- Oct 3, 2005
Outstanding essay, Pat.Part IV
Warren’s history of abolition and its opposite would not withstand scrutiny today. In Warren’s view, abolition was a product of the Transcendentalists, an elite without a purpose, in his view. Modern historians now center abolitionism not in Emerson’s library, but in the agitation of black men and women in the North and Border states, in the working-class environs of the cities, and in religiously-bound rural communities. But his historical incorrectness may be forgiven as the expression of a 20th Century intellectual in a conversation with the intellectuals of the 1850s.
With the exception of the Catholic Orestes Brownson, the Transcendental abolitionists did not dirty their hands with advocacy for the white poor and working class, claims Warren. Unable to see the shades of gray in the world, they only struck out at the most diabolical aspect of the 19th Century labor system, human slavery.
The appeals to “higher law” of the white New England abolitionists undermined democratic functioning, debate, and compromise. If the righteous man was to be his own law, wrote Warren, "there is, in the logical end, only anarchy, and anarchy of a peculiarly tedious and bloodthirsty sort, for every drop is to be spilled in God’s name and by his explicit directive.” Warren believes that the South responded to the relentless moral criticism of the abolitionists by cutting itself off from all outside criticism. The revulsion Americans felt towards the absolutists on both sides bred a belief in pragmatism over ideology after the war.
Civil War Talk members will find Warren’s discussion of the war and its immediate aftermath vague and suggestive, frustrating in its lack of analytical clarity, and downright wrong sometimes. You may also find that the poetry of the language interferes with the clarity of the message. And the message itself may seem dated. We don’t live in the whites-only world of Civil War reflection anymore.
We also seem to have left the world of post-World War II pragmatism. Warren’s essay assumes a political environment in which the Democratic and Republican parties are merely electoral coalitions and where the left-wing of the Democratic Party looks pretty much like the left-wing of the Republican Party. I don’t live in that world any more. I don’t live in a world where Robert E. Lee is presumed to be a model for young white men or where Lincoln is still hailed unironically as The Liberator. Neither do you.
So what are we to make of Warren’s memorable suggestion “that the War gave the South the Great Alibi and gave the North the Treasury of Virtue?”
By the Great Alibi the South explains, condones, and transmutes everything. By a simple reference to the “War,” any Southern female could, not too long ago, put on the glass slipper and be whisked away to the ball. Any goose could dream herself (or himself) a swan—surrounded, of course, by a good many geese for contrast and devoted hand-service. Even now, any common lyncher becomes a defender of the Southern tradition, and any rabble-rouser the gallant leader of a thin gray line of heroes, his hat on saber-point to provide reference by which to hold formation in the charge…Laziness becomes the aesthetic sense, blood-lust rising from a matrix of boredom and resentful misery becomes a high sense of honor, and ignorance becomes divine revelation.
In a use of The Great Alibi familiar to anyone who stops by Civil War Talk, Warren writes:
And the most painful and costly consequences of the Great Alibi are found, of course, in connection with race. The race problem, according to the Great Alibi, is the doom defined by history—by New England slavers, New England and Middlewestern Abolitionists, cotton, climate, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Wall Street, the Jews. Everything flows into the picture. Since the situation is given by history, the Southerner therefore is guiltless; is, in fact, an innocent victim of a cosmic conspiracy.
The opposite end of Warren’s dichotomy is the Northern Treasury of Virtue. This is “the psychological heritage left to the North by the Civil War.” It “may not be as comic or vicious as the Great Alibi, but it is equally unlovely…If the Southerner, with his Great Alibi, feels trapped by history, the Northerner, with his Treasury of Virtue, feels redeemed by history, automatically redeemed. He has in his pocket, not a Papal indulgence peddled by some wandering pardoner of the Middle Ages, but an indulgence, a plenary indulgence, for all sins past, present, and future, freely given by the hand of history.”
The poet describes the presumed clear racial conscience of the white Northerners who inherited the Treasury. Even if they are the beneficiaries of de facto segregation in their subdivision, they can take solace in the idea that dangerous racism wears a white hood and lives in the South. The historical myth of the North as the engine of emancipation gets translated into historical memories; “The sine qua non has to become a secretly enshrined ikon of a boy in blue striking off, with one hand, iron shackles from a grizzle-headed Uncle Tom weeping in gratitude, and with the other passing out McGuffey’s First Reader to a rolypoly pickaninny laughing in hope.” While Northern memory was selective, Northern forgetting was systemic. Self-congratulatory Northerners could forget that the North did not secure the rights of blacks in the South and that many areas of the North saw informal Jim Crow imposed by banks, bosses, and real estate developers. Warren observed that “the War appears, according to the doctrine of the Treasury of Virtue, as a consciously undertaken crusade so full of righteousness that there is enough overplus stored in Heaven, like the deeds of the saints, to take care of all small failings and oversights of the descendants of the crusaders…”
Warren was a sensitive and insightful observer of his own time, but he could not predict the future. No one who has been to a meeting in a Northern city or suburb in recent decades has heard the freeing of the slaves raised as a defense to claims of stalled racial progress. Young people are more likely to view Lincoln and the rest of the Union Civil War generation as racists than as a repository of virtues.
After Vietnam, Americans stopped seeing military adventure as a test of manhood and military victory as a determinant of the rightness of a cause. But many Americans still believe, against the facts, in an American Exceptionalism grounded in what Warren called the “illusions of our national infancy, the illusions of innocence and virtue.”
So what are we to make of Robert Penn Warren’s one hundred page meditation on death and racism, patriotic gore and self-proclaimed national innocence? In one way, The Legacy of the Civil War is an artifact of the middle period of the Cold War. Five years after it was published, parts of it were already outdated. Black voices, once excluded from the national conversation on the War now are some of the loudest and most widely heard, something Warren did not imagine in 1960. So, this essay is a snapshot of the last moment of white racial hegemony.
But it is also much more. The strength of The Legacy of the Civil War is not in its predictive value or in its analysis of history. It is in the questions that it asked nearly six decades ago.
The Legacy of the Civil War is short enough to be read in a few hours. You may want to read it as an artifact of the Centennial or a last look at a work on race relations that does not imagine African Americans as the agents of change in the securing of civil rights. You can read it as a scene-setter for the modern field of the study of Civil War memory. (You might want to check out David Blight's American Oracle to see how Warren influences this discipline.) You may want to avoid the book if unanswered questions drive you crazy or if you would rather not check your balance in the Treasury of Virtue or give up your Great Alibi.