United States: A singular noun

Peter W. Bardaglio

July 02, 1993|By Peter W. Bardaglio

ONE of the little-known facts about the Civil War is that Mount Vernon -- the home of George Washington -- was declared neutral ground during the four-year ordeal. The significance of this act is worth pondering as we once again celebrate the official birthday of the country that Washington helped found.

That the North and South, in the midst of a wrenching and bloody civil war, could agree that Mount Vernon should be considered sacred suggests the power of Washington's image as the father of our country. Despite the deep-seated differences that divided Northerners and Southerners and drove them to war, they concurred that the purity of the Revolutionary tradition should be protected at least to this extent.

Of course, the tradition itself was not all that pure. Not only was Mount Vernon the residence of our country's first president; it was also a plantation on which several hundred slaves lived and died. As much as any one place, it embodied the ambiguity and complexity of the circumstances that gave birth to the United States and that fueled its economic and geographic expansion. When the Civil War broke out, the land that saw itself as a shining beacon of liberty was also the largest slave-holding country in the world.

Whether or not we want to admit it, it is the historical fate of Americans to live in a society where slavery and freedom developed hand in hand. Indeed, it can be argued that the enslavement of African-Americans made possible the freedom of whites, and that whites had before them the sample of blacks in bondage to remind them of the precious character of their liberty.

Part of what made the Civil War such a profound upheaval was that during the conflict slavery and freedom finally became disentangled. Not that Northerners set out at the beginning to end slavery once and for all. The primary goal for the North was always the preservation of the Union. As Abraham Lincoln proclaimed in 1861, "The central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity . . . of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether, in a free government, the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose."

In the course of attempting to restore the Union, however, it became clear to the North that the destruction of slavery was a military necessity. Furthermore, slaves themselves -- by escaping to Union lines whenever the opportunity presented itself -- put enormous pressure on the federal government to make emancipation a war aim.

One of the great tragedies of the Civil War was that Americans approached the problem of slavery in a way that evaded the larger issue of race relations. Slavery was only one aspect of this broader question, but most whites in both the North and the South refused to deal with race, preferring to keep the controversy confined within the narrow channels of the peculiar institution.

Before the war, rather than addressing slavery directly and arguing about the moral legitimacy of the institution where it actually existed, Northerners and Southerners engaged in an abstract debate about slavery where it wasn't: in the western territories. During the war, the need to avoid alienating the border states and sending them into the arms of the Confederacy constrained discussion about emancipation and African-American rights. Then, when the war was over, the tension between the contradictory goals of national reconciliation and freedom for blacks made it nearly impossible to confront the question of racial discrimination.

Instead, the issue of race was put on the back burner in an effort to patch up differences between the North and South and to put the United States back on the road to economic development and prosperity. The emancipation of slaves, the granting of citizenship to blacks, and the bestowal of voting rights on African-American males solved the existing problems in the eyes of the country.

Blacks, then, were left to fend for themselves without any sustained attempt to raze the social structure of the South and replace it with a new one. As a result, the pre-war system of race relations was largely intact.

This is not to say that the Civil War failed to transform the country. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson points out, before 1861 "United States" was a plural noun: "The United States are south of Canada and north of Mexico." Following the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, "United States" became a singular noun. The legacy of the Civil War, in other words, went beyond the preservation of the Union to the creation of a nation. From this perspective, although George Washington may have been the father of the country, Abraham Lincoln was the founder of the nation.

Despite all the changes set in motion by the Civil War, we still have not completed the most urgent task before us: the establishment of equitable race relations. Until we recognize that freedom without justice is an empty promise, the troubling and ++ equivocal symbolism of Mount Vernon will never be put behind us and the full potential of the American Revolution will never be realized.

The time is fast approaching when it will be too late to do anything. As we gather with friends and family on the Fourth of July, we should remember that the date marks the retreat of the Confederate forces from Gettysburg as well as the Declaration of Independence. We could hardly find a more meaningful way to observe both events than to renew our commitment to racial justice in America and bring about the "new birth of freedom" envisioned by Lincoln in 1863 as he surveyed the blood-soaked battlefield at Gettysburg.

Peter W. Bardaglio is associate professor of history at Goucher College.

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