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SREBRNIK: Is America Entering a New Civil Conflict?

Civil War monuments such as the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue represent key points of contention in contemporary U.S. politics October 7, 2017 in Richmond, VA. -123rf Stock Photo
Civil War monuments such as the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue represent key points of contention in contemporary U.S. politics October 7, 2017 in Richmond, VA. -123rf Stock Photo - Contributed

In an interview in 1994 novelist and historian Shelby Foote spoke about the reconciliation in the wake of the 1861-1865 American Civil War, often referred to as the Great Compromise.
It consists of Southerners admitting freely that it’s probably best that the Union wasn’t divided, and the North admits rather freely that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed, and that is a Great Compromise and we live with that and that works for us, he explained.

It started not long after the end of the war. The 13th amendment had been ratified in December 1865, eight months after the conclusion of hostilities. While it abolished slavery, the battle over full citizenship for African-Americans continued during Reconstruction.

There was widespread resistance to black male suffrage, which had been guaranteed by the 15th amendment. Tensions came to a climax with the deadlocked presidential election of 1876, when the results in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana were disputed.

The impasse ended with the Compromise of 1877, in which the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, was granted those states’ electoral votes in exchange for an end to federal support for Republican governments in the former states of the defeated Confederacy. Reconstruction was effectively over.

The election was as close as it was because Northerners had already compromised on the 15th amendment, according to Kate Masur, a historian at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

“If there hadn’t been voter suppression in the South from the outset of Reconstruction through the 1876 election itself, Hayes might well have won the presidency decisively.”

After Reconstruction was rolled back and Jim Crow segregation instituted in the South, a growing number of white Americans depicted the Civil War as a tragic family disagreement, rather than a battle over principle.

In 1913, veterans from both sides gathered at Gettysburg for a “Great Reunion,” where President Woodrow Wilson gave an address that included no reference to slavery or secession.

Hollywood movies from “The Birth of a Nation” through “Gone with the Wind” glorified the “lost cause.” Many portrayed northern soldiers and politicians as unfeeling “carpetbaggers” who were unable to appreciate the “Southern way of life.”
Even today, many monuments and street names continue to memorialize Southern heroes like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Defenders of such monuments point out that such statues weren’t erected to celebrate the institution of slavery; they were erected to celebrate Southern history.

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans say they are meant to honour their ancestors and other Confederate soldiers who they believe fought for noble causes.

As they describe it, the North was invading the South, and the soldiers were fighting to defend their homes, their land and their families against invaders who pillaged their towns.

“It reflects a very old set of ideas about the meaning of the Civil War,” according to David Blight, a historian at Yale University in New Haven.

“Everybody was right, and nobody was wrong. Everybody was noble, everyone fought for their conscience, you don’t have to worry anymore about what they fought for.”

In actual fact white Southerners had embarked on a propaganda campaign that romanticized slavery, idealized the Confederate past and held that white supremacy would restore lost Southern greatness.

The Confederate monuments that sprang up in public spaces across the South were an essential part of that campaign.

There were two particular waves of Confederate memorials and building naming, the first in the period between 1900 and the 1920s and the second between the 1950s and the 1960s, during the segregationist backlash to the civil rights movement.

Today, though, at least 30 Confederate memorials around the country have been removed following violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of last year.

White supremacists had rallied against a proposal to remove a statue of General Lee from a public park.

Just recently, protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Demonstrators supportive of the monument’s removal later clashed with protesters advocating its preservation.

Nearby Duke University announced that it will not return its Lee statue to the space in the university chapel where it stood until 2017.

All of this indicates that the Great Compromise is proving an obsolete narrative for understanding American history.

The old South is finally being defeated ideologically and no longer given a pass for its horrendous plantation economy built by slave labour.

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