Understanding the Civil War, Part 4

What is the significance of the Civil War in this day and age? In order to answer this question, we must look at the war in conjunction with the overall civil rights history of America. There is some argument to be made that the first blacks who came to the United States arrived as indentured servants, their status similar to that of their white counterparts. Over the next few decades, however, the statutes of the American colonies were constructed to solidify the enslavement and inferior legal status of the black race. This racial issue eventually provoked the Civil War. While the South was defeated, Jim Crow endured for just over a century after the actual war ended. However, evidenced by the Confederate nostalgia displayed by men like Mike Huckabee and Haley Barbour (whose fetish for all things Confederate has been covered in a previous post), the racial issues that caused the war live on. The simple fact of the matter is that while legal racism has been eradicated, a large minority of Americans still have racist views. Aside from the frequent displays of the Confederate Flag, think about the judge in Louisiana who refused to marry an interracial couple as recently as 2009. Or the fact that the blatantly racist Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee were both considered as candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2012 Election and that the racist Ron Paul is still in the running. But the significance of the Civil War extends beyond race. I believe I have stated that I see black rights and gay rights as linked. Let me elaborate here. The policies of the Founding Fathers did not include liberty and justice for all. Blacks were enslaved, Native Americans had their land seized against their will, women were denied most legal rights, and gays could not marry and faced arrest or even execution if they found sexual partners. As I have already demonstrated in a previous post, the Constitution indeed supported slavery. The racist Southern politicians of the nineteenth century believed that the policies of the Founding Fathers should be continued. They believed, in essence, that not all Americans should have equal rights. Abolitionists felt differently. They believed that the Founding Fathers had been wrong and that equality was a fundamental aspect of justice. There was indeed some conflict about who was continuing the legacy of the founders. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens criticized Thomas Jefferson for writing that all men were created equal, while Frederick Douglass tried to appeal to the Constitution as an antislavery document. But other Confederates like Jefferson Davis realized that they were following in the footsteps of men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, while abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips correctly determined that the Constitution was a proslavery document that could not be relied on in the pursuit of abolition. Also important to the Confederate defense of slavery was the Bible. Jefferson Davis argued that according to the Bible, slavery was divinely sanctioned, the result of a curse God placed on the black race. According to the widow of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general claimed to base his support for slavery completely on its support in the Bible. In a 1990s article defending slavery and the Confederate Flag, Alabama state senator Charles Davidson wrote, “Our ancestors in the Old South were fundamental Christians, which means they believed that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, was the Word of Almighty God, who does not change, and not the opinions of man. On the other hand, the Abolitionists from the North were humanists. They believed that God changed with the times and that the Bible was merely the opinions of men and not necessarily the Word of God.” A strong parallel can be drawn between the conflict that led to the Civil War and the current struggle for gay equality. Like the politicians of the Confederacy, many Americans today agree with the policies of the Founding Fathers and believe that gays and lesbians should not have equal rights. Like the Confederate leaders, they base their stance on specific Bible passages, in this case those that condemn homosexuality. Just as abolitionists were accused by slaveholders of ignoring the “Word of God,” modern day gay rights activists are accused of trying to subvert Biblical teachings. But many of the most prominent abolitionists were in fact Christians. But it is my view that these men and women had the good intelligence to see that the overall Biblical message of love for all people, rather than individual Scriptures promoting injustice and cruelty, should be followed. That is, in my estimate, the stance being taken today by gay Christians and heterosexuals Christians who support gay rights. Finally, the debates over anti-gay ballot initiatives remind me a lot of the debates over slavery in the Western territories that were applying for statehood in the 1850s. Some time ago, Mike Huckabee was in the news, wondering how anybody could support gay marriage when it has been voted down in so many states. When Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln debated in 1858, Douglas postulated that the intense moral issue of slavery could be settled by a public vote in each new state. In essence, the rights of the slaves were dependent on majority will. Lincoln felt differently. He believed that blacks had some natural, fundamental rights—albeit not necessarily equal rights—that could not be taken away by referendum. That, combined with a demand for full equality, was the argument promoted by individuals like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Lydia Maria Child, and Frederick Douglass. The argument for natural rights to full legal equality regardless of public opinion is now being put forth by attorneys David Boise and Ted Olson as they challenge the California law banning gay marriage. Finally, on a more cynical note, I must confess that Lincoln’s moderate views on slavery—opposing immediate abolition and racial equality—remind me a bit too much of Barack Obama’s refusal to endorse same sex marriage. And just as was the case in the Civil War and in the years leading up to it, a small, courageous group of people are challenging this lukewarm position and standing up for equal justice. The Thirteenth Amendment did not just set the slave in Savannah, Georgia free. It also planted the seeds for the freedom of the Irish American lesbian in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Wendell Phillips once stated that, “Whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victories.” I sincerely hope that he was right.


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