Lessons on the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary

Ah, the 150th anniversary of the greatest conflagration in our history is upon us; Fort Sumter leading the way this very day. It’s a very big subject, this great conflict is. A subject with which I have more than a passing acquaintance, if only because I had read over 100 books on the subject by 6th Grade. Indeed, one of my teachers that year, a Mr. Lifschutz or Lipschits, (you, know, I don’t recall right now, and I don’t have the paper in front of me, no matter, I can produce it if required,) wrote right there in my report card: “I’ve never had a student who knew more about the Civil War than James does.” I still have that report card. It’s a subject that offers many lessons to our nation, and I shall here lay some out.

The anniversaries of each event will now come, the 150th of Bull Run, the 150th of Shiloh, the 150th of “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead,” as Farragut entered Mobile Bay. Each event will be greatly celebrated, or disdained, or ignored, as Americans relive this period in our history. Because I grew up in New York I sort of got the Yankee view, though not much, for my family didn’t get here until between 1903 and 1921, and barely spoke English by 1950, and I’m lucky I’m not named Vyecheslav, Bohumil or Ctibor like the grandparents and even my great grandfather wanted. Having grown up in basically a newly arrived immigrant bilingual household we also followed the “civil war” in Czechoslovakia in 1968, if one could call the Warsaw Pact Invasion a civil war; and then again in 1989. I’m not without a good understanding of that nation’s history either.

But then, in 1985, I moved to Louisiana. Where I began to get the local view of the “War of Yankee Aggression.” As I did business in this state, and Mississippi and Alabama I got to see a few more battlefields; the ones I hadn’t been to. And the memorials to the Confederate soldiers on county court house front lawns. Indeed, I live right near a Civil War battlefield, right here in Baton Rouge, and down at the pitiful excuse for our public bus system’s nerve center, at North 22nd Street and Florida Boulevard, there’s a few acres of Yankee dead under neat rows of small white headstones; very well kept too, after all these years. And let me tell you, going to places like Opelousas, Louisiana, or Montgomery, Alabama, or Natchez, Mississippi, and not being able to hide my Nu Yawk accent while doin’ bizniss is quite a trip. Throw a few Jewish inflections and a meshugannah every so often, and well, it’s very interesting. Being called “Yankee Jew Bastard” by some otherwise reasonable people was sadly intriguing.

And this Civil War of ours, it was fought for many reasons. There are many theories. Slavery – States Rights – Tariffs – Import and Export Duties – Federal power – and even the right of secession. The problem had been brewing for years. Since the very day the first shot was fired at Bunker Hill actually. Or maybe it was when the Pilgrims left England for religious liberty; it’s hard to say. The quest for liberty, for freedom, for individualism within a well ordered society – E Pluribus Unum in fact – they are all part of the American Endeavor. It’s what our Exceptionalism is about. We are not a nation of “blood” and one kind, or one language, or one color or ethnicity, like a nation in Europe or Asia. We’re not even a bi- or tri- society, like South America with it’s ruling European heritage elites and the vast Indigenous majorities, like Peru or Mexico. Indeed, we are the most diverse nation on earth. We’re lots of little groups, and often we don’t get along, true. But we started out that way. Even each of the religious groups who came – the Pilgrims, the Quakers, the Moravian Brethren, Catholics and more, even Jews right from the beginning, and the Dutch Reformed and countless others – all sought their individual place on this land. Alas, the Indigenous folks here got a raw deal; probably the worst of anyone.

But the Africans who were brought here, they too got a very raw deal. That history is not without its pain and horrors. It’s well recounted, and even more so of late as the descendants of those who were brought in and sold have finally come to the forefront of our Civil Society. I have been to the slave cabins restored on many a plantation right here in Louisiana; quite a difference from the Big House. Yet descendants of those slaves have been brought into the American Dream. Right up to and including a president of at least partial African heritage, even if he was not a scion of the slave generations. It took a 100 years from Emancipation to the legal right to vote – the moral right to vote was always there, for such right is part of We the People, and the legislative powers inherent in the people don’t disappear merely because a law was passed against those people whom the majority didn’t like. That’s what the 9th and 10th Amendments are about. The just powers of the individuals who make up a society.

Still, our society has well integrated the mere 12% or 14% of the nation that is of African heritage. Just as the nation has more or less brought into the fold the Latinos of all kinds – Mark Rubio newly Senator of Florida of Cuban heritage, and the Mexican heritage people elected to countless positions across the nation, who make up another 10% or more, and growing. Like the Mormon sect is included now too, after quite a harrowing journey through oppression and attack from Upstate New York to Utah. Just as the Chinese have been included, after the Exclusion Act was rid from the books. So too the Japanese have been accommodated, and even apologized to, for having been rounded up and incarcerated during World War II. Jews have certainly climbed the heights of our society, if not the presidency, yet. They who had been hounded for nearly 1400 years in Europe by Catholics, and just a few short weeks ago finally exonerated by the Pope in Rome – “No,” he said, “the Jews did not kill Jesus.” Only took 1400 years, but hey. Later the Medieval popes were joined by Protestants in a rapacious hatred for a tiny percentage of the people, some three or four percent at any time. Pogroms of enormous ferocity, including the Holocaust, the worst of them all, were carried out with frequency; even expulsions or forced conversions – whatever it took, the Majority thought, to rid them of those they didn’t like for some reason.

The Irish were told don’t apply for jobs; they’ve been included. The Greeks and Italians – the so called “Southern Europeans” were brought in and made part of the fabric of society; as too every other ethnicity known to man. In Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Chicago and other great cities of this nation, and even here in this tiny burg of a mine, there’s seemingly people from every corner on earth. And of every type. Which is why it’s a bit weird to here calls for “diversity,” when we are already. All may do as they please if they cause no harm. All might enjoy the blessings of liberty if they allow others to do so. All may worship free of constraint as they desire. Not a one is subject to “majority” rule to see if they might do this or that, or go here or there, or have this or that job, or if they shall be rounded up and incarcerated, or just hounded with cruel words by public figures. No, indeed, there are many legal protections for race, creed, national origin and more. But more to that, there’s a great moral acceptance of everyone. Based on the simple proposition of our nation: All men are created equal – all are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, but certainly not limited to these, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Throughout our history, as the Civil War is most evident of, all the tiny groups, all the misfits from the majority, all the peoples whom did not conform, all faced unbridled hate, scorn, legal sanction, penalty for existence, disdain from the judicial bench, dismissal from the councils of government, exclusion from civil society. Virtually no sort of person in our nation has ever been truly without condemnation. Roger Williams left Massachusetts to create Rhode Island precisely to preserve his beliefs in whom he was; and avoid the “Majority” who would condemn him in Plymouth. And for him it was building a more tolerant society. One might say, that the quest for inclusion of differences – however large or small – started with Mr. Williams. Or maybe it was Peter Zenger in New York who fought for the right for a free press – so that any might say whatever they might want to say.

Even women were denied property, legal standing, the vote, the right to manage their own affairs, and other subjugation. They didn’t get the right to vote until 1921. It took a Constitutional Amendment to get it done; Mississippi ratified it just a few years ago, 60 or so years late. Just as it took the 13th and 14th Amendments and many other laws, after centuries of struggle to include those of African descent, or even any darker color than any fair haired Mr. Windsor of London would have. There were laws against all these people. All the people who ever were put upon in this nation were done so by a majority with a combination of moral opprobrium, a denial of intellectual ability, a belief that innate characteristics made inclusion impossible, of a dismissal of those people’s moral, human, civil and legal rights to be all whom they could be – because that’s what “society” said. That’s what the “Majority” said. Often it was backed by the Bible and the claim of religious right and freedoms of the majority, as slavery itself was. All these many people who were put upon were accused, in one way or the other, of being “against” society, of trying to tear down the fabric of the nation. Every excluded group was deemed a threat to the national order. Black men were a threat to white families, too, no? Isn’t that why some were killed? Just for “looking” at a white woman? Yes, true.

And look, to remove the blots from our nation, the blots which dismissed the pleas of “Don’t Tread On Us Either” by so many, it took a Civil War, and Constitutional Amendments, and laws galore. The Supreme Court ruled often, early on, that the pleas were pointless, for the “Majority” had spoken, either through direct election or through the legislatures. And the “Majority” had said: NO! But then, following the tradition set forth – but not in the Constitution itself – by John Jay and John Marshall, and the other early Justices of the Supreme Court, that the Court had the right – nay, even a Jeffersonian duty – started to overturn unjust laws – to form a more perfect union. Those early judges were indeed “Activist” – For they seized a power unto themselves that is not in the Constitution. But no one questions that much anymore. They haven’t in two centuries. We’ve come to rely on it even, for the excess of mankind’s inhumanity to mankind is quite impressively sad; even right here in America.

The Supreme Court has been busy ever since the beginning in striking down laws by the “Majority” against the minorities, the tiny groups, the weirdos if you will, of our nation. Those “different” and not included, but whom want to live the American Dream of being left alone by government to the fullest extent possible, and more to the point, being left alone by any majority who would do them harm. We are not a nation of mob rule of the majority; in fact, there’s much to mitigate against any such “Majority Rule.” Almost all the greatest strides for Liberty and Justice this nation and the world have ever seen – were because the Court saw that the “Majority” had gone beyond mere decisions about things which affect us all, but had stepped into doing harm towards those whom could never be a majority and were singled out as a specific minority to be squashed.

There is much evidence that between 1865, when the swords were laid aside, and 1965, that the “Majority” of many a state may well have voted slavery right back in. Indeed, the “Majority” of many a state kept laws against black minorities going for a 100 years, along with the condemnation, the moral disdain – this is the legacy of racism in this nation. Now much extirpated, but still bits here and there. Massachusetts even tried to haul out a 1913 law against interracial marriage to stop non-residents from coming to that state for the newly legalized gay marriage there. But thank God there’s little chance that the “Majority” is going to vote on Blacks’ civil rights, or moral position in the nation, or the exercise of any particulars of what they do. No Jew worries that the “Majority” is going to round them up for the camps. The Japanese are no longer afraid that they will be hounded out of their homes and into camps for the good of the nation. No Hindu, Muslim, or left handed or red head, or any strong woman or limp man, or anyone indeed, is now fearful that their existence and their activities will be subject to “Majority” rule. Indeed, the Supreme Court would quickly take the case and stop the Majority.

Ah, but there’s one last group, one last little tiny sliver of the population, still to be included in the protective bubble against the will of the majority. Only one group left still subject to majority vote – by referendum or legislative power. And we are the most difficult group. For we don’t quite fit the usual mold as perceived – an inborn innate God given characteristic that sets the minority aside as deserving of protection. Allegedly. But our opponents make the case for us. They claim our coupling with bring their polygamy. Well, polygamy is a thing which affects all, and we just affect us. There’s the difference. For if we had long been allowed to marry, polygamy would be an issue that affected all of us together. Just as polygamy was an issue for the Mormons; and thus the nation if they were to join as a state. Thus yes, subject to majority rule.

Our opponents talk about us as a class of people, a very special class indeed. They don’t refer to us as individuals deserving of the American Dream. They speak of us a group that is inimical to the nation, just as every other disdained group was spoken of. They speak of us quite clearly as having certain “innate” characteristics. Not as we claim it, and science increasingly shows. Though they claim it struck us, like an illness, after birth, though with little evidence for such a contention beyond pure belief. Still, our erstwhile opponents are quite clear we’re “sick.” OK, so what if we are? Whom would outlaw a “disease” or “illness”? Or prevent two sick people from a legal relationship? They are quite clear that we also “choose” to be different. And therein lies their downfall – for our opponents insist we are very different and thus deserving of “Majority” rule to keep us separate and treated separately, with special laws just for us. That they want all those laws to be against us is no matter. It’s the difference itself – our opponents say we are different, so I shall believe them. And then I say “if we are so different, then obviously we are a class with an innate characteristic, even if it is the strange choice to be very different.”

If it’s choice, it’s our creed, our religion – and the Majority does not have the right to prohibit my free exercise thereof, or to impose their version of belief upon me. If it’s choice, then my right free speech is impeded when denied the right to say “I do.” Or keep my job if I speak of my choice. Indeed, my free speech is limited if only by the pure refusal of those whom would debate my existence to even debate me, or to listen to a word I say – because I’m allegedly intellectually and morally and religiously inferior to my fellow citizen. This they are sure of, I’m not whole. OK, swell, but you don’t pass laws against the unwell, do you? They claim all the rights they desire, and they will impede mine, for they are the “Majority.”

One does not need to be a phrenologist, of the sort that “studied” the “intellectual inferiority” of blacks and Jews and woman to know that our opponents are phrenologists in “studying” our “inferiority.” They are quite insistent that they must tell us how to live, and how to comport ourselves, and what they will allow, and what we will believe and when. Indeed, many of our opponents would even be happy in rounding us up and incarcerating us, as if we were the same sort of threat the Japanese were perceived as in World War II. There’s no doubt in our opponents’ minds that we are a threat to everything – precisely because of whom we are as a class of people. They verily shout it from the rooftops. I urge them on. Make it clearer, I do wish to know exactly how I am some terrible creature in need of government control, as a class. For that just makes my case – I’m different, we’re different, all of us like me, and that deserves legal protection. I’m different as an autistic boy is different – and not much more able to defend myself for I’m considered too warped or dysfunctional to do so. In fact, there were even laws saying just that – I was not of sound mind and body and couldn’t even enter a court of law on my own behalf. Perhaps some of those law’s words are still on the books – just as Texas, Montana and Kansas kept words on their books specifically targeting my existence, even though such laws are unconstitutional. Declared so by a Court that’s been “Activist” since John Jay took his robe.

And we are just like all the other minorities in this nation – which is pretty much everyone since the Pilgrims were outlawed to one degree or another by the “Majority” – and since we were once part of the English nation there can be no doubt that the “Legislative majority” in Parliament in London did pass laws against the minority Pilgrims. To the point of them leaving to get beyond the reach of the “Majority.” And when that majority tried to impose it’s will here from London, well, then, the Tea went into the harbor. Pilgrims, like we, were singled out for either “belief” “creed” “characteristic” or however else it might be conceived. We are a distinct group. This we are told, daily.

And there’s a Civil War of sorts being fought over us too. There’s much talk of “Attack” and “battle” and “destruction” and “destroying the nation.” and “destroying families.” It’s a Civil War indeed. And it involves states rights too. And it brings out the worst of the worst people, for a lynching and a fag bashing that results in death is not much different merely because a tree and rope were not used in the latter assault, but only a piece of tree called a baseball bat.

And thus, just as the Supreme Court took it upon itself to say “NO” to unjust laws against every other minority in this nation, despite what the “majority” said, and just as they have for nearly a century worked to increase liberty for all, so shall they soon be called upon again to increase liberty. Just as we had a decision against us, back in 1986, so every other group had decisions against them handed down. But then, due to the greatness of our system, the debate still rages on. And it took until 2003 to get rid of the most pernicious laws against the fiber of our being – which our opponents readily accede exists, even if they think such fiber is spoiled. Though they try to have it both ways – we’re a class deserving no special positive treatment – but we’re a class deserving special negative treatment. There are other laws still against us. DOMA being but the biggest left. It will fall. The Supreme Court will come to this conclusion, if not now, eventually. For this has been the great trajectory of American history – towards more freedom. That was the purpose of the Civil War – to establish that even a scorned and hated minority must be included somehow. And that keeping such a minority forever oppressed is against the Spirit of our nation, even if the oppression was enshrined in law by the majority; even in the Constitution itself.

Our opponents even call it a “War.” That they use the adjective “Culture” rather than “Civil” is immaterial. Indeed, they could use that term as well, if it hadn’t already been taken, for they do claim they are civil, and we are not. They are sure that they, the Majority, will now draw the line here in the sand and say “No more liberty.” As if the glass of liberty can be too full.

And so while it took the Jews 1400 years to get free, and still fighting. And Blacks 400 years to get free here, and still not perfect. And every other group too, waited for decades, centuries, millennia, to be free from the mob of the majority. So too, we shall be free, free at last. And just like no other scorned and hated minority ever achieved success at the ballot boxes against the majority, for it is impossible given the nature of majority rule – so too we shall achieve this through the courts. And great teeth gnashing will occur, as it has at every other time in our history. Let us hope that for our emancipation from the paternalistic oppression comes without the violence of the Civil War which we will observe these coming four years as anniversary after anniversary passes by, including the Great Emancipation of Lincoln.

Lincoln did not consult Congress on the matter; nor did he ask for a vote. Lincoln did not use the courts to make his statement; nor ask for a ruling. He did not rely on the majority. No, he, a democratically elected president, and one not even with a majority of the votes cast, who was charged with making a more perfect union, merely said “This is wrong, and I shall set those people free.” He had as much “legal” authority as Obama had in saying he would not defend a small part of DOMA. And indeed, Lincoln went far beyond merely saying he would no longer defend an unjust law in court. Lincoln made such a sweeping statement of freedom that it’s almost incomprehensible that any president could make such a determination over the lives and fortunes of the entire nation like an absolute monarch as he did.

But he did. Maybe not Obama, he seems not the type, the next president will make such a determination, and override the mob of the majority. Or the Supreme Court will. Because that’s the American way. That’s why we’re exceptional as a nation. This is what makes us better than any on earth. Our desire to be truly inclusive to everyone, even the weirdest and misfit among us all.





  1. ted

    As a gay man I am neither a misfit nor weird; my exceptionality is due to my education and talents. I am as normal and as much a part of life as blue sky and mountains, and serve some special purpose to a higher power i call God. I will not be marginalized, diminutized, excised or denied. I am a just and righteous person who loves life and liberty, and I am pursuing happiness with friends, family, career and service.

    • I’m with you on this Ted; it’s just the way some folks talk about us, as you know. Yet, frankly, if it helps them come to terms – I don’t care if they call me weird or misfit, or autistic or crazy. I’m more accommodating with the word usage if it brings about the accommodation and inclusion on the political front. I — and you — have been called worse than “weird” or “misfit.” Basically, “I don’t care what you call me, just don’t call me late for dinner.” On the other hand, well, you know me — yah, weird. (giggle)

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