Saturday, August 27, 2005

John Roberts and the War

No, not the Iraq war. Believe it or not, the American Civil War.

The Washington Post devotes an entire news story to the astonishing discovery that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts ghostwrote an article in the 1980s, and in it, once, he used the term "War Between the States" in place of "Civil War."

WaPo even went out and dug up an academic who was willing to twist this choice of words into a dark insinuation: "People opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s would undoubtedly be more comfortable with the words he chose."

This is diving far too deeply into shallow words.

As a writer, it's useful to have more than one term to refer to the same thing, especially when you have to refer to it often in one article or book. Civil War is short, punchy. Good for headlines. The War Between the States is sonorous, rhythmic.

But the terms have histories, and here is where the WaPo seems eager to trip up Roberts. Roberts, a Northern man (he's from Indiana, which was a strong copperhead state in the Civil War, but let it pass) once chose the "Southern" name of the war.

Perish the thought. Never mind that Upton Sinclair, no neo-Confederate, used "War Between the States" in a book title. Some noted Civil War historians -- Ella Lonn comes to mind -- have switched back and forth between the two terms in their texts. Never mind, too, that the article Roberts was working on was not about the civil rights movement. It was about presidential powers and made but a passing reference to the Civil War.

The fact is, both terms are post-war constructions. During the war itself, in the North it was "the Rebellion" to everyone from Lincoln and Emerson down to the small-town newspaper editor. Sometimes an adjective was thrown in -- "damned" or "wicked" being the most popular. In the South, it was simply "the war."

Only after it ended, it seems, did writers begin to feel the need to name it. Southern writers had become firmly attached to "War Between the States" by 1868 (Pollard, in 1866, had used the awkward "War of the Confederates;" Gildersleeve improved this somewhat to "The Confederate War," but still it wasn't quite right).

In the North it was still The War of the Rebellion in the official records which were published beginning in 1880. But clearly this name did not appeal to the Southerners, with its echoes of Satan's rebellion and because it had been the tar brush with which the victors had sullied their cause during the fight.

The Civil War came about in part as a compromise, a generic term, with an implication of a family quarrel and a "civil" misunderstanding of historical issues both sides shared and revered. This term rose to popularity in the era of reconciliation, which also happened to be the era in which the Northern whites abandoned Reconstruction and the cause of the freed slaves almost entirely, and both sides bought into the "Lost Cause" version of the Southern rebellion.

Modern historians of liberal leaning have criticized the term "Civil War" entirely as the language of segregationist culture, "its muted violence an extension of the plantation utopia's romanticization of slavery" [Grace Elizabeth Hale, "Making Whiteness," 1998]

So it's possible to read Roberts' choice of words as a deliberate avoidance of an old segregationist terminology. I doubt it, but it's no less absurd than hinting that he's hiding a Klan hood behind his back.

From the beginning, critics noted that "civil war" is a generic term; there were many civil wars in history: England had one, Russia (later) had one. To arrogate the term exclusively to an American experience is rather thoughtless.

As late as 1897, Basil L. Gildersleeve, a Virginia classics professor who had fought in the Confederate cavalry, found the issue still unsettled. In A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War [The Atlantic monthly September 1897], he wrote:

"The names of wars, like the names of diseases, are generally put off on the party of the other part. We say 'French and Indian war' without troubling ourselves to ask what the French and Indians called it, but 'Northern war' and 'Southern war' were never popular designations. 'The war between the states,' which a good many Southerners prefer, is both bookish and inexact. 'Civil war' is an utter misnomer. It was used and is still used by courteous people, the same people who are careful to say 'Federal' and 'Confederate.' 'War of the rebellion,' which begs the very question at issue, has become the official designation of the struggle, but has found no acceptance with the vanquished. To this day no Southerner uses it except by way of quotation, as in Rebellion Record, and even in the North it was only by degrees that 'reb' replaced 'secesh.' ... 'The war of secession' is still used a good deal in foreign books, but it has no popular hold. 'The war,' without any further qualification, served the turn of Thucydides and Aristophanes for the Peloponnesian war. It will serve ours, let it be hoped, for some time to come."

His hope was misplaced. America's next "the war" was less than a year off, and "Civil War" was already out in front of all the rivals, cemented by the use of the term in the immensely popular "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series published 1884-87 in Century Magazine. That series itself is cited by historians as a key document in the burying of partisan hatchets and the achievement of national reconciliation between the white populations of North and South.

But many Southerners, alert to rhetorical bids to undermine the fact of their four-year independence, have resisted "Civil War" on the grounds that it is, as Gildersleeve said, "an utter misnomer." The general dictionary sense of civil war, "battles among fellow citizens or within a community," does not suit the notion that the South attained true independence in 1861 and established itself as a nation. Paradoxically, in resisting the reconciliation implied in "Civil War," they avoid a historical error. Even so rabid a Northern partisan as Thaddeus Stevens asserted the South had been an independent political entity during the war:

It is idle to deny that we treated [the Confederate States] as a belligerent, entitled to all the rights, and subject to all the liabilities of an alien enemy. We blockaded their ports, which is an undoubted belligerent right; the extent of coast blockaded marked the acknowledged extent of their territory-- a territory criminally acquired but de facto theirs. We acknowledged their sea-rovers as privateers, and not as pirates, by ordering their captive crews to be treated as prisoners of war. We acknowledged that a commission from the Confederate Government was sufficient to screen Semmes and his associates from the fate of lawless buccaneers. Who but an acknowledged government de jure or de facto, could have power to issue such a commission? The invaders of the loyal States were not treated as outlaws, but as soldiers of war, because they were commanded by officers holding commissions from that government. The Confederate States were for four years what they claimed to be, an alien enemy, in all their rights and liabilities. To say that they were States under the protection of that constitution which they were rendering, and within the Union which they were assaulting with bloody defeats, simply because they became belligerents through crime, is making theory overrule fact to an absurd degree.

And elsewhere:

The theory that the rebel States, for four years a separate power and without misrepresentation in Congress, were all the time here in the Union, is a good deal less ingenious and respectable than the metaphysics of Berkeley, which proved that neither the world nor any human being was in existence.

Certain states left the Union -- as states -- and formed themselves into a new nation. The Union that remained, composed of certain other states, disputed their right to do this, and ultimately forced them back into the fold. Hence, War Between the States.

A Northern counter-objection would be that this name cedes the point that states were the essential building blocks of the federal union, which was what the war was fought to decide -- that, too, is pointed out by Gildersleeve. Neither term is quite right.

The range of attitudes toward the Civil War in the modern Dixie is as broad as a Southern drawl. If Roberts was really going to be a fanatical Southern partisan, he'd have called it "The War of Southern Independence," which is probably the most accurate name of all, or he might have called it "The War of Northern Aggression," which is accurate, too.

Or he could have referred to it in the terms the genteel tour-guide lady in Savannah still uses: "The Late Unpleasantness."

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