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Libertarians in the Attic, or A Tale of Two Narratives

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 32, Number 2, June 2004
pp. 184-195 | 10.1353/rah.2004.0025

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Reviews in American History 32.2 (2004) 184-195



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Libertarians in the Attic, or a Tale of Two Narratives

Charles Adams. When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. xiv + 257 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $24.95.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo. The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Roseville, Ca.: Prima, 2002. xiii + 333 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $24.95 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War. Chicago: Open Court, 1996. xiii + 421 pp. Bibliographic essays, notes, and index. $39.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

In the stacks of my university library, three books stand side by side, each catalogued by the Library of Congress at E468.9. In the middle is David W. Blight's Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Published by Harvard in 2001, Blight's work won a bevy of prizes and was placed immediately on innumerable graduate reading lists. Flanking Blight on one side is Tony Horwitz's riveting exposé of contemporary Lost Cause culture, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. On the other is a book that many readers of Blight and Horwitz have never heard of, Charles Adams's When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession. Though Adams and Blight sit adjacent on the shelves, the gulf between them, both in viewpoint and in audience, is nearly bottomless. Contemplating that gulf provokes some disturbing thoughts.

Race and Reunion told readers like you and me what a generation of scholarship had primed us to hear. Slavery brought on the Civil War. Once war started, the futility of fighting slaveholders without fighting slavery, added to genuine antislavery conviction and the self-liberating action of the slaves, brought Abraham Lincoln and the Union to an emancipationist policy by 1863. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, speaking of a new birth of freedom and of the nation's penance for slavery, captured the essential meaning of the contest. [End Page 184]

The Thirteenth Amendment sealed the death of slavery, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth endeavored, however imperfectly, to make the hope of freedom real. But Reconstruction failed to advance the war's hard-fought gains. In the next generation, black progress was stalled and reversed while white Americans, North and South, joined in commemorations of their mutual valor that were made possible only by forgetting what the fighting had been about. Thus the promise of human equality, announced in the Declaration of Independence and propelled by war, was deferred and, for many, erased even in memory.

Articulated in a host of monographs, this understanding of the war has become nearly canonical in liberal academic circles. Blight's book completed the trilogy begun by James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) and Eric Foner's Reconstruction (1988). It brought forward into the twentieth century a story whose outlines were already known, its themes and characters well established, and its trajectory clear. All three books fit within an implicit framing of American history as a journey toward a greater realization of human freedom and equality, accomplished at crucial points largely through federal action. In this teleology, liberty's progress is charted by the overcoming of invidious distinctions among persons, the deepest and most entrenched of which involve race.

If collegial accolades could settle historical debate, the new orthodoxy conveyed in Race and Reunion would have swept all competitors from the field. Yet a counter-orthodoxy not only survives, but thrives. By the measure of book sales, it even prevails.1 It flourishes not only among the neo-Confederates described by Horwitz, but in an alternative world of scholarship, a world rarely encountered by subscribers to this journal. The works of this other narrative are taught in college courses (though not necessarily in the best-known colleges) and come endorsed by university professors (though not always professors of history...