Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

WashTimes Civil War Blogger Soooo Tried of the Slavery Thing

Posted in Media by Andy Hall on January 3, 2011

Martha Boltz, the Civil War blogger at the Washington Times, hasn’t seen the new PBS biography of Robert E. Lee. But she read a review of it, and that’s enough for her:

To no one’s surprise, the specter of slavery comes through his review loud and clear.  And to be sure slavery was a major cause of the civil war, but it was not the only or sole cause.  Yet it is dragged up at every occasion.  We seem to forget – or find recontextualizing too difficult for modern day brains – the fact that it was entirely legal then, and that the majority of (white) leaders of the day were slaveholders.  Even George Washington owned slaves, unless you want to think that those white wigged gents with the long stockings and silver buckles on their shoes did all the laboring and building.  Ditto with Jefferson Davis and scads of others.

If  you were an average landholder then, had 50 acres of cotton or tobacco, someone had to work those fields and bring out a crop. It was that simple.

What on earth were Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner so uptight about? Didn’t they know slavery “was entirely legal then?” Jefferson Davis wore knee-britches and a powdered wig, too.

I know that the qualifications for being a blogger are low, and that the Unification Church-owned Washington Times has always been a bit of a joke. But seriously, this is the sort of nonsensical gobbledygook I’d expect to find in the unmoderated comments section of a newspaper’s blog post, not at the top, under the masthead. It reads like a kid in history class who’s been called on unexpectedly, and in desperation strings together a bunch of words and names he’s heard to give some sort of answer. It’s embarrassing. The Times has been circling the drain for a while now; with regular contributors like this, it’s not hard to see why.

Update: Now having seen the show, I think Ms. Boltz’ complaint that the issue of slavery “is dragged up at every occasion” in the show is ludicrous. It is brought up — explicitly and succinctly — where necessary in Lee’s biography. These are both appropriate and necessary to telling the story; the suggestion that these constitute some sort of heavy-handed harangue on the subject is bizarre. Unless, of course, any mention of the “peculiar institution” is just too much. . . .

7 Responses

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  1. TheRaven said, on January 3, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    The giveaway here is “scads”. No one under 60 uses that word any more. Anyone who’s 60+ years old now was 15+ years old when the VRA was signed into law. That’s just about old enough to be imprinted for life. I’ll bet Boltz is older, and that she was an adult in 1965. Any bets on a southern upbringing? Nah, too easy.

  2. Allen Gathman said, on January 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    The key word is this excerpt is “then” — as in “if you were an average landholder then” — which apparently in this context means “anytime between 1760 and 1860”. Clearly no important societal changes occurred during those hundred years.

  3. Marc Ferguson said, on January 3, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    I wonder if it’s ever occured to Martha Boltz, and others who make this tired complaint, that historians bring up slavery when discussing the Civil War, and figures such as R.E. Lee, BECAUSE it was legal back then, and central to the background, causes, and events of the war itself.

  4. Lyle Smith said, on January 4, 2011 at 11:02 am

    It’s odd for her to not acknowledge straightforwardly that the maintenance of slavery was the real reason for the Civil War, but for me personally, I’d like to hear more scholars explain why it was worthwhile for the South to go to War with the North over slavery. The meta-argument today makes it seem that it was is abominable for Southerners to do this, but in their day it obviously wasn’t. Why?

  5. Andy Hall said, on January 4, 2011 at 11:20 am

    It’s odd for her to not acknowledge straightforwardly that the maintenance of slavery was the real reason for the Civil War. . . .

    Insightful analysis and nuanced interpretation don’t seem to be her strong points. Anybody can be a blogger, but I have no idea why a newspaper — a bad one to be sure, but one that nevertheless has pretensions to greatness — would give her a byline.

    The meta-argument today makes it seem that it was is abominable for Southerners to do this, but in their day it obviously wasn’t. Why?

    Plenty of people in 1860-61 found it abominable.

    As for why the South — by which I mean the white, male Southerners who spoke for the South politically and economically — thought it worthwhile to go to war, that’s a much more complex question. (And most of them expected that if there was armed conflict at all, it would be decided quickly in the South’s favor.) But it’s important to remember that the right to own slaves was considered an inviolable property right, and slaves were by far the biggest single form of capital in the Southern states at the time. That, combined with a very rigid social and racial structure built around the institution of slavery, really did mean that a threat to the institution was seen in the South as a threat to the very core of Southern identity. After two hundred fifty years, slavery permeated every aspect of the Southern identity — economically, culturally, legally. It was, as one prominent Southern leader said succinctly, the very cornerstone on which the Confederacy was built.

    I’d encourage you to take some time to go back to what Southerners — politicians, newspaper editors, and just ordinary folks — were saying and writing in 1860-61. They were very clear about what they thought they were doing, and why.

    • Lyle Smith said, on January 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      Oh… I understand why they went to War over slavery. That’s my point. Defending their wealth, possessions, and culture wasn’t abominable to them. Otherwise, why go to War over it? That last “why” question was a rhetorical question.

      Obviously those that found it truly abominable were Federals, South or North. However, we don’t seem to explain very well that it was perfectly reasonable for pro-slavery Southerners to want to protect the “peculiar institution” for the very reasons you outline. That’s what I’m trying to say.

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