless rabble within the Republican-dominated congress, scuttled Reconstruction before it had a chance to succeed. The South retained most of its cultural institutions, continued to disfranchise its newly liberated African-American population, and reconsolidated political control of the region in the hands of a small minority of white elites, the former Slave Power.
And so, on this Christmas Day, it’s worth considering what Johnson was really up to when he issued his amnesty order in 1868 — and also when he had fought against congress earlier in his presidency. I’m not suggesting he had the coming battle over the War’s memory in mind. But the failure of Reconstruction, which, among other things, led directly to the the triumph of a reconciliationist narrative of the War, is one of the key reasons that people like Ron Paul and his supporters parrot neo-Confederate revisionist arguments. This is why they misuse the past, in other words, suggesting the we fought the Civil War over the issue of states’ rights.