A dialogue between past and present
Last updated 1/2/2024 at 2:50pm
A few days ago, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley stepped on one of the most explosive landmines in the field of American history. Asked at a New Hampshire town hall what was the cause the American Civil War, the former governor of South Carolina tried to sidestep.
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said.
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.”
Haley quickly took fire from all directions for neglecting to mention the actual proximate cause of the war: the southern states, particularly her own state of South Carolina, were determined to protect the institution of slavery.
A lot of smoke has been thrown up for more than a century around the causes of the 1861-65 conflict and its enduring fallout, with Confederate apologists eliding the importance of slavery in the decision of the southern states to secede from the union. But the secession declaration of South Carolina — the first state to break the union — makes the matter plain:
“[T]he State of South Carolina having resumed her separate and equal place among nations, deems it due to herself, to the remaining United States of America, and to the nations of the world, that she should declare the immediate causes which have led to this act….
“[A]n increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.”
Read the whole declaration for yourself (https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp). It’s not ambiguous. The rights and freedoms at stake for the South Carolina elite was the right and freedom to own other humans and exploit their labor.
Haley did her best to contain the blast:
“I want to nip it in the bud,” she said a few days later. “Yes, we know the Civil War was about slavery. But more than that, what’s the lesson in all this? That freedom matters. And individual rights and liberties matter for all people. That’s the blessing of America. That was a stain on America when we had slavery. But what we want is never relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”
There are those who think that what is past should be left in the past — but even if that were possible, it wouldn’t be desirable. The past shapes the present and the future, and understanding that interplay matters.
The brilliant narrative historian of the Middle Ages, Dan Jones, notes that, “History is a dialogue, I think, between the past and present… Every generation has its own preoccupations, which it seeks to somehow see reflected or see the foundation of them in the past.”
Jones believes that we should embrace bringing our own preoccupations and outlook to that dialogue — as long as we’re honest about it, and recognize that we won’t always be comfortable with the complicated answers the past gives to our questions.
Jones, on Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, notes that when he was writing his excellent overview of the Middle Ages, “Powers and Thrones,” he explored contemporary concerns like climate change, mass migration, pandemic disease, technological change, and global networks. All of those elements were important in the Middle Ages and they’re important now. Understanding how they played out hundreds of years ago can help us understand what is happening now — and what might happen in the future.
“History is for creating a context for the now,” Jones asserts. “What are we going to learn from it if it’s not going to give us context for the now?”
We’re still struggling with what that context tells us about our now. Just ask Nikki Haley.