First published June 2, 2011
Articles and other media commemorating the sesquicentennial of our Civil War are popping up. These are worthy celebrations. The War Between the States set our country in motion toward becoming more tolerant and deserving of having “all men are created equal” in our most cherished document.
Sesquicentennial material will likely include opinions minimizing the issue of slavery as the true cause of the battle. Some may write that differences between the economic development of the North and South were the motivators or that issues of states’ rights were the cause. Holders of those views are wrong.
Slavery was the issue and all else were in degrees of separation from it. States’ rights stood at one degree of separation. States’ choices were originally whether or not to allow slavery in states newly admitted but soon became whether or not to allow slavery to remain in established states.
Economic issues were two degrees removed. Slavery was a moral issue, not just one of economics. The economy of the South depended on plantations that thrived by growing tobacco and cotton. They profited by using slave labor. The North was industrialized and believed in paying labor to produce goods–capitalism.
The exact date to start counting the duration of the bloodiest war Americans have ever fought was ceded to April 12, 1861 with the Rebel attack on Ft. Sumter. It could have been much earlier during President James Buchanan’s administration when states began threatening to secede. Or, it could have been on April 3, 1861 when Abraham Lincoln snuck into Washington D.C. under cover of darkness and holed up in the Willard Hotel on the night before his inauguration due to death threats. But, wars generally include gunplay and Ft. Sumter was the scene of the first shots. Fast forward “Across Five Aprils” (title of a cool kids’ novel) to April 9, 1865, and nearly 620,000 causalities later, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
During the next four years we will have sesquicentennials to commemorate an array of events including the Battle of Gettysburg and its famous address (1863); the capture of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate Capitol (1865); and, most importantly, January 1, 1863 when President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation prohibiting slavery. It was toothless because the Confederate States of America didn’t recognize the authority of anything Lincoln said or did and the North didn’t have slaves, but it was of monumental importance because it was the first time the American government issued notice banning the trade of human beings.
Appomattox Courthouse ended the Civil War, but its anniversary will not end our celebrations. We must fete Amendment XIII to the Constitution (1865) formally ending slavery, Amendment XIV (1868) that made citizens of former slaves, and Amendment XV (1870) granting voting rights regardless of color or whether or not one was previously a slave.
Progress went AWOL for about 100 years, but we just passed the golden anniversaries of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), that rendered “separate but equal” unconstitutional in education and, thanks to Rosa Parks and the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, the 1956 decision outlawing segregation on public transportation. Today, columns appear commemorating the Freedom Riders bus tour fifty years ago this spring and just around the corner lurk the half-century galas for epic legislation born from the civil rights movement. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act terminated Jim Crow laws, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 95 years after the fact, provided the muscle so the spirit of Amendment XV could be fully realized.
Ending slavery and the ongoing battles for universal equality herald defining moments in the maturing of America. From the onset of forced servitude in Virginia in 1619 with the landing of the first slave ships, beyond enacting Amendment XIX (1920) granting voting rights to women, most certainly including January 20, 2009 when Barack Obama became President of the United States, and the ensuing legislation recognizing gay and lesbian military members, our nation is defined and judged by how we treat all of our citizens. We’ve got tons of history, but we’re still a work in progress.