The scholarship of secession

Thanks to Civil Warriors for providing the link to a article in the recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This article was quite good and raised a few interesting thoughts for me about the state of scholarship on the South and Civil War, as well as that of the larger academy. While no one, except those on the fringes of society, will argue that American race-based slavery was not an immoral stain on our nation, the larger scholarship on the South and the Civil War as well seems unwilling or afraid to tackle the uncomfortable areas within Southern culture and history, areas where the South has some positive attributes. Mr. Livingston’s exploration into the subject of secession and Southern history is quite fascinating, as while I am a Northern man, and would have stood tall for the Union, this entrance into the historiographical discourse is great. The more voices added, the richer the chorus. History is no different.

What this article does reveal is a troubling indictment of the current state of academe in America. While Livingston and other scholars involved with his Abbeville Institute are undoubtedly good people, they are venturing into a territory where cries of racist and neo-Confederate are leveled, simply for choosing to explore an area of history that is seemingly unpopular in most circles. While secession is, in my opinion, not a legitimate response, in the case of the South, I do feel that we must study it in order to have a better understanding of the tumultuous time in our nation before the war and during its early stage. I posted a couple comments on the post at Civil Warriors and the responses were polite, but still somewhat dismissive of what this group of scholars is trying to accomplish. My question is why? Are historians afraid that if any positive attributes regarding Southern history and culture surface that Americans will suddenly ignore slavery and the negatives? I believe that most people are smarter than that.

The article acknowledged that scholars involved with the society sought to explore what they (the Abbeville scholars) viewed as the “positive aspects of Southern history and culture.” The scholars did not deny, according to the piece, the bigotry and racism of the South, but seemed to be arguing for letting historians more well-versed in such subjects tackle them.

The negative reaction from some in the academy to this angle of research causes me to think about the rise of New History fifty years ago. It seems that reaction from historians at that time to new interpretations was one of fear and anger, but New History, despite some politicized attributes that even I have issues with, has made wonderful contributions to our understanding of the past. It seems that, if given the chance, the Abbeville Institute can do the same, provided there is guidance and a keen awarness on the part of Abbeville scholars of Southern historiography, so that they can intelligently refute challenges that will come their way.

Overall, my attitude is one of embrace with caution. Let these scholars have their chance to be heard, but be aware of those who would use such areas of study for more malicious purposes. Studying secession as a political response, as well as trying to understand the positive values that did shape Southern culture, while maintaining the understanding of the immorality and evil of the institution that the South defended, will improve Southern history, as it will foster robust dialogue and questions, which can open new avenues to approaching the history and culture of the antebellum South. I stress caution, however, so that the rules of scholarship are enforced, and that those in charge of Abbeville distance themselves from those invovled with Southern heritage-based groups and neo-Confederate groups, thus avoiding tarnishining their reputation early. The academy should welcome the Abbeville Institute and its scholars to the table and work to create intersections between differing areas of research, as I feel both sides in this debate can learn from each other.

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4 thoughts on “The scholarship of secession

  1. Pingback: The scholarship of secession « Secession, Nullification, and Interposition News & Info

  2. I agree with your comments on the Abbeville Institute. I hope they can successfully research the issues you have described, and perhaps one day answer the question that is implicit in all the controversy: Is it even possible for the South to rebuild its society on traditional values without the support of an inferior class?

    I sincerely hope that it is possible; because there is much that I admire about Southern culture (being as I am, a Northerner); but for me, at least, the question remains unanswered.

  3. Hey,

    I just wanted to say that I found your blog today and looked around for a while. It’s very impressive. I will definitely be back to read more!

    I just started my own blog on civil war artifacts that I hope to start developing in the near future. I hope I can make it at least half as interesting as yours!

    ~CivilWarArtifacts

  4. Interesting post. A couple of comments:

    I’m from Texas. From what I’ve read, Civil War history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a pro-South bias, which is partially responsible for Ulysses Grant’s disparagement and reputation as a falling-down drunk. One prominent PhD of History was President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian-born son of the Confederacy (his father a slave-holder). He allowed segregation to be introduced into Federal departments and into DC streetcars. He showed the technically and artistically groundbreaking, but heinously racist motion picture THE BIRTH OF A NATION in the White House and declared it historically accurate, praising it as “history writ with lightning.”

    My other comment about secession is that some anti-slavery people thought that it should and would be the North that seceded from the Union, not the South. Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s postumously published book FIFTY YEARS IN CAMP AND FIELD (1909; available free as a Google Books download) mentions this in his diary of 1845-46. Prominent abolitionist William Garrison proposed that the North secede rather than remain in a union with slave states.

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