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.