[Note: Here we are near the end of the second decade of the twentieth-first century, and we as a nation are still arguing about statues to Confederate leaders, generic marble remembrances of the “Confederate Soldier,” and other public efforts to recognize the losing side in the American Civil War, the central cause of which was slavery. One current effort to place such things into context involves trying to explain to modern-day Americans what the “Lost Cause” was, a successful endeavor by Southern apologists to “prettify” the history of slavery and the Confederacy and, at the same time, implicitly to denigrate the history of the Union side in the Civil War. Or, as I used to tell my Advanced Placement United States History students, “The South lost the war but won the peace.”
Currently, I’m reading David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and I just came across a couple of passages near the end of the volume that explain what the “Lost Cause” entailed, and, more importantly in my view, how the most prominent African American of the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, Frederick Douglass, responded to this effort to obscure the importance of slavery in bringing on the war and obfuscate what was behind the whole “Lost Cause” business.]
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Over the last two decades or so, the study of the Civil War and its significance for the American story has undergone a sea change. No longer do most historians hammer away at what they see as an obvious fact, one not worth debating: slavery was the primary cause of the War. Instead, historians have struggled to explain why that, to them, incontrovertible fact has still not swept all before it.
The obvious answer to their question is that social, political, economic, and cultural factors coalesced over the last quarter of the nineteenth century to undercut the primacy of the slavery question as the key factor in bringing on the conflict. Once more, we are immersed in trying to separate facts from interpretations.
A significant response to this controversy has been the rise of what’s known as the study of “Civil War Memory.” Historians of “Civil War Memory” set aside the “who shot John?” aspects of the war and concentrate instead on explaining what Northerners and Southerners remember about the conflict and, more significantly, why they remember it that way.
The study of “historical memory” is a subset of what’s termed “intellectual history.” Rather than stressing abstract ideas, as intellectual history does, though, “historical memory” focuses on context: what made Southerners understand the causes of the Civil War one way and Northerners another, and how did those understandings shape their approaches to the subject in subsequent historical periods? Both camps begin with the same set of facts, yet, in trying to make sense of the past, each side selects certain facts to use and emphasize while ignoring or discarding others that don’t fit their preconceptions.
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A master of the “Civil War Memory” school of interpretation is David W. Blight of Yale University. Over the past two decades, Blight has contributed at least three substantial volumes that advance our knowledge about why we (whoever “we” are) probably think of the Civil War as we do:
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), carries the story from the end of the War through the early twentieth century.
American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (2011), a wonderful meditation on how, during the 1960s, writers such as Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin established the historical context within which Americans living during the decade of the “Civil War Centennial” (including the present author) understood the causes, course, and consequences of the War.
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (2018), the subject of today’s post. This substantial biography of the best-known African American in the nineteenth century offers a wealth of information to readers interested in slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Post-Reconstruction Era (AKA, the “Age of Jim Crow”), and, especially, what both Blight and Douglass considered a battle for the historical memory of that significant period in the American story. And it is from this volume that I’m drawing material regarding both the components of the “Lost Cause” ideology and the response of Frederick Douglass to that doctrine.
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By the early 1870s, Frederick Douglass was editing a paper in Washington, D.C., the New National Era, and hammering away at the “Lost Cause” thesis. Here is how Blight summarizes what Douglass was saying (it’s the best concise, clear, and comprehensive explanation of what proponents of the “Lost Cause” mythology were trying to achieve that I’ve seen):
[Douglass] realized the power of the “Lost Cause” as both a historical argument and a racial ideology. The Lost Cause was in these early years essentially an explanation of defeat and a set of beliefs in search of a history—ex-Confederates’ contentions that they had never been defeated on battlefields but by the Northern leviathan of industrial might; that they had never fought for slavery but for state sovereignty and homeland; that the South’s racially ordered civilization had been tragically crushed by Yankee invasion; and that “just” causes can lose militarily but with time regain the moral and political high ground. . . . (Douglass, 530)
Frederick Douglass was a great defender of the presidency of Ulysses Grant, and, in supporting Grant for re-election in 1872, he was quite willing to look to the past as a way to frame Grant’s candidacy in the best possible light. Douglass’s response to the “Lost Cause” ideology in this context, as summarized by Blight, is particularly good:
He [Douglass] was fond of reviving the passions of the war, putting them to the ends of justice. In 1870, he provided in his paper a list of “great truths” that the nation should never forget: that the “Copperhead Democracy” had started the war “for the purpose of extending and rendering perpetual the foul curse of slavery”; that in the war “these rebel Democrats slaughtered a quarter of a million brave loyal men”; that “they wounded and disabled a quarter of a million more”; that “they made full a million of widows or orphans”; and that “these same rebel Democrats” now demanded that they be restored to power. By invoking these stark images, Douglass demonstrated that for him the bloody shirt appealed for more than votes; it meant that he was ready to play the role of grand master of Northern and national memory, offering an explicit refutation of the Confederate Lost Cause tradition. Democrats, Douglass warned with characteristic harshness, “are the apostles of forgetfulness. . . and no wonder, for their pathway has been strewn with the whitened bones of their countrymen.” (Douglass, 533)
Things were looking even bleaker for African Americans a decade later, now that the third branch of the American government had entered the fray:
The Supreme Court had just eviscerated [in the Civil Rights Cases (1883)] one of the greatest achievements of Reconstruction [the Fourteenth Amendment]. From the Slaughter-House Cases of 1873, to United States v. Cruikshank in 1876, and on down to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence consistently embraced a states’ rights interpretation of equal protection of the law. A conservative conception of federalism, a reluctance to sanction federal enforcement of civil and political rights, much less intervention, in the states gave racial equality a tenuous and ultimately disastrous trajectory in American courts. . . . The Republicans who wrote the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments tragically retreated from their own creation with a stultified constitutional imagination. (Douglass, 646-647)
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David Blight is a felicitous writer who has spent nearly twenty years trying to understand Frederick Douglass, and the importance of “historical memory.” I very much like Blight’s summary of “Lost Cause” ideology. Douglass’ take on that set of ideas is perhaps open for criticism, given that he gradually became a Republican Party functionary whose facility in “waving the bloody shirt” made him a key member in each presidential campaign through 1892. You certainly don’t have to agree with me, but I encourage you to read Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass for yourself. In fact, any and all of Professor Blight’s books are worth a look.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: