More than 500 pages into “A History of the American People” (Harper Collins, 1997), I am astonished that Paul Johnson, an Englishman, could write a book that goes so deep into the American character, with such great insights. It’s a true love affair, wonderfully refreshing during a time when America is being talked down so much. “This work is a labor of love,” is Johnson’s opening sentence, and it’s a sentiment that comes through on every page.
So to continue our story, by 1860, the big building blocks of America had been put into place – popular democracy, infrastructure, a rising population, the rule of law and a framework for industrial capitalism, even a distinct literary voice. Then, we hit the mother of all speed bumps – the Civil War. It was a crucible. “The Civil War,” writes Johnson, “in which are included the causes and consequences, constitutes the central event in American history. It is also America’s most characteristic event, which brings out all that the United States is, and is not. It made America a nation, which it was not so before.”
No need here to recap the Civil War. More than 50,000 books and pamphlets have been published about it. But I do have a fundamental takeaway about this period that I’ll share in a minute. First, a few observations about the war years that Johnson teases out in this section of the book.
Don’t Put All Your Eggs (or Cotton) Into One Basket There are many reasons why the South lost the war, mostly because slavery was a morally bankrupt institution. But it was also because of fundamental economics. The South became so addicted to the easy riches of a free-labor cotton economy that it failed to diversify and lacked the fundamentals of a growing economy. “When cotton made profits, it spent them all, as the Arab rulers today dissipate colossal oil revenues. And it was in a real sense milked, like the primary producers today in Africa and Latin America, at the same time accumulating massive debts it had no hope of repaying.” The North, in the meantime, was building a diversified industrial economy that would rock the globe.
Lincoln’s Language Could Transform Reality The Gettysburg Address, of course, captured the essence of the new America in less than 300 words, but Lincoln’s oratory magic was evident well before that. When the Republican Party was inaugurated in Illinois in 1856, Lincoln commemorated it with a speech many regard as his best. It was so mesmerizing that reporters put down their pens and stopped writing. Said an eyewitness: “His speech was full of fire and energy and force. It was logic. It was pathos. It was enthusiasm. It was justice, equity, truth and right set alight by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong. It was heavy, knotty, gnarly, backed with wrath.” Lincoln was not an attractive man, but people who witnessed his speeches said his eloquence transformed him into a towering, golden figure before their eyes.
Lee and Lincoln – Brothers From Different Mothers? Robert E. Lee and Lincoln fought on different sides, but not necessarily by choice. As states were voting to secede and war began to slouch roughly toward America, Lincoln offered Lee the post of commanding the Union forces. Lee said he wanted to wait and see how Virginia, his home state, went. When Virginia seceded he reluctantly resigned his post in the US Army, where he’d served for 32 years. He wrote to his family: “With all my devotion to the Union, and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” Lee and Lincoln were forced to take sides by principle and honor, but maintained a deep well of mutual respect.
War? What War? Despite the epic bloodshed, the war had little impact on millions of people in the North, or out West. “It was quite possible to live in the North and have no contact with the struggle whatsoever.” The West was preoccupied with the Gold Rush and getting rich. “Any shots fired in these parts had nothing to do with the Civil War but reflected the normal human appetites of greed, lust, anger, and envy. And, as Mark Twain put it, ‘the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be nearly certain to be around looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either.’”
So, Here’s My Takeaway The Civil War years were paradoxical, like America itself – idealistic, yet horribly violent; a massive drain of blood and treasure while the economy catapulted to a new level of industrial growth; simultaneously creating some of the loftiest political language ever heard, even now, while also leading to vicious political fights, including an impeachment attempt.
But the biggest paradox of all was the noble victory over slavery, while also leaving the broader freedoms of African-Americans unresolved. The post-war “white regimes set about legislating the blacks into a lowly place in the scheme of things, while the rest of the country, having had quite enough of the South, and its blacks too, turned its attention to other things. Thus the great Civil War, the central event of American history, gave birth to a new South in which whites were first-class citizens and blacks citizens in name only. And a great silence descended for many decades.”
Today, we’re still working out that paradox, painfully so at times. Meanwhile, the country set about erecting the biggest economic juggernaut the world had ever seen. But that’s the next installment . . .