A post to the Gettysburg Discussion Group on how to present the Causes of the Civil War in the new proposed Visitor's Center.
The controversial question remains how to present the 'causes' issue. My personal concern is that we are locking too tight to the period world views. Yes, we've got to present the period world views, but we have to present them in context. We have a panel of experts on the Civil War gathering. My own interpretation of the causes relates to larger perspectives. I'll shoot through four of them, not because a new Visitor's Center can be focused around one or more of these themes, but because these themes show what might be missing. In the process, I'll counter Dr. Latschar's scorn for non-academic historians with a proposal that alternate perspectives might be helpful. Some of the people who wrote a book or two and call themselves historians wrote books worth reading.
Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock and The Third Wave. Kevin Phillips wrote the more traditional The Cousin's Wars. Toffler's perspective is that technology drives culture shift, and that culture shift is traumatic. His "First Wave" refers to Agricultural Age civilization. The "Second Wave" is Industrial Age civilization. Leaving as questionable and speculative his conjectures on the "Third Wave" networked civilization alone, is not the Civil War part of the transition struggle between First and Second Wave civilizations? Slavery is a major cause, perhaps a sufficient cause, but not the only cause of the war. The Civil War is but one of the struggles of transition between First and Second waves. The Cousin's Wars puts the Civil War in context as part of the series, along with the English Civil War, Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution. The Civil War is (hopefully) the final war of internal transformation of the Anglo-American culture. Technological change drives some economic changes, which drives some political and ideological changes, which drives some military conflicts.
William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote Generations and The Fourth Turning. Their perspective centers on a pattern of culture shifts as each succeeding generation comes of age. After a major war that transforms a society, there is generally an economic boom period. The values fought for in the war anchor the refurbished society. Those with memories of the war become dedicated to these values, cling to them, but do not wish another such war. They will set policies to avoid similar traumatic conflicts while preserving the new values. Compare the compromiser generation that came of age just after the Revolution to the Cold War 'silent' generation following World War II. The next generation rejects the conservative rigid culture, demands changes, and demands the changes loudly. Compare the abolitionists with the hippies. The following generation is disgusted by the endless argument, rejects both tradition and the new ideas, and walks a somewhat cynical path. Look for the crime waves just before the Revolution, Civil War, and World War II. The fourth generation in the cycle is also disgusted by the endless argument between idealists and traditionalists, but rejects the cynicism and crime. They are team players, willing to make considerable sacrifices to get the issues resolved and fixed once and for all. In making their sacrifice, this generation chooses the best of the old traditions, the best of the new ideals, and sets a new cultural standard for a future generation of idealists to rebel against.
The cycle takes about 89 years. In short, every four score in seven years, a new birth of freedom. The cyclical links between generations can trivially be taken to far. Lincoln was no flower child. Still, the cyclical theory opens the door to the idea that cultures change, that politics does not remain stagnant. Future Shock is moderated for three generations, the pressures build, then explode with dramatic effect every fourth generation. Even if one doesn't wish to assume the pattern will continue - and given Gandhi, NATO, nuclear bombs and the Internet, it is not clear that the Second Wave cyclical pattern will hold in a Third Wave environment - The Fourth Turning opens a perspective to measure the politics and ideals of past times to the modern eras the student remembers. It presents a framework for getting a little closer to the dynamics of cultural change. Most importantly, to measure the merit of the argument, to examine the relative strength of Toffler's waves against Strauss's cycles against the many other valid patterns found in history, one has to truly study history. The cycles involve military, political, economic, minority, philosophical and other aspects. Books that focus on narrow aspects of history and culture too often limit inquiry.
I have spoken in other post of the Animal Behavior perspective, of books like On Aggression, The Imperial Animal, The Selfish Gene and The Moral Animal. Humans are descended from pack hunters, and still display pack hunter behavior. They have emotions or drives such as the parent-child bond, male-female bond, peer bond, aggression, dominance, territory and fight / flight. Animals breed. Animal communities enlarged in numbers wish to control additional territory, and will contest with other groups also seeking that territory. Both North and South wished to expand west, and wished to limit the growth of the other. While human social patterns are complex, and any war for territory will be justified with high rhetoric, at one level the Civil War was just one more animal territorial conflict, made extremely lethal by the human animal's use of language, symbols, and tools. The scale of bloodshed achieved by human animals is large, but the underlying dynamics of behavior are familiar to any that has studied pack hunter behavior.
Among human animals, the tools of destruction are developing much faster than the instincts of those wielding the weapons can evolve to adjust. Most species can resolve territorial conflicts with a minimum of injury and death. Most primitive human groups do the same. The combination of modern weaponry and ancient instincts optimized for rocks and sharpened sticks is deadly, little understood, and crucially important to a true understanding of human conflict. Worse, simple pride, an over emphasis on the rational and logical aspects of human thought, leads men to remain deliberately ignorant of their most dangerous behaviors. War is not logical and rational. War cannot be understood while clinging to an assumption of logical and rational behavior.
But humans are also cultural animals, much more so than other species. Human emotion is balanced with taught and learned behavior. If animals are the media through which genes reproduce and compete, genes are the media through which ideas reproduce and compete. At one level, the Civil War is a conflict between conflicting ideas, between conflicting cultures. One culture decided to destroy another by force of arms. At what point does a perception of cultural superiority justify the destruction of a neighbor's culture? The 19th Century period justifications for a war of cultural annihilation speak for themselves, but should we not raise the question? From the northern perspective, the question of whether to destroy a neighboring culture is profound, or ought to be profound. Such a war should not be entered lightly. From a southern perspective, given that one's culture is to be destroyed, the question of whether or not to resist is trivial. Speaking as a male pack hunter possessing territory, I assure you, the defender in a war of cultural annihilation will resist. While the justifications for the War of Northern Aggression stand well according to northern values - of the period and current - we might best avoid repeating the exercise. The old southern culture was indeed destroyed, but what grew from the ashes was not pretty. To what extent can a people free another, and to what extent must they free themselves?
I am more interested in "what causes war?" than "what caused the Civil War?" Thus, I am dissatisfied by the traditional answers bound to the specifics of a single era. Traditional historians too often teach answers focused to justify their home culture. Both traditional culture centered answers, from the broader perspectives above, are clearly incomplete, self serving, and provoke perpetual rancor. To break eternal misunderstandings, a step back to a larger perspective is called for, or multiple larger perspectives. Human conflict, especially for the great wars that transform societies, is a complex business.
No way we can a new visitor's center be focused on teaching such diverse perspectives as wave theory, cycle theory, animal behavior and the concept of ideas competing through genes. The full theories can't be taught, but the perspectives might be hinted at. The visitor's center might ask questions rather than attempt cultural indoctrination. What sort of political process and debate led up to open war? What was the role of western expansion in provoking the war? Should we fight economic wars, to gain or retain land and resources? What was the role of democracy and human rights in causing the war? Can a people, not ready and able to free themselves, be given freedom by an outside agency? Should we fight wars to expand human rights? At what point can a culture's values be deemed so bankrupt as to justify destroying the culture? Should we fight wars of cultural extinction?
As one curious about The Third Wave, The Fourth Turning, human behavior and the evolution of ideas, I don't consider these questions irrelevant. They do not have pat answers. No museum can or should try to provide pat answers to such questions. The task ought to be to ask the questions in such a way as to avoid any suggestions that the answers are easy and automatic, or that 'errors' are not dangerous. Yet, I have not seen any indication that the 'causes' issue is really being considered in great depth according to modern multidiscipline scholarship. We've got Civil War 'experts' sticking with one of the partisan period pat answers.
At minimum, Dr. Latschar's quick little sound bite, "a new birth of freedom" might be expanded with a hint that the conflicts are not necessarily over. The great questions of the time need not not be unnecessarily encrusted with thick layers of dust.
It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.